In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Bonnie S. Schwartz:
When I told my husband, Loren, of my intent to file registry paperwork with the adoption registry to locate my birth mother, he said, “If you do this, you’ll be opening up a can of worms and there is no going back once you’ve opened that can.” Though I understood where he was coming from, I knew that my negative feelings about being adopted were not going to change until I had some answers.
I was also very aware that I was opening myself up for a potential world of hurt and rejection, but I rationalized to myself that I had already been rejected and endured a lifetime of knowing that I had been given up for adoption. How much more could it hurt? One might ask why would I subject myself to this – Talia was the reason. She was my only daughter and literally the only blood relative I knew at that point in my life.
Earlier in the year, my doctor advised me to go get a mammogram earlier than she otherwise would have because I was an adoptee. As I was going through the mammogram procedure, I realized that I could no longer live in a world of oblivion, because I did not want my daughter to go through what I had to tolerate while growing up i.e. “what is your family history?” which was often a source of frustration for me. I wanted to know my medical history, but I was completely clueless.
I understood the importance of knowing one’s medical history because my dad died of a brain tumor when I was 9 years old. I realized I wanted my daughter to have all the pieces of the puzzle that I never had especially where her health was concerned. I didn’t want her to suffer the consequences of my adoption.
I have always known that I was adopted from the time I was very young because my mom was always open about my adoption and also, it was obvious. My parents, Gloria and Bill, were both dark-haired. My sister, their only biological daughter, was a replica of them, whereas I stood out with my skinny frame and light brown hair, and I was only deaf member of my family. I felt like an outsider on so many different levels and often found myself feeling isolated.
I didn’t know which was worse – to be adopted or to be deaf. I didn’t look like my family, and I talked funny. I didn’t fit in; it all sucked. I loved my family, but I was jealous of them. My mom knew this and always made it clear that if I ever chose to search for my birth mother, she would support me 100%.
Another factor that came into play in my decision to search for my birth mother was a book called When the Girls Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler. I read that book in one sitting and was blown away.
Everything that I had ever thought about birth mothers was annihilated. I now realized that it was very possible that my birth mother could have been one of those mentioned in the book because I was born before Roe v. Wade was made law. Not one of the interviewed birth mothers had wanted to give their baby up, but they had no choice. I had a new perspective that I had never once considered. Was my birth mother one of those women who didn’t want to give up their baby? For the first time in my life, I wanted to know.
With my newfound understanding, I decided to go ahead and submit my registry paperwork. Within two weeks after submitting my paperwork, I was shocked to receive an envelope from the adoption registry. Why did I get a response so soon? Did this mean that this was good news or did it mean that there was no information that could be found?
With shaking hands, I opened the envelope and pulled out the paper. Upon unfolding the paper, the words “there is a match” jumped out at me. It went on to explain that if I wanted to proceed then I’d need to fill out the included forms and have them notarized. I sat on those forms for a week because the thought of opening up this can of worms even further scared me. Did I really want to do that?
I decided not to let this deter me and went ahead with the process. Within weeks, I received a letter from the adoption registry which included my birth mother’s name and her address. I knew that she had been sent my contact information. I went to a very nice stationery store and bought stationery which I hoped would make a good first impression.
I wrote a five-page letter to my birth mother which summed up my life-- no easy feat! At the end of the letter, I added that I was born deaf because I had no way to know if she knew that or not. Was that the reason why I was given up? I debated whether or not to include that tidbit of information, but ultimately decided to put it all out there. I wanted her to have all the information to let her decide if she wanted to meet me or not. I felt like I was applying for a job but not in the literal sense.
Several weeks later, I received my first letter from my birthmother, Monika. It was a very short, typed letter. I got the sense that she was scared of me which was understandable. She and I eventually touched base via email. She sent pictures of herself and my half-sisters. It was so bizarre to see the family resemblance in the pictures. I was in awe. I thought they were all so beautiful and couldn’t believe we shared the same DNA.
I learned that I was the result of a teenage pregnancy and that my birth mother didn’t know I had been born deaf. I also found out that she had registered with the adoption registry shortly after I turned eighteen to make sure she could be found, should I ever seek her. She actually had tried to register prior to that but was told that she was not allowed to register until I turned eighteen. That answered my question – she was like those girls who went away. She didn’t want to give me up but didn’t have much choice.
After two weeks of making initial contact and a flurry of emails where I asked a billion questions, she sent me an email that sent chills up my spine because she introduced a topic that I hadn’t even considered to be a reality – my birth father. After thirty-five years of no contact, she was able to locate him to let him know that I had reached out to her. I was totally blindsided, because I didn’t ask her to locate him. I was petrified. This was beyond anything I had expected. Usually, the birth father is not part of the picture. Was he going to reject me, pretend that I didn’t exist? I would soon find out.
My birth father, David, reached out to me via email. His email was friendly and he included a picture of him with his wife, Thea, and their two sons. I was thrilled to learn that I had two half-brothers. I was, however, flabbergasted to learn what my ancestry was once I got the full run-down from both birth parents.
From Monika, I discovered that I was French, which didn’t surprise me, nor did the German part. What shocked me was learning from my birth father that I was also part Irish and 25% Chinese. Looking in the mirror, I always wondered what my race was but I never in a million years ever thought that Chinese would be part of it because I don’t look Asian at all. When I told my mom about what I had learned, her response pretty much summed it all up “No sh--t!”
My can of worms was now wide open and I loved it. I no longer felt incomplete and finally had answers to the questions that others had been asking me for years, i.e. “what are you?” or “what country did your family come from?” I had something concrete to tell people, and I was surprised to find out that it was a source of pride. It was an odd sensation.
But now new questions arose – what would become of all this? How would we all fit into each other’s lives? Would this initial contact stop here or would it continue on? In short order, I got my answers. Three months after our first contact, we met Monika when she had a layover at the airport. I knew it was her the minute she stepped inside the restaurant where we had arranged to meet. I felt I was looking at me walking through the restaurant and the next thing I knew, she was hugging me, Talia, and Loren. I remember bits and pieces of that night but not all of it. It was like watching a movie – I was there, but at the same time I wasn’t.
As all of this was unfolding, David and Thea decided they would fly out to meet us and spend the weekend. When I found out their intentions, I panicked because I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to understand me due to my deaf accent, or that I wouldn’t be able to understand them. I did not want my deafness to be a barrier between us.
Upon meeting David and Thea, they had warm smiles and gave all of us big hugs. I noticed they took great pains to make sure I understood them, because they knew I read lips, and this really touched me. That entire weekend was quite surreal and possibly the closest I will ever get to having an out of body experience.
A month later, the day before Mother’s Day, my mom and birth mother laid eyes on each other for the first time. They hugged each other as if they were long-lost friends and shared many tears and laughs over the next six hours. I was so relieved, because one of my biggest fears was being put in a position where I’d have to choose sides, but based on how Gloria and Monika were behaving with each other, that didn’t seem to be a worry.
Over the next several years, we formed relationships. We spent time at each other’s homes and got to know each other better. The most surprising relationship that has come out of all this is the relationship between Gloria and Monika. They adore each other and have spent endless hours together chatting away as if they have known each other their entire lives. I am the common bond that ties them together, but their relationship has evolved beyond that. I am so grateful that the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me love each other unconditionally. It is a true testament to motherly love.
There are geographical challenges that keep us from seeing each other regularly, but we all keep in touch and see each other when we can. As I write this, my mom and her husband have plans to spend the night at David and Thea’s home in two weeks. That really makes me happy, because their relationship is blossoming too.
After six years of being in contact with my birth family, I can safely say that opening that can of worms has turned out to be a blessing. My advice to you – don’t let a can of worms scare you.
By Bonnie S. Schwartz
Bonnie is a displaced New Yorker living in Los Angeles. She is mom to an awesome teenager who makes her laugh all the time and to two black and white cats who think they run the house. Bonnie is embarking on her second career into health information technology and loving every bit of it.
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Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. This year’s adoption series is full, but if you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year’s series, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.