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An Adoptee's Acceptance
Some reflections on re-gaining what is lost.
I wonder whether more adoptees search for their biological families than the reverse. My identity denial was amorphous and confused when I asserted, “I have only one mother. I don’t want to know anything about another mother.” I must have sounded convincing to my friends because they dropped the question, “What happened to your real mother? Do you want to find her?” Why would I want to know?
My adoptive parents never broached the issue with me. After my brief course of therapy at sixteen, their concern was my behavior, not focused on helping me understand who I am. I caught wind of the term, “identity crisis”, and wondered, is that what is happening to me? Maybe my teen crisis wasn’t a small thing. Maybe it was identity bewilderment. My confusion, resentment, and pain reverberated in my behavior, and careless choices, the consequences of which linger.
The low self-esteem and self-talk changed for the worse. I would seek medical care and psychiatric help for severe panic attacks at forty. The doctor cautiously suggested I might benefit from identifying my first mother, approaching the subject via my dearth of family medical history. Scrawling Adopted across that page was, in fact, demeaning. But as adoptees do, I swallowed the consequences of sealed birth records, loss, secrecy, and lack of disclosure like a lump in my throat. Dr. Brady suggested there might be an alternative to the trouble with me that seethed from my childhood and erupted in adulthood in unrelenting anxiety and panic.
It dawned on me that my clinical history was not enough. I had no idea whether cancer, heart disease, or other hereditary curses lay in wait for me. And I hadn’t considered to what extent my mental health might have been influenced by genes. I would find out, through this existential crisis. I was coming out of the adoption fog.
As an adult student of plant biology and horticulture, I learned about Mendel’s sweet peas. But growing up, I wasn’t aware of how and to what extent my adoptive family’s health — my father’s migraines, impending heart disease, and rigid character, and my mother’s highly-strung nature — her “nerves”, as well as her kindness, talent, and good humor — were their hereditary traits; not genetically passed to me, instead, how they nurtured me was having an effect. Indeed, their habits and personalities took a toll on me. I was deeply sensitive; easily wounded, and fearful. I now know that this trait was/is, at least in part, the wound of maternal relinquishment, biological severance, and the denial and loss of my identity.
I communicated with my biological mother as an adult only in the final year of her life, although I don’t doubt our connection in utero. During our brief relationship between 1993 and 1994 — I was forty-three and she was seventy — I saw how her parents’ attitudes and their neglect influenced her self-esteem.
Karen told me stories: Although our mother wasn’t physically abusive, she was negligent, and my sister spent her early childhood with the grandparents we shared but I’d never know. Our mother wasn’t around for either of us. The goodness Karen saw in her grandmother, was also showered on her by her Uncle Charlie and his family when Grandpa and Grandma were no longer able. Illogically, our mother stood in his way when he wanted to adopt Karen.
Karen and I met another half-sister, Lottie, many years later. Leila, our mother, abandoned her new husband where they lived with his parents in Charleston. She was six weeks post-partum, and she never returned to them. He died when Lottie was a child, and she was cared for by his folks. Our mother never mentioned Lottie. How sad that we missed the chance to all be reunited in 1993!
Only last year, we sisters were contacted by a young woman via Ancestry DNA. (We tested several years earlier in the hopes I would sort out my paternal genes, and I identified my deceased father, four more half-siblings, and an array of cousins. The genes revealed, to our astonishment, that the woman is our half-niece.
When Leila left Lottie and her father, she quickly became pregnant. She delivered a boy in a Charleston hospital for the indigent. Our half-brother was adopted by a good couple from Columbia, SC, our niece told us. Her father was afflicted with seizures, and when she was a child, his abusive, violent behavior landed him in a mental hospital and prison. She had no further contact with him. Thankfully, her adoptive grandparents were a positive influence on her.
Strikingly, our mother had twin brothers. One died after a year—failure to thrive—the other was epileptic. His abusive behavior put him in the Columbia State Hospital, where he died in 1951, a month before I was born.
Leila divorced the first of her military husbands while he was away during World War 11, not a year after they were married in Greenville. She married Karen’s father at the Bilouxi Army base. She wouldn’t say who my father was, but I would learn he had been in Germany and returned to Greenville. Lottie’s father had been in the Army — each of our mother’s losses is uniquely sad.
Karen told me about the tragedy of our Texas-born half-sister. Again, a seizure disorder. Susan, Leila, and the child’s father lived in disarray. When Suzie was sixteen, her father was called to identify her body — drowned in a raging San Antonio creek during her friend’s family picnic.
It’s been thirty years since I connected with my birth mother. Our unexpected reunion at the end of her life left far too much for her to divulge. Karen said, “If you hadn’t searched, she would have taken her secrets to the grave.” We three surviving maternal half-sisters, daughters of disparate men, have learned her story incrementally. Her shame, sensitivity, secretiveness, sadness, and self-destructive behavior are painfully clear to us as her posthumous story unravels: Relinquishment may or may not have been the cause of her pathology, but would devastate her.
I see how my genetic makeup combines with intergenerational trauma, and my upbringing to make me who I am. How I was parented did not resemble what might have been. My adoptive parents would have said they “bent over backward” to understand me, notwithstanding their use of emotional, and sometimes physical abuse. Still, they were all I had, and I can now embrace their goodness and their flaws. I can forgive those who made the mistake of conceiving and then giving me up. I can reconcile the losses and gains.
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