Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011



My younger daughter adopted two children, each arranged before birth, each put into her arms within a few days of birth—the first, 4 years ago in Massachusetts, and the second, 2 years ago in Louisiana. Both adoptions are 'semi open'—the new style. My daughter & her husband submitted the whole thing each time: a dear birth mother letter, the album picture story of their life, all to induce a pregnant woman intent on surrendering her child to choose them. They met the mothers and some family members and keep in touch through an agency in one case and a lawyer in the other—sending a letter or two with photographs a year. (The birthparents are told there's a letter and can pick it up or not.) Both daughters keep as a middle name the name given to them by their birthmother. A token they will be told about... Thus Evelyn Monique and Agnes Grace. Their first names are family too: Evelyn is a favorite great aunt of my son-in-law; Agnes is my grandmother, who meant a great deal to me in childhood.

In truth this separation is another fiction. The families could find my daughter and her husband in a flash...via address, last name, employer, etc. At least for now. But they don't. Everyone obeys the rules.


The cost of modern American semi-open domestic adoption is not all that high in money terms. There’s lots of false information circulating on this. Also stories, totally outdated most of them, about the insecurity of domestic adoptions. That a court may demand return of a child to the biological family, for example. As a life-long conspiracy theorist, unconscious conspiracy, that foulest of all, being paramount, I speculate reasons may have to do with deep distrust of many white Americans for people with African heritage—plus class issues, of course, plus fear of exposure, all of which are ameliorated when a baby comes from a culture far away. Not even the prospect of being present at the baby’s birth, of bringing that baby home within a very few days, is enough to overcome a widespread preference for adoptions from Asia or the Caucuses by those with the resources to effect them.

The actual cost of the “domestic semi-open” is invasion—and the presence of a birthparent in the adoptive family’s collective imagination. Like all adoptions, this parenthood doesn’t start under the covers, in the back of a dark van, in a hot private midnight no one else knows. Grief enough. As in foreign adoptions, institutional grey-blue florescent light bathes every move. Domestic adoptions go still deeper. Not only the “Dear birthmother” letter and the photo album depicting the ideal childhood promised to the baby, but also social worker home studies, employment and medical histories, financial reviews, Homeland Security clearance, pre-adoption counseling, and enough certified paperwork for a Fortune 500 merger, all provided for uncounted strangers to review, copy, file and, oh yes, lose and then demand replacement of. Topped off by a required live performance before the birth: the face to face meeting of prospective parents with pregnant birthmother along with agency rep and whomever else birthmother has requested to be present.

Remember, parents, this is not an interview. We social workers have done all that. This is a meeting, a chance for you all to know each other a little more. (Why?) This is not the time to press for facts. (Why not?) The sibling question for example, is not to be touched. (Why?) In part, I think, this performance is structured to protect birthmother’s self esteem. She is not to feel incompetent, stupid, crazy or sick—though she may be some, all, or none. But she is also not acknowledged to be desperate or even in trouble. This decision is to be seen by all involved as an act of altruism. For the visit, birthmother is pulling on a face of respectability so the adopters will think well of her. To protect herself from any hint of scorn she’ll make coffee and serve something sweet, tell lies about herself and her circumstances, tell her visitors she is sure she has made a wonderful choice. This is the first step in a process that will continue during her free counseling sessions in the weeks following the surrender. Her story will be processed, justified, dewormed and buried in clean wrappings. In my family there are now two such women. I think about them. So does my daughter. My son-in-law operates on a stricter sense of denial, so if he does too, the fact isn’t shared with me. But we all agree that someday there may be contact with one of these women and their birth child, if their daughter, my granddaughter wants it.

The aim of all this is to make a good story about of two bad ones…and surely this is more humane than any adoption process used in the past. I now have four grandchildren, and I could not imagine my life or my family without any one of them.

(Martha’s daughters Hetty and Mallory, and granddaughters Satrianna, Aggie and Evie)

(Martha and her husband artist-poet Basil King)


I haven't written about this explicitly...but the adoption has certainly had an impact on my world view, on my emotions, on my "family" feelings, on what I've observed of the dance of nature and nurture (which sounds so academic, but believe me it's not!). Essay to come perhaps? Impact is here and working. I never suspected the impact would be this profound, that's for sure. Initially, adoption only seemed to offer relief of the pain of childlessness...after too many miscarriages.

I have wrestled all my writing life with the shifts between memory and inventions, family (and social) lies and conspiracies, ethical demands of loyalty and ethical demands of art, the impossibility of telling a “whole” story, of writing itself as a need to be seen and yet to hide. My family circumstances and the choices my daughter made have confirmed my instinct that these are worthy issues to contend with…and, perversely, conversely, delightfully, they have helped me decide to leave off memoir and consider poetry again. With a willful dissolution of boundaries at my disposal. With an eye to humor always lurking in the quagmire underneath the logical bridge. With a huge hello to Satrianna, Kirin, Evelyn, and Aggie!



“Impact is here and (still) working.”



Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty.

Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle in the late 1980s (sent free to interested readers). She has worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, for Poets & Writers, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and currently for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Her collections of short stories include North & South (2007), Separate Parts (2002), and Little Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. A collection of her poetry, Imperfect Fit, was published in 2004. Currently, King is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters of which have appeared in Jacket #40, Bombay Gin, Blaze Vox and New York Stories.



Von said...

Adoption is indeed complicated and complex.Imagine how it feels for adoptees?

Anonymous said...

I've heard all kinds of responses by adoptees-- from totally grateful to full of rage. I'm not sure I'll be here to see how my granddaughters respond, but their parents will be open. In addition to their middle names, there are photographs to show - and a pretty calm acceptance on the parents side that the kids can choose to seek out their bio parents once they are 18. This could blow either way.... --Martha