Friday, September 5, 2008

Birth Mothers

I've had a hard time coming up with a title for this post. I keep thinking, maybe a riff on a book or movie: Fear and Loathing of My Kids' Birth Mothers: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Adoption [from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream]; or maybe Dr. AdoptionLove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Kids' Birth Mothers [from Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb].

Humor aside, either title would have had some accuracy. Maybe taking it from Dr. Strangelove is the most apropos since birth parents were as scary as a nuclear bomb to me at one time. One major reason (though certainly not the only reason) why I chose China for adoption was that there appeared to be no possibility of birth parent involvement. It shames me to confess this; after all, I had done all the reading prior to adoption about how much better open adoptions were for kids, how important it was for kids to have information about their birth families. But the idea of open adoption, a potential relationship with birthparents, even information about birthparents which could conceivably lead to finding them, scared me to death.

The fear wasn't about the possibility of the birth parents trying to disrupt the adoption and take the child back, which I know many adoptive parents worry about. I'm a lawyer, after all, so I know that MOST adoptions are completely uneventful and final. The media focuses on those where something went wrong in the placement, but those cases represent only a minute fraction of adoptions.

My fear was a selfish one -- what if my child loved someone else best? Again, I'd done all the reading, I could sing the right tune to the social worker: if my child wanted to search for birth parents, I'd be supportive. If I had information about birth parents, I'd share it with my child. But I could say all of that knowing that with China adoption, the chances were extremely thin that I'd ever have to face that decision. And I could justify it to myself with bromides about how confusing it would be for the child to have two mommies (what's the quote from The Big Chill? "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. . . .")

It was easy to be selfish and scared at that point; not only were birth parents a complete abstraction, so was my child. I didn't have to invest too much in the possibility of my child's pain, because she was not yet real to me. How bad was it? I was actually secretly glad when I found out Zoe had not been in foster care, even knowing how much better foster care is than institutional care. I didn't want to have to deal with the grief of that separation. Again the fear, what if she loves her foster mom more than she loves me? (I've never admitted this to another living soul, but what's the point of blogging if you're not going to strip bare in the hopes of helping someone else who felt the same way?!)

My interest in Zoe's birth mother grew as my attachment to Zoe grew (it's not only kids who have to attach in adoption, the parents have to, too!). As I grew to love her, I became the mama bear who would do anything to prevent her pain, and that meant the pain of not knowing her birth family. My compassion for Zoe's birth mother grew as I could imagine MY pain if I was ever separated from this child. And my longing for information, contact, a relationship, grew as my joy in parenting Zoe grew -- how I would love to be able to share with her birth mother what a wonderful girl Zoe is.

My understanding and compassion also grew as I learned more about infant abandonment in China. I spoke on the phone several times to Kay Johnson, author of Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son, to see if she would speak at a conference I arranged (she ultimately was not able to because she had a research trip to China planned that could not be rescheduled). In the midst of several free-ranging conversations, I asked her who really made the decision to abandon a girl baby and try for a son. She related a story of being at an orphanage when a mother came in, crying, trying to locate her newborn daughter. Her husband had taken the child while she slept, and abandoned her. Kay Johnson said it was often the mother-in-law who insists on the abandonment. I don't know what role Zoe's and Maya's birth mothers played in the decision to abandon them. But from what I know about the status of women in Chinese families, I'm not sure they had much say at all.

My gratitude grew when I acquired more information about Zoe's abandonment -- those 3 layers of clothes, the little hat on her head, all wrapped in a new towel, and all on a day in Guiping with a low of 60 and a high of 84! (WeatherUnderground has great historical information -- just put in a date, and you can find the weather for that date.) When I got pictures of Zoe's finding site, a pedestrian walkway near a bridge , I felt even more thankful. What I saw when I looked at the picture kind of stunned me -- the river was 6 feet away. The birthfamily had a choice: put the child where she could be found quickly, or toss her in the river, never to be thought of again. They gave her life, and then they made sure she had a life. As I wrote last year upon visiting my kids' finding spots, "I don’t romanticize my children’s birth parents. I can’t know if they are noble or venal, selfish or giving, heartless or loving. But standing at these places, I can believe that they did the best they could to make sure that these little lives they brought into the world had a chance to survive. And I am thankful. "

As I became more secure as a parent, I no longer feared the birth family. When Maya's adoption came along, I was thrilled to discover she was in foster care. I'm delighted that we've maintained a relationship with her foster family. I wish we had a relationship with Zoe's and Maya's birth families. There isn't much I wouldn't give to make that happen.

Zoe and Maya know I'm their mom, and no amount of contact with their birth families would change that. Yes, I'm their REAL mom, but their birth mothers are real, too. Even when not visible, they are part of our family. I don't feel threatened by them anymore. When Zoe says "I wish they could have kept me," I don't feel even a twinge of pain or jealousy. I'm left only with Zoe's pain and loss, her birth family's pain and loss, and my enormous gain -- pure love.

This journey from fear and loathing to compassion and understanding is only MY journey. I'm not suggesting that every adoptive parent MUST feel this connection with his or her child's birth family. I'm just talking about where I am right now, and how I got here. I know that all of you know that regardless of our feelings about our kids' birth families, we need to be open to whatever feelings our kids might have about their birth families.

BTW, the drawing above of the breast-feeding mothers is by a Chinese artist -- I bought a book of his paintings and drawings at a bookstore in Xiamen, and I love his stuff. I wish I could share his name, but everything in the book is in Chinese characters, no pinyin in sight!


Wendy said...

So much of what you said rings true for us as well. However, we chose China because we knew no one could come and take her away and that once we were reviewed and approved there would be no way that we would not receive a child at the end of the day. All that said, I agree that with time and having M it makes the connection with her birth family more and more important. M was in foster care, I was so grateful as I knew her attachment would be easier going (since she was adopted at 25 months) and it was, but the grief was unreal. I thought I was prepared, and I was in terms of talking to anyone I could talk to and reading anything I could read, but there is no real way to prepare for that. I am truly happy knowing that we have a relationship with her foster mother, it is a connection you just can't buy, something that I think in the long run will be invaluable to her. The relationship has already helped her in so many ways pre and post adoption--she knows she was loved in China and still is. They love her and still want to know all things her all the time. I am hoping (and think it is) helping the facts of the unknown birthfamily.
Each day increases my desire to find her birth family for her and just find those unanswerable questions without knowing their identity. It just hurts to see her hurt. I wish I could have the same connection with them as we have with LiYun, I know now more than ever that it is not a contest. M does not have to choose, she will have us all and we will all be the better for knowing one another.

Barb said...

My daughter and sil adopted two children. The oldest, 7, is from Russia. The youngest,3, is from China. My daughter laments that her oldest has a good chance of locating her birth Mom. But her youngest does not. Her daughter from China was in foster care. I have to ask her if she has kept contact with the foster parents. Some day it will be important for our China Doll to have a connection to someone in China who loved and cared for her.

Thank you for starting this blog. I, as a grandmother, appreciate you sharing your daughters' thoughts and questions. I have shared your blog with my two daughters who both have two children through international adoption.
a Yahoo buddy of your Mom

Samantha said...

Most of what you said rings true for me as well!! I have since tried to tell myself that when Lilly reaches the age that she would like to search for her birthfamily that they will be able to do DNA testing. I hope this will someday ring true! I am so grateful to China and her birthparents! I would love to share how wonderful she is.

Samantha said...

I forgot to say Thank You for this post as I have long felt guilty for having those original thoughts and posts and am relieved to know I was not alone.

malinda said...


Zoe is a little jealous that Maya had a foster family in China and she did not. She says that Mr. Gan, the director of her orphanage when I adopted her, is "like a foster dad."

Though finding birth family in China is difficult and rare, in some circumstances it is possible. I believe it might be possible one day to find more information about Maya because of the peculiar circumstances of her finding place. But it doesn't look likely for Zoe. And that would be a HUGE problem for Zoe, I'm afraid.

malinda said...

Samantha, I'm glad the post helped you see that your early feelings about the birth mother were normal -- or, at least, as normal as I am! But I feel certain there are more of us out there!

malinda said...


I, too, am very grateful for Maya's time in foster care. Having one child straight from insitutional care and one for foster care, I really can attest to what a difference it makes. Maya knew what a family was, understood human interaction, was good at asking for what she wanted/needed (even before she could talk) because she had already experienced having her needs met. Her adjustment was miraculously easy, compared to Zoe, who had a much harder time with all the changes in her life.

And we really feel blessed to have kept in touch with her foster family. We just got in the mail a birthday present from them -- they send one every year. And they are always kind enough to include one for Zoe.

Anonymous said...

I, too, wish that I could give my daughter more information about her birth parents because I can see that it would be so important for her to have it. Sometimes, like tonight when she was dancing around singing a silly song called "I Feel Connected," I wished for just a moment that her birth mother could see her happy and loved and secure, and be able to be at peace about her.

Anonymous said...

We had a couple of failed domestic adoptions through the welfare system. We ended up looking to China for our daughters for few reasons - one being a pretty much guarantee that once we met their requirements we would have a child to love. I read books on all types of adoption and specifically transracial. I thought I was prepared, but still carried some fear that any questions that came up about the birthmom would change how my child saw me and also how I would see my child. When the questions did come up, though, I had a strange (to me) reaction, there was no insecurity on my part. There was sadness and to some extent anger that my child had to face this hurt and that there was really no way for me to "fix" it. It was just something that we were going to have to explore together. I honestly believe more than ever that the topic of birth parents is something that APs need to come to terms with long before our children ask the questions. And another thing I have learned, saying "I don't know" and "I am sorry that you hurt" are powerful, ok phrases to say. I look forward to following this blog!

malinda said...

Thanks for stopping by, lighthousegal! Isn't it amazing how our children's love makes us secure in the same way our love gives them security!