Two years ago, I came up with the idea to host a writing workshop for women who made adoption plans for their children. It’s called Passage Writes: Alaska Birth-Moms’ Stories. You see, as an adoptive parent, I’m on one side of the wilderness, looking in. But I want to know what it’s like to be the birth-parents, on the other side, looking in to the same open space – the space where we watch our child grow.
My metaphor isn’t just literary either. I’ve actually stood across a field from my son Gabriel’s birth-mom, with our child in the middle, as we both moved in closer to him. He started with me, ran toward her, then paused. I watched as he turned his head back and forth, looking at her, looking at me. I saw on his face that he didn’t know who to go to. He shouldn’t have to pick. So we went to him, exchanging hugs and holding back tears.
My interest in birth-parents’ experiences might seem voyeuristic. But it’s not. It’s practical. If you’ve not gathered it already, Gabriel and I are in an open adoption with his birth-parents, including members of his biological family. We text periodically, exchange gifts on special occasions, and often hang out together. I experience a lot with them, but I don’t know what it’s like to be watching this child’s life unfold from their vantage point. So to help my son understand why his birth-parents made adoption plans for him, I feel like I need to know.
I’ve looked everywhere for these types of stories – the accounts from the people who made adoption plans for their children or who had their children surrendered for adoption after foster care placement. Their stories hardly exist.
Since my friends know I’m a graduate student in creative writing, focusing on nonfiction, they have told me I need to write them.
“Start with Gabriel’s birth-parents’ stories first,” friends have urged. “Then move out from there.”
I know they mean well, but I can’t write their stories. It wouldn’t be the same. Try as I might, it’d still have my bent, my voice. Plus, I have their child. I won’t take their stories too.
So that’s how I came up with the idea of Passage Writes. I decided to create a safe space where birth-parents – and all people on the biological side of the child’s family – could write their stories, in their own words. In fact, the name Passage Writes came to be because I was thinking about important life transitions, you know, the stereotypically understood “passage rites” – those moments where we know our lives are changing, but we’re just not sure how yet.
I like “rites of passage” because the uncertainty embedded in them until the transitions are complete doesn’t bother me. I think it’s because I skirt the boundaries of many identities out there. Mom but not biologically. Writer but not yet author. Advocate but sporadically. Some people might say I’m minimizing myself. Well I think that’s ridiculous. Just because I know I occupy a strange space doesn’t mean I’d trade it for the world. It’s just that I know more about what it’s like to be on the periphery than I let on.
Usually I’m okay with all the ambiguity in my life. It’s other people’s emotions and experiences that I want to make sense of. They ground me. They help me understand myself better. I experience a concreteness in these real-life interactions that I don’t so easily discover when I peruse my thoughts alone.
However, through the process of organizing Passage Writes, I’ve gotten lots of feedback. The external and internal conversations I’ve had are shaping me, and I think I’m better off for it. For instance, I knew it would be hard to convince birth-moms it was safe to tell their stories, and I was right. I had to overcome many hurdles on that front. I also knew I’d be combatting the misguided judgment and shame birth-parents often face. But I didn’t expect some people to think I was “glorifying” birth-parents’ “selfishness” or that I had selected a “squeaky clean” birth-mom as our guest speaker. I corrected those people, as politely as I could muster, about their antiquated views. But least of all did I expect people to think I was being insincere.
Last week I got that feedback, and – although I needed to hear it – it stung.
“You say you don’t want to glamorize adoptive parents, that you’re not saviors, but the way you talk about Passage Writes makes you come across like you’re better,” he had said, looking straight into my eyes, unblinking. I had looked right back into his. “It’s not like you’ve got all your shit together,” he had continued. “You need to be more vulnerable, more authentic.”
I sat with those comments for a while – not because I disagreed, not because I had something to hide, but because vulnerability was the one fuzzy boundary I didn’t want to navigate. The man hadn’t told me something I didn’t already know. Of course, I was aware of what I wasn’t saying. I just didn’t think other people would notice some pieces were missing. I’d intentionally avoided certain topics, and apparently it was impacting my tone. I’d left parts of my life out because I thought I was doing Passage Writes a favor. I didn’t want my stories to distract from Passage Writes’ goals. I thought that talking about me would do that.
“No, it won’t. It’ll make your intentions more relatable,” he said, smiling now. “You have loss too. You know where these people are coming from, even if your lives are different.”
My shoulders relaxed away from my ears, where I’d instinctively pulled them up to protect myself. That simple release made me remember another time my shoulders had dropped before, almost eighteen months ago now.
I was sitting on the hearth with a fire blazing behind me. It was my birthday, and Gabriel was asleep in his room. His birth-mom, Marie-Aurele, had come and taken us to a restaurant. We’d eaten breakfast food for dinner and had laughed while our son played happily under the table and in the booth next to us. Gabriel had even eaten all of his pancakes and bacon. Marie-Aurele had been sober for almost a year, and it’s difficult to tell you how thrilled I felt, having us all together. Throughout the night, she had helped me escape the sadness I’d been facing, and she didn’t even know it. But I had to tell her what was going on. I just didn’t want to.
So I sat there on the hearth, silently. Marie-Aurele sat next to me.
“What’s up?” she asked.
I stared at my hands. They were shaking. I kept gripping them, rubbing them. They were dry and cracked and cold and tingly and sweaty all at the same time. My mouth felt the same way. I couldn’t get any words out.
She just waited.
“I had to get a protective order,” I choked out at last. I couldn’t even bring myself to say my husband’s name, but she knew it. Tears had never spilled from my eyes as fast as they were coming then. “I’m so sorry. Gabriel and I are safe.” I was gasping for breath. “I can’t give Gabriel what I promised you. A normal home.” I began convulsing. “I…I just…I’m so sorry.”
I’d been preparing to tell her for more than a month, but I’d been a coward. I chickened out every time. She was the last person in the world I wanted to know, but she had to hear it from me. Now I realize that Marie-Aurele must have known already something was wrong, but at the time that thought never crossed my mind. So I couldn’t make myself tell her. I had worried she was going to hate me. Maybe she’d take her son and leave. Maybe she’d put me in my place, the place I thought I deserved – the place where I’m told I screw everything up.
But she didn’t.
Marie-Aurele just held me.
“Sarah, I wanted you to be Gabriel’s mom the moment I met you,” she said, stroking my head. “YOU were the reason I picked your family for Gabriel. YOU are his mom. Nothing will ever change that. Do you hear me?”
I did, and Marie-Aurele’s words continue to buttress me in everything that has followed.
So here she and I are again, separated, looking into the open space where our son is, relying on different vantage points, participating in new, unexpected rites of passage. We’ve both changed a lot since last fall, and – it breaks my heart – we haven’t talked in months. Marie-Aurele’s cut herself off from us because she’s using again. But that night, on my birthday, she offered me grace and compassion when I had been beaten, and now – even though she’s relapsed – I want to give grace and compassion back to her. We’re family, after all. We may not always know how to help each other – sometimes there may be nothing we can do – but Marie-Aurele reminded me that night being willing to listen is the best place to start. And that, ultimately, is what Passage Writes is all about.