I hopped on a plane and went to Houston, Texas to see my birth mother the other day. We went shopping, and fussed over her two terriers, and sat around and watched old movies with my stepdad all weekend. At my request he made silver dollar pancakes for breakfast before driving me to the airport. They’re my favorite.
These seemingly common family experiences aren’t common at all for me, actually. They’re miracles. I’m 37-years-old and I have parents for the first time in my life.
My early years in foster care
I grew up in the 70s, raised by my single, hippy mom. She had long brown hair swinging down to her waist and carried me in a backpack to college with her. I got bounced back and forth a little bit between my relatives, who took turns watching me. But really, nothing was unusual about my childhood. It wasn’t until I was 8-years-old when it changed dramatically.
We were living in Illinois then, with my mother’s first husband, Gary. I was in third grade, attending a small Lutheran school while my mother worked as a graphic designer. Gary was a stable man and a good provider, but ultimately my mother didn’t love him. Their marriage fell apart just a few years into it, and my mom had her first nervous breakdown. At the age of 8, while my mother went through her crisis, I was placed with a foster family who then later adopted me. It was an open adoption, and I saw my birth mother frequently. After six years of living with this family, the adoption failed, and I went to live with my biological grandparents in California. My birth mother and I stayed in touch through phone calls and care packages. But this living arrangement also failed. I ran away from my grandparent’s home when I was 15 and was again placed in foster care. I called my birth mother from a pay phone at school and begged her to help me. For the next year I lived in a group home, attending high school while my mother fought for custody of me. We were reunited when I was 16.
Nothing good came of my childhood experiences. I don’t have to hash out the details of mental illness, foster care, divorce, neglect, or child abuse—you get the point. My birth mother wasn’t any more prepared to parent me when she regained custody of me than she was when she’d relinquished her parental rights. We lived together for two years and then went our separate ways when I turned 18.
My life went forward without my birth mother
Subsequently, my twenties were tumultuous. But I thrived. I moved to Manhattan, and had a satisfying athletic career. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was quietly struggling with her own private issues. Namely drug addiction and mental health. Always a lonely character in my life, she would surface from time to time. Often staying with me, wherever I was living. Our fragile relationship cracked under the strain of misunderstandings, and we went our separate ways. When I was 26, we stopped speaking to each other for ten years.
My life went forward without her. I enrolled in college, and began writing. Later, in my thirties, I moved to Los Angeles and took a gig as a ghostwriter. My career blossomed into publishing, media, and entertainment. My life was still tumultuous—but in a good way.
It’s not like I forgot her all those years, or made a point to hide myself from her, but I definitely kept silent. I was surprised when I got an email with her name on it that simply said, “Let’s talk” in November of 2012. My mother found me through one of my online publications, or maybe Facebook, where my email address was posted, and had finally decided to make contact.
You only get one mother
Those two simple words launched an all-out war between my head and my heart. How can I have her in my life without her destroying it? What does she want? How can I trust her? Finally, I turned it over to my closest friends who counseled me to answer her. “You only get one mother,” they said. So, I answered her.
When I heard her pitifully nervous, awestruck voice on the other end of a phone line for the first time in a decade, it was the first piece of healing ever to fall into place for me. And one of the most surprising plot twists of my life. My mother was well. She’d gotten sober. And she’d grown up. Both literally, and figuratively.
“I came back to be a mother you can be proud of,” she said. And this was the start of what is now my first experiences of real family.
I don’t blame my mom for placing me for adoption. She was a teenager when I was born—she was a kid. I know that she’s struggled more than I ever struggled, and despite everything that happened between us, I am proud of her. I never cried when I was adopted—it just seemed matter of fact, but I remember everyone else around me being upset. My adoptive parents, my grandfather, and my aunts screamed at me that my mother didn’t love me. But I knew she did. I kept a secret place in my heart for her to come back to when she was ready to be my mother, I filled it with goodwill and understanding. It was so secret that sometimes even I couldn’t find it. Regardless, our hearts are the most powerful things we possess. Love is like a heartbeat. It is steady, endless, and tireless. And it will never cease working to reunite us with those who can give us our greatest happiness.