Mary was a liberated woman. At 23, she wore a leather jacket, managed a vinyl record shop and rode a motorbike. Few suspected she was a the youngest daughter of landed gentry and her father had what they liked to call, "standing in the community."
He was its judge, both formally and informally. A Pillar. Salt of the earth. So of course, like all good stories, this one begins when his daughter Mary fell in love with a scoundrel.
John was a captain in the Navy and the sexual revolution was in full sway. Although this liberation was propelled by those who wanted equal rights, those who wanted more sexual freedom supported it too, even if––maybe especially if––they didn't want to take responsibility for their actions.
Birth control was all but inaccessible for women, legal abortion was expensive and strictly monitored by male doctors. Illegal abortion was life threatening.
John said he loved her. He didn't say he was married.
Naive girls like Mary, those who were ill-equipped to resist the advances of the predatory men who pursued them, were a dime a dozen. They were the good girls. They honoured and obeyed their parents, they attended church on Sundays. But when they inevitably got into trouble they were immediately dubbed flawed, psychologically deficient and weak, whilst the illegitimate children of any illicit fumblings were equally tainted.
For five months Mary thought the growth in her belly was cancer. When her local family doctor—disgusted by her immorality—refused to treat her, she went away alone on a pretext and returned childless six months later, riddled with guilt, shame and sorrow, all the while forced to pretend that nothing of any consequence had occurred.
Society deemed that such careless and shameful promiscuity deserved punishment. Feminist ideals had advanced more quickly than the patriarchal attitudes and structures which had held them in check, and back then it was enforced by both social pressures and legal structures alike.
The only hope of slight reprieve lay in sincere remorse which could only be demonstrated by relinquishing the baby to better, well deserving families. Still the shame of promiscuity—if known—could never be fully redeemed, so secrecy was paramount. Her father's standing was preserved and her life went on, not quite as usual.
The story of Mary, a young woman brought up to conform, making her first bid towards freedom and being punished for it, is a story as old as time. Even today, if you are arrogant enough to break the bonds of our patriarchal society, you will be brutally cut down.
Promiscuous female characters are disproportionately punished by murder and rape on television, whilst in real life those who dare to diverge from being the good girl—Diana Spencer, Monica Lewinsky, Marilyn Monroe—get their comeuppance one way or another.
Illegitimacy was in my blood, and it had tainted me. I felt it in my friends' parents’ sideways looks and murmured conversations, as if Mary’s immorality and weakness had been passed through the placenta.
Mary was my mother. And when we met twenty years later she tried to explain why she chose to give me up. But I already knew that she had had no other viable choice.
Those post-war years stretching from the 50s to the 70s are now known as the baby scoop era.
Babies were relinquished across the world in their millions. In Mary’s social circles the stigma of being an unwed mother was almost a fate worse than death. She feared her family would be crushed by the shame, or for their own protection be forced to disown her, making both her and me penniless. She could either hide the birth and give me up to strangers but live with the pain and secrecy for the rest of her life, or risk utter rejection for us both, from both her family and her society, for the rest of our lives.
So she travelled to the north of England and told no one save her eldest brother. When I was eight days old, she handed me over and I officially began life as the child of infertile but eminently respectable—aka married—parents under a new and legitimate name, the one I still use today. That name, whilst legally mine, is not the one on my birth certificate.
In those days being adopted was just an alias for ‘bastard.’ But the adoptive veneer of respectability didn’t hold behind closed doors, so my friends—who overheard their parents’ not-so-hidden opinions—used it as my de-facto nickname. We were teenagers; unconscious and uncaring bundles of raging hormones.
"Bastard" was hardly worse than the other nicknames we came up with for each other, but in one way it was more valid because I was one, and the only one anyone knew of.
Illegitimacy was in my blood, and it had tainted me. I felt it in my friends' parents’ sideways looks and murmured conversations, as if Mary’s immorality and weakness had been passed through the placenta. By the circumstances of my birth my honour was smirched, I was already broken.
It came as little surprise to anyone that I made unconventional ‘slutty’ choices in my adult life (least of all my adopted mother, who muttered at every opportunity, that blood was clearly thicker than water). As a teenager I slept around, and later chose, with my husband, to practise an open relationship.
Was I Broken?
Some of the older, more outspoken generation in my family, have indicated in the most Downton-esque and British way possible—by inference and discreetly behind their napkins at dinner—that being a ‘slut’ was a consequence of the circumstances surrounding my birth. Slut was less of a choice I made, more of an inevitable consequence, that they tried, and failed, through no fault of their own, to help me avoid.
I was a bastard; how then could anyone expect anything other of me, than to become a slut?
The belief, that as a bastard I was inevitably broken, is still an astonishingly easier narrative for many to believe, than any other. Even after all these years it is a common story, a narrative of choice, and for many years I also bought into it without deeper reflection.
I had ‘bad’ genes. A predisposition for promiscuity, and rebellion, just like Mary.
Until it occurred to me that Mary was not illegitimate. She was not adopted. Her parents were not divorced. They lived and died together, in the same house, in the same community. Mary had none of the childhood markers I had, which could have cultivated her own so-called immoral choices. It was just that she lived in different times. The only immoral choice Mary was forced to make, as far as I was concerned, was as a mother to surrender her baby. We now know this can result in trauma known as "moral injury" which contributes to PTSD. That can definitely break someone.
Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual's moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound 'moral disorientation1Toward an interdisciplinary conceptualization of moral injury: From unequivocal guilt and anger to moral conflict and disorientation"
Despite the advances in feminism, even white women of my privilege and in these times are bound, more or less, to moral convention, like little lotus feet. To conform to the idealised image of womanhood you must be demure yet sexy, vulnerable yet strong, forthright yet still know your place (don't even get me started on the corporate world). And just as the practice of binding feet was not only considered beautiful and necessary in order to get married, so I was taught that being anything less than the ideal female meant I was less worthy. On the outside the ideal woman is plucked, shaved and sculpted through exercise, modern day corsets or plastic surgery. On the inside we learn which emotions are not acceptable and which needs should be suppressed until we become a shell of who we might have been. Marriage is perhaps no longer the main "fulfilment" of many women, but we must still fit into what is deemed acceptable or be outcast. The bindings are all the more insidious because they are invisible.
It’s not long before we bind our own metaphorical feet, unconsciously perpetuate abuse and prefer to buy into the narrative that this is desirable than what is patently obvious. We have been broken.
It is unsurprising then that many of us become incapable of knowing what we really feel, that many of us laud ideals and values which are not our own, or otherwise conform simply in order to survive. There is no other narrative, only a warning of what happens when girls do not toe the line. It’s not long before we bind our own metaphorical feet and teach our sons and daughters alike how to do likewise, unconsciously perpetuating abuse and preferring to buy into the narrative that this is desirable than what is patently obvious. We have been broken.
Although I didn’t want to believe I was broken, having always been ‘the bastard’, it had in one way or another, been part of my identity since I was born. It was easy to believe. For those who prefer not to know me anymore I graduated seamlessly from bastard to slut with no discernible break and for years these two aliases more or less defined who I was. Many attribute causality to this. At first I internalised their stigma of shame, ignored any internal inconsistencies in my own narrative and denied any possible substance to allegations linking my choice to be in an open relationship and my adoption.
Not any more.
Was I a 'Slut' because I was a 'Bastard'?
Monogamy had always seemed like an impossibly painful choice to me even if I knew theoretically it was possible, for others. Did it mean that I was born ‘non-monogamous’? Or was I made that way?Monogamy is one of the unwritten rules of our culture. It is portrayed as the only acceptable form of romantic relationship for mature adults. Not a choice, but a moral imperative and the highest of romantic aspirations, till death do us part.
But there’s a catch: pure monogamy is for many people too rigid to accommodate the reality of our humanity. And although it proves unsuccessful much of the time, questioning whether monogamy is the only right way to conduct adult relationships threatens to upset the very architecture of our society.
I am currently in a relationship with two men. People feel viscerally scared by my relationships despite the fact that monogamy and the nuclear family are proving increasingly unpopular options. They are scared simply that I have relationships, plural. This I have discovered firsthand, as many of my friends have lashed out, they’ve dismissed me and my relationships as immature, morally deficient or simply unnatural. Broken. What did they mean by that?
Discounting the possibility that I was broken because my conception was ‘immoral’ I wondered whether my adoped experiences had anything to do with my unconventional adult relationship choices. Monogamy had always seemed like an impossibly painful choice to me even if I knew theoretically it was possible, for others. Did it mean that I was born ‘non-monogamous’? Or was I made that way?
The intersection of adoption and polyamory (the practice, inclination, or philosophy of loving many with the consent of all involved), is not a common one. After ten years of active participation in a non-monogamous community consisting of hundreds of thousands, I know of precisely four people who are both adopted and polyamorous, and they have all had different experiences of adoption to mine. Some better. Some far, far worse. Many more people who practise polyamory are not adoptees.
At first sight then, it was an easy choice to dismiss my family’s assertions to the contrary. Of course I wasn’t polyamorous JUST because I was adopted! There seemed no reason to hunt further and the presence of adoption in my own history seemed irrelevant to my adult relationship choices. Even so it niggled away, mocking every failed relationship and every heart break; until I finally committed to researching the—somewhat sanitised—question.
Was I not able to be faithful because I was adopted?
Even then, I found little data to clarify how non-monogamy and adoption might relate to one another; even the existing research on adoptees is flawed. The samples contain many different types of adoption which as a concept is represented as a piece of paper, a transfer of parental duties and legal guardianship. Adoption research generally examines only the children adopted from birth who have this piece of paper. Yet many children are never formally adopted but have a remarkably similar experience to those who have the piece of paper. It is,
- An unsure heritage.
- Being brought up by other caregivers who don’t resemble us.
- An assumed identity.
And these experiences included many more people. So I started off examining the potential impacts of these three key experiences commonly defined as the adoption experience, but quickly realised that my childhood influences included so many others which were almost if not more influential; yet many of them were linked in someway. And they compounded one another.
I could not discount the impact of being raised as a girl-child in a patriarchal society, the same one which had coerced Mary into giving me up, the one which had shamed Janet, my adoptive mother, for her infertility. The one which allowed John, my birth father to exploit young naive women without consequence, and had taught Chris, my adoptive father that Janet was not a 'real woman' because she couldn't bear children. I could not discount my adoptive father's Ottoman heritage and brown skin, nor Janet's sex-negative attitudes. It was all interconnected.
I could not discount the impact of having been raised in preparation for western womanhood. My adoption only compounded those impacts and those impacts were exactly the same as Mary’s. To a greater or lesser extent they were exactly the same as the majority of middle class western white women (I speak as one of them, maybe more marginalised folk might take value from my work, but that's for them to decide).
Moreover I was not the only one who has been separated from her parents and brought up by other caregivers—even if for many it’s less permanent, simply because their Mum or Dad had to work for a living. I was not only one who grew up with a strict religious upbringing, nor the only one who is uncertain of her roots, nor the only one with divorced parents. I am not the only one who had an emotionally absent Dad who hit his wife, nor the only one who grew up with draconian middle-class etiquette shoved down her throat, nor the only one who was exposed to a tissue of lies during childhood, nor the only one who has been disciplined to be a ‘good girl’. As an adult I am not the only one who has struggled with fidelity, not the only one who has been raped, or who has been trapped in an abusive relationship or who has suffered from the perceived loss of my life in those early years of motherhood. There was the truth.
I was not the only ‘broken’ woman. There were many of us.
Who broke me? The patriarchal system and its obedient foot soldiers. Step by step, starting with other’s definition of me as a bastard and my removal from Mary, their choices were forced upon me, my own abilities were restricted and my die cast by other hands. But the more I was restricted, the bigger the force needed to catapult me to freedom and the more extreme my rebellion.
Since so many of my experiences intersected, I believe I rebelled harder. I went no contact with my adoptive parents. I moved from house to house, country to country, married, cheated, divorced, abandoned a high flying business career to become a writer living on an isolated and car-free Swedish island. Nowadays, I still choose to live in an open relationship and am a feminist activist, author and blogger. I have three children by two men and live as a family with all of them, sometimes under the same roof, in a networked configuration. I have been punished by society again and again for exercising my freedom because my life goes against everything dictated for a virtuous, docile woman.
And the questions I asked myself, are also the questions asked quietly, desperately across the world by millions.
- Why am I such a people pleaser?
- Why can’t I be faithful?
- Why can’t I say no?
Why? Why? Why? Maybe you’ve cheated… maybe you’ve been in an abusive relationship… maybe you’re a people pleaser. Maybe you’re married to a doormat… maybe you’re involved with two or more people—openly or otherwise…. maybe like me, you are just wondering why you are the way you are. Or indeed who you are…
We ask the same questions. My work provided me with answers I hadn't found anywhere else.
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