Stephanie Andersen teaches composition and creative writing at Reading Area Community College in Pennsylvania.
The first time my oldest daughter called me “Mom,” she was 17.
We were driving to visit my great-grandmother’s grave, her idea. Somewhere in the last stretch, we came upon an old brick building with a gaping hole in its facade. We could see right through to the inside. Captivated, we pulled over.
“Mom,” she said. “Wow.”
I swallowed hard.
* * *
I had given Eli up for adoption the day she was born. The decision haunted me for years. Then, miraculously, we wound up back in each other’s lives. What started as a couple of visits quickly blossomed into close, regular contact. But sorting out our relationship has proved painfully complicated. I gave birth to Eli, but I also abandoned her. Once we reconnected, I thought we could become a family again. But we couldn’t, at least not the way I expected.
I wasn’t thinking about all that as we made our way back to the car, though. At that moment, I was “Mom.” Eli was asking me to step in. I wanted to deserve it. But I feared I would let her down again. Sometimes, you can’t make up for lost time.
When I found myself pregnant at 16, I was exhilarated. I’d lost my own mother at 12, and my father and I weren’t close. A baby, I thought, might cure my loneliness.
My boyfriend had other ideas. He wasn’t ready to get married and become a father. And I wasn’t ready to become a single parent. So I made the heart-wrenching decision to give my daughter up for adoption. A family friend told me about a couple who couldn’t conceive; I met them, liked their smiles and chose them right away.
In the months and years after Eli’s birth, I tried not to think about her too much. I moved from New York to North Carolina and eventually Pennsylvania, intent on starting a new life. But every year, when I received a letter from my daughter’s parents, packed with photos and life updates, my old wounds tore open. I read that my daughter loved Teletubbies, jewelry and makeup. That every night, she and her parents said a prayer for me. That they brought her to church every Sunday. She had slumber parties and watched “The Cheetah Girls.”
I clung to every word in those letters, reading them over and over again. For weeks after, I would long to see Eli. One year, my sister and I even drove to her house in New York. We parked across the street, ducked our heads behind the dashboard and watched as an orange truck pulled into the driveway. My daughter’s mother climbed out of the front seat, then pulled my little girl from the car. She skipped, her dark brown curls bouncing, holding a piece of construction paper in one hand.
I laughed and cried as Eli went inside. But seeing a living version of her, knowing she was real and happy, put me at ease for a long time.
Five years later, I got a call. My 10-year-old daughter wanted to meet me. I said yes immediately. But as I drove the three hours north from my new home in Pennsylvania, I felt clammy. Would I be able to hide the anger, regret and sadness I felt? Would my daughter hate me?
When I reached the park where we agreed to meet, I was shaking. But Eli calmed my nerves with a waved hand. An hour later, I was following her on the too-small bike she loaned me to the banks of the Susquehanna. “This is my favorite place,” she told me, spinning in a circle. It was where she went to think, play and wade into the river, clinging tightly to a willow the whole time.
That afternoon, I stayed mostly quiet. She giggled nervously, talking intermittently about her bike, her hobbies and her friends at school. When it was time for me to leave, she asked when we would see each other again.
I wasn’t sure. Though I longed to know Eli, I felt like a stranger when we interacted in person. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Still, I couldn’t look at her wide eyes without wanting to please her. So when her parents called a couple of weeks later to ask about another visit, I agreed.
Over time, our visits became regular. I’d meet her and her mother for lunch at Olive Garden, or her family and her best friend at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Eventually, Eli started coming to my apartment in Reading, Pa. I cooked for my daughter, took long, quiet walks with her, tucked her in at night. When I got married, she was my junior bridesmaid. When we bought a house, she helped us move in.
Still, I never felt quite comfortable enough to kiss her face, tell her what colors looked best on her or share a drink with her. She seemed less like a daughter than a niece or a close family friend.
Then I had a baby girl, Sophia. Sophia changed things for Eli and me. Raising Sophia helped me understand what I’d lost with Eli. And Eli could see firsthand what had been denied her. She grew sullen, stopped visiting as often. Soon, her rage consumed her. By the time Eli was 13, her mother would often call me crying, saying Eli’s anger was becoming too much to bear. Other times, Eli called me crying, saying she hated her family and would never belong with them. After her mother moved out, she said she felt even more alone.
For years, she wrestled with her feelings of abandonment and anger. Then, after graduating from high school, she had an idea: Could she come live with me? Maybe, Eli thought, she’d finally understand what it’s like not to be an adoptee but a daughter. Four months after she turned 18, Eli moved in. She got a job waiting tables at a restaurant down the street and enrolled at the college where I taught. I took her shopping, and she bought a new bedspread, matching sheets and a little lamp. She found a corner in the kitchen cabinet to keep her favorite tea mugs.
One night, I tiptoed downstairs to see my 6-year-old Sophia and Eli sitting at the table, sipping tea. I smiled, then crept back upstairs to listen to their voices together. For the first time in 18 years, I felt at peace. My girls were together; we were like a family.
* * *
But it couldn’t last. Eli was too hurt and needed more from me than I anticipated. A few weeks later, I came home to find her sitting on the floor of her bedroom, crying. When I asked what was wrong, she pulled out an old scrapbook her mother had made for her and stared down at a picture of them together, a little girl beaming. I realized then that no matter what I did, my house would never feel like home to Eli. Home had been somewhere and someone else. I wanted to believe that I could take away her pain, give her love enough to fill her emptiness. But I had missed too much.
Two weeks later, Eli moved out, saying she couldn’t be a part of my family. She was confused and needed space, time away from me. She dropped out of the college, packed up her things and drove back north, back home to her adoptive father and her friends.
After she left, I stood in her empty room, staring into her closet. Though I was sure it wasn’t the last I’d see of her, I knew I would never be her mom, not in the way both of us hoped I could be. That chance, I understood now, had been lost 18 years ago. Our shared genes, shared desire and shared love for each other couldn’t recover the years we were apart.
I’ll go back to the business of holding out hope for a role in her life, learning how to make room for her pain while forgiving myself for my role in it, and learning how to love her while simultaneously letting her go. Maybe that’s what motherhood is about after all.