Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Secrets & Story Shortage Weaken Adoptive Ties

What happens when a family, ruled by secrets, adopts a child?

Nothing. Relationships can't develop nor can they thrive.

Did I ever really know my adoptive mother? Was it even possible?

She has been dead eight years and her secrets continue to fall out of the closet. Some small. Some big. All profound. Symbolic of the distance between us. The closeness that could have been...tantalizing upon reflection.

With a little more patience, empathy and armed with just a fraction of what is known today about adoption and its life-lasting impact on the triad, we might just have had the mother-daughter relationship we both longed for.

Bad timing doomed us. Secrets sunk the ship.

What kind of heart-to-heart can take place between a mother and a daughter if a daughter doesn't know her mother's real name? This is a small secret. Not even my adoptive father knew her real name. I discovered it recently on a birth certificate given up for lost. She'd been given one of those names she used to sneer at as, "Typical Mexican," something like Aborita. Once changed, the old name was forgotten, accidentally or purposefully. Intentionally I suspect. She would have been ashamed of the name. Hated it. But for me, no stories about her embarrassment and indignation at being saddled with such an old-fashioned name and how she'd gone about picking a new one. Instead, the first name became a well-guarded secret.

And then there was her first marraige to the neighborhood "bad boy." A BIG secret. Accidentally learned during one of her Alzheimer's episodes. And it wasn't a short marriage, one of those teen affairs that lasted months. She was married to him for years. A cousin, fifteen years my senior, this week stunned me by asking if I'd like to see pictures of her first wedding. "My (adoptive) Dad told me she'd eloped," I said. He laughed. "Then he told you wrong, honey, because that was a big wedding."

So there it is. Pictures exist of a big wedding I knew nothing about. No stories shared between mother and daughter about the perils of marrying too young, too quickly or too foolishly. No hard knock life lessons to be imparted...just endless attempts at control I could not understand. And just beneath all her tireless efforts to control every single aspect of my teen life? Fear. Unspoken fear that I would make mistakes like her. Fear that I would end up pregnant like my biological mother. Fear than I would find another life that did not include her and abandon her, sending her straight back to her childless life.

And then there was that other secret. The one that would forever link my adoption to her infertility. No discussion - ever - of my status as an adoptee would ever be allowed. Not by me. Not by family members. All questions by friends and strangers to be rebuffed and denied. "Look," my cousin said to me once when cornered. "All I know is they brought you home, you were a beautiful baby and my mother told me you were adopted and that I was never to talk about it with anybody."

But I know he did. His daughter and I once got in an argument and she ended it by shouting, "And you're not even my real cousin because you're adopted!" So some kind of discussion about my adoption was going on. It just didn't include me.

What is real life without stories? A false one. Incomplete. Stories about where we come from. How we came to be who we are. The choices we make. The good ones, the bad ones. Stories of family. The members who made the brave move out of Mexico to a new country in search of opportunity. These stories couldn't be shared because that would have meant admitting Grandpa was an illegal immigrant. And how about how Grandpa ended his life? By suicide. That was a secret, too. Mental illness was also taboo. Some will say the era or the culture is to blame. People just didn't talk about things like that. But they will only be partly right. Because I know the difference now. My biological family is the proof. Also of the same vintage, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic footing and...storytelling. All the warts and mistakes and ugliness revealed. And there are lots and lots of warts. Now that the One Big Secret has been revealed (the existence of Me-the Matriach's Shocking News), the phone rings and the stories begin. This person is related to that person. This uncle was alcoholic and that aunt drank beer at eleven o'clock in the morning and my father used to be married to a Hollywood extra and...

So, in a way, I was cut off twice. Once through the severing of ties imposed by a closed adoption. The second time by being adopted into a closed family system, where stories of the past did not get passed down.

What kind of life is this? A barren one. How ironic.


Blogger suz said...

wow. rough post. well written but rough to read. made me think alot about my own daughter. thanks for sharing.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Celera said...

Many people would be tempted to blame the secrecy on the culture, but I grew up among people from an entirely different culture, and much the same attitude prevailed. Control was so important to my mother. Control of what people knew, of what we thought, of what we did. Secrecy destroys intimate relationships, among family, marriage or friends. No matter how those relationships are structured or defined.

Thanks for sharing these insights.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Nina. I can so relate to it. My amom and adad had a "shotgun" wedding - I'm smart, I can do the math - their son was born 6 months after they got married. But boy, no matter how many questions I asked... did you save your wedding dress?.... why didn't you take any pictures?.... I never got the truth. I mean she was in the same predicament that my bmom was in - but they just swept it under the rug, got married and turned their noses up to "those other women." And the control - god, I won't even go there as it would require my own blog. Secrets, lies and control destroy families.

6:25 AM  

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