The Reunion with my Birthmother


Adoption Insight by Marcy Axness, PhD | Parenting for PeaceThis article was published in the adoption magazine Roots & Wings in 1993 about my adoption reunion with my birthmother. (I know, “adoption reunion” is an oddly over-descriptive term to use in an article in an adoption series. Blame the tyranny of SEO!)

In the spirit of truth and authenticity, I’m reissuing this cache of 90s articles as I wrote them them, with minimal changes. If there’s some embarrassing punctuation or a cringingly awful mistake, I will make those corrections. If there is a glaringly obsolete reference or fact, I will either update it or clarify it [with a bracketed comment like this.] And I may bend a wee bit to the aforementioned tyranny of SEO, so that as many people will find this article online as possible.

Hmm, what “inside scoop” can I give you on this one? Well, over subsequent years following our initial adoption reunion events and comments, I came to the cringing conclusion that during the time my (then prospective) adoptive parents Bee and Bob were forming a relationship with my (then prospective) birthmother Liz during her pregnancy, Bob was attracted to Liz. In other words, he was only too keen for me to find her these 22 years later.

And, sometime after our adoption reunion, I discovered that Henry Africa’s was one of the biggest pick-up bars in San Francisco. I’ll share more unpublished insights into Liz’ and my reunion relationship as this series unfolds. For now, the reunion.

“Meeting Someone New”

Fifteen years ago, I drove at dusk across the Golden Gate Bridge to a blind date with my birthmother. Rush hour. My excitement registering on the speedometer. The rear-view mirror cranked down, to check and re-check myself every other moment.

In retrospect I wonder, how bad could I have possibly looked to her for this, the second glance at her firstborn? My hands were moist with that rare and exhausting mix of exhilaration, apprehension, and hope.

Most of all, hope. Hope of a connection, a knowingness, a good fit. So much of my hope on that day was unknown to me, a secret cursing beneath the proverbial still waters of my cool and controlled outer presence.

Secrecy was a dominant theme of my life, as it is for many adoptees. Something I could almost taste in the air, like a choking mist of Springtime Glade in the bathroom. The saying goes, a family is as sick as its secrets. Although on that crisp February evening, racing with the fog to San Francisco, I felt not one bit sick, not one bit lacking, I think something very deep in me hoped that the coming reunion would banish the secrecy, lift it as one might lift a spell and set something free, something I didn’t even know was imprisoned.

A treacherous pact

“She was a beautiful swimmer.” I’ll always remember those words that Dad had said about my birthmother.

It took courage, I think, for Dad to venture so far back into his memory. It must have been a treacherous place for him, littered as it was with the debris of painful events he’d  handled in the style of the day, by shuttering them out of consciousness…almost.

Mom and Dad had haplessly stumbled into a treacherous pact to not address the unpleasantries that marred their lives before me. But those memories would have none of the pact. The civilized accusations of Mom’s gold-digging entrapment of Dad, the near-fatal miscarriage, the Downs baby who died in the institution: these exiles had crowded their aching hearts, leaving little room for me.

It was over lunch less than a year before, not long after Mom died of cancer at age 56, that my adoptive father told me his story of my adoption: mutual friends had put them in touch with Liz, my birthmother, when she was well into her pregnancy; she moved up to San Francisco from Santa Barbara to be close to their Marin home; she was a beautiful swimmer, she loved music, she was a very attractive woman, she was bright.

Another mother out there somewhere

Throughout my childhood, I was very matter-of-fact about the idea of having another mother out there somewhere. I do remember fantasizing occasionally that she was really one of my mother’s friends, someone I’d known all along. But when Dad asked me over lunch that day if I wanted to find Liz (Liz—she had a name!), my interest awakened from its long dormancy. Since mine was one of the first independent, open adoptions, I had virtually no search, just a single stumbling block.

My birthmother was married soon after my birth (not to my birthfather), and it was her married name that my adoptive father couldn’t remember. It was all I needed to find her. My parents had maintained contact with Liz for many years after my birth, and when she needed a transfusion during the difficult delivery of her third child, Dad donated blood to Irwin Memorial Blood Bank.

On a whim, Dad called Irwin Memorial; it was their record of this single pint of blood, eighteen years earlier, that provided us her married name! I called the only listing for that name in the book, and found that Liz had been divorced from her husband for many years, and was in fact listed under her maiden name, the name I’d known all along, but it was listed with a middle name that I didn’t know, so I never thought to call it. Needless to say, I was an innocent in the world of searching.

Adoption reunion: Out of time and space

I don’t really remember what Liz and I talked about during that first reunion phone call. I was floating, giddy, out-of-time-and-space. The bottom line was the setting of our date, “Tomorrow, 5:00, Henry Africa’s.”

We hugged awkwardly in the middle of the fern bar, and then talked—a lot. The content of that conversation has also faded from memory. It was beside the point. The point was to gaze at this woman and catch glimpses of my own face reflected back, not as in a mirror, but ethereally, like through a lake, or through enchanted eyes.

To see her hands dance in expressions that echoed mine, to hear her mind mold thoughts and work the world in ways that felt like home. That was an incredible high, and continued to be; in fact, it was that genealogical fix that overshadowed the negative aspects of our relationship in subsequent years, that heady rush of connection which kept me coming back.

And each time I come back, I learn. While reunion is a culmination of hopes, striving, and fantasy—a closure on one hand—it is an opening of very much more. Of a lifelong relationship, of long-buried wounds of loss that resonate off this joyous, age-old connection; of a kaleidoscope of new feelings, orientations, compass-points by which I find Me.

And though that single day of reunion 15 years ago didn’t lift a spell, it contributed to—and perhaps even ignited—the process by which I lifted the spell, slowly, painfully, in fits and starts, freeing myself from the imprisonment of banished feelings.

And now I truly know someone new.

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