“I like small things, small books, small problems, small writing, small spaces.
So this is my small journal.”
A compact brown leather journal went with me to school each day that January; I spent my science class writing as much as I could about the past year. That summer. Him. I wrote about the year I visited my biological mom. I wrote about the boy who took advantage of me at 14. I wrote about sex and mental health and insecurity and food and SATs and the Boy and the Student. I also passed whichever science class that was out of sheer compassion from the teacher.
I spent many pages wondering whether or not the things that happened at that apartment were my fault, or whether it really affected me. I confessed that I deserved what I got, that if I had tried harder, things would have stopped. Wishing he would have done something so clearly, obviously, plainly wrong, so I’d know for sure whose fault it was. Musing that when he finally did, it was only more confusing. I felt guilty; had I provoked him? Hadn’t I wanted him to do something obvious anyway?
“I don’t need counseling for any reason other than to have someone on standby for when I need to make another person know, and feel what I felt. When I want another person to hurt.”
Those nights all ended the same.
He would hurt me, I would cry, he would cry, I would comfort him.
He confided in me about things that had happened to him when he was younger. I pitied him. I scared myself, wondering if I was the one doing the damage.
I wrote about the Boy. That he told me he loved me once and I told him he shouldn’t say that. That he was so innocent to me, and it drew me to him. But he would say the same about me, that the innocent quality was what intrigued him, and I never understood it because I felt I was anything but innocent.
I spent that summer and the next year wondering who was more abusive in the relationship with the father. I remember wanting to hurt him, something I’d not felt with anyone else. And I remember guilt and confusion. And hate.
Like most of my relationships, he was likely codependent, and I was crazy. And that’s how it began: me being broken and needing fixing. Overdosing, taking his medication, and cutting and creating drama. Him feeling needed.
But pregnancy changed that dynamic. I matured. He didn’t. I start caring. My wants changed. I wanted something wholesome and healthy. He didn’t know how to give that.
“I have baby pictures in my binder. Penny just walked by and asked, ‘Is that your baby?’ And looked at them.
I don’t really know how I feel about that.
That’s my child?
I think I understand what the counselor meant by loss.
When I think of words like
I will never be a mother to that boy, yet at the same time, I am completely his and he is my own. And it’s sad that there will never be that mother-son relationship. That is a loss.”
I graduated high school that spring, my teachers doted on me, the world shifting in my favor before my eyes, and applied to an art school. They wanted me to do a year at a community college before coming, and I wasn’t on board with that, so I arranged a meeting with the Dean. She was a tall, composed, dark-haired woman with an easy smile and she sat next to me at an empty conference room table. I had written out my story beforehand, and though nervous, I was confident. The times I determined to do something, I was relentless and utterly trusting, knowing it would happen.
And so I told her The Story. I told her how I had changed, how my poor grades for the first three-fourths of high school were not a reflection of ability, as my senior year proved, but that I was with the wrong crowd and I was troubled. I told her about getting pregnant and how my mom had said it was “God’s two-by-four to wake me up” and how I matured and I wanted to change my life and how I had dreams and ambitions now, how I didn’t want the adoption to be for nothing, how I needed to better myself so he would know it wasn’t meaningless, and how this all somehow translated into me not going to a community college.
And she agreed, full of compassion, her eyes wide and hopeful. We compromised. I’d spend a year at their partnering college, which shared the campus with the art school. I’d take a few preparatory art classes and then the next year I could transfer completely and pursue my degree in painting.
College had not been on the agenda for years by that point. Somewhere along the way, the goal of my parents had become simply to make sure I survived high school, rather than planning anything in the future. My mental health was the priority, and I spent years seeing one counselor after another, trying one anti-depressant after another, one anxiety medication after another, one mood stabilizer after another, and no answers.
The feeling that something was wrong with me had been present for as long as I could remember. In class settings, I shied away from questions out of embarrassment, my mind scrambling to find answers that could assure me I wasn’t stupid. And that must have been my deepest fear: stupidity. And I oscillated between hastily constructing a front, proving that I wasn’t defective, inadequate, to collapsing, angrily, tearfully giving voice to those muzzled truths caged within: that I was. That I didn’t know. That I couldn’t do it. That I was hopeless and worthless and nothing could change it.
I remember sitting at the dining room table, middle school maybe, hot tears and anger, a worksheet or report card in front of me, my dad sitting to my right, my mom standing to my left. We had been arguing and I had been staunchly defensive, until the levee broke and my self-loathing gushed and engulfed the kitchen.
Where did it come from? My teenage self surmised it came from the harsh words of my stepmom growing up, from the indecipherable sarcasm and distance of my dad. And certainly those didn’t help.
But one day another answer emerged, seven years post-adoption. I sat on our red couch and thumbed through a book written by a woman, an adoptee, who had spoken at one of the annual Birthmother Celebration Dinners I’d attended. I read it because it had been recommended, I read it because it was about adoptees and therefore about adoption. I read it because once you enter into adoptionland, you never come back. If it was about adoption, it was my duty to read it. Adoption was my special insight, my identity. Quite literally, for the first few years.
Though in those first years I didn’t speak publicly about it, my birthmotherhood nevertheless consumed my being, my thought-life, a secret obsession. It lurked in the shadows of every conversation, it became the lens through which I processed every new experience. It was the soil in which my relationship with the Student grew. Living alongside my mourning so early on, he would tell me years after we broke up that he felt like he had lost a child, too. In every quiet moment, J was there. Every flippantly tossed reference to mothers or children or adoption or childbirth or pregnancy or family or babies or hospitals would snatch the blood from my face, my heart pounding in anticipation; surely they would know, surely they could see it in me. The Student stole sideways glances, because he knew.
The book was called “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew” and it took maybe two chapters for me to realize I was reading more of my childhood self into this book than I was my birthmother self.
When you grow up separated from your biological mom and half-siblings, and you can only remember ever seeing her two or three times, everyone’s natural reaction is some variation of shock and pity. Like the comments when someone witnessed my artistic talent as a child, these responses were predictable and annoying. No, I was not going to grow up to be an artist, I’d assure them. No, it did not bother me at all that I didn’t know my mom. What is there to miss when you don’t know the person? And what I did know of her was unappealing. A perpetual a chip on my shoulder, like I had something to prove, like I only operated in defensive mode, like I didn’t want to give people the pleasure of already knowing me. Ha, take that, I most certainly will NOT use my undeniable talent to make the most obvious career choice. Yeah, you thought you knew, but you didn’t.
Sometimes we take the “high road” compulsively, bypassing the muddy creeks and valleys in favor of something better, safer, right. We refuse to explore what everyone else expects to be obvious. Maybe to cope. Sometimes because we know what the right and wrong answers are and we try to deny our “wrong” impulses and cut straight to the mature response. Like forgiving someone who has wronged you. Sometimes we try to jump straight to maturity without allowing ourselves to hurt and grieve and feel angry. And it comes back to haunt us later.
I did a form of this with adoption: Oh, you think adoption is terrible and it makes me an unloving person? Well guess what, it turns out adoption is actually wonderful and I’m an extremely mature and selfless person.
Oh, you think all of my destructive tendencies and aimlessness and anxiety in life stems from having no maternal bond and being separated from most of my biological family and you can’t imagine how hard that must be for me? Well guess what, I have no emotions about that so stop distracting from the fact that I clearly have a mental illness since that’s the REAL issue here.
But this book left no room for me to deny that my early loss, my disconnect from biology, had left an intangible yet utterly permeating trauma on every filament of my soul. The trauma being so early, I couldn’t distinguish between me and broken me. Separation, loss, trauma had left me an anxious person, an inconsolably insecure person, an empty person always searching and never finding, a person desperate for love and affection, so desperate that I swallowed pills and let people use me and I made empty suicidal threats and I operated only in extremes just so someone would show me undeniable care. Prayer came natural to me, because I was always in need of rescuing, always in need of love from someone who could envelop me in impenetrable understanding and warmth. It had left me spiraling in selfish introspection, obsessed with understanding and knowing and speaking and feeling myself. It had left me with the emotional skin as thick and sensitive as that of a burn victim. But it left me hardened to that which would really give me what I needed: true intimacy, love from my family, normalcy, tenderness. I railed against these and buried them deep. I pushed them away and hated them and doubted them. It left me unable to assert myself, to ask for things. It made me embarrassed to show vulnerability and gratitude. It made me pour myself into new relationships without restraint, and hang my whole worth on their words. As a mother, it made me aloof. Uncomfortable. Frigid. It created this distaste for nice things, this fear of putting my whole self into something palpable. My artwork was expressive and dark, a façade of authenticity. My clothes were ill-matched and eclectic, another façade. My house, my belongings were disorganized and untamed, broken and disheveled. And I believed the problem lied with those who had their things together. But more and more I wonder, is there a belief, an infantile, minuscule belief down there under-girding my behaviors, that I don’t deserve things to be in order? To be well-taken care of? Is that so foreign to my fundamental understanding of myself that it feels wrong and unnatural? Is this the fallout of developmental trauma? The book, the stories within, certainly made me wonder.
I found myself relating to the book, to the pages where she would talk about how adoptive parents must take initiative in speaking about the birth family. How even if you only say positive things, unless you, the adoptive parent, frequently demonstrate the ease and acceptability of bringing up the birth family, there will always be an implicit, primitive, buried belief in the child that there’s something wrong about speaking of them. Of that.
And that was my experience. The embarrassment, the fear that I’d offend, still present as an adult. I rarely spoke about her. And when I did, I never knew what to call her. She’s been birthmom, she’s been L, she’s been her, she’s been momthing, she’s been you know. And my stepmom. She was D, she was mom, and then she went nameless for years. Embarrassed to use a term of endearment to describe someone with whom I felt no connection. She had borne the brunt of my blame and anger, but now it appeared my fate had been beyond her hands, determined before she ever knew my name.
My carefully and meticulously constructed worldview, selfview, crumbled. There was hope, and anger, and uncertainty. What did this mean for my own motherhood? What light did this shed on the adoption, on me as a birthmother? Why were my parents so distant, why was I alone in assembling the lost and maimed pieces? Who was my birthmom anyway, as a person, what was her story? Why didn’t I know the names of my maternal grandparents? Where were they, who were they?
So then I couldn’t put the book down and I didn’t understand and a channel from that reservoir of ever-bubbling energy spilled out and I began doing. I began searching.