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Which is better, one or two?

When I am at an eye exam, the optometrist always pulls the machine in front of my face, blocks one eye, and then starts to switch slides asking the same question about the eye left open. Which is better, one or two? Sometimes I say neither; they are about the same. This cycle repeats until adjustments are made, and I can see clearly.

I feel like that eye test plays out in my life. Which is better? One mother, or two; my birth mother or adoptive mother; birth family or adoptive family; transparency or secrets; not knowing or knowing; or are they all the same.

As a child, I questioned my adoptive mother's love. I can count on one hand how many times I have heard her say I love you in my life. She was neither affectionate nor emotional. My mother was a beautiful light-skinned woman with hazel eyes. I was insecure and teased about my looks with no reference for my features which dominated my face. She was Lena Horne beautiful, and I was not.

I admired her boss behavior in the workplace but hated it at home. She would navigate workspaces where she was the only black person in a leadership position as a prominent hospital's vice president of nursing. I was proud to see her command attention and respect. However, by my pre-teen years, I wondered if the mask required to function in a high-profile job surrounded by white people took its toll as she would come home seemingly depleted and tired of smiling and appeasing those around her. She was still a taskmaster at home but didn't seem to offer us the grace she did others in her 9-5. I even likened her to Faye Dunaway's portrayal of Joan Crawford in the movie Mommie Dearest. I didn't understand why she adopted me, let alone my 3 other siblings, other than for free labor and the appearance of the perfect family.

It wasn't until my early adult years I realized my mother's love language was Acts of Service. She would make a German chocolate cake whenever I wanted it, although my sibling was allergic. She had a clinical approach to making sure my latest bout of strep throat didn't kill me. Sunday dinners would contain one of everyone's favorite dishes, which could mean neck bones and enchiladas. She stood in service, holding my hand dutifully as I gave birth to a child I would relinquish. I have seen her advocate for her friends dealing with the health care system for their loved ones, assist in navigating funeral arrangements, or offer her yard for someone's celebration.

My mother will brag about my accomplishments to strangers or friends but never in closed conversations with me. The words I love you elude her but even today, at 85, she would be ready to literally fight anyone she felt did me wrong. I fully accept my adoptive mother for who she is, her method of loving me, and even what she cannot give.

When I found my birth mother, I sent a certified letter introducing myself and gave my life's cliff notes. The only thing I asked for was confirmation that she was my mother. I was prepared if she did not want further communication and may have expected she would not. I was pleasantly surprised when I received a birth mother who was excited to have been found even though she had kept my existence a secret from everyone for 48 years. Neither of us shed a tear, although the moment's emotion was palpable. It was amazing to see my face on this woman I had just met. Our resemblance was undeniable. I have always had a hard time with mirrors because I didn't know who was responsible for these facial features. Now when I look in the mirror, I see the face of the woman who couldn't raise me, and that has been a mind fuck I wasn't ready for. It's like looking at the person who left you every day.

I have been reunited with my birth mother for 7 years, and I must admit that our relationship has not grown stronger since the first year. Although she is my mother, like every other relationship I've had, when I meet someone, it takes time. I have had a lifetime to accept and deal with my adoptive mother's shortcomings; my birth mothers are magnified as I have gotten to know her in these seven short years.

I never thought about having a real relationship with my birth mother. Yes, I wanted to know who she was and find out information about her and my roots, but I did not think about maintaining that relationship. I don't know if that is strange, or maybe I use emotional distance as a defense mechanism to protect myself from rejection and disappointment.

As I have learned my birth mother's story bit by bit, I empathize with the pain she endured in her life. She has lived with secrets that probably would have stayed unspoken if I didn't find her. She characterized her life by lines from a Langston Hughes poem,

Mother to Son

Well, son, I'll tell you:

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

It's had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,


My adoptive mother has never taken an interest in me locating my birth family. She would rather act like that part did not exist, and I have allowed her to do so, leading me to live a double life to respect her feelings. My adoptive mother's place is not in jeopardy. She will always be my mom.

Both of my mothers were preacher's kids, and I wonder if that contributed to their inability to express themselves freely. I am a compilation of my mothers. I hide my emotions choosing to present a version of myself to the world that either you won't get the best of me (adoptive mother) or that I will survive hardships in my life (bio mom). I do not want either of these stories to be mine.

I had tried to parent in a way that I wanted to be parented and was surprised when my daughter told me a couple of years ago she never saw me angry, so she had no modeling on how to deal with anger. She was right. I taught her how to suppress her extreme emotions to keep her appearance no matter what she was feeling. My daughter is developing into the woman I wish I would have been at 25, where she is becoming comfortable enough in her own skin to show up how she wants in the world and not how I, nor anyone else, thinks she should. I pray she breaks the generational curse that I seemed to inherit from nature and nurture. Which is better, one or two?

What have I learned from having two mothers?

  • My mom loved me the way she knew how. The teenage me needed more.

  • My birth mother is trying to love me the way she knows how. The adult me is trying to allow her to do that.

  • I wish my adoptive mother was open to meeting my birth mother. I shouldn't feel torn between two life forces.

  • There does not have to be a competition between birth and adoptive mothers. Each has a role to play.

  • I love them both for their contribution to who I am. Not one more than the other, just different.

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1 Comment

Mary Ellen Gambutti
Mary Ellen Gambutti
May 04, 2022

"I fully accept my adoptive mother for who she is, her method of loving me, and even what she cannot give."

This, and more of your great piece resonate. Thank you.

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