By Lynn Lauber
In the shady side yard of the adoption equation are birth mothers — silent, mostly invisible women who have given up their children without fanfare and often with considerable grief.
Adoptive babies aren’t hatched in factory farms or dropped from the sky straight into the laps of happy families. They are born by real women — often without counseling, legal advice or public acknowledgment. The bond that is broken at birth has real costs, for adoptees as well as their relinquishers. It is not a simple, sterile transaction, but one awash in blood.
In the late 1960s, when I was pregnant, the United States’s adoption process was secret and punitive. In the religious maternity home where I spent six sodden months, a dose of guilt was dispensed with the daily vitamins: I was bad and should be punished; that was the message up and down the line, and I registered it with my tender antennae. I was meant to swiftly sail through “delivery,” as if it were the tonsillectomy I’d had as a girl.
But I remained conscious for long hours as my body initiated a process that startled me with pain and awe. It was only during labor – under lights and woefully ignorant — that the real drama being enacted inside me was finally revealed. This was no impersonal mound of flesh I’d been carrying but a kicking life, fighting to emerge. And it had come from me, who was barely finished myself. But that this child was of me — a continuation of a theme, a chip off a block, an apple near a tree — was a truth that was smothered.
I was strongly discouraged from seeing the daughter I bore on that July day that seemed to stretch forever — I didn’t even know it was a “her” for sure. This was common policy, designed to discourage pesky separation issues. If I’d had the slightest proof — a handprint, a lock of hair, some rough coordinates of her location — it would have been preferable to this blindness, this terrible denial.
“It’s over,” the social worker said later, when she came into the hospital room where I was sitting alone, surrounded by nursing mothers.
Plans were afoot for my future. My mother had been busily sewing clothes for me during my absence — vests and culottes — so that I could fashionably reenter my prior teenage life, right where I’d left off.
I wanted to be obedient, to make up for any pain I’d caused. So I grew a shell, tough as a tortoise’s, and inched forward. But it was never over for me.
During those years, a birth mother was considered not much more than a wayward slattern who not only didn’t deserve a child, but any rights or consideration.
And all this was overlaid with a whiff of classism.
I had been assured that my child would be adopted by “professionals” — a doctor or lawyer — in contrast to my middling status: a 16-year-old-high schooler who had yet to write a check. The message was clear; there were no other options. Anyone would have been a better mother than me.
But it turned out that my daughter’s adoptive life was more unstable than I could have imagined. When I reunited with her when she was 25, she’d never had a mother who’d remained with her family; I’d never had another child.
The first day I saw her, walking across an airport floor, was when my labor was finally completed. There she was — a beautiful Ph.D., a mobile compendium of all those years, the confluence of so many people I’d loved. My mother’s arch, my great aunt’s brow, a laugh that harkened back to her father — my former boyfriend.
Relief is too small a word for it — something cracked in my chest, a china plate, an old worn armor. And then, not long after, my granddaughter swam out, fresh and wild as a trout, evidence of the past and the future, always there, again.
Why do I bring up my own case? Because mine is the kind of story you rarely hear about — a reunion of adults who were grateful to find each other.
Some adoptees need to search for their birth parents, and others don’t, but the secrets and silence that once hung over adoption should be permanently replaced with air and light. Adoption is a triangle, not a tidy circle. There are three distinct parties who are forever linked even if they never see each other.
From our ears to our knees to our moods and smiles, we all arise from a long line of ancestry. At the very least, all of us have the right to know who we are.