For many Americans, the second Sunday in May is an unblemished annual celebration of all things cozily maternal. As one of this country's millions of adoptees, though, I only wish my experience of Mother's Day could feel so ... uncomplicated.
For people like me — whose biological moms had to give them away after giving birth to them — this particular day can be especially fraught. Splitting up a family always creates trauma, and many adoptees trudge through life with a fog of loss hovering overhead. That painful sense of loss can flare up even more on Mother's Day.
This is common, Karen Caffrey, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist and adoptee, tells me. "When there are touchstone events like Mother's Day, it ties us back into our identity: 'Who am I? Where did I come from? What makes me me?' Adoption in our culture is portrayed as either/or — there's your birth mother or your adoptive mother. The reality is much more complex for adoptees."
There can be additional layers of heartache and uncertainty for interracial and international adoptees. But when it comes to how we cope with this mess of emotions, adoptees' ages don't matter. How much our adoptive parents "wanted" us doesn't matter, either. Nor do the hoops we may or may not have jumped through to eventually find our biological relatives. Regardless of where we came from, for many adoptees the grief of early abandonment simply doesn't go away — not completely. And that pain can manifest in darker ways: Addiction, depression, learning disabilities, and attempted suicide rates are far higher among adopted people. Low self-esteem, identity struggles, and intimacy issues can also be par for the course.
For me, Mother's Day is a recurring reminder of my rootlessness, dragging all of my stickiest, least answerable questions to the surface. Of course, I love my adoptive mother, and I do all the things caring daughters are wont to do on Mother's Day: I send flowers, a card, a gift. But somehow I feel more fractured, like dueling sides of me are duking it out. One of the things I grapple with is whether I should acknowledge my biological mother, too. (Though we met up twice, many years ago, we don't currently have a relationship beyond Facebook friendship.)
Liz Latty, a New York-based adoptee and writer, experiences similar quandaries. "I have always felt this pressure to not concern myself with my first/birth mom on Mother's Day," she explains, citing the ambiguity around "realness" in adoptees' families. "What is a 'real mom'"?
It's a good question. In a pro-adoption culture invested in the narrative that adoptees' and foster children's "real mothers" are the ones who actually raised them, where does that leave people like me on Mother's Day — folks who may still be struggling to pinpoint precisely where they fit on a concrete, corporeal level ("Who do I look like?"), a psychological level ("Where do I belong?"), or both?
Though I bristle at the word "lucky" being used anywhere near "adoption," by most outside standards, I was lucky. Research shows baby girls are adopted more often than boys, and because of ingrained racial bias among adoptive parents, African-American babies get placed far less than children of other races. Hence, as a white girl born in Washington, D.C., there was higher "demand" for me among adoptive parents before I was even here.
My adoptive parents were supportive, loving, and stable. I got everything I needed and most of the things I wanted. But that core sense that something was critically missing persisted, even after I grew up and met my birth mother — or "first mother" — in my late 20s.
To cope with what author and adoption expert Nancy Verrier calls "the black hole feeling," I unconsciously created varying versions of me that are still at play. The self my adoptive family — and most others — know is a relatively adjusted and well-actualized 40-year-old woman. Sure, she's had her struggles (she can't seem to catch a romantic break to save her life), but she's funny and empathetic, with a fairly successful writing career. She's learned to pass as normal and pretend, in polite non-adopted company, that she can totally relate to the dominant masses who know where they stand, where they come from.
The other self, the one I wrestle with alone at night, is my real self. You know, the baby self that my then-20-year-old birth mom gave up in 1977 due to familial pressure (she was unmarried and in college). The common consensus back then was that adoption provided a happy ending for infertile couples and babies whose parents couldn't keep them. The consensus was that adoptees' files should be sealed, that we didn't need access to our own birth certificates. That, with enough cloying reminders of being "chosen" and "special," adoptees could recover from that shapeless shroud of trauma — or, even better, learn to pretend it never existed.
We were tacitly encouraged to shut up and smile, to be grateful that someone — anyone — wanted us. Files and identities be damned. And while I'll always love my adoptive parents for the solid foundation they offered me, I can't shut up or pretend anymore. Certainly not on Mother's Day.