Recently the New York Times’ Modern Love column featured an essay by a young widow who met the daughter she had relinquished for adoption seventeen years earlier, and just one year after her husband died.
When I reached the end of the column, I was totally rankled.
Not because I didn’t think the writing was good. It was, actually, and of the style I prefer: clean, plot-driven, saying only what needs to be said.
So why was I rankled? There was the Modern Love envy, the sting of my past rejection, sure. But I read the column every week, usually without that degree of rankledom.
What bothered me was that he writer was telling a Hallmark-like adoption reunion story that I’d heard about a million times before. The story started out like mine and ended as many of them do, at the beginning.
Just before things get interesting.
The writer’s story was just as I remember of my first year with my birthmother. It was the adoption version of a new marriage: a honeymoon with two people living in what seems to be a perfect reality but is really a fantasy.
Married life, like post-reunion life, gradually evolves into a genuine meeting between two people. There are the disappointments, the dislocations, the jolts of I-don’t-know-who-you-are-and-now-I’m-not-sure-I-like-you. There is the grinding against each other, not of the sexual kind, but of the sort that happens in a relationship if it’s going to become real.
A relationship that can only begin when the honeymoon has ended.
Sometimes these disappointments mark the end of the relationship. And sometimes they are the very things that propel a relationship into the evolution it requires to keep going in a healthy way.
Here is my bias. We are not meant to be soulmates, to be joined at the hip. We are not meant to complete each other. We are meant to bump against each other and realize our separateness. We are meant to tolerate things about the other person that make us angry, or lonely, or scared.
The judgments. The interests we don’t share. The oh my God, how did I not see this before, you are just like my mother/father/sister?
What I have come to believe, after 50 years on earth, after 30 years in reunion with my birthmother, after ten years spent as a therapist, is that a healthy relationship is about being oneself while being with another.
My honeymoon with my birthmother lasted one year. At least for me, it was marked by blind love, an almost manic elation, a thrill at being superficially like someone for the very first time: Look! We have the same freckles, the same long fingers, the same upward tilt of the eyes! We both love purple!
But the high eroded as the anger I didn’t know I had bubbled up and pushed us apart. The next seven years were filled with silences, judgments, bitter conversations that made us feel like strangers.
How could I have loved someone so much, yet now feel mostly anger?
And then, after years had passed, and I got engaged the first time, my birthmother and I slowly came back together. We weathered milestones from different coasts. She was there during my two marriages, two babies, two divorces. I was there for her life changes.
Maybe it was the passage of time. Maybe it was life hammering me into a grown-up. I don’t know when it was, exactly, but there came a point when I stopped being so dependent on her acceptance of me, and my fantasy of what our relationship should be.
Being okay with who you are in the face of someone else’s differences is the gift of a genuine relationship. Allowing the other person to have a reaction, a reaction that you perhaps find objectionable, without hours, days, or years of bitterness, is the hallmark of mental health.
It means you have found yourself.
The author of last Sunday’s Modern Love story is a fine writer. She told the only story she could, the story she has lived so far. It’s a feel-good story, the kind that people want to read, or watch on TV.
But I don’t trust any adoption story that doesn’t involve anger and disappointment and abandonment.
Being in reunion, as I know it to be for me and for others, inevitably crashes. It’s the work of the birthparent and adult child to make sure it doesn’t burn.
And that’s the story that, one day, I’d like to read in Modern Love.