We tend to think of adoption as a women’s issue, disregarding the impact it has on men. Men are fathers, both biological and adoptive, brothers to adoptees, and adoptees themselves. Some are willing participants in the adoption process, like my adoptive father. Others exclude themselves, as my biological father did reportedly. Still, others are excluded by other people, like my brothers.
In 1968, my parents, Paula and Alan, adopted me through Catholic Social Services. I was six weeks old.
I’d love to tell you that the word has had little impact on my life—that it’s no more important than my hair color—but it defines me.
It’s not the only definition, of course. I am many, many other things. But being adopted has had huge implications on how I see myself and how others see me.
Having read a book on adoption which recommended that my Mother refer to me as “my little adopted baby” as an infant—the theory being I would associate adoption with love—she did just that, so there has never been a time I haven’t known. I’m grateful for that, having heard horror stories of people finding out as adults and it shattering their reality.
My parents love me and I them, deeply. No parent is perfect, but you’d be hard pressed to show me two higher-quality human beings. Still, there’s always been something missing. I’ve always been aware that I’m not actually related to the people I’m related to.
When I was 12, I was in the doctor’s office with my Mother. I was anemic, again. The doctor was going through the typical family history questions to which I was answering I don’t know. Then he asked me about diabetes and when I said I don’t know, my Mother interjected “What do you mean you don’t know? Your Grandmother died from diabetes? On the day before your birthday! How can you not remember? What is wrong with you?”
Angry, embarrassed, and hurt, I shot back “Are you done?”
“I’m A-DOP-TED.” I pronounced every syllable, emphatically.
“Oh!” she replied, her anger vanishing. “I forgot.”
It’s a tender, funny memory now. Such is my Mother’s love for me. Such also are the things that remind me, always, that I’m not entirely who I think I am.
I hate the terms we use for these two women—birth mother and adoptive mother—and I refuse to use them. These two women are my mothers—there’s no reason I can’t have two—and I will refer to them as such—my adoptive mother as my Mother and my birth mother as my Other Mother.
These adjectives lead people to believe that the women that birth us are somehow detachable—that another woman can just be swapped in and no one will know the difference. It’s not true. I love my Mother, but I missed my Other Mother. It’s a longing I can’t explain, like the feeling of being haunted.
When I had a son of my own, these feelings of loss intensified. How, I wondered, could someone carry a child to term and then just give her away? I’d wanted to look for my other family, my Other Mother specifically, for a long time, but hadn’t. I was afraid of bringing up old hurts for her, afraid of opening closets in her life that were locked and boarded up.
Besides, my Mother had made it clear that my doing so would hurt her. It scared her too, I think. It made her fear she was replaceable.
But I wanted to know why, and only my Other Mother could answer that question definitively. So, some years ago, I finally went looking, finally with my Mother’s blessing. The private investigator I hired found my Other Mother’s husband, who seemed excited to talk to me initially but never filled out the required paperwork to do so. I found out my Other Mother had died when I was 17 and had never wanted to give me up. She looked for me.
She looked for me. Those four words meant everything.
And I found I had two half-brothers. I am actually related to someone.
Finances and life—and feelings of confusion and rejection that someone who was reportedly excited to speak to me could not be bothered to have a form notarized—caused me to walk away from my search. Until recently, that is.
The PI found one of my brothers. It did not go as well as I would have hoped.
His reaction was a marriage of shock and paranoia. How did he know the PI was who she said she was? What databases had been used to find him? Why did I wait so long? He had to call his father to confirm I had looked for—and found—him before. Apparently, he didn’t know. Apparently, no one ever told him he had a sister.
I’ve done the one thing I was most afraid of doing—I detonated a bomb in the middle of my brother’s life.
I imagine my youngest brother, faceless, sitting on the edge of a bed, trying to make sense of a life that seems less authentic than it did before me. And I thought this was where the story would end.
But then it happened.
After several weeks of teetering between anxious hoping and outright despair, I got an email from the PI. The subject line was “Call me!!!!” It was December 21.
That conversation is a blur, but I do remember her starting to tell me about him. I interrupted her. “But what’s his NAME?” I didn’t want to talk to her about him if I could instead talk to him.
Within the hour, we spoke for the first time, my brother and I.
I cried and apologized for the shockwaves I’d created. He told me not to cry and that it wasn’t my fault. In typical me fashion, I cried harder.
We were both amazed at how much we have in common, things that you would tend to attribute to nurture, like swimming, reading, and a love of learning. I’m a nuclear medicine technologist and he was a nuclear physicist. (He’s in cybersecurity now, which explains the paranoia.) We’ve both taught at a University. For perhaps as long as 10 years, we lived within 20 miles of each other. We exchanged pictures and stories. He told me our mother’s and my other brother’s names.
And so began our budding relationship. It’s awkward for me. I still feel like I’m an intrusion into an established life. After all, he was moving along just fine without knowing I existed.
It seems considerably less awkward for him, which is I think a testament to the kind of man he is.
“And crown thy good with brotherhood.”
As a child, I always hated that line in America the Beautiful. It sounds very different to me now.
Photo credit: Pixabay