Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book Club: The Mistress's Daughter

It's time for another installment of the Baren Bitches Book Brigade. Today's book is The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes. Please hop on over to Mel's for more discussion of the book-- Group A and Group B. There you can also find the online interview with the author. (And you can sign up for the next book on this online book club: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (with author participation).)

A.M. Homes writes with economy and clarity that sketches scenes and people with unnerving brevity, precision that can make you chuckle or shudder, or move instantaneously, from one of these reactions to the other. I have to say that, perhaps for that very reason, I found the book at times both challenging and difficult to read. The details about her adopted family she chooses to highlight in the early parts of the book made me uneasy, made me want to ask her a million small questions, to tease out a million small details. Experience is inherently subjective, and that is usually good enough for me. With this book, however, I often found myself wondering what a given situation looked like from the other side.

It was very interesting for me to observe that as the book went on, and as the author delved deeper and deeper into the stories of people who shared some of her DNA, and people who only shared last names with the people who shared some of her DNA, she also seemed much more comfortable claiming her adopted family as her own. She seemed more comfortable in her own skin, and in claiming what is hers from every part of her identity. In the interview, she talks about now being the person her adoptive parents hoped she would be, and that made me smile. But even beyond that, she seems much more at peace with herself and her story by the end of the book, much more integrated. Thinking about this point, I wonder if this is why the early part of the book was such a tough read for me-- there the author is very raw and exposed, jagged, conflicted. It's as if I feel awkward looking at a person who presents her own vulnerability to thoroughly, as if I am afraid that the very act of looking is somehow violating, or that it can hurt. A.M. Homes of the latter chapters seems a much sturdier being, if not healed then integrated, ok. I wonder, also, whether she could've gotten to that point had she not gone through the process of learning, and rejection, and hurt, and learning more that was set in motion by her birth mother looking for her.

Our community often speaks of the injustice of the homestudy process. From our parent-in-waiting eyes, is seems incredibly unfair that some can become parents at the drop of a trou, while infertiles to have to go through the judgments by a third party of their innermost selves to prove themselves worthy. Homes' book, however, shows not the parent perspective but the adopted child's. She talks about the effects of coming into her parents' home just months after their son died, about the burden she felt to heal her family. "I grew up doused in grief." She wonders (a few times) why an agency would give her parents an infant so soon after a child had died. Does reading from the adoptee perspective change your opinion on the homestudy process? Who is responsible for making sure hopeful parents are ready to parent a child borne to others? To what degree should hopeful parents be cleared of their grief, and who should determine this? How should it be determined? Should people stuck in grief NOT pass a homestudy? How should the desires of the hopeful parents be balanced with the rights and needs of the child?

Unsurprisingly, this was the part of the book I had the toughest time with. I wanted to stand up for the adopted family, for A.M.'s adoptive mother. I felt personally judged by that psychiatrist who asked A.M. whether she found it strange that an agency would place her with a family that lost a child six month before. Why was it strange, I wanted to know. Does loosing a child permanently disqualify one from parenting again? From parenting adopted children? From parenting until the parents are "cleared of their grief?" And what does that even mean to be cleared of the grief? I resent the hell out of this. I am grieving, and parenting. And if I should be so incredibly lucky as to have this pregnancy end with a live birth, I will parent both an older and a younger sibling of my dead child. I've been at this long enough to know that I will never be "cleared" of my grief. It is a part of me. Does that make me "stuck in grief" or just a parent?

That said, I work hard to make sure Monkey doesn't think she has to make up for her missing brother, and I think we have by now established that. I will work equally hard to make sure that my subsequent children do not think themselves replacements. This was one of the things I wanted to ask the author as I was reading-- what exactly made you feel like you were responsible for healing your family, what made you feel like a replacement? In the interview, A.M. Homes says that her mother tried to shield them from her grief, but that it was still there. So I wonder, still, whether the perception was due to the author being a sensitive and attentive child, placing emphasis on her adopted status, wondering about her place in the universe and in her family, or whether it was in fact something her family did or said.

In the case of the homestudy process, I would argue that setting the bar at "getting over" the grief is unrealistic and harmful. And what grief are we talking about? Would dead child grief be permitted, but years of IF grief would not? Or vice versa? I call bullshit. There is a world of difference between making peace with your grief, learning to live with it and "getting over it." Looking into what role in the family the prospective parents envision for their adopted child is fair and necessary. There is a huge difference between hoping for joy a child would bring to the family and hoping that child would make everything ok. They won't, because they can't. Not everything can be made ok. Understanding unique challenges of parenting an adopted child is important for adoptive parents, whatever led them to the homestudy point. Assuming that parents who lost a child and are trying to add to their family in the aftermath are in fact looking to replace their dead child is absurd and insulting, and extremely unproductive.

Why do you think the author's biological father went through the DNA testing if he was still going to go along pretending she didn't exist? How did you react to that emotionally as the reader?

I also felt uneasy about the author's attachment to her biological father in the first part of the book. It seemed to me that she was overlooking many faults, raising and then dropping tough questions. It isn't until a friend asks her many years later why she is surprised by his behavior that A.M. Homes comes to see the pattern. She then constructs a blistering series of questions, a mock deposition of her father, hitting again and again questions of how he sees his own identity, his own morality.

I see him as a man who might have lofty ideas and good intentions, but prefers to do what is easy. Seeing Ellen for seven years was not too hard, and fun, I am sure, so he did it. Leaving his family to marry her was hard, so he didn't. He called Ellen's mother to ask for her hand, but then didn't do a thing. He may have wanted to marry Ellen, but doing something principled, something hard to accomplish, giving up his lifestyle perhaps, having to pay alimony and child support to his wife and provide for his new family, that would've been hard, and there were only so many slices of the pie, as his lawyer said. Did he promise Ellen to ask A.M. for the kidney? Promising was easy, so he probably did. Following through would've been hard. Giving blood and paying money for the paternity test was the easy part. Following through on the results, telling his other children what happened, standing up to his wife to insist that while he undoubtedly wronged her, his daughter did not, all of that was hard. In the end, he seems to me a sad man, a man who constructs his own mythology to justify his inaction, who can convince himself to think that having his daughter call him in the car because his wife is not often there is as good as inviting her to family holidays, to claiming her as his daughter outloud because he is very practiced at this sort of thing, at convincing.

Genealogy -- the quest to learn more about her birth family's history -- forms a large part of the latter half of the book. On page 152, the author notes, "I remind myself that the quest to answer the question Who am I? is not unique to the adoptee." How much do you know about your own family history? Is it something that interests you? How has it influenced your decisions related to infertility treatment (if at all)?

My decisions about dealing with IF were much more about wanting to experience pregnancy than about DNA. My thoughts are a little more garbled now. After A died, I also realized that I hoped to one day give birth to another boy (but I also thought that our next baby would be a girl).

Genealogy, though. For us looking for our roots is complicated by the move from the Old Country. There are branches of the family that left many years ago, and are not easy to find. There are probably family stories that are now lost forever. I tried to have my grandmother write some of the family history down, but her mind started slipping just then, and it has not worked. Tracing our family history in the paper chase way is something I am vaguely interested in. The stories are much more what I would like to retrieve, somehow. Thinking that they are gone is so sad that I try not to focus on that thought much.

The other thing that does interest me is the much more longer-range view. The literal things our DNA can tell us. What is in my mitochondrial DNA? What is on my father's Y chromosome? Are we really part Sephardi as our last name suggests? What is in his mitochondrial DNA? Can we find the son of my grandfather's brother to see what we can know of that paternal line? Can we find any offspring of his sister's to learn of their maternal line? Both of my grandmothers' fathers' information is gone-- no surviving sons for either of my great grandfathers, no male heirs for their last names or their Y chromosomes. This project we can actually do, and are about to start. My sister caught a break from her grad school and is about to have her mitochondrial DNA (same as my mitochondrial DNA) sequenced. I guess we better start that fund to pay for all the other tests we want to do.


Tash said...

I haven't read this book, but I really love your answer to the first question. I actually found it very soothing, as I often think to myself, as a mother, than a child who is not genetically ours, would somehow have a higher hurdle to clear *for me.* And I think you may have just called bullshit on me, and I will now venture into that terrain in my mind's eye. Because you're right: we don't "get over" this. Ever. Another child is another child, just like another child doesn't replace our dead one.

Deb said...

Interesting insight into her biological father. I definately can see where it was all about what was easy for him to do. I also think that overcoming his wife's objections were part of the issue but that would fall into being hard for him to do.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

loribeth said...

These are all excellent, insightful answers, & I agree with you on just about all these points. I like how you put it about the biodad taking the easy way out. My feeling is that he had a cozy little life carved out for himself, and didn't want to rock the boat with the waves he'd create by publicly acknowledging he had another daughter. His wife obviously was not thrilled about the situation, & I imagine there was some pressure on her part to keep quiet about the whole thing too.

Gershom said...

As an adoptee myself, my aparents never would have looked into adoption if they would have been successful during the 15 years they tried to conceive a child naturally and with the assistance of reproductive technology at that time.

That within itself is enough to give an adoptee a sense of responsibility to fulfilling the aparents desires for a child. It is an incredibly hard burden that many many adoptees face and live with.

It can hold the adoptee to greater expectations, it allows for their primal needs to be overlooked because the primary reason for the adoptee coming to the family isn't because the adoptee NEEDED that home, it was because the aparents WANTED a child. Taking that small direction of focus off of the child , and onto the aparents can set up the relationship between the two / three for failure.

The focus must not be on anything other than what the adoptee needs and is going through because as adoptees, we come with EXTRA needs. We have primal losses of our own that need respect and compassion when we're entering a new adopted family.

If OUR needs and emotions are overlooked due to our aparents grieving the loss of a child, grieving the loss of experiencing natural reproduction, then our entire development can be altered in a way that effects our cognitive development, trust in humanity and sense of self. That is profound.

Adoption isn't the same as having your own. If the people bringing a child into their home have been focused on their needs only, and if they over look the adoptees trauma, much of what could be, won't be.

I think that is why the therapist asks if the aparents have gotten over the loss of their dead child. If the aparents are fixed on healing their needs, will they be willing to allow the adoptee "roots" of her own? an identity of her own? will they have the time to put into honoring the real core differences between DNA in adoptive families? Or will it continue to be about THEIR losses? And will the Adoptees losses be overlooked?

Just wanted to add my 2 cents.

Julia said...

Gershom, would you mind clarifying some things for me? I don't want to misunderstand and respond to things I am putting in your mouth.

I am wondering whether you believe that your adoptive parents' story means that they should have never gotten any adopted child, or is there something they could've done that would've qualified them for adoption? Is there some way they could've behaved that wouldn't have made you feel that burden? Also, can you imagine yourself as a biological child born after the same fifteen years of infertility to the very same adoptive parents you had. Do you think the burden you speak of would still be there, or do you think it would somehow be mitigated?

I am also a bit surprised to see you say that the intention of the adoptive parents has to be because a child needs a home. That seems more like a motivation for running a dorm for orphaned children, a foster care home, or something of the sort. I have never met parents of any kind who have started thinking of having children for a reason other than wanting to have children, wanting a family. Yes, that is a selfish desire, but I am not sure how one would arrive at a desire to have children otherwise. I guess it would have to be people for whom adoption is the first choice, rather than becomes their first choice. But I am still uneasy about the intent of "because a child needs a home." That seems a little too story book holier-than-thou. It seems a little unreal to me. I also know a lot of adoptive families who by the time they adopted were the fiercest advocates for their new children and completely in love with them, but they didn't start out with adoption being their first choice. And the idea that they shouldn't have adopted because their original motivation was because they wanted a child is a little strange to me. These are also the same people from whom I learned that saying own child vs. adopted is wrong. Whose child is it? Are they parenting a borrowed child? It's not their biological child, but it is very much their own child.

My final question is about why you think that parents can't focus on both their needs and their children's? When my son died, we started our grieving process. I do not believe it will ever be over. I don't think I can be over my son being dead. But I also never stopped parenting my living daughter, never stopped attending to her needs. Some days that meant that I got way too little sleep because I had to take care of her needs, her grief, when she needed me, and that meant that I couldn't attend to my own until after she'd gone to bed. I couldn't not attend to my needs, but I never short-changed her. I guess my point is that I strongly believe that we can walk and chew gum. This is why we are adults-- we can take care of our own needs and we can communicate to our children that these needs are not their responsibility to fulfill and, at the same time, we can take care of our children's needs. Because those are nearly always our responsibility. And I guess I also believe that this ability of parents to impart on their children the security of not being responsible for their parents needs only has to do with who the parents are, how self-aware they are, and not with whether the children they are parenting are adopted or biological. If you disagree with this, I would love to hear why.

Aurelia said...

I have to agree with Gershom here on that point, and it's one I've talked about before on my blog and other places.

As an adoptee I get exactly why the aparents get asked that and frankly I shudder at the situation A.M. Homes is in, being the replacement child. I'm glad someone was trying to get the aparents to engage in some serious self-examination and griefwork.

I also think so because as a bereaved mother, I know how incredibly hard it is to parent after losing a baby. 10 years after Matthew died, I can look back and say that I was a crappy mother to my oldest child in the six months to a year post loss. (Not saying you are, Julia, but I definitely was crap at that time.)

And I was so desperate to get pregnant again, I was hysterical. It took a year to get pregnant with Mac and then we had 9 months of getting through that then finally a live baby. I resented it then, but looking back now, I know I needed that time and space to recover.

Even then, I have spent colossal efforts trying not to treat Mac as a replacement child, and yet, we have. I remember a week after he was born, crying with him in my arms, suddenly knowing in my soul that his birth would not "fix" my loss. I had known it logically, and said it in therapy, but right then and there, I knew it, and it killed me.

Parenting after infertility or loss or adoption can be great and wonderful and amazing, but it will never be the same as plain old normal parenting, and the parents need to know. Different can be great, as long as we are aware of it and treat it that way. Problem is that too many parents refuse to face that, and it all becomes a burden for the child.

Aurelia said...

I don't know if Gershom is coming back, but if I may Julia?

I've said this before, adoption is like marriage and love with a spouse. A person doesn't have to marry their first love, but as an adoptee, I don't want to be the rebound either.

I want to be the true love.

Julia said...

Aurelia, I like that definition very much. And as you know, I would never think any child, adopted or biological, should be in a position of being anyone's rebound. What I am arguing against is the assumption that grieving parents are by definition on a rebound. Or that it is automatically impossible to grieve and parent well at the same time.

seattlegal said...

I really appreciated your answers, especially the answer to the first question as you have experienced such grief and are parenting after such a loss.

The Town Criers said...

The first answer gave so much food for thought. I have been struggling to put something into words for many minutes now. I guess I don't completely understand how readiness can be judged by time without knowing the person. Some people are ready--truly ready--after six months. Others need years. I'm not sure how someone who meets you for a few hours can judge your readiness. I'm sure there are warning signs and glaring cases, but I would think most people would fall into a middle ground of keeping so many thoughts to themselves (or not even truly having clarity over all thoughts) that judging is guess work at best.

Why aren't the same limits extended with treatments or simply trying again naturally? After a loss, you're told when your body is ready to try again--not your heart. A good doctor may suggest counseling, but few meet with you over and over again, determining when the right time exists to bring another child into your home.

The processing of grief is so personal and the timetable impossible to estimate across the board.

I'm still not doing a good job putting this into words. Just that I loved your first answer.

Queenie. . . said...

The first part of the post and then many of the comments have left me thinking about parenting post-loss, and my own experiences growing up in a close, large extended family that had experienced loss. Both my grandmother and my aunt lost children during childbirth. Both have multiple children, and I grew up with close to my aunt's children. I have to say, as much as there was/is grief over those lost children(and decades later, I would say that both my aunt and my grandmother still have grief for those lost children), each loss was something that just WAS in our larger family, and in their own family units. Each lost child wasn't something that diminished anyone who existed; it was an independent soul that was recognized, celebrated, and mourned, but was somehow separate, almost a different category of being. I don't minimize the experience of some children feeling like replacement children, or of some parents feeling like they are compromised as parents post-loss. But I don't think it has to be that way, and I don't think it is that way in every case. Who are we to say that 6 months out, AM Homes's mother wasn't again ready to parent? It is true that every person won't be ready in 6 months, but the grieving process is highly variable and unique to every person. How much of AM Homes's feelings of being a "replacement child" were due to her parents' actions, rather than in spite of? Mel's post over at Stirrup Queens on this point also made me think. Well-intentioned statements intended to make a child realize how loved they are can be misconstrued by the child and formed into something else. I don't know that we can sit here and say that her mother wasn't ready for her, or that her mother's grief necessarily tainted her childhood. That is how AM Homes experienced it, but was that perception or reality?

In the end, I think it's possible to embrace loss, accept that it is an inherent part of life, give ourselves over to it while we need to, and still rejoice in the blessings that we DO have. I think Julia has hit the nail on the head: One CAN both grieve and live.

Aurelia said...

Just a note to reply to Mel...the actual professional advice based on research to parents who lose a bio child is that they need to wait different amounts based on the gestation of the previous loss.

After an early miscarriage it will be three months, and after a stillbirth, it will longer, even up to a year. This is for physical recovery, but mostly for emotional recovery.

Some IF patients are told to come back sooner because their clock is ticking, and they can't wait, but they are cared for during that subsequent pg differently.

Most bereaved parents will try sooner if they can, and if they walk in pg to an OB's office right after a loss, then they will be considered a pregnancy of high concern, and the Docs and nurses and peds and social workers will be watching over that couple very very carefully.

I know this protocol because of all the years I've been doing this.

Josh said...

So much to respond to here, both in your excellent answers and the flood of comments above. I'm not sure I have much to add except that parents can fail their children (bio or adopted) in many ways: with too much love, or not enough love or love for the wrong reasons, or love for the right reasons expressed the wrong way. While there are some clear-cut cases of "bad parents" (again, both bio and adopted), the vast majority land in a large field of grey. Why are some better than others? Is it because they've brought too much grief with them? I doubt there's many pre-existing conditions (sorry for the insurance term) that apriori disqualify a person or persons from being a parent--certainly not an unfulfilled history of wanting to become a parent.
Any parent has to learn to stow away their own sh!t to properly parent their children. And we do this with varying degrees of success. And children are vulnerable to their parents sh!t to varying degrees as well--some more than others.

Lori said...

Like you say, the bio-dad had a knack for finding (and taking) the path of least resistance.

I was the one who posed the first question. I very much appreciate you answers and the ensuing discussion.

It is a tough balancing act between the desires of the hopeful adoptive parents and the needs of the child.

Julia said...

Aurelia, the protocol may be different where you are than where we are, but since I just had this conversation with my OB last year as we were figuring out how long to wait, what I learned was that the actual reason to wait longer than three months is because of the greater likelihood of going into pre term labor in the subsequent pregnancy. And the length of an interpregnancy interval that places one at greater danger is dependent on socio-economic and demographic factors. I actually have some of the papers on this stuff printed out, and I may do a big post on it some time in the future.

Aurelia said...

Well, I'll gladly trade papers with you, but most of the research I've read had been based on psychological issues and the likelihood of PPD and PTSD trauma if the pgs are too closely spaced together.

Not to mention how it affects parenting after that loss.

I know, you hate those kinds of population studies....and yes there are exceptions, but they are rare. It's odds. Like I said before, it's not precise like the laws of physics.

JuliaS said...

I completely agree with your take on the bio-dad. As long as it was fun, exciting and easy - he was your boy. Once there were "expectations" for him to meet - oh, look at time . .. gotta run!

I hesitate to wade into any of the further points, not necessarily those of your post but in regards to the comments section as well. So much information there! I doubt I could add anything insightful to the points already being made and would likely just reiterate the bulk!

This has been a fascinating stop along the tour.

Queenie. . . said...

Julia, that would be a post I'd like to read. I hope you write it.

Lori said...

Julia- You always do such an amazing job of reviewing these books!

Fascinating discussion. You have peaked my interest in this book.

Meara said...

Interesting to know.