Saturday, September 27, 2008

Adoption Diary: My Adoption Eduction at 16

We found my sister. Or was it my sister found us? Or just that we all found each other?

I watched my mom move through the emotions of reunion, my sister do the same and as a 16 year old I received the first part of my real adoption education.

Until this point, adoption had been a sweet story that you read about in teen books or saw on movies. I remember watching the Baby Jessica and Baby M stories on the news and in movie form but all my sympathy and support was for the adoptive family and the grieving child. The villains were the children's biological family, tearing apart the lives of the babies and their families.

But here I was seeing first hand my mother's grief, my sister's joy and their mutual pain and loss. And I learned alot. And felt alot. Because it also affected me. I am often asked what it was like to be the "kept" child. How reunion affected me, influenced me and that is what I am here to share. This is my story of that time, not my mother's, not my sister's, not my father's. I do not presume to know what they would say about that same time, and please know I am sharing the feelings and thoughts I had as a SIXTEEN year old, not from my perspective now as an adult.

My first reaction was really, truly shock. Shock that we hadn't been told. I was hurt and felt lied to. Shock that my mother had been sexually active so young, when I was growing up as sheltered and protected as you can imagine. I was 16 and so, so naive.

I understood, at least in part, WHY my mother hadn't shared with us, especially after she shared stories of the judgement and ridicule she had faced, even at the hands of people I loved dearly. But at the core of it I wondered why she hadn't trusted us with the information. I would have never judged her and knowing would have made lots of other "little things" make sense.

Until the age of 11 or 12 I believed I had an older sister. I would talk about her, dream about her and wrote silly stories about her. I remember the CONSCIOUS discussion I had with myself before I was a teen when I told myself I was being silly, of course I did NOT have an older sister and to stop playing the game. From that moment on I never thought of her again, except to laugh at myself for my silliness. I think what had happened is that as a toddler I had heard "talks". Apparently one grandparent would bring up the missing granddaughter at times, and I must have heard enough to know. I am sure others talked about it around me when my parents weren't there as well.

Other little things came back into my memory. Random days, at least to me, of my mom crying on the couch. I couldn't think of anything that had been wrong and when asking my mom why she was so sad, she would simply reply something about "mistakes that can't be fixed" or "some days are harder than others".

I felt anger. Anger that so many others knew the secret. I found out cousins, cousins we didn't even visit with, hang out with or were really a part of our family in any sort of tangible way, KNEW. They had been told by their parents of my mother's "indiscretion" and been told to never tell my little sister or I. Anger that we had been lied to. By omission.

I felt jealousy. I was the "oldest" and held on very hard to that title. Suddenly, in one fell swoop my sister took "first grandchild", "first wedding", "first EVERYTHING" from me (remember I was 16 at the time ...) I wanted and needed assurance from my mom that I was "special". That she loved Jess and I more or differently than this stranger that was suddenly claiming the title of oldest daughter from me. I could not comprehend at the time that a mother-daughter bond could transcend time and space. They were strangers to each other and I felt displaced.

Despite the negative feelings at times, mostly I was happy. PROUD in fact of this sudden addition to our family. Proud of being an aunt. I shared with everyone, everywhere the news of my sister. I was so happy that finally my family wasn't as boring as I had perceived it to be. (trust me in the years ahead, I CRAVED the "boring family" I once so disdained as my life got progressively more 'interesting' through my parents divorce).

But even a sixteen year old, a naive, protected sixteen year old, could see the fact that the separation of my mom and my sister had caused them damage. My mother's perspective was (and is) that adoption for my sister was the only choice at the time. A very young and immature 16 year old without the support of family, state or the baby's father? There was no welfare to support them. No where she could go with a baby. They would have been homeless, and from my mom's perspective both their futures decimated. It was the right choice, given the circumstances, it was just handled terribly, cruelly and in the absolute worst way by church, friends and especially family. Adoption, the way it occurred to them, caused her incredible unnecessary pain, affected her life in a horrible way but was worth it, to her, if it provided my sister a "better" life.

Five years after my mother gave birth to my sister, her own little sister found herself sixteen and pregnant with her own baby girl. In this case my aunt was told by the priest she could keep her baby. Marry the father, parent her child. This was a disaster for all involved. Abuse, loss and the decimation of relationships followed. In the end my aunt also lost her child, my cousin lost her mother but without ever the chance of reunion. Without the DESIRE for reunion. My mom saw that her and her sister lived parallel lives. Different choices, same end result. She hoped that for my sister that her "choice", or rather the decision inflicted on them, had been better.

From my perspective, it was easy to see that my sister was hurting. Primal Wound or not, my sister was deeply affected by being adopted. She had yearned and looked for my mother without answers to her questions for years. It had become her obsession. All agree (my mom continues a friendly relationship with them today) she has good parents that loved her dearly and have supported her in many ways. They did their best with the tools they had to deal with adoption issues at that time. Raised with two brothers, also adopted, that never desired to search, my sister struggled with adoption and a sense of belonging from a young age. She too was a parent young. And struggled with maintaining relationships.

This period of my life taught me that adoption was complicated. Not a simple case of a precious baby needing a new family, loving parents and a stable future all tied up neatly with a bow of a new birth certificate. It taught me that secrets hurt the children involved. That sometimes openness is what adopted children need to heal and be healthy. That often first parent pain never, ever goes away. That reunion is different for the mother than for the child, and for the adult child than the mother. That each person in the adoptive family (and I include kept, bio siblings in that family) are affected by adoption. That sometimes adoption might be necessary, that children cannot be raised in their family of origin, but that does NOT erase their past or their imprint on their lives of their first family either.

I learned all this, reviewed it, discussed it absorbed it. And it was a good thing, because 6 months later, as a 17 year old, I held the most beautiful baby I had ever seen in my arms as his mother begged and pleaded with me through sobs and tears to take him, raise him and love him as my son.

The path of my life had definitely turned a corner.


Unknown said...


Thank you for writing about this. The perspective of the natural mom's "kept" child is such a rare one in the adoption world. I wonder, at least weekly, what Sunshine's "special needs" are, and how to be the best mom to her. We are learning about the special needs of adoptees--but what about the needs of our kept children?

I worry sometimes that I'm doing it all wrong. Worry that my neuroses are damaging her (though am trying to stop worrying about that, because THAT kind of worrying does no good, what does good is to just go hug her, love on her, spend time with her).

It's all so complicated (as you said). The legal relinquishment/adoption of a child may be a one-time event, but the resulting ripples spread out and touch everyone in the family, across generations.

Thank you, thank you, thank you again for writing about this. I feel like for the first time ever, I might be reading something that could help me be a better mom to my "special needs" "kept" daughter. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Thanks Nic ... its a bit scary because I am trying to be honest with what I DID feel, (and do in some cases) not what I think someone "should" feel or is the "right" thing to feel. I have never felt a sense of loss that I wasn't raised with my sister. I have no idea why ?? I never had an older sister so how could I know what I was missing maybe? I am very close to my younger sister, so maybe that fills the gap? Anyways, I don't EVER remember going through any feelings of loss or grief over NOT knowing my sister, but rather over NOT knowing ABOUT my sister, if that makes any sense at all.

Also, its not like we have a close relationship today either so maybe that makes a difference. My (reunited) sister went on to tragically fall apart for non related reasons after reunion and our relationship is with her children, not her.

I can't DARE to say what any other person in my shoes would feel ... but I can share what I felt/feel about that time in my life.

And Nicole ... you have given us SO much in the way of thoughtful words on adoption, I am happy if in some small way this gave back to you. You are an amazing mother to your daughters, parenting them in such different ways, but always, always so conscientious.

Unknown said...

"I have never felt a sense of loss that I wasn't raised with my sister. I have no idea why ??"

I wonder if later siblings who had an older sibling die in infancy feel any loss. (In general, obviously no individual is exactly the same.)

Sunshine is still too young for me to have any sense of whether she'll feel any kind of "sibling primal loss." Too little to even understand it much yet.

What I HAVE seen in Sunshine is what you said here: "I wanted and needed assurance from my mom that I was "special". That she loved Jess and I more or differently than this stranger that was suddenly claiming the title of oldest daughter from me." In fact it's this need that has made me back off from trying to explain it many times to Sunshine. Instead of trying to explain the story, we have settled, for the last year or so, into just comfortably calling Moonbeam "sister" and I figure as she grows more questions will come. She's heard the basic story, yes... but she seemed pretty jealous of Moonbeam being in my belly too. So, okay... we'll revisit that discussion again later. No need to drive it home right now. (I don't think? Really just going on mommy instinct here!)

It's really interesting you used to "pretend" you had an older sister. Wow. How long did it take you to make the connection--to realize that you must have picked it up, even if subconsciously, from long-ago conversations?

Unknown said...

For me with wanting to be "special" to my mom I really don't know if I can do justice to that feeling. I will admit fully that PART of it was wondering if she could walk away from us as "easily" as she had my sister. I wanted reassurance that she LOVED me MORE, and instead she was in the heady state of reunion and all about making my sister an equal to us in the family (all well intentioned). I think that was my motivation at the time for seeking assurance, wanting my mom to say she KNEW me better, needed me more or SOMETHING? Fear that I too would be left behind And heck I was 16 ... and rational basically at that point :)but obviously that fear was there.

As time went on, I saw that my relationship with my mom wasn't going to be displaced by my sister, but we did deal with some jealousy between us at times. From her side of things, she thought "I" had the life she should have had. From my side of things, I thought she already HAD a set of parents, and mine were the only ones I had, so don't forget that :) My advice, from the "kept child" perspective, reassure your daughter that she will never lose you, you will always be her mom because even if that fear isn't voiced, I think its there. I really do. I could NEVER say that to my mom at the time because it might have hurt her, but I was definitely feeling it.

I figured out about the memories of my sister that I thought I had, but didn't know, right away. I remember saying to my mom in that initial conversation when I found out that I THOUGHT I had another sister. It was like a bunch of stuff just clicked.

Interestingly, my younger sis was 14 at the time of reunion and her perspective was and is a bit different. I have been harrassing her to write about it and guest post on here ... I hope she does.

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