The Grief of the Other Mother
I wonder if my mother was beautiful. I wonder if we shared the same hair color. If her eyes were blue. If she grinned when she held me. If she held me. I wonder if she thinks of me.
Surely she must think of me. At least on my birthday.
These are things normal daughters don’t have to wonder. But I’ve wondered these things all my life. Now I wonder if my mother is dead.
I was adopted. I don’t go around thinking about it a lot, but earlier this week, USA Today published an article by Betsy Brenner on its front page. She was adopted in the 1950s, a decade before me. She was 14 when her adoptive mother died and a new, emotionally-distant stepmother was insufficient to fill the void within her. Eventually, she sought out a meeting with her biological mother through an intermediary but was denied. By the time her state’s adoption records were open later, Brenner’s biological mother was dead.
I remember not long after my adoptive mother died, I was talking about her death. (Adding “adoptive” seems so out of place when I write or say it because she was my mother.) I mentioned the vigil I kept over my parents’ things, going through their belongings meticulously. Being with their things was the way I connected to them in the only way left at my disposal.
The woman I was speaking with was amazed at how dedicated I was since these people weren’t my blood relations. They weren’t my real parents. I cannot adequately describe how I felt in that moment. It had never crossed my mind that anyone would think an adopted child couldn’t bond with a person as deeply as a biological child. She didn’t mean any harm. Just as the teenage boy in my high school didn’t when he suggested one day after I’d spoken of my adoption, “Toni, if I were you, I wouldn’t say anything about that,” as if it was some sort of shame to hide.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents told me I was adopted before I knew what it meant. There was no jarring revelation. And my mother, based on a few shards of information, painted a picture of an unwed mother who’d wanted me but let me go to have a better life.
Now my other mother is 70 years old. If she is alive. Time is running out. I conducted a tentative search for her when I turned 30 and learned nothing new. To the best of my knowledge, Tennessee would release my adoption record if I made application. But do I want to take that step? Do I risk losing another mother?
Brenner’s article talked a lot about the effect on the biological mother before unwed births became more acceptable. They kept such births secret. In silence, the mothers picked up where they left off, married, built families. Brenner quoted Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away, about how devastating it was to mothers being unable to grieve their loss.
Their loss wasn’t acknowledged.
I wonder if my other mother was ever able to grieve for me. I wonder how many other people out there lost someone but weren’t given the space to grieve.
Maybe that someone is an “other mother” who served a guiding role in a child’s life but not in a primary parenting role. Maybe that someone is a woman who carried a baby that didn’t come to term. Our society denies grief to a lot of types of losses.
Hopefully each of us have at least one person who understands our loss. One good friend can make a world of difference. And if not? God understands our tears. He keeps track of them – the Bible uses the imagery of him collecting them in a bottle. Not one is lost.
As though looking into the face of God, I used to look up at the stars and think somewhere below that same sky is my birth mother, and maybe she is looking into the sky with me.
Now I put her into the hands of God and hope she has put her grief into his hands, or that she did before she died, if she is dead. If she is alive? I hope someone comes alongside her, like I am today with you, to acknowledge that veiled loss. To acknowledge what a sacrifice it is to love.
Is there a loss in your life that’s been swept under the rug? Not acknowledged? Even if there’s no one who understands your pain, God is ready to listen. Will you talk to him about it today?
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