Maggie A's Meanderings




 Aug 9, 2015

Adoption Stories -- Right and Wrong

After I saw the movie Philomena, I had to look up the story behind it. Surely, it had to be exaggerated. Irish nuns forcing unwed mothers into indentured servitude? Three years spent in forced labor to "pay back" the cost of having their babies? Mothers spending those years with their babies only to have the babies sold to whatever Catholic family could pay for them? Then a cover-up that involved destroying records and worse --- knowingly lying to people who came searching for their family? Lying to a dying man not telling him his mother had been looking for him, then lying to the mother not telling her her son was buried there? So I looked up the story and, almost unbelievably, it wasn't exaggerated. All that happened.

I was emailing a friend about the true story of Philomena, and I got a reply back from him about his nephew and niece who were adopted in the early 1960s. (
The baby in Philomena was adopted around 1955.) When my friend's brother and wife couldn't have children, they went overseas to an orphanage operated by nuns. As they were Puerto Rican they went not to an Irish orphanage, but to a Spanish orphanage in Madrid. For a six figure sum, he had arranged to adopt one boy. (I sincerely hope that six figures was in pesetas, not dollars. But 100,000 [the minimum possible six figures] in pesetas was still almost 2000 U.S. dollars at a time.) While at the orphanage, the brother saw another child, a girl, and for an additional sum he was allowed to bring home the girl as well. My friend called it a "donation," but I told him donations are voluntary. If you don't get the goods without handing over the cash, it's a payment. The brother tried to find out something about the children's backgrounds, but the nuns wouldn't tell him anything. When my friend emailed me the story, he said it was happy memories, but after Philomena I couldn't help but wonder if it was a happy story for those mothers? And had those two children, now grown, tried to find out anything about their birth parents only to be stonewalled by the nuns?

Now it doesn't take nuns to screw up an adoption. When I was a child, an older teenage friend of mine got pregnant. It was the 1970s and teen pregnancy was common. At least it was when I went to high school. I know one girl who had two babies before she graduated and there was one family of girls where every year I'd wonder which one of them was going to get pregnant this year. I don't know what discussions happened with my friend after the baby was born, but eventually it was decided that her parents would adopt the baby boy. Now everyone in their social circle knew that it was the daughter who had given birth. And I mean everyone. The family, including the children in the family, the neighbors, the friends, everyone knew except the boy himself. Because, stupidly, the parents never bothered to tell the boy he was adopted, much less tell him that his "sister" was his birth mother. To this day, I don't know what the parents were thinking. In terms of idiotic decisions, that one's up there. Even as a child myself, I knew it was stupid*. As everybody knew, how on Earth those parents thought that no one would ever talk was beyond me. I could understand you can't tell him when he was baby, but once he was older he should have at least been told he was adopted. Yet year after year went by and they never told him he was adopted, much less told him who his birth mother was. I guess the boy was 10 or 12 years old when he found out. (Sorry I can't be more exact. It was an incredibly memorable event in his life. It was not so memorable in mine. To me it was just, "Oh, so he finally found out. It was bound to happen.") And the boy found out in the worst way possible. He overheard two relatives ---- both kids his age or even younger (so I was given the impression) ---- talking about how he was adopted and about how his sister was his mother. So not only did he find out he was adopted (which he didn't believe until after he asked his parents), he found out this woman he'd thought of as his sister was actually his birth mother and, to top it off, he simultaneously found out that everyone, even other children, knew it while he didn't. What degree of betrayal and humiliation does that qualify as? All his life he went around thinking he was his parents' youngest child --- and was raised like an only child as he was the only remaining child in the house ---- to discover that he's adopted and, biologically, his parents are his grandparents which every one else knew but him. I don't think it did any good for him or the family dynamics as the parents who were already spoiling him (more like grandparents than parents), proceeded to spoil him even more out of what I figured was guilt.

Now after those stories of adoptions done wrong, it's nice to know that adoption could be done right.
I have a dear friend who adopted her oldest child from nuns in 1961. It was from St. Andre's Home for Unwed Mothers in Maine and having learned how the Irish nuns and Spanish nuns of that time period handled adoption, it makes the story of my friend's son's adoption through Maine nuns even more remarkable. There was no exorbitant fee. They paid St. Andre's just $200 (compared to the Spanish nuns who charged almost 10 times that amount). My friend told me she couldn't believe how cheap it was and mentioned they paid more for the lawyer they hired to handle the adoption. (The lawyer charged them $300.) The nuns emphasized strongly that they shouldn't hide the adoption. From the beginning they should be open with family, friends and neighbors telling them the baby was adopted and, as soon as he was old enough to understand, tell the child he was adopted so he would grow-up knowing it. So when a friend of the child mentioned to him that he was adopted, the boy's reply was simply, "I know." (Contrast that with the boy in the previous paragraph.) This lack of secrecy wasn't just with the adopted family. Because most remarkable when you compare it to the other nun adoption stories from back then was that this group of nuns had the birth mother write a letter to the baby. When the boy was in high school, he got the letter from his birth mother explaining why she gave him up. She was divorced, already had two children she was struggling to care for and had gotten pregnant by a married man in a very brief relationship. So she did the best thing she thought she could for him and that was to give him to someone who could care for him. And that information was sufficient for a long time. Eventually as middle age arrived along with health problems, the adopted man wanted to know more about his birth family history. Coincidentally, the birth mother had just told her children about the baby she gave up for adoption. When the birth sister and the man both contacted St. Andre's at about the same time, St. Andre's didn't block these people who were trying to find one another. St. Andre's didn't claim privacy or destroyed records or lie to them. St. Andre's connected them. And so the man who had been given up for adoption got to meet the family who never knew he existed.

It's natural that adopted children have curiosity about their origins. Nowadays in a lot of adoptions that's something accepted and planned for. Decades ago many adoptions did not allow for this. Their attitude was one of complete secrecy then and now ------ shockingly even to the point of lying. Knowing the story of my friend's adoption of her child, I just had to tell about a group of nuns and a family that got it right............who understood the special requirements of an adopted child and put those child's needs first.

nun with baby

* As a child, I was convinced adults were stupid. Certainly the adults around me gave me plenty of evidence. Believing adults are stupid when you're a child is a common phase --- I think all American kids go through it. What's supposed to happen is you grow up and realize that the adults really weren't stupid after all. However, I grew up, look back at the adult actions around me.................and still think they were effing stupid.

For more about adoption, read "Reasons for Adopting a Baby Via Foster Care."

For more my take on childrearing, there's "When You Think God's Light Shines Out of Your Kid's Asshole.........You're Raising a Brat (And Why It's Not Doing Your Kid Any Favors)," "Truly Odd Parents: Parents Who Take a Hard Job and Make It Harder" and "The Importance of Being Bored (in Childrearing)."

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