11 Weeks

I just finished reading ‘The Primal Wound’ by Nancy Verrier. I had hesitated to read it earlier on because I know there is a lot of controversy around it, and understood its precepts going in. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to expose myself to the potential negative feelings it might evoke. But flush from all of my successes I felt comfortable enough to read it.

My initial reaction was that I do believe there has to be significant damage to the psyches of both the mother and the infant when they are separated at or soon after birth. In my case, however, there were large portions of the book that I felt did not apply to me, or perhaps applied only to my subconscious mind. When I finished it I wanted to read a book analyzing the effects of the primal wound specifically on an LDA. I was extremely shy as a child and preferred to sit alone and read rather than engage much with my peers, but is that evidence of damage to my psyche or simply a personality trait? My adopted brother was much more social than I was. I was more shy with peers than with adults, though, and I can remember wanting very badly to impress any adults I was exposed to. I was precocious, and so I think I often did. Was that me trying to not be abandoned again? Or was that, too, just another facet of my normal personality? Surely there are non-adopted children that have those traits. I think the danger is in putting so much emphasis on the primal wound or the adoption experience to the exclusion of other significant factors that contribute to development.

That said, however, I do feel a strong need to get more detail about the 11 weeks between my birth and my placement in my adoptive parents’ home. It seems that was standard operating procedure for that facility, because my brother who was also adopted from there has a similar gap between birth and placement. I have written to the Chicago Foundlings Home but have not as yet gotten any response. In a conceptual sense, however, my heart hurts for infant-me. I know from my mother that she was never allowed to hold me, and that she returned home shortly after my birth. So I was most likely living in a nursery and in the care of a rotation of nurses for the first 11 weeks of my life.

My only conscious experience of that time in life is from the experience of giving birth to my own daughters, and I know that during the early days of their life I could not stand for them to be separated from me. I would not allow them to be removed from the room where I delivered them, and took them home at the earliest moment I could extract us from the hospital bureaucracy- in the case of my elder daughter, 8 hours after delivery, and with the younger we were forced to wait until morning so roughly 16 hours. When they were newborn I wanted them touching me skin to skin and that is when they were the most content, and I nursed both of them for roughly a year. Was that obsession just a normal expression of motherhood, or was there an additional overlay of need because I had been denied that as an infant? Who can say? But Verrier does put to words what I experienced very vividly with my daughters. I used to feel their awareness and their mental state with perfect acuity. I knew exactly when they fell asleep, even if they were in a different room. I could physically feel them transition to sleep. I thought perhaps I was just being overly fanciful but now I think not. There is truly a deep connection between mother and baby.

I think no one could dispute that dumping a newborn infant in a bassinet to be fed and cared for by a rotation of nurses is an entirely unnatural state of affairs, and I object to having been so treated. Not that I can do anything with my objection but stew sullenly. One might argue that I came out all right so why should I concern myself about it? I don’t have a ready answer, but all I can imagine is a sterile nursery with plastic bassinets, a half dozen or more infants being bottle fed and changed by a parade of strangers. Perhaps occasionally taken out for extra cuddling by this or that sympathetic nurse. It makes me feel ill and heartsick to think about it.

I’ve read about regression hypnotherapy and the idea intrigues and frightens me. I am not sure I am prepared to cope with the feelings that pre-verbal me was experiencing in a situation that can only be described as incredibly traumatic. Perhaps it would be healing for me to intellectualize and so settle my infant-mind. Or perhaps there is no way to do that, and unearthing such a deep-seated set of pre-verbal feelings would only depress me.

Renaissance Man

I wrote previously that I had triangulated the identity of my father through my DNA matches, but I never had to even bring that up to my mother. He was the first thing she wanted to talk about the first time we talked. High school sweethearts – they were both 17 when I was born – but as she talked I came to understand that  it was more than just puppy love. I truly believe they were soul mates, even though they never found a way to be together. I indulge a bit of guilty feelings on occasion, because surely the trauma of having me was part of the reason she was unable to resume their relationship, and then ensuing circumstances (Vietnam, his college, her marriage, his death) meant it never was to be.

There is a certain pleasure I feel in the story, too, tragic though it is. I like to think I came out of that kind of deep love. When I found out I was adopted I had to accept the very real possibility that my conception could have been due to any number of horrible or just awkward scenarios. I am glad for my own story. I seem to be describing myself as lucky a lot, but I can’t see any other way to describe it.

The paths to knowing my mother are already well established, but as consuming (and delightful) as that is I have also the desire to know my father, as best as I am able. Unfortunately all of his immediate family are dead. Knowing that most of them died before he did I got to wondering about his personal effects. He earned medals in Vietnam and surely there were other things that anyone who cared about him would never have disposed of. I thought perhaps if he had a girlfriend she might have a box of his things sitting in her attic that she, having surely moved on 20 years later, would be happy to give to me. So the game was afoot again. I scoured my resources for possible associates of his and two names kept coming up – a woman’s name, and a man with his last name that is 5 years younger than me. The woman’s name was also listed with his last name, so I thought perhaps she was his wife and he was their son.

The report I pulled on the man listed five phone numbers. I was shocked that it was as hard to call them as it was. I was literally quaking with fear when I dialed the first time… only to be met with a ‘disconnected line’ announcement. Same with the next three. By the fifth time I dialed the abject terror had calmed down quite a bit, but my heart was still pounding. A woman answered the phone- I believe his wife- and I thought, oh geez – she’s going to think I’m some affair or something. I gave my name and asked if I could speak to him and she wanted to know what it was about. I told her I was trying to get in touch with someone who might have known this person, and gave his name and San Francisco. She made some skeptical sounding noises, then I heard a man’s voice. He had either just picked up an extension or had been on the line all the time. She agreed to let him handle it and hung up her line (or not? Doesn’t matter.).

I explained again that I was trying to find someone who knew Larry. He wanted to know why, and there I was struck dumb. I was so afraid he was going to hang up. I finally blurted out something to the effect of, “I’m his daughter. I just found out that I was adopted a little over a month ago, and I’m in contact with my mother and I know he’s my father and I’m just really hoping I can learn more about him.” At least, that’s what I am hoping I communicated. There’s no telling what actual words spilled out. I am much more eloquent on the page than I am speaking. But, however poorly I communicated, he accepted it enough to say, “I didn’t really know him very well. You probably should talk to my father.” So much for my theory that he was my half-brother. He asked for my contact information and told me he’d call me back after he’d discussed it with his father. I agreed and thanked him profusely.

Ten minutes later the phone rang. It was my cousin, and he had conferenced in his mother and father, my great aunt and uncle. We talked for well over an hour, and they were so warm and gracious that even now I tear up a bit thinking about it. As luck would have it, my great uncle was with my father when he died, and has that box of stuff I was looking for. He is planning to send it to me, and my cousin is planning to scan pictures to send when he visits over Christmas. They even invited me to visit next time I am in the area.

As to the woman that was associated with him, it may be that they were married but even if they were it was short-lived and unhappy. My great uncle and aunt talked about visiting her one time after he died, and how she had nothing but bad things to say about my father. They were very uncomfortable and have not spoken with her since.

It may be that I am weaving an elaborate tale of true love for my parents because it pleases me to do so, but through the tidbits of information I have gathered it seems to me that he, too, never found another that could replace my mother. It is such a bittersweet feeling for me.

Slow Dancing

It has been two weeks since The Call. My mother and I have spoken roughly every other day in long, rambling, wonderful calls. We reveal ourselves to each other bit by bit, through asking and answering questions or just revealing some thing we want the other to know. There is so much to know, and there will always be more. I think the first question, the one that drove me to find her, was ‘Do you want to know me?’ with its implicit ‘I want to know you.’

I had read accounts of many reunions that describe deep commonality with one’s biological kin, so I wasn’t surprised per se when those pieces started falling into place. I even try to caution myself not to read too deeply into things. I like Frangelico. She likes Frangelico. Lots of people like Frangelico, after all. But it is with almost giddy delight that I observe the growing list of things. It’s not specifically Frangelico or an aversion to movie violence, or a love of reading, or sculpting in clay, or enjoying performing in theater, or doing graphic design. It’s the mass of those things that is remarkable and it just feels so good.

Each time we talk I feel a growing confidence in us both, a sense of permanence in our relationship. I still feel afraid that she will change her mind and decide it’s just too much or that she does not want to face any possible negativity if I am revealed. I have put the pacing of our reunion and any revelation of me to her family or friends entirely in her hands, and I think that is only fair. I have no risk at all – all the risk is on her side. But ceding that control invokes its own set of anxieties and I find myself hoping more than anything that she reveals me to someone – anyone – sooner than later because that would make it very difficult for her to just slip away. Honestly I am almost positive that won’t happen, but I can’t help worrying a little, too. Indeed, she told me that she is planning to reveal me to my brother this Christmas when she is visiting, and I am more joyful about that than it seems logical to be.

I realized that revealing me carries the statement ‘This is my daughter. This relationship is important to me. I want you to know her too.’ The statement implies pride and permanence. It is a definitive answer to the question ‘Do you want to know me?’ When I unpack my desires this way I feel amazed at my gall and egotism for expecting such a thing, after only two weeks – or two minutes even!! – of knowing one another. So I take a deep breath and remind myself to let things unfold and to enjoy the rosebud as much as the fully open bloom.


Naming conventions

A note about naming conventions. There is an awkward mincing around the terms used to describe the people involved in the ‘adoption constellation’. Everyone has their own reasons for using whatever terms they prefer and I have no vested interest in dictating anyone else’s terminology, but as a matter of clarification to readers of these essays I will be referring to my biological mother as my mother. My adoptive mother is also my mother and I intend no disrespect to her or disregard for her love for me, mine for her, or her loving parenting of me. This is surely simplified in my case by the sad fact that she is deceased, and so clearly any reference to my mother in an active relationship refers to my biological mother. Same goes for my fathers, though sadly my biological father is also deceased. I have two mothers and two fathers. If there is a moment where I need to clarify which mother or father I am discussing I will add an appropriate designation. To use those designations in every case of reference feels stilted to me, and also seems to imply a kind of belligerence, whichever person is being described, that I simply do not feel.


The Call

November 4. The day after the DNA results came in. Early afternoon. My cell phone rings. Caller ID registers – it is her. My mother. My mother is calling me. I can barely breathe. For a fraction of a second I consider letting her leave me a voicemail, then dismiss that as utterly unthinkable. She is calling me, and I am aching to hear her voice. I answer. I know it is her but I do not say so, I just say ‘Hello’. I can hear her nervousness before she even speaks. She gives her name, hesitantly. I say again, hello… and berate myself: damn it, I should have thought out what I was going to say to her. I stammer probably incoherently, no idea what actually came out of my mouth, then I say ‘I’m so happy you called me.’ My throat is full and my eyes fill with tears, not for the first time and not for the last, and I wish that I had thought to pop in my headset so I didn’t have to be holding this clunky brick to my face. We both take deep breaths that are palpable to each other and so it begins.

We talk for almost two hours, not nearly enough time but enough for the first time.

It is November 4. Less than a month since the day I discovered. I am incredibly lucky.

Self-Replicating DNAyayayayayayay

Is life just a game where we make up the rules
While we’re searching for something to say
Or are we just simple spiraling coils
Of self-replicating DNA?
-Monty Python, Meaning of Life

My DNA results came in, and with the help of an amazingly fortuitous first-cousin match NOT on my maternal side, some incredibly skilled search angels and a bit of intrepid sleuthing on my part (if I do say so myself) we triangulated the likely identity of my birth father. The process was thus: we built out the family tree of the 1st cousin match, and then I took each family name and compared that to young men in my mother’s class or one under in her high school yearbook. There were four potential matches. The first three did nothing for me, but the fourth was an immediate ‘click’. I can’t explain it. I just felt like he was the one. I think I bear some of his characteristics but more I think my younger daughter favors him quite a bit. But beyond that, something undefinable gripped me as I looked into his eyes over a gap of 50 years, at his teen self captured in a photograph. So many opportunities to ‘pfft’… but the lump in my throat said otherwise.

Then we built out the next level matches and found additional links to his tree. By the end of the process we were relatively certain that my father had been identified. Sadly, he died in 1997. I started trying to conceive of ways I could find people who knew him, thinking I could talk to them and at least piece together what sort of a man he was.

I wrote in the beginning that I did the DNA test as something of a curiosity but did not put much stock in it. I still feel the same but would add the caveat that if one is incredibly lucky, the right person in their genetic pool might also have done one and yield for them critical clues to follow. As it turns out, I am indeed incredibly lucky.


With growing certainty that my mother has been correctly identified I have spent some time building out my new family tree. It’s a secret tree, as recommended by Ancestry, and is meant to accommodate the DNA findings when they arrive. I called it “Discovery Tree.”

My maternal biological family is even more prodigious than my adoptive one, and most paths have been easy to follow. But this process feels different to me than it did when I was building the original tree. Now always in the back of my head is a wry, sad little voice: ‘Hello, Great Great Grandfather. I’m your bastard granddaughter that is unacknowledged, an embarrassment.’ I see my part in the tree as a kind of footnote, designating me not quite a true member, but noted anyway – at least on my secret tree that no one is allowed to see.

I think about driving out to Freeport to explore the town in which so many of my ancestors lived and died, and imagine myself wandering around looking at buildings and farms or poking through the graveyards, feeling like the intruder I am. Do I have the right to claim this family as my own, just by virtue of blood? Why does it matter so much to me?