Monday, April 14, 2008

The Double B Book Brigade

I've been looking for new books to read and so decided to join in with the Stirrup Queens and Sperm Court Jesters current book tour - see here. This month's tour was "The Mistress's Daughter" by AM Homes. This was my first time reading a book by this particular author and for the most part I found I enjoyed the book. Without any further ado, on to the questions!

1. Genealogy -- the quest to learn more about her birth family's history -- forms a large part of the latter half of the book. On page 152, the author notes, "I remind myself that the quest to answer the question Who am I? is not unique to the adoptee." How much do you know about your own family history? Is it something that interests you? How has it influenced your decisions related to infertility treatment (if at all)?

Family History plays a large role in my chosen religion – coincidentally, mentioned in AM Homes book. I am LDS (or more commonly known as Mormon.) We are encouraged to keep a personal history as well as research out our ancestors and find out who we came from and explore that biological link. Both my parents and my husband’s parents have devoted countless hours to researching their family lines and learning about their ancestors. As a result, my children have stories of ancestors who traveled across the plains and helped settle the western states, ancestors who served in wars and even from when they lived in other countries before crossing the ocean and becoming “Americans”. My children have seen many pictures of their ancestors, and can tell me that Uncle N looks an awful lot like their great-great-grandfather G. Young with absolute knowledge of this fact; or that Great-Aunt So&So has curly hair just like their sister.

When I was younger, my parents had us write to our living relatives (grandparents, great-grandparents) as their birthday months drew near and ask them questions about themselves – what kind of cake they liked, a story from their childhood when they were our age, their favorite book, color, etc. On their birthday, we would celebrate – with cake and ice cream and read the response we got to our letters to the rest of the family. As kids we looked forward to this greatly – perhaps for the excuse to have cake and ice cream, but also because it was kind of cool to hear stories about our grandparents when they were kids like us and what life was like for them at our age. When I was older and at college – my father’s mother often called and we would talk for a good hour or more. I enjoyed these calls. My mother’s grandmother sent me letters and even a card on HER birthday during my first semester at college. Those letters from my childhood had helped to forge a connection with my kin who lived thousands of miles away – literally on opposite sides of the country from each other on either coast, with my family smack dab in the middle in Colorado. We didn’t see each other often – but we had our letters and our phone calls. During the hard times in my life – I looked back at some of the amazing women in my family and drew strength from them. I had grown up in direct communication with some of them, or heard of their life experiences and it made me proud and strengthened me knowing who it was I was descended from. When it came to the struggles I faced trying to become a parent - I drew on that strength, knowing that some of them had faced incredibly difficult and horrible things, including losing some of their children as well, in their life and somehow had survived it all. If they could survive, I could too – their blood flowed through my veins, diluted and sometimes indirectly – but I could still claim a small part of them nonetheless. Knowing who you come from can play a large part of knowing who you are. However, I have also found that blood ties don’t necessarily preclude that ability either. My husbands’ family was more prolific in writing down their personal histories than mine. We have more than one autobiography that graces our bookshelves of ancestors belonging to his lineage. I have read them with interest – wanting to know who it was my spouse came from, as well as my children’s legacy from that line as well. While I am merely a usurper into that line through marriage – I have found their stories just as inspiring as those from my own blood ancestors.

2. Our community often speaks of the injustice of the homestudy process. From our parent-in-waiting eyes, is seems incredibly unfair that some can become parents at the drop of a trou, while infertiles to have to go through the judgments by a third party of their innermost selves to prove themselves worthy. Homes' book, however, shows not the parent perspective but the adopted child's. She talks about the effects of coming into her parents' home just months after their son died, about the burden she felt to heal her family. "I grew up doused in grief." She wonders (a few times) why an agency would give her parents an infant so soon after a child had died. Does reading from the adoptee perspective change your opinion on the homestudy process? Who is responsible for making sure hopeful parents are ready to parent a child borne to others? To what degree should hopeful parents be cleared of their grief, and who should determine this? How should it be determined? Should people stuck in grief NOT pass a homestudy? How should the desires of the hopeful parents be balanced with the rights and needs of the child?

I can understand the adoption agencies’ need to screen their prospective adoptive parents. The media is eager in its telling of “adoption gone wrong” tales and no one would want to subject an innocent child to a life of horrors. Society seems to demand that some sort of checks be made – though this does set up a disparity between those who do not and those who do adopt from a family building requirement perspective. Not all adoptive families give way to a miserable life, and not all completely biological families are free from misery either. I know this – biological or adopted - even under the best of circumstances, I could never absolutely guarantee a child a perfect life – free of pain or burden. I could only guarantee my best effort to provide a good life for them in a loving home – and even then, I cannot guarantee I would be at my best 100% of the time. Life is life – things happen. Children die in families that don’t adopt and the siblings, present or future, feel the effects of their parents’ grief. I know my children even as young as they were at the time, felt my grief over my miscarriages – the ones who have come along since then also feel the effects. Perhaps not those of a mother deep in mourning still – but in that loss changes a person. I am not the person I was before. Should I have not had them because I was changed? Should a person not adopt because they’ve been so changed? I guess my response to “why would an agency give a child to a family doused in grief” would be – why not? I am not sure there should be a different set of “rules” when it comes to adoption after the loss of a child. I realize I am seeing this from the angle of a parent – however, those families who lose a child and have another one biologically shortly thereafter are not put through a screening process first. They are allowed the ability to decide for themselves if they feel strong enough to have another child and take the risks. Plus – could a third party really set an specified amount of time sufficient for “grieving” before they would be “in the clear” so to speak? Grieving is a long and highly individualized process – not everyone is going to be at the same point after a set space of time. From personal experience and also that I have observed – losing a child is not something you get over, not quickly, not ever – you just learn how to move forward again. Making the choice to add a child to the mix after the loss of a child is part of moving forward.

3. AM Homes has a way of writing so distinctive, so enigmatic, that I folded myself into a chair and read the entire book in one sitting. She couldn't not know. Neither could I. Her stream of consciousness style writing had me hooked, and I read each page and kept thinking the same thing: What would it mean to me? What would I do? I am not adopted but I have often battled with that great question: Nature versus nurture. As she says on page 7 of the version I have, "I am dealing with the divide between sociology and biology: the chemical necklace of DNA that wraps around the neck sometimes like a beautiful ornament – our birthright, our history – and other times like a choke chain." How do you feel about your own birthright and DNA – is it a history or a choke chain?

I have to admit – this sounds a bit like the title of a book from one of my favorite authors Erma Bombeck, “Family – The Ties that Bind and Gag”! I am the oldest of eight children. In that case – sure – that much biological connection could certainly feel somewhat constricting, even overwhelming. Now – my siblings are some of my best friends. I can’t imagine living without them. Perhaps it sounds rather idealistic – but I grew up in a very large and very loving family, extended also. I had grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins that while they didn’t live close by – we saw them frequently enough or kept in touch with via letters or phone. Some less than others – but my brothers and sisters and I were always thrilled when one or more came to call or received a card or letter from a relative. We think alike in many ways and act alike – so there is an inherited understanding of each other which makes maintaining a relationship easy in many ways. It wasn’t always love and laughs – we had our share of fighting too. I use to tell people that I grew up in a family that was either hugging or hitting. I cannot say with absolute certainty that just by virtue of growing up with each other all those years didn’t play a large part in that “inherited” understanding and that biological connection accounts for it all. We grew up together because we were related, granted. Though, who is to say I would not have felt the same way if I still grew up with them and was not biologically related?

I have two very good friends who are adopted – one of whom I have known all but 6 years of my almost 40. She was adopted as well as two of her three siblings. I was 12 before I knew she was adopted – though she had known ever since she could remember. I was completely floored by this. Never in a million years would I have ever thought she and her adopted siblings were adopted. They acted just like my biological siblings and myself – in every regard. The squabbling, the interaction with each other and their parents, their relationships with one another – no difference. I could not tell the difference between her, her other adopted siblings and the one biological child in the family – no relationship differences in them or their parents. Nor could I see any difference between her family and mine in the sense of what I considered “family”. My other adopted friend has children who act in every regard just like their adopted maternal grandfather – though there is not one drop of related blood between them to account for this similarity. Nature may account for many things – such as the color of your eyes, hair, build and even the smile with the dimple in the left cheek – but I think nurture definitely has a large stake in the results as well. As for whether it is a history or a choke chain – I think that sometimes, the choice is up to us and what we make of that which we have inherited – through biology or circumstance.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (with author participation!)


loribeth said...

Julia, thank you, you expressed so eloquently many of the reasons why I find genealogy & family connections so fascinating. You also had some great thoughts on the homestudy process & grief. There is probably some benefit to working through your grief for awhile before attempting another pregnancy or adoption -- but at the same time, who's to say just how long that period should be?

JuliaS said...

Exactly! There is no set timeline for grieving, so to try and make one is awfully presumptuous. :0)

Besides, I know that initially in my grief - I was incapable of figuring out to wear, making decisions even easy ones like what to eat for breakfast (or even eat at all) were almost impossible. I could not have started the adoption process and followed through without getting past that first.

seattlegal said...

Thank you for your answers. What a great idea your family has on sending letters to relatives and asking questions! This is something I think I'll have my children do - it would be really interesting to read the answers.

The Town Criers said...

I loved hearing all the LDS stuff--I am woefully ignorant in LDS and want to learn more.

I think the point you made about the discrepancy between determining a grief timeline within adoption but not within pregnancy is what I was ineloquently saying over at I Won't Fear Love. How can someone else know when you're ready? And if this is of utmost importance, why aren't doctors stepping in to help guide those attempting pregnancy when they are emotionally ready to try again?

See, I'm still not saying this well.

Queenie. . . said...

I totally agree with your point about grief not following a set timeline, and about people having to make choices about what's right for them. Life can only be lived in one direction, and the answer cannot simply be that one can never have a family after loss. Because if that's the case, then I am out of the running.

Lori said...

You bring up some excellent points about grieving and parenting.

Deb said...

Thank you for your thoughts on the book! Your family ritual of celebrating on the family members birthday even when far away sounds very interesting and definately a way to hold close those that are far away.