Tag Archives: definition for birthmother

Who is the Mother?

CathyKate_7-4-89The word “birthmother” triggers shame, sadness, regret and loss in me. It is not a moniker I like. It is the word in our vernacular for mothers who have lost their children to adoption. I have surrendered to its use but experience its usage as a painful burr that continues to rub my wound. It’s implication is demeaning and implies a breeding animal, not a mother. Still, it’s the word people seem to understand without further explanation, so I use it.

In our last post, the words in my title, “A Birthmother’s Perspective,” provoked a response from social researcher, Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, whose research, education and inquiry into the period of American history known as the “Baby Scoop Era” (1945-1972) is extensive. My daughter, Cathy, was born in 1971.

Ms. Wilson-Buterbaugh wrote a paper that helps us understand the etymology of adoption language called “Whitewashing Adoption: A Critique of “Respectful Adoption Language.”

I answered Karen’s response to my use of “birthmother” to ask what term she would use. This (in part) was her reply…

“Adoption literature always referred to mothers as natural mothers. Of course back then we were also “unwed” mothers so they still tried to oppress us most mostly in public writings. In academic publications they used “natural” because that is who and what we are. We are mothers by Nature.

Then Pearl S. Buck coined the term “birth” for mothers. I found this reference by her in a magazine in 1955 and then she used it again in 1956. She adopted. She and Marietta Spencer, a well known adoption worker were friends so it is assumed that Spencer took that term and ran with it. Now the Indu$try uses it to further oppress and marginalize mothers who create life but who aren’t given their civil and natural rights to keep and raise their own children but who instead are coerced into surrendering them.

The birth prefix is offensive and demeaning. It is labeling. It is used to keep vulnerable mothers “in their place” by those with more money and power.

We, who were robbed of keeping our babies, are now reclaiming our MOTHERhood. We are MOTHERS. Those who should have a prefix are stepmothers, Godmothers and adoptive ones.

www.babyscoopera.com

What’s in a word? Everything.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Advertisements

Writing Apart

When we write together, Cathy is there across the table from me and responsive. We get to joke and puzzle for answers to the odd and interesting questions that arise between us. She calls me by my name and it feels normal that we are together. We enjoy each other while we work and write. She accepts my affection with smiles.

When we write apart, Cathy is invisible and remote. I can’t see her or hear her. Long awaited emails she sends me don’t usually include my name and never, ever sign off with any words of affection.

The ghost I was in my invisible role as first mother before we met again comes back to haunt me with the truth of what is felt but can’t be seen.

I fight the ghost back by making phone calls, sending affectionate emails, wondering about my grandsons and asking about how my daughter is faring in her life. My visibility wins over the ghost but does not penetrate the object of my heart.

Cathy does not hear me when I am away. My words roll off her like water trickling down the side of a rock. Even when I lived ten blocks from her house, I was a world apart.

Perhaps to her it feels close, even in all this distance, as I travel leagues between us.

My job is to love her unconditionally. Her job is to be a child in the world on her path of discovery and fulfillment for the potential of her life.

So I pray…and write…and hope… that it won’t be long before we get to write across the table again.

Then I can call her name and she will lift her eyes to mine in answer.

There is no ghost when we are together.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Precious Things – Part 2

Email response to Cathy (link to Cathy’s blog)

Hi Cathy,

You’re welcome to do whatever you’d like with the pens. They are a gift and intended to make you happy – however that works best. Being “just yours” was just a fantasy in the context of all you do for everybody else. I love the image of the three of you drawing together. All that you wrote about it here was lovely.

I don’t relate to it as a blog topic because I, too, was raised that everything is shared – with so many siblings that may be what turned me into wanting something that’s mine alone – so I don’t see a parallel that will be any different – the reason had more to do with honoring your desire to have them.

So I’m not sure how to tango and would love a different topic to consider.

I love your thoughts around it all and feel your response is so loving – we’re both glad for the joy it brings you and your comments are full of the loving person and mother you are.

Your email was amazing to read. Thank you for your beautiful explanation. You’re such a good writer, Cathy! I love you. ~kate

Next email (Kate to Cathy)…

Well, now I’m streaming in thoughts from your idea.

I guess another take is that “Precious Things” might relate to other things too – like the cape – that I don’t wish to discuss publicly because they are precious and the dilemma doesn’t feel like one that belongs to the public when it’s unresolved between us.

Still, there’s a lot of interesting fodder in what you say.

Send me your thoughts. If we can find a place to point to the dialogue, I’ll be game but it’s sensitive territory so I’d rather express it with you first and then decide.

The pens were simple – we’re broke, you’re precious and it was a sacrifice to buy them and a labor of love with an invisible touch of O’Henry. Maybe the difference would be seen as your parents had money and currently we don’t – I don’t want to get into a class difference or seem petty or stingy or pathetic.

So what is it about? Possession vs. Relinquishment? The have’s and the have-not’s? the sensitive and the insensitive? The caring and uncaring? What’s mine? What is valued as a gift? Does reception of a gift reflect the value of the giver as well as the receiver? Hmm.

Let me know if you want to pursue this. I’ll continue to chew on it. You may have struck an interesting chord.

I love you, Cathy. You’re response was beautiful (and you are a rascal!) ~kate

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

Precious Things – Part 1

The following is (one of two parts) an email exchange between Cathy and Kate this week that relates to the reception and disemination of Cathy’s birthday gift; the meaning of meaning of the gift – distortion clarified and the revelation of threads from differing origins … (please click to ReunionEyes blog  for Cathy’s response…) This set of two blogs, part 1 & 2, will be parallel blogs – call & response emails to issues that arose around birthday love. Happy birthday, Cathy! 41 years ago today, I was in labor to deliver – born April 16th.

Hi Cathy,

Everything was so busy this morning. When we gave you your birthday gift of art pens, we had wanted to present them with the caveat that they are only for you – not the kids. This isn’t because we’re stingy but because you are special and they are high end art pens (expensive) and we took an hour picking them out for you. We didn’t want to interfere when you so gently and magnaminously let Quinn and Reed rip into them but they have their special art pens and now this was for you.

Being two humble artists who are sweating for every dollar we make to pay our way – we wanted to give you (who deliberately is not buying maple syrup or parmesan reggiano) something you really wanted for your birthday and something you wouldn’t go out and just get for yourself because it’s too spendy.

We’d be happy to bring the boys more art supplies but if you could hold your art present from us for your exclusive enjoyment, that would mean a lot to us. It was intended to be a meaningful gift (and the kids can get their expensive pens when it’s their time 🙂

I hope this doesn’t dampen the joy your gift was intended to give you. We love you very much and are big fans of your artistic side.

Happy birthday!

I love you.

Always,

Kate

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

Flashback

Kate at 4After a couple of trains to Portland in the past month, it was Cathy’s turn to take the train north to Olympia to write together this past weekend.  A blog about what happens when we write is this week’s focus. To talk about writing and to re-experience the issues we write about are two different conversations.

The former has to do with the unusual process we devised early on to share topics but not our content with each other. So far, that has given us the freedom to speak honestly and it has lent an element of trust that brings us close together.

Our secrecy surrounding our writing with each other also has given us permission not to talk about the things we write about. The fallout from what we don’t say remains to be felt when we share it all. There’s a good chance we will need some extra care and guidance once we finish to share what it is we’ve created.

What an unusual pact we’ve made! It is an act of trust – to say what is true for each of us in spite of the impact it may have. It scares me to think about reading about ways I have disappointed her. We have based the work of the past eight years on our personal truth. “The truth shall set you free.” The truth is what we perceive it to be and that means there will be flaws in the story that rise to the surface to self-correct as we speak from two directions. The intrigue has become part of the story.

Sometimes the actual experience of writing ambushes us by waking up subliminal unrest and moving us in unexpected ways that tells each of us that even though we have talked about our relationship a great deal over the years, we are still in the thick of experiencing it with all the consequences of our separation and reunion; who we were, who we are, and who we’ve become – to ourselves, to our families and to one another. Our relationship is part of our connection and disconnection with the world around us.

A good example from my side is a small but significant event that occurred last summer at a writers retreat called Fishtrap. I’ve been on the advisory board, presented on panels and taught songwriting at the Fishtrap writer retreats over the past ten years. It is a place I consider a harbor as a writer. I have written some of my best songs there, including “Travis John” “Before You Go” and “Wallowa”.

Cathy and I read from our book for the first time at last summer’s Fishtrap. Cathy was sequestered in a car away from the building while I read. Conversely, I sat in the car while she followed my reading with hers. The audience was the first group to ever hear us read our separate sides to the same chapter. As they listened, they integrated the collective truth that rose from our four-minute excerpts expressed in our own voices from our mutual story.

When I came back into the lodge after Cathy’s reading, I was struck by the feeling in the room and the faces visibly moved by our story. Comments of enthusiastic support rallied around us and we were encouraged to finish the book and get it out into the world. We had crossed a threshold by sharing our words out loud and in public. It was a big moment for us. Victorious. A first.

The next day I approached a publisher at the retreat to ask about finding an agent. I was nervous because this is one publisher I had hoped to send our book proposal to. I had broached our project with him a few years before. At the time, he had said, “Let me see it when you’re ready” and his words stayed with me as we worked and wrote. Now that I was bringing it to him, I introduced Cathy and told him where we were in our process.

What I thought happened next and what Cathy saw happen were two different things.

I thought I was presenting my daughter and our book to him. His response was that our subject was not something his company was interested in. I retreated to make room for the buzzing circle of writers waiting to approach him. My guts felt tight and I held my breath with an odd sense of relief for having tried. Rejection is something writers are supposed to expect and get used to. This was the first.

What Cathy saw was me poking the publisher with aggressive body language that told him about our book project as though he couldn’t have it, that it belonged to us and that there was no way I was going to give him our book. She was confused.

That five-minute interlude turned into a conversation that went on for hours between Cathy and I in front of her tent up the hill from the lodge, watered by tears so deep I couldn’t stop.  My daughter watched me with a serious face and listened to sobs of loss bound up inside her first mother, as they loosened into a river, undiluted by the passing of forty years. I tried to explain myself but knew I was in over my head. I didn’t know how to let go of this.

I was confused. I had no idea I had came off as a bully rather than the friendly herald I thought I was announcing readiness to share our book. Instead, my conversation was seen as aggressive and defensive, as though to prevent our book from being taken by this powerful publisher who could deliver it to the world. I had made a stand, he rejected it and I rejected him. What was happening?

I didn’t want them to take my baby. This was not about Cathy writing a book with me, it was about me giving her up and getting her back and now that book was getting closer to completion, I was giving her up again. The book was the baby. It was a massive bit of transference. I tell myself this isn’t therapy; it’s a metaphor – an emotional artifact. My job is to gather the truth and simply to tell the story the best way I can, simply and as the narrator. Not so simple.

The truth is that the truth isn’t what I thought it was. I thought I was trying to write a story of events as they happened. Instead, I find myself holding on to the baby in the story with my life – and this time, with everything defined and embodied in words, as if she would stay with me – I wasn’t going to let her go anywhere but where she belonged, with me.  The old sorrow takes the baby back again and again as though the story never happened or needed to be told.

I don’t know if I’ve ever lived out a metaphor like this before. Now I wonder if what I think I’m doing may only be a front for what I wish to do; to know her, to love her and to let her go to be part of the world – this time in a world we share to the end. It’s my job to finish my side of the story. The ending will take care of itself.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, go to ReunionEyes.

Cathy’s Birthday

Today is the first day of Spring. The bunch of crocus off the back kitchen stoop sign “hallelujah!” from thawing ground as yellow stars tip long skinny branches of an old forsythia in back of the shed. Arbiters of warmer weather tickle a wily charge out of nowhere to jumpstart my low mood with possibilities in spite of one raw rainyass afternoon. The flowers wear their colors proudly, bellwethers of sunshine to come after months of wet weather in the rainforest.

Memories seep under the surface like an incoming tide overrunning the shore with fishes from deeper places once thought to be extinct. When the tide and light is right their shapes shift between light and darkness, air above, water below, rampant reflections blinding definition as movements tease my eyes into focus, lost again when I look away.

I sit back up in my seat and roll my shoulders to shake the past back to “before” and resume. Circumstances range the lines of my face caught sideways in the mirror across from my desk. Laugh lines counter the child I once was, now hidden far behind the face of an old lady.

If I had known then what I know now, my life might have been different. For better or for worse, who’s to say? I do know that someday my grandchildren will need to understand the role I played in the family story. As they grow from toddlers to teens, questions of where they came from will rise and curiosity will need answers. I am determined to love them freely now before I scramble to unhook the chains of regret hung across my heart. My story will shape karma in their lives. As I keep praying for happy endings, they will be working through what remains unfinished and it will be them, not me, who determine how the story turns out. My job is to be true and to give them love that is sound and good.

When Cathy’s adoptive parents came to visit years ago, I asked her mother if she had any pictures of Cathy’s childhood that she could share with me. It was an innocent request and Dottie’s response was “Of course. I’ll bring them next time.”

On their next visit that following Christmas, she handed me a wax envelope filled with a dozen pictures of Cathy in her childhood. I gasped with the prospect of seeing what I had never been allowed to see before. Except for two pictures Sr. Alice sent me of Cathy when Cathy was 4 and 6 years old, I had never seen pictures of my daughter as a child. Dottie and I sat down on my living room couch and she recounted each photo in a gentle, matter of fact voice.

“This is Cathy’s christening picture” (Cathy’s a baby is in a perfect white taffeta baptismal gown with satin ribbon, holding her mother’s finger with her chubby hand.)

“Here is one on her first birthday” (the identical feminine of my grandson, Quinn with a paper cone birthday hat tied under her chin and sitting in her chrome throne high chair – Cathy points her finger at the birthday cake with the candle lit to wish on top.)

“These are from her tap dancing class at dance school when she was eight.” (four small portraits in dance costume… Cathy looks so much like I did at that age – her hair is auburn, thick and wavy – her smile is warm, bright and wholesome under a headband adorned with a red and white feathers to match her showgirl outfit trimmed with pearls and bow-tied tap shoes. Her smile is radiant as she poses in long over-the-elbows fingerless red gloves.)

“This is Cathy’s 8th birthday. (Cathy looks a little pale as she blows into a party favor, a top heavy blue corsage hangs on her flowered blouse at a table set for guests with birthday hats, plates and paper cups lined up around her birthday cake.)

“This is her First Holy Communion from that same year” (a tiara-veiled beauty in white holding a sweet bouquet of daisies as she stands in front of the gold-embroidered “Alleluia” background draped behind her.)

“And another communion picture…(It’s 1979. Cathy smiles standing in front of the cake with her mother’s hands resting on her shoulders she looks into the camera with confidence, ready to cut the white sheet cake with two little statues of a child being blessed by Jesus and “God Bless Cathy” scrolled in yellow script.)

“School picture, age 9.” (round cheeks have thinned from little girl to young girl.)

The next picture is a school picture – she looks around eleven with braces, feminine lavender blouse with a high collar. I wonder if she’s started biting her nails – her nails so short on poised hands posed for the portrait.

Then she’s thirteen and looks like she may be getting ready to go to a school dance as she sits on a patio chair in a pink skirt and pink sweater patterned with white hearts under a double strand of pearls. A peanut butter sandwich and a plastic mug of milk rest on a red and white-checkered tablecloth. Everything looks so normal.

Next she’s in her cheerleader uniform with “Captain Cathy” embroidered on her jacket and her hands in her pockets standing in front of an autumnal living room fire. Her face is in the shape of a heart and her smile is serene – so lovely.

Then high school pictures followed stylish blonde-colored hair, more prominent makeup, proms with boyfriends and high school and, finally, high school graduation.

To see her framed in snapshots over various stages of her development of the life she had lived without me had an unexpected effect.

I thanked Dottie for the pictures and carefully put them back in the wax envelope. I brought them upstairs to my bedroom and tucked them deep in the back of my writing drawer and made a mental note not to forget where I put them before I closed the drawer, turned and went back downstairs to finish making Christmas dinner for all of us.

It had been a generous gift for Dottie to share those pictures with me. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful as they opened up a volcanic pile of emotion that I kept forgetting lived behind my sunny disposition. Vapors of feeling steamed at my seams and I felt the volcano getting hot. My heart was racing and I practiced a smile to break the tension in my face. I took a breath and forced myself to forget about it for now and shifted my focus on the turkey in the oven, refilling drinks and passing hors d’oeuvres around the room.

I took out the pictures today to look at them for the first time since that Christmas almost ten years ago. The wax envelope has yellowed to a dry crinkle. In a couple of weeks Cathy will turn another birthday. She’s coming up on the train to write with me this weekend. Maybe we’ll celebrate early.

Maybe I will get to bake her a cake this time. We’ve had a few birthday cakes together now. She’s due for one. I’ll sing her happy birthday on my ukulele. My heart is grateful for all the cakes her mother baked and for the gift in turn that I may do the same. That we both love her and call her “my child” is an enigma of a mother’s heart, first and last.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

Forty Years Later Letter

Dear brothers and sisters – Stephen Joseph, Michael Francis, Brian Frederick, Mary Ellen, Kevin John, Deborah Marie & Regina Marie,

I am writing you today as your sister. I need to tell you some things and share a part of myself that got sideswiped when we were all still together – a part I never really recovered with you. It affected Mom and Dad, too but that’s a different letter that needs to be written another day. They did the best they could.

I want to tell you some things – complicated things – but before I do, I want to tell you that I love each one of you for being my brothers and sisters. Even Johnny, who left us by accident before most of us were born, is counted – the one who took on the mantle as the family guardian angel as our first brother and was the first one of us. Even though he was gone, Johnny was always there as part of my first memory – I was the next one born after he left. He was a part of the family fabric as first son, as though he was standing right there. He was looking after us from heaven, as Mom always said. No matter what we were doing, where we were or how we needed him, he was there – checking in. I felt his oversight when I came out of brain surgery. I knew it was him and that he was there with me – guiding the doctor’s hands, making sure I was okay when I woke up. Dad was there by my bed, my head all wrapped in gauze. I think he felt him too.

I just wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I couldn’t share Cathy’s birth with you. I know now that she, like Johnny, was a presence in our family – invisibly but palpably – not only for me, who grew, felt and watched her grow from my secret belly, but for you, too – each of you, who knew without saying or telling that news of Cathy was missing from the table.

If Mom and Dad had folded the indiscretion and Cathy’s existence into our unfolding cast of characters in the family story, chances are that none of us,  and least of all me, would have been able to let her go.

I’m sorry for the loss of Cathy in your lives right from the beginning. Gaining these past twenty-two years between Cathy and me since she turned eighteen has been a gift beyond hope. Thank you for loving her now, even in the limited ways to be found – and for loving me anyway, besides and always. I love you too. I feel you inside the beat of my heart when I say “my brothers and sisters.” We learned love as a family. I do love you.

Your sister,

Kathleen Mary

To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Language for Invisible People

One challenge of life-in-reunion is finding language that supports it.  Adoptees become the usual “daughter” or “son” after the initial “adopted” child fades to becoming simply “the child” of their parents – adopted or otherwise.  The parents are considered the “adoptive parents” socially at first and then that term is dropped to “parents” by the time the child comes of age unless there is a conspicuous reason to include it.  “Adoptive parents” become “parents” and “birthmother” disappears to become an historic reference – a woman who’s name and true story remains veiled behind the faceless storybook role she plays to produce the consequence of her decisions in the form of a child. Of course, the generation when my daughter was born preceded open adoption.  From discussions with members of triads (birthparent, adoptive parent, child) involved in open adoption, I wonder if the gap has closed much or whether it remains enigmatic.  My gut says it’s still a can of worms.

The word  “birthmother” was coined a few years ago to define the role I am in.  The definition can be found in the medical or law dictionary but it’s not to be found in standard dictionaries. If you google a dictionary online, it comes up short – no results.  Dictionaries that do include the word “birthmother” define it as “a biological mother.”  That sounds like a word for a breeder. It has a clinical ring to it. I am not a breeder.  I’m a conscious person living an intentional life who became unintentionally pregnant at an early age.

When I am introduced by Cathy as her birthmother, it is because she needs to differentiate between her adoptive “real” mother and me, her “unreal” mother.  It’s a painful setup for me but I am powerless to change it. I bear the consequences of my decision and becoming nameless is one among many.

Words are important in our society.  Without a name, it does not exist. So for now, this is a word I need to embrace no matter how it makes me feel.  There is no satisfying word she can use that protects me from the loss of my limb, the child I brought to bear.  I am part of a paradox that includes and excludes me from the definition of the word “mother.” Even my child takes an explicitly matter-of-fact stance on whether the “M” word is one that I have her permission to use. I do not. So it goes.

When I introduce Cathy to people, it is as my daughter and she’s okay with that.  I’m glad. I am grateful to use the word “daughter” for my first child, the baby I bore unable to raise.

The possessive “my” before “daughter” looks innocent enough. In reality, that two-lettered word is loaded with contradiction for any mother who has relinquished a child.  Papers with my signature lay buried in a file cabinet somewhere in New Jersey as proof of a dispossessed child and any claim I ever had on her. For eighteen years I didn’t know if she was still alive while her real “mother” watched her grow by day and night, one year after the next.

Now we have been in reunion for twenty-two years.  It is a relationship lined with familial aspects of mother and daughter.  It is also a relationship that bars me from using that word out loud.  Ever. Our relationship is defined somewhere between yes and no, visible and invisible, possessive and dispossessed, a word and a wordless place.

There is a body of layers – physical, emotional, spiritual – between my role and our connection.  There may never be a word for me that answers the heart between vanquished mother and reunited mother. Maybe having the word doesn’t matter as much as what we are saying to each other and who we are being with and for each other.  There is no one like me.  There is no one like her.  We are unique in our bond and words cannot break or bind it – words can define or distract but in the end they are only words.

On the outside, I am cool and collected.  Nonplussed and immovable. When I get flustered, I remember that what we have is an unusual and remarkable gift. If I take it for granted enough to get annoyed, all I have to remember is what it was like when I didn’t know where she was, what she looked like or how life was treating her.  To know these things is nothing short of a miracle for me – no matter what I am called or not – and I hold on to that knowledge like fine gold. Our connection makes me much more than a breeder and less a nameless mother under indictment.

There is love between us.  It’s a love that belongs to us. We get to share this love with family, friends and deep community who share our lives in Portland.  “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  … I will care, watch, listen, tune in, pray, sing and wait.  My mother heart beats blood we share.  If the perfect moniker is to be discovered for who I am to my daughter, it will merely be a word for what is already there.
~~~~~~
To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.