“Do you know what it means to be adopted?” the judge asked. “Yes, it means you are special,” I answered. And I was special. I was chosen. I was ten years old. For my little sister and me, the adoption process had been a very long road. At five years old, I had stopped calling my parents “aunt and uncle” and they became “mom and dad.”
That was when I began to feel special. I remember sitting in the judge’s chambers and thinking that the whole process was a big waste of time. I didn’t need approval from a judge to know who my parents were. They were my mom and dad and whether it was official or not, they were my family. At the same time, I must admit, it was kind of nice knowing that we officially belonged together.
It took me a long time before I would acknowledge to anyone, especially myself, that I ever had a biological family. It was as if my life really began when my parents brought me and my sister into their home. My family has always been just that—my family. My biological mother died when I was eight years old and I never really knew her. I knew of her. I knew her as “Ellen, the alcoholic,” or “the woman who gave birth to me.” She was “my mother’s sister” and “the woman who abandoned us.” I never considered her my mother. My limited memories of her were painful and I tried my best to disregard them. I did not cry when I found out that she had died. She was no one to me. She was certainly not my mother.
As I evolved into my own role as a mother, I gradually gained an understanding of who Ellen really was to me. I had grown up hearing from the adults in my life that “Ellen had problems,” that she was “sick,” she was “weak,” and “couldn’t handle things.” She had been abused by her first husband and resorted to alcohol to heal her wounds. Once she started, she couldn’t stop. As a kid, I would hear the words but never really had an understanding of the path that Ellen’s short life took. My own adult life often paralleled Ellen’s. We were both victims of abuse in our marriage. We both struggled with weakness. We were both mothers.
I never knew Ellen, but years later, I was dealing with similar life lessons. During this difficult time in my life, the persona of Ellen was always present in the back of my mind. It was as if my life was mirroring hers and I was constantly threatened by her weaknesses. Whenever I felt as if I were giving in to the pressures of life, Ellen’s spirit would propel me forward. I would not allow myself to become like her. I would not let my mothering pattern hers. I was not weak; I was strong and I would survive to become a mother to my children.
At some point during my adult life as a mother, I was forced to come to terms with the reality that my biological mother was a real person with a heart and a soul. She was, in fact, my mother. She was a woman who struggled just to live day-to-day under extraordinary pressures. She battled a terrible disease of the mind and spirit. She was a mother in her own right and the tragedy of her life was the direction that it took.
My sister and I were not the losers in our family picture. We were the winners because we were special. We were chosen to be raised in a wonderful, loving family. In many respects our childhood was ideal. It occurred to me that Ellen was the real loser in the picture because she was not able to live to raise her children. She missed watching her children grow up. It was Mom who was there for us when we were sick, through all the sleepless nights. She was there for us as we struggled through our lives when we broke our bones, scraped our knees, and birthed our babies. Mom was there for us for every single school play, every concert, and every teacher’s conference. She shared in our accomplishments, rejoiced in our happiness, watched us graduate. She was there for every single birthday. For every holiday and every season, it was Mom who journeyed with us.
And now, it is Mom who we call with our constant questions and life dilemmas. It is Mom who we call when we want to share our happiness with someone. We call her when we need a shoulder to cry on. Our Mom. We were the lucky ones. And Ellen deserves our sympathy.
My children are only six years old and five and a half months, and yet I cannot even begin to imagine how I would feel if I missed one second of their childhood. I am their mother and to have my motherhood taken away from me would be like ripping out my soul. My role as “Mom” is the most important role I could ever possibly have.
My sympathy for Ellen has overtaken my anger. I now know what helplessness feels like. I know what it is to be the victim of abuse. I can only imagine the heartbreak it must have caused her to live with a disease that took her away from her children. A disease that she did not choose to have and did not have the strength to fight. I grew up angered by her weaknesses and devoid of sympathy to her condition. I matured into a mother who is saddened for her loss.
The ten-year-old girl that sat in the judge’s chamber has grown into a mother who not only feels special but also has an enormous amount of gratitude for the life she was given. Being adopted has made me well aware of the fact that my parents chose me and my sister. I have always known that my life could have taken a very different path. I have a deep understanding and respect for my mom and dad and for the sacrifices they have made during their lives. They have done it for the benefit of their children.
My mom has been a pillar of strength and tenacity throughout my life. She meets her problems head on and teaches her children by her example. Many of my own mothering techniques have come from my mom and from the strength that I have witnessed through her. My innate sense of purpose, my self-worth, and my inner strength that has developed throughout my life, has come from my roots. Not roots grown from a bloodline but roots grown from a firm foundation of a family of love.
In my family, it is common knowledge that my sister and I are adopted. I never felt the need to hide this fact. Actually, I have always been proud of it. My mom and dad were always honest with us about our biological parents and never tried to hide the truth from us. My sister and I knew that if we ever wanted to know anything about our biological parents we could always come to them with our questions.
When I was about eight or nine years old, one of the children in the neighborhood teased me and said that my “real parents” abandoned me and didn’t want me. She made me feel like an outcast. I cried the whole way home and right into the arms of my mom. She comforted me, she wiped my tears, and she was honest with me. She sat me down on her bed and very calmly and lovingly told me about her sister Ellen, my Mother. She told me about Ellen’s problem with alcohol abuse and by doing this she gave credence to the few memories that I did have of Ellen. It was during this conversation that I found out that Ellen had passed away. She told me that it was okay to cry and to feel sad. She told me that I would not be hurting her feelings by showing my love for my mother.
But, I did not see Ellen as my mother. I saw her as my mom’s sister. I felt sorry for my mom that her sister had died. I did not shed a tear for Ellen. I was not angry with Ellen. I felt nothing. I had all of this love for my mom and I was just grateful to feel better and not be so sad. I was just a child who was surrounded by a supportive, loving, stable family. I did not have the maturity to feel sorry for myself or feel a sense of loss. I felt comforted, loved and above all, special and privileged. This is just one example of the countless times throughout my life that I have been overwhelmed with gratitude because I was chosen to become a member of my family. My sister and I were lucky to have been raised by my mom and dad.
As a mother, I always strive to be better, to do more for my children, and constantly question my decisions on their behalf. I am growing with my children and my husband and I are developing the roots of our own family tree. My family is my gift from God. It is my job to nurture and cherish that gift. The gift is not what is viewed by the physical packaging of my family. The gift is ever changing and the gift is reciprocal. I take care of God’s children and I receive the honor of being called Mom.
I have learned firsthand throughout my life that being a mom and dad is not about making a baby. A mom and dad are not created when a life comes into the world. A mom and dad are created throughout the lives of their children. Mom and Dad are titles that are earned and that deserve the utmost gratitude, respect, and love. Ellen was my mother—Ellen was not my mom. My mom is the woman that rescued my sister and me from a very uncertain future. My mom gave us our life. She loved us unconditionally and we became her children. We were chosen. We were special. We were adopted.
© 2003 Donna Nordone Heaney