by Beth Hall
Mom, I have something to tell you.
For those of you who have adult children old enough to live away from home, you will no doubt recognize the fear these words put into the hearts of parents.
Is anything wrong?
No, no, at least I don’t think so…I think it is good, I hope you will too.
Just tell me, it’s okay.
I will but I hope you will feel good about it…
As Sofia stalled, I imagined all the worst possible things that she might need to tell me. At 20 years old, she had been away at college for a few years. She was close enough to fly home for the random weekend and she still spent her vacations home with us, but that summer she stayed at school as part of an internship. We had learned to maintain our relationship via phone, text, and occasional Skype sessions. We had spoken a day or two earlier, all had been fine.
Now my Mom hackles were raised and though I was on high alert, I tried not to sound completely hysterical as I demanded that she just spit it out.
Okay, Mom, so I have a surprise. Don’t worry, it’s a good one. I found Richard! And Carla! (Not their real names.)
As the import of her news raced through my head, I blurted out some form of surprise and glee.
Oh, sweetie. How exciting. Tell me everything.
And as Sofia began to tell me how she had found her birth brother and mother, the fear I had sensed in her voice disappeared. As she spoke, I could not help but remember the many pertinent interactions and conversations we had had as she was growing up.
I remember her chubby five-year-old hands lifting the beautiful dress her birth mother had given her and pressing it to her face. Carla had given it to her as an infant, lovingly saving it in a sealed plastic container. I watched as my child breathed in any leftover fragrance—any remnant—of this woman who had given birth to her, this woman whom we hadn’t heard from since Sofia was 18 months old. And as I did, my heart sank to my feet: In a well-intentioned effort to make certain the dress was perfectly preserved, I had sent it to the cleaners, effectively wiping clean any possibility of the visceral connection little Sofia had hoped for.
I remember the seven-year-old who—when I told her that it was okay if she loved her birth mother, because I knew she loved me, too—sobbed in my arms, a wrenching moment that scrambled my innate sense that somehow I must protect her from pain.
I remember the 10-year-old urging me not to make her late for Spanish class, fearing that Carla might resurface before she’d mastered the language she would need to communicate with her. In a letter she agreed to let a close family friend translate for her, she wrote:
Dear Mama Carla, I love you, I think about you every day. I love you. Sofia.
I remember the 13-year-old who forcefully asserted she really didn’t care about Carla anymore.
She didn’t care about me; she will never know what she missed. I don’t want her to find us again. I don’t care about her, anyway.
I remember the angry 17-year-old who swore she would go to Guatemala and find her real family who would never stop her from choosing her own friends, or make her eat dinner with her family every night.
And now, at 20, Sofia had found her birth mother.
Wanting more than anything for my daughter to find her true and most complete self—and knowing that her core, her beginning literally resides with Carla—I was overwhelmed with joy.
Every year on Sofia’s birthday, as was our family tradition, we remembered Carla, each offering a gratitude to her, and also highlighting some beautiful attributes of Sofia that must certainly have come from the genetic heritage of her first family.
There were times when, angry at some perceived unfairness perpetrated by us (making her clean her room or do her homework or be home by curfew), Sofia sometimes threw her adoption in our faces. We always circled back, reiterating that if she wanted to talk about Carla, we were always happy to do that, while still holding clear that cleaning her room (or doing her homework or making her curfew) would still need to be addressed. After settling such disagreements, we always reminded Sofia of our feelings for Carla.
We watched as Sofia suffered through visits with her younger brother’s birth parents. She was clearly hurt and angry when she didn’t have the same, but also eager to be gathered in their arms or to grill them with questions that were impossible to ask of her own birth family, who had never been available until now.
When both kids were 16 or 17, we sat down with each of them to show them their full records, everything we had. Originals of most of the documents were in our safety deposit box, along with all the most important papers we have, a marker of their significance to our family. But each child was given a full copy that was then placed in our file cabinet, accessible to them at any time, and verbal reminders that they own their information, and if they ever felt they needed our help with anything regarding their birth families, we were always there.
It turned out, Sofia had taken her file, the one we had told her was hers, and had found her first family on the Internet. And that phone call to tell me she had found them that day and might visit them the next, was a reminder, yet again, that my reaction to her big news— my on-the-spot response—mattered.
I am not sure I could be more on-the-record about my stance on open records and openness in adoption. I have publicly stated my position, I have taken my children to rallies for open records, and Pact’s policy is articulated in our mission and written materials. But on the day of Sofia’s call, I learned once again that the more we give, the greater the gift of love we are privileged to feel for our children. Our responses and words matter, because—regardless how many times we tell our children that they can be loved by us as well as by their first families; that there never needs to be any competition or choice between us and them; that they deserve and are entitled to both—in those moments when our children take the risk of loving and caring for all of us, they will always need our affirmation that we will be their parents forever, no matter what.
Some months later, as we basked in the heat of Sofia’s college graduation, we shared our pride with Carla and Richard, who came to witness her special day; a child cannot be too loved. It really isn’t hard to watch your child come into herself, and experience the joy of being seen for all of who she is. Tell your children that you love them and that it is okay with you for them to love their birth parents, too.
Beth Hall is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.