While my resolutions are made in my birthday month of October, January was the perfect time to take some stock, reflect and start anew.
This year as I think about the many Januaries that have come before this one, I can’t help but remember the January in early 2000 when I officially began a sweet and small mentoring program called AdoptMent — adopted adults or adults that spent time in foster care mentoring to young people currently in foster care.
During the many months prior to this program taking shape, I was in a search and reunion swirl. I had located my biological mother. I had spoken to her once on the phone, sent her a letter, a photo album and an article I had written. She sent me a very brief letter in response wondering what I wanted from her.
This is very hard for me to do. I don’t write letters at all to anyone. I am grateful that you had a good home. It is what I wanted for you and I was in a very bad place in my life in Newport. My life here is quiet and peaceful. What I don’t know is what you want from me.
I wrote her back. Here is just part of that letter.
“The truth is for my entire life, I have wondered about you — what you might be like, your interests, how you looked and countless other questions. I have wondered how I came to be in the world and the circumstances surrounding my birth. Who my biological father might be and what he might look like. Everyone always asks me what nationality I am or where I am from. I am not afraid to know what happened nor will I ever pass judgment. I am so curious and naturally interested in my history…”
In January 2004, an oversized envelope arrived and it was from her. I could not help but be excited. Did it include photos and more information about my family of origin? I carefully and nervously opened the envelope. The contents looked familiar. Was it everything that I had sent her? She was sending it back? I rifled through everything — the photo album, the letters and the article. Everything I had sent was all there. And there was also a note on a half-ripped piece of paper that read exactly this…
“I don’t know who your sperm donor was. I was raped. My family has no genetic problems and they never knew anything about you. Hearing from you has made me very depressed.”
Now the tone I had heard in her voice when we spoke that one time made perfect sense — the balance of happiness, trepidation and deep pain. I kept staring at the piece of paper thinking, none of this could be real. I kept looking at the contents over and over again — somehow thinking that they’d magically morph into photos of her and a different letter — one that included information about my biological father and how we’d all meet and build a relationship. It did not happen. My fantasy fairytale had been officially ripped to shreds and my heart was officially broken.
I could not even cry at first, I was so stunned. I remember waiting to tell my mother. I needed to show her but I was petrified. I needed her to hold me and tell me everything was going to be alright and I needed her to protect me from all of this pain in some way. I was asking for a lot but it was what I needed. She did hold me but I knew she was hurt and furious with Helen. I can remember my mother saying how she always held Helen close to her heart because she loved me so much but now that she had hurt me like this it was so hard and almost impossible for her to do that. While I never want to see my mom angry — when her protective mother bear instincts reared right up — I realized that was exactly what I needed.
I was distraught, confused and angry. I was in a fog. To this day, the pain reverberates throughout my entire body when I read those words.
When I share this with people as part of my journey, so often my first instinct is to say “I am sure that is not true…” or “Do you really think she was raped?” or “So often back in the day, women lied about being raped to protect themselves and their decision…” I never saw it in any of these ways, ever. My first reaction was, if this is true, it is awful, and if it is not, that may be even worse.
The ONLY way I could look at it was believe it was true. Believing otherwise was simply just not an option. It was painful to think of such a terrible thing happening to my biological mother and realizing that is how I was created but it was even more painful to think that it could be a fabrication.
While this search and reunion swirl was going on, I visited a support group in New York and for the first time, I had a community of adopted people, birth parents and adoptive parents around me. It was incredible that there were so many of us, experiencing such similar emotions surrounding adoption. I did not stay with this group very long but made lifelong friends with two of the people I met. The realization that I was not alone was a transformation and a new beginning.
To this day, my dear friend Debra is someone I count on every day and someone who truly uniquely and understands me because she too is adopted. While we did not have the same exact experience, she gets me in ways that people who have not experienced adoption most often can’t. This relationship is like gold. I often imagine what it would have been like to have known Debra when I was growing up and have found that depth of authentic understanding earlier in life.
What I did have early on in life was the unconditional love of my family and a center of gravity, which gave me character and rock solid core. Being a Dinwoodie meant in times of adversity you got to work. So, I took all of the energy I had, the new friends I had found on my journey, and the passion I had for mentoring and created a specialized mentoring program where adopted adults or adults who spent time in foster care mentor young people in foster care. My thought was this: if I had all that I had with my family, the means to get support and help, take some time off and take care of myself and the rejection of my birth mother was still gut-wrenching… what were young people in foster care experiencing? And wouldn’t a space for a shared connection be useful for everyone — the young people primarily — but also the adults? In 2004, AdoptMent was born.
I had made connections with Mentoring USA through my marketing job at Kenneth Cole and incubated the program launching the first site at Harlem Dowling West Side Center for Children and Family Services. From the minute I entered a foster care agency as an adult, I was forever changed yet again. I met some of the people who would further transform my life and play a vital role in my passion for working to reform adoption and foster care. I met committed professionals like Barry Chaffkin and Doris Laurenceau who would become my friends and co-founders of the original Changing the World One Child at a Time (now Fostering Change for Children). I met adopted people who committed as mentors to youth in foster care and I have met and been honored to create relationships with some of the most amazing young people I have ever known — young people with fractured families and young people who are trying to find their way through this experience of foster care and adoption. While the mentees and mentors did not all share the same narrative, we shared the same deep feelings about family, challenges with our identity and desire to work through those challenges.
I had NO idea how meaningful this program would be, the perspective it would give me, and how much it would inspire me to keep moving forward. Ultimately, AdoptMent was a new beginning for me; a way to channel my pain into something that I hoped would be valuable to the mentees and mentors. It did not take long before I felt it — a moment when while walking down the street, one of the mentees said to me, “You know, sometimes when I see someone walking down the street and they kind of look like me, I think, that could be my dad…” She stopped me in my tracks. I turned and said, “You know what, me too…” We paused. “You do?” she said. And just like that, there was a connection and an understanding that went beyond our exact experiences.
There have been countless magical moments and just as many not so magical moments of deep frustration and anger surrounding situations that these young people face that are unimaginable. All of this has fueled my work and energy to help bring about needed changes in foster care and adoption because it all needs to get better and children, teens, young adults and their families need help across the board. Out of an incredible pain came a great passion and so much connection and joy for working with mentees and mentors alike.
In January, we celebrated National Mentoring Month, and while the pain of being rejected by my birth mother may never truly go away, creating AdoptMent gave me a new beginning. Now, after over 10 years, there will be another new beginning. Later this year, AdoptMent will become independent and no longer under a program of Fostering Change for Children.
As I reflect on another January and the many changes and challenges in our world today, I can’t help but be even more fiercely committed to both my personal and professional exploration of adoption, identity and family, to honor my very full, rich and real life experience, and do all I can to heal myself and to help heal others.