What makes a mother a mother? This is the question at the heart of Amy Seek's provocative, emotionally resonant new memoir, "God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother."
In the adoption community the three parties involved in an adoption — adoptee, birth family and adoptive family — are referred to as the adoption triad. In our culture, the most underrepresented narrative in the triad is that of the birth mother. Until recently, birth mothers were often treated as a delivery vessel, physically and legally invisible. The birth mother's voice has long been silenced, both by redacted documents and by shame. As the ideas and laws around adoption shift, we are just now beginning to explore its emotional impact from all sides. An expansion of her excellent 2010 "Modern Love" column about open adoption, Seek's lyrical memoir contributes eloquently to this conversation.
When the book opens, Seek is a promising young architecture student on the run from a provincial Southern upbringing that left her feeling unwanted, constantly reminded that her conception had been an accident. History repeats itself, and she finds herself facing her own unwanted pregnancy. Deeply afraid of poverty, unconvinced of the viability of her relationship, and unwilling to surrender her dreams for a precarious future as a struggling single mother, Seek makes an adoption plan for her unborn child. She and the child's father search diligently and exhaustively for the right adoptive family. In a moving passage, she describes first meeting the people who will become her son's parents. "Erik turned toward us and just like love, it happened in an instant: Erik's hand shooting skyward, honest as a rocket, to say hello, here we are, and direct us where to park. Like falling in love, time was split in half in Fort Wayne, Indiana. … One look and somehow I knew he was my son's father."
Seek describes in beautiful and harrowing detail the birth of her child and her subsequent love, grief and confusion. For a moment she questions her decision but ultimately goes forward with the open adoption, which means she will remain in her child's life. That makes her baby's birth the beginning, not the end, of their story.
The complicated network of relationships that evolve are fascinating; the relationship between Seek and her son's adoptive mother is especially remarkable for its deep respect and raw honesty. It demonstrates the rewards and the pitfalls of navigating complicated emotional waters. She writes that "he was never lost. He is mine, I reminded myself, and he is not mine. Equally important, opposite realities. I'd practiced both thoughts so often that my heart was a branch bent back and forth, weakened by time."
Years later, Seek is involved in an awful cycling accident that leaves her unable to walk without terrible pain. She flirts with a PTSD diagnosis and begins to explore the cumulative effects of trauma, but that promising thread is left dangling in the wind. Near the book's end, she reaches the rather confusing conclusion that she must get her 9-year-old son back. The decision stands at odds with her statements, such as "love doesn't take up any space at all, and there's room enough for everyone's." This dissonance is unacknowledged and reveals a lack of self-awareness that plagues the final third of the book.
Seek poetically, even magnificently, explores every facet of her loss, but her immense longing and regret never transform her in any significant way. Some social context also might have broadened the book's perspective. Seek comes close to touching on this in a brief scene of a retreat she attends with other birth mothers, one of the most moving moments of the book. In a support group at the retreat, the women are asked, "Are you an angel or a slut?" Seek's response: "it wasn't complicated to understand whether I was an angel or a slut. It was easy to be both and neither of these simple things. It was complicated to understand whether or not I was a mother."
Even without context, though, Seek beautifully expresses the universal experiences of loss and longing, and elucidates how adoption, and motherhood itself, is a lesson in holding conflicting realities at the same time. "My body contained so much loss and still the sunset made me smile. My tears joined the world's waters. I was an entire planet, with deserts and oceans and infinite black cavities, every moment a different surface rolling into the sunlight. Half the world barreling into darkness just as the sun rises on the other. I have a son; I don't have a son; it is all the same dusty, difficult reality."
God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 352 pp., $27
Lauren is the author of the memoir "Everything You Ever Wanted."