A few days after my firstborn son graced us with his presence, I sat in my living room cradling him while he slept. I was chatting with my parents, who had traveled from South Africa to herald the arrival of their first grandchild. I looked down at my sleeping baby and my heart filled with so much love that I thought I was going to burst. Softly, I said, “Giving away a baby must be the hardest decision in the world for a mom.”
As I uttered those words, I was thinking of the circumstances of my own birth.
Having a baby out of wedlock was considered to be a social disgrace 42 years ago – so much so that when my birth mother became pregnant, she left town in order to avoid telling her parents. Sometimes I try to put myself in the shoes of this woman who was young and frightened, living in a strange city far away from everyone she knew, and trying to decide on the fate of her unborn child. I just cannot imagine how overwhelming and heartbreaking it must have been. Especially the part where she handed over her baby girl to a pair of complete strangers.
Adoption in those days was shrouded in secrecy. By law, adoptive parents and birth parents were not allowed to have any contact with each other. Their identities were kept from each other, and no background information was shared. It was a vastly different landscape than today, where birth mothers get to choose the prospective parents before the baby is even born and often play a very involved role in the raising of the child.
When my mom and dad adopted my brother and I, they went into the whole parenting thing more or less blind. They had no idea where their kids had come from, they knew nothing about medical histories or genetic predispositions, and they had to try and settle into new parenthood with social workers breathing down their necks. They waited out the first six months with both of us – the time during which birth parents could ask for their babies back – in a state of permanent anxiety.
As secretive as adoption was back then, it was always a subject completely open for discussion in my family. I do not remember a time when I did not know that I was adopted. My brother and I never asked a question about it that went unanswered, and there was no taboo placed upon the fact of our adoption. Right from the get-go, we were free to discuss our adoption with whomever we liked, in any way we chose.
Our status as adopted kids even seeped into our sibling rivalry fights. My brother used to tell me that he had come from a family of noblemen and princesses (he hadn’t) while my birth father was a tattooed gangster who had escaped from a mental hospital (he wasn’t). And when we told our mom, with the bluntness of young children who are mad at their parents, that our “real mothers” were prettier than her, she didn’t even bat an eyelid.
When my brother and I decided, at some point in our twenties, to seek out our respective birth mothers, our parents were fully supportive. They did not feel threatened, as some people feared they might. They realized that to my brother and I, they were Mom and Dad, and nothing in the world was going to change that.
Meeting my birth mother for the first time was emotional and overwhelming. It felt surreal, coming face to face with this woman who, so many years previously, had made a brave and heartbreaking decision. Several days after meeting her, I met my birth father, to whom I bear an uncanny physical resemblance. Both of them became friends not only to me, but to my family. One year I went to visit my birth mother and her husband in their home on the Greek islands. When my dad died, my birth father was at his funeral. I got to meet some half-siblings and a grandmother.
I count myself very fortunate. Adoption forty years ago was a roll of the dice – I could have ended up with any family, in any circumstances. The family I got were stable and loving. My parents were not without their faults, of course, but the good far outweighed the bad. I have often said that if I am half as good a mother as my mom has been to me, then my two boys are doing OK.
And my birth parents? Well, I regard them as dear beloved friends, to whom I just happen to have a biological connection.
Were you raised by someone other than your biological parents? Do you think full disclosure in adoptions is a good or a bad thing?
This is an original post for World Moms Blog by Kirsten Doyle of Toronto, Canada. Kirsten can also be found on her blog, Running for Autism, or on Twitter @Running4autism. You can also connect with her on Facebook.
Photo credit to the author.