From an early age, we learn the love of a mother surpasses no other. A confusing concept for those of us whose mothers didn’t keep and raise us, instead handing us off to the church or strangers. From day one, adoptees juggle a veritable cribload of dichotomies.
For some mothers, especially during the “Baby Scoop Era” (BSE) of the 1950s through ‘70s, society, religious groups, and sometimes family members refused to accept unwed motherhood and illegitimate newborns.
As luck would have it, just when maternity shelters and wage homes were bursting at the seams during those freakishly patriarchal decades, it also became trendy to take in a wayward bastard or two, even if your good Christian family had already been “blessed” with natural children.
And so it was with my adoptive family. They had a house full of their own, but for some reason bought....er, brought me in, too. After a 2-month stint in foster care, after the church deemed me "normal & adoptable," I was handed over to this big group of strangers.
The thinking of the day was that babies were blank slates, and if they never brought up the topic of adoption, we would be just like one of their real kids, “as if born to” them. We’d never need to know anything about roots or medical histories or anything nature-based.
Well, the thinking of the day was pretty wack because I looked and acted nothing like this family, and never talking about it made it even creepier.
I was getting ready for my first year of college when I decided to contact the adoption agency for information about my real family. The social worker said my file indicated my mother had called a couple of times in years past asking about me. A good sign! Maybe I’d be able to reconnect with my bio-tribe one day soon.
Birth mothers must always wonder what happened to the child they left behind, right?
Hmm. No, not quite. No doubt some birth mothers are loving, sincere and humble; however, what I found was quite the opposite. I found an angry, self-centered, dismissive, secretive nightmare of a mama. Talk about a let-down. It’s been over 20 years since we talked now and it looks like we’ll go to our graves without ever reconciling.
It started out OK, but looking back, I should have seen the signs early on. I was too blinded by emotion and wanted desperately to be accepted and liked by this woman.
My mother's first letter (no email in the late ‘80s) gave a quick mention of being glad I was alive and well, then went on to gush about her husband and two kids. She also described her six siblings and their kids and families, a very close-knit clan who all lived nearby. I was glad to hear about these new family members, and told her I couldn’t wait to get to know them.
“Oh, no, I can’t tell anyone about you. No one knows except my husband and a few of my siblings. No, I won’t tell my kids, I don’t want to upset them.” (They were around 8 and 10 at the time.)
Um, they weren’t even the ones who were given away. How about being told at age 6 that you’re not related to your family, and they don’t know why your mom didn’t keep you?
So...we wrote cordial letters to each other. I asked her about her own individual interests, passions, favorite foods/colors/books, but she steered away from talking about herself, preferring to focus on her brilliant husband and gifted son and daughter.
I told her I was happy for her and her ability to create such a grand life for herself after what was probably a difficult time earlier, in her 20s when she had me. Silence. Letters stopped. I wasn’t supposed to bring it up.
Same scenario played out if I brought up anything remotely uncomfortable about the challenges of being adopted, not having anyone familiar around growing up. She would stop communicating.
Then after a few weeks or months, I’d send an upbeat, casual note and she’d eventually respond, saying how busy she had been with Zachary’s hockey schedule or volunteering at Amaura’s school.
Anytime I sent a gift specifically for my mother, she let me know that she immediately gave it to one of the kids. A special sweater? Right to her daughter. A book I thought she might enjoy reading? “No I didn’t read it, I gave it to Zach.”
We spoke on the phone a few times, and if I mentioned how I’d like to meet her or other family members, she told me I should be happy with the (adoptive) family I had. She insisted that even biological family members didn’t always connect that well. I should be grateful and take what was given. Ouch.
About a year after making contact, my adoptive dad had a business trip in Philadelphia (where my whole maternal family lived), so I decided to join him. I called my mother to let her know we were in town.
She was hesitant but decided to meet me at the hotel, then invited me over to their home the next day. Her husband knew about me, along with a couple of her siblings, but no one else.
I met my half-sister, and was introduced as “an old friend’s daughter.” I was not to mention anything about being a family member in front of her. I met an aunt briefly and her daughters, my cousins. The aunt knew, but to the cousins I was no one special.
Eventually my mother stopped communicating completely. She was wrapped up in her new life, in her decision to keep the secrets buried and never reveal the sins of her past.
It seemed she was glad to have her curiosity satiated, but did not want to keep up the hard work of a covert relationship and the chance of being found out. There seemed to be some Stepford-wife thing going on there, too.
She controlled what everyone knew and how they knew it, and felt that was how it should always be. She never told her parents, and they died without knowing of their eldest grandchild. She never told my father about my existence, and became enraged when I mentioned wanting to meet that part of my family.
Over the years, I’ve tried reaching out to other maternal family members -- after all, we’re all adults now, so why should a birth mother assume the role of gatekeeper to all relationships with a relinquished child?
Who knows what she’s told them about me, but the only one to respond has been the one aunt I met years ago during my visit. She’s been kind, we exchange Christmas cards, but she doesn’t share a lot.
Half-siblings and cousins have ignored friendly notes and friend requests. Maybe they think I’m lying or a lunatic. If they took a minute to respond, they’d see I’m a nice normal person, married 15 years with three beautiful kids of my own who would also love to know some of their relatives.
The secrets and lies in closed adoption are suffocating, and the damaging ripple effects go on and on. It’s just ridiculous.
People have sex outside of marriage. Sometimes babies result. They should be kept in the family, but at times they are given away to strangers. Life is hard. Deal with it, be honest, no whitewash or avoidance of your very human mistakes and choices.
Here’s a request: If you have a child or sibling or other family member who was given away for adoption, and they reach out to you -- please respond. They are not after anything, they are not out to ruin your life or destroy your carefully crafted image or disrupt other delicate relationships. They just want to connect and get to know folks who might look and act in a similar way, after a lifetime of missing out on that.
Give them a chance, you might make a loyal new friend who also happens to be a long-lost child, sibling, cousin, or niece.