My mother had several chronic diseases in her later years, and was hospitalized for lung disease and cervical cancer treatments. That’s when we learned she had a blood protein deficiency, probably a factor in the multiple miscarriages that she’d suffered. Soon after, she told me that I was adopted.
She gave me the paperwork and told me that she and my father had always planned to tell me. But before passing away when I was 19, Dad changed his mind and asked her to promise not to tell me. I suppose he believed he was shielding me from feeling “different,” since my mother gave birth to my sister four years after I was adopted. Mom said that they had always felt that I was theirs from the start. Indeed, they had chosen to begin their family with me.
For all of those years, my mother kept that secret. It must have been particularly painful when we worked on Family Tree Maker, genealogy software that helps you trace your roots. I was convinced that I took after one of my aunts. Mom didn’t exactly deny my affirmations; she simply didn’t comment. She chose to honor my father’s wish, until my sister found out and pressured Mom to tell me the truth.
After Mom passed away, I began to wonder about my heritage. My adoption certificate had my given last name on it, and where my adoption was finalized. I got help and support from an Adoption Triad group in New Jersey, and was able to obtain non-identifying information about my birth mother and birth father. With faith and many hours with the microfilm machine, I finally found my birth mother’s family.
My birth mother’s story is also one fraught with hard choices. After losing her own mother to cancer, leaving an abusive marriage, struggling with two small girls and battling mental health issues, my mother made the brave choice to place me for adoption. A diagnosed schizophrenic, she could have terminated her pregnancy, or chosen to raise me in poverty. It could not have been easy for her as a staunch Catholic—in those days before counseling and open adoption—to be faced with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the subsequent relinquishment and all those years of wondering what happened to her baby.
I am so very grateful to both of my mothers, who made heartbreaking choices, unselfishly putting me first.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. K. Rittenbach is a reader from Freehold, N.J.