There are things we do not discuss openly in every family I’m part of. Things that have happened, things that have been done, things that are going on now. There are whispers, meant to be confidential, then more whispers, until the whispers become sighs we all perceive but never mention out loud.
We hide things, because we fear the repercussions of revealing our secrets. Someone might be hurt. Someone might be exposed. Relationships might break down. We drift past each other in silence, too afraid to open our mouths, not wanting to cause pain. We cannot say what we actually feel, what we really mean, so we say less and less of any consequence to each other. We talk about how the job is going, what we watched on TV, how hot it’s been this year. We avoid words like angry, hurt, lonely, lost, afraid. We learn which questions never to ask.
The mention of a specific person can cause pain. The one in jail. The one who left. The one who died. The one who is sick now. A person becomes a secret. The utterance of a certain name carries shame.
A little while ago I noticed an article about New Jersey holding a family reunification day to celebrate parents who’ve been able to make changes in their lives and get their kids back after having them taken away due to neglect or abuse. I was struck by the use of the word “reunification” as opposed to “reunion,” which is the standard term used for cases in which adopted people and their biological relatives come back together after being separated for many years.
“Reunification” strikes me as being more serious and more lasting than “reunion.” We talk about reunification of countries, such as Ireland and Korea, that were long ago split in two due to political disagreements and war. We speak with optimism about one day in the future when the people of these nations will again be brethren under the same flag, participants in a newly mutual society reminiscent of one that actually existed once upon a time.
It makes sense, then, to talk about reunification in relation to children who had become wards of the state returning to their biological parents. These are family units that had been torn apart by disease and dysfunction, that are being restored as a result of hard work and healing on the part of the parents along with compassion on the part of the government officials involved.
Contrast this sense of potential for ongoing unity with scenarios in which we typically use the word “reunion:” high school reunions; workplace reunions; neighborhood reunions; cast reunions from our favorite old TV shows. Sure, sometimes old friends or colleagues keep in touch long after the reunion event has ended, but no one really expects relationships to return to what they once were in any of these situations. Continue reading “What We Mean When We Say Adoption Reunion”→
My journey into the public realm of adoption discourse began with two life-changing interactions: I found and reunited with my birth mother during the time frame that I was getting to know my husband’s adult adopted son. I was in my thirties.
Reuniting with birth family meant I learned for the first time about the beginning of my life, that missing piece that had prevented my story from being whole. I heard my mother say she had not wanted to relinquish me, that she was given no other option. I heard her say she had not understood that the name she gave me would ever be changed. I wanted to understand what she’d gone through during her pregnancy and my birth, so I sought information about adoption in the late 1960s and I discovered Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away. I learned that I was a product of a historical period in the U.S. called the Baby Scoop Era, so I sought information on what that meant. I wanted to understand how I had lost my original name, and I discovered that I’d had another birth certificate when I was born. For more than thirty years of my life, I had not known that I originally had a different birth certificate than the only one I’d ever seen.
Hearing my new stepson’s story meant I learned for the first time that my experience of being adopted was not an anomaly. I first heard his story from my husband’s point of view, so I heard that he had been adopted from Korea in the mid-1970s; that he was estimated to be four years old though his actual birth date was unknown; that he understood no English when he arrived in the U.S.; that he preferred sleeping on the floor rather than in a bed; that when he first saw a TV he inched over to it and held his fingers out to touch. This story was far different from the one I’d been told about myself. Continue reading “Talking about Adoption in Public Spaces”→
In response to today’s National Adoption Month prompt from Lost Daughters, I’d like to share a poem I wrote years ago after my first child was born. This poem was originally published at Poets on Adoption in 2011.
with your mother’s wide eyes,
olive skin and old-world customs,
with cousins akin to sisters
with your father’s gravelly voice,
his cleft branded on your chin,
his surname on your back
You cannot conceive what I saw
when I studied my boy
lying bundled like a burrito
innocently twisting in the plastic hospital bassinet
I gazed into a mirror
and saw my gray eyes for the first time
and saw my milky skin for the first time
and saw my Slavic nose for the first time
and saw my earnest expression for the first time
For the first time I saw
my mother and my father
Use of the term “birth mother” to mean a woman who has relinquished a child to adoption can be traced back to Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck, who was herself an adoptive mother and who also founded an adoption agency. Buck first wrote about the adoption “birth mother” back in 1956, though the term gained broad popularity during the 1970s.
In, 1976 Lee Campbell formed an organization specifically for mothers like herself who had lost children to adoption. For many decades, these women had been called natural mothers, but adoptive parents objected to the term because it painted adoptive mothers as the unnatural alternative. Adoptive parents preferred to say “biological mother,” but those mothers themselves felt that term was too reductive. So, Campbell chose to call herself and other women like her “birthmothers,” and named her organization Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), “hoping to forge a cohesive identity that mothers and fathers with children missing in adoption could rally around.”
In 1979, Marietta Spencer published an article on “The Terminology of Adoption” in Child Welfare, in which she introduced the concept of Positive Adoption Language (PAL). This model has evolved over subsequent decades into Respectful Adoption Language (RAL).
RAL says that “birthmother” is a positive, respectful term for a woman who relinquishes a child to adoption. RAL also says that “adoptive mother” is a negative, disrespectful term for a woman who becomes a parent through adoption; the only positive, respectful term for this woman, according to RAL, is simply “mother.” RAL has evolved to reinforce the validity of the adoptive family. Continue reading “My Adoptivemother and My Birth Mother”→