Does this title sound strange? Perhaps you are wondering “If she is your daughter, aren’t you her parent?” Well, [pause] yes and no. It’s a long story.
Her parents, whom I am honoring, are the ones who adopted her when she was an infant and raised her to adulthood. I was the young woman, not yet 19 years old, who birthed her and surrendered her for adoption. After holding her, feeding her, loving her for 5 days in the hospital, I dressed her in a sweater I knitted, rode with her in my arms in a NYC taxi cab, and then handed my baby, surrendered my baby, to a Catholic Charities social worker.
In adoption parlance, they are the A (adoptive) parents and I am the B (birth) mom. We never met but we became connected in this offbeat way.
Surrender and welcome
Surrender is an appropriate word for my experience, defined as “to yield (something) to the possession or power of another…on demand or under duress.” Although I had my family’s love and support, I yielded to the power of cultural norms for middle-class white girls in the 1960s. The duress was the shame that came with the labels “unwed mother” and “illegitimate child”.
My daughter’s parents wanted children but, after suffering through several miscarriages, sought adoption. I am sure they were also affected by social expectations and stigmas like “childless marriage” and “barren wife”. In that era, having children was considered a woman’s ultimate role, her God-given duty…unless, of course you were, like me, [heaven forbid] not married. It was hard on both sides with parallel fears of the unknown. This couple passed the Catholic Charities requirements and welcomed my baby girl into their home, into their lives, providing her a bountiful, loving, and stable environment. She was lucky. They were lucky. My loss was their gain.
I quickly went off to college but did not stay long. No surprise! I was not in good psychological shape. Instead, I became pregnant again, married, had two wonderful sons, divorced, eventually finished college, embarked on a successful career, remarried, became a step-mother and then a widow. It was a roller coaster ride. Through all the ups and downs, I never forgot her, always praying and hoping for her well-being.
Finding each other
When she was 36, I found my daughter with the help of a Search Angel, the internet, and perhaps some divine intervention. She was registered on a website looking for her birth mother. Finding her filled a hole in my heart as big as the universe. It released 36 years of deeply buried grief and unacknowledged pain. The bonus? She had an 5-year-old daughter. My only grandchild.
From the very start, her parents did not want to meet me. I could understand their reluctance and respected their choice. It was an all-around complicated, awkward situation and there is no model for it. I gave up all rights when I signed the adoption papers on spring break in my first year of college and was resigned to accept whatever happened after that.
Despite this, my daughter and I managed to have a relationship of sorts. We first talked by phone and then I flew to NY to meet her and her little girl while her parents were wintering in FL. I was blown away; she was smart, beautiful, and a talented singer! Our physical resemblance was eerie. The best word to describe our meeting was trippy — as in weird, wonderful, and unreal. No more dark secret. I now officially had three children and started to talk about her openly.
Shortly after, I flew them to NC to visit me. We continued to keep loosely in touch, exchanging pictures and stories, becoming Facebook friends, seeing each other occasionally when I was passing through NYC. She came to LI to meet my parents and my sister. She and her daughter came to my younger son’s 40th birthday party in the Hudson Valley; it was the only time all my downstream DNA was in one room. She fell in love, remarried, and soon after that I met her sweet, new husband. It all meant a lot to me.
A and B parents meet
In 2015 she invited me to her 50th birthday event, a reunion with her old band at a club in Westchester, even though her parents would be there. After all the birthdays I had missed, I was DELIGHTED to be included. I went with my partner and also with concerns about meeting her parents. We did meet…in a fashion. I was introduced to them only by my name, not by my relationship, and they understandably never realized who I was. It was noisy and crowded and, by this time, they were not in the best health. Her dad was quite hard of hearing and her mom was beginning a decline into dementia. My daughter sang her heart out on stage and I cried happy tears most of the night.
Her mom passed away three years ago. I felt sad; we had never really met and now she was gone. The next time I was in NY, I went alone to my daughter’s house for dinner. Her dad came there to meet me. He seemed intent on it. I remember being nervous. He approached me directly and thanked me. He told me, in his own simple, humble way, that what I did was a good thing for him and his wife. I was stunned. Quickly recovering, I thanked him, them, for taking such good care of my little girl. It was an important healing moment. He died a few months ago and again I felt a unique sadness, a loss, in this strange relationship we had. Apart, in different worlds, yet connected. Mine filled with pain and theirs with joy.
Two sides of the same coin
I remember my own dad, her grandfather, cry when he first saw her in the hospital nursery. She told me her adopted dad cried when he first held her. While they were proudly introducing her to their friends and relatives, I was lying awake nights wondering where she was, how she was. Did she have dark curly hair like me? Was she chubby, was she healthy? Birthdays were hard. While they were buying her presents, I was wondering how big she was, if she was happy, if she had a party. As my own sons grew, at every stage I looked at them and wondered if she was like them, doing similar things, having similar experiences. Did she go to her prom? Did she go to college? Is she straight? Is she gay? Did she marry? Does she have children?
What a miracle it was to finally have these questions answered, to fill in the blanks and to have it all turn out so well. Her parents were good people who took care of my daughter and provided for her in every way. And, in their late years, she did an outstanding job taking care of them. I am very proud of her and very grateful to them. I honor them. I honor my daughter’s parents.
For many years, the focus of adoption, the happy narrative we propagated and all the how-to/why-to information, was about the A side — the adopting parents, the adoptee, and all the “wonderfulness” of it. Very little was ever written, reported, mentioned about any of their struggles or about the B side — the birth parents. Thankfully, things have changed. There are many different stories out there now and support groups for everyone involved. Here are some books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, representing our culture from the most archaic to more progressive views:
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
- The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler
- The Land of Sunshine and Hell: A Memoir of a 60s Unwed Mother by Maxene Dell Raices (My daughter and I are in this story under pseudonyms)
- American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser
- Philomena starring Judy Dench
- Juno starring Elliot Page
There is so much more to the journey I took, that roller coaster ride, from a scared pregnant teenager (shamed and hidden from view) to the confident, happy woman I am today. Someday I might share it.
Wow. Beautiful piece, ML.
Very emotional. ❤️ Susan
TY. It was hard to write. What is more emotional that parenthood, in all its aspects?
Just beautiful. Thanks for sharing so openly, honestly, and deeply! ♥
TY. Coming from a master writer, your praise is most esteemed. ❤
Reading this I realized even though I’ve known you for more than 50 years and you had told me about your daughter several years ago, I never knew what pain you were holding inside.
ML, this is a heartfelt tribute. 💖
Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it was buried very deeply. After our first phone call, I had to wait until I stopped crying a non-stop, round-the-clock backlog of tears before I went to meet her.
I’m so sorry you were put in a position to have to make this choice. I’m very glad you feel it turned out well under the circumstances. I shed a few tears just reading this.
I am glad you were moved by it. Yup, things were different back then. It wasn’t the “good” old days for everyone, particularly women.
This was wonderful, wonderful and more wonderful. Thank you for sharing this; you write beautifully. Don’t forget my favorite movie, The Lion.
Awww. TY. Praise from another writer is greatly appreciated. I have never seen The Lion. I will check it out now.
I can never fully imagine the pain you carried with you all these years. I was very moved reading your story, and so very glad you now have established a relationship with your daughter. You are amazing, ML.
Thanks, Lydia. We all find ways of living with our choices. I put one foot in front of the other and kept walking toward the light, supported by my family and friends, never alone.
Needless to say, as your roommate in college and a “fellow birthmom” we were able to support each other with out secrets and our pain. Writing “The Land of Sunshine and Hell” was very cleansing and had so many emotions that were similar to yours.
But we are resilient optimists and so lucky that we both got to finally connect with our daughters. It brought an end to some of the hidden pain and the beginning of a healthy relationship with our long lost child.
As your roommate and “fellow birthmom” you have reflected many of the same emotions as I wrote about in “The Land of Sunshine and Hell.” The very act of writing about the hidden pain helps to cleanse ànd heal. We are so lucky to have discovered our daughters later in life and developed healthy relationships with them. May the healing continue!
You have been a source of support and encouragement throughout this crazy journey. Let’s raise a glass to our continued healing and our enduring friendship: https://accidental-goddess.com/2016/09/17/2016-birthdays-friendship-the-olympics/
Great post Mary Lou!
Thanks, Kim. ❤