My daughter turned 21 yesterday.
I didn’t get to see her, or spend any time with her, which I suppose is not unusual with a 21 year-old. However, I haven’t spent any of her birthdays with her – except for her actual birth day. When she was three days old, someone else became her mother.
I was sixteen when I found out I was pregnant; the middle daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher in a small Missouri town. Stereotypes seem to catch up to you no matter how far and fast you run from them.
My parents did not force my decision to place Nicole for adoption, though they could clearly see that was the best option given our circumstances. Despite my stubborn, juvenile, and utterly baseless assertion that I could, “do it by myself,” they offered to help me care for her should I decide to keep her. I often wonder about what it took for them to leave such a decision in the hands of a teenager; especially one who had repeatedly proven herself to have extremely poor judgment.
Nicole was placed in an open adoption – a fact for which I am grateful every day. I can’t imagine never knowing where she was or how she was doing. I have been blessed to be included in her life, attending her junior high and high school graduations, along with my parents. She and her parents attended my college graduation, my wedding, and later, my young nephew’s funeral.
Our families are forever bound, my parents consider her their granddaughter and I am invited to her family reunions. By agreeing to an open adoption, her parents also put a lot of trust in a seemingly ill-equipped teenager. They trusted that I would not cross the boundaries; that their decision to allow me to be a part of her life would be the right decision. I have never taken that trust or that gift for granted.
Throughout the years, I was able to occasionally visit Nicole in the Illinois town where she grew up. From the time she was old enough to understand, Nicole knew who I was. When she was about 5 years old, the four of us: Nicole, her parents, and I, went to dinner. Almost immediately after we were seated, Nicole looked at me and asked, “You’re my birth mother, right?”
I managed to choke out “Yes,” despite the sudden lump in my throat.
She turned to her mother and said, quite simply, “And you’re my mom.” From then on, she has had a pretty good grasp of the situation.
Three or four years later, during another visit, I was suddenly struck with the realization that Nicole and I had the same sense of humor. We were shopping with her mother and having some ridiculous discussion, the topic of which I can’t recall. We bantered back and forth, getting goofier as we went along. Her mother, laughing, looked at the two of us, shook her head, and said, “This explains a lot!”Suddenly I felt a connection with Nicole, very different from the biological bond I had felt during my pregnancy and at her birth. This was a different type of connection – it was like finding a new friend – someone you instantly like and want to get to know better. For the first time, Nicole as a separate person, with her own thoughts and her own ideas, became real to me. And at that moment, the loss I felt changed in tenor. Mourning the infant that I had given away, which had eased somewhat with the passage of time, evolved into an understanding of the lifelong relationship I had forfeited when I chose not to be her mother.
As Nicole got older, my desire to really know her, and for her to know me, continued and grew stronger. Each visit was bittersweet. My joy in seeing her, in being included in her family, was tempered by the knowledge of my too soon departures. Each interaction was much anticipated and, somehow, never enough. I longed for the time when I could spend some time with Nicole one on one, but I never asked for what I most wanted. I was always wary. I was always tentative.
Initially, I was so careful to not risk upsetting the tenuous balance that had developed in my relationship with Nicole’s parents. As she became a teenager, my fears and concerns shifted. Suddenly, I was afraid to talk to her. My need for this relationship was, I felt, too much. I was afraid to try too hard, afraid to alienate this person whom I wanted to know so desperately.
Besides, what does one say to a teenager? I was reduced to halting phone conversations. “How’s school going? What subjects do you like?” All of those questions that strangers often ask teenagers just to have something to talk about. I knew it was lame, but didn’t know how to fix it.
After high school, Nicole chose to go to a community college in the town where she grew up. I tried to quash the disappointment. I hadn’t realized how much I hoped she might come to one of the universities near me, an option that she and her parents had discussed. Another potential opportunity to develop a relationship was gone.
My communication with Nicole has moved from sporadic e-mails, to somewhat less sporadic FaceBook messages. While I generally have little use for social networking sites, FaceBook has offered me a glimpse into Nicole’s life that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I can look at her pictures, and eavesdrop on the snippets of conversations she has with her friends in the updates on her “Wall.” I can see that she is happy and surrounded by people who care about her and value the beautiful person she has become.
In a recent message, I decided to once again make an offer that I had casually made numerous times over the years. I invited Nicole to come visit. Once again, I hoped, without wanting to hope. Just two days later, there it was – a notice in my e-mail that I had a FaceBook message waiting.
“I would love to come visit you!” she wrote, “How about early June?”
Now, here I am. Anticipation competes with fear and anxiety. What will we talk about? What will we do? How can I make up for missing so much? How can I cram all of myself into an easily digestible package so she can come away with some sense of who I am? How can I get to know her without overwhelming her with questions? Do I even know which questions to ask? Will it be the first of many visits, or the one I look back on wistfully?
The thought that grounds me, that keeps me from spinning myself into frenzy, is that deep down I already know what I need to do. I know that the best course of action is the one I’ve been taking for years. While it’s been painfully slow and difficult for me, letting Nicole set the pace and determine what she wants from this relationship is really my only option. I gave up my right to make decisions for her a long time ago. If this is, in fact a turning point in our relationship, it will be Nicole who determines the direction of the turn, and the speed at which we take it.