Adoptive Parents

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Re-Connecting the Two Mothers by Caroline M. Kent

I must start off with an apology. In adoption so much is said about mothers – real, biological, natural, birth, adoptive, whatever – that we end up saying too little about fathers. But I am a mother, and therefore feel that my best efforts should be addressed to what I know best.

I am a mother, an adoptive mother. I am not an adoptee, nor am I a birthmother. I can only use my imagination and my abilities to listen to other people’s stories to gain any understanding of what those roles must be like.

I have recently been reading Philip Pullman’s book The Subtle Knife, in which the protagonist tears through the time, distance and matter separating alternative universes using a special, magic knife. I think this is an apt metaphor for adoption: after all, adoption tears apart, in no such subtle way, a child’s basic relationships and images of reality. From being born into one world, one reality, the adopted child is taken and placed in another world, another reality. And we know from separated twin studies that although like-genetics produces astounding parallels, separated twins often lead very different lives. So, traditionally, has the adoptee when separated from its first or birth family. The adoptee is dropped into another world.

My seven-year-old son Jack, tells his adoption story, tells it with the full belief that he actually remembers it all happening. We know that he cannot really remember it, since he was only seven weeks old at placement, but we must believe and understand that his belief in this is based on the pain he feels over understanding this change in his life circumstances: “I’ve had a sad life,” he says. “First, I was in the hospital with my first mom, Sophia. Then I get taken to live with my foster family and my foster mom Alice; she was very nice. But then I’m taken away from them; this strange woman that I didn’t know took me on a plane, where my ears hurt. I was angry, and cried and cried. And I go to live in this family. I mean, you were very nice, but I didn’t know you or Daddy.”

This metaphor, the subtle knife of adoption, can be looked at another way, again from the adoptee’s point of view. For along with the changing of the adoptee’s life circumstances is the change that is brought to the adoptee’s conception of “motherness,” that is, what a mother is. Adoption’s fundamental peculiarity, after all, is the severing of the basic connection between genetic motherness and parenting motherness.

I do not promote the idea that an adopted child and an adoptive mother cannot connect and bond just as well as a child with its genetically related mother. For if a child is truly loved, by its first parents previous, during and after placement; by foster parents, by adoptive parents, it is then capable of great love and attachment for multiple people.

But I must acknowledge that for many children, my son included, there is great pain knowing that he was cut away from his first mother and family, even though he (despite his dramatic statement) is a happy, well-loved, loving child.

This severing, this incision made in “motherness” brings everyone deep pain. I do not usually talk about the pain I feel in being the other mother. I don’t talk about it because really, ultimately, I have gained so much joy from my children’s’ adoptions that it seems wrong to dwell on it. In addition, I know my pain to be minor compared to the pain that Jack’s birth mother feels.

But I am going to talk about my pain here because too little that is honest is ever said about the pain experienced by adoptive parents. And what we don’t talk about twists our hearts in ugly knots. It turns us into neurotic animals driven by jealousy.

I love both of my children to distraction. And there is a part of my heart that wishes, very deeply, that there was no challenge to my “motherness.” That part of me wants to be the only mother. My biggest loss in adoption is the loss of singularity as a mother. I cannot regret the loss of genetically related children; how could I in the face of my two, beautiful children? But I will never be the “one and only” mother for them.

My daughter Desiree is now just three and a half. She professes no understanding of her adoptive status, and we are, at this point, lacking contact with her first family, which would help her in her understanding. Now, it is not that she isn’t getting it all; I believe that she is. But she is rejecting her adoptive status out of hand, and utterly rejecting the idea of the “other mother.” No, Jack might have two mothers, but she does not:

“You are my only mama,” she says with great confidence. When I assure her that she does indeed, just like Jackie, have another mother. “No. I have only one mama,” shaking her head firmly.

And as she says this, that part, that possessive dark part of my heart leaps with joy. Finally, my own baby, not shared, just mine… I overstate this, state this at all, because I want people to understand that the knife of adoption slashes at everybody. And we all have to understand our pain if we are going to make this strange situation work. I puzzle over how to make it work a lot. Is it possible? In the old days (and in some places, the not-so-old-days) we made it work through a series of great lies…

…to the birth parents, “Don’t worry about the pain. It will stop hurting. Move on with your life and you’ll be alright.”

…to the adoptive parents, “Take the baby home. Love it. That’s all that’s necessary. It’s your baby now.”

…to the adoptee, “Why would you be interested in your birthparents? You will hurt your adoptive parents; they are your real parents, after all. And your birthparents – you may embarrass them, or shame them if you find them.”

Most sensible people now acknowledge these statements as lies. So, we just tell each other the truth, right? Is that the way out of this? Well, yes, of course, the truth is always a good place to start. But we need something beyond that. We need acknowledgement, among ourselves, that however necessary it was to use the subtle knife of adoption, that there is great pain associated with its use for everybody.

And as we reconnect birth and adoptive families and the two mothers come face to face, we must also acknowledge that our differences make telling the truth difficult sometimes. Our ages, the families that raised us, what we do, our ethnicities, where we live…the list of our differences could go on and on.

But Jack’s birthmom and I share something that reaches beyond all of those differences. We share the desire for our shared child to be happy, to be able to be more than either of us could ever be. Each of us carries half of his “motherness” in us. Neither of us is fully complete without the connection to the other. The subtle knife of adoption has cut Jack’s “motherness” into two pieces. And what it really comes down to is this: his birthmom and I can allow these two pieces to remain separate, or we can bring them together for him, so he can have both.

Again, a story from Jack:

His first mom came and visited us for five days. We had searched for her, and spent over two years on the phone, working towards a face-to-face reunion. Finally, she arrived. On the morning she left, my husband and Jack drove her to the airport. On his return, Jack was in hysterical, raging tears. When he finally calmed down, in my arms, he continued to weep softly, saying, “I have two such nice mommies. Why can’t they both be with me all the time?”

His birthmom and I, we must be able to reach through the tear in reality made by the subtle knife of adoption. We must reach into each other’s worlds, for him, for the child. We must make the tear between our worlds big enough for him to easily pass between us. We must recognize, acknowledge between us, that he is of both of us now.

I am so grateful, for my children’s sake, for their first families’ sake, and ultimately, for my sake, that we live in an era where contact – normal, open, ongoing familial contact – between birth and adoptive families – is gaining the recognition it deserves. If I want my children to be whole, to have access to all parts of their backgrounds, to both parts of their “mother,” then I can only believe that this is the best thing for everybody.

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Caroline M. Kent