FOUR years ago, when I was 24, my mother handed me a case file on myself. I had long known that I was adopted as an infant and that my birth mother had died in a car accident several years after I was born. But this case file was new to me.Wow. I'm glad this child didn't internalize a sense of rejection because she believed her birth mother didn't want her. But many adopted children who receive this message do deal with that feeling of rejection. How amazing that she was in elementary school before anyone drew a distinction for her between someone who can't parent and someone who doesn't want to parent. It's especially sad when we learn later that the file her adoptive parents had about her birth mother would have allowed them quite truthfully to opine about her birth mother's inability to parent and her love for her child.
Growing up, I had internalized my parents’ matter-of-fact approach to the subject, and by the time I was in elementary school, being adopted hardly seemed worth mentioning. Even so, when a classmate and I came across a book called “Why Was I Adopted?” one day during reading time, I said to him happily, “I’m adopted!”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “You’re lying.”
“I really am,” I said, bursting into tears.
I told the teacher’s aide, and within minutes I was already over it, but the aide apparently saw the chance for a teachable moment.
“Do you know why you were adopted?” she asked.
I told her it was because when I was a baby, my biological mother didn’t want to take care of me anymore.
“Didn’t want to, or couldn’t?” she asked pointedly.
I was taken aback, then said I guessed it was because she couldn’t, though the distinction hardly seemed important.
Who cared if she could or couldn’t, didn’t want to or simply didn’t care? I was a bubbly, smart child who insisted on wearing only dresses to school and who commanded the room during Christmas parties by standing on a folding chair and belting out carols. I was delightful. As far as I was concerned, if this mysterious woman didn’t want me, it was her loss.
A couple of years later I came home from school and my parents looked worried. “We thought this might happen,” they said. “But we didn’t think it would happen this soon.”I give the adoptive parents kudos for at least letting their daughter know she had a biological half-sibling. But how sad that they would convey that the contact was somehow worrisome. They were apparently quite capable of talking about adoption in a matter-of-fact manner with her daughter, too bad they couldn't do the same about birth family contact.
My mind immediately leapt to divorce, since that was the only thing I could imagine warranting such seriousness. Instead, they sat me down and told me that my half sister had called and left a message. They had mentioned before that she existed, but for the first time they told me more.
She and I had the same mother, they explained, and she was interested in meeting me. She was only 18 and had just had a baby.ARGHHHH! Why convey their suspicions, and then ask if she wants contact? Don't you think she's smart enough to figure out what YOU wanted after that? Do you think the answer you got was what SHE wanted? And given your obvious relief, is it any surprise that it was years later before she expressed any interest in her biological family again?
I don’t remember the conversation very clearly, but I gathered they felt the timing was a little suspect. They were concerned she might be after money. They said the decision to talk to her was up to me, and I told them no, I didn’t want to. It was hard to ignore their expressions of relief.
It wasn’t until several years after I had graduated from college that I thought more about the biological relatives I never knew. Out of the blue, my half sister had contacted me via Facebook, introducing herself, and I wrote back, which led one winter day to my going to visit her and her daughter in the sleepy Vermont town where she grew up and still lived with her paternal grandmother.Why ask the question? They are, OF COURSE, her family -- her biological family. By asking the question, you're asking her to choose between them and you. Why? Can't she have both? A touch more matter-of-factness was called for, it seems to me.
* * *
The next summer my half sister invited me to a family reunion where I would meet my grandmother and several aunts and uncles. Over an outdoor picnic lunch, with pained smiles, they told me a little about my birth mother.
* * *
It was dark when I returned home that night. I was staying with my parents, and after months of living in close quarters tensions among us were high.
“How was it?” my mother asked in a wobbly voice.
“Fine. I had a good time.”
“Do you consider them your family?” she asked.
I told her I did. “Of course, you’re my family, too,” I added, though it should have gone without saying.
The next day I was reading a book in the living room when she sat down next to me and handed me the file.No kidding! And wasn't the timing awfully suspicious, too? Sounds like mom was hanging onto the file to "play it" at exactly the right time -- a time when she fears the biological family might be threatening her position as "only family." This is when she finds it appropriate to share negative information about birth mom. Nice.
“I think it’s time to give you this,” she said. I flipped through it awkwardly without reading anything. Only now do I realize how strange it was that she would hand over such an overwhelming collection of information without a word about what I might find.
It would be months before I had the courage to read any of it. One night I gave in to curiosity and opened the folders with a boyfriend. I was entranced as I turned over page after page. But I completely lost it when I came across a letter my mother had written to me when I was 2.And this is what happens when you throw the file at your daughter without helping her deal with what's inside, without having explained all along why her birth mother couldn't parent her. You leave her to believe she's going to have the same issues. You haven't helped her understand. Parenting FAIL.
Composed in a shaky, barely legible cursive more typical of an elderly person than a young woman, the letter was a page long, on notebook paper. Near the beginning she wrote, “The reason why you are adopted is because of the risk of poverty.” And she concluded with: “Jaime I share the pain and love you but not with the mistaken message and I try to do my best also.”
CLEARLY there were strong emotions she was trying to convey, but much of the letter made no sense, and it infuriated me.
“What is this?” I cried, wiping away tears. “She tried to write me a letter and this is the best that she could do?”
* * *
In a strange way, the file has changed my perception of my own behavior. A social worker observed that while my birth mother was pregnant with me and living in a group home, her ability to communicate “was somewhat difficult to follow at times and made it hard for certain residents to take her seriously.”
Well, I thought. When I’m nervous, I tend to ramble in a nonlinear way, or make people laugh with my unintentionally blunt responses. I had accepted these quirks as part of who I am; now I twisted the mannerisms into insidious character flaws — signs of some impending unraveling.
A part of me hates the file and wishes it never existed. But some bits I treasure, and I read them over as a mental salve when the rest of it leaves me feeling depressed. Not only does it help me understand my parents’ attitude toward my biological family, it reminds me of how truly lucky I am: how my life could have been different had my adoptive parents not endured years of uncertainty and stressful battles in trying to legally make me their child.Sounds like the file had exactly the effect adoptive mom wanted it to have, to reinforce a negative impression of birth family, to make the adoptive parents the heroes of the drama. Wouldn't it have been nice if the adoptive parents could have subordinated their feelings to their child's feelings? Helped her cope with negative information about her birth mother? Helped her see it in context? Isn't that the job of parents? If they had done so, and their daughter had reached exactly the same point she's at now -- grateful to be adopted rather than raised by her biological family -- I'd say good for them! But when they've told her what to think over and over again? Not such a success, it seems to me.
Helping your child understand what might have been, if she had been raised with her birth parents, is to deal frankly with how it would have been different without making judgements about better or worse. It's about showing how birth parents are human, fully three-dimensional, making both good and bad choices, like every other person. It's helping the child develop positive identity, by seeing how the good in them comes from the good in their birth family, and how they have the capacity to make different choices. The "what might have been" that I would hope for this adoptee is a fully integrated life, not needing to choose between birth family and adoptive family, with an understanding and appreciation of what life has brought, both good and bad.