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Uncovering secrets to claim the truth
By choosing to share her personal story through her writing, Ann set me on a path to accepting my family's secrets
During one of the bi-annual residencies in my MFA program, I found myself sitting with a group of writers who were sharing adoption stories over lunch. Several of the women had been adopted, and their adoption experiences played heavily in much of their fiction and nonfiction writing.
After listening to their stories, Ann, who had not been adopted herself but instead had given a son up for adoption, added softly, “I grieved for my son for years.”
As Ann shared her grief, I watched the faces of the adoptees. I tried to read how her story sat with them. One woman leaned forward and reached toward Ann as if she were grasping for something invisible from the rest of us. Was she wondering if her bio mom felt grief too? Was she hoping she had?
Ann continued, describing her struggle to claim herself as a mother, how she spent a lifetime wondering whether to come out to friends and colleagues about having a son she didn’t know, and about how she felt when her adult son wished her a Happy Mother’s Day for the first time.
In her essay, “Ain’t I a Mother, Too?,” which Ann had workshopped in the session right before lunch, she writes about a conference speaker she once heard, an adoptee named Jill, who changed her perception of herself:
Jill tosses a little gold nugget of truth into the air, seemingly meant just for me. I catch it. Unbeknownst to her, in one short phrase, she officially anoints me as a “Mother.” Couched in content that is now lost to me, Jill uses a simple little phrase, “…the mothering work of pregnancy.” Gravity pulls me down, deep into my seat. I hold tight to this little nugget. I roll it around in my palms. It is round, smooth, golden, dense with truth. “I am a Mother,” I think. I absolutely did the mothering work of pregnancy.
When Ann put her fork down, sat back, and lifted a glass of water to her lips, I knew she had shared all she could that day.
To take the focus off her, I decided to contribute to the conversation, unaware of how what I was about to reveal would impact the group. “I have kind of a different take on an adoption story,” I began nonchalantly. Everyone’s head turned in my direction. Evidently, they were hungry for more stories. Taken aback by the intensity of their interest, I stumbled a bit when I said, “I was adopted too—by my biological father.”
“What?” They replied, almost in unison.
I went on to explain a tale of secrets and deception perpetuated by my parents. Our parents told my older brother and me that our father, my mom’s first husband, had died when my mother was pregnant with me. “The fact that my mom’s first husband died is true,” I revealed. “The fact that he was our father was not.”
“Wow!” one person exclaimed.
“How did you find out?” another asked.
I shared that I was in my 50s when a family friend told me the truth. Subsequent DNA testing proved that my mother’s second husband, the man who legally adopted my brother and me, had no need to adopt us because we were, in fact, his biological children. Shame of their illicit affair—he was married to another woman at the time-- kept them from admitting the truth, even to their children.
I noticed Ann absorbing my words in thoughtful silence. After others finished commenting, Ann simply said, “Oh, Annette, you must write that.”
I can honestly say that this had never crossed my mind before Ann’s emphatic nudge. I struggled with the idea of writing a personal memoir and nothing could be more personal than this. Both of my parents had already died by this time, so I wasn’t worried about how they’d respond. But when family secrets are buried so deep that no one dares utter the truth, it’s inconceivable to shine a light on them.
Because of Ann’s experience with her son, she is someone who hungers for truth and wants others to be free of the pain and grief she felt in keeping him a secret. While earning a PhD in rural sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Ann fell in love with writing. She takes pleasure in beauty, music, poetry, books, and the stories of strong women. These factors combined with her own adoption story make it no surprise she wanted to know more about mine.
I felt as if the Muse had spoken, and I had no choice but to accept her invitation. Because of Ann’s clarity about what I needed to do, the focus of my writing immediately changed. With her ongoing encouragement, and support from faculty and other students, I rewrote my creative thesis to center on the impact that my family’s secret-keeping had on my life.
Each time I return to my still unfinished manuscript, I channel Ann’s vulnerability and honesty in her writing about her son, hoping it can foster the courage I need to give birth to my own adoption story. Thanks to Ann, it will happen. Stay tuned.
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