Ten years ago, I thought some very different things about my life. I was new-ish to my career, living far away from anyone I knew well, and with free time on my hands for the first time in years (there is no real free time in grad school), I was a little lonely. I found this cool thing at a stationary store — it was a journal with a bunch of mailing envelopes so that you could trade it back and forth with someone. The book itself was pretty and looked like it would be nice to write in, and I liked the graphic design. I bought it for my mother as a gift — birthday or Mother’s Day or something, I don’t know. We talked by phone regularly, but she didn’t really do e-mail, and I’ve always liked writing. I sent the whole thing off to her and she thought it was lovely.
She wrote me. It was a quotidian note about sitting by the fire with her dogs, and how cozy it was, and how she liked the idea of this little book that we could fill up and have to remember. She mailed it off to me. I kept it a month or two and wrote a long philosophical treatise about what I thought life would be, and how it was different than I’d expected, and how my faith in the afterlife of her religion just didn’t seem right anymore. It’s not something I’d write today, really, and definitely not to my mother, as we generally discuss the weather, what we’ve done this week, things we’re cooking, and one of the two or three television shows she’s declared “not awful.”
But I now am reminded of this treatise because my mother recently rediscovered this journal, wrote in it, and sent it back.
I poured out my deepest thoughts and feelings on life and adulthood, and it sat for 10 years in my mother’s desk before she responded. The response tells me why my ideas on religion are wrong, and then asks me to please send her a cookbook I promised to send a while ago. It was likely spring that I said I’d mail the cookbook, but somehow, the irony of her asking me to send something back to her, in a notebook she took 10 years to respond to, is utterly lost. It’s lost on her as she wouldn’t get it, and it’s lost on me because I’m just hurt.
Ten years ago, I thought it was not only safe, but desirable to try to work out what life meant and how it should be lived by talking to my mother. I shared thoughts that, upon re-reading, make my eyes widen in shock, as my mother and I do not discuss these things. We have the most superficial relationship at this point, though it is backed by love. She would say it is also backed by support and understanding, but this is because she doesn’t hear me when I talk at all anymore. I’m not sure she ever did.
My feelings about reunion and how complicated adoption makes my life and identity are hurtful to my mother. They cause her pain and anxiety, and her response to both is to deny that there is any pain and anxiety. And then to deny that she has any feelings at all that arent’ utterly socially sanctified as positive and appropriate.
The silences after I say something about adoption, or even after I mention my first mother or her family, are telling, but she denies they exist, too. She will pause, the silence will stretch, and rather than respond to what I’ve said, she will move on as if the conversation were about the grocery store all along. This happens even if she asks how me the question.
Pause, silence, subject change.
If I ask about it, I’m met with bewilderment. “But I thought you were done.” And then we return to talking about the grocery store.
This started around the time I met my first mother’s family. My mother has met my first mother, but this second visit, to meet the family, was on my own. My families are complicated by both living far away from me, but relatively close to one another, so if I visit one, I visit both. I did that three years ago during the holiday season. My mother was upset, though she would not or could not say it out loud in words to me, that part of my time “with her” was to be spent away from her visiting my other family. I’d specifically booked a longer visit, so I spent as much time with my mother as I would have on any other visit, plus a day or two, but I also took three days out of that to go visit my other family (which is another story all together).
When I got back from that visit to my first family, my mother was quiet and awkward (not her norm) and other than expressing that she was happy they were welcoming, avoided the topic. We worked on a few projects together, cooked some, and I flew home. That trip was so taxing — so incredibly stressful on every level. I was balancing everyone else’s feelings, not knowing if talking about my childhood is painful for my first mother, not knowing how painful it is for my mother to know how welcoming my first mother’s family is. I was unable to balance their feelings and my own, so I balanced theirs because the spectre of rejection on top of everything else was unbearable.
I left home not up to full strength after a full term of working two jobs, and I got home utterly exhausted. It took two months to feel like a functional human being again, though I slogged to work and back most of the time and mostly managed to feed myself. But it took me two and a half years to go back, and then only because of a family wedding.
For two years, I avoided travel that wasn’t mandated for work. Last year, after a rough summer, I took a quick weekend trip to visit a friend, feeling guilty the whole time that I was going somewhere that wasn’t visiting family. I’d made tentative plans to go visit cousins, but I’d gotten sick a few times that winter and spring and really couldn’t afford to take more time away from work. Which is and isn’t an excuse.
I finally took an actual vacation that did not involve family. I went to see friends, and it was a pretty amazing almost full week. Interestingly, as I write this, I realize that the one downside of that week is that I did not sleep, almost not at all. Barely enough to function. Hmmm. I’m still getting a handle on all the ways anxiety seeps out into weird parts of my life.
Deciding to search, search and reunion, the strident activism that came out of needing to fight the state of my birth for my own records, and the confusion of lifting fog — all of these things, all of these major changes in my life, have driven a wedge between me and one of the only people I really thought would always be a constant in my life. I never trusted it at my core, no, but I believed it when that’s what she told me. And in one sense, it’s true. My mother isn’t gone, but she isn’t quite the immutable fixture in my life I thought she was.
It has taken me years to parse out what I thought my relationship with my adoptive mother was, what search and reunion taught me about what it really is, and a few years after that to work through the anger of the deception. Not that anyone was actively deceptive, except maybe me.
In one decade, I changed everything in my life. I did that in part by opening up the little cauldron of hurt and pain and feeling that I’d been hiding for years. Hiding from myself. Reunion and the search that precipitated it changed everything for me, and my life is considerably more complicated now. Some days, I wish it wasn’t. But while I’d shed the complications, what I won’t ever regret is the honesty that has come with it. I am free, now. Free to own my story, own my self, own my life. I’ve finally taken charge.