Welcome to this leg of the Found: A Memoir book tour. If this is your first time dropping by Letters to Ms. Feverfew, it may be helpful to know it is not like a typical blog. Rather, it is series of letters I have written to my daughter, relinquished for adoption in 1993. I decided to stay with this convention when I wrote my book review and answered the questions posed by other book tour participants. You can read more about me here and why I write these letters here.
Thank you for stopping by. I hope you find something worthwhile during your stay. ~ M.
Dear Ms. Feverfew –
This is going to be long so grab a cup of tea, make sure your laptop is fully charged, and find a comfy cozy corner in which to curl up. Be certain you are well situated before diving in.
It was the peak of summer season and I was between homes, neither here nor there. Rootless and wandering between where I had been and where I was headed. All of our household effects were stored somewhere in a warehouse in northern Virginia and we were living in temporary housing that butted up against the York River. I had just graduated with my Ph.D. and my life was stripped bare of all the trappings of domesticity and academic study. And so I read. A lot.
I read Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search For Self. I read Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience. I read The Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. I read Adoption and Loss: The Hidden Grief. I read 20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. I read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. I read Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption. I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. I read Adoption Healing: A Path to Recovery. I read Coming Home To Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up.
And I spent a lot of time crying.
Immersed in the literature of adoption recovery, I was awash in a river of grief. What had I done to you? I was drowning, choking on the question, “Dear God, what have I done to my daughter?” The literature was confirming what I already knew at a cellular level: adoption, at least for us, was wrong. Completely and totally wrong. Utterly and absolutely wrong. It was my culture’s permanent and brutal answer for the temporary crisis in which I found myself.
Then I read Found: A Memoir by Jennifer Lauck and I stopped crying as much.
In her tale I found a way forward. I found hope. It isn’t so much of what she said, but how she said it. Found: A Memoir is a profoundly moving story of an adoptee’s journey to find her first family and ultimately, to discover herself. What makes her story different is that Found: A Memoir is infused with a level of generosity and self-awareness rarely found in adoptee memoirs.
This generosity is like the finely aged Tahitian vanilla I have secreted in my kitchen pantry. Sweet, warm, floral, and delicate but never cloying. When used in spicy or acidic savory dishes, vanilla cuts the heat and acidity by half while imparting the warmth only vanilla possesses. In savory dishes, it is harder for the pallet to distinguish the vanilla, but it is still there, lifting and lightening the dish. This is the quality infused throughout the majority of Ms. Lauck’s book, rendering an otherwise acidic and difficult story more edible.
And edible it was. I devoured it both times I read it. The first time through I didn’t even stop to sleep or eat. I just read, like a mother newly delivered of her babe and starving for something of substance, some thing more than the ice chips that had been parsed out by Attila the Nurse during labor. I was hungry and it was hope that wafted up from the pages of the book. It was vanilla scented hope that allowed me to digest the difficult and dangerous passages where Ms. Lauck spoke plainly of hard truths, truths that only adoptess can know and tell. It was vanilla scented hope that tasted of forgiveness and healing. It was a flavor, which, for the first time, helped me understand that perhaps you – my own daughter – might forgive me for what I had done to us.
This last fall, a call was sent out by Lori at The Open Adoption Examiner for participants in an online book tour for Found: A Memoir. I eagerly offered to participate. As I reread the book in preparation for the tour, I was taken at how many of her words could be my own as I made way towards healing and wholeness. I didn’t remember them from before, but now they stood out like a bas relief to my own journey. For example, Ms. Lauck writes:
“In the way that Spencer’s birth began my awakening process, Jo’s birth continued to unfold my psyche and reveal the many dimensions of truth….My first mother felt very important to me in light of Josephine Catherine. Jo was a link in the lineage of woman that connected me to my mother and my mother to her mother and on back through the generations. I wanted to tell my mystery mother, that troubled young girl from so long ago, that Josephine was here—a granddaughter. I wanted to say, “Come look!” (p. 41)
As I read that passage for the second time, I saw my own experiences in her’s:
In the way that Luke’s birth began my awakening process, Penelope’s pregnancy and birth continued to unfold my psyche and reveal the many dimensions of truth…My first daughter felt even more important to me in light of Penelope Rose. Penny was another link in the lineage of women that connected me to my mother and my mother to her mother and on back through the generations. I wanted to tell my mystery daughter, that eight month, 27 day old baby now grown into a woman, that Penelope was here—a sister. I wanted to say, “Come look!”
And so with wonderment at the synchronicity of an adoptee’s experience with my own as a mother who relinquished a child for adoption, I answer three questions asked by other tour members.
I know what I write will make some adoptive parents extremely uncomfortable and perhaps even angry. And also I know by writing these things, I run the risk of being labeled “bitter” and “anti-adoption” even though I am neither of those things. But the truth calls me out; I have the luxury of writing with the freedom of one already marginalized by the dominant culture, of one who can risk everything because she has already lost everything.
Q1: On pp 17-18, Jennifer talks about a baby searching for her mother after being born. How did this sensory-rich passage strike you? What thoughts did it trigger about the role you play in adoption?
Trigger would be the right word. One of the hardest things for me has been to come to terms to with how adoption may have affected you from a life-long developmental point of view. I first became cognizant of the potential negative affects when I was in a human development class and we were studying attachment theory across the life span. Disrupted attachment bonds can profoundly affect a person’s willingness to explore their environment, thus reducing exploration and help seeking behaviors and ultimately impacting learning. Reading the original writings of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth convicted me and set me on a path to seeking a deeper understanding of what loss, particularly early parental loss, can do to a person.
It happened again when I took a human physiology class and the professor talked about the experiments he was running about newborns recognizing the scent of their mother’s milk and even more importantly, preferring it above all others. They also prefer the taste of things that the mother ate when she was pregnant with them. And yet more awareness came when I started pulling primary research articles from medical journals detailing how a newborn’s language center in their brain lights up and their heart rate quickens when they hear their mother speak – not the nurse, not the doctor, not their father – but their mother. And articles about how babies in utero prefer their mother’s voice to any other voice or sound. And articles about fetal-maternal microchimerism, where your cells crossed the placental barrier and now reside in my bone marrow, liver, and blood. And articles about mitochondrial DNA – the stuff that powers life and how it is passed only through the mother to her child. And yet more awareness came when I learned of the specificity of a mother’s milk for the individual child and how it changes across the nursing relationship. And yet more awareness when I read primary research detailing the impact a mother’s touch and voice on infants in the NICU.*
And on it went.
Taken alone, each puzzle piece is interesting but when examined as a composite…dear God, how could I have been so foolish to believe you didn’t need me? And how can this culture go on thinking that somehow, magically, an adopted infant’s brain and body are exempt from these same physiological responses?
But back to us: I wasn’t a crack whore. I wasn’t abusive. I wasn’t neglectful. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I wasn’t sleeping around. I was simply single mother, going to school, trying to build a life for our little family. How and why did I buy into the NCFA’s glossy literature that you deserved more than me? That you would be better off being raised by people who didn’t smell, sound, or move the right way? Yes, you adapted, but at what cost to your psyche and your soul?
So as you can see, trigger was the right word to use in that question about how those pages affected me.
The next question was a bit more involved, so I broke it apart into sections:
Q2, part 1: Jennifer writes a lot about the first moms biological bond with her child. She writes of this bond as primal, almost as if adoptive moms will never be able to completely bond with their children… Adoptive mothers have to be honest with themselves: they will never have the same deep biological connection with their adopted child their child’s first mother. Irrespective of the depth of her love for this child, her mitochondrial DNA does not power every cellular process in her adopted child’s body. Her heart does not beat to the same rhythm within a second of locking eyes with her adopted newborn, her voice will not cause the language recognition centers in her adopted newborn baby’s brain to light up like the Milky Way. She will not smell right or taste right or move right to a tiny babe. They will never share the bone-marrow deep connection that a first mother has with her child. This primal bond is a gift the first mother is given.
These are hard truths for some adoptive mothers to accept, but that doesn’t make them any less true. However, in spite of these hard truths, adoptive mothers can bond with their children. With love, time, and consistent responsive care-giving, a mother can forge powerful bonds with her adopted child, bonds that can be just as strong as the primal ones. This is the gift that adoptive mothers are given.
Q2, part 2: “…and I wonder what advice she would give to adoptive parents, particularly, women who want to be honest with their children about their birth stories.” I can’t speak for Ms. Lauck, but here is my take on it: Start by setting aside any me-I-tis or I-deserve-its and read the letter linked at the top of this page, “An Open Letter to APs and PAPs.”
One can only surmise what Lillie writes is equally hard for some adoptive mothers to read as it was for me but still…but still these are the testimonies of those who adoption is supposed to be helping. We cannot continue to dismiss them and marginalize their voices while paying lip service to adoption “reform”. We must listen to them. We must learn from them.
An adoptive mother can begin to honor and respect their child’s need to mourn the loss of their first family by doing the same for now-adult adoptees. Learning how to listen and honor adult adoptees’ voices now may be one of the best things an adoptive mother can do for her child in the future. After all, her adopted child is going to grow up in a few short years into an adopted adult. If anything, it will give them a lot of practice in letting others tell their truth and not taking it personally. As the adopted child grows and matures, she can help them find ways to honor and respect their original family (even though this can be very hard in situations where a child was available for adoption due to abuse or neglect – I know this first hand, but I also know it can be done). She can tell them the truth, with love and compassion for their hearts. Respect their humanity. It’s all any parent can do for their child, adopted or not.
Q3: What did you believe was the take-away message of this memoir? Did that idea change for you when you read the afterward?
Adoption is hard. Reunion is hard. But there is hope for healing and eventually the ability to move through the experience.
I believe things will not and cannot improve until we start listening carefully to what adult adoptees are saying – even the difficult, upsetting parts – and extracting lessons from what they can teach us. This idea did not change upon reading the afterward. In fact, if any thing, I believe Ms. Lauck lays out a fairly humane and comprehensive agenda for reform when she says, “Adoptive parents must be better informed. Birth mothers must be better informed. Adoptees must be better informed” (p. 264). The only way we can become better informed is to listen – truly listen – to others stories. Especially adult adoptees.
“Adult adoptees are a primary source for knowledge about adoption as an institution. Their perceptions are unique, for adult adoptees are actually the only persons who can tell us what it is like to live adoption in a society in which most people are not adopted.” —Child Welfare League of America [emphasis mine]
After reading Found: A Memoir last summer, I had to walk around for a few days and let it ruminate in my belly. I was satiated and couldn’t read anything else for about a week. No adoption related books. No academic articles about learning theory, attachment, or problem-based learning environments. No memoirs, no classics, no slim volumes of poetry, no micro-histories about the color of mauve or the writing of the Oxford English dictionary, no books about pre-War II Germany, no histories of our founding fathers.
It was just me and Ms. Lauck during those final days of our stay in the temporary housing.
The high summer heat broke our last day in the Tidewater. Early that evening, before the sun had slipped entirely behind the treeline, I laced up my pink and grey New Balance shoes and took myself for a walk in the opposite direction along the river. As I rounded the last curve before the beaver pond, I saw a pregnant full moon beginning to bloom over the Atlantic. She moved carefully and slowly around the corner of the horizon, taking her time to not upset the balance of the gravitational forces tethering her in her fixed path. I audibly gasped at her sheer beauty when she finally broke free from the curvature of the earth. She slowly cleared the span of the Gloucester Bridge, releasing me from her spell, and then I turned for home.
When I got closer to the temporary housing, I could see your youngest brother dashing home from the pool behind his father. I hurried to catch up to them, my feet falling on the wet footprints left by my husband on the warm sidewalk. Did you see that moon rise!? It was – it was breathtaking! I mean, it almost made me cry!
“Gorgeous, a lot of things make you cry lately.” My husband’s caterpillar eyebrow wiggled knowingly above his eyes. “So that isn’t surprising but no, I didn’t see it from here. The trees were in the way.”
“I missed it too, Mom. I was too busy playing to see what happened.”
Oh man, you guys really missed out on one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed.
Much like my husband and son missing the moonrise, I realize readers’ reaction to this book may be the same. It will affect each person differently, dependent on their position in the adoption constellation and whether they are paying attention or just hanging out in the pool we call life. And you know what? That is OK. We are all at different points on this journey and sometimes it is nice to just float on our backs and enjoy the warm water. But I’ll be honest, it sure was nice to have witnessed something so beautiful.
Much love and belief –
*All research claims will be addressed in subsequent letters, providing references and a brief discussion of how the study findings might impact an adoptee.
To continue to the next stop of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.
To learn more about Ms. Lauck and her writing, please visit http://www.jenniferlauck.com/