Friday, May 1, 2009

Birth Mothers and the Exotic "Other"

In her presentation at the AAC Conference, Margie of Third Mom struck a chord with me when she talked about what she was told about Korean birth parents as she waited to adopt her children from Korea. I can only paraphrase, but it was essentially that Korean birth mothers care more about family honor than their children born out of wedlock, that they don't experience the relinquishment as we would (a story Margie believed for a time, as did I, and then came to reject, as have I).

I was told something similar about birth mothers in China. Consider this 2006 post by Brian Stuy of ResearchChina, The Myth of the Mourning Birthmother:
When I interviewed the two birthmothers last year, both matter-of-factly recounted their stories. There was no tears of remorse, although both expressed some regret that they had abandoned their children. Both acknowledged that if confronted with the same situation again, they would abandon their child again. Neither birthmother was very emotional when recounting her story, but rather showed a sense of consignment [sic]. They did what had to be done in both of their situations.

* * *

It is also interesting to note that a large percentage of families in China turn over raising of their child(ren) to the grand-parents, while the husband and wife work.

* * *

Personally, I could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise. . . .

There was no emotional regret in any of these stories, simply an acceptance that life required these decisions. No apologies, no tears, no looking back. I'm not saying that the Chinese don't love their children, but it is not often the emotionally-invested love that we in the West feel.

Yes, culture is a powerful thing (it might, for example, require that in talking to a virtual stranger we behave unemotionally and matter-of-factly, even when describing painful events!). But these versions of "birth mother" -- the one Margie was given and the one Brian provides -- paint them as not just culturally different, but as less than human. No emotion, no regret, no tears, no love -- or at least, not the kind of love we adoptive parents in the West experience. I've read it on adoptive parent forums, too, how these Chinese birth mothers throw away their children with no more feeling than when throwing out the trash.

These representations of foreign birth mothers allow us to divorce ourselves from the experience of these birth mothers, to minimize their pain, and to justify how much better off our children are with us than with them. So that we can continue to ignore them even as we internalize how painful the loss of these children would be to us, their relinquishment has to be seen as wholly voluntary, desired, accepted. We have to believe they have moved on, that they feel no pain. They are "the Other," the person who is understood only according to their difference from ourselves. It becomes very easy to do when the birth mother is from another country; we have a long history of "the exotic Other" as justifying all sorts of Western colonial intervention. "They" are just not like "us."

But we do it in domestic adoption, too, with birth mothers raised in the good ol' U.S. of A. We say, "She is a saint, she showed the ultimate in mother's love;" and then we follow up with, "I could never have done that." As Brian Stuy puts it, "Personally, I could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise." I don't think it's meant as a compliment -- it's not that she's so much more noble, so much more saintly, so much more loving than I, that I could never do that. She is different from me, she is less than me, she is "the Other."

In writing this, I'm focusing on the big picture, how we construct the picture of "birth mother." Some relinquishing mothers may be just as Brian Stuy describes them -- unemotional, matter-of-fact, not looking back, etc. But then, there are parenting mothers who could be described this way as well! I think, though, that the happy-happy-joy-joy version of adoption can survive only if we paint birth mothers in a particular way. And I think many international adoptive parents are highly invested in that version of birth mother as "the exotic Other."

I write this not to lay blame, but to suggest more compassion, more understanding, more "Other"-love.

22 comments:

Lisa said...

Malinda - I think your comments are right on track. Just because we don't show emotion for various reasons such as culture, upbringing, too painful, etc. does not mean we are not hurting. You can't judge others' emotions by their appearance.

I do want to follow this up from my previous post of "not willing." I'd like to make the point that although there are many birth mothers who would embrace their children if given the chance, others have closed that door and are unable - "unwilling" to open it.

Mei-Ling - your situation is much different, as your birth family has clearly embraced you with love. But there are adoptees who are rejected (hence the Brick Wall group on Yahoo). And those birth mothers will tell you that they willingly gave up their children, and do not want to look back. Period. We can't discount that and make a global statement that "all" birth mothers were not willing to give up their children.
We don't have stats on that statement at all, and we have verbal testimony from many that are contrary to the statement.

No, this is not to make "me" (AP) feel better. I definitely want to help my daughter search in the future, she has already expressed an interest at age 8! My daughter had an identifying birth mark that can't be forgotton, I am marginally hopeful that someone in her remote area of abandonment would step up to the plate.

But I think I need to be realistic, that, although it's "possible" to find her, we may not AND /or she may be rejected. However, she may be showered with love from her birth family, which is my greatest hope for her.

Anonymous said...

This is all marketing by the adoption "industry". They turn adoptive parents from "We want a child" to "We're helping a child." It makes the a-parents feel superior and totally disregard that the child has biological parents. The brainwashing begins there with the industry and continues with the a-parents disregarding the child's family history throughout their lives and forcing them to accept their "new" identities and never look back. (Brainwashing condoned by the government with falsified birth certificates.)

Adoption is a horrible trauma for any child to endure. It should always be a last resort option and children should never be treated as commodities. That's what we are right now, commodities. Once we are adopted, we vaporize from the "industry" that sold us and instantly become 2nd class citizens. Our civil rights are instantly stripped away upon the finalization of our adoptions. Our identities are permanently sealed from us and we're given "new and improved" ones. LMAO.

Most childen from overseas orphanages aren't really orphans. Just like Mercy in Malawi, their parents can't afford to take care of them but visit them frequently at the orphanage. How sad it must be to go visit your child one morning and find that he/she is gone and has been adopted and taken far, far away to a foreign country never to be seen again.

Mei-Ling said...

Actually, Lisa, my responses to you were NOT based on my experience. I thought about all the blogs I have read, all the forums I have gone to, observing Yahoo Answers whenever a mother comes on to talk about the baby she relinquished x time ago, and all the reunion videos I have watched.

It's not I don't believe there are no such thing as "birth"mothers who willingly gave up their children with no remorse.

It's that I don't believe it happens as often as we would think it happens.

Call me naive, call me "in denial" - as others have for bringing up that point - but based on a moral standpoint, no, I don't believe that is the case for enough mothers to stand on moral ground.

Lisa said...

Mei-Ling: I undersatand and get your point.

I never said that there was no remorse. I can't imagine carrying a child, then giving up a child, and having no remorse or feelings in any way.

However, that's different from making a willing decision, and deciding to move forward (maybe even decide to keep that child out of your life later). Hence, rejection when the child or the child's family contacts you. That DOES happen. Again, I don't know the stats on how frequently or even if that point has been researched. It seems very subjective to pinpoint, but, again, I don't think that behavior is "just in America." Note this guy Brian Stuy who is playing psychologist (clearly doesn't understand the culture) interviews a woman who says she would abandon again. I bet she IS in extreme pain. I am not saying there does not need to be social reform to help her. And, I am sure her circumstances are just awful. But it doesn't change her decision, and she chooses not to go back.

We'll see how my daughter's situation unfolds as she gets older. I have been connecting with some people on FACEBOOK from her region, thinking of asking for information.

Malinda - you have touched on this before:
On the flip side I wonder if I should wait. Is this "hers" to do later? Am I being intrusive by looking? I am still in the thinking phase, and welcome advice on that point.

Mei-Ling said...

"However, that's different from making a willing decision, and deciding to move forward (maybe even decide to keep that child out of your life later). Hence, rejection when the child or the child's family contacts you."

Yep, I've witnessed the aftermath of that rejection on AAAFC. Obviously it does happen.

Whether or not it is a rejection of the CHILD versus rejection of the SHAME - now that's another story.

Lisa said...

That's true, Mei-Ling. You wonder what goes through someone's mind when they say "I don't want to have anything to do with you, even though I gave birth to you." I would think they are running from pain, but that's just me.

PS My last question is not just for Malinda - I was pointing out that Malinda touched on AP's looking for birth parents vs waiting and letting the child look.
I do worry about the time thing, the earlier you look the better the memories of people!
Would love to hear an adoptee's perspective. :)

Mei-Ling said...

Honestly I'm not sure. It'd vary from adoptee to adoptee. :\

(Yeah, helpful, I know >.<)

suz said...

Great post Melinda.

To Lisa's point, there are mothers that are rejected too becuase their children have been taught and spoon fed the "other" mentality by their adoptive parents and by society.

Adoption rejection is an equal opportunity destroyer.

I might also add that from my perspective as one of those "others" my belief is that mothers who reject their children are doing so to protect themselves for additional increidlbe intense pain and shame. Unless you have been in those "others" shoes, you can never know why they reject their children (or mothers) and it should NOT be assumed that they do so because they lack love. Many do so to preserve what little sanity they have left.

Cassi said...

**You wonder what goes through someone's mind when they say "I don't want to have anything to do with you, even though I gave birth to you." **

Lisa - as a first/natural parent, I even wonder that. I was terrified to make contact with my son when I first found him on myspace and probably would not have him in my life now if my husband hadn't taken that first step, but I still don't fully understand a mom rejecting her child AFTER they have found her.

When I think of the many different experiences out there of first/natural moms, I don't think rejections occur from lack of feelings. I think, for some, it is a fear of exposing a secret they have kept for so many years. For others it might be a reluctance to let go of the denial so many first/natural mothers grasp on to and for others, it might very well still be the threat of feeling that shame return and because of that shame still not feeling as if you are "worthy" of being a part of your child's life.

There is another point to be made here, when you take what Malinda pointed out in her post and turn it around to how that affects some first/natural moms (on top of many of them being told the same things about getting over it and moving on) there are, I know, some who feel like they are the weird ones or have failed in some way if they didn't just move on from the pain of losing their child. Just as the industry likes to feed these myths to adoptive parents, they do feed it to many first/natural moms as well and I know some, myself included, have believed they were messed up and in the wrong because they didn't heal, they didn't get over it and they did continue to mourn the loss of their child. This goes against what those we trusted at that time told us and in some ways feels like admitting failure if we admit that it hurts like hell losing our children, so bad that we never found a way to get over it.

Sometimes, when you live your life with the memory of shame, the last thing you want is to repeat that by causing more shame by admitting how desperately you have waited and wanted your child back in your life. Instead, I think for some, it feels easier to slip back into denying your very own child and avoiding the shame of not "behaving" the way you were told you would. Not right, in any way, but possible.

Lisa said...

Hope you all aren't tired of me blogging on this so much! Thank you Mei-Ling, Suz and Cassi for thinking through my own posts and providing your perspective.

Suz - it's sad to think incorrect thoughts or ideas have been "spoon fed" to any children. Especially negative thoughts about the birth family, since it is so important for our children to understand that we are open to any communication they may desire regarding their birth family. It reminds me of that poor little boy who was taken to Brazil by his mother (now deceased), and has been told his Dad wanted nothing to do with him for years. Contrarily, his father has been fighting for years to get him back. How confusing for him to be told "He doesn't love you, he doesn't want you" and then be told "Yes, I do."

Paragraphein said...

Excellent post, thank you for writing it. I remember when the 2006 blog you mentioned came out, and how... hurtful... it was to read, as a natural mother.

This one is the opposite, very healing. Thank you.

On the issue of mothers who reject their children--I think the number of them who do so (if any) out of pragmatism and lack of feeling is very, very small. In fact I'd submit that rejecting reunion with a son or daughter is evidence of the fact that they have NOT moved on.

"And those birth mothers will tell you that they willingly gave up their children, and do not want to look back. Period. We can't discount that and make a global statement that "all" birth mothers were not willing to give up their children."

Two issues getting confused here, consent to adoption and openness to reunion. I'm not one who thinks all adoptions are coerced. However, again, not wanting to look back? To me, it indicates running from pain, as Suz said.

As women, we're biologically primed to bond with and love our children. Anyone who felt no emotion over losing a child would have to be something less than human.

I do not think it's okay to reject an adoptee (again). But I also agree with Suz, that rejection doesn't to me indicate lack of feeling. Possibly more like too much feeling, too much trauma. One symptom/indicator of PTSD is avoiding reminders of the traumatizing event. Unfortunately, for some mothers, that includes avoiding their children.

Shari U said...

Just found your blog today along with a couple others written by adult adoptees. I have a Chinese daughter, age 6, adopted at 10 months, as well as 3 bio kids (21, 20, 16). I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by what I've been reading. I started looking because it's recently become clear to me that the "I love you like crazy cakes" book is NOT going to help me answer any of my daughter's questions. In fact, lately that book, along with others of the same kind have made me sick to my stomach. My daughter's life did NOT begin the day we met. I can acknowledge that probably the most traumatic day of her life was the day her daddy and I took her in our arms and walked away from her caretakers. I want to learn from those who have endured this. I want my daughter to be all she can be and I want her to trust me. I realize this is not about me; it's about her and her loss and it's my job to let her know it's okay for her to feel whatever she needs to feel and to let her know that I'll stand by her as she sorts through these feelings. I want to learn what I need to do for her to grow up to be a secure and functional adult and to not have resentment toward our family. It's nice to have found an adoption blog that deals with the real life issues. I'll look forward to reading more and hopefully participating in some of the discussion. Thanks for keepin' it real.

malinda said...

Cassi, Suz, & Paragraphein, thanks for bringing your perspective, I really appreciate it.

Mei-Ling & Lisa -- thanks for keeping the conversation going!

Shari U, welcome! And I think you've just given the blog a new motto -- keepin' it real! I love it!

Holly said...

This is an excellent post - thank you Malinda :)
You know Anon - not all AP's are brainwashed. I can promise you that.
I am an AP, an adoptee in reunion, rejected by bio father & family and abused/rejected by my AP's. I did not adopt to fill a hole in myself, nor to save a child.
Unfortunately I've stayed away from the forums anymore as other adoptee's and some 1st parents think I'm a "traitor" for adopting, and internationally at that. I like to say I've had my honorary adoptee card revoked because I did adopt a child from China.
There are AP's who get freaked out by what I have to share - yet there are much more listening these days.
Thanks to blogs like Malinda's and others!

Anonymous said...

Way to go bitches!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I posted the above comment on the wrong blog...! Oops

malinda said...

Anonymous, I think we all want to know what blog the comment, "Way to go bitches," belongs on! LOL!

Holly, welcome! Do you know Paula's blog, Heart, Mind & Seoul? She's a Korean adoptee who has adopted from Korea. Her blog is listed in my blog roll.

holly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
malinda said...

FYI, I didn't delete the comment, the author of the comment did! I'm not saying I would NEVER remove a comment, but I can say that I never have. I'm not sure how bad it would have to be before I'd do that, but I haven't seen anything that bad . . . so far!

Holly said...

I only deleted my comment because it linked to my own blog, Malinda. I'm not sure I'm ready to put myself "out there" - feeling a little beat up after comments I've read from other adoptees.

Yes, I have followed Heart Mind Seoul and others for awhile now - they are wonderful!
Holly

Mei-Ling said...

Holly: It depends on which adoptee blogs you go to...

Anonymous said...

I'm very late reading this post, but wanted to add a perspective.

First, I very-much appreciate your openness to perspectives beyond what most agencies and facilitators "teach."

As far as lack of emotion:

Soon after relinquishment, I was asked to speak on behalf of the Christian agency. I and other new mothers did so before a large panel of potential adoptive parents.

Essentially, we regurgitated the adopt-speak we'd been taught during our "counseling" sessions. We held back our tears (as much as we could) because we'd been indoctrinated (temporarily) to believe that the desire to raise our children was selfish and sinful (as was the desire to want them back weeks or months after signing the papers).

When it was over, when we were out of view, some of us melted into each other's arms, sobbing.

We were, it's obvious now looking back, traumatized to varying degrees.

As a result, we did not speak our truth but continued to do what we were counseled to do.

I would imagine our ability to speak of such a horrific experience without completely falling apart made us appear very "other."

For me, it was as if I was speaking from under water, as if the experience was separate from me.

When I finally became able to begin speaking of it without detachment, my entire body would tremble violently. This lasted for about 5 years. I had to just keep talking about it, writing about it, until my body processed the reality of what it had meant to me.

I wonder if these emotionless mothers, when they are alone, when they whisper to a husband years later, if they tremble.