I was nearing that in-between age—too old for babies and too young to be old—when we lived in a home on the best sledding hill in our Midwestern neighborhood. With a backyard view of the wooded nature preserve that formed a boundary to our property, it was an idyllic spot for a boy of thirteen, a girl of ten, my husband and me. We’d made it through their childhoods unscathed and were awaiting the thrills of adolescence.
Late one fall day while the kids were still at school, I was folding laundry, trying to make our home look less deranged after I’d finished work and before everyone got home. Warm light spread across the kitchen table as a red fox slinked along our back patio and a barred owl perched in the pine tree. My thoughts of work relaxed into musings on missing socks, leftovers, and what to watch later. As I dug through an old desk hoping to find a sewing kit for my son’s torn shirt, I discovered a manila folder. Inside was an envelope addressed to me in handwriting I did not recognize. A photo with a note, paper-clipped to one corner, fell out. In the picture, a middle-aged woman stands with me in front of a balconied hotel, like the ones in Western movies. Plump, curly-haired, and wearing a floral print dress, she’d greeted us when we’d checked in for our family vacation. My mother later said I liked to chat with her as we sat in rocking chairs on the wide porch. I am in my sleeveless yellow sunsuit, clutching Raggedy Ann, standing close enough to touch the woman’s skirt. We both squint into the sun at the camera. I have no memory of this. I was three.
The note in the unfamiliar hand read, Remember that being adopted doesn’t mean you’re not real. You’re just as real as anyone else.
I sat with the note in my lap, stunned and glad to be alone in the kitchen. The laundry gave me something to do with my hands while I settled my mind.
Not real? Had my mother told me I was not her real child? I knew from a young age that I was adopted, but I must have buried the unreal part. I’m sure my mother meant well. I can imagine her struggling to explain the word “biological” and coming up with “not real” instead. It would have been important to her that I understand what I was, and what I was not. But she didn’t have the language for it. I could imagine sharing this information with the woman on the porch. Perhaps she’d asked about my family, making small talk with someone small.
As I stared at my fridge, plastered with my kids’ photos and after-school schedules, the notion that I was not my parents’ real child boomeranged inside of me until I recalled that for years it had confused me deeply. At the age of three, what I understood was that there was something important that set me apart from the rest of my family. As I grew, I took that understanding out into the world and it set me apart from everyone else too. I wanted to tell people that I had a different last name, one easier to pronounce—but I didn’t know what it was. I wondered, did any other child have this problem?
I felt a familiar hurt as I folded my laundry in the fading light. I guessed that being unreal had been why I dated my husband for eight years, afraid to be married. I told myself I wanted a career first. When I had the career, I still panicked whenever we talked marriage. I thought I didn’t know how to be close to someone without scaring them away, but eventually I figured it out. I assumed we were too old to have kids but they showed up anyway.
When our son was born we were dazzled by his alert little face. For the first time in my life, I saw someone who looked like me, with my mouth and nose, my husband’s round blue eyes. I was in love with him, but afraid. I felt unqualified to be his mother. When our daughter was born three years later, I felt unequipped again, but less so the second time around. She had delicate long legs and a shock of nearly black hair that the nurses decorated with pink ribbons. Also my almond-shaped brown eyes. My children grew. I grew. I fumbled, but I managed.
Other mothers seemed to do everything so easily. I made cupcakes, went to parent-teacher nights, sat on cold bleachers and felt as though I wasn’t getting it quite right. I worried that I would damage my children, that I didn’t have the skills for motherhood. Perhaps I was an unreal mother too.
Our life was full, but like everyone’s, not always easy. There were years when we searched the sofa cushions for change before taking our kids out for burgers. Elvis-themed birthday parties and Blazing Saddles sleep-overs filled our weekends—there’s something about the campfire farting scene that all nine year-olds find irresistible. We juggled our careers so that one of us could be at the bus stop at 2:30 pm every day. Creating slick runs with hot water and trowels, we developed the ultimate neighborhood sledding hill. When our children came in at dusk, I sat on my husband’s lap and we took the last run of the day down the icy track under a pink sky. We stayed married because we wanted to, because what we had was real. This is what came to me as I sat with the note in my lap—I knew I’d made mistakes, but I did the best I knew how.
A sudden feeling unsettled me then, the certain knowledge that my parents would have said the same thing. At that moment, the kinship of fumbling parenthood made Mom and Dad more real to me than they’d ever been before.
I live in another house now, several states away from the one with the sledding hill. There’s a different fox slinking across my yard and a red-tailed hawk hunts from our maple. The same old desk sits to my left. Our kids are grown and gone, but like most mothers I’ve kept traces of them around. I look at the lumpy clay ladybug that squats in front of me on my writing table, sculpted by my son when he was four. It sits next to the oblong brown rock, painted by my daughter to resemble her guinea pig. With red lips, tiny black eyes and curiously arched eyebrows, it snoozes on its side. Of all the gifts they’ve given me, becoming who they have become is the greatest of all. Now that I’m past that in-between age, heading for late life, I can see my children clearly and uncoil from the myths wound tight around me by my own childhood. I can relinquish the role of pretender, redeemed from the unreal.
Anne Rudig was born in San Francisco, grew up in the Bay Area, and received a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley before moving to New York to pursue a career in dance. After several years of performing, she graduated from Parsons School of Design, became an art director/copywriter, and worked on Madison Avenue. Anne paused her career to stay home with her young children before spending twenty more years in advertising, eventually serving as Director of Communication for the Episcopal Church worldwide.
In 2018 Anne received an MFA from Columbia and wrote about her experiences there in a piece for The New York Times, “Back to School, at 64.” Her work has appeared in several literary journals and she has completed a memoir. Like many other adoptees, her original birth certificate was sealed. Recently her essay “I’d Like to Know Who My Parents Are” ran in The Guardian.
Photo by Esther Ní Dhonnacha on Unsplash
I very touching and well written story. My thank you and best wishes to the author.