God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother

  • By Amy Seek
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Janet Mason Ellerby
  • August 12, 2015

An honest, unflinching look at the unhealed wounds from adoption.

God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother

Toward the beginning of God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother, Amy Seek’s absorbing new memoir, the author thinks of adoption as a “special symbiosis,” a system with a “beautiful economy” that draws on “everything virtuous in human nature: love and selflessness and generosity.”

A 22-year-old architecture student faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Seek considers her options and chooses this seemingly uncomplicated picture of the process, a spin that helps her justify her decision to surrender her newborn, Jonathan.

This will be, she insists, “some kind of improved adoption.” After all, just like “dentistry and flight and calculators and war,” adoption has surely evolved since the “baby-scoop era” between 1945 and 1973, when 1.5 million babies were relinquished in closed adoptions, an era during which I was compelled to surrender my own infant daughter to strangers I was never meant to meet.

Seek takes great comfort in knowing that she will choose the couple who will adopt her child and, if they are willing, she will continue to “have a window, like a guardian angel, into [her] child’s life.”

Of course, this all sounds ideal, part of the ongoing cultural mythology that adoption is always good for all members of the triangle: the financially stable adoptive parents, the malleable child, and the magnanimous if ill-equipped birth parents who only want what’s best for their child.

Armed with a workbook from Catholic Social Services, Seek and Jevyn, her ex-boyfriend and her baby’s biological father, set out to “do adoption,” beginning with the arduous task of finding the best possible parents for their son. Readers must bear witness as they sift through stacks of “Dear Birth Mother” letters, all of which are painfully self-promotional as they pander to the high-demand mechanics of the adoption marketplace in which newborns like Seek and Jevyn’s are premium.

Seek’s sister hits on the harsh but apt metaphor for these would-be adoptive parents: They are like vultures, “only feigning compassion [for the birth parents] as they hovered, gliding in graceful circles as they waited to dive in.” The letters feature glittery stickers, idyllic pictures, and home descriptions that read like real-estate listings (three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, three acres on a cul-de-sac), but not one reveals any concern for the unwanted children of the world.

Even so, Seek and Jevyn remain committed to the process, and months of indecision follow as they doggedly comb through the profiles, ply “contestants” with 111 questions (e.g., “Do you get dessert?”), and make painfully awkward home visits.

Their resolve eventually pays off when they find Paula and Erik, perhaps the most flawlessly virtuous (and thus unrealistic) individuals to inhabit a memoir — any memoir. The genre calls for honesty, but these folks are just too good to be true. Nonetheless, I can understand why Seek wants to see them as saints. Since her son is only 10 years old at the memoir’s conclusion, Paula and Erik have miles of difficult parenting ahead. We can appreciate why Seek doesn’t want to unsettle a complex relationship.

Although Seek does not, for good reason, interrogate adoptive-family dynamics, she does write a memoir that compellingly demonstrates the ongoing, often devastating, and sometimes debilitating emotional costs birth mothers in particular must pay after they sign the papers.

During her pregnancy, Seek knows surrendering her son will be painful, but she sees it as finite — a pain from which she will recover, “a single impact” like “falling off a cliff.” After the birth, she realizes the improved adoption plan she had agreed to was a ruse, an impossible fantasy that well-meaning but deceptive people had fashioned so that she might “choose” to surrender her son. She learns too late, “Adoption was not a real plan, it was just a resting place for the unthinkable: having a son, giving up a son; both had been unimaginable.”

It is here, then, that Seek’s memoir does the important social work that the genre can ideally do: interrogating the delusional assumptions about open adoption and refusing to conform to the cultural myth that adoption is best for everyone.

Even though Paula and Erik are more than obliging, and Jonathan seems to thrive in their improved adoptive family, Seek lets us see the coercive forces that are often at play when it comes to “doing adoption.” We experience firsthand the dramatic economic and sociological inequalities that compromise the process. Readers witness the unhealable trauma of surrender.

Yes, 10 years after Jonathan’s birth, Seek has finished school, traveled, and succeeded in her career as a landscape architect, but her attempts at love and happiness are hobbled by guilt and regret. On the memoir’s first page, she confesses that “everything [has] been shaped by [my son’s] absence.”

She has yet to find anything she wants more than him. Seek reconfirms my own experience: There can be no happy ending for mothers who surrender. Those who might think open adoption is a panacea can learn from this memoir that the deep-seated sorrow that resides at the roots of a birth mother’s being will endure.

Janet Mason Ellerby is professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women’s Memoir and Following the Tambourine: A Birthmother’s Memoir. Her most recent book, Embroidering the Scarlet A: Unwed Mothers and Illegitimate Children in American Fiction and Film, was published by the University of Michigan Press in April of this year.

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