While the non-adopted friends I grew up with in England were getting married to men who looked like Hugh Grant (and having babies who did not), I was on a quest to find my birth mother. I was 25 and living in London. My birth mother, whom I had known nothing about until this point in my life, was, I had recently learned, an American, living in Tennessee.
Not long after our reunion, in January of 1994, while still in the euphoric throes of “I have just found out I am really an American,” I moved to New York City to become a stand-up comic. In an attempt to come to terms with my new identity, I wrote The English American, a one-woman show, which tells a comedic version of my adoption and reunion story. After that, I appeared on Broadway, and was put under contract by a Hollywood studio, so that ABC-TV could develop a sitcom for me.
Broadway, Hollywood, TV deals. This was heady, exciting stuff, and it consumed me almost as much as my confusing relationship with my birth mother. There was no room for thoughts of men or babies. “The key to dealing with a fear of abandonment,” I’d tell my audiences, with the authority of an expert, “is to date people you don’t like, so if they leave you, it doesn’t matter. Either that, or guarantee fidelity by dating someone no one else wants.”
Then I fell on my head on an icy New York City street. In an oddly fated moment, a man I’d met in a comedy club, Jim Keenan, picked me up off the ice and took me to the hospital. A former rock drummer from New Jersey, Jim looked like Paul McCartney. On top of that, he owned all the episodes of my favorite British TV series on video. After a three-year romance, during which time he was put through trust tests worthy of a medieval knight, Jim and I got married at my parents’ church in England.
For the first time in my life, I felt truly secure, with this sexy, kind American with gentle brown eyes. He ironed my shirts and cleaned our kitchen while I told jokes at comedy clubs, appeared on television, and struggled to integrate what I’d learned about my birth family into my sense of who I was.
Having children was something that other people did, and I never gave it a conscious thought. Until the day I got a tummy ache. The doctor told me that if the problem turned out to be an infection, it could affect my ability to become pregnant. Actually, the problem turned out to be indigestion, but the visit woke me up. My ability to become pregnant? What ability to become pregnant?
My non-adopted friends who had siblings had seen their mothers pregnant and knew all about morning sickness and the agonies of delivery. But in my family, babies came ready-made, from social workers. You drove to a foster home, a nice lady gave you a baby, and you drove away. So up until this point, whenever I pictured the moment that I entered the world, the setting was a wood-paneled station wagon. Yet suddenly I wanted to become pregnant more than anything else in the world.
I knew nothing about what happened to a woman’s body between conception and birth, so I turned to books for answers. One book said that women who were too thin found it hard to conceive. So I happily gained 15 pounds. Concerned that nature might need help in my case, after making love, I’d lie on the couch for hours with my legs in the air, to make sure no sperm dropped out. But month after month went by and I still wasn’t pregnant. I felt a profound sorrow. And for perhaps the first time, I understood what my adoptive mother must have gone through when she couldn’t become pregnant. I’d call her and say, “Mum, it must have been awful.” And she’d say, “Not really, darling. After all, it meant we got you.” For my parents, adopting may not have been second-best, but I now knew that it had been a second choice.
The month we stopped trying to get pregnant, I found out that I was going to have a baby. I was in awe of the fact that there was a child growing inside me. How lucky I felt. And how guilty. Unlike the mother who raised me, I got to grow my own baby. Unlike the mother who gave birth to me, I got to keep my baby.
It was during my pregnancy that I first sensed the depth of sorrow my birth mother must have felt at being separated from the baby who had lived within her for nine months. Even though my reunion with my birth mother had been far from easy, and I hadn’t seen her in several years, I was grateful that I had been able to find her. Because we were in contact, my birth mother was able to provide crucial medical information. She told me that I had had a twin brother who was stillborn, and that during her pregnancy she suffered from toxemia and other complications, which had caused my twin’s death and had nearly caused her own.
Without this information, my doctor would not have known about my genetic predisposition to certain complications. It chills me to think it, let alone write it, but it is quite possible that if I had not been able to find my birth mother, my children would not be with me today.
For me, pregnancy was a glorious time. I went to a pregnancy yoga class so that I could be around other pregnant women, whom I watched with fascination. I approached women with children everywhere—at the coffee shop, in the supermarket, at the park—and asked them how their deliveries had gone. And, probably because I was pregnant and had a posh English accent, they would tell me everything, filling in the gaps in my knowledge that my adoptive mother couldn’t.
Of course, there was the occasional blip, like the time the yoga teacher asked us to visualize our own birth. At first I pictured a wood-paneled station wagon, but then I went somewhere else. I remembered the nightmare I had, that I was leaving the hospital with my baby when the lights suddenly went out. When they came back on again, all the newborns had been stolen, including mine. A man with a stethoscope explained that he wasn’t really surprised, as babies were getting top dollar on the adoption black market that week.
By this time I had a trained counselor, herself a reunited adoptee who’d been through childbirth. She recognized all the anxiety signs, and was able to help me through the tough spots. Because of her, in time, the joy I felt far outweighed the fear.
My son, Toby, was born after 18 hours of labor, followed by an emergency Cesarean section. Immediately after the surgery, still struggling to stay conscious, I saw the dim shape of a woman who was holding my newborn son and heading toward the door. In the bossiest voice I could muster, I asked, “Where on earth are you going with him?” “Ma’am, I’m taking him to be washed,” she said. “Oh, no, you’re not,” I said. “Bring him here, please. He won’t be leaving my side until we’re home.”
Nearly two years later, I was devastated to learn, after another 18 hours of labor, that I was going to have to have a second C-section. When the doctor asked me why I was so upset I told him, “I didn’t want my daughter’s first view of the world to be of strangers in green masks, in a sterilized room, with bright lights and lots of clatter. I wanted her to be able to come straight to my breast.” He said, “OK. We’ll turn off the lights, keep the room quiet, and, as long as everything’s okay, we’ll cut the cord while she’s nursing. That way, she’ll bond with you even quicker than if you’d delivered vaginally.” Eliza’s delivery went perfectly.
I was taken away from my birth mother right after I was born, and put in a foster home for six weeks before being adopted, so I was determined to give my children what I had not had. For them, there would be no bright lights, no sterilized hands ripping mother and newborn apart, no social workers, no well-meaning strangers who smelled funny. There would just be us, nursing in the safety of our bedroom. And in those first six weeks, despite recovering from major surgery and dealing with major hormones, I felt deep peace for the first time in my life. And the soul connection I had traveled the world to find was right there, with the tiny human beings who had grown within me.
Even though my mother did not have the experience of giving birth, she was deeply happy for me. I could see it in her face when she held her grandchildren for the first time.
My children are now 2 and 4, and I know, as much any mother can ever know, who they are and, most importantly, whom they came from. They call the parents who raised me “Granny” and “Gran Dad.” It’s my mother in England I call when I need to know how long to leave an 18-pound turkey in the oven. And the songs my son sings over and over are the ones my parents taught me when I was a little girl. And yet, living with me every day are two little people who have my birth mother’s coloring and my birth father’s spirit. My birth mother, daughter, and I all have the same legs. The dramatic way my son speaks about his trains could be my birth father talking about his country. Their irrepressible energy is in my children’s nature as irrefutably as it is in mine. I found my birth parents so I could understand me, so I could understand my children.
But I also know that I had a glorious childhood, and it’s that experience, as much as my genes, that I want to pass on to my children. The childhood given to me by my adoptive parents provided me with a solid base from which I’ve been able to go forward, face the tumult of an international adoption reunion, and move beyond it to become a better, rather than a broken, person.