For years, I avoided Thanksgiving. I said it was about the food. I claimed that as a vegetarian, I could not share a table with my meat-eating parents.
I endured the experience through high school, but once I was in college, my parents went to relatives’ homes while I flew to Europe for the cheapest international travel week of the year. We’re not close, I explained to anyone who asked. After graduate school, there was a decade of “Friendsgiving.” Massive dinners at my apartment for all the vegetarians, vegans and orphans: those whose families were far away or nonexistent.
The gratitude I feel now is genuine — but it is not for being chosen to be adopted.
But it wasn’t just that I didn’t like turkey or football. It was that, growing up, I was not especially thankful. The spirit of the holiday evaded me.
Instead, I felt filled with a sadness I could not name. A sense of loss so deep inside me, so primal, so raw, that I’d lived with it day in and day out. What’s wrong? people asked as I edged into adolescence. Nothing, I always answered gloomily. I could never articulate exactly what it was I felt so acutely, yet was trying so hard to ignore. But little twinges of grief shrouded in anger reached my heart whenever I heard variations of several themes.
The most perplexing of them, since I was not an especially happy child, was the thing I heard most often: that I was lucky. Lucky to have been chosen, lucky to be my parents’ only child. You’ve gotta be spoiled! Bet you get all the attention! I looked at the parents I had — who didn’t seem to know how to connect with me or understand my sadness over the loss of the mother I had never seen — and wondered who on Earth could take me for spoiled.
I had all that I needed to live, but I did not grow up feeling truly loved or even particularly wanted. I resented being told time and time again that I should feel thankful to be my parents’ only child when it seemed they didn’t enjoy having me around.
Another one that I came across frequently from people trying to be cute: You were selected, not expected. When I heard that, I imagined I’d been plucked from rows of smiling babies at the baby store. The reality was very different. My parents waited for years for a child to arrive from the adoption agency. They once told me this was because they’d wanted a white baby. A healthy baby. Ten fingers, 10 toes. At the time, I’d felt special, like they waited for me. Now, I know better.
I was old when they got me. Six months, not a newborn. I’d already done two stints in foster care. They got the white and healthy part, so I guess the rest of it they could overlook. But there I was, the only one available to them after years of waiting. Of course, they took me.
Then, there was the gratitude I was supposed to feel for not being aborted. I was asked about this long before I even metabolized the concept of abortion. Aren’t you glad you’re alive? You could have been aborted! It’s true: I could have been. Although I was born Jan.11, 1973, just 11 days before Roe, abortion had been legal in New York since April 1970. I wouldn’t find out until much later that my birth mother was so young when I was conceived that she didn’t realize it until the fifth month, on the cusp of being too far along to obtain one.
But the worst thing people said was: Your mother wanted what was best for you. She wanted you to have a good life. She wanted you to have a better life, and she loved you enough to make the hardest choice. You’re so lucky.
It’s a very confusing message to be told your mother loved you so much that she gave you away. Wasn’t the best possible life a child could have the one they had with the mother who gave birth to them? I assumed she wouldn’t be thinking of me, wouldn’t take me back. I didn’t dare miss her, didn’t dare grieve the loss of her. Of course, it’s natural for a child to miss her mother. But how could I safely miss someone I was told to feel lucky to have been saved from?
When I reunited with my birth mother in my mid-20s, I learned that she had not, in fact, made her sacrifice in the hope of a better life for me, but because she had been forced to do so. She had her own grief, one she had not been able to name, one that had been stuffed down in her by people telling her, She’s in a better place now with a good family, you should be grateful, now you can go on and live your life, too.
As I grew older, I learned to name my feelings. Empathy was new: for the mother who gave birth to me but couldn’t keep me, and for the mother who did the best she could to parent me the only way she knew. When I had a family of my own, I finally felt unconditional love. My children changed everything for me, putting family front and center in my life.
Now I could grieve my relinquishment and be grateful for the life I lived. I could mourn my now-deceased birth mother and love my adoptive mother, who shares a Thanksgiving table with my family today.
As an adult, I can look back over my life and say, I exist and I’m glad I do. I adore my family. I love what I do, who I am. I am determined to make the most of every minute of the life I have and I can’t imagine it any other way. The gratitude I feel now is genuine — but it is not for being chosen to be adopted. It is for having decided to make the most of the life I have and being able to live that decision.
Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction and essays about identity, adoption, parenting and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Independent, Cognoscenti and more. She is working on her memoir, “My Mothers’ Daughter,” about adoption and identity. Find her writing at aimeechristian.net.