What Meeting My Birth Mother Taught Me About Family
After I was adopted at age 3, my later-in-life reunion with my birth mother changed me in unexpected ways.
My earliest childhood memory is on an American Airlines flight leaving Haiti. I remember wearing a blue dress with frilly white trim, and my new mother handing me a doll that looked like me. It had deep brown skin and short black hair, and I held it close to my tiny body the entire flight.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I have no memories before that plane ride. Even when I see pictures of myself in an orphanage, nothing registers. It’s a different me, one that disappeared when I boarded a flight and started a new life in Canada.
Adoption essentially broke me from my family in Haiti and grafted me onto another family tree. I was adopted when I was 3 and raised by a white Canadian couple who already had three biological sons. My adoptive parents went on to adopt four more children from Haiti, and we had a pretty happy (and wild) childhood.
As I got older though, I struggled with my identity. While I accepted my adoptive parents as my mom and dad, I wanted to find my biological family and answer the question, “Who am I?” Although I had four other adopted siblings from Haiti, none of us were biologically related, and I yearned to find someone who shared my facial features or mannerisms. But I knew searching for my birth mother would be difficult in a country like Haiti where most people lack modern technology like phones and the internet, so I put off the search for many years.
But the longing to find my birth mother never left. It actually became more intense after I moved to Florida, got married and had my own two children. I imagined that if I were able to find my birth mother and find the rest of my family, I would finally feel whole.
In a surprising series of events, I found my birth mother through Facebook. My family is from Pestel, a small village in the mountains of Haiti, and in the summer of 2014 I found a Pestel Facebook page. I sent a private message that I was searching for my family and listed my name, birth date and my parents’ names. The administrator reached out and translated my message into Creole and French. He then shared my message in the group and with his family in Pestel. About two weeks later, I was shocked to receive a message from him that his family had located my family in Haiti.
In a few weeks, I arranged a phone call with my birth mother. With the help of a friend who spoke Creole, my mother verified details in my adoption report that I hadn’t told anyone. Using a neighbor’s smartphone, she sent me a picture, and when it finally loaded, I was looking at a version of myself. Blinking back tears, I knew I had found her.
A year later, I flew to Haiti. In the weeks leading up to my trip, it was hard for me to concentrate on anything else; our reunion was all I could think about. I had watched movies about adoption reunions and reached out to others who had reunited with their families, but our meeting wasn’t anything like I imagined it would be.
I had practiced the first words that I was going to say to my mother. Something like “I’ve missed you” or “I love you.” Instead, the first time I saw her, we gingerly embraced and towering over her, I said, “You’re so small.” During our first hours together, we sat across from each other at the table of the guesthouse where I was staying, asking each other questions through a translator I had hired. I could tell she was nervous, and I wanted to reach out and hold her hand, to share in a kind of physical and emotional intimacy that most families share.
I wanted so badly to feel a closeness that only mothers and daughters experience, but in reality I was meeting a stranger. I spoke English; she spoke Creole. I grew up in a middle class white family, while she grew up in rural Haiti. She was my mother, but 29 years had passed since we had been separated, and the gap between the years, language and culture was difficult to bridge. I was hoping to feel an instant spark. Instead, our connection was awkward and unemotional.
In the five years since our reunion, I’ve thought about how the meaning of family has changed for me. I am grateful for the chance to meet my birth mother because that’s not an option for many adoptees. The meeting gave me a sense of closure, but it didn’t provide an instant relationship. When I returned home after our reunion, my birth mother and I were able to talk over the phone through my friend who spoke Creole. But our conversations rarely went beyond pleasantries, and I started feeling guilty that I couldn’t build that mother-daughter relationship that I had always envisioned us having.
I knew we loved each other but, looking back, I was putting too much pressure on our relationship to look like a typical mother-daughter relationship. After a while, I realized our relationship didn’t have to look like anything except what it was: two adult women doing our best to get to know each other after years apart.
I’ve always been envious of families who are biologically related because their features match and they don’t have to wonder about where they came from. But my reunion with my birth mother showed me family is more than just the people that share your DNA. I’ve accepted that my family doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. I consider my adoptive parents and siblings my family. I consider my network of friends my family. And I consider the many adoptees that I’ve met online and in person part of my family, too.
I’ve come to appreciate the ways my family has supported me. My adoptive mom flew 3,000 miles from Canada to Florida when my daughter was born. Friends have provided a place to stay during a hurricane. My online adoptee friends have provided emotional support and a place to vent when no one else seems to understand.
Family refers to the people who pour into your life, sharing your joys and your sufferings. They are the people who show up for you and the people that you show up for, too, especially when it’s inconvenient. By expanding my definition of family, I’ve taken the pressure off relationships that may not be meant to serve certain emotional needs.
My family in Haiti is special to me, but I’ve let go of the expectation that we will have a traditional bond. My reunion with my birth mother showed there is a difference between relatives and family. The first is based on biology, while family is based on love, time and supporting each other through life’s experiences.