This excellent article by writer Elizabeth Salaam, All I Want Is My Birth Story, was published on January 26, 2011 in the San Diego Reader. In it, Salaam tells how she was adopted at four months by a family in Boise Idaho, and for most of her life, her story started then.
For a long time, I was content with the official “Gotcha Day” story of how my parents drove eight hours from Boise to Moscow, Idaho, in 20-below-zero weather to pick up their new little baby. I always loved the part about how I was wailing and howling in the social worker’s arms, how my mom said, “Give me that baby!” and how, once I’d been handed over, I immediately stopped crying. This sweet story made me special. Gotcha Day was like a second birthday, which neither of my two brothers had.
As she got older, though, Salaam wondered who she was before her adoptive mother said “Give me that baby!” At 22, she started a search for her birth parents, helped by “a careless judge who oversaw the finalization” of her adoption and let slip the name of her birth mother. Salaam paid a flat $35 fee to a non-profit organization called Search-Finders of Idaho, and on her 23rd birthday received the names and phone numbers of her birth parents.
The article goes on to describe Salaam’s first conversation with her birth mother (whom Salaam calls “T”), their first meeting, and some of the outcomes of that meeting. Here she describes their first phone call:
I don’t remember if T cried right then. But I do remember her crying when she told me how alone she felt during her pregnancy. She found out she was pregnant when she left Atlanta to start college in Idaho. No one in her family knew, and she didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening to her. There was, she said, one graduate student who lived in her apartment complex, and he would check in on her every now and again to see if she needed anything from the store.
In the end, she walked to the hospital. She didn’t know she was in labor. All she knew was she was in pain. The graduate student came looking for her and stayed until I was born. She bit his hand during a particularly painful contraction.
That was all. She never held me. And to this day, no one in her family knows.
Within a year of our first conversation, I went to visit her in Tucson. She introduced me to her eight-year-old daughter as “Mommy’s friend.” We had dinner together. It was surreal. After so many years of wondering who she was and what she looked like and what it would be like to sit next to her, the reality didn’t feel…real. It was mind-boggling to feel such an affinity for someone I’d never met before. I felt the same way about my little sister.
We haven’t seen each other since.
Over the past 14 years, I’ve gone back and forth between anger and acceptance of my status as Big Secret in her life. Seven or 8 years ago, I asked why she couldn’t at least tell her daughter that she has a big sister. T said she feared that I’d disappear from their lives and that her daughter’s feelings would be hurt. I understood and accepted that answer, knowing I was too broke to travel back and forth between New York (where I lived at the time) and Tucson to play the role of big sister.
Salaam juxtaposes her relationship with her birth mother with that of a family involved in an open adoption. She wonders why her own birth mother chooses to keep Salaam a secret from the rest of her family. She poses the question to T via email. T responds:
“You incorrectly assume that I don’t want to talk and that you are a big secret,” T wrote. “My concerns are your expectations and motivations. Obviously, I am not living up to your expectations, so why do you think anyone else would?
“What are your expectations and what exactly do you want from us? Do you just want to meet all of my relatives? What if nobody else is interested because they have their own lives? I think the real problem is how one can expect to maintain a long-distance relationship with someone that you don’t know, may never see again, and have no history.
“I would love it if we lived closer together and we could visit and do things together and make a relationship. I guess I just don’t know how long distance relationships work or if this is even what you want.”
Salaam calls on her professional skills as a writer and seeks more information. She asks T how T felt when Salaam contacted her, whether it was a relief or disruption. How does T feel about Salaam now?
“When I first heard from you,” T wrote, “it was an unbelievably huge relief. Every day of my life up to that point, I would lay awake at night worrying about you. I could not sleep wondering where you were, if you were ok. I would lay awake thinking about how to find you so I could just check to see if you were okay. My mind was haunted by you.
“The day I heard from you, the haunting completely stopped. It was like a switch turned off in my brain. I felt great relief to know that you were ok and had a good mom and family. It was a bonus to know that you turned out so good. You were very kind, articulate, and thoughtful.”
The reason I love this article is because it shows there are no simple answers in adoption. Even when answers are available, they might not be the answers one is seeking. In the years I’ve been an adoptive mother, I’ve come to believe that adoption is the most complicated relationship faced by a human being. Much of a child’s energy is consumed by wondering about his biological roots. Much of a birth mother’s energy is consumed by worrying about the child she relinquished. That is why, I believe, it is vital for adoption records to be open and accessible. I also believe that adoptive parents should be open-minded when it comes to their child’s natural need to search.
In our family, involved in two international adoptions, we have done everything in our power to search for and develop relationships with our children’s birth families. Has that provoked questions and worries in our children and their birth families? On some level, yes it has. But on balance, I believe that the more information a child has about his life, the more solid he will feel at his core.
The title of Elizabeth Salaam’s article states: “All I Want Is My Birth Story.” The truth is, we adoptive parents cannot always provide that for our children, no matter how strong our desire. But if we can, shouldn’t we at least try?