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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are there other adoption-related phrases you feel strongly about?
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.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
I kept a journal when the kids came home that helped me deal with all the changes, but I didn't share it publicly.
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.
How have the words of others on this issue affected you?
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.
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.
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.
Last question: What are your hopes for the future of adoption, communcation, and words?
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.
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.
Too often we become sick with our secrets, so I am glad for this chance to discuss adoption openly with all of you.
No, thank you, Kate, Ilie, and Jodi!
Check out what other Shewriters are saying about adoption this month: ADOPT
Adoption & Writing
on She Writes