Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Anne Heffron
If I could go back in time, if I could be child me with the brain I have now, I’d lock my mother in a room with me and make her do collage. I’d have to lock the door because as soon as I’d say the words adoption and birth mother, my mother would have headed for any other room but the room me and my mouth were occupying.
Child me quickly learned that to keep my mother from crying or getting upset or painfully quiet to never, ever talk about my birth mother. “You are my child, mine,” my mother once wept as a story came on the news about an adoption being contested by the birth parents.
I understood that my mother and I were stitched together, and that if anyone tried to take me from her, she would die. Years later, I dropped out of college a number of times, unable to separate myself from her. It turned out she wasn’t the one who was going to rip open if we were separated.
And then she died.
I am still recovering.
Since my mother died, I have written about being adopted. I have had therapy with adoption-competent therapists. I have made friends with adopted people. I have woken up to the fact that adoption is traumatic.
Five years after my mother died, a year and a half after I wrote You Don’t Look Adopted, the clouds of grief are finally parting and I have deeper level of joy in my life than I have ever had, but, holy cow, did it take a lot of work to get to this place.
More than anything, I wish my mother were alive so we could hold each other and cry about the fact that she is not my “real” mom. Because she sure feels real, but the world thinks that since I am adopted, my parents are not my “real” parents, and in this way the world has pulled the ground from under my feet ever since I was a child.
I am a lot mouthier now than when I was busy being a good girl. My job growing up was to make sure my mother was okay. Now, mouthy me would sit my mother down at the kitchen table, hand her the phone, and tell her to call a friend or a therapist and that, because I was a little kid, I was going outside to play.
The new mouthy me would tell her that when I was done playing, we were going to do a project. I would tell her that she could smoke while we did it. I would want her to feel as relaxed and as much herself as possible and the cigarettes would help, the slow inhale and exhale, the gaze out into space.
I would gather some construction paper, some magazines and get two pairs of scissors. I would spread everything out on the kitchen table and then I would call her into the kitchen and swiftly lock the doors. I would tell my mother to sit down. I would get her an ashtray and a glass of water. I would tell her that I wouldn’t complain about the smoke. I’d tell her this was going to be fun.
My mother would look at me skeptically. Doing this with me was not on her list for the day. She would stand there until I pulled her into the chair.
This is what the project would be. We’d cut out figures that represented us, maybe they’d just be squares. The shape wouldn’t be important. What would be important is the pictures we’d cut out of the magazines and paste onto our collages. The first collage would be who I thought I was and who she thought I was.
After we’d covered the paper, we’d talk about the images we chose and why. We’d be completely honest and fearless. I’d have a picture of a princess on mine and she’d probably have a picture of a someone who looked a lot like her on hers. We’d tell each other who we thought I was. And then I’d tape my collage over hers. That way, we’d both know what she thought, we’d both know who she hoped I was, but we’d both see that in the end what mattered was what I thought, who I wanted myself to be.
And then we’d do collages for her. I’d cut out pictures that would show her how beautiful she was, how unfulfilled, how angry. She’d probably cut out pictures of flowers and trophies and then we’d go through the same process we went through in the above paragraph. And this time I’d still paste my picture on top of hers.
We’d tape hers over mine because at the end of the day we are the masters of our universe even though I think I knew her better than she knew herself and she thought the same way about me.
I don’t know if anyone loved my mom more than I did. I had fantasies as a young person that she would leave my father and my brothers and find a place just for the two of us to live, somewhere quiet and filled with books.
I felt I saw her potential in ways that no one else, even she, did. I saw that she was meant to be a famous writer. I saw that she was meant to sequester herself in her office and write her heart out on the page. The fact that she finally started to do this when she was in her 60’s felt like a miracle. The fact that she died before her book was published and praised on the cover of The New York Times Book Review felt like a warning: don’t let this happen to you. Chase your dream now.
I am writing about the person who couldn’t bear to talk about my birth mother with me because she, my mom (I will not say adopted mom—let me have one thing that’s mine) was afraid she would lose me. There is no way my mother could have lost me. I was hers from day one. She just didn’t believe it deep, deep in the marrow of her bones, and so, then, neither did I.
Five years after she died, I am finally stepping into my own skin. If I had done a collage of me when I was young, it would be the same person I am now: there would be a photo of the sky, of mountains, of the open road, of horses, of someone running, of sequins, of messy hair, of hippies walking through long grass, of delicious food, of torn jeans, of a man and a woman kissing, of someone fishing, of someone writing. The word fuck. The word love. There would be a picture of a little girl.
If I’d been allowed to do that collage with my mother when I was young, if I’d been allowed to show her who I was and if I’d been allowed to tape that picture over the collage she’d made of me, I don’t think I would have dropped out of college three times. I don’t think I would have had an eating disorder. I don’t think I would have moved 52 times or had 37 jobs. I don’t think I’d have divorced twice.
Why? I would have known who I was and what I liked. I would have had permission to listen to my gut. I would have had a vision. A vision of what it is like to own my own body. My own life. I would have found a way to make fragments and create a fully realized self out of the pieces.
I love you, Mom.
I’m glad you adopted me.
Adoption tore me apart, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my own daughter so much, and I had to have this life to get her, to get you.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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