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Friday, November 28, 2014

#FlipTheScript (My Mom's Voice, An Adoptee's Voice)

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014 eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after being reunited with her biological sisters.

I have been wanting to write something during November for National Adoption Month, and tonight, with two days left in November, I came across Angela Tucker's wonderful article, The Missing Voice in the Adoption Conversation, in Christianity Today magazine. Angela, an adoptee, talks about her ambivalent feelings about National Adoption Month given the complexities of adoption. I read the article at my dad's house, where my sister and I (and our kids) were having dinner and helping to decorate the Christmas tree. Angela talked about the need for adoptees' voices to be heard during National Adoption Month. I agree. I am not my mom, but I will do my best to speak for her, and tell her story.

My mom and my daughter Grace. Love and miss you, mom. 
My mom, who was born on July 9th, 1950, was adopted by my grandparents and brought to Haddonfield, New Jersey, on October 9th, 1950. She never found out where she was for those first three months, but she did always know she was adopted. In Haddonfield, she joined her older brother, Doug (also adopted, at the age of 11 months) and her dog, Happy. Her parents were loving and wonderful, and her life was a good one. She married my dad, who had lived down the street from her, when she was twenty-one. My sister was born when she was twenty-four. I came along three years later. When we were younger, I remember asking my mom if she was ever curious about her original mother. I think this was soon after my parents had my sister and me watch The Miracle of Life on PBS. Now that I knew where babies came from, I found myself very curious as to where she had been before she arrived at my grandparents' house. "No, not really," she replied casually, but then added, "I guess I did think about it a lot after both you and Kate were born ... " We didn't talk about it after that. Sometimes, when asked to fill out a family tree or explain my ethnicity for a school project, I remember feeling confused. "My grandfather's family is from Scotland," I would say, thinking about the stories I had heard of my mother's dad making bootleg liquor in the back of his dad's car (he was a bit wild, though a lot of fun). I loved these stories, as I loved the stories about my grandmother's family, and I felt connected to them as part of my family narrative (I still do), but I also felt connected to something else, something I couldn't quite name.

When my mom was 47, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I will always remember the year and her age, because it was the year that I studied abroad in Spain. That spring (1997), my parents and sister came to visit me for a week in Granada. My mom was fine, though I do remember that she suddenly found it impossible to ride in elevators. "I feel like the walls are closing in on me in there," she explained, "I just can't." In Marbella, we stayed in a hotel room eight flights up and she took the stairs. A month later, I was done my studies and visiting my dad's cousin in Milan, Italy, when my dad called and told me my mom had been diagnosed, that she was having surgery, and that I should come home right away. I did. It was in those months after the surgery, as my parents researched treatment options and my mom was asked again and again for her medical background and couldn't give it, that my mom decided to search for her birth parents. My sister, a doctor, practically insisted on it.

My grandmother gave my mom the information she had, and my mother contacted the adoption agency. "Why do you want to know?" she was asked. She had the medical reason to give, which I'm sure she did, and that was good, because her natural desire to know, and her recognition of this desire, was deeply buried beneath years of denial out of a fear of hurting her adoptive parents, whom she loved, and a desire to please society, which seemed to want her, and all adoptees, to reaffirm its belief that adoption was a "win-win" situation. I do not know how aware of her own feelings my mom was at this point, but she was never one to hide anything from us, and even after she called the agency she spoke of her search casually, as though it wasn't of any great importance to her. But I know from what happened afterwards that it was--even when she didn't know it, or couldn't express it.

In short: the adoption agency told my mother her original mother had wanted no contact, and so all my mom had a right to see were some papers with "non-identifying" information (information that had been filled out nearly 50 years before). My mom still did not have the medical information she needed, and I think she was also awakening to the fact that this search was important to her for more than just medical reasons. She did, eventually, find her mother through some enlightened individuals, and she was able to send her a certified letter in which she spoke of who she was, the life she had lived, and the current crisis she was in that required her to know more about her medical history. Her mother sent back a more complete medical history and then, miraculously, she called. "I have always loved you in my heart," she told my mother.

Also, perhaps miraculously, my mom got better. The melanoma had been under the nail of her big toe, and the surgeons removed that toe completely. "I would much rather be alive with no big toe than not be alive at all," she would say. The scans every three months, and then every six, and then just every year, were always anxiety-producing, but eventually the worry lessoned, and my mom was able to just live her life. My sister and I each got married, and then grandkids came along. My mom was busy, and happy.

At the same time, her experience with the adoption agency when searching for her original mother had awakened her to the injustices that all adoptees face. She joined NJCare and began working for adult adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates. She began this blog. She told her story. Telling her story was important.

In the comments section after Angela Tucker's article in Christianity Today, an article that is really only saying that adoptees need to have a voice in the discussion, one adoptive father speaks of adult adoptees as "pushing this #FlipTheScript stuff" and ends by asking that adult adoptees "get some perspective." It is a comment that saddens me terribly. I know it would have saddened my mom. I wish she were here to write about it herself. But she is not.

My mom had 16 wonderful years of life after her original melanoma diagnosis. She did not have a relationship with her original mother during this time, but that was ok. Adult adoptees having access to their original birth certificates is not about them having a relationship, necessarily, with their birth parents. It is about finally, finally giving them an ounce of power in searching out their own identities. What they decide to do with that power is up to them.

A few years after my mom's original diagnosis, her own (a)mother, my Nana, died. My mom and her were always completely devoted to each other. That devotion was clear tonight as I looked through boxes of my mom's keepsakes. There were all the things of my mom's that Nana had kept. There was the scribble on a scrap of paper ("Susan drew this, 4 years old"), the holiday cards, the careful notes about birthday parties at the beach, the pictures, even a letter to the editor my mom had written to the editor of the local paper in her twenties, Dog was not a stray. There was the long letter of thanks my mom had written her mother for Christmas as a grown adult, and a copy of the letter my mom had written to the hospital after her father had died. He had gone in for what was supposed to be routine surgery, and something had gone terribly wrong. My mom had been greatly angered by the callous way in which the doctor treated her and her mother afterwards, and she let him know. There was also, of course, the program from my grandmother's funeral, and all the cards people had sent my mom. "Nobody loves you like your mother," my mom told me after Nana died, "It's just this irreplaceable loss."

So my mother's making her voice heard was never about criticizing her (a)parents. She knew how lucky she was to have them, and they knew how lucky they were to have her. My mother shared her voice because she had just what the adoptive father commenting on Angela Tucker's article asked her (and all adoptees) to have: perspective.

Thank you to all the brave adoptees who continue to speak about their experiences so that others can understand. Thank you, Angela Tucker. And thank you, thank you, those who listen. Sometimes that can be hard to do, but it is the right thing to do, and it is worth it. #FlipTheScript


  1. Thank your for this beautiful post and thank you lending your voice to #FlipTheScript. I always enjoy hearing about your wonderful, loving family. Wishing you and your family, blood and adoptive, Happy Holidays!

    1. Thank you, Robin. Happy Holidays to you and yours as well :)

  2. Dear Jenn,
    Thank you for sharing your gift once again. I am a very visual person, so to have your mother's story in front of me was a tremendous help I think of your mother quite often as I do with all of your family. What a special gift you all are to our family and I am blessed to know you all. I will continue to pray for all of you.

    Love, cousin Ann

  3. Thanks, cousin Ann. Blessed to know you too!

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