In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the third annual acclaimed series, 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.
Unfinding My Birth Family
By Jen Rittenhouse
Meeting my birth family was a disaster that unfolded slowly through my 20s. My birthmother turned out to be a vacuous woman that fell short of the fantasy I spun in my childhood.
It wasn’t her fault she let me down. She was destined to disappoint the moment my parents told me about her.
“The nurses said she was stunningly beautiful,” my mom always said. “What she did was a very brave thing. I’m grateful to her because otherwise we wouldn’t have you.”
During our first meeting, it was clear she was neither brave nor beautiful. That was alright. I had no need for another mother. Curiosity alone had inspired my search. Naiveté prevented me from having any forethought.
“Once you open that door, you can’t close it,” a fellow adoptee had once said on that matter. He was absolutely right.
Every interaction with my birth mother became more uncomfortable than the last. We went through a phase where she’d call me at 4:00 a.m. on her way to work. When she made her foray to Facebook “Jen Rittenhouse” was her status update three times in two weeks. The last straw came shortly after my wedding. She contacted me obsessively in the weeks and days leading up to the event. She wanted me to book her hotel for her; I needed to print a map for her; she wanted to know if she would be in family photographs . . . and then she didn’t even show up.
At that point, it had been seven years since I found her, and I was through with the disappointments and drama. My birth mother was easy to dismiss. But there was someone else who wasn’t.
My birth sister.
While I always remained reserved with my birth mother, I threw myself headfirst into a relationship with my birth sister. I was twenty-two, and she was twenty-four when we first met. After sipping wine in Sonoma for a few days, I hopped a plane to Los Angeles to meet her. I called my dad from the airport as I boarded the plane. The anxiety was killing me.
“I just want her to like me,” I told him. “All I’ve ever wanted was a sister. I can’t wait to look at her face and touch her skin.”
She picked me up at the curb. She offered a hasty hug, threw my luggage in the trunk and scurried to the driver’s side of her Toyota Avalon. I followed, adjusting my scarf and pulling at my hair to make sure the curls were in place.
“Jen, you are not going to believe what I went through today…” she started.
She spent the day in jail. I never understood why, but our first stop on our first meeting was a bail bondsman office outside of LA.
After squaring up with the bondsmen, she sped back to the Interstate. She lied to her friends waiting for us at a bar about the reasons for our tardiness -- she said my plane had a fuel leak. I explained that we were in luck: my father was a pilot, and I could play along marvelously. She looked at me blankly and asked me to open the center console and hand her the plastic bag of weed.
I went to a liberal arts college. Marijuana was no stranger to me. However, the dozen or so times I had smoked usually involved taking a toke or two, waxing philosophical about ideas I didn’t fully understand (i.e., global warming, racial inequity, the celebrity of Anna Nicole Smith) and eating a Pop Tart. What she had in store for me was different.
“Have you ever rolled a blunt?” she asked me.
“No,” I answered. “But I did buy a pre-rolled joint once in Spain.”
I was failing miserably at my attempts to bond. Birth sister shook her head and asked me to hand her the Latina magazine from the backseat.
There we were on the LA freeway. It was 10 o clock and we were driving 70 miles per hour in heavy traffic. My birth sister commandeered the steering wheel with her knee; her acrylic nails firing on all cylinders. With the magazine in her lap, she sliced a cigar and emptied its contents on Eva Longoria’s face. She proceeded to break up the clumps of pot and reposition them in the cigar wrapper.
I didn’t know where to look. Cars weaved in and out of lanes from all directions. Next to me my birth sister glanced from her lap to the road in three second intervals as she worked through the blunt crafting process.
We smoked. It softened her edge and put me in a foggy haze.
The rest of the trip was a blur. For five years, I called her every few days to check in, always trying to convince her to come for a visit. She was always too busy; working under the table at the beauty supply store on the weekends had its demands. Every few months, she had a new boyfriend. They were almost always drug dealers. She lived at home with her aunt. Her life was in slow spiral downward if it was going anywhere at all. One DUI. Then another. And another. After five years, it became painfully obvious.
My birth sister didn’t really want a relationship with me.
The night before my twenty-eighth birthday we had a falling out on text message and haven’t spoken since.
“im cool on u jen. ill nver 4get this and nver talk to u agan. hv a gr8 life”
I felt complete relief. I had grown to have the same pity and loathing for my birth sister as I did for my birth mother.
For everything that passed between us, my mind usually always wanders to our first meeting. I learned everything I needed to know in one hour. Ours were two different worlds that were never meant to overlap.
With every interaction I had with my birth mother and sister, the fabric of my being wrinkled in discomfort. Who they were wasn’t encoded in my DNA. It sent my moral compass in a tailspin. Birth family or not, we were strangers. Knowing each other was always just out of reach. And there just wasn’t a place for us in each other’s lives. People say blood is thicker than water. I learned that it isn’t.
Life moves forward. Last I heard, my birth sister was serving time in a women’s correctional facility for driving drunk on a suspended license. She broke her collar bone and totaled her aunt’s car. I imagine it to be her own brand of a blaze of glory. And I wonder if her dragonfly roach clip survived the crash.
Jen Rittenhouse works as a copywriter from Puyallup, Washington. In her free time she blends motherhood, running, thrift store shopping and wine sipping. She also co-created and manages the secondhand resale community Swap Meet Mama and writes for her blog, F Bomby Mommy. In the next year, she and her husband plan to make their next family move: adoption.
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