Adoption as a Second Language: A She Writes Roundtable with Lanita Andrews, Ilie Ruby, Kate St. Vincent Vogl, and Jodi McIsaac Martens



To honor National Adoption Month here at She Writes, Lanita Andrews tapped three She Writers—a Birth Mother, an Adoptee, and an Adoptive Mother—to tackle the thorny subject of adoption and words.


As writers, we have an intimate relationship with words; we feel their weight and recognize their significance on a daily basis. For those of us touched by adoption, this relationship becomes even more complex. Often, joining the adoption community means learning a new language; figuratively – as old words take on new meanings and others become suddenly insufficient, and literally – when adoption brings a foreign language to the family.

Vocabulary, phrasing, and naming become delicate matters that often require not only great sensitivity, but an abundance of creativity as well. We work together, within our own families, and inside the greater community, using words to educate and support one another. Communication is essential for adoption relationships to thrive, and while there are numerous tools at our disposal, words can be both the greatest and weakest of these.

I asked three fabulous She Writers to share some thoughts and memories from their own experiences with adoption. I picked and probed into some very personal issues, and all three women were generous in both their willingness to share, and the honesty with which they did so.

The writers:

Jodi McIsaac Martens is a Birth-Mother and freelance copywriter. She penned the essay Navigating a Successful Open Adoption and continues to write about her experience with adoption.

Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Adoptee and frequent speaker within the adoption community, is the author of Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers.

Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees and several adoption-related essays, is a mother to three children whom she and her husband adopted from Ethiopia nearly two years ago.

Our words:

Lanita: I’ve found I am quite uncomfortable with the term Real-Mom/Dad, and choose to use First-Mother/Father. Tell me a bit about your preferences regarding parental titles.

Ilie: When I talk about my children’s parents in Africa, regardless of whether they are living or not, I will say “Your mom/dad in Africa.” I need to keep it simple for them, and at least when it comes to my eldest, I think it shows a respect for her history and her biological parents.

Kate: Torn as I am between the typical adoptee's loyalty to birthparents and the innate need to understand biological roots, I also feel quite strongly about the Real-Parent word. Some prefer “real parent,” “natural mother,” or “first mother” for the biological mother. Others maintain that “birth mother” suggests she’s merely a breeder. But when you use “real” or “natural,” it implies the adoptive parent is not real, or not natural, and I can tell you that the ties I had with my mother were very real and very natural.

Lanita: Are there other adoption-related phrases you feel strongly about?

Jodi: I’m uncomfortable with the phrase “giving up a child for adoption.” I prefer the term “placed for adoption.” To use the verb “place” implies a conscious decision on the birthmother’s part – it shows that we actively placed our child into the context of a safe and loving family. To say that we “gave up” our child implies that we just released him or her into the unknown.

Lanita: Though words are a vessel for communication, sometimes they simply get in the way. Ilie, did language barriers impact your family’s bonding experience, and if so, how?

Ilie: I have learned that sometimes, in the absence of language, within the silence there exists a certain poetry of bonding, one of gesture, of nuance, of subtleties that foster a different kind of communication, perhaps one that is more intense. That is how it was for my eldest daughter and me… I found that because we could not talk to each other, there was room for something else to grow, a language that became inherently our own... We used symbols and humor to communicate, then games, then word games. Clowning around, in particular, is a universal language. I was able to see how creative and funny she was. And she saw that in me. I learned some Amharic and she learned a few words of English. When I left her the first time, I took off my hoop earrings, hooked them together and held them to my heart, and then to hers, as if to say, we are forever linked, and I am coming back for you. She placed them in her small bag where she slept and kept them. She recently wrote a school essay and attached to it was a photograph she took of the linked earrings. She wrote about how she knew I was coming back “to get her.”

Lanita: If I’m going to help my daughter find clarity in her experience with adoption – something I feel is a big part of my job as an adoptive mother – I must first have clarity in my own. Writing has been the single most useful tool to help me do this. How would you each describe your own connection between adoption and writing?

Kate: Writing is what brought my birth-mom and I together. She read early drafts of my novel, and we shared a version with her sisters at a luncheon; it was the first time I’d met them. At the luncheon I realized the fictional character in the novel was me put in Val’s circumstance in college. It was at that point I realized I was ready to start sharing my story about Val, my mom, and me. Writing the story—and sharing it prior to publication as well as afterwards—brought me closer to everyone within my adoption constellation.

Ilie: I kept a journal when the kids came home that helped me deal with all the changes, but I didn't share it publicly.

Jodi: Writing is really the only way I can talk about my adoption experience. The day after I gave birth, a nurse asked me, “Why would any mother want to give her baby away?” I felt like a monster. So I don’t talk about it much face-to-face. When it does come up, I tend to get a lot of platitudes like, “You did what was best for your child.” How does anyone know what was best for my child? For me, writing about adoption is a way to process without having to worry about the judgmental, patronizing, or pitying gaze of others.

Lanita: How have the words of others on this issue affected you?

Ilie: There’s a lot of advice out there [and] a plethora of books on the subject. I say, be choosy. Some advice feels right and some does not ring true for me.

Jodi: After the death of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, the elves sing a lament. Merry asks Legolas what they are saying. Legolas answers, “I have not the heart to tell you. For me, the grief is still too near.” I know there are probably a lot of great things being said about the adoption experience, but for me the grief is still too near to hear them.

Kate: By the vagaries of chance, I read Merry Bloch Jones’ Birthmothers just a couple of months before I got that first call from Val. In Jones’ book it’s clear—you can’t move on… after a loss like that. It broke my heart to think there were no happy endings for these birth mothers. When Val called, then, I had a better inkling of what she had gone through, for all she gave up, for all she gave me; for that I had to say thanks. It was amazing, our first talk, and I’m glad I’d had the insights from Jones’ book to guide me through our first words.

Lanita: Last question: What are your hopes for the future of adoption, communcation, and words?

Ilie: My 5-year old son was told to bring in his baby picture. He doesn’t have one. The teacher kept insisting on this. I talked to her and she changed the assignment to “when you were younger”. I gave her a photograph of my son at 4, and that was that.

Jodi: As a writer, it's hard for me to admit that words are sometimes not enough. My son's parents have thanked me several times for my gift to them. Those words are appreciated, but they don't quite hit the mark; it implies that I cared so much about them I gave them my child. The reality is quite the opposite. I cared so much about my child that I gave the adoptive parents to him. He wasn’t the gift – they were. I understand and appreciate that adoptive parents want to express their gratitude, but perhaps better language might be something like, “Thank you for the privilege of loving and raising your child.” A phrase like that puts the emphasis back on the child, and not on the exchange that happened between the birthmother and the adoptive parents.

Kate: Too often we become sick with our secrets, so I am glad for this chance to discuss adoption openly with all of you.

Lanita: No, thank you, Kate, Ilie, and Jodi!

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Adoption & Writing on She Writes

Views: 89

Tags: #things we care about, Ilie Ruby, Kate St Vin, Lanita Andrews, motherhood, parenthood

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Comment by Elle Pedersen on December 11, 2010 at 3:45am

Not blood of my blood

Nor bone of my bone

But still miraculously, my own.

Never forget for even a minute

You didn't grow under my heart,

But in it ..

Comment by Gwyn Nichols on November 22, 2010 at 3:47pm
LOVED this.

As an adoptive mom, I'm so appreciative of the pioneers who shared there own adoption experiences, contributing to make ours a more loving, informed, and collaborative process. I'm often touched by the sensitivity shown by members of the adoption triad in honoring the language another member prefers.

"Adoptive" mom is another marker which can be necessary for outsiders, I think of myself as a miracle mom, as in, it's a miracle I got to be one. I'm a mom to two sons: one came by infertility treatment and one by adoption. I see every birth as a miracle, and I'm blessed to have two of those miracles in my home.

When my younger son was about eight, he announced that he had four moms: Heavenly Mother, birth mom, home mom and stepmom. It made my day, and it's still my favorite title. Home team, hometown, Home Mom!
Comment by Kelly Thompson on November 22, 2010 at 12:02am
You're welcome Lanita. Thank you for endeavoring to open up discussion on the topic of adoption and including the birth families.
Comment by Lanita Andrews on November 21, 2010 at 11:34pm
Thanks for your comments ladies!

Mirah - If there is one lesson to take from this discussion, I think you pointed it out. As I was asking these questions, even though I too live in the world of adoption, even I struggled with phrasing. So, as you say, the only way we can figure it out is to treat each person individualy, and simply ask them.

Kelly - "To grace is the only word that comes even close" - What a beautiful way to describe it, I think my sister might appreciate that.
Comment by Lindsay Maines on November 19, 2010 at 4:18pm
Love love love this discussion. As an adoptee (placed in 74) who met her birth family about 10 years ago, I can say that the language issue has always been a huge one for me. I hated when people asked about my "real parents", when people said I looked like my mom, and then we'd have to explain why, no, really maybe on the surface, but I was adopted, then we'd have to answer if my brother was my "blood" brother, etc., etc. I always really appreciated when people were thoughtful with their questions. I ever minded them, but often winced at the phrasing.
Comment by Kelly Thompson on November 19, 2010 at 3:29pm
I am a "birth grandmother" and can only add that words are woefully inadequate to describe the experience of adoption. To give, place, surrender, relinquish? To grace is the only word that comes even close. And, from the perspective of the birth family, it is the child that is given a family rather than the other way around. And yes, that you don't (ever) move on after a loss like that are the truest words I've heard regarding this topic and my experience of it. I hope to write about it one day.
Comment by Mirah Riben on November 19, 2010 at 9:27am
Writer and mother of a relinquished child here...

As a writer, I am humbled by the struggle of what to call mothers who have relinquished children for adoption, other than "mothers who have relinquished children for adoption."

I respect the highly sensitive issues around this and contend that it is a personal choice and each woman needs to be asked how SHE prefers to be addressed and how she chooses to describe herself and what occurred regarding the adoption of her child or children.

For instance, many of us did NOT "place" our children and find that word as foreign to our being as "giving." In fact surrendering or giving up, as one does after a long struggle, is far more fitting for the vast majority of older mothers who experienced their adoption separation in the closed adoption era. For some the experience is best describe as having had their child stolen. Others were clearly pressured or coerced to relinquish.

I lost my child to adoption. For me it was a loss, just as her death was, but without any finality, closure, mourning or sympathy.

What am I? I am an author and the mother of four children. When a mother looses custody in divorce, we do not demote her from being the mother to her child by calling her their former mother or ex-mother. It is the new mother who gets the tag-on prefix and becomes the step mother (or father) even if the child is very young and knows no other as a mother (or father) figure in their life ever. The same is true of a parent who dies.

It is only in adoption where things get turned upside down and mothers are assigned prefixes where none belong.

As writers, we need not fall into traps of mass media, but rather keep pure to ourselves and those we write about, and recognize each person's right to their dignity and self-identify...even as that might differ from what others, including their counterpart, might call them. In other words, I am my relinquished daughter's mother as I am the mother of all of my children. SHE may call another Mommy...another may call herself her mother. That is of their right to do so. i cannot control, nor do I have any need to control their intimate language between themselves. I self-identify only myself and try to honor and respect others' right to do the same...by asking....

Honor each mother as she chooses to be honored: first, original, real, true, natural...or just a mother. Honor her experience an she chooses to describe it.

Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industy
Comment by Ashlei Austgen on November 18, 2010 at 3:43pm
Great interview Lanita. I second your thanks to Kate, Ilie and Jodi for their candor - adoption is a topic I'm not too familiar with, so thank you for the small peek into your worlds. Kate, you're so correct about secrets, and putting your stories out there might help another stuggling soul, or allow someone else to find the correct words.

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