Monday, April 14, 2008

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "The Mistress's Daughter"

It's time once more for the Barren B*tches Book Brigade, brought to you by Stirrup Queens & Sperm Palace Jesters. It’s an online book club where people sign up, read the book (usually, but not always, related to infertility and pregnancy loss), & submit a question. Lists of questions are distributed among the participants, and we pick at least three to answer in our blog, then visit each other's blogs to comment.

I had been eyeing “The Mistress’s Daughter” by A.M. Homes in bookstores for months. I thought I’d maybe wait for the paperback (which was just released this month), & was glad to have the excuse to buy it when Mel announced that it would be an upcoming book club selection.

After riding the rollercoaster of stillbirth and infertility, dh & I chose not to climb aboard the adoption rollercoaster -- for a myriad of reasons. But the longing for a biological child, who would be part of me and all the generations that had gone before me, and of dh and his family – and wondering about how much an adopted child would feel part of my broader biological family, and how much he or she would identify with and wonder about his/her birth parents – was certainly among the issues we wrestled with when making our decision.

This book confirmed some of my own feelings and thoughts about adoption and the role of genetics/biology. There were also parts of it that surprised me.

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How did having a daughter change her thoughts on her interactions with her biological mother?
This isn’t something that’s spelled out in the book… but I got the sense that having her own daughter helped her make her peace with both her biological & adopted families, & with some of the unanswered questions left by her birth mother's death & her birth father's rejection. I did find it interesting that she was so set on having a biological child. I was reminded of a former colleague (a few years younger than me, born in the early 1960s), who was adopted. After having her first child – the spitting image of his mother – I remember her remarking about how totally cool it was to finally have someone else in the world who looked just like her. She’d never had that before. I’d never thought of that particular aspect of adoption before, & her words have stuck with me.

A feeling of the "subtlety of biology," a lovely aphorism, is not something that Homes necessarily welcomes. I sometimes feel that biology raps me over the head when I look at biologically-related family members. How has infertility affected our feelings about the "subtlety of biology"?

I can’t remember where this quote came from in the book. I guess what the question is getting it is that biology can be a blessing but it can also be a curse -- & we don’t get to choose.

Like most families, I suppose, my relatives are always debating who looks like who, what characteristics seem to repeat themselves through the generations, etc. Genealogy has always fascinated me, as I wrote in a recent post. Two summers ago, I walked into a banquet hall in eastern Iowa filled with about 60 of my relatives – a family reunion. It was the first time I had ever been to Iowa (although I'd heard about it all my life), and I had never met many of these people before, but I felt instantly at home, and could immediately pick out which were my mother’s cousins, who must be who’s son or daughter, and so on.

It’s cool to look at my grandmother’s high school graduation photo & see my own eyes staring back at me. My mother told me she was watching an old video & wondered “Why is Lori in this video?” (because we didn’t have videos when I was a kid) – & then realized with a shock that it wasn’t me, it was my cousin’s daughter who (everyone agrees) bears an eerie resemblance to both me & my sister at that age.

This girl is now in her early 20s, with a toddler daughter (& another on the way). I look at the toddler, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my sister as a toddler, & wonder if that’s what Katie would have looked like.

Another cousin tells me his teenaged daughter reminds him of me at the same age -- not so much in looks, but in her love for books & her extreme sensitivity and seriousness. (This cousin used to tease me to death when we were his daughter’s age. I consider it genetic vengeance that he wound up with a daughter who is temperamentally just like I was then, lol.) I looked forward to seeing what characteristics and features our child would inherit from whom, and how he or she would be different.

I suppose if I had a traumatic childhood with a highly dysfunctional family, I might feel more like biology is rapping me over the head. There are certainly some family traits that I dislike (in myself or others in my family), or am not comfortable with. For example, like my dad, I sometimes find it difficult to be direct and express an opinion (& that can drive dh batty sometimes).

Most of my ancestors lived well into their 80s & 90s… but when my dr told me last spring that my blood pressure was up, I remembered my paternal grandmother, who battled with high blood pressure and died suddenly of a stroke at the far-too-young age of 68 (when I was 14), and it terrified me.

When I confessed to my mother about the anxiety attacks I’d been having (post IF treatment, although I didn't tell her about that part of it until later) and the Ativan I’d been taking for them, she told me she, my grandmother and one of my cousins had all had bouts of anxiety and taken various drugs for it. I had absolutely no idea & no remembrance of the period of her depression that she described to me, which happened when I was about 10.

Like all families, there are some relatives I like and feel closer to than others. On the whole, though, they’re a pretty decent bunch of people. I like knowing about my family, and the feeling that we all have something in common, even if we’re very different people in many ways. I guess that makes me pretty lucky. I even like knowing about the genetic pitfalls, like the high bp & anxiety. It makes me feel better to know that someone else has been through the same thing (it’s not just me), & it’s not something I’ve necessarily done myself, it’s partly genetic & while there’s not much I can do about that, I can be aware & take action where I can. (Which is why so many adoptions these days are open, or at least more open than they have been in the past, so that adopted children can have at least some knowledge of their birth family's medical history.)

And I guess that having a generally happy family experience & taking pleasure in our shared heritage & relationships is partly why I value(d) having a biological child. (There were other reasons why we didn’t adopt, but valuing the genetic tie was certainly part of it.) Most of the world just takes it for granted and never has to consider what you give up when you give up on the idea of genetic offspring. I’ve become very attuned to just how much people talk about family ties & resemblances, & it’s more frequent than you might think.

The other day, I overhead a pregnant coworker talking about seeing her baby on the ultrasound screen. The technician wanted to measure the back of the baby's neck, but the baby wasn’t cooperating – was laying on its back with its legs crossed and hands behind its head, like it was reclining on a couch. “Already just like my husband!” my coworker giggled.

It takes a special person to adopt -- to be able to give up on that idea, to know that you will never have that kind of built-in connection with your own child. You will still be connected to the child, of course, & love that child to death, but not that particular part of being a parent, of being part of an extended genetic chain.

Notwithstanding what happens in the book, most adoptions from the 1950s' and 60s' are closed, with birth records sealed except upon a courts' finding "good cause" to open them. In light of Homes's experiences, does this seem to be the appropriate method for handling adoption records?

I have very mixed feelings on this subject. Homes (like me) was born in 1961, & adoptions were handled much differently then. In general, I believe openness is a positive thing, and I sympathize with adoptees who want to find their birthparents, and birthparents who want to find out what happened to the babies they gave up for adoption. The knowledge of my genetic heritage is important to me; how could I deny that knowledge to anyone else?

Yet I’m also sympathetic to those who wish to remain unfound, for whatever reason. There is a move in Ontario right now to open past adoption files, but critics say it’s lacking a mechanism where either party can request to remain anonymous. I’ve heard stories of women who gave up babies years ago, in that era of silence, and have never told anyone, not even their spouse. They are terrified that someone will come looking for them & reveal their secret. It seems unfair to retroactively change the rules for people who went into an adoption arrangement thinking their identity would remain forever unknown.

I must admit that I’ve always been a huge sucker for reunion stories (of any kind, not just adoption-related) – whether it’s the birthmother & the daughter she gave up for adoption who found out they were coworkers and friends, the brother & sister reunited after being divided by the post-war Iron Curtain for 50 years, the old flames who meet again years later & wind up getting married, or some other such heartwarming tale that you read about or see on the TV news.

One of the really interesting things about this book for me is how it shows that not all reunions turn out to be the fairy tale “they lived happily ever” variety – they can be very complex situations. No doubt many adoption reunions are happy events, & there are positives to Homes’s reunion story. In the end, she says, “I couldn’t not know.”

However, as I read about Ellen (the birth mother)’s neediness and Homes’s withdrawal from her, her uncovering of Ellen’s criminal record, and her birth father’s callous behaviour toward her, I scribbled on a sticky note in the book, “Be careful what you wish for.” (Although, to be fair, Homes never sought her birth parents; her mother came looking for her.)

I remember reading a biography of Ayn Rand (yes, I devoured “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” when I was in university…!), who left her family in Russia in the 1920s to come to America. Years later, in the 1970s, as travel restrictions to & from the Soviet Union eased, she learned that her favourite younger sister was still alive behind the Iron Curtain. Rand was overjoyed & brought her sister & her husband to the United States for a “visit,” with the intention that they would stay in America with her and never return. However, 50 years of living apart in two very different societies had taken its toll -- there was friction between the sisters, & the Russian sister & her husband eventually returned to the certainty of their life in the Soviet Union. I think it was the first inkling I had that not all family reunions turn out happily.

The author talks about searching for information on her ancestors and realized that many of the people searching were not adopted. She realized from that the question of "who am I" is not unique to adoptees. At what point in your life, have you felt the same way?

I absolutely believe that everyone wrestles with that question in some way at some point in their life. For many of us, it’s when we’re teenagers; for some of us, it’s an ongoing process of self-discovery. I know that when my dh & I set off down the childfree road, I had to begin rethinking all over again just who I was and what I wanted to do with my life, if I wasn't going to be a mother after all. In some ways, I'm still trying to figure that one out...!

I do think that for adoptees – particularly those of my/Homes’s generation, who never had much information about their birth families – there is an additional layer of self to discover, if they so choose.

The genealogy part of the book was fascinating to me, & probably the part I wound up enjoying the most. Fascinating because it had not occurred to me that an adoptee’s interest in her birth family would extend into the past beyond her parents, and fascinating because of the information she was able to dig up & the family stories she was able to piece together, even with just the barest of details about her birth family to go on. I am hugely interested in genealogy myself (see my previous post on the topic). I found myself nodding & adding sticky notes to mark many of Homes’s observations on the thrill of the hunt, the ongoing mystery (I have always said that genealogy appeals to my inner Nancy Drew, lol), the need to construct a family narrative and how “every life lived is of interest.”

The story about Ellen's boxes and the fact that the author was unable to go through them for several years struck a cord with me as I have my own boxes that are hiding in the house waiting for unpacking. Have you experienced something similar with a project, book, or other item that plagued you with emotions that prevented you from tackling it? What was the situation? How did it resolve-- did you become zealous about something you discovered during the resolution (like the author's quest for her genealogy) or did it just all fade away?

I can think of several examples of "unopened boxes" (some of them literal) from my own life:

1) Shortly before I made that fateful trip to the doctor’s office for my six-month pregnancy checkup, dh & I went to Sears & bought a Classic Pooh bedding set (on sale) for Katie’s nursery, and ordered a wallpaper border from the Sears catalogue. The border arrived just after the funeral. I tossed the box from Sears, unopened, into the closet with the bedding set. After awhile, I started thinking, “What if they screwed up the order & sent me the wrong border??” But I didn’t have the heart to open the box to find out. Until finally, on August 5, 2003, the fifth anniversary of that dr’s visit, I sat on the bedroom floor & decided today would be the day. I opened the box. It was the right border. (It’s all still sitting in the closet. I can't give it away.)

2) The day I made that fateful dr’s visit, I brought a book along with me to read in the waiting room – a thriller called “A Dry Spell” by Susie Maloney. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but it was getting a lot of press (Tom Cruise supposedly bought the movie rights), & it took place in the Dakotas, familiar territory to me. I can remember sitting in the ultrasound waiting room, with the knowledge that my dr hadn’t been able to find a heartbeat with the Doppler (but still hopeful the technician would be able to do what he hadn’t), and reading about malevolent spirits & possession & such, and just having this uneasy feeling.

I took the book with me to the hospital & tried to finish reading it in the weeks after my daughter’s stillbirth – once I start a book, I very rarely leave it unfinished. I think I eventually ended up just sort of skimming over the last few chapters to find out what happened & then putting it away, relieved to be able to move onto something else, something not quite so dark. (I think the next book I read was “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – much better, made me laugh, even in the midst of my grief & shock.)

3) I started scrapbooking in 2002, partly because it intrigued me, partly because it brought together so many of the things that interested me (family stories & photos, writing, pretty paper and pens…!) in a creative way – but also partly because I thought a scrapbook might be a good way to commemorate Katie’s brief existence, preserve our memories & showcase some of the few mementos I’d collected. I started collecting supplies -- Classic Pooh & butterfly themed papers & embellishments. I put off starting the project, because I was only just beginning to learn about this hobby, & I didn’t want to screw anything up. I wanted to “practice” on other photos first & hone my craft. This, of all album projects, would have to be perfect!!

I have a great collection of stuff – but I still haven’t done a single page in the album. I’ve been preoccupied scrapbooking for our nephews the past few years. Perhaps, in this 10th “anniversary” year, it’s time for me to get started….!

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After reading this book, I picked up another with a similar theme, after seeing a story about it on “CBS Sunday Morning.” “Identical Strangers” is the story of adoptees Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who went looking for some information about their birth parents and found… each other! – identical twins, separated shortly after birth. Not only that, they come to learn they were deliberately separated as part of a secret study on separated twins. They join forces to try to force the release of the confidential study records, and learn the identity of their birth parents. It’s an amazing story, with lots of insights on the whole "nature vs nurture" debate, & I’d recommend it, perhaps as a future book tour selection?

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!)


  1. Your mention of not being able to do a scrapbook for your daughter reminds me that I have never been able to do one for Matthew. And it's been almost 10 years. Like you, I have all the stuff, even some Classic Pooh cutouts, etc.

    But I haven't done it.

    Maybe you and I should get together and do them one afternoon? Force each other to do something!

  2. Great thoughts on genes and genealogy, topics that interest me as well.

  3. I went out and immediately bought your recommended book, Identical Strangers - thanks for that, it sounds thought-provoking.

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  5. It's so interesting--I love reunions too (all kinds)--the bringing of two people together and prior to reading the book, I would have always said reunions are fantastic. This book made me more circumspect--I still love reunions, but I now understand why some people choose to hold back and not enter and why others connect.

  6. Thank you for sharing your well thought out answers and interesting thoughts!

  7. Scrapbooking: me too. I started collecting supplies before A died, and I remember thinking in the hospital, shortly after they started the induction, that I would make that scrapbook for him. Hasn't happened yet. But then I haven't made any scrapbooks yet either. But I also was planning on practicing on something else. It took me ten years to put our wedding album together, so it seems A's scrapbook will be a while too...

  8. Thank you for your answers! I'm going to have to check out "Identical Strangers" - it sounds like a book that would really interest me.

  9. I have a cousin who is adopted. When she turned 21, she looked up her bio parents. Her bio parents married after college [that's when the pregnancy occured] Her parent's names are Charlotte and Bill and my aunt and uncle's names are Shirley and Bill. The 1st child her bio parents had as married couple they named Chrissy. My cousin's name is Chrissy. My uncle walked my cousin down the aisle in chuch and her bio parents sat in the second pew.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts and reflections on the book. Course - I pretty much enjoy just about everything you write and even eagerly look forward to your Christmas letter each year! lol

    I really liked your thoughts on the issue of closed or open adoption. I have to admit I fall into the category of the "I would want to know" - everything, all of it. I am the type who skips to the end of the book sometimes if I become so involved that I HAVE to know before I can continue. I still go back and read through all the way to the end - but with the knowledge of what I will find at the end. Your comments got me thinking about all the parties involved and looking at it from the standpoint of maybe not wanting to know or be known.

    Good job!

  11. The question about whether the records should be open is the toughest because it sets right against right--the right to know versus the right to remain anonymous. It's very hard to split the difference between the two. What that kind of debate obscures and what Homes's book reveals is that the information isn't the end, it's really just the beginning.

  12. I, too, enjoyed "Atlas Shrugged."

    I bet it's bittersweet to see photos of your cousin's daughter.