You Don’t Know Our Mother

The story of a forced adoption and the effects that last a lifetime.

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

You were adopted into a loving home from what we know. I’m happy for you.

Our mother was just 17 when she became pregnant with you in 1961. Her parents sent her away from the small town where they lived to the big city, far away from small town gossip. She felt banished, alone, and frightened.

Throughout her pregnancy, she stayed in a “home for unwed mothers” run by the Presbyterian church. The sisters were often cruel.

Her father threatened her boyfriend, your birth father, who left town immediately. She considered your birth father cowardly for leaving her and never forgave him. And yet, somehow, she forgave her father.

I know none of this was your choice. You had no say in any of it. Until you did.

Well into adulthood, you signed a paper that stated you did not want to be found by your birth parents. That signed piece of paper, the Disclosure Veto, locked our mother out of your life. And by extension, locked me out too.

You may find it interesting to know the day our mother filed the paperwork to find you was the exact day your Disclosure Veto landed on the same social worker's desk. Make of that what you will.

I’ll tell you what I made of it. To me, it signalled you were happy with your life as it was, thank you very much. It affirmed to me you loved your adoptive parents and did not want anyone to interrupt the life you shared with them. I’m happy for you.

I’m sure you would rather not know how it broke our mother's heart. Again. For the second time since you were born in January 1962, you were taken from her. This time for good.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. How were you to know that she finally allowed herself to drop the shame and had begun a strenuous search to find you? It makes me wonder though, is there something to a mother and child’s invisible connection that had you both pondering each other? At the same time.

You were a secret that she did not share with me until I was a young adult. And when she spoke of your birth, it was always from the point of view that they stole you away from her. She had no ability, no strength or maturity to go against her parents' orders. And so, in her mind, the powers that be took you from her without consent.

Legally she did consent, of course, but emotionally she did not.

She remembers seeing that you had a thick shock of black hair when you were born. She managed a peek at you before they wrapped you up and whisked you out of the room. No bonding allowed.

One nurse, unwilling to play by the rules, brought you into her room and sat by the door feeding you a bottle while our mother's breasts leaked and ached from her longing for you. She recalls the nurse staring at her with contempt.

If you knew our mother like I do, you would wonder if that were true. Had she misread the look? Was that nurse naively hoping for a change of mind? We’ll never know.

Family and Child Services shared scant, guarded clues about you and your adoptive family. Obscure little details designed to quench at least some of her thirst to know you, but not enough to lead her to your doorstep. And that’s the way it should be, I suppose. You don’t want to be found and she must swallow that truth too.

She named you David. Did you know that? I wonder if they kept your birth name or went with another?

You stayed alone in the hospital for 12 days. 12 days alone!? Our mother wrote that in the margin of the 4 1/2 page report they mailed to her after months and months of applications and research.

The report told her that your black hair was turning blonde by the time you were 4 months old, and that you had pale-blue eyes. It told her you stood by yourself and walked by hanging onto furniture at 9 months, by which time your hair was very blonde and that you’d had it cut twice already. Also, none of your teeth had appeared yet.

By 11 months you played happily, and although you had a bit of a temper, you were usually cheerful. You had a happy, easy-going personality, with just a trace of stubbornness. It said, at 13 months old you were a healthy and well-developed child, advanced for your age with a lively, friendly, cheerful disposition. You delighted your adoptive parents.

“A bit of a temper…a trace of stubbornness.” When I read those lines I smiled, I knew the child they were reporting on was my mothers.

Your portion of the report ended there. Meager and carefully measured clues to what you looked like and your temperament up to only 13 months old. That was it. That was the only information ever given about you, David. Can I call you David?

The report offered some other hints of what your upbringing might have been like. It shared, for example, that your adoptive parents married the year that our mother was born. They were a mature couple and would have been closer in age to our maternal grandparents. They were an ideal match in personalities with each other, according to the report. They had many interests in common; they enjoyed hunting and fishing trips together, and weekend trips to lakes for boating and water sports with their friends. They both were excellent swimmers.

The report described your childhood home in strange detail. We know, for example, that your home had gas heat but also a fireplace in the living room which was used frequently in the winter months, giving a warm, homey atmosphere. Their words, not mine.

The report finishes by stating that an adoptive sister was born in 1964, just a year after I was born. I’m happy that you had a sibling. If I could not be your sister, I’m glad to know you weren’t alone.

It won’t matter to you, I’m sure, but in case you were curious, our mother had another son, 11 years after your birth. His birth was the only one planned for.

Are your parents still alive? They’d be 95 and 98 years old today. If they’ve passed, I wonder, do you ever allow yourself to think about your birth mother? Do you regret not knowing the story of your beginning?

Unless you’ve passed on yourself, you will be 60 years old soon. 60 years of lived history that we know nothing of, 60 years of our history not shared with you.

The day the social worker called to tell our mother about your Disclosure Veto, she told her, although she could not give her any details about you, she said, “You don’t need to worry about him. He’s doing very well. He’s a professional.”

A professional. A professional what? Doctor? Lawyer? Football player? Gambler? Teacher? Actor? So many possibilities.

I have to confess, sometimes I think to myself, boy, did you ever dodge a bullet. The thought floats in when I’m having a tough time with our mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease now. It lands only occasionally when I wish there was someone else to carry the burden. But perhaps you’ve had the same or similar burden of care for your adoptive parents.

Yes, Alzheimer’s disease runs in our family. Our mother’s mother died from it. I tell you this because if you were to change your mind and decide you’d like to meet our mother, or even just hear her tell her story, that window of opportunity is slowly but surely closing.

Today she knows about the baby she named David and had to put up for adoption. She can still tell that story, but not for much longer.

You don’t know our mother. You can’t know any of the hardships she’s endured during her lifetime, or that the pain of losing you will always be at the top of her list.

You don’t know our mother. But what may be worse, she doesn’t know you.

I read, I write, I learn. I’m forever dedicated to my curiosity. Blog: Twitter: @BonnieJohnson

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