When the author set out to find her birth parents, she found out generations of adoption are not uncommon — but what did that mean she should do when it came to having kids as an adoptee?
When I was adopted, it was a secretive affair. I knew the basics: my parents couldn’t have kids, my birth mother was an unmarried teenager who couldn’t keep me, perfect match. I knew nothing else for a very long time. My parents never kept my adoption a secret from me, but they constantly told me it was a private family matter and I shouldn’t talk about it with anyone. So we didn’t discuss it. Back then, babies were often matched up not only by race or ethnicity, but also religion and even looks. My parents wanted a baby who could pass as theirs, so we could all pretend the rest never happened. But I was not a good secret keeper; I told everything to anyone who would listen. The only people I didn’t feel safe talking about adoption with were my parents; for them it was nothing short of taboo.
I’d had a very lonely childhood, followed by a very lonely and difficult adolescence. I grew up into an angry young adult. I didn’t get along with my parents, who seemed old and as un-childlike as any two adults could be. As a kid, I’d often felt like I was being raised by aliens who’d never been kids themselves, never experienced anything difficult, and had absolutely nothing to share with me, their only child. But time and time again I was told how lucky I was to be an only child, how I must be spoiled rotten, how I get all the attention. To put it mildly, this was not my experience. I could never understand why my parents wanted children in the first place, and why they never adopted anyone else to keep me company.
At 18, I sent away for my “non-identifying information,” which is often the first step in the process of opening a closed adoption. All adoptions in New York State were closed at the time of my birth, which means all original records are sealed and it can be very difficult to access any identifying information that might lead to reunion. But it was standard at the time for adoption agencies to release what little information they had about the birth parents that could be of interest to the adoptee within what was permitted legally. To my surprise, my letter had one piece of interesting information. “An adoptee herself, your mother felt that this was the best choice for you.”
Generations of adoption are not uncommon, as it turns out. But it was different than the story I told myself. I never thought about the possibility of a new level of complexity in my story. In fact, once I got the non-identifying information and the news that my birth mother was so pro-adoption, I never even gave much thought to trying to find either of my birth parents. I didn’t think meeting them would benefit anyone, least of all me.
Meeting my birth mother was like looking in the mirror. We couldn’t get enough of each other.
When I was 26, going through a divorce, questioning a lot about who I was, and was in no uncertain terms in the darkest place I’d ever been in my life, a colleague – also an adoptee and a former adoption counselor — convinced me that reunion was a critical piece of the adoption puzzle. He said my life would be forever changed for the better. That it would help me to understand new things about myself and why I was the way I was. He advised me that the first step for a New York adoptee was to register with the NYS Department of Health and request to have my records opened. If my birth mother registered too, we would be connected. This sent chills up my spine. But, he reassured me, this happens so rarely that only about 2 percent of adoptees are reunited with their birth parents this way. Don’t expect much. Think of it as a way for you to get your feet wet. The real next step is to hire a private investigator and launch a search.
So I registered, and two weeks later, I got a call. My mother had registered too, on my eighteenth birthday. And even though I was living in another state by then, far from home, she and her entire family lived 20 miles away from me, two towns over.
Meeting my birth mother was like looking in the mirror. We couldn’t get enough of each other. After a few weeks of exchanging long and frequent emails discovering the many ways in which we were similar (oh my god! I love that restaurant too!), we agreed to meet. Contrary to the way I was raised, my birth mother encouraged me to talk about my experience. She did, too. Her husband knew. Her kids knew. Some of her friends knew. The agencies she volunteered for as a foster parent to babies awaiting adoption placement knew. I immediately felt accepted, already a part of her life. We met at our favorite restaurant and there she told every single person that I was the daughter she gave up 26 years before. She told the maître d', the waitstaff, the other diners, anyone who would listen. She couldn't stop hugging me and asking them if they thought we looked alike. I was shocked — and I loved it. She was so open. I wanted to be like her. I was like her. For the first time in my life, there was someone in the world that I was related to. It was like she was drinking me in, and I felt loved.
My mother had her family: a husband and two children she raised. I had parents. We didn’t quite know how to be in each other’s lives.
Society doesn’t really have a role for birth parents and their adult babies to step into when they reunite. My mother had her family: a husband and two children she raised. I had parents. We didn’t quite know how to be in each other’s lives. She insisted she’d never had adoption issues of her own; that she wasn’t angry or sad or even interested in finding her own birth parents. I didn’t believe her. She kept the focus on my issues in a way that made me feel under a magnifying glass, as though my anger and sadness was not justified or common, that she was somehow a better adoptee than I was. She shared with me openly about my birth father: his name, his age, his family, his interests, their relationship and what she’d loved about him, but she refused to connect us.
She told me that all my life she’d thought about me every day, felt emotional every January as my birthday approached, and that she’d always wanted to know more than anything that I was happy. But I wasn’t. I needed saving, and I looked to her for rescue. This was something she could not do, and the toll that feeling abandoned by her not once but twice took on my very fragile psyche at the time was more than I could bear.
We drifted in and out of each other’s lives for the next decade or so. I moved abroad and while she reached out from time to time with a call or a letter, I was inconsistent about getting back in touch with her. When I moved back to the States, we tried again. We found a therapist who focused on adoption and met with her monthly until we uncovered that maybe she did have some pretty significant adoption issues too, and that in addition to the often emotionally crippling guilt birth mothers feel about surrendering their babies, her issues centered on her own adoption story and how her family’s familiarity with adoption led her parents to decide the outcome of her pregnancy without even consulting her. It was the perfect choice for them, but not for her. She’d wanted to keep me, but she wasn’t allowed to.
I’d dreamed all my life of having daughters, but I’d just assumed that I would not have children. Because of how I was raised, because of my adoption, because I was so self-absorbed, I didn’t think I’d make a good parent. I conceded to myself that the right partner could change that, but that if we did decide to become parents in the end, it would be via adoption. I felt that if I chose to become a parent at all, my entire life story and my parents’ before me qualified to be an understanding, open, accepting adoptive parent, and recognize alongside my child the complexities of the adoption triad and nature vs. nurture. Adoption was what I knew, and it was in my blood. It’s what made sense.
Part of me still felt morally obligated to parent by adoption. Yet on the other hand, neither of us had been raised by two biological parents and we were drawn in by the fantasy of raising children who looked like us, who acted like us.
Marriage changed all that. If I wanted to stay married, and I did, I couldn’t be quite so self-absorbed. My husband came to me with his own unique and complex family story. He unequivocally wanted children, and when I confessed my daydreams about two little girls to him, it was decided. Kids were on our radar. By this time, adoption was more open, more accepted, commonly international and/or multiracial, and very, very expensive. People we knew who had chosen to go the adoption route spent years and tens of thousands of dollars awaiting their children. Part of me still felt morally obligated to parent by adoption. Yet on the other hand, neither of us had been raised by two biological parents and we were drawn in by the fantasy of raising children who looked like us, who acted like us. I was already in my mid-thirties; we concluded that we didn’t have the time — or the money — to pursue a lengthy process.
It didn’t take long. Four and a half weeks into reading books, obsessively charting temperatures, examining mucous, and peeing on sticks, I was pregnant. And I loved every minute of being pregnant. I loved every single change to my body. I didn’t even mind the nausea and vomiting because it meant that my baby was alive and well inside of me. I loved my growing belly and showed it off in cute maternity clothes. I loved my baby passionately long before I ever felt the first flutter of movement. I named her. I sang to her. I read to her. I talked to her endlessly. But my mind raced with guilt. Did I really deserve to make my own baby? My adoptive mother went from inexplicable rage to asking me shyly what it felt like. Did my breasts hurt? Did I have stretch marks? Did I actually vomit or was I just nauseous? I was hurt and confused by her behavior until I realized: she didn’t know. She’d never experienced pregnancy.
I felt a new sadness for her, so I gave her the space she needed to feel whatever loss she must have been feeling anew, and I answered her questions as kindly and lovingly as I knew how. And I was also angry. I felt so protective of my baby already! How could someone give up the baby they grew? More specifically, how could my mother have given me up? Did she not love me the way I loved my daughter? What did it feel like for her to have me inside her, knowing she would never even hold me or nurse me? And what about all the other babies and children who needed placement? Here I was making another human being the world didn’t need. Was I really doing the right thing?
When my daughter was a week old, my birth mother drove 200 miles to see us. We walked to lunch in the rain, and I was nervous about what would happen. My birth mother and I had continued to struggle to stay in each other’s lives in a way that felt loving and consistent. And yet, the love we had for each other was unique. Hugging her was unlike hugging anyone else in the world. She smelled familiar in a way no one else had until I smelled the top of my baby’s head, the folds of her neck, her very essence. I felt like I fit into her arms in a way I’ve never fit anywhere else in the whole world. Her embrace was like home. I belonged in her arms. And no matter how hard it could be at times, it blew my mind that I was developing a relationship with the person I grew inside of, the person who birthed me, saw me, held me before anyone else ever did. She became special to me in a way that was totally separate and apart from the way in which my adoptive mother — or anyone else — is special to me. And now I was afraid that having a child of my own might make things much worse.
We sat across from each other, our meals set aside. My newborn roused and my mother held out her arms. She took my daughter and stared into her sleepy face. I know this face, she said. A finger ran across my baby’s cheeks. I know this nose, these lips. Your face is so familiar. She wept as she whispered to the baby like she'd known her forever. then she looked at me with tears running down her cheeks. Now you’ve experienced childbirth, she said. You’ve held your baby in your arms. Can you ever understand how I didn't keep you? Can you ever forgive me for giving you away? Suddenly, I was crying too. I said, you were so brave, so strong. You didn’t have a choice. I admire you for being able to do what you had to do and surviving. And we’re here now, so there is nothing to forgive.
She smiled at me, eyes shining, arms around her granddaughter. I looked at her too, this tiny little human whose mere existence brought so much healing to my mother and me. And I knew in that moment that I’d made the right decision.