Imagine you’ve been friends with someone on Facebook for a number of years. Six years, let’s say. You’ve gotten to know them pretty well and are in contact on a regular basis.
Although you’ve never met IRL as they live in a different country, you interact with one another a lot, you message a fair bit and you’ve chatted with them on Skype several times. You’ve featured on each others’ blogs on a number of occasions.
You like and respect them. You’ve confided in them and taken advice from them. You regard them as a ‘proper’ friend.
One day, logging onto Facebook, you see a status update from your friend with a gallery of pictures of them with a little girl. A little girl you’ve not seen before.
A little girl who, as it turns out, is your friend’s three year old daughter…
This happened to me in November last year. The friend I refer to is Spin Sucks author and public relations influencer Gini Dietrich. And this is the Facebook post:
So. Many. Questions.
Without wishing to overplay it, this absolutely floored me.
I was astounded. My initial reaction was one of shock and confusion, and it took me several days to accept what I read and saw. I kept thinking it was all some kind of prank or social experiment for a blog post!
I mean, how can any normal person keep another human being a secret for three entire years? Let alone someone as socially connected as Gini Dietrich?
Recently I caught up with Gini on a rather enlightening Skype call and she’s kindly given me permission to reproduce some elements of her story here.
So how on earth do you keep a three year old girl a secret when you have 1200 Facebook friends and 43,000 Twitter followers, and are known for being someone who will chat to anyone about anything?! And perhaps more to the point, why?
“We’d been thinking of adopting a child for about two years”, Gini tells me. “But the foster care system in the US is broken. So badly broken. After the opportunity came about in 2013 to take in Addie, it took three entire years before she was legally ours.”
I asked Gini about Addie’s background. “She came to us at six months old”, she says. “She’d been in care for six weeks at that point and, prior to fostering her, Kelly (Gini’s husband of 13 years) and I had to go to classes not providing advice on caring for a baby, but basically telling us how to incorporate a child into our home. It was bizarre!”
After the initial delay, the stork arrived and Addie became part of the Dietrich family. Sort of.
“The foster care system is supposed to look after the interests of kids, but in the United States it seems to be set up in the best interests of the biological parents”, Gini explains. “Even when a child is in care and the parental rights will be terminated the biological parents still have visitation rights. And in Addie’s case this caused major problems.”
Thus started a saga that was to delay Gini and Kelly adopting Addie by over three years. This in itself I find astounding. I myself have a three year old girl, and the thought of knowing that she could be taken away at any time is unfathomable.
“Addie’s biological mother did not know who the father was”, says Gini. “It took a year and a half to track down three potential fathers and to serve them the opportunity to have DNA tests carried out (none of them took that opportunity). And though it was unlikely given the situation, the biological father has certain rights under US law and could have derailed the adoption process at any time.”
“Once that was over, Addie’s biological mother then insisted on visitation. Even though the State had taken Addie away from her mother’s care at six months old, under US law we could not legally adopt her while this was the case.”
While Gini describes the next two years to me she’s her normal, happy-go-lucky and chatty self but, to me at least, they sound like a long and painful slog.
In short, Gini and Kelly had to organise weekly visitations. But – get this – it was on them to do so, not the biological mother. They had to organise the visits and they had to travel with Addie to see the mother, rather than her visiting Gini and Kelly.
“Over the course of the next 18 months things slowed up”, says Gini. “To start with she’d turn up every week, then every other week, then once a month and then not at all. But we were obliged to organise the visits and to show up to every single one with Addie, even though we knew she wouldn’t be there. So for the best part of eighteen months we’d take a weekly trip to sit and wait for an hour for the biological mother not to show up.”
It wasn’t until March 2016 that Addie’s biological mother eventually gave up her parenting rights and Gini and Kelly were legally allowed to move toward adopting the little girl who had already been a part of their family for nearly three years. And it was another eight months before the papers finally came through and Addie was officially a Dietrich.
So why keep all this a secret?
On the face of it there would seem to be a simple explanation. Psychologically speaking, I’m not sure I would want to let the world know about my child, no matter how proud and excited I was, if there was a possibility that they might be taken away from me. It would be painful enough without having to explain it a gazillion times to well-meaning friends through social media.
But there’s more to it than that. “We were simply not allowed to mention anything at all about Addie on social media until she was 100% legally ours”, Gini explains. “And that didn’t just apply to us either. A single mention or reference to her from our family or friends on Facebook and the adoption process could have been halted.”
Personally, I cannot imagine being in this situation. I think I’d have been living in fear the entire time.
“It was so hard to begin with”, says Gini. “There were so many things that we wanted to share with the world, as any parents with young kids will understand. But we daren’t and we slowly got used to it. It became habit.”
“It was other people we had to look out for, and there were a few occasions where family members made reference to Addie on Facebook and we had to get in touch very quickly and ask them to remove a picture or status. They were mortified and did so without question.”
“I have to say though, people were amazing. They appreciated that it was our news to tell and the reasons why we couldn’t tell it. So we had no reason not to trust people.”
What about the act of announcing it? How did that come about, and how did people respond?
“Kelly was dying to tell everyone after Addie’s biological mother officially gave up her visitation rights. But I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want people to treat me any differently and I’d become accustomed to Addie being something that was separate from my online life.”
After I probed a bit more on this, Gini told me: “I knew full well that people would treat me differently when they discovered I was a mother. As a mum, you’re not expected to be on top of your game because you have other priorities.”
“Kids provide an excuse. So when I revealed that I’d been a mother for three years, I knew that some might be put out because the illusion that I can run a business, carry out a forty week book tour and walk 20,000 steps a day ‘because I don’t have a child to deal with’ would be shattered. Women especially can be very unforgiving.”
Eventually though, Gini gave in to Kelly’s insistence. They opted for Thanksgiving to announce Addie to the world as Gini felt that “people might be a bit distracted”.
From announcing a child you’ve had secretly for three years, that is. Uh-huh…
Narcissism and Hypocrisy
When it comes to how people reacted, let me just say that my own response was ‘complex’. On the one hand, I was dumbfounded. On the other, I was delighted for Gini. But on the ‘other’ other, I have to admit to realising that I felt a little ‘affronted’.
As I’ve previously stated, I regard Gini as a friend. So not only would you think I might have noticed something as significant as a child somewhere along the line, but it seems reasonable to think that on one of the numerous times she’d asked me about my own kids, she might have dropped in that she had one of her own!
And that led to me questioning how Gini regarded me. Friendships are, after all and by their very nature, supposed to be mutual. I wasn’t for one moment under the impression that I was one of her nearest and dearest. But I did think I might have ranked moderately high on the ‘tell them you’ve got a kid’ scale.
As it turns out, this complex and, admittedly, self-absorbed emotional reaction wasn’t unusual among the hundreds of people who suddenly had the news of Gini Dietrich being a mother thrust upon them.
But whereas for me it was a curiosity, for some others it was simply too much. “Twelve people unfriended me immediately”, Gini tells me. “And I received a couple of very nasty private messages accusing me of hypocrisy, saying ‘how dare you keep this from us.”
The point about being a hypocrite needs clarification. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know her or her work, Gini writes a blog called Spin Sucks. She’s authored a book by the same name, and a lot of what she preaches as a (very highly respected) PR professional is that those working in public relations must be truthful, authentic and transparent.
So when someone accuses her of “spinning the truth for three years” after this revelation, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. BUT (and it’s a butt bigger than Kim Kardashian’s infamous rear end) what this unfriending/nasty messaging behaviour smacks of far more to me is the narcissistic nature of modern society.
I freely admit that any minor snub I may have felt was rooted in my own ego. And I cannot for one moment understand how anyone could feel so insulted as to have that emotion cloud the goodwill and happiness felt for someone who to that point, I would assume, they considered a friend.
I can’t help but wonder how they would feel now if they understood that Gini was legally required not to mention Addie on social media or risk losing her. If they’d bothered to find out.
Gini is a lot more philosophical about it. “I expected that reaction from a few people as, essentially, human beings are pretty horrible to one another”, she says. “I just shrugged it off.”
The Moral of the Story
Talking through her experiences with Gini, I couldn’t help but wonder what, if anything, we can learn from them.
Maybe that’s not to be so quick to judge people by what they do or do not post on social media. It’s common knowledge that people tend to show only the parts of their lives that they want you to see on Facebook, leading to a warped and overly-positive impression.
You only ever see a small glimpse into someone’s real life through social media. There’s no way of knowing what’s really going on in people’s lives by what they post on Facebook, or indeed their motivations for posting (or not posting) something.
If someone as socially connected as Gini Dietrich can keep quite possibly the most significant element of their life a secret for three entire years, just imagine all those little things that happen to people day-in and day-out that you never hear about. The stresses and strains of everyday life; the ups and downs that cause us to behave in different ways at different times; the complex and changing emotions and feelings that we all have.
Kindness costs nothing. Especially in the troubling times we currently live in, maybe we should all just give each other a break?