Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
JULY 16, 2010 11:48AM

The Adoption Post I Should Have Written (Thanks, Lainey)

Rate: 15 Flag

When Aimee Louise Sword was sentenced this week, I hastened to write about the online uproar over yet another bad adoption story. Sword, a mid-thirties birth mother in Michigan, is going to jail for having sex with a teenage birth son. She should be. There is no doubt she committed a crime.

Yet I felt disturbed enough about the response to the story—predictable outrage and contempt, but also way too much tee-hee titillation—"now that's a family reunion!" read at least one tweet I caught—to do my own commentary, which ran on Open Salon's cover yesterday.

Why did I feel so compelled to write about Sword?*

It wasn't because she was a "hot" topic or part of popular keyword searches. And it sure wasn't because I, as an adoptive mom, want to be affiliated with this story. It's just the opposite. I think a lot of adoption advocates don't want to touch this steaming hunk of sensationalism with a billion-foot pole.

Still, I woke up this morning knowing that the original post, driven by my disgust at the online barrage, only hinted at my real discomfort.

At her hearing, Sword admitted she didn't understand why she did what she did. Her motives were irrational and complicated. So if you continue down this road, as perhaps others in the adoption community are quietly doing in their own heads, you come up with one very hard-to-admit possibility:

That in giving away her infant son, something profound broke inside Sword. That when a woman surrenders the child who grew inside her body, this may always feel like an irreparable loss.

This is not the popular view of adoption, at least as promoted by mainstream stories, many of which are written from the perspective of adoptive parents. Yet there are plenty of birth parents who write about what a loss this is, in memoirs and blogs. Adult adoptees, too, often speak of a life-long feeling of rejection sparked by the knowledge that their first parents gave them away.

Let me emphasize that generalizations are just that. Not all adoptees feel rejected in this way. Not all birth parents feel wrecked by such a loss or even regret the decision they made to give away a child for adoption. Often the adoption story has a happy ending.

But not always, and in writing off Sword as merely crazy, craven, or mentally ill, we adoptive parents avoid looking at that hard little ethical conundrum at the center of it all. Sword did wrong—but why? She's easy to condemn, but I believe a little soul-searching about her motivations is in order, especially for those of us who are adoption advocates.

Think of the hard-core alcoholics you know. Think of anyone who's mentally ill and wreaks havoc in a family. Think of Whoopie Goldberg recently defending Mel Gibson on The View, improbable as that seems.

If it happens in your family, you may hate the offender, you may despair, you may kick him or her out—and you'd be right to. Yet you'd also carry with you (or at least I do) the reasons why that person may be so weak or unable to help him- or herself. It's not an excuse for criminally-damaging behavior. It's just knowledge of how sad and shaming the causes can be, the kind of knowledge that drags down other family members with guilt.

How one musters the quality of mercy depends so much on personal circumstances. But to look for mercy even in the worst of behavior seems to me to be the ethical thing to do, if not the spiritual thing. I don't mean forgiveness for unspeakable acts. I mean recognition that evil walks among us, that it can be pedestrian and so often a close, close thing.

Dave Cullen's Columbine powerfully musters such mercy for all involved in that iconic school shooting. Of the two shooters, one boy was later diagnosed as a psychopath, but the other was not. The boys' parents apparently made mistakes that any of us might have, as did school officials and the local police.

Cullen, a journalist who covered part of the breaking story himself, may show the least mercy for press coverage of the crisis. Yet even there, it's clear that the complex social and psychological motivations that result in heinous acts can take years to understand and convey with any depth.

I doubt Sword's story will get a full-on investigative treatment, and there are good reasons why it shouldn't. It's not Columbine. It's freakish. It's already faded from the wires—and that in itself might be merciful for her family.

Her story may best be conveyed in a fictional account, in which enough of the messy stuff can be siphoned off to reveal how haunted such a character is.

Mercy, sympathy, compassion, knowledge of life's complexity, a sense that some people really do lose. That's in short supply in the public discourse these days. Disturbing subject matter like incest, teenage suicide, or school shooting sprees often evokes the kneejerk: outrage and inappropriate laughter. Just the other day, my son was very troubled by a rack of 2011 "Bunny Suicides" calendars. "Why would anyone think that's funny?" he asked.

A good question, and one I can't answer beyond saying that media of all kinds model a limited array of responses to complicated problems. I'm still in awe of David Simon's HBO series The Wire, with its ability to show the haunted nooks of ghetto kids and cops on both side of the Drug War. What matters is a writer or TV director summoning sympathy—or at least understanding—be it for gangbangers or mothers who badly hurt their own children.

In my earlier post, I noted that birth parents were not controlling the public narrative of Sword's story. I hinted at why this is a problem but focused my ire and unease on the press, because it's such an easy target. I'm not letting the press off the hook now—I doubt I ever will—but I will acknowledge that the discomfort I feel is about more than that.

It's about a search for mercy for all the many lost ones, the many who are enraged or hopeless or desperate, the many who are broken—the many birth parents, for instance, who may have made decisions they later regretted.

It's a difficult place to live as an adoptive parent, and I can't always stay there. But I do try not to look away.


* This piece was sparked by a comment to my original post from Lainey, who asked me to explain why I was adding to the feeding frenzy over Sword. As Lainey wrote, "How on Earth does your own story differ from what you object to? I'm confounded?"

I was going to write another comment this morning, then just decided to do this post. Thank you, Lainey, for holding my feet to the fire. They may still be on fire, but I appreciate being pushed to think about my own response.



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Martha, thank you for this exquisite look into your deep and nuanced thinking. I can't tell you how much it resonates with me, most especially your desire to look at explanations for behavior without excusing it. I think it's difficult for most of us even to find the language to do so without sounding like apologists for evil. A case in point was my attempt yesterday to discuss how Catholicism had a positive impact on my development. That's a really tough case to make while at the same time condemning much of what comes out of Rome today. But I refuse to give up on humanity's collective intellect; we really can hold two conflicting thoughts in our heads at the same time. Even if I reject today everything that is Catholicism, that does not mean that understanding Catholicism doesn't lead to a more complete understanding of who I am.

My friend wondered recently what happened in the scene prior to this one: Teacher Beats Student. She trusted me to understand that she wasn't condoning the teacher's abhorrent actions; she just wanted to know what caused the teacher to get so angry. She started out knowing that the teacher is human, that something triggered her to commit this crime. My friend knew that we--she and I both--could hold these two thoughts: a student may have misbehaved, perhaps even egregiously, and a teacher responded horribly, criminally. It's like those of us who wanted to know "Why do they hate us?" after 9/11. The right made hay of that question, suggesting that the very asking of it indicated complicity with the "evildoers." I think it's reasonable to seek answers to what motivates people, even if the eventual behavior of those people contradicts what any of us think is right.

I'm so glad you didn't give up on me, that you gave me a second chance to understand what you were thinking. I felt a little mean-spirited all around yesterday, frankly, and was heartened to find a little redemption in this post. :)
You are very welcome, Lainey. Your comments on my other post didn't seem mean-spirited to me, although I understand how hard it can be sometimes to argue with somebody. To me, your questions were probing and useful. For all its ups and downs, I really appreciate OS when it provides a real venue for discussion, when writers disagree but don't trash each other in the process.

The video of the teacher is yet another sad example. And oh yes, I want to know the motivations there, because whatever her personal difficulties, the challenge of teaching in a charter school--or any public school--is certainly worthy of more open scrutiny.
I think it's wonderful that you took the time to bypass the sensationalism and ask "what does this mean to me as human/woman/mother?" At the end of the day, that is what really matters (beyond "who, what, when, where, why") and what tabloid stories only pretend to address.
I've just read this post and your previous one, and wanted to let you know I found them both quite fair. I read an article a couple of days ago (that I can't find now!) on genetic sexual attraction. Apparently, its not uncommon, especially when relatives have not been in contact. It's the close proximity that cements the taboo, I gather. Interesting to me to say the least because my daughter is going to meet her birth family for the first time at the end of the month. She has a biological brother who is 14 months older than she.
I admit that I haven't given this story much attention but your analysis seems very well thought out. Thanks for the insights.
This is remarkably good writing and it touches me. We adopted our son just over 20 years ago. He was 5 wks old. We're white; our son's African-American. It has/does create special challenges and responsibilities for all of us. His coming to our family has been the blessing of a lifetime. Rated for insight and fearlessness on your part.
Thanks, all.

Hells: Tracy Clark Flory's Salon piece discussed genetic sexual attraction (as did a piece in Slate, I believe), and that was one of the more sane commentaries to come out of the media swirl.

Jonathan: You sound fearless, too. You are right about the blessings and responsibilities, esp. with a transracial adoption. Race is another one of those topics that the press isn't handling well now.
Good peeling away of some layers here, Martha. Fact is, society tiptoes around the subject of incest, especially when it involves the complicated power - if not ownership - a mother has over a son, birth or adoptive. More issues abound than just boundary crossing. Perhaps we just don't want to know how prevalent it is, don't know what to do about it, feel guilty for not predicting and redirecting such alliances, can't process a host of collateral confusing issues? (I've long wondered why so many women do have different - and often perceptively more intimate and nurturing relationships - with their sons than with their daughters. Surely, wouldn't Sword have behaved differently had she been reunited with a daughter given up at birth?) The reuniting of adoptive children with birth parents is as much an age-old concern as is the nature or nurture discussion itself. Loss of love - utter disconnect - seems the motivation in this story, as was the self-destructive limited avenue of reclaim. Wreckage all around. And just as many questions.
My adopted daughter turned 21 a few days ago.......and her brother took her out for drinks in her neighborhood of Lower Queen Anne, in Seattle.

They are biological cousins, but he is her big brother, her safety net, always. I helped her to hook up with her birth mother two years ago, torn between helping her to get additional love in her life and protecting her pocketbook....

The results fell somewhere in the middle.

Life is filled with drama. Adopted children start out with more than the rest of us........but we surely do love ours.
Humorme: Thanks for making the point that society tiptoes around incest, especially mother-son incest. I'm not sure how we can have an honest discussion of this outside the realm of fiction (I'm thinking of that Bunuel movie, whose name escapes me at the moment). I don't expect the media to address the complicated feelings and power dynamic; what I do expect, though, is at least some self-awareness about what it means to call such a relationship a "summer romance."

Ginny: Yes, you're talking about the real-world of reunions. They generate a lot of different feelings. They can't help but be dramatic. I just saw "The Kids Are All Right," in which the teenage protagonists feel compelled to meet the sperm donor who is their biological father. It's not a perfect movie, but it does get across the seductiveness of such a figure in a child's life and the capacity for disappointment.
Hi Martha, you look familiar as I lived in Camb. MA for a long time.

Now to the story. I love your compassion but regret (what you could not give even at yr best) the lack of sources for the birthmom's state of mind. What you did in your conjecture was quite wonderful. Yet, I've rarely read of reunions that end up with sexuality. Birthmom's as you say, don't always show even similar profiles with the babies they gave up. Perhaps, they had sex because she was feeling desperate or guilty or perhaps it had more to do with the son's sexuality, I didn't read about this until now.

What I want to say as an adoptive mom, a girl adopted on day 1 from a birthmom who herself was adopted day 1 is that I, too, wanted to facilitate their reunion. My daughter had no interest or not yet and the birthmom, now 40, has had another kid and seems to not want to communicate either. My motive was like others' here: the more love, the reconnection to a biological parent.

I have read so much about birth moms especially, less about birthdads, but what i've come to beleive is that they are far from a monolithic group--psychologically speaking. I also follow many reunions and they too are all shades of different from harsh and awful to good and friendly with clingy and off base as also a possibility. In that sense you maybe correct about this woman's motives but I, who have no trouble imagining the birthmother's pain and never did deny that to myself, I find it a reach that this genetic sexuality is a common or even the main point here. I would have to read many articles about this, for which I have so little time right now. But I personally (though I too admire your writing) am not sold that we can as adoptive parents insight this biomom's mind. I mean to me: It could be a million reasons. And yes I know many birthmom's never get over it. But this woman has FIVE other children? Is that correct? So it sounds to me maybe more complicated than the loss of one child, a difficult hard to control boy. I'd bet donuts to dollars the boy maneuvered this. That said, I too HATE that women go to jail for having sex with anyone.
And there's another unhappy category of sorts: the birth parents who secretly (or not so secretly) wish they'd never had children because parenting turned out to be much harder than they believed.
It's admirable that you went back to your post and thought about your need to write about it. You provide a thoughtful analysis here of something that most of us will ever understand at more than a base level.