For adoptees, home can be a very strange concept.
Being adopted, I have found, means being familiar with many different kinds of love, many varieties of connection. It’s a roller-coaster of sorts. There’s an immense amount of gratitude, yet an overarching sense of loss persists and permeates every interaction, every decision, and every relationship.
But we are not always allowed to acknowledge this loss. We are told to be thankful, as though grief and gratitude cannot coexist.
I was born in Rzeszów, Poland, in July 1991. My mother had just turned fifteen years old, and her parents made the decision to place me in the local orphanage. My birth mother, upon leaving the hospital, went to town to try to gather details about my whereabouts. They could tell her nothing. The records were sealed.
Growing up, I always knew I was adopted. It was not a big deal and certainly not a secret. My parents were very open about our family story, and supportive of my attempt to reach out to my birth mother once I was an adult. I began to do as much research as I could on my own. I do not know much Polish – although I’m learning – and had little information to work with. I started by searching my birth last name. There were not many results. I was disappointed, but I kept trying. I posted in Polish-American forums. I joined genealogy websites. I was hungry for answers. I wanted to know where I came from.
Then I found a man with my last name on Facebook. And he lived in Rzeszów. Could this be a connection? I messaged him. I waited. I waited. Quite frankly, I had forgotten about the message altogether when, almost a year later, I received a reply.
The message was long, and completely in Polish. I scanned through quickly and read; a woman had responded. She mentioned the hospital I was born in, and the date I was born. It all matched up. “I have been waiting for this moment for 21 years,” she wrote. She had had no idea where I was, if I was alive or dead.
The person I had originally messaged was her son, my biological brother.
I printed out the letter and ran outside to my dad, whose native language is Polish. It was a warm spring day and he was engrossed in yard work. I pushed the note towards him. “Dad, read this. Please. I think it’s my birth mother. I really think it’s her.” My father abandoned his project, went inside, sat on the couch, and read the note. I watched his eyes dart back and forth. “What does it say?” I inquired eagerly. My dad looked at me. I saw him quickly wipe a tear from his eye before he said, “This is it. This is her.”
It became clear I had to meet her. Plans were made.
This upcoming reunion yielded mixed reactions from extended family, acquaintances, and anyone who felt I would benefit from their opinion.
A few weeks ago, someone overheard my conversation and remarked, “Oh, you’re meeting your birth mother? How nice.” I thanked her. Then she proceeded with, “So where is your mom now?” Confused, I replied, “Well, she’s home right now—” The woman interrupted, “Well after you meet your birth mother, will she still be your mom?”
How does one respond to a question like that?
Others have asked, “Well, what did your [adoptive] parents think about that? Were they okay with it?” As if my searching for my birth family was a rejection of my adoptive one. As if one type of love could replace another.
While I can understand how someone might arrive at these conclusions, that’s not how it transpired at all. My parents were very supportive of my search. My mom encouraged it, saying, “It would be great to know more about your health history.” My dad, who grew up in Poland and is now a certified Polish-English translator, was absolutely instrumental in establishing a connection with my birth mother. When we first Skyped, two and a half years ago, he translated for hours. “Pro bono,” he quipped.
From the very beginning, my adoptive parents’ honesty let me know that looking for clues from my past would be accepted. It would not be seen as an act of rejection or severing ties. It would be – and is – an addition of family, not the opposite.
When I was a child, hearing about “my adoption story” was like hearing about someone else’s life in great detail. Except here, there were photos, memoirs, notes my mother kept in her beautiful cursive handwriting. But I was in those photos, and this is my life.
I cannot remember a time when I perceived one mom as more important than the other, one as more loving, one as more “real,” and I never will. My birth mother brought me into this world, and my Mom taught me to read, took me doctor’s appointments, and helped me with math homework for endless hours. My birth mother gave so many of her characteristics: her dark, wavy, thick hair, her green eyes, her love of singing and reading books. My Mom – and Dad – raised me. They encouraged me to go to college, and then grad school.
…an addition of family, not the opposite.
My mom taught me to self-advocate, and, through her example, how to be the source of gentle support and strength. My mom’s love is a soothing cup of tea after a long day; a tender warmth that I knew I could rely on. And 4,000 miles away, my birth mother had never stopped loving me. She would message me: “I’m sorry I could not raise you, I am so sad that I cannot hug you right now.”
To attempt to compare their love is impossible. Every relationship is complex; to describe one of my mothers as “real” and not the other does a disservice to both their and my experiences.
How do I begin to describe meeting the woman who carried me for nine months? It felt almost surreal. We hugged for the longest time, and then broke apart, tentatively touching each other’s faces. Was this the real thing? Was this finally happening? She stroked my hair, almost as if I was still a child. “To samo,” she murmured. The same. The same coarse, brown waves; the same green eyes. The same smile, except she’s got the gap in her front teeth that I lost when my baby teeth fell out.
She wanted to wash my hair. In broken English, she explained that she had never gotten to do this before. I took off my shirt and leaned over the tub as she rinsed, shampooed, and rinsed again. Water splashed down my shoulders and arms. This was certainly nothing like having my hair washed at the salon before a cut. It felt deeply personal, and almost a little odd to be sharing all these experiences with someone who I had just met. Yes, she was my mother—but in some ways, she felt more like a stranger with whom I happened to share very specific characteristics.
A language barrier sat starkly between us at all times, which led to more than a few misunderstandings. Knowing how to articulate colors and months of the year doesn’t help much when you’re trying to catch up on decades of missed time. Sometimes we turned to Google Translate. Other times, my birth mother would call for my brother, who knew a bit more English, to make sense of our attempts at conversation.
Finally, my birth mother acquiesced: we couldn’t do this alone. So, on a sunny day in June, she, my brother, and I made our way to the park near her apartment, accompanied by a close friend of my family who happened to be a professional translator. “Talk to Beata,” my friend told my birth mother. “I’m not here to judge but only to translate.” And talk we did. For over an hour, I heard a little bit about everything: Her childhood, what her relationship was like with my biological father, and the agony of spending over two decades not knowing what happened to her child. I had known that it wasn’t her choice to place me for adoption, but never before had I heard so many details. For the first time, the weight of my birth mother’s trauma truly hit me. I reached out to embrace her and told her that I could never blame her for anything; that all I am is thankful.
I can only hope she believes me.
I’m still processing parts of my trip to Poland. Memories come back in fragments: In my mind, I again see the handwritten letter signed by my birth grandfather relinquishing any rights to me. I remember hugging the woman at the orphanage that once cared for me when I was only a few months old. I remember talking with my birth brother for the first time, and eating ice cream together while walking downtown—like any other brother and sister that hadn’t spent decades of their lives not knowing one another.
After 23 days in Poland, I feel a sense of peace: I’ve put together some missing pieces of my life, and the circle is complete, unbroken.
If there’s anything I’d want other adoptees to know, it’s this: It’s not always easy. Reunions are hard. But to be able to say thank you to the women at the orphanage, to the doctor who delivered me, and of course to my birth mother was the greatest blessing. There will always be a lingering feeling that we missed so many years together. Mostly, though, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
I know now with greater certainty what I had already suspected;
There are many kinds of love. And they are all as real, valid, and beautiful as the next.