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 email@example.com to enter the giveaway.