Every year around my oldest daughter’s birthday I write a letter to her birth mom. The letter is kept on file at the Children’s Aid Society in case birth mom ever contacts them looking for updates. The post below was originally conceived as one of those letters but it quickly became something else, something I didn’t feel right about sharing with birth mom. November is National Adoption Awareness month so it feels like the right time to share some of the highs and lows of our experiences. Lucy is not her real name.
You and I have never met. We’ve never exchanged emails, phone calls or photos. I know what you look like though, because I’ve spent hours staring at the three pictures we have of you, concentrating so hard -looking for similarities but terrified I’ll find them – that I’m convinced my eyesight alone is causing them to fade. In adoption phraseology, you are known as “birth mom” – a term I dislike because it’s at once too clinical and too personal.
Our daughter is too young to remember when she was taken away from you; too young to remember the filthy basement apartment that made the police officers sent to apprehend her physically ill from the stench. Too young to recall all the different places you lived together, and all the different people you brought into her life. And she’s too young to understand what was happening when she was taken into foster care to live with strangers who cared but weren’t you. Weren’t mommy.
She’s also too young to remember her first foster home, the one that asked for her to be removed because, at three years old she was “too difficult” for them to handle. Flipping through the Life Book lovingly prepared by her second foster mom there’s one picture I can barely look at. In it, our daughter is all smiles and wearing a pink polyester princess dress, her hair in curls. She’s three years old and is proudly standing next to two garbage bags containing everything she owned in the world. (Now she has two rolling suitcases, one with puppies and one with kittens, because I’ve come to understand how important it is for her to own something, and I will never allow her possessions to be treated like trash again.)
Our daughter was also too young to remember getting ready for visits with you. Sliding her tiny arms into a pretty dress, having her hair done (which she hates to this day) and getting excited for mommy. There were many times when you didn’t show up but she doesn’t remember that either, and people tell me this is all “for the best”; that it has helped her bond with us because her adoption was like a clean slate, a fresh start. I’m not convinced anyone just forgets the first four years of their life, but for now I’m happy to pretend.
The first time she called me mommy I was so thrilled and grateful that I didn’t even stop to think how that would have made you feel, had you known. To be honest, I wasn’t all that sympathetic towards you. I had a very narrow view of things, you see. I respected the decision you made to surrender your daughter and I told my friends how brave it was, but I secretly wondered how anyone could let go of this beautiful, spirited bundle of light. I mean it when I say you were brave, but I’m also consciously crafting the narrative I want our daughter to embrace when she’s older.
While I’ve always been grateful to you, I was far from compassionate. Intellectually, I understood that you would have had to overcome significant disadvantages to be a successful parent, and I pitied the circumstances you were born into. But my biggest mistake was naively thinking that the miracle of a child would somehow erase everything that was holding you back: poverty, a lack of education, a troubled childhood and issues with your mental health. It has taken me a few years to realize that life doesn’t work that way; that motherhood is not a panacea for every negative thing in your life.
I was fortunate not to suffer from the adoption version of post-partum that many new moms experience. Your daughter and I bonded right away. We grabbed each other at that first meeting and haven’t let go in more than three years. And even though I have a wonderful husband, the support of a large extended family and the financial ability to raise her, in my darkest moments, where fear trumps both reason and experience, I wonder if loving her beyond all reason is going to be enough.
Those first few months with our daughter were hard. Really hard. For almost a year, I could not leave the house without a tantrum and tears. No amount of “I promise I’ll be right back” eased her fear that she would never see me again. We surrounded her with a loving family: a Dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends but no one could take the place of mommy, even for an hour or two. In hindsight I can see that because she didn’t talk about you or ask for you, we just assumed (hoped?) she didn’t remember. Incredibly, we expected her traumatized four year-old brain to just accept that this time it would be different: mommy will come back and this will be her forever family. Even though my heart ached for a little girl, barely four, who didn’t believe that mommies come back, I was also frustrated by her inability to understand that I would. She knew I loved her. She had to know. And people who love each other didn’t leave each other. Why couldn’t she understand that this was permanent? It’s embarrassing to write and admit now, three years later, because I see how my fear prevented me from understanding hers; how I should have been helping her work through it instead of fighting it.
Our daughter knows she’s adopted, but she’s only seven so her version of events is light on details. She knows there was a lady who carried her in her tummy, who tried really hard but couldn’t look after her. So she lived with some nice people until mommy and daddy came along and now we’re a forever family. The end. For now, the questions are few and our answers are easy but I know this won’t last forever. Soon she’ll want to know why you couldn’t keep her, who her father is and where you both are now. I lie awake wondering how much time I have before these questions come, how we’re going to answer them and what it will all mean to her and for her.
Before the adoption, I had a cancer scare that resulted in infertility. I spent weeks lying in a hospital bed, thinking my life was over. But in truth it was just beginning because without that operation I would not have become our daughter’s mother. To wrap it up in a nice cliché, the worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best. And regardless of what tomorrow or the next day brings, our daughter will remain the single greatest thing in my life.
I’m sure you have a lot of questions and I hope we’ll get the chance to answer them some day. For now, I can tell you that you gave birth to one incredible little girl. She’s smart, funny, affectionate, spirited and kind. She loves animals and can ride a horse (not a pony… a horse!) better than most adults I’ve seen. She’s fearless, loves music and can’t get enough of the wind on her face. I have no idea what she’ll “be” when she grows up, nor do I care all that much because what I want for her is bigger than a fulfilling career or even a family of her own. My greatest desire is that those early years not define her, and that the ridiculous and unjust stigma of adoption never holds her back.
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Until The Last Child, http://www.untilthelastchild.com, is working to find forever families for all Canadian foster kids. They would sure appreciate your support.