This is my birth mother

I’ve never met her. She had me shortly after her 21st birthday and gave me up for adoption. People look at this photo and think it’s me.

She was a college student at University of Wisconsin in Platteville, studying to be a teacher. In spring of 1969, she discovered she was pregnant with me. In those days young, single, pregnant women were hidden away, so when the semester ended, she went to a home for unwed mothers in Milwaukee. Not surprisingly, the birth father wanted nothing to do with the situation. It didn’t matter. She knew what she was going to do.

Only a couple of close friends and her immediate family knew she was pregnant. People from her small hometown in Indiana believed she stayed at school for the summer, and when she didn’t return to school in the fall, her friends there were told she was taking a semester off.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to bring a baby into this world and then give her away. Nine months of caring for another being growing in your body, all the while knowing you’re going to hand her off to someone else. But she did. She made the ultimate sacrifice to give me a better life, and I’d like to think, not halt hers … but fate has a way of intervening.

She was never able to fulfill her dream of finishing school and becoming a teacher. Six months after she gave birth to me, she was killed in a car accident. She had finally gotten her life back together only to be taken in a single, senseless act.

I searched for her and spent years on a waiting list, only to discover she had been dead my entire life. I was devastated. Not because I needed a mother — I have loving, supportive parents — but I always thought a piece of me was missing. Still do. I don’t know if meeting her would have changed that.

I met her sister and mother for the first time in my early 20s. I felt their grief, but also joy. I’m the spitting image of her, so I imagine for them, it was like seeing a ghost. They stared at me and commented on our shared characteristics — a similar crooked eye tooth, and nearly identical facial features. At the time, I was a couple years older than she was when she died, so time stood still and there I was.

Several years later, when I attended the funeral service for her mother, I could feel eyes on me. It was a neighbor who was in on the secret, and she instantly knew who I was. By that time, 40 years had passed, yet few people there knew of my existence until that day. It was surreal and sweet to meet her friends and relatives. They spoke fondly of her and recalled the emotional hardship on her family after her death.

Having such a close resemblance to another person was a new, albeit strange, experience for me. “Who do I look like?” is perhaps the biggest question for any adopted person. Seeing photos of her answered that question for me, but it didn’t resolve any lingering identity issues I had. Those are still mine.

I see parts of myself, and her, in my children. I’m so grateful to her for the difficult decision she made so many years ago, and to her family for supporting her.