I've been blogging regularly on my Other Blog which is not to say that I do not frequently think of adoption and its myriad issues. I continue to see the world through the eyes of a birthmother, and those eyes popped wide open recently when I read THIS. I have some personal experience with Iowa's bureaucracy regarding birth certificates. In 1990 when I began to search for the son I had given up for adoption 20 years earlier, I wrote several letters to the Iowa Department of Human services asking them to provide me with the original birth certificate for my son. While I knew the original birth certificate would provide no identifying information that would aid in my search, I viewed it an empowerment exercise. My son had been taken from me, and the evidence of that separation had been erased. Silenced for two decades by shame, I came out of my closet after the birth of my third child brought home to me the fact that my son could not be replaced. At the very least, I wanted the state of Iowa to acknowledge that the birth had taken place. I wanted the piece of paper that held my name and his--although he was listed as merely "baby boy." It's probably worth noting here that my son's biological father's name did not appear on the original birth certificate since I declined to identify him. Nevertheless, with my own name as the only identifying information, I could not obtain the original birth certificate. On medication for glaucoma at the time and afflicted with a moderately severe case of scoliosis, I had my doctors intercede with the state of Iowa as we attempted to have my medical history passed on to my son. The only communication that I received stated that there were no records pertaining to my inquiries. Until the recent Iowa Supreme decision confirming the rights of same sex couples to have both their names appear on their children's birth certificates, The Iowa Department of Public Health insisted on listing the biological parents. While gay marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009, Iowa has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union to allow gay marriage while refusing to list both spouses on the birth certificate. The irony of that, Iowa, is thicker than a cloud of mosquitos on a humid summer evening. As a postscript, I'll say that I hope the gay and lesbian couples who are now officially recognized as their children's parents will not relegate their offspring to the blackout of information that many adult adoptees continue to endure in the state of Iowa. Of course, there is this: Effective July 1, 1999, Iowa law enables adoptees, their "birth parents," and their blood-related brothers and sisters to find each other if the birth is registered with the State of Iowa. The "Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry" was established in order to match those persons requesting that their identity be revealed to registrants "matching" information concerning an adult adoptee. All information provided to the registry is confidential and revealed only in the event that an appropriate match is made and the parties have been notified of the match. A $25 fee in U.S. funds and a certified copy of the applicant?s birth certificate must be submitted with each consent application. I'm trusting the instructions are a bit oversimplified. Surely, they don't expect birthparents to supply a birth certificate...... Readers, have any of you out there used the Iowa Registry? Did reunions result? I'd love to hear about it. photo credit: astoria-rust.blogspot.com
THIS STORY is already a week old, but I can't stop thinking about it. For birthmothers my age, there is no more profound contrast between the era in which we gave up our children and today's regard for single mothers. I don't think the term, "single mother" existed in 1970.
The world is growing smaller for American women. Rights won in decades past are being carved away. The Birth Control Panel recently hit women’s rights in its most vulnerable target. Pending legislation and the personhood movement will more than likely continue to snip away at what young women have come to think of as unassailable rights.
When I was a pregnant teenager in a small Catholic town in 1970, men were in charge of women and the same issues that are making headlines today. I like to think the constraints of this kind of old-school small-town thinking wield very little power over me now that I’ve been a big-city person for more that thirty years, but it isn’t true. When I read my morning newspaper the feelings of desperation and damnation I experienced while struggling to keep my pregnancy secret in order to preserve my family’s good name rise up with a fresh dread.
The summer after my ordeal was over, I left my family, my town, and my friends for college in anther state, and after that, the west coast where I could be just another stranger in the City of Angels. Anonymity is a long leash. The tether is quite a bit shorter in a small town. People talk about you in line at the grocery store, or in the bank, or standing on the church steps Sundays when the weather is fine. In 1970 the unthinkable act of being discovered making love to a boy you plan to marry would have required slinking out of town in the dead of night while the church spires reached menacingly toward the heavens behind you. The shame of it all would have you still beating your breast as the sun rose, seeking sanctuary in somewhere with less open space, but more open minds. Piety and propriety cast long shadows in small towns.
When I became pregnant at the age of sixteen in October of 1969, my personal world and the larger world were both changing rapidly. Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the moon just a few months earlier. Two years before that, the social revolution embodied by the 1967 “Summer of Love” had taken place a half a continent away in San Francisco. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have occurred on the moon. I was much more familiar with the moon landing than I was with the goings on involving free love in the liberal landscape of California. I have a clear memory of vacationing at a campground in Kentucky while Neil Armstrong took those first steps for mankind in July of 1969. We campers lounged in folding chairs gathered around a black and white portable TV that someone had hooked to an electrical outlet at an RV site. I saw Neil bounding through the lunar dust that summer as the evening buzzed with the sounds of insects and conversation at the wonder of it all. I have no recollection of any discussion about the social upheaval that ensued when young people in San Francisco were experiencing their own release from gravity two years before.
Sex was a taboo subject in my small town. Millions of American women living in more open-minded places were already using the birth control pill by the time I started high school in 1966, but in my world even the word “rubber” was still spoken in hushed tones, and there was no place in my Catholic town of three thousand people that a high school girl or boy could have purchased one. In the preceding year of 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut had made information about birth control, and birth control itself, legal for married women, but for me, the subject of birth control was just as forbidden as the subject of sex. For Catholics, the freeing of those constraints was delayed even further when Pope Paul the VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed all types of birth control other than the rhythm method. The 1973 abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade was still a glimmer in some non-Catholic’s eye by the time I graduated from high school and left my small town forever the summer of 1970.
The fall weekend during my senior year of high school that changed my life and my son’s did not present many options. There was no way to prevent my pregnancy short of abstinence, which was something I didn’t quite manage on one particular Saturday night. Nine months later as I delivered my son without the support of family or friends, I took no consolation from the fact that I’d gotten pregnant during my very first sexual encounter.
The people in my hometown are the kind of people who judge you. They think they have a right to because their great-grandparents’ faces looked into the faces of your great-grandparents. They think they know you even if they don’t. They’re the kind of people who can ruin you, will tell you what they think and what to do, and then they’ll kill you with kindness. They’re the kind of people who’ll drive your car for a funeral so you can weep in the backseat on the way to the cemetery. They’re the kind of people who will give you the shirts off their backs, the fish they caught, deer meat for your freezer, and their last jar of homemade rhubarb jelly. If I had kept my son and brought him home, it would have been a scandal. I didn’t know then that there would come a time when they might forgive me.
Small towns can be wonderful places to grow up if you don’t step off the path and end up lying in the ditch. For those of us who have stumbled, big cities are a comfort. The urban cacophony of everyday life drowns out the voices of reproach in our heads, and we know that the hundreds of eyes that fall upon our faces each day have no knowledge of our past sins. A walk down a busy street in a city like New York or Los Angeles is a baptism that washes us clean. But as the walls in the world of women’s rights continue to close in, there may come a day where cities like Richmond, Tucson, Sioux Falls, South Bend, Miami, Minneapolis, and even Los Angeles and New York are indistinguishable from the 1970s town I grew up in. Women across the nation may be moving, traveling to a time and place we thought was history, and we won’t even have to pack.
However busy you are, you should still reserve One evening a year for thinking about your double, The man who took the curve on Conway Road Too fast, given the icy patches that night, But no faster than you did; the man whose car When it slid through the shoulder Happened to strike a girl walking alone From a neighbor’s party to her parents’ farm, While your car struck nothing more notable Than a snowbank. One evening for recalling how soon you transformed Your accident into a comic tale Told first at a body shop, for comparing That hour of pleasure with his hour of pain At the house of the stricken parents, and his many Long afternoons at the Lutheran graveyard. If nobody blames you for assuming your luck Has something to do with your character, Don’t blame him for assuming that his misfortune Is somehow deserved, that justice would be undone If his extra grief was balanced later By a portion of extra joy. Lucky you, whose personal faith has widened To include an angel assigned to protect you From the usual outcome of heedless moments. But this evening consider the angel he lives with, The stern enforcer who drives the sinners Out of the Garden with a flaming sword And locks the gate.
Not long before Christmas I wrote a letter to my son detailing who I was and how I’d come to give him up for adoption. I enclosed a faded color snapshot of his biological father and me dressed in our pastel evening finery at our senior prom. I tried to imagine what my son would think when he saw those two innocent smiles. Would he realize that he was in the photo too? Christmas was just a couple of weeks away, so I wrapped the letter around the photo and put the packet in a red envelope, hoping to pass it off as a Christmas card. If he doesn’t write me back in a couple of weeks, I thought, I’ll call him.
The mail fell in heaps through the slot in our front door during the week before Christmas. I’d hear our dog bark, and I’d race to the entry hall to contemplate the holiday envelopes strewn on the rug. Examining each hand-addressed envelope, I hoped for a return address from Arizona, but there was nothing. At the meetings I’d heard adoptees say that reuniting with a birthparent could make the adoptive parents feel abandoned or threatened. I told myself my son was just taking it slow out of consideration for his family, but even ten days later there was no response.
When I first received information about my son, I learned some basic details. I knew that he lived at home with his parents, that he had a sister, that he worked as an information operator for the phone company. The searcher had given me my son's phone number and had pointed out that the line was separate from his parents’ line. As I began working up the nerve to call him, I wanted to find out if my son shared his phone line with his sister. One afternoon shortly after New Year’s, while my daughters were napping, I sat on my bedroom floor with the telephone in my lap. Since I had his sister’s name, I would call information to get her number and see if it was the same as his. I dialed information for Mesa, Arizona with my pencil at the ready. “Hello, this is Cory. May I help you?” said the operator. I gasped and slammed down the phone and lay on the cool oak floor of my bedroom. Was it possible that I had just spoken to my son?
Like the gifts stacked in our living room, disguised beneath ribbons and wrapping paper, my secret remains hidden.
In the kitchen our table nearly sags with plenty. A ham decorated with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, an array of side dishes, baskets of rolls, towers of bread, a three-tiered tray layered with homemade cookies, fudge, and divinity. I want to stuff myself with all of it.
My father is tipsy when he arrives. He considers it his duty to spread Yuletide cheer among his employees before sending them home to enjoy the holiday. Now he's handing out drinks to our guests-- scalding Tom and Jerrys served with a ladle from a polka-dotted bowl, highballs in tall narrow glasses. Ice cubes tinkle like sleigh bells; steam rises from cups like breath made visible. We stuff ourselves, get giddy on sugar, and then find our places in the living room. Gifts are handed out. One by one at first, and then the whole operation snowballs into Christmas-y chaos until there’s a pile of wrapping paper as tall as my little brothers.
This is my last Christmas before I go off to college. My parents give me a portable sewing machine so compact it looks like a toy, a Webster’s collegiate dictionary, and a thesaurus. Santa surprises me with a popcorn popper, a new bathrobe, and new pajamas so I can look presentable in dormitory hallways. None of us has any idea what college life will be like, but we assume these are the things I will need.
College. Will I really give my baby to strangers and go off to start a new life? Or should I imagine myself married, posing in front of next year's tree with a baby cuddled in my arms?
After we’ve done the dishes my boyfriend comes over, and we present each other with cassette tape recorders and packages of tapes. Our colleges will be three hundred miles apart, and he has the idea it will be more interesting to send each other tapes instead of letters. I toy with the idea of recording a tape for him that tells him I’m pregnant.
(I never work up the nerve.)
At midnight we attend Mass. The late night and the ham and the candy have made me queasy. Morning sickness can attack anytime if I eat the wrong thing or smell something strong. I still have a dose or two of the green medicine, but I’m saving it for school. The good thing is that I’ve lost several pounds, and my Christmas dress, a double-breasted navy knit with gold buttons, looks great. The bad thing is that when the incense rises and swirls toward me, I think I’m going to faint. Luckily, we’re seated off one of the side aisles near an exit, and occasionally an icy gust sends fresh air through the crack between the heavy double doors and saves me.
During Mass I pray to the Virgin Mary. I pray to God. I pray to Saint Catherine. I took Catherine as my confirmation name because it’s my mother’s middle name and because I like Catherine’s story. She was a virgin and a martyr, and when she was put to death milk flowed from her veins instead of blood.