I first told my daughter about her older brother two years ago, when she was only four years old. Perhaps it was to validate his existence and to prove my love to him. Maybe I wanted to keep his memory alive through my daughter’s knowing him somehow. Whatever my reasons, I told her. At first, he was an illusion of an angel to her. She referred to him as her “angel brother.” It was a nice illusion.
This was similar to, I’m guessing, most adoptive parents who tell their children of their birth mothers. Perhaps their children make similar dream-like statements to their adoptive parents about their birth mothers. Thus, creating an illusion that validates the family member who is gone, but does not create an uncomfortable feeling for those that are close. I’ve heard some children ask about their birth mother, and I’ve heard responses like, “She will always be in your heart, but we are here with you and we love you very much.” Like a sweet memory that we can bring up and put back away when necessary.
But in the last two years, my daughter began to ask more questions. Pretty soon, she was mentioning him at least once a week. I began to wonder then, if my birth son would ask about me like his sister asked about him. I wondered if his questions were supported and answered. I wondered if he was encouraged to explore his need to know. I was excited and thrilled that my daughter was developing a sort of relationship with my birth son, even without her ever meeting or knowing him.
Several months ago, when the questions became more intense, I decided to take my daughter with me to the adoption agency I had relinquished him through. It was like going back in time. The building had changed over the last ten years, but the feeling was the same. It seemed like I was going back to the same path I had taken ten years ago on the last day I saw my first born.
I worried that my daughter thought I was going to give her away that day, but instead she spoke, “I wish I was born first so that I could have helped you keep my brother.” And then my little girl let me cry. She held my hand and the tears fell from our eyes together. When we were done, she stood before me and held my face in her small chubby hands and whispered, “You are a good mommy and my brother will come home one day.”
Since that moment with her, the pain has revisited me in ways I never experienced, but I am comforted by the realization that if my daughter could accept what I’d done and love me regardless, perhaps my birth son would too.
And then, last night at dinner, something happened. The plates were set out, and I was finishing with filling cups of milk when I turned to see my daughter with her hand draped over the extra chair. She looked at me and said, “If my brother was here, this is where he would sit.”
All of a sudden it was hard. The loss seemed more real than the loving memory we had of him. It was nearly unbearable. I sat down, and while my husband prayed over our meal I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is what my birth son’s mother feels when he talks about me.”
Is it better to tell and talk about it than not to remember at all? Would it be easier to keep my birth son to myself and cry alone when the pain built up? And how do adoptive parents feel when their children want answers, or when they include their birth mothers in daily conversation? Is it encouraged?
We finished our meal in near silence. My husband was watching me out of the corner of his eye, knowing that I was doing all that I could to keep it together. My daughter was quiet, but I could see her thoughts churning. We didn’t know where to go from there. My daughter realized the depth of my choice and the loss that I’d suffered, which she too now felt. Where do we go from there? When it gets painful, do we push it away? When we face the truth of my relinquishing my birth son, do we rationalize it or manipulate it to suit our needs?
My daughter is going through her own grieving process now. She knows that her brother is not a supernatural angel, and she realizes that she may never meet him. It would be easy to hold her in my arms and make promises to ease her pain and confusion. But late last night, I realized that the truth is the only way to heal. Before going to bed, I opened the door to her room to check on her. Instead of sleeping peacefully, she was at her desk writing. In her lap was the little bunny that someone at the agency had made for my birth son. I knelt beside her and asked her, “What are you doing honey?”
I noticed tears in her eyes when she replied, “I’m writing a letter to my brother to tell him that you are sorry you gave him away and that I want to find him for you.”
She handed me her marker and told me, “You can sign it too if you want.”
So I did. And when I tucked the letter in with the other hundreds of other letters we’ve written to him over the years, I felt for the first time a small part of what I’m sure my birth son’s mother feels as well.
It’s not easy to remember, but it’s even harder to pretend you can forget.