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Where Did I Come From?

Emma Rose, age 10, longed to meet her birthmother. Her mother agreed to help, and the rest is family Marybeth Lambe and Emma Rose Levy

Marybeth: Most adoptees who search for their birthparents do so as adults. Yet the questions that propel them have been percolating for some time. Even as children, adoptees feel a tug to learn about where they came from. They need to know why, how, and above all, who.

Our adopted children have wondered aloud about their birth families from the time they were very young. It’s unlikely we’ll ever connect with the birth families of our Chinese children. But meeting her birthmother has always been a possibility for our American-born daughter, Emma Rose. As she grew older, it became a longing, then an imperative, and finally, a quest.

This is the story of her journey.

Emma Rose: I am 13, and I was adopted when I was 4 months old. I don’t remember that day, but my parents have told me how my hands attached to theirs and how much laughter I had to share. As I got older, I realized that I was African American but the rest of my nine family members were not. I wondered about the woman who had created me.

Marybeth: I wondered, too, had she been able to move on with her life, or was she filled with regret? Was she well? As an adoptive mom, I have always felt a bond with my children’s birthmothers. I wished I could tell them what I had whispered in my heart for so long: “If you could see your child, you would behold her with wonder. I hope my parenting makes you proud.”

We had few facts to pass on to Emma as she grew—only that her mother had made an adoption plan. After the adoption, we sent updates and photographs to the agency in hope that Emma’s birthmother would receive them. We were told she had never made contact again.

Emma Rose: Every day I would fantasize, could I be the child of Tyra Banks or Jennifer Lopez? Would she come to claim me one day? Then I would be famous too. My mom always said that anything was a possibility, and it was good to wonder and dream. She guessed my birthmom was beautiful because I am pretty, and that perhaps she had graceful hands and feet like mine. She said my birthmom had beauty on the inside too, where it really counts, because she had made sure that her daughter had a family and a good life.

Needing to Know

Marybeth: Beginning at age 6, Emma spoke of her desire to learn more about her first mother. Even if her mother was troubled, or the story harsh or sad, Emma needed to know her origins. As she neared her tenth birthday, we talked with social workers, therapists, and adult adoptees. All felt she could handle the process and the outcome, even at her young age. We decided it was time to allow Emma to search.

It was hard not to step in and push the process. I wanted to know this shadow mother, this woman who shared a daughter with me. But an adoptive parent cannot search. Adult adoptees emphasize that searching is about regaining control, making choices, and coming to terms with loss. Only Emma Rose could determine the speed of her search, her path, her stops and starts. We could be her anchors, but we were bystanders on the journey.

Two years passed as Emma Rose searched. With my help, she contacted the adoption agency many times, and sent letters in the hope that her birthmother might receive them. At last, an agency worker gave her the news we were hoping for. She had been able to contact Emma’s birthmom.

Emma Rose: When we heard that my birthmother had been found, Mom and I sent an e-mail to the agency and asked if she would want to contact me. I became very anxious. Suppose she didn’t want to know me? Finally the response came that my biological mother would love to start a relationship! They also told me her name. I remember reading her beautiful name and clenching my mom’s hand with excitement.

Then the moment! I asked my mom to call. My mom and birthmom shared stories and tears. My mom told my birthmother that she had always been in our hearts, and that she was part of our family. Then she handed the phone to me. My birthmother said she loved me and asked how my life was going. I stayed strong, without crying, and told her I was just fine and that I loved her too. It was a strange and wonderful day. This was who I came from!

Marybeth: It was a strange and wonderful day. I was relieved by the warm welcome her birthmother had given Emma Rose. I was delighted to know she was healthy and that her life was good. Unexpectedly, I felt a thrill at this new connection. A broken chain had been fixed, a circle formed.

Many adoptees describe that first contact as a dreamlike, honeymoon event. Later, for many, the relationship becomes rockier. It’s hard to hammer out new relationships, but our family has been lucky. Two years later, the bloom of joy is still with us.

The Big Trip

Emma Rose: My birthmother and mom and I talked on the phone for several months. I learned I had two brothers and a sister. When I felt ready, my dad took me to Atlanta to meet my birth family. On the airplane I went into the bathroom constantly to be sure I looked OK. I started to get nervous and scared—scared that my birthmother wouldn’t like me, or would think I was weird. As I walked off the plane, my gorgeous birthmother and sister greeted me with flowers. This time, I couldn’t hold back my tears.

Marybeth: As Emma Rose boarded the plane for Georgia, I felt anxious. My daughter was marching into unknown territory. Suppose she was frightened? Would she understand her birthmother’s reasons for placing her for adoption? And what if Emma preferred her birth family to us? We are large and noisy and chaotic. How would we stack up during this long-awaited reunion?

Yes, there were risks. But to prevent Emma Rose and her birthmother from exploring their history and their future would have been even riskier. Parenting is about the long haul. At 12 years of age, Emma was ready for this visit. I needed to keep my feelings in check.

The visit was everything we could have hoped for. Emma's birthmother showed great courage and love. She introduced Emma to the extended family and spoke openly and honestly with her. We learned whom Emma takes after in her looks, her petite stature, and some aspects of her personality. Since the visit, through letters and phone calls, we have come to know each other even better, and we’re planning a reunion this summer.

Emma Rose: Now you know the advantage of two families. Both families didn’t only answer my questions; they answered my prayers. Mark and Marybeth are my parents by heart. They’re the ones who feed me, tuck me in at night, and hold me when I cry. My birthmother is my first mother; she gave me the love to grow. I am who I am because of all of them.

Marybeth: The decision to search is hard. But it’s not ours to make. We must put aside our worries, both foolish and the real. Our children shouldn’t be made to feel they have betrayed us when they choose to search. They haven’t betrayed us. They simply need to feel whole.

Emma Rose: I know that not everyone’s story ends so well. But I’d spent so much time wondering: How could my birthmom let me go? Now I know she didn’t; she’s still a part of me. I may not be a movie star’s daughter (darn it), but I know who I am for real. I finally have my story.

Marybeth Lambe is a family physician and writer who lives with her family on a small dairy farm in Washington state. Emma Rose Levy is entering eighth grade and loves to write when she’s not playing soccer.

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