Mother’s Day is right around the corner. I got to thinking about my first Mother’s Day in 2004 and my experience searching for birth family. The experience inspired an article first published in Adoption Today Magazine. Today, I have added “Mother’s Notes” given it’s 12 years later.
For me, not knowing was the hardest part, growing up adopted. I wrapped my thoughts and feelings around gray space. Wrestling with wondering always made me crazy.
I told myself stories that changed over time, asking myself why—until I could no longer care. Why want or chase the impossible? A better solution was to detach and let go of wanting to know about my original family.
At age 36, I started my search. Located my birth mother and two sisters. My birth father had died (that’s another story). I never saw what he looked like.
I had layers and layers of adoption except that…I myself had not adopted.
In 2003, my husband and I traveled 3,922 miles to Kazakhstan, a country nestled between Russia and China. We adopted an 11-month-old baby girl named Sarah.* There she was, with her fat, little cheeks and heart-shaped lips. I was her mother.
Initially, none of my adoptee instincts crossed over to adoptive parenthood. Emotionally, I was stuck at square one. I did not want to tell my baby about her biological mother. (Can you believe that?) I wanted to be her only mother. I wanted the adoption issues to go away.
The early placement days are a blur. They were filled with a delicate melting and merging between mom and baby.
I prayed, “Help me be a good mother.”
Finally, when I started to think about her beginnings and her Kazakhstan mother; something interesting happened. The gray space I sensed when I thought about my birth family (when I was growing up) reappeared. It didn’t seem fair. Sarah would have to go through life not knowing, too. Would it make her as crazy as it made me? After all, I had the chance to search later in life. This would no doubt be impossible for her because the orphanage had so little information.
In early 2004 a new trend began. Adoptive families used private detectives to look for birth families internationally. How could I not at least make the attempt? Someday she might ask, “Mom, did you at least try?” I wanted to be able to truthfully answer, “yes.”
A friend of a friend of a friend on the Internet gave me the email address of the U.S. contact person for the detective. Her name was Anna.
The week before Mother’s Day in 2004, Anna e-mailed me. “We are close to finding Sarah’s birth mother,” the e-mail said. “Please send pictures and a letter.”
What should I say to the woman who gave birth to Sarah and then placed her for adoption? What would I want to know if the situation were reversed? Was this search a good idea?
There didn’t seem to be any choice in the matter. For Sarah, I needed to push and connect with this woman. It was my gift to my daughter. In addition, it was hard work.
I hope as a teenager she doesn’t say, “Mom, that was my search—how could you?”
After all, not every adoptee wants to search. But having basic life facts seemed a human right. Answers to the haunting question “Why didn’t she keep me?” go a long way in mending matters of the heart. Search wasn’t as much about seeking a relationship as it was getting information.
Practical matters were also a consideration. If I waited to let her make the decision, the trail could be 20+ years old. Very cold. It wasn’t like she could visit Google and find the address via the telephone. There weren’t even telephones in parts of this country.
Interestingly, I didn’t struggle one bit over what type of information I might find. What if her father was in jail for murder? Or her birth mother was mentally ill? My personal birth parent search had turned up very complicated information. Over time I learned how to deal with it. I never ever regretted getting that information. I had faith that time and support would offer her the same peace of mind.
I sent off the “Dear birth mother” letter. I didn’t reread it before I sent it. I didn’t struggle over the right words. Just sent it off and got it out of the way.
I did not feel ready for this reunion. I feared it, and I craved it. There were no warm fuzzies as I have read some adoptive mothers have.
After all, Sarah’s birth mother left her all alone in a cold hospital. My adoptee-self was really pissed with Sarah’s bio mother.
A journal entry from May 6, 2004, reads: “The universe is chomping at the bit. No sooner did the letter go out than ‘she’ was found. Boom. No wanting, no waiting, just poof! I hadn’t even finished sending the photos.”
I felt an earthquake in my soul, rumbling and splitting. Emotionally, my feelings mirrored those I felt when I found my birth mother—raw, elemental feelings. I could not focus or think.
A bill arrived. Was it legitimate or some sort of scam? I called my U.S. contact (thank god she was in the phone book). She called me right back and said she was also an adoptee.
The five-page e-mail report arrived along with 45 digital photos. I received pictures of her birth mother, brother and sisters, and their small village. I scanned the material too fast, the words pouring all over my screen. Suddenly, the original and scary medical documents I chose not to believe made more sense. It wasn’t simply a routine birth history.
God was looking out for us. The information about Sarah’s condition at birth would have scared us. How lucky we were not to know. Now I know what a strong fighter she is and how bright, fun, careful and strong she is.
I also know she has two older sisters and a brother whom we hope will be told of her existence.
Maybe my daughter will want to learn Russian so she can talk or meet them at some point. Then again, maybe not. Regardless of how she feels, they are part of our family. And so is her other mother.
12 Years after searching for my daughter’s birth family: 2016
We got lucky with the birth family search. Sarah’s birth mother met with the searcher and shared the story behind the story of Sarah’s birth history, photos and detailed information. Photos of mother, bio father, siblings, and her maternal grandmother who has since died. The jackpot. It doesn’t matter that some of the information was dark and painful. We have worked with it over the years.
I first made Sarah’s lifebook when she was going on two. I included pictures of her first mother and siblings. She has always known she has siblings. Sarah has always known what her biological mother looked like as well.
She resembles none of them. Go figure. I didn’t look like my birth family members either.
We got information that family members were crafty. Sarah is crafty. She made that connection and takes pride in her creativity and artistic ability. This one little piece of information was worth the search.
My daughter mentions the fact that her bio sister did needlework when we walk by a knitting section in a crafts store. It is innocent, feel-good information that most people grow up with. We needed an international detective to get it. Smile.
I held off showing the birth dad photo when she was little. I thought she had a lot on her plate with digesting her Kazakh mom and siblings; bio dad could wait a little. Over time, we added more details to her story. She knew everything by the time she was 9.
In 2014, we traveled to her birth country, Kazakhstan. She was 11 at the time. I really wanted to seek out her birth family and go meet them. The idea of being able to support her through this venture made a lot of sense. Besides, how many times would we be traveling to Kazakhstan? We aren’t wealthy and are getting older by the day.
She struggled with the decision. We waited quietly.
“No. I’m not ready to meet them,” was her final answer.
“OK.” (Hardest OK ever.)
We traveled to her orphanage, reconnecting with several of her original caretakers. Powerful. Private. Enough for now.
We have gone full circle. From toddler to teens.
I am thankful that my adoptee instincts helped our family to just move forward with the search: pushing me past the fear and anxiety of the unknown.
I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this process with you. Plus the gift of time is always fascinating.
Last year, she asked “How did you know?” with respect to some of the facts. I explained we had a report completed by the detective. Did she want to read it? I warned her it contained all the details, and some were not pretty.
She wanted to read it. And did. Another parenting decision.
It is a lifelong process. Her process.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
About the author: Beth is adoptee and adoptive mother. She is also a social worker. Her service, Beth O’Malley’s Lifebooks, works to help families and professionals create adoption life books to help children understand their histories. You can follow her on Pinterest.