A Legitimate Plea

I was introduced to the concept of legitimacy when I was very, very young.

I was born in May 1968; and, according to my mother, she and my father were married in October 1968.  For years, until I understood how the calendar worked, she was able to convince me that because October comes before May in the school calendar, she and my father were most certainly married prior to my birth.

This was accepted lore until I one day sat down and figured it all out.  Having felt duped and not a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discern the truth, I was compelled to find out why . . . why it was so important to maintain this illusion, why it was worth lying to a child?

So I asked.  And she replied: “I didn’t want the world to know you weren’t legitimate.”

This didn’t make sense.  What could this possibly mean, I thought.   What makes one person legitimate and another not?   I mean, here I was–flesh and blood and clearly thinking critically about all this.  How could I possibly not be legitimate?  I am here.

Fast-forward a decade-and-a-half.  Staring out at the Atlantic Ocean from the deck of the Block Island ferry, my future mother-in-law by my side, she and I talked at length about my upcoming wedding to her son.  She asked if we would consider getting married in the Catholic Church, and I found myself wandering back to 15 years before, wondering if her son’s and my plan to be married by a Justice of the Peace at a restaurant did not strike her as legitimate.  And I ask: How could our marriage be anything but legitimate? Nineteen years later, we are still here.

As parents who formed their family through adoption, we are often confronted by the concept of legitimacy–what constitutes a real family.  When people ask if we know our children’s real parents, meaning their birth parents, we are continually struck by the fact that, in the eyes of some, we are not legitimate parents.   And yet our eight-plus years as parents have brought the trials, the tribulations, the sleep deprivation, the worry, and the love that all parents know.  How could we not be legitimate parents?  Ask our sons and I think they would tell you otherwise.

As we contemplate the intersection of having a child out-of-wedlock, not marrying in the Church, parenting through adoption, and the right of same-sex couples to marry, the parallels are many and, for me, the connection visceral.  At the root is this misguided notion of legitimacy–what is and what is not legitimate and who gets to decide.

I certainly don’t know who gets to decide.  But having been on the receiving end of individuals and institutions that think it’s them, I can tell you it’s not.  Or it shouldn’t be.  I am obviously no less a human being because my parents were not married when I was born.  I am no less my husband’s partner because we were not married in the Church.  And I am surely no less a mother because we adopted our children.

And no two people who love one another and want to commit to a life together are no less, no less legitimate than any other couple.  Period.

Word Power

It’s just one page in a magazine of 118.

Just one word in article of roughly 250 others.

But as the mother of a child with epilepsy, it caught my attention.

Of course it did–because of my son and because of the constant battle fighting the stigma that epilepsy garners is.

“Kelly Osbourne: Shocking Health Scare” (People, 25 March 2013) is swathed in purple, the signature color of epilepsy awareness–from the celebrity’s hair color, to the highlight of her name, to the enlarged first letter of the article, to the pull quote from a physician and director of the Epilepsy Center at the University of Cincinnati.

At first glance, the article appears to be the product of thought, even sensitivity.

And then . . .

“Ultimately doctors concluded that the incident was likely a onetime freak episode, and Osbourne was discharged after five days with a clean bill of health.”

Freak.

And here we go again . . .

Of course, we understand the author’s intent.  And of course we know what it meant by the expression “freak episode.”  It’s not the denotation I am questioning but rather the connotation.

Every word has a denotation–its dictionary definition.  But most also have at least one connotation–an underlying meaning where prejudice and bias reside.  If you are responsible with your finances, would you rather be called economical or miserly?  If your personality stands out from the crowd, would you opt for the label unique or bizarre?  Would you rather your employer call your dress-down Friday look casual or sloppy?  If you are at a certain age, would you prefer the adjective mature or old?

You might not prefer either; but if you were forced to choose, you’d probably opt for the first.

IMG_3235-002Epilepsy is steeped in a history that includes seeing those contending with the condition as “freaks”–as possessed by spirits, the devil even.  The word–no matter its contemporary denotation–has no business in an article about epilepsy.  Period.

So, with all due respect to the editors of People magazine who may have degrees more advanced than mine or a command of the language I have not yet mastered, may I humbly suggest the following edit:  Delete “freak.”  And if your own common sense did not lead you to that conclusion, how about consulting the medical expert to which you clearly had access?  I’m sure he could tell you the extreme trial walking the planet with epilepsy is and how you–one of the premier purveyors of popular culture–do no one any favors by including such a thoughtless word choice.

Words have meaning and they also have power.  My son–and everyone for whom epilepsy is a daily battle–would thank you to use that power if not for good than at least appropriately.

It’s the least you can do.

What’s in a Name?

IMG_3795-001In the world of open adoption what your child calls his or her birthmother (or birthfather) is of no small significance, and it’s different for every family.  It also may change as your child grows.

Many adoption professionals caution against having a child call his/her birthmother “Mom” or some variation thereof for the simple reason that it has the potential to be confusing.  That being said, for some it may be exactly right.

For us, August has always called his birthmother by her first name.  And I must admit–for the reasons proffered by the professionals and possibly for what may have started as my own selfishness–I was glad.  We refer to her by her first name and as his “birthmother,” and August understands he grew “in her belly.”  When it’s time for a visit, we say, “You’re going to see your birthmother,” and on the ride I remind him of who she is, of the significance she holds in his–in our–life.

The word “birthmother” is always part of the conversation.

For August, today’s visit had a slightly different feel, an energy I had yet to discern at any previous visit.   He held onto me–very tight and for a comparatively long time–and referred to me as his “mommy,” his “mother” many times.

Too many it seemed.

His place in my life and mine in his is never in question.  He is my son.  I am his mother.  We don’t broadcast it because we don’t need to.

But he needed to today–for reasons he cannot yet articulate and I can only surmise.

And I found myself feeling uneasy, worried even lest his birthmother–someone who selflessly passed the role of August’s mother on to someone else, to me–would be hurt.

Adoption begins with a loss–a loss for a birthparent who understands that true parenting begins by putting your child’s needs before your own.  But even in the best of circumstances–when a birthmother’s decision is her own to make–the loss is palpable.

It is also painful to watch.

August is beginning to understand who his birthmother is, but he also seems to have a need right now to publicly proclaim me his mother–to her.  It was uncomfortable to be sure, but clearly it is what he needed.

And I realized whether the road before us is smooth, uncomfortable, or downright painful, August is driving; and his needs trump ours–birthmother and mother–now and forever.

On THE CREATIVE MAMA

IMG_2603This afternoon my seven-year-old son Edgar is off to investigate the Newport Academy of Ballet.

He wants to be a dancer. He’s not merely intrigued, not intent only on dabbling. He has aspirations of the Billy Elliot variety; and his first goal is to dance in The Nutcracker.

Edgar has always followed his heart where interests were concerned, never deterred by so-called gender norms and stereotypes . . .

Please go over to The Creative Mama to read more.

Say It to His Face

IMG_3704What do you do when someone is having a seizure in the bathtub?

Hold on to your hat now . . . This just might be the funniest punchline ever . . .

Throw in a load of laundry.

Twitter was alive with the sound of stigma at the recent news of Kelly Osbourne’s possible diagnosis of epilepsy.  And as part of the unedited response to this announcement, the above (fill in the blank) was retweeted seventy-seven times in a single day.

That one person thought this was worth posting is disturbing enough, but seventy-seven?

So, I pose to the seventy-seven:

Would you be able to look into my son’s eyes, into my eyes and say that out loud?

Are other health conditions also fair game for similar vitriolic commentary–maybe something with which your mother or sister or child or best friend may have to contend?

And to everyone else who understands the horror show this truly is, I must ask:

How do I begin to explain the depths of human pathology to my seven-year-old son who has epilepsy and to his brothers who have watched him have seizure after seizure–including in the bathtub?

How do I hold onto hope for the next generation’s evolving understanding of epilepsy when Twitter, the social media playground of the young, is home to such venom?

And tonight I ask myself:

How do I look my seven-year-old son in the eye and say anything other than “I am so sorry”?

On ADDitude Today

“Magnets! Magnets! Magnets!” chanted my seven-year-old son as he zigzagged up the ramp to get to the second floor of our local children’s museum. I held my breath and uttered my own chant, “Please don’t let anyone else be at the magnet station. Please.” We rounded the corner, and there he was — a very sweet, very placid little boy playing happily with the magnets, his mother close by.

Two months ago — before our son’s ADHD diagnosis, before our decision to use stimulant medication to treat his condition — I could have predicted what would have been next. My son would have bounded into this child’s personal space, grabbed any magnets he wanted from the boy, then screamed once or twice, until eventually the boy would abandon the magnets and his mother would give me the look.

Please click here to read more on ADDitude Magazine’s website . . .

Looking Out for Her

Friday, 8 March 2013

5:58 AM

“Mom!  Mom!  Mom! Did you remember that today is my Adoption Day?”

Oscar bounded down the stairs with accompanying sound effects commensurate with his excitement.  I was making breakfast, and the answer to his question was “How could I ever forget?”

“Mom, you need to call or email my principal so he can call me down because it’s a special day for me, and that’s what we do when someone has a special day.  Can you do that?  Can you?”

The fact he is so comfortable with the idea of adoption, with his adoption, and so willing–even eager–to share this aspect of himself is affirming to be sure, but that is not the story on this the eighth anniversary of his Adoption Day.

This story begins at 3 PM–as soon as school was dismissed for the day–and my happy son, who had been basking in the glow of his day for the last nine hours clambered into my car, his copious backpack wobbling as he made his way to his seat.  He told me his principal called him down and that he received some special treats.  He was beside himself, and then . . .

IMG_3765“Mom, some of my friends had questions about adoption, so I had to answer them.”

Realizing my son was claiming his rightful place as the conduit of information regarding the details of his adoption, and seamlessly at that, I was eager to learn what his classmates asked and how he responded.

“Well, they wanted to know how old I was when I was adopted.”

An infant.

“And they wanted to know if I had ever met my birthmother.”

Only for a few minutes after birth.

I then asked him, thinking this would be on the minds of third-graders with the same gusto it is with most:  “Oscar, did your friends ask you why your birthmother couldn’t care for you, why she made an adoption plan?”

He responded:  “No, and I’m kind of glad they didn’t.”

He knows the answer, of course, and could have answered the question had it been posed, had he been inclined.

I asked him why he was glad they hadn’t asked.

“Well, I guess you could say I didn’t want to embarrass her.  I don’t know.  What happened to her is her personal business.  She is my first mom, and I think it’s kind of my job to look out for her.  Is that right, Mom?”

And all I could whisper, on this most profound day, was, simply–and tearfully–yes.