As regular readers may recall, I’ve been on a birth family discovery the past two years, ever since Washington State opened their sealed birth records and I got my original birth certificate in the mail.
My birth mother does not want to meet me. And she has asked me not to contact her children, my half brother and half sister. I’ve respected her wishes so far and haven’t reached out to my siblings. I haven’t used her name or pictures of her on this blog.
My birth mother did give me the name of my birth father. He died 20 years ago, but his daughter, my “extra sister” (as she calls herself when we talk on the phone) and her family have welcomed me into the McCourt family. I’m eternally grateful.
I’ve done some genealogical work on my birth family, which has led to some great discoveries.
The truth is, I want to know more than names and dates. I want to know the stories of my birth family. I want to see photos. I want to claim my roots, my story.
And that’s a bit tricky when my birth mother is choosing not to be in contact with me and has asked me not to be in contact with her other kids.
I completely support her decision in 1968 to place me for adoption. I am, quite literally, the woman I am today because of that decision, and I am so grateful she gave me life and gave me up.
This is a bit of speculation on my part, because she didn’t tell me this in the 10 minute phone conversation I had with her 2 years ago, but I am quite certain that shame is at the root of why she won’t meet me now and why she doesn’t want me to track down her other children.
If you haven’t read Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, start with this TED Talk.
When we take on shame, either because we have violated societal or personal expectations for our behavior, we make judgments about our very selves, not just our behavior.When we take on shame, we take on silence. For my birth mother, shame appears to have silenced her and is keeping her from speaking to me and to speaking to her family about me.
As I’m navigating the discovery of my own story, I’m learning how “sticky” that shame is in my life. I do not feel shame about being adopted. It’s a gift in my life. I do not feel shame for having been born.
Yet as I navigate the places her shame requests my silence, I feel her shame trying to cloud over my life too, making me feel I can’t claim my story, trying to keep me from asking questions, meeting my family, etc.
Earlier this summer, I reached out to a woman through Facebook who has the same last name as my birth mother’s mother. I recognized there was a risk that my mother’s story would be exposed, because I didn’t know this woman and I couldn’t tell exactly how closely we were related. But my need to know my own story is stronger than my concern about my birth mother’s secret keeping.
I did not tell her who my mother was, only that I was related to my grandmother. She responded and welcomed me into the family. Her grandfather was my grandmother’s brother, which means her father is my birth mother’s first cousin. I will get to meet this branch of the family this weekend when I go to Spokane to celebrate my parents’ (my actual parents, my adopted parents) 60th wedding anniversary. (Here’s an article about my parents’ double wedding that was written 10 years ago for their 50th).
Turns out, these cousins figured out whose daughter I was by looking at my photo. One of them has suggested I reach out to my birth mother’s sisters, because one of them has done a lot of genealogical work and has all of the information I’m seeking.
I’m mulling that over.
If I reach out to my mother’s sisters, it would surely get back to my mother.
At the same time, they are my aunts.
I don’t know if they know I exist. I don’t know if they would want to know I exist. I do not know how I would be received.
At this point, though, my mother’s shame is driving my story, and I’m tired of the secrecy. As long as I’m enabling the silence of her shame, I won’t discover what my aunts may or may not think of having me in the family. My aunts won’t discover it either.
There is power in storytelling. There is gift in claiming and knowing one’s own story. And by agreeing to live my birth mother’s story of silence, I feel like I’m wearing someone else’s clothing. It doesn’t fit. It chafes. It is uncomfortable. It is not my style.
I recognize the cloud of shame follows me when I make requests of these new cousins to keep secrets, when I don’t contact my siblings, when I don’t share her picture on this blog. The stickiness of shame follows me even as I’m trying to be respectful toward my birth mother and her request.
I also recognize shame offers a weird kind of control. If everyone is silent, the secret will be safe, and all will be well, and I can control how people think of me, etc….
The stickiness of shame reminds me control is an illusion. We can’t control what other people do or say. We can’t control what they think of us. We can’t control whether or not they will judge us or welcome us for past behaviors. We can’t even control whether or not they think past behavior is worth shame in the first place.
And, speaking to my own illusions of control, I cannot control (or remove) the shame my birth mother feels and has carried around with her the past 47 years.
That’s the heartbreak for me. I wish I could take away the shame my mother feels, that has silenced her from claiming her whole story, and is even now trying to silence me. And I can’t take it from her. My counselor asked me yesterday if I could be okay with the fact that I can’t do anything about it. I told her, “not yet. Can I at least get points for acknowledging I can’t do anything about it, even if I am still not at peace with it?” She gave me points.
I will let you know how it goes this weekend when I get to meet my new cousins and hear some more of my story. Thanks for sticking through to the end of a rather long post.