I was 38 when I adopted my daughter Richa in 1997. Richa’s birth mother was 18 when she gave her up in 1996. I have often thought about the loss this woman (child, really) must have experienced, and have felt so much compassion for her situation and gratitude for her choice.
Richa has always talked about her birth parents, primarily her mother. Sometimes it was to say she wanted to write them letters or set up an apartment in India so they could live there and she could visit them. At other times, she cried bitterly that they didn’t want her. She wrote in a school diary in 4th grade that she wanted to run away and find them. My daughter’s pain was heartbreaking for me. I would try to acknowledge her pain, let her cry and then distract her, and ensure that I never made it about us. In fact, she is totally bonded with everyone in the family, so I never felt her need to know her birth parents meant she didn’t view us as her parents.
We survived some tumultuous teenage years. We had a letter from her birth mother (let’s call her K) and a photo of her holding Richa as a baby (back view, so face is not visible). We gave these to Richa when she was 16. When she was 19, she wanted to try to find K. I wrote to her orphanage several times over a period of 3 months, without hearing anything. Finally, I just told them that the two of us were going to be there January 8, 2016, and hoped they had some information for us.
On January 7th, I got an email from them saying to come in the next day to talk about meeting Richa’s birth mother. We went in, and the director called up K in front of us, and set up a meeting for the next day! Apparently a social worker had gone to a 19-year old address they had where her mother and sister still lived, and the sister agreed to put the social worker in touch with K. K’s situation was that she had got married without telling her husband about the baby she had conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption. Thus if her husband found out about her meeting, it would have been dangerous for her. Nevertheless, she agreed to travel to a different location and meet us.
I don’t think I have ever felt more anxious or stressed as I was in those two days. Even more than the day we went to meet Richa for the first time! My stress was completely about making sure things didn’t blow up for Richa, leaving her more scarred than helped by the experience. I worried that K would agree to come and then back out, or come and demand money. I worried that Richa had woven these fantasies about her birth mother, and that the reality of a rural, Maharashtrian woman would be completely alien to her.
We drove 3 hours to the place. Richa sat on the edge of her seat the entire time, intensely planning questions to ask K, or remembering things to tell her about her childhood – first word, what she is good at etc. Our meeting was surreal – we sat around a table in a coffee shop and chatted as if it wasn’t an earth-shattering, unbelievable event taking place.
Richa rattled off a million questions. K, who had had just a few days to absorb the reality that she was going to meet the baby she had given up 20 years earlier, was quiet. Richa was a little disappointed that K didn’t have a lot of questions for her. What was heartwarming and unexpected for me was that Richa and K totally accepted each other. One a 38-year old woman, living in a small town in Maharashtra and working as a cleaner in a wedding hall; the other a tattooed young Indian-American girl with bleached blonde hair growing up on Sponge Bob and Justin Bieber. There was no judgement, just acceptance.
The most poignant moment was when Richa asked K “Are you happy?” (Richa’s predominant emotion growing up was that she wanted to take care of her birth parents). K’s answer was “I am content”. The other unexpected moment of grace was when K asked Richa why she was searching for her birth mother when her real mother (i.e. me) was sitting next to her. K was very concerned that I would be upset that I was being disrespected. I reassured her that I wasn’t.
We sat around the table for an hour and a half and chatted about small things – was K a strict mother? What subject did Richa like? Were her half brother and half sister naughty? What was K’s normal day like? Richa asked for a photo with K – she somewhat reluctantly agreed since she was very concerned about her privacy. And then we got up to leave, knowing we would never be able to see each other again.
I think Richa found closure and was more at peace with herself after meeting her birth mother. Though it was by no means a miraculous answer to the process of determining her own identity, learning to make good choices, and coming to terms with her personal strengths and challenges, all of which are ongoing.
I feel that we were blessed with a confluence of positive circumstances to make it the best possible meeting between an adoptee and birthmother after a closed adoption.
- Richa was surrendered and therefore the orphanage had records for her
- The orphanage sincerely did a “root search”, rather than fobbing us off
- There was still family living at the address after 20 years
- K agreed to meet despite personal risk
- She actually showed up without backing out
- There was no money asked for or exchanged or anything else that was distasteful
- K brought a gift for Richa and made her feel she was loved and wanted as a baby, and that she was surrendered only as the last resort
- K was clear about my role in Richa’s life and careful about not stepping on boundaries
- Richa got to see that K was settled and doing ok
I am writing this to share our journey and experience in the hope that it will be helpful. I am aware most children adopted from India will not have a similar experience, no matter how much they may desire to meet with their birth parents. As adoptive parents, we need to allow our children their grief, be with them through the pain, and most importantly, not make it about us at all. We don’t want to make our children feel they need to reassure us emotionally on top of everything else they are feeling.
See also “Meeting my birth mother” by Richa Gopal