Moments in Time You Never Think You’ll Have

It all started with a simple observation. While my (natural) dad and I were hanging out a year or so ago, he casually said, “It would be good to see Carol again.” I registered the comment and said I would ask my (natural) mom what she thought and if we could make it happen, we would. Given the way their relationship ended, I wasn’t sure my mom would want to see my dad again, but when I mentioned it, she said she would. The remaining time in that visit came and went without a meeting, and our next opportunity didn’t work out either. But last Monday, everything came together and I sat in a room with both of my (natural) parents for a little while. 

For those who’ve followed my blog, you know that my (natural) mom has already met my (adoptive) parents. The meeting took place almost four years ago, and was very cool. It had moments of laughter and tears, and sharing stories and photos, and went about as well as I could have hoped. It was an important moment in time to me. 

Something about Monday felt different. I think there was more riding on it. I mean, my mom and my parents had no history together, so there was nothing bringing them together except me. That wasn’t true on Monday. My (natural) mom and dad do share a history, and its last moments were not pleasant, so Monday wasn’t just about bringing together people I love, it also involved bringing together two people who used to love each other. That’s pretty deep even when it doesn’t involve a child they gave for adoption. 

So, when my parents approached each other in the parking lot, I said, “I think you guys know each other” and stepped back to let that moment happen. It did, and it was fine. Much like I envision old friends meeting up at a high school reunion. They said hello, gave each other a quick hug (my dad asked if it was okay, which I thought was polite), and we went into a restaurant to grab coffee (dad), hot chocolate (mom), and tea (me). 

I’m not sure what I thought we’d discuss, but mostly it was catching up on the important people in our lives and a recap of what my mom and I had done on our visit. In the midst of that small talk, I was able to look back and forth between my parents and clearly see how I came from them. And in that moment, the final pieces of my history converged. 

I’ve told people that being adopted is similar to reading a book that doesn’t include the first chapter, so you’re missing the back-story on the main character. Until I met my (natural) family, that’s how I felt. I knew how my (adoptive) family shaped all the chapters that followed, but I also knew there was a first chapter and that was important too. Even when I got to read my first chapter, it was written in two distinct parts – one that featured my mom and one that featured my dad – and it felt like those stories somehow didn’t really connect. Obviously, they did because that connection created me, but that almost seemed more like a sterile fact than a real connection. 

Now the first chapter is interwoven. And not just that chapter. The chapter of my life that is currently being written features them both – in the same room, at the same time – and so my history fully converged into my present. That’s a gift I never thought I’d receive. I feel tremendously blessed to have the past chapters in my story aligned and full, and to have the current (and future) chapters reflect all of who I am and the people who make me who I am. 

But I mourn for other adoptees who don’t. Those who never meet their (natural) parents or who never get to introduce their (natural) parents to their (adoptive) parents or who never get to see their (natural) parents in the same room. And I pray that those who need those moments to happen in their lives will get those opportunities. Because while not every adoptee needs that, I know I did, and I’m sure others do too. 

While I don’t know how Monday’s meeting impacted my (natural) mom and dad, I hope they can embrace the part they have played in shaping me – not just because of their genetics, but because of the past 5 years we’ve shared – and that they can be proud of the chapters that are written now and in the future because they are a critical part of those too.

I like the book of my life so far, and I’m excited to write the remaining chapters with all the main characters present. 

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Celebrating (Navigating) a 5th Reunion Anniversary

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the first time I spoke with my natural mom. I’ve known this 5th Momiversary (aptly named by my friend Sarah) was approaching, but I really failed to connect with its significance until a recent vacation. 

For those who are struck by my insensitivity, let me say in my defense, it’s because I just get used to my circumstances fairly quickly. Life is what life is. So, the longer my family reunion has gone, the more it’s just normal to me. And I’m this way about everything; not that it justifies it, but it’s true. And I think it’s because when I found out I was adopted, there was little room for playing out some big scene about it. I was adopted, I still had a family, and I probably would never meet my first one. So, that’s that. Stuff happens, you adjust. And that’s even true when the stuff that happens is you reunite with your natural family. 

But, I digress, because my point is that while on vacation I re-visited all of the texts, emails, and Facebook messages my mom (and other family members) and dad and I exchanged in those first few months of getting to know each other. And, it turns out, this is kinda a big deal. So, today, I celebrate, and I think about how I’ve navigated this whole experience, and why it’s gone so well by most standards. And I want to share those thoughts with you. 

First, I made a commitment to myself that I would enter the reunion process prepared to submit to whatever level of relationship my family members wanted. Mostly I was thinking about my mom and dad, but my commitment has played out with all of my natural family. This commitment means I have some closer relationships than I ever anticipated, and some that are more laid back, and others that are very limited or non-existent. And all of that is okay. For a relationship to work, it has to be on mutually agreeable terms. That means I couldn’t go into this dictating those terms, and I’ve been blessed by maintaining that commitment to let my family members lead the way. 

Second, I think communication has been key. I recently read a blog post that suggested adoptees carry too much responsibility for their adopted parents’ happiness (e.g. “you completed our family” or “you are God’s gift to us”), so in a reunion it’s important for a natural family (especially a mom) NOT to provide too much detail about how difficult life was without the adoptee because that adds too much responsibility for another parent’s happiness. I intellectually understand the author’s point, but I’m glad my family (especially my mom and dad) and I didn’t/don’t avoid the difficult topics. My mom’s choice was agonizing for her and carried significant consequences for her life, and I needed to hear that to understand her. And my dad was basically advised to step back from the whole process because he wasn’t ready to be a dad and a husband, and to let me and my mom go, and I needed to hear that too. And, my mom and dad have heard both the good and the bad of my life after adoption (the good tied to my adoptive family experience, the bad tied to the mental/emotional side effects), and they needed to hear that to know me. For every piece of information that we’ve shared that has been painful, I like to think that communication has also been healing, and has allowed us to get to a 5th Momiversary and an upcoming 5th Popiversary in April.

Finally, I think it’s been helpful to acknowledge that blood (genetics) does matter. As an adoptee, my entire life has been flooded with messages that are adoption-centric (e.g. family is who you choose). I have been blessed to live out those messages with an adoptive family that loved me. And I believe those messages are designed to help adoptees feel legitimate in their families, so I’m cool with them. But, those messages ever so subtly suggest to adoptees that blood (genetics) doesn’t matter. I’ve done enough research to know that’s not true, so I entered the reunion process ready to embrace my natural family as legitimate too. And, as odd as it sounds, the first weekend I spent with my natural mom’s family felt right because I was with people with whom I shared blood and genetic stamping. And I felt like that when I met my natural dad for the first time too. So, knowing that it was okay for both of my families to be legitimate has made the process easier. 

I don’t suggest any other adoptee in reunion or anticipating reunion should embrace these concepts because all of our experiences will be different. But, these things helped me, and if they sound good to you, I hope they help. 

Happy Momiversary to me, my mom, and all of the Payne family!

Becky

I Still do the Math

Adoption can be expensive. Adoption costs are driven (primarily) by the adoption industry. The adoption industry is, indeed, a big business. I find it concerning that the relinquishment and placement of children is a business at all. But it is, and that’s the reality from which I write.

My (adoptive) parents paid approximately 10% of their 1975 income to adopt me. I didn’t know that until several years ago. I would have been okay never finding out.

I’ve done the math over and over in my head. Trying to determine if my brother (who is my parents’ natural/biological child) has a ledger that started around the same number.

I know it doesn’t matter to my parents. But I still do the math.

Wondering if 1967/1968 pregnancy costs would have totaled around 10% of their income at that point. Hoping that, if not, my brother racked up more expenses during the course of his 17 years in their household than I did in the same number of years.

I know it doesn’t matter to my parents. But I still do the math.

Thinking that it might be appropriate to offer that money back to them now that I’m in reunion with my natural parents because…well, because my adoptive parents were guaranteed a life with me that didn’t include them.

I know it doesn’t matter to my parents. But I still do the math.

I share this because I have recently seen several sets of soon-to-be adoptive parents write about the costs associated with their adoption process. I don’t know these prospective adoptive parents, but I assume they are going to be wonderful parents to their children. I anticipate they will love their children with all of their being.

But I hope their children never find the blog posts they’ve written, because I think it will make them do the math.

I think they will research what a brand new car cost in 2016 because the costs associated with their adoption were compared to that cost in a fundraising appeal.

I think they will read the exhaustive list of adoption-related expenses and add them all up.

I think they will explore the tax incentives referenced to see how much they can take off the associated expenses, hoping it will balance out to zero.

I think they will know it doesn’t matter to their parents. But I think they will still do the math.

While some may conclude that their parents must have loved them a ton to pay that price, and walk away from the calculator content. Others may conclude that they owe their parents something they can never repay in cash, and may look for other ways to repay that debt (e.g. always trying to be perfect, never talking about the pain they feel about their adoption, ignoring their strong desire to find their birth parents, etc.).

Adoption can be expensive. Adoption costs are driven (primarily) by the adoption industry. I just wish we could hide all of that from adoptees. Because they shouldn’t have to do the math.

Is It Truly Part of My Identity?

Recently, I have been engaging in a series of dialogues about race that a friend started on Facebook. In a recent comment, I started a sentence by noting that I am not a minority, unless you count my Native American blood. My friend responded, “I would definitely count your Native American blood if you truly feel like it’s part of your identity…” and went on to address the substantive part of my original comment. I’ve been mulling over the implied question for a couple of weeks now because it’s bigger than whether my Native American blood is important to my identity. In truth, it’s a question about what, if anything, is important to my identity?

One of the interesting things about not knowing your heritage is that you can be from anywhere. I think it’s one of the reasons adoptees have a tendency to day-dream and make up stories about their origins. If you don’t have a “tie” to the genealogical history of your adopted family, then you can be the long-lost prince or princess who is waiting for the return of the king and queen. And, when you are hurt and confused by the abandonment part of your story, it’s actually pretty cool to envision you are from such an important heritage.

Of course, when the king and queen don’t return, you are left with a stark reality – your family is your family, but their heritage (from a blood line perspective) is not. No matter how many genealogy projects you are assigned by teachers who are understanding when you explain that you don’t know your blood line heritage, the compilation of materials they request that you gather from your adopted family still never really feels like yours. Even if you are proud that your paternal great-grandmother was a full-blood Cherokee Indian, that doesn’t make you a Cherokee. And regardless of whether your maternal blood line can be traced back to European royalty, that doesn’t mean you have royal blood.

As silly as it may seem, I was pumped when my natural dad told me that I have Creek Indian blood in my heritage. And having the names of generations of my natural families made me want to start doing some genealogical research; I even signed up for a free account to search. But then I started thinking – while this is my blood heritage, I was 37 years old when I found it and it’s no more a part of me than the genealogical history of my adoptive parents.

So, here I sit, with two distinct histories – one by nature, one by nurture – and I think it’s somewhat fraudulent to claim either. And that is the very real answer to my friend’s question.

Becky

Why Are Holidays Difficult for Adoptees…?

An adoption blogger I follow posted that simple question on Christmas Eve morning and asked adoptees to respond. I was too busy to think about the question at the time. My (adoptive) brother and his family were coming to open presents and eat dinner later in the day, and the task of preparing dinner had fallen to Jeff and me because my (adoptive) mom has acute bronchitis. But yesterday, in the still and quiet of Christmas Day, I thought about it, and I share those thoughts now.

I (thankfully) have been in the business of adding parents to my life rather than losing them. Same with siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have lost (again) all of my grandparents to death, so I do know a little about how that loss feels at holidays. I remember the first holiday after my (adoptive) maternal grandmother died, and it was strange. I could feel her presence because I could still envision her in the places I had always seen her, but the fact remained that it was only my memories compelling that presence. It was oddly comforting in the midst of a harsh reality – I could conjure her presence at will even though she was gone.

I think the reason I have struggled at various holidays throughout my life is because I had no image to conjure of my (natural) mom and dad or the rest of my (natural) family. On days when “family” is a central theme, it’s difficult to not have ALL of your family there, and especially when you can’t even envision them. While I was separated from my natural families on Christmas Day, I now have pictures of them in my mind and could easily envision them enjoying the day. And those pictures, from memories of times we have shared, helped to make my Christmas complete.

Becky

National Adoption Month

It’s National Adoption Month! If you didn’t realize that, no worries. I didn’t know it either until a few days ago when I was catching up on posts from other adoption-related blogs I follow. After I engaged in a bit of self-shaming internal dialogue about my failure to recognize the significance of this month, I continued to read post after post from adoptees who sounded downright angry about this special recognition. The writers frequently referenced a hash-tag mantra (“FlipTheScript”) and I grew more curious about the vitriol that seemed to drip from each post.

That’s when I saw it – the official presidential proclamation about National Adoption Month. And, that’s when the frustration and anger I had been perceiving made perfect sense. The first paragraph reads:

Every year, adoptive parents welcome tens of thousands of children and teenagers into supportive and loving families. These mothers and fathers provide their sons and daughters with the security and stability of a safe environment and the opportunity to learn, grow, and achieve their full potential.  During National Adoption Month, we honor those who have opened their hearts and their homes, and we recommit to supporting all children still in need of a place to call their own.

I guess I’ve always known that the adoption story most often focuses on the adoptive family. After all, they are the ones willing to step in and make a child part of their family. It’s a good story. And I was blessed to have one of those families, so I don’t want to appear ungrateful about what adoption does for kids.

But, there are some key people in the adoption “triad” missing from much of the story as it’s told traditionally. And I, like many of my fellow adoptee bloggers, believes it’s time to put more focus on those people. For every adoptive parent we applaud, we should consider the emotional turmoil experienced by many parents who choose to relinquish. For every story we tell of the blessing of children being placed with a family, we should consider that many of those children will still deal with feelings of loss and abandonment and may have a desire to know their natural family regardless of how amazing their adoptive family may be.

There’s so much more to the adoption story than a child being placed with a family. And I agree it’s time to “Flip the Script” and talk about the entire story and all of its characters.

Letters from Carol 1975

In late August, my natural mom and her sisters met at my Grandma Audrey’s house to begin going through her personal belongings. It’s been several months since Grandma passed away, so it was time to start the process. They found some interesting items during their work: pieces of scrap paper with poetry Grandma had written; greeting cards from family and friends; love letters exchanged between Grandma and my grandfather (who passed away prior to my reunion with my natural family); and empty envelopes that looked as if they had been swept up with handfuls of other items and stashed away in a frenzied cleaning effort.

Among Grandma’s things, they found a series of letters that my mom wrote to her family while she was in Memphis, TN waiting to have me; there are eleven letters in total that were written between January and March 1975. The letters were primarily contained in a single envelope with a simple phrase to identify them, “Letters from Carol 1975.” I find the phrase interesting. I know Grandma was very careful to avoid open references to me – especially after my brothers were born – but I suspect there’s more to it than that explanation. I bet if you lived through sending your youngest daughter away to have and then relinquish your first grandchild, it wouldn’t take many words on an external envelope to remind you what was inside. “Letters from Carol 1975” was probably all my Grandma needed to see.

The letters are equally heart-breaking, surprising, and funny.

My mom, not quite 17 when the journey in Memphis began, was terribly homesick. While she frequently mentions how much she likes the foster family with whom she is staying, she also writes a lot about missing the family and her baby kitten, Sebastian.

Mom’s letters also reveal the guilt she felt about the shame it may have caused the family for her to be pregnant. In one striking passage she writes, “It would be foolish to say that I won’t ever disappoint you again but I can say that I’ll never hurt you and Daddy like this again or ever give you cause to be ashamed to claim me as your girl.”

There’s not much mention of my dad, except the part where Mom declares that she’s sure “everything is over between us” and that “if he did come back I’d just slam the door in his face because he’s hurt me enough.” (Sorry, Pop, I know you read my blog, and you know that I have no hard feelings about how things went down with you and Mom, but I think it’s important to share her thoughts – even the difficult ones).

The letters contain a surprising amount of dialogue about my dad’s mom (who passed away prior to my reunion with my natural family), who apparently made quite a bit of effort to stay in touch with my mom, even offering to help support her if she decided to keep me. In one passage Mom writes that my paternal grandmother told her, “Carol, I think about you more than you will ever know. If I can ever help you in any way, let me know because you will always be like a daughter to me. If I had a daughter, I would like for her to be just like you.”

I also was surprised by the fact that the doctor felt my Mom had gained too much weight with me, so she was actually on a diet while she was pregnant with me. This didn’t go over well with Mom who wrote at one point, “I’m putting in an early order for a big stack of pancakes when I get home. JoAnn made some yesterday but I didn’t get any cause their (sic) too fattening. My mouth just watered and watered and I could hardly stand it.”

My favorite light-hearted moments are in two early letters. In one, Mom drew a self-portrait that is basically a stick figure with a huge belly, and she writes, “I’m kinda glad no one there will be able to see me SO big cause that’s hard on my ego. Next time you see me I’ll be my old skinny self again.” In another, she declares, “Mom, I have good news for you. I ate liver! JoAnn fixed it last week and I suffered through it. It really wasn’t too bad.”

For me, the most important parts of the letters reveal Mom’s struggle in deciding whether to keep me or allow me to be adopted. I don’t know how most adoptees feel, but I longed to know that I really was wanted – at least by someone in my natural family. When we reunited, my mom explained that she always wanted me, but just felt she couldn’t keep and support me at the age of 17. Actually reading her words at that age confirmed everything she said to me in the beginning. A couple of very important passages to me include:

  • “I’ve made the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make and I have to stick to it. I really believe it’s the best for my baby and no matter how hard it is for me, I have to put the baby’s future first.”
  • “I want my baby and I love it so much and because I love it I want to do what’s best for it. If there was anyway that I could give it the kind of life it deserves and needs I would keep it with me. But I’m afraid that I can’t give it the kind of life it should have even though I love it so. I just want to do what’s right…”

Oh, I don’t want to forget the bonus material in the envelope – a photo of my mom on her 17th birthday with a very visible baby bump. That’s me 22 days prior to my birth. It’s pretty cool to have a pregnancy photo of my mom. Most kids have those, but I had given up hope something like that existed. Makes me really happy that Grandma was a pack rat.

Mom and the Baby Bump