The reunions are always tearful, the regrets enormous. "Birth mothers" describe decades of worry and sorrow; their children, grown, newly found, say that not knowing who their birth parents were has been a gaping wound in their lives.
This isn't one of those stories.
I've seen them, read them, and realized, with both relief and a touch of puzzlement that although I’ve shared the experience, I haven't shared the pain. It may prevent regrets to be built, as I seem to be, without a rear-view mirror. My natural mode is to make the best choice I can at any given moment and to not focus on the choices behind me, wise or foolish. They can't be undone, but the next move can be chosen. What is it to be?
Getting pregnant when I was still a student was no doubt foolish, but giving my son for adoption was wise, the right choice for the time. I was in no position to raise an "illegitimate" child in '50s America and there were couples-- well-established, older couples--who were desperate to raise children, ready and able to love and provide for those children, once they were legitimized by adoption.
Illegitimacy is a bizarre concept to me, a stunning manifestation of human hubris. An infant, wonder of wonders, arrives in the world and some construct of our prideful, rule-making culture declares this particular child less-than, extra-legal, flawed because his parents were not united by the civic and religious constructs we've invented.
Somewhere in even the most rule-bound heart, it must be clear that this is demented. Life given should be life welcomed. But that thinking was not the prevailing wisdom in 1954. The "right thing" had to be done, the family honor protected from fierce assault by society, my father's career in the navy not jeopardized by scandal, and the child sheltered from the awful consequences of his unsanctioned birth.
My mother knew instinctively that the man-made rules made no sense, telling me after her first grandchild was on his way to placement in another household, "We should have kept the little guy, and the hell with the neighbors." In a more compassionate, less rigid world, yes, we surely should have.
But that was not the real world of the time. Girls "went away to school" in another city or went off to assist an aging relative for awhile, leaving before they were visibly pregnant, not returning until all evidence was gone and their babies were sealed off behind impenetrable barriers of laws and documents, never to be seen again. Abortions were illegal but common, the time loss for the girl in question only a weekend, unless back-alley sepsis killed her. If you had enough money, there were costly, safe alternatives--"Ohwe all went to Havana. There was a wonderful doctor there ..."
I took the long detour, leaving college, disappearing into a country house where an ancient, disapproving auntie hid me from the world as I grew condemnably gravid. When I had to make appearances at the obstetrician's office, I wore a wedding ring, used a false name. For the birth, I was a "navy wife," her husband away at sea. A college chum posed as that missing mariner, filling my room with flowers and telegrams. My parents, troopers both, visited and pretended to be happy new grandparents. And then we drove to a country crossroads where I handed my blue-blanketed bundle to a kind social worker named Liz who took him away, to his unknown future. And I went on to mine, eventually finishing college, working, marrying, raising the kids society said I could keep.
There's no way I can account for the deep confidence that kept me from agonizing over the infant I'd named Michael, wanting him to have an archangel's protection. I simply knew in my bones that he was alive and well, a good man living a good life. Somewhere. Iknew. Not in my head--my mind tweaked me often, challenging that serenity with unanswerable questions: What if he'd been given to terrible people? What if he'd caught an awful disease or been in an accident? Standing in front of the Viet Nam Wall, the question was, What if he was drafted near the end of the war and his name is here?
I had no way of being sure, either way--I didn't know his name.
On a weekday afternoon in the mid-1980s I was home from work with the flu, watching television interviews with adoptees who spoke of their deep need to know their roots. The Oprah Show put up a card for a registry in New York that was connecting people who had lost each other. Michael might be like the adoptees I was seeing, needing to know more of who he was; I sent for the forms. If he too registered, I would be able to tell him whatever he wanted to know.
When no man born in Portsmouth, Virginia on July 17, 1954 registered with the service, I took it to mean that Michael, like me, had no empty space that needed filling. His life was full and happy, as was mine. Or, said the nagging voice, he just never knew about that registry.
In the late 90s, when the Internet made all things possible, I started asking questions on an email list of people seeking lost relatives in Virginia. There were angels on that list, knowledgable people willing to coach others on the laws, to find state and agency records, to dispense encouragement. From my home on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, I had friendly eyes and hands back in Virginia.
The chink in the wall built to separate family members was medical histories. As more and more diseases turn out to have genetic origins, it's only right that adoptive parents know as much as possible about their child's medical inheritance. Michael might need to know what predispositions to illness he could be carrying, and passing on. When my brother and both our parents were diagnosed with macular degeneration, I knew I should warn Michael.
My family doctor wrote up notes on our medical history and sent it to the address my Virginia cyberfriends provided. The law, they told me, ensured that the information would have to be passed to Michael's mom and dad. Never mind that Michael was too old to still be living at home, the rules were that the information went to his parents--they might never have told him that he'd been adopted.
A soft-spoken social worker named Mary was soon on my phone. Was I free to talk? The circumspection of yesteryear--and rightly so. My husband had always known about Michael but Mary had surely made many a call into households where secrecy mattered.
She had opened a file on my "case," had forwarded the medical history to Michael's dad, and received a gracious letter asking her to thank me for being so considerate. He'd passed his son the information.
Michael was alive. It was a fine moment. And there was more. Without revealing any "identifying information," Mary told me that my son was a professional, married, and had two daughters.
It was more than I had ever expected to know. I had confirmation that he was alive and doing well; my assumption had been accurate. No more nagging questions. But I didn't stop--he might have questions, might be laboring under the weight of them, like the people in those stories of loss and reunion.
I sent the social worker a letter and photos to put in the file, all to be given to Michael should he ever ask to know more. Here are your grandparents, your brothers, a sister, your nieces and nephews--and the one in the straw hat is me, Ann Medlock, the woman who gave birth to you when she was a girl, the woman who can tell you whatever you would like to know about your beginnings.
"Men are much less likely to make contact than women are," Mary warned. "They worry about seeming disloyal to the mothers who raised them." But Michael's mom had died, which Mary thought might make it easier for him to reach out than for men whose mom's were still living and possibly disapproving. Adoptive parents had been promised secrecy and a deal was a deal. I could understand any reluctance to change the terms of the agreement.
And indeed Michael sent assurances, via Mary, that he was in good health and thanked me for my concern, but made no overture toward knowing more. A full two years later, his younger daughter developed a condition that my family had long dealt with. He asked Mary to find out as much as she could about his medical heritage.
After many cautious phone conversations with each of us, Mary told me that if we ever did meet, we were going to like each other "and that's not always the case, believe me." But still he had not agreed to contact, and had not asked to see the file where the names and faces of his kin were waiting.
My two sons and the daughter I'd adopted knew about Michael, but it seemed that they were unlikely to ever meet him. This man was firm on his feet, his life was working. He was the son of people who had raised him well. I left it there, delighted with everything that I had come to know.
Four years after the first mediated, anonymous contacts, on May 6, 2004, I was in South Carolina, where my mother had been diagnosed with metastasized kidney cancer. I was looking at x-rays of her right thigh bone, almost eaten through by the cancer. It was already in the bones of her chest, in her arms--it was everywhere, and moving fast. There was nothing to be done but wait for death and deal with her pain. I had to tell her and my father that she was going into hospice care.
It was my birthday. The worst one ever. But that afternoon a message reached me that Mary wanted me to call her right away. Michael had filed the required paperwork that would open his file and tell him who I was. She was sending documents for me to sign that would complete the process of making this breech of the old wall legal. It was a birthday I'm unlikely to ever forget.
On June 3 my mother died. And Mary called to give me Michael's name and address. He had read the file; he wanted to exchange letters.
There was no emotional room for processing this stunning news. My mother was dead. The sight of her exhausted, lifeless body filled every space in my being. I put a bowl of gardenias on the table beside her bed, lit beeswax candles, put oil from a vial of frankinsense on her forehead, promised her spirit that my brother and I would be sure Dad was well cared for.
Much too soon, the funeral director was there, with his black body bag and his gurney. As his van pulled away, the hospice nurse put several rings in my palm. I stared at them, saying nothing. "It's best not to leave jewelry ..." she tried to explain why she'd removed them from her patient's hand, not knowing that my silence was about more than holding my mother's wedding and engagement rings--I was also holding the wedding band I had bought to look married when I was carrying Michael.
I don't know why my mother had put it on--she'd never said a word about it--but she had worn it since I'd given Michael to Liz, the kind social worker, right into this last day of her life. And I had learned, this day, that Michael's name was Peter Newbould. I put the ring back on my hand, all these decades later.
On a dial-up line in that grief-stricken house, everyone asleep but me, I Googled the name and saw that he was a lobbyist in Washington for a national association of psychologists, and president of a neighborhood civic association in Alexandria. At Google Images a face appeared in horizontal segments on the maddeningly slow connection. Curly dark hair, a high forehead--not familiar--then Medlock eyebrows, Medlock-shaped blue eyes, a Medlock nose, mouth and chin. I was looking at myself in male form.
Ten days later, completely absorbed in moving my father into an apartment, packing up the accumulations of their lives, and closing their house, I found a Priority Mail package from Alexandria that had been in my parents' mailbox for several days. It held photos of Peter Newbould with a beautiful wife and daughters. His letter told me he'd worked on The Hill all of his career, for many years as chief of staff for a Congressman, one I'd long admired. He worked at the Democratic National Convention every four years. He read constantly, loved to write and to give speeches. He cared deeply about the health of democracy and about helping people with mental illnesses get the care they needed.
This was more than a physical family resemblance. I'd worked in Washington for a Senator and for the Democratic National Committee. I'd worked the national convention. I live inundated in books. I'm a writer. I give speeches on social activism. I started a nonprofit to foster more civic involvement by citizens. My friends are almost all social activists and psychotherapists--the ones who aren't writers.
He included an email address and I responded to his letter online. His reply was immediate and the exchanges were rapid, years of missing information volleying back and forth between our computer screens.
There was constant delight as the revelations unfolded--the largest one for me: his adoptive father was a submarine captain, career Navy. I'd asked Liz to place him with a Navy family because I wanted him to have the adventurous upbringing that I had had, moving from base to base, always learning new things. Liz had said absolutely not--the Navy was too small a world and we would be too likely to come upon each other. And she had done it anyway.
I was laughing-out-loud delighted and I tracked her down to tell her so. She'd risen to run the agency, had now retired, but she remembered us--me, my parents, Michael, and the Newboulds, a Navy couple in their thirties who had adopted another boy from her agency a few years before she gave them Michael.
In July, I flew to Washington to meet him, arriving at my Dupont Circle room to find yellow roses on the mantel, brought there by "a charming man wearing a Kerry for President button." The next day, I walked into the Willard Hotel in Washington for our lunch meeting. He'd arrived enough ahead of time to choose the perfect quiet table, was waiting, watching the entrance, after alerting the maitre'd that I'd be coming. It was good advance, as is said in the world of campaigning.
We hadn't heard each other's voices since I'd said goodbye when he was a week old and he had gurgled something back. Now I could say, "Happy birthday." He was fifty that day.
We talked for over four hours, both of us pleasant and tentative, taking in everything said and unsaid--it was far too much to absorb, a firehose of ideas, images and feelings coming at each of us.
He had a good voice, a quick mind, a droll sense of humor, an easy confidence, an analog watch--the trivial and the serious were completely entangled. He wanted to know if his brothers were balding, as he was. No, they weren't. And were they tall? Well, average. Would I have a mimosa? It was Mollie Newbould's favorite, Mollie who was gone, who had raised this man so beautifully. We toasted his mom with champagne and orange juice.
We'd already planned, via email, that I would have dinner with his family the following Tuesday. His wife and daughters had been reading our exchanges and they wanted to meet me. But Jack Newbould, the dad who had written such a courtly letter thanking me for sending the family health history, did not share their enthusiasm. In his 80s, Jack was not ready to overturn the terms of his son's adoption; it didn't seem fair to his beloved Mollie. I understood.
Moving into the ornate Willard lobby, I saw all of Michael, standing. A sharp intake of breath. "What is it?" "Your form, the space you take in the world--they're your father." If he'd been a paperdoll cutout, it would have been an exact match for his shorter-than-average, wiry father. He'd gotten more than curly dark hair from his paternal genes.
We had talked, both in emails and now, in person, about his father. I'd given him the name and the Google path I'd followed to a little information, but eventually a dead end--he might not still be alive. He had wanted to be a sports announcer, and a man with his quite unusual name had been the "voice" of a professional team. It seemed that his life may have been lived as intended, unimpeded by early fatherhood.
Dinner with the Newboulds--now that was a dinner table conversation-- much of it the ordinary things we all say in explaining ourselves to strangers, punctuated by sudden words that were not at all ordinary. "You and Dad have the exact same chin!" "May we see the ring you wrote about?" "What should we call you?" "My other grandchildren call me Granna." And Granna it instantly became.
I'd brought photos, some of myself in the 1950s, several from theatre productions I'd acted in, and there were extensive albums at the house, Michael's life as Peter unfolding to me in the pictures. A glorious one of him as an infant sitting on Mollie's lap, next to his big brother. One in an English schoolboy's uniform from the years when Jack Newbould was stationed in the UK. Pages of him sporting a mustache in the 70s. On the job in the Congressman's office. A bridegroom. A new dad holding his first child.
That child grown, my new college-age granddaughter, was already a political activist. Her younger sister, a theatre buff and a musician, had the auburn hair that was mine before I went gray. Their mother was so funny, warm and loving, I could see Michael respected himself enough to know he deserved a wonderful partner.
It was perfect. Except for the birth certificate in his baby book that said he'd been born to Jack and Mollie Newbould on that long ago day in Portsmouth. I was startled by how much that stung. Why did the documentation have to lie? It seemed going too far. Surely it could have hidden my name and listed the Newboulds as adopting him, on a later date. But adoptions were buried that deep, for some never to be unearthed.
In his first letter Michael had told me he'd always known that he and his older brother had been adopted. But that document offended me as deeply as the one that my girl self had signed saying that his father was "Unknown." I had argued against that lie. But naming Michael's father would have given him the right to stop any adoption. Even though I knew he wouldn't intervene, not wanting his life to be derailed, he had to be "Unknown" or the agency wouldn't place Michael.
One thing I could and did change half a century later: the language of adoption needed some tweaking. I knew that Michael/Peter should not say "I'm adopted." The proper term is "I was adopted"--it's a one-time, finite event, not an ongoing condition. The people who raised him were of course Mom and Dad, but I was now sure that "birth mother" was an inappropriate name for me. Birth too is a one-time, finite event, but I was looking at my genes in action in current time, not only in his appearance, but in his choice of work, his politics, his thought patterns, his writing skill, his addiction to reading, his ease at a microphone, in our finishing of each other's sentences. We settled on "genetic mother" and that was the way he introduced me to the neighbor who came over to take a photo of us all.
Flying out of National, I yearned to reach down over Alexandria and scoop these Newboulds up into the plane. The count of people I loved had grown by four.
In December my brother was flying to South Carolina to fetch our Dad for Christmas in Indiana; on the way back they would have a long layover at Dulles between flights. I emailed Michael/Peter and said, "This may be your last chance to see where your nose and chin came from. Dad's 93." He bought a plane ticket he'd never use so he could get through security and meet his uncle and his grandfather. My dad's reaction: "No trouble recognizing him. And he's quite the talker." He is that.
The flurry of email messages continued, many of them observations on the political campaigns and the '04 election which, to our minds, turned out badly. I'm in the loop when there are changes at work, news from school, jokes to tell, movies and books to recommend. Because our house is beyond the reach of cable, Jon Stewart is recorded in Alexandria and the tapes mailed here weekly.
We have almost two years behind us since learning each other's names. He's given a party for me to meet relatives and friends on the deck of the house in Alexandria, and I've given one on Whidbey for my friends--the political activists, writers and psychologists--to meet him and his family. He knows his siblings and their kids, my husband and his family.
He has delighted, as have I, in telling our story. When people cry, he tells them, "You think that's touching, you should read how Ann wrote about it on her website." Typical reaction: "Your mother has a web site?" Well, yeah, I do.
He's hosted a fundraiser for my nonprofit, and I've joined him in Washington for a round of political events. His job is lobbying on behalf of psychologists who want parity for mental health. That involves constant talking, bearding legislators in their Congressional offices and at endless receptions. His mischievous way of introducing me: "I'd like you to meet my mother. She just got in from Seattle." "Peter, I didn't know you were from Seattle." An impish smile. "I'm not. I just met her last year." Faces drop, eager questions are asked, delighted laughter fills the room, we get hugged; people must be wondering what in the world that animated conversation across the room is about.
He's called me his Backup Mom, Mollie's Reinforcement. I know she repeatedly urged him to stand up straight, so I remind myself to tell him that too. Lately, I'm the Bonus Mom, though he's noted that Hallmark has no such Mothers' Day card.
This is, in many ways, a blessed time. In my bedroom, on the table with all my kids' images, there's the photo of Mollie firmly holding a laughing infant, my Michael, her Peter. It's one of my most treasured possessions, testament that I was right all those years in believing he was safe and well. Mollie's smile, and her baby's, are priceless gifts to me.
In a world where too few things change for the better, I'm grateful for those societal things that have been transformed in my lifetime--apartheid and Jim Crow over, smoking all but gone, medical advances saving people who would have been goners in earlier times, and girls in our country no longer are told that real careers are only for men. But mostly--because it's personal, because the old ways caused so much needless pain, because I would rather not have lived this story nor seen so many other women live it far more painfully--I am grateful for the changes that now give young unmarried women real choices. The wonder of open adoption is at the top of my list. Now there's also the choice to raise a child, with no lying and no disgrace. Now contraceptives are at the corner drugstore--it's hard for those who came of age after The Pill to understand that pregnancies were so recently so hard to prevent. For those who do become pregnant and cannot take the adoption path, there's now legal and safe termination.
Such things were unthinkable in the just-gone years that were another millennium in more than numbers. The stories are different in these times. But this is a story of a choice made in another time, and carried for decades as a wise one. It is a story of looking for Michael, of finally confirming that he is a good man, living a good life. I have found a fine man, named Peter. My first-born's name is Peter.
Peter Newbould has written a piece on all this from his point of view. Click here to read "Contact."
After I wrote “Looking for Michael”, Peter -- and then several other people -- asked me if I’d read The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.* I had not. But now I have.
It was a far from pleasant experience and I find myself feeling mainly anger after taking in the dozens of voices the author recorded, speaking of how it was, and how it has been for them since.
The next person who tells me the 50's were “the good old days” may be on the receiving end of that anger. I’m angry at the prevailing “wisdom” of that time and at all of us who accepted it, lived by it. I’m especially angry with myself and other women who were complicit in our being treated with such contempt.
The book’s description of 1950s' culture is chilling; the consistent pattern borne out again and again: there was no choice in what pregnant girls would do. The culture decided for them, and because they – we -- were girls, not full-grown, confident adults, because we were not defiant but “good” girls, we knuckled under, seeing no other recourse. Because there was none.
We were all trapped in it, not just the pregnant girls but the parents, the social workers, the neighbors, the institutions of the times. It was The Way It Was. And I see that Way rooted in a deep, malevolent misogyny, an issue that is not directly addressed in the book—not by the mothers interviewed, and not in the author’s observations. There are comments that the boys involved in these pregnancies were not reviled, as the girls were, but the reasons for that difference aren’t discussed.
It’s the missing factor and the one that explains it all. The hatred, suspicion and dimunition of women is the ground in which all this pain and loss was rooted.
Since times before recorded history, women’s sexuality, their role as carriers of new life, their power as nurturers of that life, have evoked fear and a compensating drive to suppress and control that power.
It has manifested everywhere across time and place, in man-made customs and laws, customs and laws that self-loathing women have accepted and helped enforce.
Granted, there are men now who see the truth of this and are moving into respectful relationships with the females in their lives, despite the centuries of programming. But we don’t have to look to the Taliban to see evidence of misogny’s survival into our own lifetimes and our own country.
Listen to the women in The Girls Who Went Away describe being treated as pariahs by their families, by nuns and social workers, by obstetricians and delivery-room nurses. The saddest thing is how many of the girls were scarred by it, carrying a belief in their own worthlessness into the rest of their lives.
I felt it then. It did wound. And I fought it. I made beautiful maternity clothes, wore a wedding ring that was more than a cheap gold band, walked tall, played out being a Navy wife with a husband at sea rather than letting the hospital staff disdain me.
When I went for the last time to the institution where Michael was awaiting placement, I wore a hat, gloves, heels, a fashionable dress—and looked the nuns in the eye. Damned if I was going to make it easy for anybody look down on me.
I also broke their rules by sneaking a camera in and taking his picture, a picture that has disappeared, to my sorrow. I wrapped him in a tiny handmade quilt that the nuns promised to keep with him when he went to his “real” family. They lied.
The truly brave thing would have been to brass it out as an unmarried woman. Well, in 1954 I just wasn’t that brave and I didn’t want Michael to have to be a brave little bastard facing down society’s absurd opinion of him.
Now. Now I resist being condescended to wherever I see it, even in the trivial. I told my husband years ago that he can only call me Annie if I in turn can call him Johnny, which he recognized as preposterous. He’s no diminutive Johnny any more than I’m itty bitty Annie.
I refuse to take in the misogyny -- quiet and subtle or full-out obvious -- that has pervaded our world; I will never see myself as a lesser being for being female. I am Ann, generator of sons, poems, stories, ideas, theories and -- once in a while -- great food. If all that makes some people uncomfortable, they have a problem. Fortunately, John is up to it, and my kids, my friends, the people who read my work.
We have indeed made some progress in our times. May we never allow ourselves to slip backward into the bad old days, and may we trust the wisdom of our hearts rather than kowtowing in thought, word and deed to conventions that are fueled by fear and hatred.
*The book in question is by Ann Fessler and is published by Penguin Books, 2006.