In a recent posting, I mused about a comment a young lady made to me about five years ago. She said she was adopted, so she didn’t have any stories about her mother. I said she had a mother whose stories have become her stories, but she looked sad and didn’t seem to accept that. Curious about adoption as it relates to family stories, I read Jan Fishler’s memoir about her life as an adopted child, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself: An Adoption Memoir.
Jan was born and adopted in 1949. She was told her birth mother had died in childbirth, which caused her a lot of guilt. This was commonly told to adopted children in those days because it was thought to be for the best. When Jan finally learned her birth mother had not died, she struggled with trust issues because of the lie and the guilt she had lived with for so long. After discovering her adoption records were open, she ordered a copy of her birth certificate to see who her parents were, and was able to track down one of her siblings who did a bit of sleuthing himself and introduced her to all her brothers and her adopted-out sisters! Jan agreed to answer a few questions.
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Jan, your adoption mother was cool and judgmental towards you, but you were close to your adoption father and the extended family. Do you think if your adoption mother had been warm and loving you might not have been so anxious to find your birth mother and lost family? That you would have just blended into this new family as if they really were your own by blood? You even looked like your adoption mother.
There’s no question that having a warm and loving adoptive mother would have made my life easier. That being said, I still would have wanted to know the truth about my birth family. I believe that is a fundamental right we have as humans. The biggest issue for me was being denied the truth about my birth mother. My adoptive father was complicit in perpetuating the lie—that my birth mother was dead—so although he was much more amiable than my adoptive mom, he wasn’t without fault.
Whether I would have blended into this new family as if they really were my own blood…I doubt it. The issue wasn’t one of appearance, but more one of temperament. Our wiring was completely different. My father would always tell me to relax and my mother would tell me to slow down. It seemed like I operated on a different frequency—one that wasn’t appreciated or supported.
One of the healing aspects of learning the stories of our parents’ pasts is that we see they have their own issues they’re dealing with. When I found out my mother’s past, I was able to be more patient with her and more forgiving of hurts I felt from her. Will you tell us how you found out about your adoption mother’s past and how that affected your feelings towards her?
My birth mother, Jane, kept five boys and relinquished three girls. When she was twenty-one, my youngest sister, Bridget, met her. Bridget summed Jane up in one word: bitter. While it seemed that Jane became more responsible with age, the boys agree that she was “difficult.” I never felt it was my job to judge my birth mother. All I ever wanted was to know something, anything about her. I think she had a difficult life as a child and as a result made some irresponsible decisions as an adult. I also believe she wanted “the best” for her children. I was sorry I never got to meet her.
Unfortunately, you found your mother, Jane, had died. But, you had a lot of brothers able to tell you stories of their pasts and what they knew of Jane and her past. Did these stories feel like a stranger’s stories, or did they have an impact on you? Did you adopt some of these family stories, particularly your mother Jane’s, as part of your own history? Did they feel more or less meaningful to your sense of self than the stories of your adoption mother’s (or father’s) past?
After I heard some of the stories about my birth mother, I thanked my adoptive parents for raising me. Had my birth mother kept me, my life would have been much more difficult. I once jokingly said, “I’d have either been a nun or a whore.”
Jane married her first husband when she was sixteen and had her first child at eighteen. I was surprised to discover that she didn’t have to get married. Jane gave birth to me, her fourth child, when she was twenty-one. I think Jane was “looking for love in all the wrong places,” and consequently, never managed to find a satisfying or lasting relationship. I can only speculate about why she was this way. In fact, I’m working on a novel (fiction) that explores her motivation. I wasn’t surprised to discover that her grandmother had been divorced four times!
There is a part of me that can relate to Jane. My sister Debbie and I agree that although we weren’t as reckless as our birth mother, there were times in our lives when the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
I know a couple who adopted several children who know and see their biological parents, at least their mothers, and this seems to work fine. Tonya and John are warm and loving, the kids seem well adjusted and happy as puppies. Tonya says, “As I tell my kids’ Tummy Mom, they are NOT losing a child but instead getting a whole new ‘Kinda Family’…They don’t have to lose their children for eighteen years and my kids can see that we’re not some bad people who stole them from their perfect birth family.” These kids’ mothers may have some serious personal issues, but the kids never have to wonder where they came from or “what if.” Jan, do you know if there are standard adoption rules today concerning children finding parents and vice versa if the adoption is not completely open?
Open adoption is now a very popular option and I believe an excellent one for adopted children; however, adoptive parents have to be very secure within themselves to share their child in this way. Sadly, there are no national adoption laws. Each state has its own laws and they vary considerably. I live in California and the records are sealed. In Ohio, where I was born, records were open until 1964. A great online resource for open adoption is http://www.openadoption.org/
What made you decide to write your memoir, Jan, and to publish it for those beyond your family?
Whenever I told the story of my search, the reaction was the same—you should write a book about it. I’d been a corporate scriptwriter, copywriter, and tech writer so I wasn’t intimidated by the idea—until I actually started to write and discovered that writing a personal story was much different than writing about widgets or telecommunications.
I joined a local writing group and started writing every day. I was motivated by the fact that my story could help adoptive parents have a better understanding of their adopted children—especially those of us who don’t quite fit or who acted out, especially during our teenage years. I wanted birth mothers to understand that there was no shame in what they chose to do. I wanted other adoptees to realize that they aren’t alone, that whatever feelings we have are valid. I know from emails I get from all members of the adoption triad that my book has been very helpful because it’s written completely from the heart without blame.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about adoption and the emotional issues of adapting to a new family and making it your own? I know it’s a very complex subject and highly individualized. We also have a lot of kids adopted from foreign countries, and they will probably never know their biological families.
It is my belief that every adoptee wants the truth. At the same time, they don’t want to hurt their adoptive parents, and some adoptees believe that searching will do this. To adoptive parents, I’d like to say that the search is not about you. It’s about your child’s desire to discover everything they can about their heritage. If they do want to know about their first families, I encourage adoptees to search because the truth is healing and freeing. When this is not possible, as in foreign adoption, I encourage adoptive parents to let their child fully explore their culture, even visit the country if that is possible. Finally, I want to thank birth mothers for their courage in doing what they believe is best, and letting go. Relinquishment is never an easy decision and should never bring shame.
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Jan, you certainly helped enlighten me about some of the emotional issues children and their adoption families can face. I knew very little about this, and it’s not something you’d just bring up. One of the joys of memoir is learning a different perspective to gain understanding and empathy with others.
I enjoyed reading Searching for Jane, Finding Myself. I was gripped by the fast-paced story of suspense and excitement, rooting for Jan on her journey of discovery and feeling dismayed at setbacks. Jan was able to step back and be nonjudgemental, difficult I’m sure with the emotionally charged nature of the story. This is standard advice for memoir as well as fiction, and Jan excelled at letting me think for myself and make my own judgements instead of being spoon-fed. Jan became the heroine instead of a victim, and I cared about what happened to her. She helped me understand some of the feelings of her husband and her adoption parents during the search. Good writing, Jan, and I am so happy for you! Thanks for sharing your story.
For more information, see Jan Fishler’s website, Searching for Jane.