A Whisper of Guilt Amid the Gratitude
Image credit: Circe Hamilton
Sometimes being thankful isn’t all it seems
This Thanksgiving, when I gather with my five children, I will be filled with gratitude for all of them. I love my adopted daughters. I love my biological kids. I love my family just the way it is. But amid the laughter, overeating, and good cheer, I will also feel a pang of guilt that our family is built on another’s misfortune. Since adopting a decade ago, an ever-present whisper has been that birth parents’ losses have been my gain.
Holidays, in particular, highlight this fraught connection. As thankful as I am for my children, the fact of their biological families can’t be forgotten. Only a small minority of adopted children are true orphans with no one in the world to call family. More often it’s poverty, crisis, and desperation that toss children into the adoption arena—a reality we should remember no matter how happy, loved, and wonderful our adopted kids are.
My two Ethiopian daughters both have living mothers who made the excruciating “decision” to relinquish their children to an orphanage. Their wish was for their daughters to receive educational opportunities they were unlikely to get in their villages. Their hope for their daughters became my privilege and responsibility. In my worst moments, I imagine their Ethiopian mothers’ distress that their girls ended up with such an impatient, demanding mother. When I can solve a problem, offer genuine comfort, or simply cuddle, I feel that my being their mother was meant to be.
But that’s too easy. The hard truth is that it’s not fair that my daughters were born to women in cultural and economic circumstances that compromised their biological destiny. It’s not fair that I was born into a culture and economic environment that I’m afforded such an honor. To be able to parent these amazing daughters is an expression of harsh global and sociopolitical realities. I’m grateful every day.
My daughters have photos of their Ethiopian mothers displayed in their room. With each passing year, we pay homage and wonder how they are. The girls ask questions, such as “Do you think I have brothers or sisters?” or “Do you think my mom is sick, or maybe she died?” Birthdays are even more bittersweet, with my girls asking, “Do you think my Ethiopian Mommy remembers me today?” I hug them and whisper, “Of course.”
On certain nights, when bright stars or a full moon serve as a reminder of humanity’s common home, I imagine two women in separate villages staring up at the same moon and the same stars, wishing and hoping that their babies are getting all that they need. I may never get a chance to express my gratitude, but I can make sure that their daughters never forget that love is the essential truth of their destiny. When I think of their birth mothers’ poignant acts of self-sacrificing love, I appreciate that I’m the lucky one.
The spring after this piece was written, our family was fortunate to travel to Ethiopia and connect with both birth mothers. The journey was poignant, heartbreaking, and beautiful all at once.
A sociologist who taught at Northwestern University for over a decade, Marika Lindholm is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, a confidential community of support and connection for Solo Moms.
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