06 September 2010

Considering Origins

I usually love the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine.  No surprise that someone who blogs--no matter how slowly or sporadically--likes personal essays that offer brief glimpses of other people's lives.  Yesterday's column deals with adoption, as an adoptive, lesbian mother listens to her five-year old son begin to make sense of his own story.
To Molly  and me, our children are so completely ours it feels impossible that anyone else had anything to do with them. But for Jonah, who knows? Some would say, for example, that it was the hand of God that saved his namesake, the original Jonah, from the belly of the whale; others, that it was luck that caused the beast to spit him out.
So here I am in the bed with our youngest boy, telling him the truth as I see it: “Some babies come out of their mommies, and some come through other bodies to get to their mommies. My body couldn’t make babies, so we had to find another way to get you here.” I’ve told him this before, but the story no longer satisfies the way it once did. He may be only 5, but it’s time for Jonah to begin making his own version of the narrative.

These aren't the conversations that happen around our house.  Politica and I started telling Curious Girl her adoption story---her birth story--her early story--even before she could talk to us.  (This was handy, as it let us practice all kinds of explanations! and it let us try out different stories, as we practiced putting words to what we know, and practiced forming questions we thought she might have.)  Politica and I wrote a life book for CG sometime during the time she was 1 and 2 and a half, and that was another opportunity for us to pull together the past for her.  But always, we looked at our roles as trustees for her story.  There's so very much we don't know, but we have tried to give her one kind of narrative about how she came into the world, and then later into our lives, so that she could get started telling her own story.

I understand the fierceness of her love for her children; I can't imagine my life without Curious Girl.  At the same time, I don't understand the language of possession: do I consider Curious Girl wholly mine?  Not in the least. Do I consider myself wholly a mother, and she wholly my daughter?  Yes.  At the same time, she's wholly herself, her own person.  She's wholly Politica's daughter.  And also, always, wholly her birthmother's daughter.  I'm (one of) the mother(s) day in, day out, the person who helps get her ready for school and takes her on rides and gets her to try oven-roasted tomatoes ("These are really good, Mama!  They are delicious!  They looked disgusting, but they are great!").  But then, day in, day out, there's another woman, miles away, perhaps with CG's eyes, or hair, or build, who brought CG into the world and holds the ties to her past.  CG belongs, really, to none of us, but it's through all of us that she'll move into the future she claims.

The Lives column reports just one conversation.  I don't know, of course, what other conversations Melanie Braverman and her family have had about adoption.  Braverman's two sons have a sister, adopted by another family they know.  That girl "plays a starring role" in their house, so it's clear that there was ways in which their notion of family includes the rich complications of her sons' past.   But why can’t those conversations include, more easily, conversation about her sons’ first parents?  She says that her sons were never much interested in their birth stories—but it’s hard to be interested in something you’ve never heard.

The birth mothers (and fathers) of children placed for adoption are more than just transport mechanisms to get children to their (real) parents.  For all that I can’t imagine my life without Curious Girl, I can’t imagine that massive social problems are ordained by the universe in order to bring CG to us.  It’s a weird thing to ponder, I’ll grant you, the vagaries that have formed this family of mine, and CG has recently started to wonder about that, too.  “What if you got another baby instead of me, Mama?  Would I have stayed in the orphanage?”  or “What if some other family adopted me?”  And she wonders, too, what it would be like to be living with her birth parents.

Braverman says her son is now ready “to make his own version of the narrative” of his own life.  On this point, we agree: our children will tell their own stories, making sense of their lives.  I hope CG makes sense of her life, knowing that Politica and I respect the people who brought her into this world, that our love for her is a safety net, ready to catch her when she needs it, that over the course of her life she’ll probably imagine many, many versions of her life story, and that the ability to tell her own story is what makes her her own person.  She’s not mine alone to hold, and in loving her, I hold her in the messy complexities of a loving adoptive family.


Arwen said...

My kids aren't completely mine, either. I think we're entrusted with the caretaking of people completely their own.

kathy a. said...

you and politica have given so much deep thought to CG, her background, her story. the respect you have for her and for her birth mother speak well for the way CG will view the world.

i agree with your and arwen's view that our children are not possesions or extensions of us, however they came to our care. we do the best we are able, to nurture and support them, let them grow into themselves. our choices at a given time may not be ideal, since we are human, but hopefully love and respect and trying will do the job well enough.

some stories are going to be more challenging, in many if not most families. you have approached CG's adoption story with such care and caring.

Jody said...

I was pretty creeped out by the language of "passing through" the birth mother's body to get to the adoptive mothers -- I've just spent too much time here, at Dawn's, at Lisa V's, to find that ANY kind of comfortable. I know it's pretty typical thinking, and it doesn't matter whether _I'm_ OK with their narrative or not, but I was just ... icked out.

That's the formal, thoughtful term for it, I guess.

slouchy said...

i so agree. our children are not ours, as possessions. we are merely lucky to be entrusted with them as they become more and more themselves.