Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are You My Mother?

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

The recent death of open-adoption maverick Annette Baran has jostled me out of my maternal complacency.

Having adopted my son in Russia, I thought I had dodged open adoption blowback: no birth mother back-story, no holiday cards, no photo exchanges or well-intended visits. In other words, there was no ambiguity or messy relational complications. I was sure my son felt snug and secure in the embrace of my unwavering devotion and love. Wasn’t that enough?

But in reading the obits of the formidable and prescient Baran, the firm ballast of my assumptions have begun to wobble.

From the late 1950s to 1974, during a time of closed adoptions—anonymity and sealed records—Baran placed more than 1,000 babies while director of adoptions for Vista Del Mar Child-Care Service in West Los Angeles.

As the placements mounted she wondered why the details were kept concealed when it was obvious that both adopting parents and birth mothers wanted to know more. Each craved the missing installment of their separate but enjoined stories.

The curtain was finally pulled back in 1978, when she and some colleagues published their research findings in the watershed The Adoption Triangle: The Effects of Sealed Records on Adoptees, Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents. Since then, varying levels of open-adoption practices have become the norm.

Almost single-handedly, and with the strength of her own experience, Baran popularized the argument that an adoptee’s knowledge of their birth parents is crucial to identity formation. She advocated that knowledge filled the empty hollows for all parties in an adoption relationship.

So why have I thought that my complicit ignorance in my son’s birth history has been a good thing? What have I been afraid of?

Perhaps I fear losing a part of my son if we go down the path of “are you my mother?” The broad-shouldered mantle of Mom is not one I have been willing to share. As a single parent, I have fiercely protected and honed my role in solo parenting.

Adopted at five months and now a pubescent 12-year-old, my son has yet to challenge my monolithic claim on motherhood or queried as to whom might be at the other end of his genetic line. But that question does pop into my head. What is his genetic history and what might be his biological destiny?

But even if I knew the DNA of my son’s genetic make-up, I could not stem the inevitable march of his biological destiny. Having survived cancer three times, I know much about my own DNA, but that has not enabled me to redirect my genetic heritage.

While there is no right or wrong answer to the open-versus-closed adoption argument, I feel the choice to unearth the past is my son’s, not mine. Perhaps finding his birth mother would reassure her that the child she bore is thriving and well loved.

Whatever my son’s past might have been, his future is firmly with me, his sister, and the family unit we have lovingly knit into being.

Click here to read more about the life of Annette Baran.

To listen to an interview with Annette Baran go to YouTube.

Fran Cronin is the blog manager for Adopt-a-tude.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Aimee Louise Sword and the Press: "Rape" vs. a "Summer Romance"

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

Try googling “Aimee Louise Sword.” The top hit is a compilation of news stories and commentaries about Sword pleading guilty this week to having sex with her 14-year-old birth son. At the moment, there are "533 related articles.

Yet one of the other top hits will be a ten-month-old story from the Huffington Post, complete with an embedded Fox News video: “Aimee Louise Sword Raped Son She Gave Up For Adoption.” A hit of the same vintage from ABC News opens this way: “A Michigan mother is facing a trial after being accused of having a summer romance with the teenage son she gave up for adoption.”

Unusual and disturbing as this story was when it broke in September 2009, there’s a big leap between rape and summer romance.

Let me be clear: Sexual abuse is never OK. Because parents have the power in a relationship, they are always at fault. Yet there are tricky angles on this story. Sword was not raising this boy in the caregiving sense. She claims to have initiated contact with him through Facebook only after she stopped hearing from his adoptive parents. What happened is repellant; it also pushes all the wrong buttons, just as so many stories about adoptions gone terribly awry do.

Last year, I wrote about the online response to Sword's arrest (click here). The story swirled through the blogosphere with a wild array of facts; some reports said her son was only 10 years old. Most said little about his adoptive parents. While the original news story from the Oakland Press in the Detroit area was a standard journalistic account, almost none of the subsequent commentaries paused to question why Sword might have done what she did.

A "MILF" in her mid-thirties, Sword has become both a pariah and an object of prurient interest. Her MySpace photos still appear all over the Internet. She's also been married and has five other children.

Advocates for birth mothers—or adoption in general—are not shaping this discussion, and that's a bad thing. Some recent media commentaries, like Tracy Clark-Flory's piece in Salon, have at least addressed the fact that reunions between birth parents and children can be fraught with all sorts of intense emotions. The UPI account includes a quote from Sword at her sentencing: "I am remorseful for everything that occurred."

But then we get all the ugliness oozing up through the cracks. A quick review of recent online headlines gives us, among others "INCEST MUM" and "Yummy Mummy Heads for Jaily Waily."

Now she's been sentenced to jail for at least nine years. More facts are on the record, although Sword herself admitted in court that she still doesn't know how it happened. It's not at all clear that she "tracked" or "stalked" her son on the Internet. The UPI story notes in passing that the prosecutor (not Sword's lawyer) said "it was the son who got in touch with her."

Last September, the site You Can't Make This Up did stick up for Sword, noting that a social worker representing her son's adoptive family “asked his permission to find her, because he was getting unmanageable at home….” In this version, he’s a “gangbanger” who may have coerced his birth mother into having sex. She supposedly complied “partly due to guilt, partly out of fear of losing contact with her son forever and last but not least, partly because she was asked by his adoptive parents…[to help].”

Again, we don't know. Some of this doesn't square with reports from her sentencing this week. Although this story is one of the top hits for Aimee Louise Sword, its sources aren't clear.

So we are left with all the scary stereotypes about what happens to adoptees: the son is either a victim raped by a depraved, sexually loose birth mother or an irredeemable gangbanger. There's way too much heat and no light.

We humans will always be compelled by this kind of sensationalism. But the first kneejerk responses linger online in a way they didn't used to. They continue to float before readers' eyes, courtesy of Google, all those 530-plus headlines that trumpet some variation of "guilt" and "sex" and "mom."

I hate it all—what Aimee Sword did and the feeding frenzy that's followed.

This piece also appears in Martha's blog on Open Salon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Podcast on "What's My Heritage?" and Other Adoption Topics

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

Today I was interviewed by Mary Beth Wells on "Adoption—Journey to Motherhood." We talked about Artyom, the adoptee who was sent back to Russia this past spring—what Mary Beth termed the issue of "good child-bad child"—and also the push-and-pull of culture-keeping with international adoptees, based on "What's My Heritage?", my article in Brain, Child magazine last year.

It was a wide-ranging conversation. To listen in, click here (it's the July 12, 2010 show). You can also download it for free.

And for those who can't get enough of The Last Airbender, click here for my review. I finally watched the thing with my son and assorted children and adults last Friday. Lord have mercy. A preview:
"I left the theater feeling jangled, as if somebody had spit up on me. As one of my fellow adult sufferers, a scriptwriter, described the waterbending special effects: 'Yuk. Death by spit and icicles...'"