Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who is the Real Mother?

Many an adoptee has shouted at his or her adoptive mother: “You are not my real mother!” The real mother the adoptee imagines is probably a movie star or CEO who has conceived her baby in love and carried it for nine long months until birth did they part.

But as I watched Google Baby on HBO, an Israeli produced film about global outsourcing of surrogacy in India, I had a moment of panic for the babies being born there. Who is their real mother? Is it the American woman who sold her eggs to be mixed with an unknown American man’s sperm to make the embryo that will be frozen and packed in liquid nitrogen and flown to a surrogacy clinic in India, there to be placed in an Indian woman’s uterus to become a baby that will be given to the couple who ordered it? If that sounds long-winded and complicated, it is.

The problem is that adoptees imagine the real mother is the one who carried them in her womb. That is where they believe they bonded. The sound of her voice, the movement of her body is imprinted on them. At three days they can recognize the smell of her milk. So where do those who are created by surrogacy go when they go in search of their real mother? To the woman whose egg has their genetic map? Or to the non- genetically related woman in a small town in India, who lives in a nice house because of the money she got for carrying them for what must have seemed like nine very long months. The film shows how they were whisked away from her at the moment of birth – no cuddling or breast feeding here.

We learn that these surrogate mothers must live at the clinic during their pregnancy. We see them lying in a room filled with cots, an overhead fan slicing through the heat. This is what the maternity home my mother was in must have looked like, I thought. All those pregnant women living together in various stages of pregnancy until they delivered the goods and were allowed to go home.

So there’s no passion, or love, or sex in these outsourced surrogate arrangements. Egg donors, who should be called egg sellers, go their separate way after delivering their eggs, just as their eggs go their separate way to help make a baby. The egg sellers will never know if a baby was the final product. But that’s not the name of their game, which was to have money for schooling, or whatever their needs.

Considering how controversial surrogacy is, Zippi Brand Frank, the Israeil producer and writer, does not moralize, but rather presents everyone in a sympathetic light. The inspiration for the film is a gay Israeli man named Doron, a father through surrogacy, who sets up a business procuring eggs and sperm in America, which are made into embryos for Indian women to make into babies for the childless.

We are told that what parents pay for hiring a surrogate mother in India is much less than they would pay in the States. We are not told what the baby will pay in identity confusion over the years no matter what surrogate womb it is incubated in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Alternate Self

Adoptees who go in search are not sure just who or what they hope to find. They say they are looking for their medical background. They say they want to see their mother’s face. They say they want to know who they are. They say they want to know why they were given up.

They do not know that they are also looking for the alternate self they left behind –the ghost baby, who has not moved or grown in all those years. The baby who was born, but stayed with its mother, while they went forth in the world to be adopted. This baby will be waiting for them when they return to their original mother. They are and are not this baby.

“Mommy!” they’ll cry when they hear her familiar voice.
“Baby!” the mother will cry.
They know each other, this mother and baby, even if the adult adoptee and the older mother are like strangers to each other. .

This is the magical moment for adoptees to pick up where they left off. A second chance. They can take the name they once had. If the mother didn’t give them a first name, they can take her maiden name. They can go on from there to the alternate life with her – the life that might have been -- as if they have never been separated.

But they have been separated. The alternate self can be at odds with the adopted self, as each attempts to be the dominant one. During this struggle, adoptees can feel they have no self at all, each self having wiped the other out
And the alternate life can prove to be an illusion, as adoptees try to replace what is with what might have been.

Yet over time many adoptees succeed in the struggle, forging a new life together with the birth mother out of the traumatic shards of the past. The alternate self and the adopted self find some compromise and resolution in an integrated identity.

If adoptees are fortunate, their adoptive parents, who are like gate keepers with the power to block the way to the alternate life, let them pass through. Then past and present can merge, along with the ghost baby and the adult adoptee, birth parents and adoptive parents.

A triumphal march together into the uncharted future.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Mother and Child

I hadn’t heard about the film Mother and Child when I went to see it. It was the title that caught my eye. What kind of mother? I wondered. What kind of child? It turned out to have lots of mothers and children: birth mothers, adoptive mothers, adoptees, mothers to be. It had a lot of sex, too, as if to say this is how babies are created. And so I found that I had wandered into an unusual adoption film, earthy and insightful, almost like a reality show, as it followed everyone’s lives. Its masterful acting added to its professional sheen.

The birth mother, Karen (Anette Bening), relinquished her baby thirty seven years ago when she was fourteen. She is still mourning her loss and caring for her ailing mother, who had been instrumental in her giving up her baby.

The adoptee, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) a beautiful young blond, who was that baby, is now a corporate lawyer. She will leave a letter for Karen at the Catholic orphanage that arranged her adoption, but it is not matched with the letter that Karen has left for her. In fact, Elizabeth’s letter will not get to Karen until a year later when Elizabeth has died in childbirth.

The adoptive mother, Lucy (Kerry Washington), is an infertile African American woman so eager to adopt a baby that she leaves her husband who wants, in his words, to have a child of his own. Lucy works with her mother, who warns her to be careful when she is chosen by Ray, a pugnacious pregnant teenager, who has already rejected a few other couples. The director inserts some wicked humor here as he shows Lucy being intimidated by Ray’s challenging questions.

Ray is no Juno. In fact, with her own mother’s prodding, she will change her mind about giving up her baby. This will cause Lucy to have a hysterical fit at the hospital when she arrives to pick up the baby, and learns that the baby will not be hers. .

If all of this sounds like a sentimental hodgepodge, at times it is. But the director, Rodrigo Garcia, who happens to be the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is known for his sympathetic portrayals of women. Garcia was quoted as saying he wanted to make a film about people haunted by the absence of a loved one and decided that adoption yielded the richest dramatic possibilities for exploring loss. We learn about birth mother grief from Karen; the adoptee’s longing for her lost mother from Elizabeth; and the obsessive need for a baby from Lucy. Garcia’s camera is always with them: in bed trying to have a baby, or, as with Elizabeth, having an affair with Paul, the African American founder of his law firm, and it stays with her as she dies giving birth to his baby.

We even learn about the unfinished business between mothers and daughters. After giving up her baby, Karen has become the obedient, if bitter, daughter, caring for her mother in her old age. This was something my mother did, still taking orders from her mother, who was instrumental in giving me up, and later breaking up her two marriages. It seems that birth mothers can both resent their mother and yet need to please her, as if to absolve themselves from their mortal sin.

Perhaps Elizabeth, the adoptee, is the most enigmatic of the women. We are told nothing about her adoptive life – except her father died when she was ten and she is not close to her mother. She appears full grown as an accomplished corporate lawyer. But what is the director saying about adoptees when Elizabeth seduces her boss, and even the next door neighbor, whose wife is pregnant. Are adoptees to be seen as bright, but making up for their losses by acting out sexually? And does the loss they have experienced make them unable to have intimate attachments to others?

The plot eventually comes together in both ingenious and manipulated ways. But Garcia has managed to capture the essential feelings of everyone involved in the adoption triad, something no other film that I’ve seen has done. It’s like a sleight of hand, transmuting each of the women’s struggles into art.

Still I think this may be a difficult movie for birth mothers to see even though the director has revealed their pain with compassion and understanding. As an adoptee, I felt distanced from Elizabeth, whose underdeveloped part made her seem cold and remote. But my eyes were tearing when Karen was searching for traces of Elizabeth’s life And more tears when Karen is able to visit her little granddaughter, now a year old toddler, who has been adopted by Lucy.

I wondered if it might not be difficult for some adoptive mothers, too, because of the importance that blood connectedness is given. I came across one adoptive mother’s post on Salon that the film “insults parents like me” She felt the adoptive mom is “irrelevant, an interloper in the primal story of the genetic mother-child bond.” But I think adoptive moms are well represented by Lucy, and will understand her near breakdown when Ray decided to keep her baby. And they will feel validated when the same agency arranges for Lucy to mother Elizabeth’s now motherless baby.

Without possibly intending to, Mother and Child, reveals the interconnectedness of everyone in the adoption triad. Those of us who are adopted will notice this, as will birth mothers and adoptive mothers. And perhaps those not involved in the triad will also.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Photo

I keep on my desk a photo of my birth mother sitting in a New York nightclub at a table for three, many years after giving me up. Her face – so like mine—is pressed against the face of the famous comedian Henny Youngman. Her whole body leans toward his as the two of them stare out at me. Harold, her date, a bald, rotund man to my mother’s left, leans slightly toward her, with an affable smile on his avuncular face.

I admit that while growing up in my adoptive home in Cincinnati, I had never heard of Henny Youngman, which now seems a deprivation as serious as never having heard of Charlie Chaplin. Youngman, mainly known for his quip “Take my wife, please!" looks like Gary Grant in this photo. Yes, he was that handsome. My mother, as I said, looks like me. Imagine someone was out there looking like me, at the same time I was growing up in the Midwest, looking like no one. I stare at this picture and think – why didn’t Youngman take my mother as his wife. She didn’t take Harold as her husband,which I don't think I would have either. But she was unfortunately attracted to what we used to call “sports” – now known as gambling men. Her first husband squandered it all on baseball, the second on horses. Neither were my father –who was a young bootlegger she gambled on when she was only 16. Her only prize was me – which she had to forfeit.

To get back to the photo. After years of gazing on it, I suddenly discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. Henny Youngman’s face and upper body were folded into my mother's, but his left arm extended behind my mother’s back over to Harold’s shoulder. Yes, he was including Harold in the picture, acknowledging that he was one of the gang. Why had it taken me so long to see that?

I learned from my half brother that Henny's Youngman’s family and our mother’s were as close as they were poor. They lent each other clothes and food. Perhaps Henny and Rae grew up together like cousins. Certainly they were friends. I can’t tell if he had a drink with them,as a bread basket is blocking the part of the table where his glass would have been. He may have just slipped into the banquette for a moment, the click of the camera, and was gone. He may have been the headliner there that night. They may have come to see him. This may have been intermission.

My brother gave me this picture after my mother’s and Henny's deaths so I didn’t get to ask her or Henny about it. It remains a mystery to be filled in, like so much of her life. But like all adoptees, I keep asking: What if? What if she and Henny had fallen in love at an early age? What if he had married her after her transgression with my father, and raised me? Would she have had a happier life? Would I? Would he have cracked: Take my wife, please!” Or would it have been: “Take my wife’s daughter, please!”

Becoming a Blogger

So I thought, I’ll begin a blog. A blog seems like a ramble through a forest that has no clear path. It doesn’t require tidying up as one goes along. One just ambles here and there, letting one’s solipsistic thoughts guide one – responsible to no one but oneself. And the dizzying thought that dozens, make that hundreds, no, thousands of unknown souls out there in the stratosphere, with nothing else to do, would be tuning in to your words – well, it was mind boggling. Especially for a writer of what is known as midlist books, who has little expectations of such highs. But then in this book market, even the works of Chekov and Dostoevsky might have been rejected because their authors were not deemed amusing enough to make it to Oprah or Charlie Rose.

Anyway, I was reading a review of Sarah Boxer’s new book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web in the NYT Book Review, 3/23/08 – Easter no less.
The reviewer David Kamp complained that Boxer would have been more amusing if she had chosen more wild pieces, as her subtitle promised, by including some from the turn of the 21st century, or earlier, when blogs were not yet called blogs.

Which reminded me that I actually experienced such a blogless blog. My client was an adopted young man, a computer nerd –as genius was called in those days – who at each session brought in copy of the story of his life he was posting in serial fashion on the Internet. It was in the mid 1990s and it proved to be a diary of the childhood of an adopted boy, sadly misplaced in a home so chaotic that to describe it as dysfunctional would be kind. Out of the misery of that boy, he was making something amusing. Out of this autobiographical material, he was making something therapeutic. Out of his writing, he was making blog history.

I don’t know where he is now or what he is doing. Perhaps he is still blogging away at a new chapter in his life. I don’t know what I gave him, but he has given me the courage to begin this blog. But how does a blog begin? I know they seem endless as one scrolls down from the current one to the earlier ones, like reversing time, as Martin Amis did in his novel Time’s Arrow, where he begins with the death of a Nazi doctor and goes backward in his life until he is a baby. I’d like any new reader of my blog to begin at the beginning with this one, but I know that if they have the patience, if I keep writing, they will have to go through much verbiage to arrive where I started – here.