Even if you haven’t seen Philomena, the acclaimed 2013 film directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the media attention surrounding it has possibly made you aware of the fraught issue of closed adoption—especially those adoptions arranged and sanctioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The heart-wrenching tale of an unwed girl’s loss of her child in 1950’s Ireland, when the nuns at the abbey that took her in adopted him out to an American couple, received many critical accolades and awards—four Academy Award nominations among them, including a Best Picture nod and a seventh Best Actress nomination for Dench. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who helped Philomena in her search for her son—50 years after his birth—the film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, VOD, and Pay-Per-View. If you missed it during its theatrical release, I urge you to see it now—especially if you are an adoptive parent, as I am.
My son is now nearly 33 years old. Because his story overlaps with mine (as each of our narratives intersect with those of others), I asked M if he would be comfortable with my telling my part of our shared story. He assured me he would. (He hasn’t yet seen the film, although he’ll be coming over soon to watch it with me.)
Before I get too far ahead of myself, take a look at the trailer, and note the unexpected moments of humor in this beautifully crafted film:
I’m glad that I was alone when I watched Philomena. Although I was aware of the story and how it develops (I’ll not provide spoilers here, so continue reading without concern)* I viewed it privately not to shield my son from my reactions to the film, but rather to give myself space to have those reactions, and to reflect on what this courageous woman’s story meant to me.
That’s Philomena’s Story. Here’s Mine.
If you’ve read the serialized medical memoir on my blog, you already know the circumstances that led my first husband and me to adopt a child. We don’t get much from Philomena’s story about the way adoption changed and fulfilled the lives of her son’s adoptive parents. (The adoption of three-year-old Anthony Lee, later known as Michael Hess, was almost an afterthought; he was paired at the last-minute with a younger girl whom the St. Louis couple had traveled to adopt.)
So let me tell you, from my experience and perspective, what it felt like the first time M was placed in my arms:
I was overwhelmed by love. I was ridiculously happy to have him in my arms.
M was four-and-a-half months old and crying when we first met him in the agency office. (We discovered, once we got him home, that he had a terrible case of diaper rash.) The first thing I noticed was his full head of beautiful, dark blond hair. When your ability to bear a child is taken from you as emphatically as was mine, you are unquestioningly grateful when you are fortunate to adopt. As thrilled as we were to have an infant, I would not realize until later how much it would have meant—to M and to me—to be able to hold him in the moments after his birth. Did he have an uncanny infant-awareness that a difference existed in the warmth and scent of the body holding him now, compared to that of the foster parent who cared for him in the months since his birth? This was not a thought I articulated then. Then, all I could think to say to him, instinctively and repeatedly, was this: It’s Mommy. You’re home now. It’s mommy. I love you and you’re home now.
Among the charming items we decorated M’s yellow nursery with was a framed poem that I would sometimes read aloud to him:
Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it.
It would be a while before my delicious feelings of motherhood could allow room for the fact that there had been someone before me. But as my son grew older, it became clear that if ever in his life he felt he wanted to know his origins, I would move mountains to help him in his search. I did not know—I still do not know—anything about the woman who gave birth to my son other than the fact that she had hay fever and (if memory serves), was of Italian and Irish ancestry. We might have been told that she attended college, but I’m not even sure of that. I know I took notes when we got the call, but those are stored in a box in my first husband’s home. I’m relying on pure, faulty memory here. But I can tell you this with certainty: Whatever powerful reason compelled her to make her decision, I thanked her every day. And each year, on M’s birthday, I say a silent prayer for her.
The heartbreaking difference in Philomena’s situation is that she was not given a choice; Anthony was abruptly taken from her after she had three years—such as they were—with him. (The young girls worked long hours in the laundry at the abbey, permitted only one hour each day with their children). I would like to think that the adoptive parents of Michael Hess, who was born Anthony Lee, said a similar prayer for Philomena.
Open Versus Closed Adoption
Because my first husband and I were Catholic, and because we had heard that the wait time was not as long as with the non-religious affiliated agency in town, the Catholic Charities organization in our local diocese arranged our adoption, which was legalized through our county’s probate court. As far as I know, closed adoption was the only process through which a couple in Ohio could adopt a child in 1981. That’s since changed, of course; today, open adoption is becoming the norm, with birth and adoptive parents often meeting one another and exchanging helpful information.
Lori Holden is a blogger and writer from Colorado whom I met at a blogging conference a couple of years ago. She is also an adoptive parent. With her daughter’s birth mother, Holden co-authored a book called The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption. I interviewed her via e-mail, and she confirmed that much has changed since our closed adoption in 1981. Holden shared with me statistics from the Donaldson Adoption Institute:
“Prior to 1990,” she wrote, “fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2012, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption.”
According to Holden, “there is no set definition” to what open adoption means; she writes that it is not necessarily the case that birth parents meet the adoptive parents, for example. Open adoption might simply mean an exchange of information; for others, it could entail some agreement about contact or integration between the families. To others it could mean access to original birth records, or some combination of all these factors.
“For years, adoption agencies have been telling adopting parents why to do open adoption,” says Holden. There was, however, often no support or guidance in exactly how to go about doing so. The book she wrote with her daughter’s birth mother is, she says, “the girlfriend’s guide I wished had been available at the start of my journey into adoptive parenting. For all the shame and pain caused by secretive adoptions for women like Philomena and her son, Anthony, openness could have been the antidote. Readers say our book helps heal the split that is created at the moment of placement between a child’s biology—the story he’s born with down to his DNA, and his biography—the life that’s written thereafter.”
The Times They are A-Changin’
In Ohio, where I live and where my son’s adoption took place, Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that will eventually allow adoptees, upon attaining legal age, access to their birth records. According to reporting by Robert Higgs of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, “the law applies to an estimated 400,000 Ohioans adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996.” This would include my son; he was born in June 1981.
According to Holden, many states are beginning “to unseal what was once sealed.” In fact, the day she responded to my e-mail, her own state of Colorado put two bills through the legislature. She shared with me a link to a map, created by the White Oak Foundation, illustrating U.S. adoption statutes.
I’m grateful for this new law in Ohio. If and when my son decides to take the next step and conduct a search, his path will be cleared of many obstructions.
What I realized, watching Philomena, was how excruciatingly painful that separation from Anthony was for her. Even as an adoptive parent, I wanted to reach through the screen and prevent that hopeful St. Louis couple from realizing their dream—I wanted to intervene on Philomena’s behalf, so strongly did I identify with her. In experiencing the joy of raising my son and watching him grow into an accomplished young man, I understand the power of a mother’s love.
I look forward to watching Philomena with him.
Philomena Lee has become an advocate for adoption rights in Ireland, founding The Philomena Project in conjunction with that country’s Adoption Rights Alliance. The organization calls upon the Irish government to implement adoption information and tracing legislation. Philomena Lee is taking her fight all the way to the Irish Supreme Court.
The shame and pain that Holden referred to earlier was such that in Ireland, at the abbey where Philomena was sent, the nuns insisted that the girls’ identity be kept hidden—a fact not included in the film. Anne Midgette, writing in the Washington Post, reported that “the girls in the convent were forced to use other names—Philomena went by “Marcella”—and never knew each others’ true identities.”
When I read this, I had to stop and read it again, and then a third time, to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Philomena went by ‘Marcella.’
My name is Mari-Marcelle.
* The following articles do contain spoilers, but I provide them for those who would like to explore the story further:
“Searching for Philomena’s Real Son,” by Jacob Bernstein in The New York Times
“Philomena Namesake Doesn’t Blame Catholic Church for her Ordeal,” by Nicole Winfield in The Huffington Post
“The Real Philomena Lee finds Hollywood Ending to Adoption Story,” by Anne Midgette in The Washington Post