The Daughter I Gave Away

Every so often, the media bring us another reunion of adopted children and their natural parents. It typically ends this way: the parent (usually the mother) and child (now an adult) are happy to have found one another. But in time the relationship becomes "troubled." And even in the best of circumstances, the reporter usually adds, the two people can never be more than "friends."

That's not quite right. The stories are doubtless reassuring to adoptive parents-and maybe that's the desired aim-but saying a mother and child become no more than "friends" is getting it all wrong. There are no words to describe the relationship. No, they don't become friends in the traditional sense; and, no, they aren't mother and child in the traditional sense either. "Mom" wasn't there when the child scraped a knee or fought with the school bullies. But these two people, connected in the most primal sense, are a little bit of both, straddling a gulf of time and circumstance, searching for a new ground.

That's how it is for me and my daughter. Certain that I could not properly care for her when she was born, I surrendered her for adoption shortly after birth. When she was not yet 16, I sought her out. Soon after, I met her at a Midwest airport with her adoptive father looking on. Since then, we've visited many times, and she and her parents have visited my husband and me on the East Coast. Jane spent two entire summers with us, and lived with us for a bumpy year when she was in her early 20s. We had our share of disagreements about the hours she kept, smoking in the house and cleaning up after herself.

The TV stories about such reunions almost always stress that the relationship isn't a sea of tranquillity. The suggestion left hanging is that maybe the reunion was a mistake. But such a relationship by its very nature is bound to be difficult. Growing up and breaking away from one's parents is difficult enough for everyone, and more so for an individual whose early history is fractured. Having a "difficult" time is part of everyone's growing up. Jane and I, with more reason than most to have a "difficult" time, had just that during the year she lived with us.

When she is here for an extended visit, guilt still clouds our bond: guilt that I surrendered her to adoption; guilt that I didn't/couldn't/wouldn't raise her; guilt that I can't be a better parent today. And she plays to this guilt. In rational moments she can understand why I surrendered her for adoption-and we don't fudge the truth: being adopted always means someone, for some reason, had to reject you first. Jane can empathize with the circumstances-a young, unmarried woman in 1966- which led to her adoption, but logic doesn't always win over feelings, and at times the guilt she's laid on me (and I have plenty of guilt of my own) has been exhausting.

But I'm not suggesting that either of us would be better off without the other. No matter how angry we've gotten, no matter how much trouble and turmoil, not knowing each other is unthinkable. I love her very much and cannot imagine my life without her in it. Before, instead of the problems and pleasures that real people cause, we had only shadows to box with in our dreams. It was-there's no other way to say it-horrendous.

And so I'm excited to see her when she comes. We go shopping, to lunch, to the movies, like any mother and daughter. We discuss her hopes and dreams and ordinary things. Certain moments take on a special poignancy: being with her on her birthday, receiving a Mother's Day card and telling her I love you and hearing it back. We don't try to make up for lost years. I cry a few tears when she leaves, and wonder when we'll see each other again. We are close, yes. We also have the typical barriers parents and children erect between each other. They come with the territory.

So if our relationship is "troubled," it is no more so than most. Sometimes we talk in a kind of shorthand that seems to make our years apart irrelevant. If you didn't know, you wouldn't suspect that I hadn't raised her. We have both become accustomed to how much she is like me in ways that she is not like her adoptive parents. She looks like me (I can also see her father in her face, in some of her mannerisms, too) and we wear the same size. Our tastes, from clothes to politics, are more similar perhaps than if we'd always been together. She never had to choose something different from Mom just to be different.

At 25, she is grown, married and a new mother, living in the town where she grew up. More than 10 years have passed since we've known each other. She was pleased and surprised by what my mother had sent her last Christmas: two crocheted baby blankets and a baby sweater, made by a grandmother she's only met twice. Jane told me how she took the gift over to show her adoptive parents. And how they were properly enthusiastic. All of us long ago made peace with our places in Jane's life. She calls me Lorraine; "Mom" is her other mother.

But to diminish our relationship to "friendship," without the bond of blood, is wrong, just as it would be wrong to suggest that adoptive parents are no more than temporary caretakers. We are more than friends but less than mother and child who were always together. She has a history of people, places, events about which I know only the sketchiest outline. We try to fill them in, but it's not the same as being there. I suspect we will go on like this for the rest of our lives.