My mother used to tell me that her mother was her best friend, and while that was a nice statement about their relationship, it wounded me because I was not included.
It wasn’t until after my mother died that I realized the truth. She didn’t really want me.
Now I know it wasn’t as personal as I make it sound. What she really didn’t want was to adopt a baby. It was my father’s idea in the first place. They had been married ten years, and despite the sorts of infertility treatments available in the 1950’s, my mother had never gotten pregnant. All that dye shot through the fallopian tubes had yielded nothing, and her cycle continued to be a source of pain related to endometriosis. I’m sure my father meant it kindly when he suggested that she talk to her former colleagues at the Social Services Department about adopting a baby. After all, they both wanted a family, didn’t they?
But I believe she did not want a baby that way. She wanted her own baby. And that’s not something for which to condemn her; of course it isn’t. It’s just a sharp and painful realization when you are the baby in question and the stories you have been told about adoption all hinge on being “wanted.”
My mother—beautiful, tall, genteel, with narrow feet and slender hands, every inch a gentlewoman, introverted, quiet-voiced—was everything I wasn’t and would never be. Handy with a sewing machine or a lawn mower, organized, tidy, uncomplaining, writing a beautiful ladylike hand: more things I’m not or can’t.
I was loud, smart, dreamy, impractical, sloppy, singing, riding a bike up hill and down, trying to get away, climbing the magnolia tree, seeking a shelter, trying to understand what “mother” meant.
That narrow hand delivered a sharp smack. I don’t think anyone else ever saw her anger the way I did.
Here’s what I think. I think that the moment I was placed in her arms was not a happy one. I think that all the grief she felt over not being successful at the one thing she believed mattered, the one thing that would have made her worthy in the eyes of her parents and the world, was activated by the sight, the smell, the feeling of me in her arms.
The whole world was happy for my parents. The cards, the gifts, all carefully preserved and listed and acknowledged, were overwhelming. The other adoptive parents they knew reached out in poignant letters, sharing poems and stories.
But, oh my God, the reality of a baby also meant the ultimate truth had to be faced: she had failed. And I was the reminder. Soon she was in the hospital with another attack of endometriosis. I don’t know who took care of me. That’s as deep a mystery as where I spent the ten days between leaving the hospital and going to live with my parents.
And here’s a strange thing. They were and are my parents. A child’s heart doesn’t understand the ins and outs of adoption; a child’s heart only knows “I am loved” or “I am not loved.” The reasons why, the rational explanations, the family systems theory: none of it matters. “I am loved.” “I am not loved.” That’s all they know. I knew I was adopted; I was taught that meant chosen, special. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was the living manifestation of my mother’s disappointment. And of course you don’t have to be adopted to find yourself in that position. Her first experience of me opened up her darkest places, and we shared that intimate space together for the rest of her life.
On our trip to New York last month, The Princess and I were sitting together on the train. We had our little trays down to hold the weight of the books we were reading. She looked at my hands, those sturdy peasant hands of mine, and said, “Mom, our hands really are just alike.” “Yes, they are.” “I like them. Lily told me one day that I had fat hands, but I told her they aren’t fat hands; they’re strong hands, and I like them. And Mom–” “Yes, honey.” “I’m glad we have the same hands.”
My daughter has my hands, and they are beautiful.