This Is Our Relationship And We Get To Define It

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth 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.  

By Michelle Pellegri

Introductions are always the most difficult. Although I cannot speak on his behalf, my son’s discomfort is palpable when deciding whether or not the situation is appropriate to introduce me in social situations. Because he isn’t comfortable either addressing me by my first name or calling me his mother.

As unsettling as it is for me, I certainly can’t fault him for him for flinching, because I am not the mother that raised him. Other than the fifteen minutes we spent in the same room on the day he was born, we actually just began our unique mother-son relationship three years ago, when he was 23 and I was 39. I love that we have such a striking resemblance, but it makes me a bit queasy when people mistake us for brother and sister, instead of mother and child.

There is never a natural segue to explain our relationship. There is no way to prepare people for the uncomfortable truth: in 1989, I was 16 years old when my precious son was born. When I discovered I was pregnant, my mother and boyfriend pleaded with me to terminate, “it’ll be so much easier to do this now,” but the thought of extinguishing this promise of a life was utterly revolting to me. Every fiber of my being protested. My pregnancy was unintended, I did not hope to get pregnant, nor did I want to be pregnant, yet pregnant I was, and the rewind option of getting unpregnant still doesn’t exist.

Let me be clear that continuing my pregnancy was the right choice for me, and I have no regrets, nor have I ever wished that I had terminated my pregnancy. My story is not a glorification of adoption or a condemnation of women who have made different choices.

My story is just that – mine and mine alone. I was a cocksure, immortal teenager in a six- month relationship and absolutely convinced that I couldn’t possibly get pregnant. Surely, I was superior to those other girls who were careless enough to allow themselves to get knocked up. What were the odds?

As it turns out, I should have paid closer attention in health class and I quickly learned that fertility was something I would never struggle with.

The Cliff Notes version: raising my son wasn’t ever really an option. I knew well enough that my mother was struggling to raise me and my siblings, and adding a new baby would sink our already listing ship. I had no options, no support, no resources and no extended family to assist in any way.

Adoption wasn’t really a choice, but rather the outcome of the process of elimination. In 1989, adoptions were completely closed.  Other than having brown eyes and a dimple, I knew absolutely nothing about my son or his adoptive family. They were told my age, that my son’s biological father chose not to be involved, and that my family was Italian. That was the 1989-2012 chapter of my life.

Fast forward to 2015: I am now a forty-two year old, suburban mother of two or three. Introductions present a particular type of awkwardness for me. The number of children I’ll divulge depends on how well I know you and if I feel you are worthy of the time and emotional investment it will take to share my reality. I love each of my three sons for their quirks, for their uniqueness, for the mere fact that they exist and because as a mother, it is what I am hard-wired to do – love my children.

I’ve been married for 12 years. I’m active in my community, my kids’ school, and my neighborhood.  I am the first member of my family to attend and graduate from college. My two youngest sons, ages 10 and 6, do not yet realize the privileged bubble in which they reside. They get to participate in gymnastics, tennis, swim team, science club, basketball, soccer, art classes, Harry Potter summer camp, and piano lessons, which my 10-year-old now views as a punishment. We are fortunate to be able to dine out and vacation regularly.

My family leads an extremely charmed existence. I want to give my sons every possible opportunity and advantage that my husband and I are able to provide. I want them to have the kind of childhood that I dreamed of having, but didn’t.

I was a child of divorce and dysfunction.  I hope to somehow instill in my kids the value of hard work and sacrifice and the sense of accomplishment that it brings, but they will never have to save their babysitting money to buy their own school clothes, chip in to help pay the rent, or  choose between a car payment and college textbooks. They’ll never have to forgo medical care and then proceed to the emergency room as a last resort, and they’ll never have to experience a utility getting cut off because there just wasn’t enough money.

I cry during piano recitals, swim meets, soccer games, and Christmas plays, because although they don’t realize it, my kids are able to revel in their childhood in a way I never could. I do not take this for granted.

My oldest son describes his childhood as idyllic, and I am genuinely happy and relieved to finally know this. My tears are also for him because although I am simultaneously happy to finally have this knowledge, I’m grieving all that has been lost and the fact that the closed adoption norms of the time required that we be completed walled off from one another, that his success and happiness could only be achieved  in my absence.

Introductions are difficult for me, because I am no longer that vulnerable, panicked, and ashamed 16-year-old pregnant teenager. How do I reconcile the 1989 and 2015 versions of myself? For you who have only known the 2015 version of me, I’m fearful that you will now shun me, pity me, or be hostile towards me once I’ve shared the bittersweet news  of my oldest son with you.

I want you to know that having my son in my life is gloriously sweet. Actually, it’s better than anything I could have dreamt up. I finally know after all these years that he’s been part of a truly good and loving adoptive family. He did receive all that I had hoped for over years. He’s now married and I have a daughter-in-law, which makes me giggle every time I introduce her – I’m glad she appreciates my humor. They recently purchased their first home and he just received his doctorate of pharmacy. How many mothers get to say, “my son, the doctor”? He’s embraced his two younger brothers and they’ve embraced him.  It is a truly sweet outcome.

Introductions are bittersweet because I fear that as soon as I share my joy with people unfamiliar to our situation, as soon as I introduce my son  and become brave enough to share details of our complex relationship, that awful phrase -- Birth Mother --  creeps in and overshadows everything else I say.

It is a phrase I abhor because it reduces me to something very small and insignificant. It is an identifier that I’m ashamed of and fear that will become the only lens through which I’ll be viewed going forward. Birth Mother makes me feel like a breeder, a vessel, a means to an end, the uterus in which my son once inhabited. “His Birth Mother was just a teenager.” When you hear it stated this way, it gives you permission to dismiss me and my relationship to my son. You no longer have to extend compassion and empathy and it’s usually where the disdain and hostility creep in.

This is where the bitter has overwhelmed me many times during our three- year reunion. It has been pointed out to me that I wasn’t the one who changed all of those diapers, cared for him while he was sick, took him to games, helped with homework, or did any of the heavy lifting involved in raising my son.

My second child was born when I was thirty-two – exactly sixteen years after my first son. As the parent of two young boys, I am well aware of amount of work it takes to raise children. It is joyful, inspiring, frustrating, and exhausting. My son’s adoptive parents did all of the heavy lifting.  They did and continue to do a beautiful job.

I know that my son learned in infancy to identify his adoptive mother  -- not me -- as Mom. For me, this is the crux of the bittersweet - very bitter because Mom is not me, but in my heart of hearts, I know that for him it is sweet, because he, along with every other human on earth, deserves a primary care giver, a mom.

I didn’t relinquish my son because of a lack of love or because I couldn’t be bothered with a raising a baby, but because when I realized that there was absolutely no one on my side willing to help us, I was terrified that would doom him from the start. Unless you’ve lived this reality, you can’t possibly comprehend.

Over the years, other women have said to me that they could never give up their child, that there is no way they would ever go through with relinquishment. That they would find a way. I assure you that I am and have always been a very resourceful woman. In the pre-Internet days of 1989, if there was a way, I would have found it. The cliché holds true that if you’ve never walked a mile in my shoes, you can’t possibly comprehend my circumstances or the decisions I felt forced to make.

Recently while on a long car trip, I listened to Chimanda Adichie’s awe-inspiring TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Although she wasn’t discussing adoption at all and her lecture could be applied to numerous situations, I felt as though she was speaking directly to me, and she somehow perfectly articulated my feelings regarding birth motherhood and adoption.

My favorite quote from her lecture is this: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Every adoption situation is unique.  Please don’t reference Glee, Juno, Losing Isaiah, orphans, Moses in the basket, or babies thrown into dumpsters in reference to me and my son. Or to any other mother and son. These tropes and stereotypes do not apply.

My son and I have discussed adoption terminology and how we want to tackle unpredictable introduction scenarios. We have a safe circle of friends and family who understand, support, and celebrate our adoption reunion relationship without making us feel, for lack of a better word, weird.

Adding people to the safe circle is downright awkward. I wish I had a friend button that would automatically include everyone I know into our safe circle. I would like to invite you in, but you have to understand that unless you are a resident of the adoption twilight zone -- residency is strictly limited to adoptees, birth/first parents, and adoptive parents -- it will be nearly impossible to comprehend the relationships that we navigate and the complex lifelong emotional ramifications that adoption, separation, and subsequent reunion present.

We wouldn’t dare deny, erase, or diminish a woman’s motherhood because she lost her child through a miscarriage, a stillbirth, death, or abduction. We naturally extend compassion and empathy in these situations. We give mothers room to grieve and we support them in their loss.

Please extend this same understanding to adoption as well. I became a mother at 16, but no one fully acknowledged my motherhood or grief because I was just a teenaged Birth Mother, not worthy of the respect accorded to a married or older mother.

Adoption doesn’t include an off button for the emotional and hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and after birth. I was wired to care for my son and he was wired for me. I know you mean well when you use words such as courageous and selfless when discussing adoption. But I wasn’t feeling any of those things. I was wonderstruck at the sight of this 9lb 3oz perfect baby boy that I just gave birth to. I was high on the afterbirth hormone rush that many women experience post-delivery. I wanted to shout out to the world that I just delivered a beautiful boy. Yes, even 16-year-old mothers experience this.

My high crashed the next morning when my son was gone.  I spent that morning sobbing. I’ve never cried like that before or since. I didn’t know then that I would have to wait 23 years to lay eyes on my son, to learn what his name was changed to, where he was raised and to hug him for the first time.

What I would like to ask of you when I introduce my son, is to accept what I’m telling you. Please don’t deny the sweetness, the joy of our story and please don’t diminish me by dismissing the bitterness that goes hand in hand. He is my son and I am his mother. Don’t add a qualifier to the word mother merely because that is what is more comfortable for you or that is all you know of adoption. This is our story and our relationship and we get to define it. Please respect that.

He has two mothers; myself and the mother that raised him. He will always have two mothers and two immediate families and sometimes we all come together because we all love and claim this young man as our own.

He is not required to choose. Like it or not, he binds us all together. I know that this outcome, our relationship, makes many people uncomfortable, but this is our family and we somehow make it work. This isn’t always the case; there is a full spectrum of abusive or dangerous first and adoptive families that a child can be a part of.

But an adoption’s success should not be based on the denial of a child’s family of origin, or the ability to shoo the birth mother away. I’ve read many adoption websites attempting to quell the fears of adoptive parents’ chief concern: “What if a birth mother comes back to reclaim her child?” The corollary might be profoundly worse, however, for all parties: “What if a birth mother utterly rejected her child?”

Please accept when I tell you that I love my son and always have. My love for him is no different than the love I have for my two youngest sons. Although he didn’t know it until recently, my oldest has been my family for far longer than my husband or our two younger sons. Throughout those years of not knowing, I always carried him with me. Just knowing he was walking this earth pushed me to be a better person. I prayed for him daily and never gave up my hopes of somehow knowing him again. Our reality has exceeded my expectations.

Michelle is a married, 42 year-old mother of 3 sons, ages 26, 10, and 6. She relinquished her oldest son for adoption in 1989, when she was 16. His adoption was closed. In 2012, she was able to reconnect with her son and they have spent the last three years building a relationship. It hasn't been easy, but Michelle is so grateful to know him and to have him in her life. 

Michelle's son also wrote an essay for this series. Read it here.

Justin Michelle P 2

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by award-winning author Carrie GoldmanFollow Carrie's work on Twitter and Facebook

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