My Mother in Blurry Shadows

My biological mother in high school

There is an app called Blur Photo that allows you to safely post a photo that will, no surprise, blur faces. This Mother’s Day, I downloaded the app so I could safely hide my mother’s identity while writing an entire post about my mother’s identity. It’s been a strange year, right?

Actually, it’s been a strange two years and three months, since the day an email from Ancestry DNA came through my inbox. It was cheery and terrifying at the same time.

You’re about to discover your ethnicity estimate, get a unique look at your family’s journey through generations, and maybe even connect with long-lost relatives. We’re so excited for you!

I waited five decades to find these long-lost relatives, specifically my biological mother. I assumed that my biological father would have no interest in learning that he had a daughter out there he likely never knew about. Wrong! But that’s a different story.

I found my biological parents through the miracle of spitting into a vial. And also connecting with two searchers who can take DNA matches and build a family tree in ten days. Which is exactly how long it took to find the paternal side of my family, and two days later, the maternal side.

They found Father alive and well.

Mother died in 2007.

It gets tricky here. If you are adopted and you find your biological mother and she is dead, you can’t be certain if she told anyone about you. If she did, you would naturally want to connect with all those second or third cousins that appear in your “matches.” But you don’t know, so you wait until your searcher fits all the missing pieces into place and finds your half-siblings and uncles. Searcher will give you the contact information for these relatives if you want it. But still, you don’t know. If your biological mother never told a soul that she had a baby in secret and gave that baby up for adoption, then you risk causing big drama in a family you have never met. Many birthmothers keep the secret to their grave, because they were shamed and blamed and told they were going to ruin the family name if they spoke of it. And what man would marry a woman who had this backstory? So, the women stayed silent.

Maybe my mother made peace with the truth of her story and told everyone she had a baby, gave her up for adoption, and moved on with her life. I don’t think so. My searchers have detective instincts, and are adept at digging up information and assembling facts, and it doesn’t appear that anyone knew about me. It’s a messy story, and in the end, I decided it was best to stay silent also.

But it feels like it’s time to acknowledge this woman, whose name I can’t share and whose face I have to obscure. She was nineteen and liked a good party, and she and my father did what the kids do. And then she discovered that what the kids do can get the girl in big trouble. She had to leave college and get a job, and because she was resourceful and determined to find a solution, she married a man (not my father) when she was pregnant with me. Unfortunately this husband found out the truth and the marriage ended two months before I was born. Some people in this story are still alive, and these are their secrets also, so, again, the face-blurring app.

But, it’s Mother’s Day, and I want to talk about all the mothers of the Baby Scoop Era, which you can look up. Between 1945 and 1973, over 1.5 million white, unmarried mothers gave up their newborn infants to adoption. Depending on who you talk to, these mothers lost their infants through the “ubiquitous, fraudulent, unethical and coercive practices of churches, maternity home administrators, adoption caseworkers and the public social welfare system.” Those are not my words, but are from Karen Wilson Buterbaugh’s book The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption, Forced Surrender. After reading this book, I was convicted about the whole idea of “Adoption Rocks”, a term we tossed around the first few years after we adopted our own daughter. I’m now convinced it’s important to acknowledge birthmother stories with sensitivity and honesty. Adoption doesn’t rock for everyone in the triad of birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptee.

As the daughter of my adoptive mother, I also see the other side of this story. My adoptive mother was Type I Diabetic and wanted a family, but after losing a son in the ninth month of her pregnancy, adoption was the only option. She and my dad were thrilled to finally be parents, and I may be biased, but they were darn good at it. So I don’t view the Baby Scoop Era as a one-dimensional negative outcome. But I do believe there is a generation of mothers out there who were never given the information, resources, or opportunity to find a solution to their dilemma so they could raise the child with whom they shared DNA. Many of them, like my birthmother, have already died, but also lived with the trauma, shame, and repercussions of never knowing what happened to their son or daughter. If you are a parent who has ever lost your child for a short time in the supermarket or in a department store, then you have a minuscule understanding of what this feels like. These mothers knew their children were out there, but thanks to court systems that locked away vital records, they couldn’t find them. And the same went for the adoptive children. I was fortunate to obtain my records, but most adoptees of this era can’t.

All emotionally healthy mothers want their children safe, well-fed, unharmed, clothed, happy, and loved. The mothers of the Baby Scoop Era wanted this also, but most were in a perpetual state of forced loss that affected them in a variety of ways. My mother suffered through a decade of bad personal decisions, health problems, and a sudden death in her early 60s. I can’t say definitively that the shame of being an unwed mother and giving me up for adoption caused her issues, but the statistics make it likely.

It’s strange to have a mother you can’t pull from the shadows. She’ll probably remain there for the rest of my life, because I’ll protect her from what she wanted to keep hidden. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to give her a moment-face hidden, name withheld-and say that she was brave and resilient, beautiful and caring. Thanks to information from my searchers, I’m relatively certain of these things.

My adoptive mother also possessed these qualities, and because I know her, my list of what I loved and still miss about her could fill pages. Her face is clear and unobscured, pressed against mine, because we came together through the miracle of adoption. In her eyes, it was a miracle. In my biological mother’s eyes, it was something very different. I’ll make space for the opposite realities, and celebrate these two women on Mother’s Day. I see myself in both of their beautiful faces.

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