Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mothering While Adopted

Maybe the title should be 'Smothering While Adopted'. When I asked my teenage daughter what it's like having an adoptee as a mother, she heartily snorted. As she started laughing, she said, “I know nothing else.”

Like a lot of adoptees, my first born was also the first blood kin I ever laid eyes on. The intensity of being in the presence of someone connected to you on a cellular level was searing. The one thing I knew for sure was that I would not let her slip away - like everyone else had.

Giving birth gave me an overwhelming sensation of finally having someone similar to me. It was intense and over-the-top. Then the in-laws showed up at the hospital. They did what every non-adopted person seems to do when there's a new baby in the family – immediately start identifying characteristics that belong to the family. They had no idea what their comments like 'She has long fingers like my side of the family' or 'those eyes are mine' did to me. My husband's family are all blood related. They all have similarities. I finally had ONE person who was blood to me -- ONE – that's it. And it felt like my in-laws came in to claim her. It wasn't done on purpose. It was quite 'normal', but normal isn't something an adoptee is familiar with.

Finally when everyone was done oooo'ing and aaahhh'ing and had left my hospital room, a darkness fell over me. I was swirling into overwhelming grief when a wonderful nurse stopped in. She said to me, “Smile.” I was emotionally drained and gave her a weak smile. She then said, “Now I see where your baby gets her dimple from.” My heart seemed to suspend its beating. I was momentarily breathless. She got something from me. For the first time in my life, someone looked at another human being and commented that she looked like ME! Amazing! All those years of step-siblings joking that I was hatched from an egg pod that came down from another planet – which I think I almost believed at some points. All the disconnection all my life and finally, finally, finally, I was connected to another human being. Almost 17 years later, and that one sentence from that one wonderful nurse brings tears to my eyes instantly.

Two years after my oldest daughter's birth, I had my second daughter. While I was totally astounded again, I think I was too exhausted from having a toddler to revel in the gloriousness of a connection as much. This time I didn't feel the panic that she'd slip away from me and leave me.

Mothering was a foreign concept to me. First, I lost my biological mother through adoption. Then, I lost my adoptive mother when I was four through death. I lost my first stepmother through divorce. Thankfully my second stepmother stuck around, but I was already 17 by the time she entered my life. My second stepmother told me many times that I was a 'natural' at being a mother. She told me that my babies responded to me and she could see how much I adored them. What I never told her was that for the most part, I had sheer panic on the inside.

My kids became involved with adoptee rights because I was involved and they went where I went. People made exceptions for them in archive rooms, research areas, cemeteries – wherever my searching took me. I can't count the number of people who said, 'We usually don't allow children in here.' and I would reassure them with, 'They're my assistants.' I had one archivist say that my kids handled the microfiche reels better than most adults. They knew what I needed and could go to the wall of cabinets with films in it and be able to get exactly what I needed. One time, an archivist (who had gotten accustomed to me and my assistants) brought out the original paperwork I was looking for. It was not on a microfiche, but the original book. It was so brittle that we had to wear gloves to even be near it.
They were involved with every phase of trying to pass a law in NJ for adoptee rights. They read and re-read my writings. They marched in adoptee rights rallies. They missed school to watch me testify at a hearing. They missed school to watch legislation being voted on. They met a NJ Governor and acting-Governor. They have been to so many adoptee rights things that people were commenting how big they were getting and asking them how they're doing in school this year.

Both of my kids have done oral reports to their classes about going to the legislature. They would bring in their badges (yes, security let them keep them to show off at school). They would bring in pictures and get in front of the class and teach the class about how a bill becomes (or doesn't become) a law and all the steps that need to be taken. They've been to so many government functions that they're being recognized. They even sat through five hours of dry testimony just so that they were there for when I testified.

They saw and felt the emotional toll searching for my birth family and being involved in adoptee rights has taken on me. They were there and are still there on the front lines with me.

They have made posters, made videos and been in a documentary about adoptee rights struggles. They have seen first-hand how a mother's rejection can slice to an adoptee's core. They have known that I was a secret and had to sneak around to meet my grandmother. They know that lies have been said about me and they aren't able to defend me. They know and have seen the truth and they have seen how the truth gets distorted through media.

They have seen me panic and not be able to let go of them. They are letting me know that it's okay to ease up and loosen my grip. They are showing me that I don't have to hold on bear-hug tight all the time. They are teaching me how to be a mother to them. After 17 years, I still don't know how to mother, how to let go, how to give them enough space to be who they want to be. Why? Because they are the only blood I've ever had.

-- Elaine Penn