Reading: My Motherless Mother

Relationships & Divorce

My Motherless Mother

My mother was adopted at 6 days old. I never knew how much it affected her until now

by Kat Mackay

My mother grew up without knowing her face. She was adopted. She didn’t know who her mother or father was until her twenties. No one ever told her she had her mother’s eyes or father’s nose. She walked in the shadow of a ghost. Never knowing who or what she represented. 

My mother would find out later that her biological mother accidentally got pregnant with her while she was a senior in college. She got pregnant the first time she had sex. Diane hid her pregnancy. She drove up to a “home for unwed mothers” in Burlington, Vermont, and gave birth to my mother on September 20th, 1962. My mother was adopted six days later. Her adoptive parents, Dick and Maggie, were quiet and Christian. Maggie had already given birth to one daughter, Alison, but couldn’t get pregnant again at 44 – she had seven miscarriages. My mother would find out later that her namesake was Dick’s sister who died mysteriously (she killed herself).

My mother romanticized Diane for a very long time. She thought that if she had grown up with Diane her life would be perfect. Diane ended up having two girls 10 years later and keeping them.

My mother told me to never adopt.

“Adopting comes with trauma. You don’t want a traumatized kid from the get-go.”

Finding Diane was hard. Not because she didn’t want to be found but because she couldn’t be. The home for unwed mothers had not listened to Diane’s request to connect her with my mother if she ever reached out. However, Dick knew she was an artist. So, he called around art galleries, saying he was “interested” in Diane’s work. The whole process took a few years. 

On Christmas during my mother’s junior year at Georgetown, Maggie and Dick gave her the address of the last gallery Diane was featured in. She sat on the address for months. Her life turned into passing time. Each day was another day where Diane awaited. Diane had come and gone with the dust, raked away with the leaves, plucked with the weeds. Diane wanted to know my mother just as much as my mother did her. But my mom was afraid to know her, afraid to know herself. 

She did know two things. One: Diane’s art was popular. Popular in the sense that art critics knew her name, not popular in the Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin way. Two: Diane, according to her paper trail, still lived in New York or New Jersey. 

There are a few reasons why Diane gave up my mother: she was too young, she wasn’t ready, or financially stable enough. But no matter what, it still burnt a hole inside my mother. A gaping one. 

“Adopting comes with trauma.”

It was a pain that diluted itself over time, being left behind. One that had my mother rejecting every religion, because what God would let mothers abandon their children? 

My mother’s biological father was the most disappointing. He was a Sicilian man teeming with narcissism and hair gel. He was a guy Diane met abroad. He was arrogance and cologne, olive skin and pride. My mother wanted to meet him. He was still a missing part of her. After meeting at the train station in Philadelphia he said, the first thing he would ever say to his daughter, 

“Feel my bicep.”

This was the first and only time they would ever meet. No, she did not want to feel your bicep, Fernando. She wanted to know who her father was. Thank you, though.  

I don’t want kids. Some people look at children and go “aww cute!” I look at a toddler and think, “sticky.” To me, kids are more trouble than they’re worth. 

I have reverse motherly instincts. I called a three-year-old “dude” once. I don’t know how to be around children, because you’re supposed to like them. My mom told me she didn’t like other children, just her own. I don’t think I could even do that. I don’t want a smaller, cloned version of myself out there – that’s terrifying. 

When I told my parents I didn’t want kids, I was met with resistance. My dad said, “You’ll change your mind. You’ll want different things in 10 years.” While my mom said, “Oh. Interesting.” 

Any time my mom says “interesting,” I get nervous. She’s a therapist, therefore “interesting” implies there’s trauma behind my reasoning (or so I’ve learned). She’s not wrong. She’s seldom wrong. 

I grew up with a brother that complicated my family. He was hot asphalt – he burned everyone who got too close. He never knew when to stop. When to stop talking, when to stop doing drugs, when to stop hurting me. He prevented me from knowing my mother. 

I’m so afraid of traumatizing my child. I’m so afraid of my child traumatizing my other child. I don’t want my children to stop talking to each other, to stop loving each other. 

I’m afraid I’ve reached a mountain I can’t climb down. 

I’m afraid I’ve turned into my worst fear. 

It wasn’t my mother’s fault and it wasn’t my father’s fault. My brother’s reflection stopped matching the one we knew. He was a vacant host. So, I found a new nightmare: disappointing my parents; becoming a vacant host; turning into someone who burns others, into someone who traumatizes her partners. 

Train stations are the best thing to happen to mankind. Everyone is going somewhere and no one looks at you for too long. The fact that we haven’t replaced trains altogether baffles me. Planes are way faster than trains and cars. But trains offer what cars and planes can’t: full environmental immersion. You could argue that planes do the same thing, but only for a few seconds and then you’re 30,000 feet above the ground and all you can see is clouds. Cars can’t compete either. The driver has to focus on the road, and the passengers also have to focus on the road because most of your friends are bad drivers. Trains don’t require responsibility of any sort. You can sit, watching the world dissolve around you. I prefer Grand Central Station. The ceiling is unbeatable. If you haven’t been to Grand Central, the concave ceiling paints a view of the heavens from Aquarius to Cancer, featuring 2,500 stars, 59 of which are illuminated. It took months for artist Paul Hellu, and 50 painters, to find the perfect shade of sky blue. New Yorkers don’t look at the ceiling because they’re used to it, but every time I’m there I stare until my mom yells my name enough times to make me snap out of it. I have only been in train stations with my mother, and my mother spent time in train stations with her mother. I see my mother’s ghost in the corners of train stations. I see someone I don’t know. 

During the spring of her junior year at Georgetown, my mother met Diane for the first time, in a train station. Penn Station. 

At the time they met, Diane was divorcing her husband, the father of her daughters, Tasha and Karina. During her spring break, my mother spent three days at Diane’s home in New Jersey. It would be the apex of my mother’s adolescence. 

“It was the most intense thing to ever happen,” she told me. My mother had lived 20 years without any context for why she behaved the way she did. She and Diane perused family albums together, giving my mother her identity on a silver platter. 

“You remind me of my mother. Something in the eyes,” Diane said.

Two lost souls had finally found each other. It was maternal love at first sight. My mother finally had the family connection she had been missing for years. Her adoptive parents were place-holders for Diane. Though Diane was a very different mother. Nothing like Maggie, which made things more complicated. How could she compare the woman who raised her to the woman who gave her up? They talked for hours, went on walks, and cooked together. Any moment they could share together, they did. Those moments would become core memories for my mother. They made up for 20 years apart, recreating a childhood my mother never had. 

Diane told my mother about her birth. It was awful. In 1962, being a mother out of wedlock was incredibly shameful. She had shattered her parents’ expectations, so the whole pregnancy had to be a secret. The home took care of her, but only because she was giving up a child. Her only purpose to them was to produce a child. It was entirely transactional and the adoptive parents are the only ones who benefit, not the child nor birth mother. Dick and Maggie left with a baby and Diane left with an empty womb. To make matters worse, Diane started art school five days after giving birth, left with the trauma of giving up her child. 

I know half of my face. I have my dad’s skin, eyes, and, presumably, his great-grandmother’s hair. I’m the only living redhead on my dad’s side. Because of this I was convinced that I was adopted. I don’t look like any of my cousins. Honestly, my mother’s nieces or my ‘cousins’ look more like me than my dad’s side. My mother knows she’s vaguely Italian, French, and British. We never did an ancestry test. I never felt the need to. I had a biological mother, what more information did I need? I was never left behind. But did I know who I had? 

I didn’t know much about my mother’s adoption before I started writing this story. I knew wisps of truth, but nothing concrete. Now, I have a better understanding of longing for something that never existed. Suffering due to mere possibility. My mother resented her adoptive parents. They weren’t Diane. They weren’t her blood. They weren’t right. 

“I never hated her. I always had a fantasy that if I had grown up with her my life would be perfect. I had a very unrealistic… ya know, I thought she was the answer to everything,” my mother told me. She fell in love with someone who didn’t exist, a made-up version of Diane. Later, the anger would set in. The resounding jealousy. The life she could’ve had represented in the form of two half-sisters. The burden of finally knowing herself was almost too much to bear. Knowing her biological mother complicated her relationship with her adoptive parents, an issue that would never be resolved. Maggie passed away when my mother was 33 while Dick died when I was 9. Diane could never take their place as parents. 

When I watch Diane and my mother interact they seem more like old friends rather than mother and daughter. A void still exists for my mother, a motherless mother parenting a motherless daughter – she’s absent in my presence. 

I will never fully understand my mother. I will never know what it’s like to be faceless. I will never know what it’s like to go 20 years without knowing my mother. What’s worse is I didn’t ask my mother her full backstory until recently. I went so long without caring. Without wondering. Without thinking, maybe it was difficult, maybe it was beyond me to even understand a modicum of pain, maybe it was a completely life-altering experience to not belong. I should’ve asked earlier, I should’ve wanted to know her, I should’ve cared.

Even though my mother was there the entire time, I never knew her. I never knew her pain, her loneliness. She was absent in my presence. 

Motherhood is a path I will never take. Not because I hate children, but because I will never live up to my mom. My mother was dealt one of the worst hands and yet managed to beat the house. She carried her trauma like a backpack and didn’t unpack it until much later. She was able to create a family that, despite its problems, didn’t leave anyone behind. She ensured that we never felt forgotten.

I don’t want to be a mother because I will screw up and I will never forgive myself. 

I can’t stop walking in circles. 

I will cyclically blame myself for everything. 

I am a rose afraid to bloom. 

“It was really incredibly powerful and exhilarating to know myself. I learned later that I was unprepared for it.”

“Did you think, like, she was the first person to really see you? Like, understand you?”

“No. I don’t think she understood me. But I would’ve said, at the time, she did. I needed someone to feel connected to me.”

Neither of us knew our mothers, but I do now.

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