My birth mother would have turned 80 next week.
I wasn’t adopted, so referring to the woman who gave birth to me when she was 18 as simply “my birth mother” may seem odd. But to the end of her life, nearly 3 ½ years ago, it seldom felt right to call her “Mom”. Most of my life, she was just Anita.
This is why Mother’s Day is confusing. When I was three years old and my little sisters were two and one, Anita walked out our front door, across the yard and down the street. I remember the day she left vividly, though I was just a toddler at the time. I can still see my baby sister sitting in the dirt, crying, and I remember wondering why my mother carried a suitcase.
I didn’t know it would be several years before we would see her again.
Anita and my father married when she was a child herself. Dad was six years her senior and had returned to his hometown following an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. In a little more than three years, Anita had three babies.
When Anita left, my grandmothers stepped in to help care for us until Dad hired an elderly aunt to stay with his daughters while he worked. Where Anita went and what she did after she left was a mystery. At some point, I was told she had gone in search of her own birth father, a man who left my grandmother before Anita was born. Wherever she went, Anita did not return for the divorce and custody hearing.
Dad remarried when I was six and soon another sister and a brother completed our family. We were the five Wilson kids, and there was barely a seam where our family had been knit together. By the time Anita returned to town and attempted to become part of our lives, I had shut the door on that relationship. It remained closed for many years.
My “abandonment” (as I chose to call it) by my birth mother came at a time when society considered it the mother’s job to raise her children. Men leaving their families – while still scandalous and not encouraged – was at least accepted and tolerated. Women didn’t give up custody of their babies.
Self-righteous indignation over Anita’s choice settled in during my teenage years. I couldn’t understand how my two sisters could agree to spend weekends with her and her new family. I tolerated occasional visits with Anita, but never let her think I wanted to be there. Instead, my pain and confusion became a hard shell that prevented me from showing her any emotion other than indifference.
But as I matured, I began to notice qualities in Anita that I admired. She was a good mother to her two adopted children. She liked to cook and sew. She enjoyed gardening and canning, and she liked to make people laugh. As newlyweds, my husband and I rented a house in the country, just down the road from Anita’s farm, and we became friends.
Like most friendships, ours tended to ebb and flow. When her second family was grown and her marriage ended in divorce, Anita became a different woman and our friendship was strained. My step-mother had long since become “Mom”, so there seemed to be no way to relate to this woman, my birth mother who was no longer even a friend. Other than obligatory visits at Christmas or on her birthday, we didn’t have much of a relationship.
Then the day came when Anita needed me.
Anita’s health began failing. It was determined that she was suffering the effects of TIAs (Transient Ischemic Attacks) and was showing signs of dementia. I became her caregiver, taking her to doctors’ visits and trying to get her to take better care of herself. She named me her Power of Attorney. When her health declined to the point where she could no longer live alone, she decided to move into a nursing facility rather than live in my home. I knew that was the choice she would make.
Anita had been a bright, creative woman who wrote stories and authored a column for the local newspaper. Now, she could barely complete a sentence. But she had something to tell me.
She said it often. I had never heard it in all the years we had navigated our bumpy relationship. For some reason, she had to say it now.
So here I was, 55 years old and confused by a woman who had no defined role in my life. She said other things.
“It was best.”
“I’m sure you know…..”
“I love you.”
She tried to tell me not to come to the nursing home, but I had to. The forgiveness I had been avoiding for years was beginning to blossom, and I had to be there so that it could happen. I had to find a way to tell her I loved her, too, and I could forgive.
I was with her when she died, and I think she knew that I’d figured out where she fit in my life.
I now understand that sudden motherhood had been too much for Anita, a girl who barely knew who she was, let alone how to care for three babies. It took me a long time to come to that realization, and it has taken five decades for me to begin to forgive her for choosing herself over her daughters. As this Mother’s Day approaches, I’m finally beginning to see that in leaving, maybe she chose us after all.
Non-custodial mothers are still looked down upon in some ways, but support is available for women who choose, or are made to choose, to let someone else raise their children. The National Association of Non-Custodial Moms, Inc. (NANCM) has a Web site with an active discussion board and links to several other Web sites for Moms. There also are several books written by and to non-custodial Moms. I think life would have been very different for myself and my birth mother if these resources had been available 50 years ago.
A recently published book by Lesley Leland Fields titled “Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers” has been invaluable to me as I’ve continued my journey of forgiveness. I am giving away a copy of that book to a reader who has the need to extend forgiveness. It’s never too late. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to enter the giveaway.
I would like to buy the book you mentioned “One Mans Work”, please help me.
I stopped by from FMF and the title of this post caught my eye…I have no idea if you’ll see this comment, since it’s not your blog…but I hope. Thank you for your story. I have my own. My mother never left me physically, but she never was there for me emotionally and now, as her only child, I am her caregiver and I wrestle with forgiveness every day. She has always been so entitled, so self-absorbed, that it wouldn’t occur to her to apologize because she has no idea that she ever did anything hurtful. So strange. But I will try harder. I am always kind, but I believe every human deserves our kindness. But there is always that layer of resentment buried deep down that I let bubble up when I am over-tired (which is more often than I care to admit) or have been reminded of something painful…I am off to find this book. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this Lisa – first, thanks for visiting the blog and I will make sure Ingrid sees this comment! May God strengthen you as you continue to walk this journey. Thank you!
Lisa, I’m so glad you stopped by here and shared your journey toward forgiveness. I pray that your mother will see how hard you are trying. The truth is, she may not. I have a copy of Leslie’s book that I would like to send to you. Please e-mail me at email@example.com. May God bless and strengthen you.
I cannot hold back the tears after reading this. The road to the rest of your life after “Anita” left you at age 3 was paved with pain and confusion. But a beautiful ending was waiting for you. How wonderful it was that she chose to say those few words even if it must have been difficult. And that you had stayed long enough to see the forgiveness come. It has been often said that forgiveness sets two prisoners free – the one who did the wrong, and the one who had been wronged. Both are prisoners until forgiveness opens the door. What a beautiful Mother’s Day treat this post has been to me. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.
Thank you, dear one. You are so right. I felt she needed my forgiveness, but found instead that I was also one in need. There is sadness in knowing how much time was wasted in unforgiveness. If my sharing can help one person take that step sooner, it will have been worth telling this story. God bless you.
This is great. As the grandmother of a adopted grandson you have answered some of the questions my daughter-in-law has about her adopted son and his birth mother. It is best that she gave him up for adoption, she was too young also for the responsibility. My prayer is that he will understand that through the years
Thank you, Janette. It’s a difficult decision and I understand now that my birth mother felt it was the best choice for her daughters. I’m sure your daughter-in-law can help your grandson understand that he was chosen, not rejected. God bless you, Grandma!
Thanks for sharing, Ingrid
Thank you, DeVonna. Writing about this has been healing for me.
I don’t even know how to write the emotions I’m feeling deeply, thank you Ingrid for giving me a peek into your life story. Your sweet spirit is a gift to me! Our daughters were abandoned by their birth mother, your words give me much to think about.
Thank you for your gracious comments, Linda. I pray that this story can in some small way bring others to a place of forgiveness.
Ingrid, I have heard so many forgiveness stories—and still I cry at yours. I know how much lies between these lines, how much more life and hurt than can be said in a post—but this is moving, beautiful,a clear illumination of the beyond-this-world gift strength and a widened heart. It’s an honor to be some small part of this healing.