Tightrope Walking the Line of Integrity

tightropeSo I went “back to work” (in quotes because I’ve been nothing if not working since our daughter was born).  I went back to the kind of work where you leave the house in clothes that aren’t stained and sit in front of a computer ostensibly producing something of value that, in the end, turns out not to matter very much because…DUH…everything that matters is about 34.5 inches tall, 25 months old, obsessed with popsicles and in love with a stuffed giraffe named Girard. (Girard is actually the one who wants a popsicle at every meal; he also wants to sleep with mommy in the “big bed,” doesn’t need naps, and runs around in circles yelling “Hooray for Hat!” at the top of his voice.)

But this post is not about work. Or Girard. Or the talkative toddler who loves him. (Unfortunately, because THAT would be a lot more fun to write.)

integrityThis post is about trying to live in integrity.

Mostly this blog is a place where I try to figure stuff out. I write about it, and in writing and hearing your comments, parts of my confusion and clarity separate like oil and water, and I’m able to suss out the source of unease, despair or longing. Thank you for that.

This evening I’m uneasy because I’m starting to notice that in some ways, my behavior is driven by a desire to “do the right thing” rather than my own internal need, want, desire. I perceive this disconnect as signaling that I am “out of integrity” in some areas of my life.

I would be lying if I said I don’t care what people think about me. I care very much. I want them to think that I’m kind, loving, responsible, respectful, passionate, talented, and fun.

I want to be a good mom, and I want others to see me as a good mom. (I’m happy to jettison those who judge me not to be, as long as I net a few in my corner.)

But often I don’t really want to do the good mom things. I want to do the lazy-tired-go-away-I’m-grumpy mom things. And – here’s the rub – I STILL want to get the gold star.

For example, I am planning a celebration with my lovely wife (since we can now legally get married in our home state), and what I feel is: I want to do the right thing with our daughter’s extended birth family AND our daughter’s extended adoptive family AND my wife’s birth family, but I don’t want to hurt so-and-so’s feelings and so-and-so’s feelings and really I just want to shout: GET ALONG, GROW UP, STOP MAKING IT SO DIFFICULT FOR ME. This is MY day.

On the other hand, I’m hyper-aware of how an adoptive mom in our extended family is defensively proud of her “open” relationship with us…a relationship that lately has been heaping full of  closed doors, hurtful accusations, lies and denials. (But I think I’m confusing “open” with “honest”…maybe they aren’t the same thing.)

What if “openness” is just another “good mom” badge? Like the little medals that boy scouts accumulate on their sash. What if “open” adoptive moms and dads don’t really mean it, as I suspect is the case for many people?

Here is where my usual fallback of “we are all doing the best we can, we mothers, and everyone is okay” completely breaks down. Because we are NOT all doing okay. Some of us are hurting others, maybe unconsciously, or because we are wounded, or whatever.

I, as an adoptive mom, DO really mean it. I want to be loving and respectful, but sometimes I don’t honor my own boundaries.

Because this adoption relationship is imbalanced when it comes to power, I feel something akin to guilt: As an adoptive parent, I’m the dominant party. I can’t abdicate my power and privilege, so I need to use it to break the system. This makes it very difficult.

I am so aware of how it feels to be afraid to say anything that might cause us to lose the (little shred of possible) access we have as a birth family. This means that, as an adoptive mom, it is challenging to be honest when my feelings are hurt…because I deeply know how painful it is to be so afraid.

Thinking about this, I can feel that deep down, what I really want and NEED is to be real. (I think being an abuse survivor wires you this way…denial is the death knell of healing.)

Just like the “real dear birth mother letter” that I posted long ago, I want to be honest about everything that troubles me with the extended family in our life. But as the wife of a birth mom, I can’t take that risk. And as an adoptive mom, I don’t want to hurt others. Openness isn’t a badge to me.

Which makes me wonder: is it even possible to be honest in a relationship where the power imbalance is so great? When it comes to open adoption, I doubt it, and that is part of why I believe we need to change the system.

So I’m uneasy. There must be a balance between being respectful and being honest.

What do you think: Is it ethically wrong to stay silent in order to keep something that you aren’t willing to lose?

If you don’t have any thoughts about that, tell me about your child’s best soft friend (we call ‘stuffed animals’ soft friends in our house, it sounds so much nicer). Distraction from the hard questions is always welcomed.

Adoption: We Need a Better Way

I’ve needed to write for a while, but I haven’t had the guts. Our family has been struggling and a lot of it is confidential, so it is a challenge to sort out what parts are my story to tell and what parts I need to keep private.

I knew the words were a mistake as they were leaving my mouth, but I was in the grip of an anger so fierce it literally felt like fire. Some of you may recognize this: Mama Bear when the ones you love are being hurt. Claws and sharp teeth and ROAR. So much roar.

I don’t know how to tell this story without telling the story, but I don’t want to break confidences.

A friend who grew up in Oakland says that when he was a kid, you never wanted to be taken to Kaiser. If you got sick, you told the ambulance driver: take me anywhere else.

But recently as I sat in the playroom in the Pediatrics ward of the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, it didn’t seem that bad. My robust, healthy daughter played with a thin boy in a brown hospital gown with IVs taped to his arm: Sammy.

Sammy’s dad and I sat around the table in the playroom. Sammy invented a game with plastic beaded bracelets his dad had made for him, and we participated the best we could with the inventive rules of a 5-year-old. We began with just a few bracelets, and then when the game got more complicated, Sammy’s dad dug more bracelets out of his jeans’ pocket.

I wondered about those bracelets: when had Sammy’s dad made them, and how long had Sammy been in the hospital, and when might he go home? Sammy’s daddy looked so tired. But we had fun playing the game, laughing and joking, as my rosy-cheeked girl ran circles around the table and pushed chairs about.

When you are in a crisis, the best and the worst seem to float to the surface and persist. That day, playing with Sammy, was one of the best.

I will always regret that it was there — in that playroom, Sammy and his dad having stepped out to meet with their nurse — that I lost my temper and the very worst of everything collided.

Some of you know that fierce anger, and how it feels in your body to be Mama Bear when your cubs are being hurt. Sharp claws, teeth, the roar. I roared. And received in return, the worst of all possible things: I was not going to be allowed to see him. And they would take away my wife’s access to her birth son. Unless we behaved, didn’t insist on our “rights” or confront them. There is no way I can describe the terror that flooded me in that moment, or how heavy the regret hunched in my stomach.

I’m an adoptive mom, married to an amazing woman who is an adoptive mom and birth mom and adoptee.

We were there in that hospital for my wife’s birth son, who was fighting for his life. But we had no legal right to be there. And so we behaved. Choking down panic and grief, I left the hospital, and my wife apologized for me, accepted her role: they were generous in allowing her to even be there, to see her birth son.

This is open adoption, what it looks like for us in this part of our family. My heart, whatever jumble of love and pain and fury might be called “heart,” is still shattering and reassembling itself, over and over, as I try to understand how to be helpful and compassionate and wise instead of wounded and furious and selfish.

I know that there is much in this story that probably doesn’t make sense, but my reason for writing is to ask, again, about how we decide who has the rights to a child. The social worker at the hospital who intervened (to ask to me leave) argued with us that my wife’s son was “not your son because you gave him up.” When we explained about open adoption, about the agreement and the (broken) promises, she asked how often we’d seen him and then quickly retracted. Apparently there is some measure of number of visits that do grant you something (nothing legal, just generosity) in regard to the life you made in your body, the one you would die for.

We aren’t delusional. As adoptive moms, we know very well what it means to be a parent. It’s how children experience it: mom or dad is the one who makes you the bracelets, dozens and dozens of them, for your days in the hospital. They are there always. Every day.

From the outside, and to the kids themselves, it looks like birth parents aren’t there every day. That’s part of the deal, what was signed up for. But I know, because it is my family, that some birth parents think of their child EVERY DAY. Love that child. Hope and pray and weep for that child, the one that is part of them, will always and never be theirs.

It doesn’t count legally but it counts. Oh it counts. It’s called love.

And there has to be a better way to do family than this setup where adoptive parental power is absolute and access is used as the ultimate weapon. We have to find a better way.

Not a Letter to My Daughter on International Women’s Day

womens-dayIt’s International Women’s Day, and there are so many excellent letters from fathers and mothers to their daughters currently trending on the interwebs. Reading them, I realize how much of what I might say to our daughter reflects ME: my struggles, the lessons I’ve learned, the dreams I still have for myself.

Recently we visited with a young mom who is in the process of coming out, and struggling with her conservative faith background. It’s been twenty years (wow!) since I came out, and what I remember most is the fear. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive.

Like so many women of my generation, I excel at people-pleasing and self-negation and here-let-me-squish-myself-into-this-mold-to-make-you-love-me. I knew my desire for women was old, beginning at least as early as third grade. But I figured that everyone had those feelings, and we just ignored them, to do what the church told us to do. Also: I was terrified of losing God.

This blog has been a place where I say things I am not supposed to, a place where I challenge my self-censor. So I will tell you something that I don’t usually tell people, because it is painful and I am afraid you will judge me.

When I made the decision to come out, it wasn’t because I believed in a woman’s right to define her own sexuality. (I would, later, but I hadn’t yet found Marilyn Frye or Audre Lorde.) I was 19 years old.

When I came out, it was to save my life.

In December 1993, I was violently sexually assaulted by a man on the very long train ride from Los Angeles to Salem, Oregon. I didn’t fight back. I was tired. Also: I had lots of practice letting things happen to my body that I didn’t choose. I’d been trained in that, as surely as I’d been trained that girls like boys and men are stronger than women.

I was 19 years old, and I failed to protect myself. I was tired, so very tired, of letting things happen, of the shame and ick and scalding hot showers afterwards.

I knew that I was the only one who could protect myself. I had to claim my body as mine, as beloved and worth the work to defend and cherish.

Here is where I worry you will misunderstand: that you will think that I came out to avoid sexual violence. But I know (perhaps more than the average woman) that being with women doesn’t ensure safety. It wasn’t the gender of the perpetrator, it was me: something in me that I hadn’t been able to hold on to.

So I stepped out to figure out what it might mean to say NO. No, not just to violence, but no to all of it: to everyone’s expectations of who I should be and whom I should desire.

And as I did that, as I stood up for myself, it slowly stopped mattering what others expected or said about God’s ability to love me. Once I stood up for myself, I got to choose. What did I want? That I knew…had always known.

This isn’t a story I am ready to share with my daughter. Perhaps not for a long while, if ever. I want time – years and years – to teach her the good stuff before she learns about the violence, about the reasons we still need a Women’s Day, and feminism, and gender equality.

I want my daughter to learn that her body is hers and no one else’s…that her needs, feelings and desires are important and require no apology or sanction. I want her to be affirmed of what she already knows: that she is beautiful beyond measure and worthy — to her soul’s core — of love and respect.

Writing this now, I realize that the stories I want to share with my daughter are the ones that I rarely celebrate: the day I signed the lease for my teeny first apartment, the outfit I chose for my first date with the woman who would become my wife, the summer I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia alone and backpacked through Eastern Europe solo for eight weeks. My first time preaching, the way my hands shook, and the way I knew — wholly and without question — that God, Holy Mystery, loves not only me but everybody (and my work might just be helping people to see that too).

On this Women’s Day, my wish is that our old stories of what we survived may fall away and the stories of how we thrive may rise up to shine — vibrant, courageous, and true.