Dates on papers, abstractions
For me but not her
Dates on papers, abstractions
For me but not her
I don’t give advice to adoptive parents. I don’t tell them what I know or even what I suspect. I keep my mouth shut. It used to be that I figured their experiences would be different and, indeed, everyone’s experiences are different. Easy or difficult, traumatic or seamless. All of those adjectives described my experience as an adoptive mother at various times. It was an odyssey, raising my adopted kids. It is not a little thing or an inconsequential detail to have children living in one’s home who started life with other parents. Adoptive parents who wave that away, saying their adopted child is “born of their heart, if not of their womb,” give me a headache.
Go ahead and decide there is no difference, adoptive parents. Fool yourself. Your kids can watch you; that’s how they can learn to keep their grief and yearning to themselves.
The truth is, and it is an ugly, sickening truth, in order for adoptive parents to be overjoyed at their luck and grateful beyond comprehension, a child has to lose his parents. Permanently.
Over the years, and I’ve now been an adoptive parent for thirty years, this fundamental tragic fact has become increasingly clear to me. At first, it was, oh dear, such a sad thing, and then it was, I’m sure there was a good reason, and then it was, I wonder if you think about your mother, and then it was, of course, you think about your mother, and now it’s I see you missing your mother. I see it as a feeling beyond words, beyond explanation, a thin vapor wafting from your pores, the slightest, imperceptible holding back. You are mine except for the part that isn’t.
So when I watched Lion a few days ago, my heart just pretty much stopped. I felt like I was watching my life or, more accurately, the lives of my children. This is a story of a man named Saroo who becomes lost as a child in India and is then adopted by a couple in Australia where he grows up, loved by them, nurtured into a wonderful man who then becomes obsessed with finding his way home. Saroo is afraid to tell his adoptive mother that he is searching but when he finally tells her, she puts her hands on his face and says, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”
It took me a while but I eventually realized that adoption has consequences. Many of the consequences are glorious. Those are the ones everyone sees. The family dinners, the graduation photos, the rallying together in hard times. And then there are the unseen consequences, the aches that have no names. One ache was realizing that while my children loved me, they loved me for what I did, not for who I was. They know they were up the creek without us, orphans living in an orphanage in a very poor country with no options. We were it. We always said they rescued us rather than the other way around so as to conform with the norms of adoption nation but we all knew the truth. They would have perished or lived very difficult lives without us. Still, gratitude is one thing. Cellular memory is another.
But the aches that count are theirs. One of my three adopted children remembers her first family and she has found them, with our blessing. So her aches are confused and we wait for them to play out. My sons have no memory that they can describe. They just have a nameless thing that they probably wouldn’t even label an ache. Just a thing. A space. A “hunger of memory” said in the beautiful words of Richard Rodriguez. My sons, they have a hunger of memory.
I have no cure for that. No food to assuage their hunger. I just know their hunger exists. I see it. I feel it. And, if I could, I would take their faces in my hands and say this, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”
That’s what I would tell adoptive parents if I was the type to give advice. That if they’re smart, they’ll realize sooner rather than later that adoption comes out of a tragedy. And the tragedy isn’t history; it doesn’t get smaller as time passes. Maybe it even grows as the child grows.
That’s all, that’s all the advice. Just know that one thing. And learn to be okay with it. Really okay. In your heart. Tell your child to “find her” and mean it.
“Your daughter says your family has more conflict than average.”
It’s wasn’t my first IEP meeting*. I knew the drill. But it was the first IEP meeting for this child who at the time was a 13-year old going into 8th grade.And it was the first one I’d handled alone. I usually had my husband sitting next to me in a business suit with a red tie.
I was indignant first because I wondered how they conveyed the benchmark of average to her. One family argument a month, a week, a day? What had someone in the IEP testing world decided was an average amount of conflict for a family? Based on what research?
Then I was annoyed that they treated her response as fact. “Your daughter says your family has more conflict than average,” thus, it must be so. But it was what she thought so, in that sense, it had truth. But what about what I thought?
In that moment, the round wooden table, where we all sat, all the experts, the social worker who was speaking, the teachers who had done the academic testing, her classroom teacher, seemed small like a table from a kindergarten classroom. I felt the chair under me shrink until I was looking up at the experts, trying to find the moral high ground, the statements that would show me to be understanding of an adopted girl’s unhappiness with her family.
Maybe we did have more conflict than the average family.
I don’t know, I thought. What’s average? I’d spend a lifetime being average – average looking, average intelligence, average income. Was I now above average in the amount of conflict in my family?
But there was no time to ponder that while they all turned to me waiting for a response. What did I have to say for myself, I asked myself.
“Oh. Well, it can be challenging with three adopted kids,” I finally said. They all nodded as if they understood, a couple of them making notes on their copies of the test results. My answer was going to live forever in a file somewhere. The discussion went on, a long back and forth between the experts, evidence reinforcing what they said was true until I became a prop in the play.
Sitting there, I remembered our older son’s first IEP meeting. A different social worker read her description of his family life. He was young when they asked them questions, maybe seven or eight, and so it was several years before but I remembered what the social worker read: “He says that he likes his family and that his parents love him very much.”
In that moment, I wanted to run home and hug him for describing us as average. For telling the people sitting at the round table that he loved us. It made everything that would come next easy for us, an honor, a devotion. He loved us so we would go to countless meetings, stay up late helping with homework, go anywhere, do anything. Believe in him. Believe in the ability of our family to carry him successfully to adulthood.
But I knew it would be harder this time, the table too small and the unhappiness so central. Tougher, a test of our commitment as parents, a long race that we would probably have to run without water, without drawing from the well of what we thought was right about our family. It made me feel like a miner heading for the elevator to go miles down into the coal shaft, knowing that my head lamp was too small to do my job right but having no choice but to keep going.
IEP stands for Individual Education Plan. An initial IEP meeting is one where a student’s academic, intellectual, and social status and capabilities are reviewed in order to determine whether special education services are warranted and, specifically, what those services should be. Goals are also set which are then monitored in subsequent IEP meetings.
I thought I’d found my son’s mother.
She had the right name. She was about the right age. She was born in his country. And she looked like him. I enlarged the photos of her on Facebook, studied her face. She was stocky like him, almost barrel-chested. She had a full proud face that looked like his, the melding of Indian and European that is Nicaraguan. I want to say she was the spitting image but it minimizes what I thought. I looked at her face and I thought, good Lord, I found her. In her profile picture, she was standing in front of a restaurant in Los Angeles, dressed up with a nice skirt and heels. She looked pretty. Oh, good, I thought. I was glad my son’s mother was pretty.
“I think I found his mother,” I told my husband. He was reading the paper in his chair, the one opposite my chair. He put his paper down and came to look at the photos.
“Yeah, that really does look like him. Plus she’s in L.A. We could drive out there.” That’s my husband’s trademark response. Mention something happening somewhere in the continental U.S. and he wants to drive there.
I sent her a Facebook message. There was no response. I figured it was probably because I wrote to her in English so I asked my friend, Christina, to write a better message in Spanish. The message included details about my son, when and where he was born, where he had been left, and what he was like now. I told Christina to tell her that he grew up to be a good person. I wanted his mother to know that he was very handsome, that he was kind and funny, and that we loved him very much. I wanted her to know that we had taken good care of him. We had done a good job, she would be proud of him. All of this went into the Facebook message Christina wrote but, because it was in Spanish, I didn’t know exactly how she said it. It might have been matter of fact or heart-rending. I don’t know. I didn’t ask.
There was no answer for a long while, maybe a month or more. While I waited, I created a whole narrative in my head about her life that involved her not wanting to own up to having left him 24 years ago when he was an infant, even though I was glad she had, if that makes any sense. I figured I’d found his mother, solved a big, lifelong riddle, but she didn’t want anything to do with him. That made me glad I hadn’t told him about my Facebook find.
And then one day, her reply appeared on my screen. It was in Spanish.
Christina translated. The gist of the message was that she did, in fact, have a son almost exactly the same age but he lived in Los Angeles with her. She was very glad that the boy we thought was her son had been adopted by such wonderful people (us). She said she regretted that she couldn’t make us happy by telling us she was his mother. She said she was very, very sorry. And then she blessed us over and over again.
Oh well, I thought. I tried. There are other women with the same name, maybe one of them is my son’s mother. So I told my son all of this – that I thought I’d found his mother and then told him about the message that she’d sent. It seemed to me that he would want to carry on the search but instead he looked at me funny, kind of shrugged, and said, “I’m not sure I’m all that interested.”
It occurred to me then that it wasn’t my job to find her. It was his life and his search. And I needed to leave it alone. Not my riddle to solve.
And then the woman I thought was my son’s mother friended me on Facebook. So I see her celebrate Christmas and her birthday. I see her greetings in Spanish to relatives. Once she even liked something that I posted but I don’t remember what it was. She seems like a very nice person. I can say that. This woman who isn’t my son’s mother seems very nice.
Not everything about abandonment is sad. Take this beefy blue bike, for instance.
One person might figure Beefy Blue was junked, its chain too rusty for locomotion. Another might see the same old bike as an opportunity to sail down the street with a loaf of bread and a pound of butter tucked into a new white basket snapped on to the pitted handlebars. This bike could say yesterday’s done blues to one person and oh joy! to the next.
I know people who were abandoned. I know people who were orphans at one time. Maybe they’re still orphans even though they’re grown. They would be the best judges of that. Either way, they started life having been left.
They were abandoned as babies for a variety of reasons – their parents’ troubles, their world’s circumstances, their disabilities, their too rusty chains. Sorting out the true reasons for their abandonment has exhausted some of them. How do you create the justification for something done by someone you’ve never met?
It isn’t easy being with someone who started out life having been left somewhere.You might think it’s because orphans are always thinking about their abandonment and wondering why it happened. And that’s a big part of it. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube to save their lives but won’t quit fussing with it and those who solve it in 20 minutes and never want to handle one again. The abandoned people in the first group do often wear other people out.
But another big reason why it’s not easy being with someone who started out being left somewhere is that the person who was never abandoned imagines the trauma of having been left and almost always gets it wrong.
Some people think abandonment is a tragedy beyond repair, an event so traumatic and injurious as to permanently disable the person who had been left. In this view, the abandonment becomes the abandoned person’s signature life event, a permanent, often growing, wound. It can never be ‘overcome.’
Other people see the same abandonment as the gift of a second chance. It’s lucky, they say, to be left somewhere where other people happy to find you will come.What great good fortune that a family without a baby would find a baby without a family! In this way of thinking, the abandonment is just part of the ‘birth’ story. We all complete our families in different ways.
But making abandonment catastrophic or making it a happy accident are both mistakes; it’s not for the never-abandoned to write the narrative for people who started life left somewhere. Even when we think we know what’s true and what’s best.
No, it’s not for us to create the fiction that makes us happiest. People who were abandoned aren’t old bikes leaning against rusty Coca Cola coolers, waiting for us to decide if they’re worth the investment of a new white basket. Still, we can imagine what it is like to have been abandoned, to have been left somewhere, and we can wonder what it means for a person’s life. Or we could ask.
Written in response to The Daily Post prompt: Abandoned
We sat in beach chairs facing the Pacific Ocean. Our teenage kids jittered around us, the change in their pockets rattling, their eyes darting up to the hill that held San Juan del Sur’s business district and the town’s only internet cafe. They weren’t going anywhere until their dad gave them instructions. He had warnings to give. We were in a foreign country, after all, and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami had occurred just a few days before. It was the end of December 2004.
In the week we had been in Nicaragua, their birth home, our older son could never be more than a few blocks from an internet cafe so he could email his new girlfriend back in Wisconsin. At one point, when the drama in their new love grew too big and scary, he lobbied to go home early, claiming he couldn’t survive the three remaining days of our long-planned adoption tour.
We rolled our eyes and waved him off. “Not happening.” It was our standard response to 90% of what they asked for, the three of them overwhelming us so much of the time that a blanket response was the only way to stay sane. Every now and then, the uniqueness or enormity of a request would interrupt the reflex, something like “I think I broke my leg and need to go to the hospital,” but generally our united front required a shared rote response and “Not happening” was it.
“You need to stick together,” their dad started. This is how he started most of his group instructions to them. “You need to stick together.”
It was asking a lot. They were three very different people with three completely different sets of parents. We were the only parents all three had in common and we had shown up late, after much had happened in their lives, some of it known to us, some known only to them but not totally revealed to them yet. It was knowledge that swam around them, each living in their own complicated whirlpool.
Their dad zeroed in on our older son. Looking at him fiercely in the eye, he said,”If you see all the water pulling away from the beach, grab your sister and brother and run to that church at the top of the hill.” It had never occurred to me that his warning would be about a tsunami but, of course, that’s what everyone was thinking about. It happened there. It could happen anywhere. People think that way when a disaster occurs. Not all people, but us. That’s how we thought. Disaster was always pretty much around the corner.
Still, it seemed odd to me that he would give the lifesaving instructions to the person least likely to be paying attention. Unless his girlfriend back in Wisconsin emailed him that she saw on the news that the water had rapidly receded in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, he’d be submerged before he figured it out. We both knew that his eyes would be glued to the computer screen at the internet cafe. It had become his reason for living.
The other two, exasperated that once again their dad had decided to give instructions to the oldest just because he was, shook their heads. There was no parsing out who was right for what task, it was easier to just load new jobs on to the oldest, heap them on and hope the important ones got done.
We stared out at the ocean, the beautiful blues of the water and the sky stitched together at the horizon, the two of us behind our sunglasses, under the broad brims of our straw hats. It had been a long week with much revelation and mystery, stress and relief, trips on ferries with luggage passed over head and street vendors selling bootleg CD’s and bottled water. Everyone looked like our kids. No one looked like us. We were in the minority but we were used to that.
“Do you think anything bad is going to happen?” I asked him. “Do you think there’ll be another tsunami?”
“Nah. Not happening,” he answered and shut his eyes for a nap in the sun.
Written in response to The Daily Post prompt “disaster”
I do have regrets but I’m not sorry.
Sometimes I think I overreached. Often I believe I underachieved. I cast myself as an heroic mother but I was an ordinary mother posturing. I spent months and years renegotiating my expectations of my children and myself. The contract between us meant letting me or them off the hook one day and piercing all of us with the same hook a day later.
I lived through all of this and so did they. I see that sometimes as a miracle.
After breakfast with my son this morning, I kissed him goodbye. He is taller than me by several inches now but his cheek feels to me like it did when he was a baby the night his father brought him home from Nicaragua. I remember, months later, him waking up from heart surgery, an IV in his tiny arm, a monitor attached to his thin, round chest. He looked at me and mouthed the word, Mama. I wasn’t but I was.
Today, I said to another adoptive mom, “We are like twins with our own special language.” And it’s true. If we are honest with each other, if we drop the Hallmark cards in the trash and decide to live in a world with truth and doubt and honesty, we could have a thousand sisters. And our children could have mothers who have quit with the pretending. Having an adopted child isn’t the same as having a birth child and both adoptive parents and adopted children would be liberated if we stopped pretending it is. Adoption is something else altogether. A whole other species of mother and child.
I look at my son, now 30 years old, and I think, now you and I are together by choice. You don’t need me to survive. You can be on your own, create a different history, thank me and say goodbye.
But you don’t. And neither will I.