Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The underside of identity

The snow starting to accumulate on the disposed Christmas trees curbside. 11:59 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011. It’s snowing hard in New York, starting around 9 pm last night. I was booked to have dinner with a friend coming in from Palm Beach. No go. Actually staying home on a cold snowy night is kinda paradisical if you’ll pardon my French. Meatloaf (from Eli’s; too lazy to make it myself), broccoli and baked potato.

Yesterday I went down to Michael’s to lunch
with the ladies in the picture with me. Somers Farkas, Cynthia Lufkin, Grace Hightower, Muffie Potter Aston, and Daphna Kastner. I’ve seen these women lunching together fairly frequently at Michael’s. I know all of them except Daphna. They’re the girls’ version of the Imber-della Femina-Kramer-Bergman-Greenfield boys’ table that meets there regularly.

The last time I saw Muffie was a couple of months ago at the Martha Stewart fundraising event. Muffie is intensely conversational. You can get onto a topic with her and the only pause will be to let someone else talk. I’m a little like that myself, with certain people. Muffie’s one of them.
Lunching yesterday at Michael's: Somers Farkas, Cynthia Lufkin, Grace Hightower, DPC, Muffie Potter Aston, and Daphna Kastner.
She gave me a ride home that night, from way down on the West Side Highway to the Upper East Side, talking all the way. I can’t remember what was said except we decided we should continue soon.

I suggested I join her table when her group met. All of these women are plugged into New York life. All of them are very active in charities. Daphna I don’t know about – but she’s an actress/screenwriter/director. Actors have a different life – always willing to help but the job comes first. Whenever there is one.

I was a little late because I’d been composing a message that was difficult to express honestly and carefully. I’d been contacted the day before by a woman who told me she was the birth daughter of a man I grew up with. The man’s sister was a classmate of mine and still a friend all these years later. The woman had been the result of relationship between my friend’s brother and a girl I also knew growing up. She had been put out for adoption in the first few months of her life because the father didn’t want to marry the mother. This was probably 38 or 40 years ago. She asked if I would contact the sister to open a channel of communication with the birth family. I did. The answer was No.

The woman was adopted and brought up in another part of the country. She married and has a family of three or four. She decided at some point to look for her birth parents, and she did. When she found them she learned from her mother what had happened and why she wasn’t taken in. When she met her birth father, he cried at the sight of her. They then communicated afterwards.

I don’t know the details but the relationship between the child/ the woman and her birth parents did not extend much beyond the intial meeting. It was not like a reconciliation; they were strangers, essentially, and at least one party wasn’t interested. I’m assuming that one party was the parents – one or either.

The woman contacted me because she wanted to reach out to my friend, the sister of her father. She wanted to learn more about her family background. It seemed to me that there was also a subtext to her objectives. I would guess she would have liked to have a relationship with her birth parents. And I would guess from the little I gathered, that her birth parents were not interested. That message is a brutal one to the seeker: We don’t want you.

“Not interested” sounds like a glib description of this woman’s reality, but I think it is also apt. It provokes a brutal self-question: how could you do that to your own flesh and blood?

I have known quite a few adopted people in my now long life, from childhood, from school, college, and afterwards. When I was younger I never gave it much thought. What impressed me when I was very young and growing up in a chronically financially distressed family (my father was a compulsive gambler), was that all the kids I knew who were adopted were part of well-fixed, even wealthy families. What a relief that must have been, I’d think to myself.

When I was old enough to hear about other people’s lives (by college age), I learned that many of these people, despite their financial advantages, were very unhappy with their state of affairs.

It’s only in the past two or three decades that adoptees have been encouraged to look for their birth parents, after generations of secrets. Someone worked on it enough to change the laws that would allow adoptees to learn the identities of those birth parents.

Because of that, several years ago, as I’ve written here before, I learned from a phone call from a sister that our mother had had a child, a son, before we were born. He had been put out for adoption at birth. My sisters and I had never even imagined such a thing although we weren’t surprised our mother had never told us.

Furthermore, no one had any idea who his birth father might have been. These were secrets that women took to the grave if they could, and our mother did. Shame was her escort, of that I have no doubt.

As it happened, we met our brother. He actually hadn’t been the one interested at that stage of his life (he was over 70) to look for his birth family. . He’d had a good life – he’d been adopted into a loving family, was given a Harvard education, had had a solid lifelong marriage, wonderful children, loving children. He was very literate, had a rich intellect and a house on Nantucket that he’d inherited from his adoptive parents. When we met I actually thought to myself that being put out for adoption was a fortunate move for his life. But his daughter wanted to know. And I understood that.
Such meetings, I knew, were not always as pleasant and satisfying as ours was. Also,our mother had died twenty years before. I have a friend who was also adopted into a kind, loving family at birth. He too was well educated, well-cared for, provided for, and grew up in a stable domestic environment. However, he too, when in his late 20s decided to look for his birth parents. When he found them, he learned that they were married, had always been married, and had five or six children in their family. He had been a last child but for some reason they they didn’t want another. So they put him out for adoption. When he learned this, he inquired through a third party if he could meet them. They refused.

Your parents don’t want to meet you.
Your parents don’t want to know you. From the beginning they didn’t want you, for whatever reason. Ironically, there are many of us who grew up with our birth parents and often felt unwanted and burdensome, which creates a plethora of complexes defined by little or no self-esteem. People who are not sensitive can convey that message to their children easily, and often do.

I have friends who were adopted into a very wealthy family where the mother was a recognizably cold personality. All the children had nannies (they called them mamselles in those households). However, although the mother felt uneasy even physically holding her babies, when the children grew too close to a mamselle, she was fired. This fostered resentment that by maturity was expressed frequently and harshly to the mother’s face. The mother had exacerbated their sense of being unwanted, and enraged them.

I have another friend who had a child “out of wedlock” as they used to say, and put him out for adoption at birth. When he was old enough, he sought out his mother (who later had a daughter from a marriage). She refused to meet him, although her daughter and he now know each other. The mother was also the daughter of a famous movie star. She does not want the world to know her secret. The child, reading the NYSD, realized I knew her, and contacted me. Ironically the birth mother has an aunt, also a famous movie star in her day, who had a child “out of wedlock” but “adopted” the child and brought the child up as her own. Which it was.

Another friend, the adopted daughter of a famous American tycoon, had been adopted at birth, but went looking for her birth parents when she was in her 50s after her adoptive parents had died. She learned then that her birth mother had died a couple of years before. She had been a nurse, at the time of my friend’s birth, and unmarried. She later married and had two sons. When my friend contacted the sons, they agreed to meet with her although they had no prior awareness of her existence. When the siblings met, my friend learned that one of her half-brothers worked for her adoptive father’s corporation in an important post.

Not all adoptive parents are keen on the idea of their child looking for his or her birth parents. Many times they feel they will be deprived of the company and affection of their children. I’ve known of situations where this has happened. I’ve also know of situations where the child has satisfying relationships with both parents or parent. I know of situations where the adopted child has found the birth parent(s) and liked meeting them but were too attached to their adoptive parents to change course.

My hostesses yesterday at the Michael’s lunch were full of thoughts about the subject. All the women present couldn’t understand giving up a child for adoption, although conceding that times have changed. The society is more liberal and realistic. Forty-one percent of all children born in America today are born to single mothers. Many are born of surrogates and now many are born into home of same-sex parents. There will be no need for them to wonder about who and what might have been. And many are still born into lives where they are unwanted for a variety of explanations, including carelessness and disregard of consequences. Many children who remain with birth parents suffer mental and physical abuse. It could be argued that many of these children would be better off in adoptive homes, although that is not necessarily an assuring situation.

The woman who called me, my friend’s child, still seeking some kind of an answer from the avatar of birthright, has a beautiful family of her own now, and a successful marriage too. Looking at pictures of her, she greatly resembles her very pretty birth mother. And her children resemble her birth father’s family also. For some that would seem to be enough of a gift. For others, there is the underside of identity: Who Am I? And its mortal enemy: Denial.
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