When I was in elementary school, Mother’s Day was a bit complicated for me, because I didn’t live with my biological parents. My two brothers and I had lived with one of our aunts since right around the time I started school. Up until she adopted us when I was in 4th Grade, I had to periodically field questions from the other kids about why I lived with my aunt. My stock response was, “I don’t want to talk about it.” This was partly because being asked made me uncomfortable, but mostly I just didn’t know what to say. No one in my family talked about it, at least not where I could hear, so I had no idea what had happened.
In middle school I managed to shape my vague early childhood memories into a hunch, and then a few years later, when my younger brother started asking our mom questions (he’d been an infant when we left our biological parents), she sat us down and told us that our biological parents had been neglecting us due to drug addiction. Child Protective Services were alerted, and we were removed from their custody.
Sometime in the past few years my aunt (not the one that adopted me, a different one) has told me a story from around the time that we were taken away. She was at court, at a hearing concerning the custody matter, and when they were leaving my biological father said to her, “I’m gonna get my kids back.” And she replied, “I hope you do.” But that was the last time she saw him.
My biological father’s van.
I understand that addiction is a powerful master, but also, how do you prioritize a substance over your three small children to the point that they get taken away from you? How do you not pivot instantly to sobriety and make every possible effort to get them back? It’s not that I’m saying my biological parents never made the effort at all (I have no way of knowing this, obviously), but also the aunt that wound up adopting us waited several years before beginning the adoption process. She even told me once that the judge asked her why she waited so long, and reason was the adults in our family had the assumption and hope that my biological parents would get their shit together and come back, but it eventually became clear that just…was not going to happen, so she began the adoption proceedings.
I definitely feel constantly fortunate that my life turned out the way that it did, considering how terribly things could have gone when my brothers and I were removed from our parents’ home. So many children in similar situations get split up from any siblings they have, and in some situations never see any member of their family again, or at the very least not for a long time. However, my brothers and I were raised and looked after by members of our father’s family (mainly by a couple of aunts, an uncle, and our Oma). Our mother’s mother (called Grandma) also lived just a few streets away and we saw her, and other members of both sides of our family, throughout the year. I don’t think I ever felt unloved during my childhood and, again, I know I’m lucky for that.
Carving pumpkins at Oma’s house!
I did periodically wonder what had happened to my biological parents, especially after my mom told us exactly why we had come to live with her, but it was a pretty vague feeling. I didn’t really pursue it. No one, on either side of the family, really ever brought up our parents. It felt like such a taboo subject, something I wasn’t allowed to talk about. It still feels that way now — we never talk about them. I’m sure I could ask for stories, but it just feels weird.
In 2010, around the time that my Oma died, an uncle of mine somehow came across the information that my biological father had died some years back of an overdose. This news didn’t upset me — it was just a source of closure, a feeling of, “oh, ok, so that’s what happened, alright.” I hardly remember the man, how could I possibly mourn him?
But then, at the start of 2012, I unexpectedly found out the fate of my biological mother. I was home between college semesters, and Grandma was over for a visit. My Grandpa had been ill from cancer for some time, and by 2012, he had been given only a few more months to live. Grandma told me and whichever brother of mine was there (I forget which one, whoops) that in a month or so she and Grandpa would be having a last hurrah sort of anniversary party.
Then Grandma said, “And, by the way, you should know, D might there.”
D is my biological mother.
Our collective reaction was a flat, yet surprised, sort of, “oh, ok.” Grandma went on, “We wouldn’t seat you guys at the same table or anything. We usually wouldn’t have all of you at the same event, but it’s not possible this time. She’s doing pretty good these days, but sometimes I just wanna shake her.”
So in a very short span of time, a massive heap of mind blowing information had been dumped in my lap. Not only was the my biological mother alive, but Grandma knew how to contact her. Not only that, but it sounded like she’d been in contact with D and spending time with D for quite a long period of time. And never. said. anything.
On the one hand, this makes sense to me — D is Grandma’s daughter, it’s natural that they would be in contact. On the other, why had Grandma been so silent about this?
Grandma and Grandpa took me to Disney World when I was in kindergarten. Grandpa often spoke of the trip fondly right up until he died.
When my brothers and I later talked through the situation later with our mom, she was dumbfounded as well, but also mentioned that at the time of the adoption, when our parents signed the paperwork giving up their rights to us, some restrictions were put in place for the duration of our minority. The way my mom put it is that nobody was going to stop anyone from seeing each anyone, but the adults taking care of us were firm that our parents had to be clean for any meeting to take place.
This goes a small way to explain why Grandma would keep mum, as my younger brother was only 15 at this point. But also it doesn’t explain it — being forbidden to see someone is not the same as being forbidden to talk about them. My mom didn’t say that Grandma had been asked to never discuss D, and my mom is the sort of woman who would’ve told us if that was the case. So my best assumption is that Grandma may have been trying to protect my brothers and I, trying to keep our lives as peaceful as possible.
I was so conflicted and hung up about this newfound information that when I went back to school for the spring semester and started taking the playwriting class I’d enrolled in, I based my big semester long project on the situation. But Grandpa got too sick, so the party never happened, and I had to invent what happened when the biological children and mother met for the first time in 15 years.
But then, in the spring of 2017, my great-grandma died. I only met her a few times when I was young, so my only motivation for attending the service was to support Grandma. However, I dreaded the event because I had a pretty strong hunch that D would be there. The service was scheduled for a couple of weeks after Great-grandma’s death, and I spent the entire time in a state of steadily mounting anxiety. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious in my life as when I left work to pick up my younger brother and go to the funeral home.
Breakfast time in the first house we lived in with our aunt (the one who was later our mom).
When we entered we went to sign in at the guestbook. My eyes were drawn to D’s name like a magnet. I noticed she was still using my and my brothers’ last name, and I felt a sort of dull rage at what I perceived to be the audacity of the act. My mind raced, “How fucking dare she keep our name? She abandoned us. She had a new kid. She doesn’t deserve to keep the name. She should go back to her maiden name.” (Naturally, I said none of this at the time, but did rant about it to my younger brother after we left.)
We entered the main room and were immediately approached by a group of our cousins, who we hadn’t seen since we were small. But as I chatted with them, my eyes kept darting over to D, recognizing her from the few photos I’d seen of her. She was standing in the back of the room with teenage boy and a man. My younger brother is social with one of D’s brothers, and through him he had found out that D had had another son a little over a decade ago. I figured the boy and the man were her son and his father. I had been stunned when my brother told us about our half-sibling, and it was weird to look at the boy and know we shared the same blood.
Conversely, D had to have known who we were, had to have heard people say our names, seen us embrace Grandma, and yet she kept to the back of the room. Realizing she was going to give us space did nothing to lessen my anxiety, and I settled into a seat near the front of the room, allowed myself to be drawn into meaningless small talk by a couple of Grandma’s friends that I knew.
I did my best to pretend that my heart was not about to burst out of my chest from how hard it was beating. Being in the same room as my biological mother for the first time in 20 years was an incredible emotional strain, even though we never exchanged words, or even made eye contact. Just knowing she was there, seeing her in the flesh, was a suffocating sensation. That was my mother there, and yet, at the same time, the woman was not my fucking mother at all.
One of the most important things I’ve come to recognize in my 27 years is that that some of the best families in the world are found ones, not blood ones. Yes, my mom is technically a blood relation of mine, but she didn’t start out as my mom — she became my mom through circumstance. She’s the one who has been there for me through all of the best and worst parts of my life. She’s the one who encouraged me to read books and play music, the one who taught me patience, who gave me my love of nature and the slower side of life. So much of what and who I am has developed the way it has because of her. She may not be the one who gave birth to me, but I consider her to be the only mom I have.
Judging from my size, I’d say this is probably from the first Krystmas.
My younger brother and I left as soon after the service as was polite. I had parked us a little ways down the street from the funeral home, so we wouldn’t get caught up in the parking lot when we wanted to leave. As soon as we were a safe distance away from everyone, I burst into frantic tears. The service was on Friday and I was an emotional wreck for basically the whole weekend, but found comfort with my other found families (ie: my friends, and my then-boyfriend).
I still don’t really feel okay about the whole D situation. All I know is that I don’t want to see her again if I can avoid it.
So this whole long story is to say that Mother’s Day can still be a bit of a complicated day for me. And I know it can be tough day for other people too. There are all kinds of reasons for people to struggle with Mother’s Day, whether they’re estranged from their mother, their mother has died, or for some other reason. If Mother’s Day is a rough day for you, I’m here for you. Just try to focus on other, more positive forces in your life until the day passes by. You’ll be fine, and so will I.
Why, yes, I did use my early childhood photos as a way to add some levity to all this heavy shit because I’m uncomfortable with these emotions. Thank you for noticing!