Council of Natural Mothers' Library
This book is an excellent source for information on the response of fathers to losing their children to adoption. Gary Coles has drawn from three sources to build information about natural fathers: personal, research and advocacy. Each source is contained in one section of the book:
Section One: The Arrow Sent Forth
The seven chapters of this section tell the story of how Coles came to lose his son to adoption. This must have been a very difficult section to write, because it is the story of him abrogating responsibility for his part in the pregnancy of his love and partner when they were in university.
Coles makes this story, so common for the times, understandable in human terms, showing that the fathers of these children lost to adoption were also victims of the societal values of the time--fathers were expected to carry on with their lives and leave the women so that they didn't ruin their own career prospects. It's clear from his account that he and Kay, his partner, did love one another, and would have been quite capable of raising their child had they been supported rather than judged by his father and society in general. He says that "Kay and I also panicked, mistaking activity for considered action. We did not have to make a final decision two months into Kay's pregnancy." This is good advice for any person caught in unexpected pregnancy--there are months to explore options and find ways to accommodate the child's birth within the natural family.
The story describes in unsentimental terms Coles' reaction to losing both Kay and his child: he become emotionally numb. He touches on the effects of this for his life and subsequent family. Finally, Coles acknowledges his responsibility and explores his emotional response to this critical event in his life. He searches for Kay and then for his son. However, the contact with his son, James, is bungled by officials (where have we seen that before?), and James refuses contact with his natural family. From the fact that the officials contacted the widowed adoptive mother, I would infer that she made her objections known and that therefore James denied contact to protect her feelings. This is a common enough pattern when adoptive parents are contacted before the adults who were adopted.
Coles' reflections on his actions and emotional life are sensitively and carefully rendered. They allow us to see that a father who loses his son to adoption also regrets this loss, as mothers do. This honesty touched me as I read it and reminded me of the only 20 minute conversation I have had with my lost son's father, upon finding him several months after I was found by our son. I had carried resentment against him for the loss of our son for 27 years at the point of that conversation, but in talking with him I realized that he also grieved for the loss of his only son. He recognized that he'd made mistakes, just as I had and also recognized. I realized in the course of the call that we were both young and unsupported at the time. These realizations allowed me to let go of the resentment I felt towards him. It made reunion with our son much easier, since it allowed me to speak well of him to our son.
Section Two: The Unstable Bow
The second section of this book summarizes research on adoption with a view to fathers' experiences and psychology. In the first chapter of this section, Coles takes exception to models of adoption described as a triangle or circle, because
He goes on to describe the marginalization of the father, and the fathers' absence in law, in practice, in support groups and other healing mechanisms. He proposes instead a model of adoption as a sandwich, in which the child is sandwiched between natural and adoptive families. He explores the nature of the relationships beyond the immediate families also, including the many relatives such as spouses of the natural parents, siblings and grandparents.
Coles describes the loss of a child to adoption as having many similarities for both mothers and fathers, but with some essential differences. Fathers, he says, may also feel that being unable to take care of their partners affects their view of themselves as men. After all, men are supposed to be able to take care of their partners and children. Thus, their first abandonment or loss is the loss of the mother herself. This may mean that they search first for her, and then second for their child. He notes the similarity for many adults who are adopted, in that they search first for their mother and then only secondly for their father.
Fathers' grief is also disenfranchised, in that it receives if anything even less acknowledgement than the mother's grief does. He is stigmatised as the abandoner of both mother and child, even when he may have wanted to marry the mother and keep the child. Often this was forbidden by the mother's parents, or his own, and this disempowers him as a person and a man. Often too his name is not recorded on the birth certificate, even when he acknowledges paternity, to avoid having to get his permission for the adoption to go forward. All of this magnifies his feels of shame and guilt. Because he usually does not live with the mother during the pregnancy and may not see the child at birth, he may feel there is unfinished business with the mother and this results in a primary connection to her before the child.
Coles gives many statistics on adoption for New Zealand and Australia, making the comparisons to the United States. Statistics from these countries show that open records for persons adopted does not raise the abortion rates or enormous difficulties for adoptive families. It does allow adults adopted as children to integrate their double heritages and begins the healing for natural parents.
Section Three: A Time to Heal
In this section, Coles explores seven core issues in adoption as they apply to fathers who've lost their child to adoption: loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy and control. He describes how these apply to different types of natural fathers, and provides an overview of fathers' issues. He provides a view of his personal path to healing and suggests what is needed for fathers to heal.
This book is valuable for many in adoption. It dispels the myth that all fathers who lose children to adoption don't care about their partners or their children. It shows where the dynamics of fathers are similar to those of mothers, and where there are differences. It's a good source for statistics on adoption in New Zealand and Australia. Given the paucity of literature on fathers' experiences, this is a seminal resource for all those interested in understanding the impact of adoption on fathers. Besides all this, the book is also well written, a sensitive portrayal of one man's journey to understand how he came to lose his son. I can only hope that his son will read this book and understand that the love of his father goes beyond actions from years past, and lives steadfastly in the here and now, for that son to take up.
Reviewed by Sandra Falconer Pace
(2004) Christies Beach, South Australia: Clova Books.
© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers