Meeting My Birth Mom
by Janis Gaines
For the next eight weeks I’m taking a memoir writing class taught by Sam Uhl of The Cheerful Word, which meets at a cool, vibey coffee house in Hendersonville, NC called Expresso. I’m excited to write some of my life stories finally and also honored to get to know a great group of women. Our first assignment was to write about a major branching point in our life. I chose to write about meeting my birth mom. I’ve hyperlinked to a few of my poems associated with this time period. I’ve already experienced some amazing sychronicities that led me to this point, and I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.
In the summer of 1998, at the age of 28, I made a decision that became a significant branching point in my life. My marriage was coming to an end, and I was trying to make sense of it all. I had a very religious upbringing, and I never thought I would divorce. We had started on the wrong foot, but I had tried very hard for six years to make things work. I had three very young children to think of. My parents were not supportive of the idea of divorce, but ultimately, it was inevitable.
I had been adopted as a baby and had very little information about my birth mom. When I was in 7th or 8th grade and had gone through a bit of an identity crisis, my parents gave me a folder with about two pages of information about her. I held onto this like a lifeline for years and would often daydream about who she was. I knew that she liked English, as I did. I knew her hair was brown and other basic facts about her, her eye color, her height. I would try to read between the lines. I knew she had originally hoped to keep me, but somewhere in her last trimester, she changed her mind.
One other interesting fact that I knew was that she had been divorced. This fact made me want to reach out to her at this time. I thought she would understand what I was going through and perhaps could help me. I had often wanted to reach out to her before, but this was the impetus for me to finally figure out the process, to save the $200 that it would take, to write the letter to the adoption agency with my request to locate my birth mother.
In June, I wrote and sent the letter. I was told that the agency would contact my birth mom, but she would have the right to refuse contact. So all of this was still a gamble, but one I took in faith. I didn’t tell anyone in case nothing came of it. And I had plenty of other things consuming my attention: three young children and a failing marriage and the outlook of a bleak future.
I spent the summer sleeping on the couch and trying to keep things together. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the person I had become — someone very beaten down in life. I felt like such a failure — hopeless, condemned. I thought I was a good person, a good wife and mother, and yet my outer world was falling apart. In October, my husband announced that he had found a place and that he was moving out. It was on this day that I received a letter from my birth mom.
It was on this day that I learned her name: Diane. I learned that she was alive; I learned where she lived: Atlanta. I learned what she would have named me: Jennifer. I learned that she cared enough and had found courage enough to write me back. I felt new hope for the first time in a long time.
We exchanged a few letters. She was not ready to talk on the phone or meet, which was fine with me. But it wasn’t fine with my sisters, lol. Within weeks, they had researched my name and info, and one day, without my birth mom’s knowledge, my sister Lynn called me out of the blue! I don’t remember much about that conversation — only that she was very eager to talk to me. And that felt good. I had a sister. In fact, two sisters and a brother!
Lynn wrote me a letter and included some family pictures. I could tell right away that we looked a lot alike. This meant so much to me. Growing up, I would occasionally look at a random stranger and think, That could be my sister. It was all very surreal — to be losing one significant relationship and yet gaining important new ones. I learned that I was actually the baby of the group and that we all have the same father, which was unusual. Usually it’s the first born child who’s put up for adoption when a young mother is not ready to raise it on her own. I also learned that my birth father had been a very abusive man and involved in high-profile crime. He was in the federal witness protection program and had spent most of his life in prison. He died a year and a half ago. I never met him.
I learned that she had given me away because she loved me. I learned that she, too, had been a struggling single mom with three kids.
Eventually, I told my adopted parents about all this, and they were concerned for me. They didn’t want me to see this as an answer to all my problems. Perhaps they were afraid of the unknown. I rarely included them in any intimate details of my life. While I was always well provided for growing up, I had never really felt loved. I never felt emotionally supported or like I fit in. My adopted mom is not very warm or nurturing by nature. The relationships were not strong to begin with, but they became even more distant with some of my early life choices — first the marriage they didn’t approve of and now divorce.
That Christmas I was in Atlanta for the holidays, and Diane and I had made plans to meet. On my way to meet her, I stopped at the florist to send flowers to my adopted mom. While things were strained, I tried to be faithful to honor her and to show appreciation for the life my parents had given me. I was quite poor at the time, which was a departure from my upper middle-class lifestyle growing up, and I was dressed in the nicest-looking sweats that I owned, which is so embarrassing to me now. I knew how to dress better; I just couldn’t afford to and rarely had a reason to.
We had arranged to meet at Diane’s church, Mt. Paran Church of God. My first impression of her was that she was stunning, with a beautiful smile. I fell in love with her instantly. She had a gift for me — a gold bracelet. We went to eat at Cracker Barrel. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember how I felt. I felt like the ugly duckling who finally realized she was a swan. This is a significant metaphor because I had collected swans growing up as a child, like some girls collect horses or dolls or teddy bears.
A few days later I met my sisters at a local restaurant, and we talked and laughed easily, for hours. I remember my sister Kim saying, “Oh, you’re definitely one of us!” It was great to feel included, to feel like I belonged, to feel like I had so much in common with people I had just met. We had been raised so very differently and yet we were so very much alike. It was fascinating.
When people ask about my “other family,” I say that it’s like having really great in-laws, ’cause you love them like family, but you have no history with them. That’s been seventeen years ago, and now we do have some history. And like any other family — sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s ugly, hehe. Over the years, there has been an awful lot of fun and love, and I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in the world.
© January 22, 2015