By Juliette Oase, leader of API of Portland, Oregon
**Orginally published in the Winter 2007-08 Adoption issue of The Journal of API
I remember the day my daughter turned two years and five months old.
The reason I remember it so well, imprinted like a stamp on my heart, is because when I was exactly that age, two years and five months old, my life came tumbling down in a way that life never should for someone that age.
At two years and five months old, I was the girl people read about on the front page of the newspaper. The tragic story of my mother’s death, shot while walking down the street in Los Angeles, not only made the nightly news but carried into the morning shows as well. People wondered, no doubt, whatever would happen to that cute little girl in the stroller…the one who watched her mother die on the street.
For my own daughter, her two-year-and-five-month benchmark was the day she met her baby brother for the first time at the hospital. I looked at her and wondered if she knew how dramatically her life had just changed? With that new little bundle to hold and love, my daughter was happy about the addition that marked her benchmark. For her, there was an excitement with that addition.
For the first two years and five months of my life, I lived alone with my mommy. She was all I had, no father in the picture or any siblings. But fortunately, I had an aunt and uncle living way up north in Oregon whose names became known through letters to my mom. And, it was through those letters that my mom decided that, if anything should happen to her, it was that aunt and uncle who could best raise her daughter.
A New Home
When the call came through, they stepped up to the plate and bravely accepted me as their daughter from that day forward. Although they understood there would be struggles along the road of life and suspected that there would be some extremely difficult times adjusting, they were up for the challenge. They saw me as a gift and treated me as such. That’s what I remember about my early childhood.
The gift that they gave me was being a mom and a dad. They could have just continued being an aunt and uncle to me, but by being a mom and dad they made me feel complete growing up. I never grew up feeling like an orphan or a “ward of the state,” I was just a normal kid with a mom and a dad, and that was the greatest gift.
What is Best for the Child?
“My dad spent years regretting that they had me call them “Mom” and “Dad.” He always said they should have just stayed “Uncle” and “Aunt.” He felt it would have made it easier.
I recently explained to my dad that I feel that was something that saved me. I always felt complete having a mom and a dad. I didn’t grow up feeling like an orphan, someone being raised by family. I had a mom and a dad. That was priceless for me. When my birth mother died, she died. Memories of her are vague but they stay in my heart. I still cry when I think of her, and I am crying as I write this. I can’t imagine her last thoughts as she died, concerned for me. No doubt. She is gone, and I had to go on with my life. At two and a half. I needed a mommy.
It may be hard to swallow, as a mom, reading that and thinking about your own child. But what is best for the child? Do we ever really know? My “mom” never ever took away from my birth mother. She always kept pictures of my birth mother around, and we always talked about her. I know for years my mom may have felt she lived in my birth mother’s shadow, never living up to a memory. My mom was only 25 when she took me in. A brave lady, who just desperately wanted to be a mom and knew she would never conceive. I don’t know if she would have done things differently. But as an adult going back to that brave lady at 25, I would ask her not to change a thing.”
~ Juliette Oase
They never made me feel like my birth mother was replaced – there was just a new chapter in my life. I grew up grateful that my birth mother had the brilliant insight to make sure that if anything should happen to her, I could go on living my life with a mom and dad. Her life may have been over, but my life had to go on.
As I grew older, those early years of my life were remembered through stories told by my mom, stories that made me smile when I was younger and brought tears to my eyes when I grew up and became a mom myself.
A Silent Start
I learned that when I first came to live with them, I wouldn’t talk to her at all – no doubt, because of the emotions surrounding that early trauma. She could hear me in the bedroom playing with my dolls, and they were talking, but whenever she entered the room, I only gave her silence. I wouldn’t go to her either, only to my “dad,” which must have broken her heart more times than I care to think about.
Every day, over and over, she would say to me, “You have a new mommy, and she loves you very much.” She yearned to hear me utter something back, but I was stubborn.
Days turned into months. One day, during my bath while she was washing my hair, some soap got in my eyes. I screamed out, “MAW-MEE! MAW-MEE!” at the top of my lungs and sobbed while she held me. When she finally calmed me down and eventually put me to sleep, she went back to the living room and told my dad that, “She finally called me ‘Mommy,’ did you hear her?”
“You mean in the bathroom?” he asked.
When she nodded and a tiny tear slid down her cheek, he pulled her close into a hug and said, “Give it time, Babe. Give it time.”
A few weeks after that soapy eye experience, my mom said that I was looking at her with curiosity while she was changing my clothes. According to my mom, I looked up at her from the bed and said, “I have a new Mommy.”
From that day on, she was Mom.
Saved by Love
I know people say that adopted moms could never understand the love that a birth mom has for a child, but I strongly believe that birth moms will never understand the love an adopted mom has for her child. I believe there is a maternal instinct that kicks in when a helpless child is placed in our path.
My mom’s maternal instincts certainly kicked in when she crawled into bed with me every night to read me stories and sing me songs until I fell asleep. Probably because she thought of me as her “gift,” she did this far longer than any other mom I knew – would you believe middle school? By profession, she was a teacher and always plotted to work in the same school that I attended so she could be close by. When I think back on those school years, my mom was always there.
Yes, I did go through those predictable terrible teens, with huge identity crisis issues that generally plague adopted children. There were some struggles and some tough years, but we made it through. During the toughest times, I always knew I was able to keep going forward because of the strong foundation of love I had from my parents.
Although my birth mother’s picture always rested in the place of pride on the mantle, I barely remember those first two years. Probably because of the trauma, my life felt like it started “fresh” when I was two years and five months. But, through the years, my parents and other family members have helped me pull together the pieces I needed to feel whole.
Becoming a Mother Myself
As an adult, I always knew I wanted children. I wanted to know what it was like to love someone as much as my mom clearly loved me, a love I couldn’t even imagine. I wanted a piece of it. At first, I thought I would adopt, but then I wanted to know about that other type of love.
Together, my husband and I decided to have children, and once I knew I was pregnant, I wanted my mom to be a part of the birthing as much as possible. I knew I was going through that piece of life that she had never been given. I knew how much she had wanted to experience a pregnancy as well as giving birth.
And so, my mom was there by my side for the birth of my daughter. Something happened in that room, something magical and bonding for all of us, and the bond grew deeper when I gave my daughter my mom’s middle name.
Now, here I am three and a half years later with two children. People ask me all the time if I think that adopted moms can love their children as much as birth moms do – and what I believe is this: The love may be different, but it is just as strong.
Nothing Like the Love of a Mother for Her Adopted Child
Adopted parents choose to take on children, and in particular, children with all the mysteries and excess baggage that unravels down the road of life. My mom did not need to go through labor and breastfeeding to form the strong bond that we have today. What she needed was a lot of love, a ton of patience, and a depth of understanding that didn’t falter when it felt like it probably should have. Throughout my childhood, she followed her instincts, which is exactly what attachment parents do. She gave me what I needed most.
Today, I look at the mom I am and I know, for a fact, that the only reason I can give that same unwavering, unconditional love – that view that children are a gift – is because I “learned it” from my mom. Agatha Christie once said that “one of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life … is to have a happy childhood.”