I am adopted. For me, it’s just normal. It’s not something I’m ashamed of or anything I have ever had a problem with. I’ve always known I was adopted and had quite a few peers and friends who are also adopted so there was no stigma. It was a closed adoption and at the time the identity of the woman who placed me for adoption was not disclosed.
That woman has recently passed away which has led me to look back and consider what it has meant to me to be adopted and look at the relationship we have had.
Being adopted, I learned early that the definition of words like “parent,” “mom,” and “dad” are not necessarily the same for everyone. When you’re adopted, you always have to deal with the issue of your “real parents.” What does that mean? Who does that term belong to? In my family, my real parents were always my adoptive parents. For me, my family has always been the people who raised me, the ones around me. So when I talk about my parents, that’s who I mean.
There were times when I had to explain this to other people. Our society still has this fascination and strong mythology around the ties of blood and genetics. I had to explain sometimes that no, my “real” parents were not the ones whose genetics I shared and my “real mom” was not the woman who carried me in her womb. To people who aren’t adopted, sometimes wrapping their brains around that idea is hard. Donating genetic material did not make someone my “real” parent. Parenting did.
Still, I always wondered if that mythical and mystical connection between mother and child, the one that comes with growing in someone’s body, sharing everything with them, was something I was missing out on. My mom never made me feel that way but it’s hard not to wonder when the predominant images of mother-child relationship are all centered around that. Would I feel like that about my birth mother? Would we have an instant bond just because of that?
When I was 17 I was ready to start asking about looking for my birth mother. My parents shared more information with me about the file that they had been given and I got to read the letter my birth mother had written to me and find out that my birth father was not included at all. At 18 I applied for an active search during which social services would look in their files and try to contact my birth mother to let her know that I wanted to meet her. It would be up to her whether or not she was willing to make contact with me, though. And yes, my birth mother did want to get in contact. We exchanged letters and pictures through the social worker and spoke on the phone for the first time that day.
Shortly thereafter, we met.
I look nothing like my birth mother. Or at least very, very little. She eventually told me that I look very much like my birth father. We shared a love of crafts, though, and discovered that we used words like “babbling” and both loved to talk.
In the process of getting to know her I had confirmed for myself that I already had a mom and a dad. We agreed that I had parents and that that was not a role that she should or could take on. Unfortunately she had not been able to have other children, but that meant meeting me was extra important to her. But she knew that my mom would be my mom and I did not want to be mothered by a woman I met when I was 20.
I also learned that there is no mystical connection created by the umbilical cord. It isn’t magic and it doesn’t just exist out of time and space – at least not for me. I learned that to me, the bond of child and mother is built upon all the things I remember. It is built on every day since my mom (and dad) brought me home.
I struggled as the newness wore off and I saw my birth mother as an individual. We had a connection and I felt an obligation but I also had to decide how I felt about her as a person. We were very, very different people and I had to admit to myself that it was unlikely that we would have been friends if she had not been my birth parent. I was incredibly glad that she had placed me for adoption and that I have the family I do. My life would have been very different otherwise.
We became more distant. I know that she would probably have liked having a continuation of a closer relationship but for me it was not something I felt comfortable with. While we had agreed that she would not mother me, she occasionally tried. She also had a habit of introducing me as her daughter or herself as my mom. While I was glad that she was pleased with who I had become, it caused me some awkward moments as occasionally I had to explain that my mom who I spoke of as my mom was not the woman now saying she was my mom. In some situations, that just isn’t appropriate and I felt frustrated by having to explain that I was adopted.
Negotiating a relationship like this is hard. It is complicated. I sometimes found myself lodged between my own wishes, my parents’ encouragement and expectations and my birth mother’s wants. This woman who gave birth to me wanted to call me her daughter and share her pride in me. My parents wanted to be supportive and inclusive. I frequently just wanted space.
Then my birth mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just over two years ago. I found it hard – again, I was faced with expectations that I could not necessarily meet. I visited her in the hospital but not the way I visited either of my parents when they were hospitalized. I was not the one to drive her around, get groceries for her, check in every day, etc. Thankfully someone else was willing to take on that role. I didn’t act like a daughter because I didn’t feel like one.
The next summer she attended my wedding. That was my day with my husband. I did not make a big deal of my relationship with my birth mother. I asked her to be a ceremony reader to acknowledge that she had a place but I did not print out in the programs that she was my birth mother. I honoured my parents and celebrated with friends and family. I let her explain because I was certain that she would but I didn’t feel like my wedding had to be about introducing her to everyone as my birth mother.
As time went on, I saw and spoke to her less, but I visited her the night before she died. I sat by her hospital bed and spoke to her. I helped her sit up and got her water. I explained why she could not come down to the front doors of the hospital to see me off. I told her I loved her and I told her thank you. And I told her that it was okay to just go to sleep.
That was hard. It felt awkward for me to know that such intimacy was expected of me.
I learned a lot of things about myself and how I view the world from meeting this woman.
I confirmed for myself that family is about the people with whom you surround yourself, the ones who love and support you and who you love and support. Blood and legalities only mean so much. I do not feel a connection with history or genetics. I feel no need to make a family tree. I will tell my children about the people I know because, for me, those are the ones who are family. The ones who choose to step up and take on a place in your life, who choose to love and nurture you, listen to you, know you. They aren’t always around forever. I have met the woman who gave birth to me and I have said goodbye to her.
As I look at the future, including having children, I know for me that it will be important to actively build bonds with family. Just being there isn’t enough. I will not just assume that a relationship exists because someone tells me it does or that it should. If I don’t work at it then it doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. For me it’s the effort that shows who is family. And so I will build my family, nurture and grow it. And accept that maybe family isn’t always forever but they will always leave a mark.