Mistakes. A good life is filled with them. A great life is built on them.
Like most people, I've made mistakes. Some of those mistakes were insignificant; others, not so much. I'm going to tell you about the biggest mistake I've made in my life to date. As with most stories, some historical context is required.
On a beautiful autumn day in Stratford, during my 19th year, I anxiously walked up some steps with my then current girlfriend. Those steps belonged to the Children's Aid Society building, where I was about to begin the process of searching for my biological mother. My girlfriend had some dealings with the case workers there and, after getting to know my adoption story and the deep yearning I had to learn about my origins, she offered to accompany me to their offices to start my journey. In a way, it was actually a continuation of the journey my parents started two decades earlier with the Children's Aid Society when they decided to adopt a second child.
My parents were always completely open with my brother and I (and everyone else) about our adoptions. My father actively encouraged us to seek out our biological origins; my mother hesitantly so. Years prior to my adoption, my father played a small part in helping a man find his own biological parents. He fondly recounted this story to people when describing why he informed us of everything he could about our own adoptions. (To date, my brother has shown no interest in learning about his separate biological origins.)
I knew a few scant details about my own origins - my biological mother was from Newfoundland and was a teenager when she had me. She had already given birth to a girl before I entered the picture. Minimal information was available about my biological father. (I have never had an interest in searching for him.) Once she signed the papers to give me up for adoption, I was placed in foster care for 3 months with a family in a nearby Newfoundland town. I was then adopted and raised on a farm a short drive away from Stratford, Ontario. My parents were great and provided me with the best childhood I could have imagined.
A short time after submitting the adoption registry search forms, a database connection was made and a reunion was set up. I met my biological mother and her husband, my older (full biological) sister, my two younger (half biological) sisters, and a few other people associated with their family at the time.
A key detail of the story is that two months before the reunion, my Mom had died (after a 3 month battle) from "an unknown cancer". (Yes, she was aware of my pending reunion.)
Shortly after the reunion, the topic of what to call my biological mother came up. I remember that moment vividly. I was in her kitchen and she was standing at the sink, preparing dinner. I said I wanted to call her "Mom". She hadn't asked to be called that, but that's what we agreed on.
That moment was my biggest mistake.
The title of "Mom" holds an infinite amount of meaning. In its simplest form, that title should only be reserved for the woman who earned it by fulfilling that role in your life. As I've learned, when used incorrectly, the noun "Mom" can create an open playing field for games that shouldn't exist. It can raise false expectations, cause jealousy, create confusion and wreak unintentional havoc on people's perceptions of reality. I believe my choice of noun and all the significance that surrounds it allowed those things to happen when they could have been averted.
I'm still trying to understand why I wanted to call her "Mom"; the reasons are not always as obvious as they may seem. The natural assumption is that it was due to losing my real Mom shortly before the first reunion. However, I can say with ultimate clarity that this is untrue. After I became aware of what adoption meant (sometime in grade 3), I always saw myself as having two Moms, except one raised me. If my Mom was alive when I met my biological mother, I can't deny that things probably would have been different.
The details aren't important to rehash at this time, but shortly after the reunion, relations with my biological mother and sisters (apart from one sister) declined to the point where I received a phone message from my oldest biological sister telling me I was no longer welcome in all of their lives. The reunion lasted 3 years. I was devastated, but accepted their choice and tried to move on.
I had a conversation with my Dad, who was still alive at the time, about everything that had happened. He was with me the day I met everyone and subsequently saw them a few times after that. As usual, he summarized the situation simply and succinctly and gave me space to clear my mind.
Fast forward a few years to 2009.
I lead a very active personal and professional life online, with very public profiles on several social media websites, including, of course, Facebook. On June 5th, 2009, after years of silence, the inevitable and expected happened - I received a Facebook request from my oldest sister. After the initial shock wore off, I chose to ignore it. A few days later, I received a Facebook message from the sister I had been able to make a connection with years earlier. After days of considerable thought, I decided to respond to her.
A second reunion was eventually set up, though only with my biological mother and two youngest sisters. Within months, relations deteriorated and ended again with my youngest sister. In the past two and a half years, relations with my biological mother deteriorated to the point where I finally reached my limits and removed her from my life. I've accepted that those relationships are now over.
Fortunately, I have become very close with my next youngest sister, which I'll discuss in a bit.
After months of intense personal debate and meticulous review of all available information, I believe the root cause of the years of situational chaos with my biological family can be traced back to that simple conversation about the title of "Mom". Had I not made that choice years ago during our first reunion, I believe the decay and decline of our relationships may not have happened…twice.
Referring to my biological mother as "Mom" removed boundaries for everyone involved that should have been carefully defined by me. I believe choosing the title of "Mom" for my biological mother made things difficult for my sisters in direct and indirect ways.
I take full responsibility for how things turned out with my biological family. It didn't have to be this way, but I can accept things for how they turned out and understand that life isn't always perfect.
There is, however, a positive contradiction in all of this. I mentioned a sister that I was able to connect with in the first and second reunions. Her name is Arlene and I've written about her elsewhere, so I won't rehash those thoughts again. I'm fortunate to have salvaged something good in these reunions despite all of the problems that have occurred.
Upon reading Steve Jobs's recent biography, I noticed several striking parallels between his adoption and reunion story and my own. Of note is how he was able to forge a strong, warm relationship with his biological sister Mona Simpson and eschew relations with some of his biological origins. I hope to achieve the same outcome with Arlene.
Incidentally, since coming to these conclusions, I've entered what has become the most creative, productive and healthiest era of my entire adult life. I'm sure it's all linked together somehow.
So there it is, my adoption and reunion(s) story. I decided to finally tell this story in the hopes that other adoptees may read it and gain some kind of insight from it. Hopefully it will help or inspire them to make positive decisions based on my experiences and mistakes.
The page has been turned and it's time to return to trying to build a great life.
November 14, 2011
Updated on May 2013: The above paragraphs I've crossed out relate to the final chapter of this story. I will write the long overdue follow-up soon.