I’m adopted. I’ve known this all my life. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, to a woman about whom I know nothing except her name( Gloria, according to my U.S. Certificate of Foreign Birth) and a very basic version of her story–and I have no way to be certain those are even real. “She wanted you to have a better life.” is what my parents always told me.
I have abandonment issues, but, I’ve never felt any sort of thread connecting that to my adoption, and I don’t remember having any such fear as a young child. It has more to do with traumatic events heightened by my hypersensitivity, and people who became important to me and then exited my life abruptly without giving a me a chance to get closure. I spent a long time haunted by shame & confusion thinking I had gotten something terribly wrong; because I didn’t know what and thus could not fix it, I also feared it might happen again at any time.
My mom seems to think about the “trauma” of my adoption a lot more than I do. In family therapy, I think I’ve figured out why. From the moment when I was 16 and we finally got a proper diagnosis from a team of experts, she started to apologize for all the things she “should have” & “shouldn’t have” done in raising a child on the spectrum. She was always taking me places. Sometimes I had to submit to structure, sometimes I was required to break routines. I was encouraged to keep trying when things were hard, to have fun in unfamiliar places & ways, to make friends even when people were difficult, and to find new ways of looking at situations I didn’t understand. I wasn’t isolated from the general populace in “special” classes.
But I don’t think any of the stuff she did like a normal mother would have bothered her as much then if she hadn’t gotten so much flack over the years for stuff she _didn’t_ do normally. My mother never made me eat anything she cooked. Her rule was that everyone in the house came to dinner and sat for the duration of the meal. Anyone not hungry or uninterested in what she had made was welcome to fix him/herself something else. Other mothers were apparently aghast at the notion that she didn’t just serve what was made & make me clean my plate.
Further, while I was required to have dinner with the family, I was allowed to bring books to restaurants, & well-meaning friends would chide her for not forcing me to sit there bored when conversation turned to sports, adult matters, or other subjects in which I lacked any interest or the ability to give input.
When I was in 3rd grade, I outgrew the largest Velcro shoes available at the time. I HATED tying & untying knots with my clumsy fingers( motor control issues are fairly common for ASDs), and I always preferred to wiggle my toes; so I elected to wear sandals from then on–even in winter( as I still do). Unbeknownst to me, a battle raged within the administration regarding an appropriate response; to some of the faculty it was very clear that I needed saving from myself. Ultimately, my supporters won when my mother( probably flashing back to painful childhood memories of having writing implements ripped from her left hand & forced into her right) told the front office something amounting to: “With a kid like this, I pick my battles. I’ll make him take his sneakers for gym. Other than that, if his feet are cold, he’ll complain. If he loses a toe, he’ll learn to live without it, plenty of people do, and then we can talk about shoes.”.
It was evidently a regular part of her life that I had no awareness of, she shielded me from the needless criticism as much as possible and bore the brunt of it herself for letting me be strange.
So I just can’t help wondering if, as she would hold in the anger of “How dare you tell me how to raise my child?” and instead respond with a thank you for good intentions or a calm but resolute insistence on her(/my) way; maybe a tiny voice in her head chimed in with a Latina accent and chided her “Your child?”.
Maybe not. My mother is a strong, smart woman. Maybe she’s always known just as well as I have that I’m her son; while of course the existence of Gloria matters to me, there’s nothing in me that ever wanted another mother, no more than any kid who isn’t mistreated.
Still, it can’t have been easy to hear over & over, especially from folks she liked & trusted, those who had years of experience raising & teaching children, that she was wrong and I should be made to bend to their expectations. Then to look at me, strange, almost alien at times; to know I was in her heart but not from her womb, that she was not like most other mothers... She must have wondered many times what she could have done differently, and perhaps what else she might have gleaned had we ties of blood.
It takes a village to raise a child, they say. But sometimes it looks more to me like that one constant presence, that patient gardener who takes the tiny seed, fragile yet brimming with potential, pots it tenderly in the soil of security, positions it carefully in the light of love. The kind of person who talks to the sprout & laughs & sings, knowing that helps it grow best even if it sits there in silence. Who, once the maturing plant is out of the warm greenhouse, exposed to the elements, will stay all night in the cold with blankets & flames to ward off a surprise frost. Fertilized with knowledge & ideals, pruned & tended, the plant grows tall & beautiful.
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder. A developmental disorder means growth in at least one area is stunted or retarded; pervasive means it affects multiple basic functions, impacting one’s entire life. A slow & tricky breed, we require constant care long after all the plants in others’ gardens have grown hardy, flowered, and borne fruit. Some of us stop growing before reaching maturity, the rest are agonizingly slow.
Moreso even than other children, if we are neglected we may wilt & wither or grow hard & thorny; if we are sheltered and take root hidden away from the elements, we remain fragile, unable to weather any exposure. We grow wild, in unanticipated directions; if pruned back we may recoil & never produce a single bud.
Other gardeners look over & offer “helpful” advice, not understanding that if treated like every other child, many of us will never flower or fruit at all. But a rare few of us, under the patient & loving care of an even rarer breed of gardener, may some day effloresce with unique blossoms of which this world has never seen the like.
My mother took me places. She held my hand. She taught me how to find my way around the world, and gradually, much more gradually than for an ordinary person, the mess of bright colors & loud noises resolved itself into a structured network of objects & places that I could navigate.
She read me stories; complex stories, challenging. She told me her own, when we were far from books & I had to endure long & challenging undertakings in strange & harsh environments. She gifted me the ability to turn an unavoidable ordeal into an adventure; & instilled a great love for adventures & the stories we could tell reminiscing about them after.
She bought me most all the books I wanted, as long as I actually read them; she took me to see plays. She knew that at the movies I sometimes had to stand at or outside the door as the volume & the emotions were both tremendously intense. She let me leave the TV on during tasks & the radio on at night, to keep my overactive brain from tripping me up at every little distraction.
She sensed innately that the world was not the same for me, & helped me to not only survive, but conquer much of it in a way most kids like me never managed. And hot tears are now running down my face as I think of how, for this, she was sometimes she was made to feel like a terrible person by well-meaning friends & strangers; and how she let herself feel like a terrible mother. No wonder it took us 2 years of therapy before she could stop apologizing for not getting everything right.
Thank you, mother, for being the gardener of my soul. No greener thumb for me than yours; our bond goes much deeper than blood roots. The other moms never knew what they were missing; now I want you to see me in full bloom.
Happy Mother’s Day.