Adoption has always been a part of my identity. When I was two days old, I was adopted by my amazing parents. This was the 80s, so most of the adoptions were closed and my parents only had contact with my birth mother through letters sent from the agency. Growing up, I remember just knowing that I was adopted. It was so normal to me that I was boastful of the abundant love bestowed upon me through adoption. I would frequently say that I had two families that loved me so much. I spoke of my birth parents every now and then, but mostly in a curious fashion.

I was always wondering who made me who I was. Did I have a laugh like them? Did I get my creativity from them? Who did I look like? This led to a greater longing to know a part of myself that was inaccessible at that time. In hindsight, it inadvertently led to me not fully knowing my worth. I struggled most as a teenager, which is already a hard time for processing a sense of self, and I found myself looking for my worth in others. This quickly led to a boy-crazy phase of impulse and distraction. In a world glamorizing sex and teen pregnancy (thank you MTV) there was a false sense of normal validating my actions. Thus, it was no surprise when I turned up pregnant at 18.

As an adopted child, I knew I had options. But again, MTV showed me that I could parent and still be a normal teen. False. I was still a child trying to figure out my own stuff. I tried as hard as I could, for the sake of my child, but after 6 months I realized the life I was providing was far from my dreams for him. My parents graciously stepped in and adopted him. This led to an extremely open adoption, which helped my healing process tremendously. I was, however, still a wild child trying to figure out how to grow up.

A few years later, those two little lines popped up on a pregnancy test again. I was devastated. The emotional rollercoaster I went on with my first child was not something I ever wished to do again. I immediately decided to go to an agency and make an adoption plan. I ended up placing my second child in her parents’ arms a week after I had her. That week after her birth was one of the hardest times of my life. I chose to stay completely isolated that week, aside from visits with my baby, and the only things I remember doing are sleeping and crying. Looking back now, I know this was grief that I quickly shut away.

During my pregnancy, I was so adamant that I would not grieve or be sad. As an adopted child, I knew that my child would be loved and have such a promising life. I was so excited for her parents, and I leaned on that too. The story was so beautiful and full of goodness, how could everything not be ok?  I cried my tears for one week and then pushed on. I quickly switched gears to find out about my biological family. The agency my parents went through wanted over $300 to give me my adoption record. As a young adult, this was not an option for me, so through a lot of research and perseverance, I found out I could get a $10 court order to unseal my records. Once I did that, I just had to wait for the agency to pull my record and send it.

Once I received my record, I immediately began the search. I started with a phone number that was listed for my grandparents. No answer. I left an awkward voicemail summarizing my belief that I was their grandchild who was adopted in 1988. I got a call back and, come to find out, it was still their number 21 years later! I quickly was dumped into a whirlwind of emotions as I learned that my birth mother had a hard life and was incarcerated and that I had two half-sisters who were also not raised by my birth mom. I was overjoyed to meet them, but also distraught at the idea of all the suffering my birth mom chose to walk in.

I, over time, learned that she had been an addict since I was born. This led her down a path of homelessness, brokenness, and abuse. I was prepared for any outcome by searching for my biological family. Or so I thought. Loving an addict who made the most vital decision for my life was not something I was equipped for. The day I met them all is still etched in my mind like an old movie.

They were local, so I only had to drive an hour to get to their house. My grandparents answered the door, greeting me with hugs and tears, and I walked into a room full of family. I began to look around and listen as I took in the familiar similarities lingering. My chin on my grandpa’s face, my red-tinted hair in my uncle’s beard, my unfiltered wit on my grandmother’s tongue, two young girls who resembled me at their age, and so much more. I stayed all day, soaking in the answers to lifelong questions I had. They quickly became a part of my life, as if nothing had passed. Over the years, I have watched cousins continue to grow, seen my grandparents’ legacy of love manifest itself in a 50th anniversary, shared laughs and tears with family, and felt heartache while watching my birth mother struggle.

Being a birth mother myself, I began to look at my story in comparison to my birth mother’s. I see how my open adoption has helped me heal and become aware of my grief so I could work on it. Her closed adoption led her to continue hurting and never work through that in healthy ways. Addiction caused plenty of hurt on its own, but I know that the lack of post-adoption support and connection also took a toll on her. I myself did not fully begin to realize the grief and trauma I was trudging through until seven years had passed from my second child’s adoption.

I had just finished a visit with her and her mom at a restaurant, and I immediately began to bawl. At that moment, I was confused because I still thought I was ok. I hadn’t realized that while my story was so positive and beautiful in my eyes, I was still a product of trauma. That epiphany was the defining moment for me. I realized joy and pain can coexist, and that coexistence is one thousand percent acceptable. From that point on, I have given myself permission to feel. A lot of the birth mother material out there talks about how strong and courageous they are. While this is extremely accurate and we should celebrate that, we should also be willing to talk about the painful side of adoption. The bittersweet lining, if you will.

Because I grew up in such an adoption-friendly and supportive world, I felt like I was tainting the whole picture of adoption if I talked about my hurt. Shame is such a liar. The truth was that by not talking about my grief, it festered into shame until it became so overwhelming that one day it forced its way out. I learned through counseling that it’s very likely my trauma started from when I was placed for adoption. This does not mean that adoption is bad; this means that I experienced a loss during that time: the loss of my birth mother and vice versa.

Trauma in Greek means “wound.” That definition seems fitting for trauma here because in this situation, parting ways from my birth mother (and her parting from me) left an emotional wound that, for the most part, went completely unrealized until adulthood. This partly led to the identity issues that I mentioned at the beginning; mix that with a big portion of teenage rebellion and I had a recipe for chaos. While my own adoption journey as a birth mom started out difficult, my choice has always been affirmed when I look at where my children are now.

After the placement of my daughter, I had an open adoption agreement with her parents. It was nothing formal, so over the years it has grown from email updates and one visit a year, to two visits and Facebook, to now the kids know they are siblings and we meet up whenever one prompts a visit. It took time to get to where we are ten years later, but a lot of it had to do with respecting one another’s boundaries and timing. Open adoption has been one of the biggest factors in my healing process. I can promise you that in the beginning, I was still a mess. But along with working on myself, open adoption has helped me blossom just as much as my kids have.

Getting to know my biological family has also been another important step in my journey to healing. Having a relationship, though limited, with my birth mother has helped me understand what ignoring grief can look like. In spite of her staying on a horrible path of brokenness, I have learned what unconditional love looks like. I am so thankful that she was able to muster up the strength to place me for adoption. My life could have been very different had she not.

Lastly, counseling has been the most vital tool in working my way to healing. The reality is, I will have to work on this for the rest of my life; grief comes in waves and healing is not linear. Triggers come at the most random moments, or consistent ones rear their heads every year. Two are the hardest for me.

I get triggered by a wave of complex emotions every year on Mother’s Day. Then my birthday is always right around Mother’s Day, and sometimes even on the same day. My birthday is a happy day full of highs, but Mother’s Day is a beast. I do not get acknowledged as a “mother” on this day, so my heart aches because I know my sacrifice for my children to have a different life than I could provide is the very definition of motherhood. There are the lows, but then I try to be at least even-keeled for the sake of my own mother. Hence the complex rollercoaster of emotions surrounding Mother’s Day.

The other consistent trigger is being in the gynecologist’s office. It kills me to see the traditional-looking family excited about a baby coming and from outside looking in, they seem so picture perfect and happy. That does not resemble my experience in the slightest, and that hurts because someday I do want to have that for myself. I have to work hard in those triggering moments to process why I am upset, find a way to sit in that moment for a minute, and then use a healthy coping skill to work through that moment so I can continue with my day.

Some coping mechanisms that have helped a lot are telling my story in any way I can, using my platform to educate others about adoption and to break stigmas that surround birth parents, music, drawing, journaling, visits with my children, talking with other birth mamas about the hard stuff, leaning on my support system when it gets hard, and simply using good self-care to take care of myself. It’s a long journey, but I am strong.

As an adopted child, I have been able to see the beauty of adoption through my eyes, my parents’ eyes, and my sister who was adopted as well. As a birth mother, I have seen the barren soil the beautiful story was planted in and how much work and love has gone into it. Through both of those perspectives I have learned that adoption is full of hope. Hope for the baby, hope for the birth parents, and hope for adoptive parents. I believe when all three parts of the adoption triad can see one another’s perspectives and learn from one another, true transformation can take place. We grow, we continue to move forward, and we can share the bittersweet story of adoption.