The Other Mother
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Out of the blue, her grown daughter announced that she'd tracked down her birth mother—and that she was coming to dinner soon. Carol Brennan on the crazy quilt of emotions when mom meets mom.Wednesday night, January 12. I walk into the apartment, home from a not good play. Eamon looks up from his computer screen, blows a kiss, and says Joanna wanted me to call her if I got in by 11 or so. "Something the matter?"
"Not that she said."
But my suburban, mother-of-three daughter does not invite a call at 11 on a school night just to chat.
"Hi, honey, what's up? Anything wrong?"
"No, nothing wrong. I've found her." Omigod! With no preamble about who "her" is, I know.
Words I said 40 years ago fill my head: "...and I was a mommy waiting for a baby because I couldn't grow one in my tummy. This other lady could grow a baby, but she wasn't a mommy, so I got to be your mommy. Lucky me!"
The adoption story I told each of my two kids was true as far as it went, a comfy way to explain something far from comfy. I recall 4-year-old Richard in the tub looking up at me, saying, "Too bad for her; she missed a good kid." And for sure she did. Joanna, incisive even at 3, would ask, Why? Why wouldn't a baby grow inside me? How come the other lady couldn't be a mommy? I'd answer as well as I could—analogies with gardens and soil and such, plus a few don't-knows. I didn't mention my two successive miscarriages or the recurrent dream that plagued me for years after: searching frantically for a baby I'd put down somewhere, knowing that it was hungry, hearing its weakening cry....
"Mom?" Joanna's voice in my ear.
"Wow," I manage. "So...how? Where is she? God, this is...exciting." It was—along with terrifying and a lot else. From her teen years on, when I would raise the search issue (because I should? because were I an adopted child, I'd search my head off?), Jo's stance was "I have enough family, Mother," sometimes accompanied by a blue-eyed whammy discussion closer. Suddenly (maybe not suddenly?), at 42, there's been a shift. "I...I didn't know you were looking," I say weakly. "What changed?"
"I don't know—I guess I felt ready to deal with...whatever." Scary as "whatever" might be, I nod. No question her life's in fine shape: married to a soul mate, mother extraordinaire, camp director, benefit auction ace, she and middle son Steven are also about to win Tae Kwon Do black belts.
"I didn't tell you earlier," she says, "because...well, what if I couldn't find her?" This linear logic is quintessential Joanna. She goes on to report how she summoned an online "search angel" specializing in California (Google up "search angel" to find them: many are volunteers—some adopted children or birth mothers themselves) and relayed the data she had. "You know, Mom: name, date, place—that's all you need with the databases today...."
As she explains, my mind flashes backward.
August 22, 1962, Lawton, Oklahoma: We live in a little house near Fort Sill, where my first husband was drafted the minute he finished his ob-gyn residency in New York. Eight-thirty A.M., he's left for the post hospital, Richard for nursery school, and I'm in a gray mood: Our fragile marriage, cut loose from its accustomed moorings, has developed cracks.
And then the phone rings to announce a miracle. A New York doctor we don't actually know has a pal at Mount Zion Hospital, San Francisco, who has just delivered a baby girl whose birth parents want to give her up to a good home.
The New York doc says, "I hear you've got a 3-year-old adopted boy and thought..."