My daughter is building a relationship with the mother I grew up without

November 7 | Guest post by Pauline Gaines
My daughter and her Grandmother swimming in the river.

Last weekend I watched my nine-year-old daughter Francesca swim in the Hudson River with my mother. This would not have been a remarkable event if I had ever gone swimming with my mother as a child. Or listened to her read bedtime stories or felt her lips on my cheek or watched her eyes widen in delight as I presented her with a hand-made Mother's Day card.

I didn't do any of these things with my mother because I didn't meet her until I was a junior in college. (The circumstances of her secret pregnancy with me, my adoption by my adoptive parents, and my reunion with my birth mother are intricate and can be read here.) After reality crashed our euphoric whirlwind reunion, and we were faced with the task of accepting who the other truly was instead of the fantasies we had projected, our relationship sputtered and we had little contact for years. Lifecycle events over the past two decades — particularly the birth of my two children — reconnected us in a cautious, but more genuinely intimate way.

Adoption, divorce, losing parents to death, losing children through custody battles, finding long-lost relatives — all these events have touched my life and have made me keenly aware that no relationship is forever, that parent-child bonds can be severed, that if you work hard sometimes those bonds can be renewed, and that relationships don't always progress in a linear fashion. Sometimes they grow in circuitous, quixotic, leapfrogging ways.

Years of penny-pinching single-motherhood and exhaustion from post-divorce litigation had made cross-country visits to relatives prohibitive. But after my father's memorial service last spring, I began to experience clutchy, wheezy pangs of panic that my daughter, my only child that lives with me, the only child I still feel honest referring to as "my child," would never get to know, in any meaningful way, her one remaining grandparent — my birth mother — if I didn't seize the day.

So I booked the cheapest red-eye I could find and flew with Franny to New York for Memorial Day weekend. My birth mother, Suzanne, lives by the Hudson River, in a village filled with Victorian gingerbread houses and populated by artists, therapists, and Type-As who commute to swanky offices in Manhattan.

The rain that had pelted New York all spring lifted when we arrived and the days that followed were warm and sun-drenched, the air slightly humid and thick with the smell of freshly-mown grass. Franny has done most of her traveling with her father's family, who organize trips that involve private jets, safaris, and week-long ski passes. Now that she's old enough to recognize the differences in her extended family's lifestyles, I wondered how she would feel about a vacation of simple pleasures.

I also wondered how she would feel about her grandmother, whom she had met only a few times, and how my birth mother would feel about spending a chunk of time with the daughter of the daughter she didn't get to raise. Given our complicated back story, would the visit be filled with painful questions and awkward pauses?

It wasn't. Not once. Maybe it would have, if my birth mother hadn't taught art to children for the past 40 years, or if Franny had ever met a person she couldn't chat up. The two of them fell into a seamless, easy rhythm. They could have been any grandmother and granddaughter doing regular grandmother-granddaughter things.

They took walks and collected leaves.

They picked herbs from the garden. They made dinner together. Franny perfected her special sauce of lemon juice, lime juice, rosemary, basil, mint, salt and pepper, which she drizzled over everything we ate that weekend with the exception of dessert. When Suzanne "oohed" and "ahhed" over her culinary endeavors, Franny beamed and announced her plans to open a restaurant one day called Dinner at Franny's.

On Saturday we drove into Manhattan, where Franny met her pen pal who was visiting from Ohio. Suzanne snapped a photo of the moment they saw each other for the first time. Everyday, Franny helped her grandmother water the plants. They took turns spraying the hose into the air and made a rainbow.

The Hudson River lies at the end of Suzanne's street. So we strolled two blocks, past Victorian homes with large wraparound porches, toward the river. Franny announced that she wanted to live there because "you can walk down the street in your bathing suit and no one looks at you funny." Suzanne has an easy, mellifluous laugh, and she laughed at this.

Suzanne's friends have a house at the edge of the Hudson, so we crossed their backyard and plopped our towels on the steps that led down to the rocky banks. Franny, like her grandmother, has the constitution for ice-cold water. I don't, so I sat on the steps and watched the two of them swim past the dock, deep into the River, their heads bobbing at the surface.

I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation — "Where does that bridge go?"; "Look at all the sailboats!"; "Are there sharks in here?" — but mostly I heard their laughter bouncing off the water into the twilight air. I reflected on the things Franny and my birth mother have in common: freckles, love of nature, comfort in the water, an ability to be fully present in the moment.

I have always been more of an observer, so I walked along the grass, snapping pictures of them with my iPhone. For years every interaction I had with Suzanne was tinged by a pit-in-my-stomach longing for the childhood I never got to have with her and feverish daydreaming of what it would have been like to grow up as her daughter.

Looking out onto the water, I noticed that the familiar lurching wistfulness was gone. I no longer needed fantasies of lost years because I had the present. In this moment that was both remarkable and unremarkable, Franny was swimming with her grandmother in the river.

  1. This piece and the back story on your blog really resonated with me.

    I just recently obtained information about my adoption, after finding out I was pregnant with my first child. Although only non-identifying information of birth parents was given, the info that I received was so satisfying. This was since the only thing I had for years was the stories told by my adoptive mom and dad.

    In either case, I dream of being able to finally meet my birth mom and having my daughter connect with her too.

    • I hope that happens for you too. It has given me a sense of completeness.

  2. I too am post-divorce with god-parents! I raise my children I isolation {it seems-but may be an overstatement}. I long for family and support and to know that I am not the only mother out there that experiences this odd situation is comforting… Do you feel supported as a single mom? Do you have any family who lives close by? I'd like to learn more about you social support system?

    • I actually am remarried now, but was a single mom for four years, with no family nearby. I did have (and still do have) great friends, who were my support system.

      • Thanks for sharing! I will be visiting your blog soon! What was the biggest struggle of not having any family? (I moved too much to have great friends) but we are settled now and I'm slowly making a support system!

  3. What a lovely story. Adoption is such a blessing.

  4. Pauline, thank you for the honesty in this post and for your beautiful description of the budding relationship between your daughter and birth mother. This post brought tears to my eyes. You reminded me of how tenuously relationships exist, even when we believe we're on solid footing. Also, we adopted our daughter and she's fast approaching 3 years old. We've begun to talk more about diverse families with an added focus on adoptive families, laying the groundwork to inform her that she is adopted. In truth, I've lamented the need to share with her that she's adopted. Intellectually, I'm completely there, but my heart screams "No!" It's difficult to know what to anticipate. What feelings will she experience as the waves of more information lap into her life over the years? How much of a role will she want us to play in discovering her birth family? The questions are endless. Today, the professionals say one thing, but years ago, they said another. Determining what's right feels like standing on the edge of a field packed with land mines. Your sharing of your desire to connect with your mother for your daughter's sake is an important reminder of the responsibility we have to our Nugget. Also, your courage (I don't write "courage" lightly.) to bridge unfamiliar territories is inspiring.

    • Have you read any OpenAdoption blogs? They might help you answer some of your questions. Heather at Production Not Reproduction (www.productionnotreproduction.com/) has good list and is an adoptive parent herself.

      • Also, you might want to check out the book Making Room in Our Hearts. It has a heap of different people talking about different types of adoption including adoptees talking about when they found out they were adopted and how they felt / feel about it now. Good luck.

      • thank you for both of your suggestions. i'm thrilled to have these additional resources. i've poked around online, but nothing has really resonated with me, so i've read several books. i've had some conversations with adoptees, but not enough. thank you for this tip.

  5. Hi Robyn:

    Thank you for your kind words — I'm glad my piece resonated with you. I think I understand why telling your daughter she's adopted is scary for you. And, you're right, the professional conventional wisdom has changed, and probably will continue to do so. As an adult adoptee, I would recommend telling your daughter about her birth history soon, even though that may be difficult. In the long run it's better not to have secrets, and often adopted kids have a sense that they're adopted even if they're not told. Best, Pauline.

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