Council of Natural Mothers' Library
This British book is more than the story of Sue Elliott's adoption and more than her search for and reunion with her natural mother, Marjorie. She interweaves her own and Marjorie's stories with those of other mothers and their children, and with the history of adoption in Britain. While this sounds like a lot to manage, she does so very competently, and the story never drags because of the history.
There's a surprise for Elliott herself in the book, which I won't spoil here. The book is interesting because of the thorough research into the social history of the last couple of centuries, which can help people in these very different times understand the legacy of shame and poverty which lead to mothers losing their children to adoption. Sue Elliott has interviewed adopted individuals, mothers, adopters and social workers from eras past, including some very elderly individuals, and searched the records available. I have not seen other books which document so clearly through anecdote, interview and historical accounts the desperation to which so many mothers succumbed.
Elliot's story of coming to search for her mother and building a relationship with her is very touching. However, it's interesting to me that there are pieces she never puts together, considering her extensive research into the climate of the times in which her mother lost her to adoption. For example, she comments repeatedly on the 'squalor' her mother lives in when found. Elliot never considers that the hoarding behaviour her mother demonstrates is a direct outcome of the trauma she went through, or that the decline of this behaviour through their relationship is related to her mother's healing from some of the loss.
Elliott's adoptive father was a social worker, and she admits a bias therefore in her treatment of social workers. Still, she shows little surprise that her research into social work practice turns up only caring social workers who never took an unwilling mother's consent, despite the fact that her own mother was clearly unwilling to lose her. Her research turns up many mothers who, years later, indicate they were very unwilling to lose their children and some who went to heroic efforts to keep them. Yet, it never occurs to her that the social workers who don't make themselves available to her research may not be willing to examine their practice in the light of the damage they did to mothers. Mothers' bias in telling the truth in years gone by is examined, but not social workers' bias years later in what she herself calls 'the failed experiment of adoption.'
Many small phrases indicate that Elliott has not completely internalized what happened to mothers who lost their children to adoption. For example, she quotes one mother as saying to her child's adoptive mother, "Your happiness was built on my heartache." To this she comments, 'Histrionic perhaps, but it happens to be true.' I don't see this statement as histrionic, unless perhaps it is too emotional to be properly British. I see it as the simple statement of the fact of adoption: all adopters build their joy on the natural family's pain. What's histrionic about plain truth?
It takes a social worker to comment to Elliott about how much her mother wanted a family; she didn't see this in her mother's actions at all. Yet it was plain to me as a reader from her descriptions of her mother's actions.
Because of her close attachment, perhaps, to her adopters, Elliot seems to side with adopters as being right or blameless in the institution of adoption. Yet, she describes her adoptive mothers' reluctance to talk about her adoption or her natural mother, and other adopters' deliberate subterfuge in telling their children they were adopted or giving them the information they had about their families. She says that "adopters often claim that they are now the forgotten partners in the triangle, and there's some truth in this." I fail to see this on two accounts: first, that reunion is not about them-it's about natural mothers (and other family members) and their children. They're not forgotten: it's simply that this isn't their reunion. It doesn't concern them. Or in more common, everyday terms, it's not about them. Why should those they adopted and their natural families concern themselves more with the adopters than those same adopters did with the natural families separated for their benefit?
Secondly, in my experience, adopters ensure they're never forgotten: that's where adoptee guilt comes in. Elliott, like others adopted, including my own son, often speak of their guilt at re-connecting with their natural families and always express upon search that their adopters will always be their mother and father. Why is this so important? Why is loyalty so strongly inculcated in so many adoptive families that many of those adopted will not even search until the adopters die? What are adopters so afraid of?
In fact, if adopters are the better parents that they were claimed to be when our children were taken from us for them, they should have no difficulty with reunions with natural families. They would not express immediate concerns that those adopted might be hurt by the families they find, or that their mothers would be unsavory people. This goes against all available knowledge of the success of the vast majority of reunions. It shows adopters' insecurity and allows them to reinforce the stereotype to inhibit the adopted individual searching or their reunion.
I am interested in the sympathy Elliot feels for adopters (she herself quotes Triseliotis that adoptees are "more than usually sensitive to the attitudes and feelings of others"). She feels the same sympathy for social workers who have jobs with incompatible demands, a factor which makes them a handy scapegoat when things go wrong. Her empathy for natural mothers also shows in many places in the book, but side by side with acceptance of a bias that she herself never sees.
This book is valuable for its
statistics and historical documentation. Adoptees will find it useful
to understand the times in which their mothers were forced by poverty
and social attitudes to lose their children. There are also many resources
for searching in Britain in the Final Information section. Mothers
will find it interesting to read the documentation, and will enjoy the
story of search and reunion in Britain. If adoptive parents truly want
to understand the pain of the mothers whose children they take, that is
there also, though there are better books for documenting this part of
the adoption story.
Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace
© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers