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My Birth Mother’s Daughter

July 14, 2014


As a child, whenever I conjured my birth mother from the blackness of memory, she was always alone, a solitary shadow.  I wondered sometimes if she ever married, if she ever had other children, and hoped she had.  In my child’s simplicity, I wished that whatever love came to her after she relinquished us had filled her back up.

But even then, even with my wishing, I was still caught off guard when the confidential intermediary from the Midwest Adoption Center who found our birth parents in 2009 told me that my sister and I had a full biological brother, just one year older than us.  My intense months of searching had been so focused on our birth mother that I did not even think of anyone else.  Now there was a mother, and a father, and a brother.   Then there were more children our birth parents had adopted: another sister, two more brothers.  But not biological.  Even the confidential intermediary issued them forth as asides.  So not a sister, not two more brothers.  Just three more children.

The search for a birth family is, in many ways, a search for blood, for biology.  The reunion is about blood, too.  And the days and months and years to follow, they are also about blood.   What other motivation is there to keep at it?  To do the hard work that goes along with meeting at this stage in our lives?  If not for blood, we would still be strangers to one another, enjoying each other’s company–or not–the way people in this world come together, drift apart, come together based on myriad other circumstances.

It took me more than a year to reach out to my birth parents’ daughter.  She wasn’t blood, so what right did I have to pull her into the story, into my story?  I kept putting myself in her shoes and wondering what it would have been like for two biological daughters to spring forth from my own mother’s past.  I didn’t want to bother her, to intrude, to stake any kind of claim.  But I wanted her to know, from one adopted person to another, that she mattered.  Just because she wasn’t blood, she mattered.  After all, she is my birth mother’s daughter.  I was relieved when she wrote back.  She’d wanted to reach out, too, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear from her.

In 2013 we decided to meet at Hersheypark. We brought along our husbands and, between the two of us, our seven sons.  We talked all day, and we haven’t stopped talking since.  It’s hard to explain this bond between the three of us: my birth mother’s daughter, my twin sister, me.  It has nothing to do with biology.  It has something to do with adoption, but that’s not everything.

Earlier this month, they stayed with us here in Philadelphia for a couple of nights.  In the days before they arrived, I told people we were expecting company.  I said, “My birth mother’s daughter and her family are visiting from North Carolina,” and watched them try to sort it out.

photoOur kids don’t have trouble sorting it out.  They consider themselves cousins.  They don’t know what to call the adults–are we aunts? are we uncles?–but they are sure of each other.  On the first night they were in town, we took them to Rita’s for water ice, and as we stood in front of the counter weighing our flavor options, their oldest boy threw his arm around my oldest.  “You know what I like, right?” he asked my son.  “Because we’re related.”

Of all the gifts this journey has given my sister and me, this one has been the most surprising, this gift of my birth mother’s daughter.  Our connection is not about blood.  It’s not even about a shared experience of adoption.  While we understand each other in profound ways because of our adoption, we experienced adoption very differently.  It’s that: She loves this woman she calls mother, our birth mother, the way we love our own.  It’s that: This biological family that is ours by blood is more truly hers. It’s that: She claims the ancestors we don’t feel connected to.   It’s that: When we say family is family, we are saying the same thing.

My birth mother’s daughter, my twin, me: we share a mother although it’s far more complicated than that.  We share each other, too, but there’s no word for what it is.  It’s something like sister, but not, something like it, but more.


The Blogging Life

June 24, 2014

I often advise my students to avoid sharing their work with a larger audience until they are able, and willing, to create art from life, a process that requires distance or a craftsman’s care or both.  I’ve ignored my own advice at times.  A few weeks after my dad died, for example, I wrote about watching him die.  The essay, which earned a spot on the “Notable Essays of 2002″ list as cited in The Best American Essays 2003got its power from an immediacy that read as intimacy.  I couldn’t have written the same essay even six months later.  “My Father’s Dead (If Only I Could Tell You)” had to be created when I could still hear my dad’s last gasps echoing in my ears.   It had to be written while I was still shell-shocked.

UntitledThis blog is also an exception.  I’m writing the story of the reunion with my birth family as that reunion unfolds.  Like many narrative blogs, it has taken on a life of its own; it is both life and art at once.  As with the essay about my father, part of the lure of the narrative blog is that it’s written in the raw.   It won’t stand still.  Neither the writer nor the reader knows what’s going to happen next.  Maybe the blog knows, but it’s not telling.

But it’s inherently risky to write in medias res, in the midst of things.  Especially as communication between my birth family and me has become more (re)strained in the last couple of years, the blog has become the communication.   I write.  They react.  We communicate.   Silence.   If my blog were a petulant teenager, it might be accused of writing only to spark communication, some kind of reaction, but my blog is not a petulant teenager, and neither am I.  Yet it’s often hard for me to anticipate whether the people this story touches will be pleased, hurt, or angered by my words.  That’s not a statement about them as much as it’s about my own rhetorical intuition–and the complexity of the situation.  Thankfully my journalist twin is also a ruthless editor.  I often send her drafts to review and readily take her advice.  “Spot on,” she’ll say.  Or, “This one’s going to get you in trouble.”   Sometimes I’ll send drafts to my birth parents, too, part heads-up, part conversation-starter outside of the blog itself.  Still, in those moments before I hit the “Publish” button, I frequently find myself dangling between truth and hurt, hoping that there’s enough truth to honor myself but not enough to cause hurt.  Before the day is out, I’ll know if I have succeeded.

I often wish that I could see as far into my birth family as I allow them to see into me, to understand what it is like for them to be discovered, to have the secret they intended to take to their graves exposed, both in life and in art.  It must be hard for them, I almost wrote just now, before I heard my sister’s voice reminding, “Don’t speculate.”  This isn’t speculation: when the dust settles, my brave birth mother tells me to keep writing.  Every time.  Keep writing.  

The important part here is that in addition to the hundreds of people who read each entry on this blog, there are a handful of people in that audience who are part of the story, who are alive and well, and reading.  I’m not worried about my relationship with my twin or my adoptive family, but I do worry that what I write might damage my relationship with my birth family.  The bottom line:  I don’t want to damage that relationship, and I don’t want to stop writing.

I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning.  In trying to tell a complete story, a true story, I wrote too much.  I projected.  I remember one early entry that set off a firestorm, and one I deserved.  I quickly went back and corrected the entry–took my words out of my birth mother’s memory–and apologized.  I (hope I) haven’t made that mistake again.  At other times, the emotional truth of my own story has wounded, and I’ve found myself on the defensive, reeling from the barbs flung back.

In the face of so much risk, it’s hard to explain my (selfish?) compulsion to keep writing, to use writing as the vehicle to discovery.  My job does not depend upon this writing.  It won’t bring me fame or fortunate.  My twin and I are not the secret offspring of a Kardashian or the man who discovered that his biological father is Charles Manson.  We’re all pretty average people.  And while there is no one “normal” in adoption, our story is fairly run-of-the-mill, too.

So why write?  Because I can.  Because I can’t not.  Because it’s how I know to make sense of of this story that is my life that is my art that is my life.

[Deep breath.]











June 4, 2014

Today blueprint is a word used to refer informally to any kind of plan, but in the beginning, it was about the process.  Alphonse Louis Poitevin, a French chemist, discovered in the mid-nineteeth-century that light turns ferro-gallate, a substance found in gum, blue.  Early on, architects and engineers used the blueprint process to make negatives of original drawings.  They coated paper with a ferro-gallic solution, placed the document to be copied atop the coated paper, and put it all under glass.  After a few minutes in the sun and, later, a good wash with water, they had their negative, their plan, their course to follow.

Twin Prints–the blog, the book, the life–was meant to be both a plan, and a process.  It was going to be about people coming together and finding their way through the complexity of adoption and reunion. Whatever was discovered along the way would line the paper, taking shape under light’s exposure.  Maybe that drawing would help others find their way in their own stories.  Or maybe it wouldn’t.  After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all to adoption, or to adoption reunion.  At the very least, it would be an artifact of my own story, of my twin’s and mine.  It would be our twin print.

IMG_5605 Five years ago, when I first learned who my birth parents were, I was full of wonder and optimism.  It’s exciting to build something from scratch, to sketch out those initial drawings, to imagine what could be.  In the newlywed stage of our reunion, I was up for the challenge, confident that we could do it, whatever “it” was.   At the very least, I hoped we could share the joy–and peace–of knowing who we all are and make the most of whatever time we have left together on this earth.

But five years out, we’ve stumbled into long spaces of opacity.  I’ve realized that I can’t make it work.  And while it pains me to say it, I’ve realized, too, that I don’t necessarily want to anymore, at least not at all costs.

Here’s what the negative of this original will tell you right now if you were to unfold it before you:

  • Adoption reunion is not easy.
  • In many cases, it might not even be possible.
  • Nobody is to blame.
  • My birth parents are good people.
  • My sister and I are good people.
  • But good people + good people do not necessarily equal a good relationship.
  • In fact, no matter what rights people who were adopted gain–and I’m all for such rights–there is no corresponding right to a relationship that accompanies information, no guarantee that a good, healthy relationship can be made from people affected by adoption.

My birth mother told me recently that she has taken a step back. I didn’t need her to tell me that.  I already sensed her moving away.  And I haven’t followed.

On most days, I am mentally sound, happy, healthy, almost functional, no small feat with four boys.  I have a husband I love and admire.   A fulfilling career.  More friends than I can possibly be good to at this point in my life.  A mother who, even at 71, drops everything when I need her and takes an Amtrak train halfway across the country to help me juggle it all.  I have a twin who is my best friend and soulmate (sorry, husband)  and a brother who makes me laugh, drives me crazy, and loves me unconditionally.   An extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins whom I adore.  An identity.  A history.  Ancestors I’ve inherited through adoption.  It’s more than enough.  It would be okay if it weren’t, but for me, it is.

The bottom line: I don’t need a relationship with my birth parents.  They don’t need me and my twin, either.

That, I think, is the root of the problem, the blue of the negative.

We don’t need each other.

And so here we are, five years out, good people stuck between need and desire, not sure what comes next.








March 9, 2014

Several years ago I nearly severed the tip of my middle finger in a moment of carelessness in the kitchen.  I was using a paring knife to separate two frozen veggie burgers that I intended to put on the grill for dinner when the knife slipped and sliced to the bone the finger on my left hand. I grabbed boy #3, then a baby, and a towel to soak the blood, and hurried off to the neighborhood ER to get my finger put back together. There, I nursed the baby while the attendants worked on my hand. Halfway through, one of them apologized. “They won’t let us get the good glue anymore,” he told me. “Sorry.” An hour later, my finger put back together with mediocre glue, I went home and finished cooking dinner.

My finger throbbed the rest of the summer. And then it went numb. By the next spring, it was no longer tender to the touch, but I also couldn’t feel anything. At some point, while writing, I realized that I no longer used it at all. My other fingers hopped over it to press the “e,” “d,” and “c” keys on my laptop. My friend Kerry, a physical therapist, told me that I needed to retrain my brain to use the finger. I tried—but it was too much work. It took more time than I had to direct my finger: press “e,” press “r.”  I had too much to do, too much to say. And it was exhausting, getting that finger to work again. It felt as if my left hand were in the home stretch of a marathon. It made my whole body tired.

PianoSo I’ve learned to get along with a finger that doesn’t work right. It hasn’t affected my life, even my writing life, in any significant way. I’m only self-conscious of the awkward hopscotching I do across the keyboard when somebody is watching me type. It’s the piano that I’ve lost. I can’t play with a hand that doesn’t work right. The older boys take lessons, practicing at home on my grandma Heinkel’s Everett, which used to sit in the corner of the long, blue formal living room in her house in Illinois. My grandmother played that piano, as did my mother, then my siblings and me.  But it was my brother whom my grandmother most loved to hear. “I just love a man at the piano,” she’d say, pronouncing it pee-anna in her Midwestern drawl.

I love to listen to my boys play, too. I don’t even mind–because my grandmother would not have, either–that the keys of her pee-anna are often covered in their hand grub. They sit at that piano in their underwear, and their baseball uniforms, banging away at Mozart and Coldplay. Sometimes they’re happy and focused. Sometimes they’re weeping or furious. Sometimes they’re at the piano simply to escape something, or someone, in the house by drowning themselves in their music.

I used to do that, too.  I miss it.

There’s a piano in my mother’s house in Illinois. There’s a piano in my birth mother’s house in Colorado. This is one of those shared traits that the social workers made much of on our adoption paperwork. Both mothers play the piano! My fingers know well the piano in my mother’s house, but they have never touched my birth mother’s. Hers sits just outside the door of the basement bedroom where I stayed two years ago when I visited. In the midst of the emotional whirl of that visit, I longed to play it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to with my dead finger. I wanted to ask her to play it for me, to connect the mothers and the childhood that was and wasn’t, but I didn’t do that, either. My mother often plays when she is here in Philadelphia visiting us. Her music wraps me up like a child again.

I’ve since started over myself, playing the same elementary music my boys are learning, hoping to retrain my finger to find its way among the keys. Some day, perhaps nobody will be able to tell again that something was lost from me. What you will hear is the put-together melody of tender hard work. It’s as real as anything you’ve ever heard. It’s not a facade. It’s not a stiff upper lip.  It’s not a grin that bears it.  Listen: this is the music of adoption. It is all the notes made amidst loss and found, played by a triad of broken people healed and healing.


January 3, 2014

GM and GP 2

When I was younger, we rarely celebrated New Year’s Eve with any kind of hoopla.  My parents did not entertain big, drink big or spend big, so New Year’s Eve celebrations were quiet, family affairs.  One year when I was in college, my maternal grandparents took the entire family to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl, and that New Year’s Eve with my cousins and siblings at the Westin Bonaventure is the closest I have ever come to an iconic New Year’s Eve celebration. For most of my teens and early twenties, I traded my prom dress for a quiet evening with my paternal grandmother, who, by that point, was alone, having buried her husband and the adult son with cerebral palsy whom she had cared for his entire life.

New Year’s Eve at Grandma Spinner’s was a non-stop snack fest of Mountain Dew, Jiffy Pop, and cans of Planter’s Cheez Balls.  Rather than attend the parties hosted by my friends, I preferred to ring in the new year emotionally safe, unconditionally loved, and satiated with salt.  We’d spend the evening in our pajamas, popping Cheez Balls, watching Dick Clark, and working on our needlepoint canvas tissues boxes.  As I grew older, I tried to do both: heading to the party earlier in the evening but making a point to be back at Grandma’s by midnight so we could ring in the New Year together.  One year I lost track of the time–or maybe I purposefully ignored it–and it was past twelve before I arrived at my grandmother’s house.  As I walked up the steps to her front door, I peered through the picture window in her living room to catch her face unguarded.  The colors from the TV set made her eyes look hollow.  When I opened the door, she got up from her chair to give me a hug.  “I’m sorry, Grandma,” I told her.  “Happy New Year, darlin’,” she simply said, holding me tight.

I feel fortunate to have reached my middle years with few regrets.  Like a good cliche, the bad choices and mistakes that I have made have nearly always yielded unexpected opportunities, humbling me in the process.  Plus, I was adopted.  My entire life was set on course by something that wasn’t supposed to happen.  That keeps it real–and leaves me to obsess over the little details, the smaller barbs that I have inflicted on myself and others.  That B+ in high school biology.  That errant throw that broke my softball coach’s nose.  That New Year’s Eve I chose myself over my grandmother.


Photo by Yischon Liaw

2013 will go down in my adoption history as a quiet one, with very little contact between me and my birth family.  We’ve all been busy with our own lives and personal upheavals, but there’s more to it than that.  At least for me, silence has become the path of least resistance.   The noise has come instead from the edges.  I finally was able to tour the Chicago maternity ward where my sister and I were born.  The social worker who helped facilitate our adoption, and who was friends with my birth mother in college, attended my youngest son’s baptism.  I met my birth parent’s daughter this past summer and have since forged a relationship with her.  I’m looking forward to the outings we have planned with our families in the coming year.

For all that this reunion journey has, and hasn’t, been, I don’t for a moment regret embarking on it.   But moving forward in this new year means staying tethered to the light behind me.

And there they are, my mother, husband and four sons, bundled up against the cold at Franklin Square in Philadelphia, where we have gone to ring in 2014 after a meal at our favorite vegan spot in Chinatown.  The square is ablaze with white holiday lights, and the night sky is lit by red, white and blue fireworks shot over the Delaware River.  Amid it all, their faces are bright and happy, alight with the noisy, sure glow of love.  There are no regrets here, no hindsight, no resolutions, either.  It’s the perfect place to end the year.


Thanksgiving Baby

November 27, 2013

photoYesterday was my father’s birthday.  At least I thought so when I looked at the calendar.  Nov. 26.  Dad’s birthday.  Of course. But then I began second-guessing myself, the way you second-guess the spelling of a familiar word you know how to spell.  My mind raced, losing confidence.  I sent a message to my sister.  I checked Facebook to see if she or my brother had acknowledged it.  Nothing.  Then, I did what I often advise my students to do.  I typed “David L. Spinner obituary” into the Google search bar.  Just one hit: a faculty profile for a David L. Spinner, Ph.D., chair of the Criminal Justice department at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.  Not my father.  Not even close.  More importantly for Prof. David Spinner, still alive.

Finally, on a whim, I decided to search the Find A Grave website.  My dad is buried in Graceland.  Every time I drive into the sprawling cemetery on Decatur’s north-side, I smile, thinking of Elvis.  I know my dad would appreciate the joke.

In 2012, over a decade after my dad died, somebody named the Rev. Dale Sims posted my dad’s obituary from the [Decatur] Herald & Review on Find a Grave; another user, kpet, uploaded a photo of his flat marker.  I don’t know either of these people, but between the two of them, they have added over 100,000 memorials to the website.  At the top of the entry, my father’s birth date was listed as Nov. 6, 1942; the obituary, however, listed the correct date, Nov. 26.  He would have been 71 years old this year.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Nov. 26.  I was right.  But Find a Grave was wrong, so I e-mailed the site to let someone know to change the entry’s header to the correct date.  In my e-mail, I wrote, “I verify this information because I am his daughter.”  Within twelve hours, it was fixed.

My dad was a Thanksgiving baby.  Too much turkey and my grandmother popped.  He came out yelping for food and spent the rest of his life relishing a good meal.  We always laughed about that.

The last time I visited Graceland, it struck me how familiar, almost comfortable, I am there, even amid any sadness.  I have been visiting Graceland since I was a kid, attending graveside services; putting flowers on graves of loved ones; dusting dried grass clippings from their stones.  I passed it every day for over a year when I commuted from my parents’ home to college.

IMG_3176This summer, after adorning my dad’s grave with the plastic purple flowers one of my sons had chosen, I headed around a circular drive to tend to the rest of the family on the other side of the cemetery.  Not far from my father’s grave, a glossy gray stone nestled in a row of overgrown yews caught my eye.  BOHN.  The name of my birth mother’s family.  The name she bore when she brought my sister and me into the world.  The name on our original birth certificate.  I’d likely passed this grave numerous times throughout my childhood.  My brother probably mowed around it when he worked briefly as a groundskeeper there.  Perhaps I’d even said the name aloud.  When I was younger, I used to whisper the names on the stones, momentarily uttering them back into the universe by my acknowledgment.  David L. Spinner.  Nov. 26, 1942.


I stood before that name, thinking about how my twin and I, our mother, our father and grandparents when they were alive, how we all have trouped past that secret name when it meant nothing to any of us, when it was nothing to remember and nothing to forget.

But there it is now, a stone’s throw from my father, the Thanksgiving Baby.

Only in Graceland.


November 21, 2013

I am dizzy with fatigue these days, slogging.  The baby is plump, but he is plump on my milk.  Slow to catch on to solid foods, he is plump on the last ounces of my energy.  One day last week, I hurried from classes to meetings, desperate to return to my office to pump.  I felt myself growing heavy, pounding.  I was so full of myself that the discomfort became a distraction.  I couldn’t think.   In between meetings, I ducked into my office, grateful that I have a private space where I can pump even though I am always slightly on edge over the undressing of my professional self in this space.  I hooked myself up to my trusty Pump In Style, positioning the bottles against my desk so that I could keep typing on my computer while the pump whirred.


After four kids, after almost seven cumulative years thus far of breastfeeding, after years of pumping whenever I am away from them for more than a few hours, I don’t have anything left to say about the mechanical part of this process.  I just do it.  But at some point last week, I glanced down and noticed, horrified, that the milk in the bottle was dark pink.  I quickly switched off the pump, my heart thumping, and held the bottle up to the light.  It looked like strawberry milk.  What had I eaten for dinner the night before?  Rajma!  Red kidney beans.  Could that be it?  But no, the other bottle of milk looked as it always did.  Then it hit me:  blood.  Even amid my fear, I could appreciate the metaphor: This fourth kid was sucking the very life out of me.

Late for another meeting with students, I didn’t have time to check the internet to determine whether or not I was dying, so off I went, distracted, somehow muddling through it.  Later that afternoon I called Patty, my favorite nurse at The Birth Center in Bryn Mawr, and asked her what was going on.  She assured me that I had probably just broken a blood vessel and that it was nothing to worry about.  In fact, the bloody milk was perfectly safe for the baby though it might taste a bit salty.  If I put it in the fridge, the blood would eventually settle to the bottom and I could skim off the good milk.   I did that twice over the next 24 hours but could never get the milk back to its normal shade.  Finally, I threw it out.  I just couldn’t face it anymore.

IMG_3607One of my colleagues in the Writing Center, who knows the code behind the “Please do not disturb” sign that I put on my office door whenever I am pumping, asked me earlier this week if I was feeling better.  The blood was gone but I had spent a couple of days feeling off.  It wasn’t mastitis–I had that once before–but something wasn’t right, whether or not it was related to the bloody milk.  I said I was.  “It’s important to you, isn’t it?” she asked, gesturing toward the pump parts scattered on my desk.  Then, “Do you think it has something to do with your adoption?”

Over the years I’ve often wondered myself why it has been so imperative for me to nurse my children, to feed them from my own being.  It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve certainly made sacrifices to do so.  My public answers might mirror some of the obvious ones: It’s good for them; It’s good for me; It’s free; I can.  Always I am grateful to be able to do so.  Never is my own decision a judgment of anyone else’s.  But privately, I wonder: Do I zealously nurse my own children because my birth mother wasn’t able to?

Breastfeeding my first son was hardest.  I endured nine months of intense discomfort before we both finally figured it out.  This was nearly a decade before I knew who my birth mother was, before I heard her story, before I learned that after giving birth to us, she made her way to her family’s farm in North Dakota on a train she never remembers boarding or riding or departing.  It was ten years before I had a face for the loss that I imagined for her in those early days with my first son, in those days when I was desperate to get him to latch, to lock on to me with his tiny mouth.

Ten years and four babies later, I think of her still.  Yes, of all the things that run through my mind now when I am full of milk, desperate for the pump or my baby’s lips, for something to relieve the swelling, it is she who sometimes appears before me, her ghost body climbing onto that train.  Somewhere, in the depths of my own pounding, I think I understand, if only a little, what it must have been like to be so full of child but to have no release for all that pent-up love.


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