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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

Are You My (Worthy) Mother?

Updated: May 1

A personal essay about adoption history and an excellent book.

Photo of author at 8 weeks old
Author at 8 weeks old, held by grandpa

As a child and as a parent, I had a copy of P.D. Eastman's children's book, Are you my mother? in which a mother bird senses her egg is about to hatch and goes to get some food for it, but it hatches before she returns. This sets the stage for the mini-epic of the baby bird asking various things in its world, including a dog, a cow, and even a steam shovel, if they are its mother. All ends happily with a reunion of mother and child.

Cover image of book

That book kept coming to mind as I read the important new personal account and history by Rebecca Wellington, Who is a Worthy Mother? An Intimate History of Adoption.

The author interweaves her personal story as an adoptee and sister to an adoptee, with the history of adoption in the United States, the tentacles of which reach to far-away nations, but also to Indigenous communities "at home."

In the real world Wellington engages with, one can look and look for one's mother in a system designed with ongoing silences and secrets that mean you will never know who she was and she will never find you. The system was designed to remove children from a parent deemed unworthy by others. Not a good children's story.

The history of adoption, including my own, is often--most often--nothing like an idealized version of The Chosen Baby, another book my adoptive mother read to me early in my childhood--except in the silences perhaps. Evidently it was "updated" in 1977 but the 1950s version I was familiar with told a very white, very reassuring version of adoption: you weren't just born, but chosen! But of course, the birth mother is nowhere to be found in that book. No frantic mother bird seeking out her baby; no baby bird asking after a mother they will never find or meet. Silence, invisibility.

History can be rather messy, which is one reason so many topics are legislatively or otherwise "off limits" even in 2024. But not showing the history of a subject, event, or societal norm does not remove the history's effects. Adoption is certainly in that category.

Wellington's personal story exposes the conflicting narratives of adoption, even for those of us who were the focus of the mythification of adoption: white babies adopted into white families with means. The author also gives credit to and dives into the work by people affected by adoption who don't fit that category, exposing how white "saviors" and even patriotic goals are at the center of the history of adoption in the U.S. With all the talk these days about "saving babies" it might be useful to understand which babies have been the focus of all that history that is at the root of today's rulings.

Given that adoption has been routinely proposed as the "solution" to unwanted pregnancies by many, including Supreme Court Justices, it would be helpful if more knew the history of that highly-problematic "solution." But that would require the Court's current majority to read and absorb history rather than ignore it, as they did in the Dobbs decision. The ironies of a body claiming "precedent" as significant yet looking the other way when historical evidence is not to its liking abound.

Ignoring history, actively refusing to engage with it, does not solve a problem but may make a few more comfortable--at the expense of those whose very real lived experience and history is ignored. Perhaps that's the goal: I will believe what I believe no matter the historical evidence before me! I will simply look the other way!

In Wellington's book, which I doubt the Court's majority would be comfortable reading, the interwoven histories of so many things, including adoption, reproductive rights, racism, immigration, classism, and moral panic about "unwed" mothers find at their nexus the question: Who is a worthy mother? Have things changed . . . that much? Is the story we continue to tell about adoption "solving" problems accurate?

The answer is important and one that demonstrates the significance of understanding history for the discussion of reproductive rights and parenthood today.

Where does my story fit in? A work in progress.

I was born and adopted in late-1957 California, which continues to keep adoption records sealed, my "birth" certificate a bit of a deep fake.

The photo of me at 8 weeks old, which accompanies this essay, along with countless others, suggests people celebrated my life, welcoming me into a recreated family. Especially given my own multiple experiences with birthing, it is simultaneously a reminder that at the same time in early February 1958, somewhere a woman of unknown age or location or status was still bodily recovering from my birth.

I always knew I was adopted but somehow also always knew that asking about a birth mother was not something my adoptive mother would have wanted. I stayed silent. I did hear at one point that one of my brothers looked for his and that he "didn't find anything." My mom seemed to chalk up his intent to troubled teen years.

And yes, both my brothers were adopted--3 weeks apart in 1959, raised as "twins" till they found out otherwise at the age of 16. More secrets. Ironically, I knew otherwise since I was in 4th grade or so; I happened to hear something said to my mom by a photographer who was also a friend and her quick, SHHH! I knew not to mention it and pretend I had heard nothing. I never told her I knew but have a vague recollection of my mom letting me know that was information not to be shared. But maybe that memory doesn't exist but the feeling sure did. I never told my brothers I knew long before they did.

My adopted mother died in 2021 and shortly thereafter I submitted my DNA to 23&Me. Nothing--and I didn't expect anything. No DNA relatives in that system till we get to 3rd cousins or so--many times removed. But I didn't do it earlier because if I did find information . . . well, I didn't know how to handle that with my adoptive mom. So I didn't. No one said I couldn't. No one threatened me. I just knew what was expected. More silences. Still . . .

In early-1998, my oldest daughter gave birth to a child whom she placed for adoption. However, she essentially chose the parents and had regular, if infrequent, contact with her child over the years till her untimely and rather tragic death at the age of 38. She was a troubled individual but she wasn't only that! She was so much more. I have a sense of what it took to do what she did--literally hand a child, the child you recently gave birth to--to someone else. For good. Wellington is right: you don't just give birth, walk away, and "move on."

Another daughter became a foster parent to a baby removed from its mother due to neglect and more. She later adopted that child in 2013. My daughter knew the mother and can tell her adopted child various pieces of information even as it is nonetheless a challenging story to tell.

Adoption in its many forms does not simply "solve" problems, however loving and caring an individual's intent. Perhaps in a thoughtful form it remains a good alternative for some, especially when the person who births the child truly has a say. But it does not "solve" problems.

My parents adopted because my father had a vasectomy after 3 children in 2 marriages. While rather responsible of him I suppose, back in post-WWII America, it was not reversible and my mother wanted children. She would find a way because that is who she was.

When my mother was driving me to the hospital for the birth of my first child, my brother who had sought out his birth mother happened to be in the car and said to my mom, "I thought you didn't have children because you didn't want to ruin your figure." Not sure how he missed the vasectomy info over the years but that was another layer of potential silences: Many parents do not tell their children the circumstances of their adoption--the reasons why--even today.

The fact my adoptive father was in his early 40s, married three times with 3 prior children--yet they "were allowed" to adopt 3 blond, blue-eyed children--suggests many things about private adoptions in that era, which others have written about. That also says something about the rates of unplanned pregnancies among white (likely) youth in the "idyllic" 1950s Leave it to Beaver America so many seem to want to go back to. I doubt my birth mother had a choice about keeping me or surrendering me for adoption. That's not commentary but a statement of fact.

I have often "done the math" and calculated how old my birth mother might be--knowing the chances of meeting her, even if she wanted that, continue to fade with time. But I am also aware of things not touched on in Wellington's book (although they are in others): rape, incest, and/or other traumas predating the relinquishing of a child could also be part of my story. Those issues don't get mentioned much when Supreme Court Justices and other Righteous Folks opine on what women are allowed to do or not do with their own bodies: we don't get to make a lot of choices that they seem to think we do.

All that said, I would want to meet my birth mother if she wanted to meet me. Actually, I would want to meet her even if she didn't want to meet me. But I would not. Her perspective matters a great deal to me. And I guess I'd like to think that a real choice she might now have in that situation should be honored, listened to.

But I will always think of her.

The History Matters.

Hers too.

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