The dilemma I am a 50-year-old man, adopted at birth. I left it to two years ago to trace my natural mother (largely because of guilt that it could be construed as a betrayal of my adoptive parents). However, more recently curiosity, or a real need to know, got the better of me. Through an aunt I got a letter to my mother. She was horrified because her husband (whom she married six weeks after my birth and I suspect is my natural father) apparently knew nothing about me, but he found out by accident by opening my letter. I have two half-brothers and a half-sister (quite possibly they are full-blood siblings) who know nothing about me. Because of my mother’s distress, I agreed to promise not to contact her again or any other member of “her family“. Now I am angry. With her and with myself. I won’t break a promise, but I am angry I gave the promise. The matter feels unresolved. Morally, who has the rights here?
Mariella replies Now you’re asking! That’s a real Pandora’s box you’ve prised open. Not that anyone would blame you for acting on your impulses. Plenty of adopted children, no matter how happily raised, find themselves compelled to uncover the secret of their biological roots in later years. I certainly understand the desire to discover “who you really are” in adulthood, but I’m not convinced that tracing your bloodline is the key, or that finding “home” is an ambition unique to those not raised by their birth parents. To be asking big questions about your place on the planet is natural as you reach your half century. You are at the perfect age to become preoccupied with such matters and you are hungry for tangible answers to what are really more existential questions. In terms of seismic life changes our 50s are rivalled only by our teens for the emotional turbulence taking place. Seeking your birthparents, questioning your sexuality, discarding long-term relationships and changing career direction are all common and offer pertinent examples of how what’s happening in your body is echoed in your head as you hit real middle age. We may have more money, leisure time and even wisdom than we did earlier, but the desire to tether yourself to something solid also becomes pervasive. I suspect there are many answers to why you started seeking your mother in earnest and not all of them will be connected to your early abandonment.
It may be useful to bear in mind that while many adopted children are eager to trace their parents, there are even more of the population, who grew up with theirs, trying to create serious distance from them. Parents are rarely the answer to our dreams, or even a feature of them – they’re useful in childhood and an annoying nuisance when we’re grown up. As a parent myself, it’s a realisation I’ve come to with extreme reluctance but serious conviction.
Your mother’s response to your unsolicited contact may surprise some readers and horrify others, but it really just confirms that she may have had profound reasons for giving you up. Without answers you are naturally making presumptions about the circumstances of your adoption. There’s no convincing evidence that your mother married your natural father – in fact, I’m tempted to argue the opposite. It’s equally possible that she found herself pregnant and was forced to choose between being an unmarried mother or her now husband’s bride. It won’t have been an easy choice 50 years ago and I’ve no doubt it continues to haunt her, but that doesn’t mean she feels able to confront or reveal her secret. You may be the surviving evidence of a long buried and, to her mind, shameful affair which would explain why she was less than delighted to hear from you.
There is certainly no moral blueprint for the conundrum you find yourself in. You have every right to push for acceptance but no right, I’m afraid, to demand it. Instead of getting angry and frustrated you should first reconcile yourself to what it is you are really looking for? Your mother, naturally, but also perhaps a place to feel accepted and belong? Despite romantic indoctrination it’s unlikely that any person, let alone one with whom you share no history, only biological matter, can singlehandedly satisfy such an ambition. You’ve found her and discovered that she isn’t what you hoped for, or at least that her response to you is far from satisfactory. Now you have to decide whether genes are enough to make pursuing her a continuing ambition. If you are after family your siblings might have more to offer, but be aware that you run the risk of a similar reception. Having made your presence felt perhaps the best plan would be to stand down and wait for your mother to become aquainted with your presence in her world. Events move very much faster these days and for the older generation keeping up can be quite a struggle. And if your mother doesn’t come looking for you I appreciate it will cause you much heartache, but she may have good reason to avoid contact or she may be the sort of person you wouldn’t want to have contact with. Either way your life has evolved perfectly well without her and will continue to do so if she fails you now.
Thankfully there are some on your path who get a more positive reaction from their birth parents, but a happy conclusion and unqualified welcome into a readymade new family is by no means guaranteed. Any future relationship with your birth mum should evolve as an added blessing, rather than your life’s ambition.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1