I have desired to be loved unconditionally as long as I can remember. They say that the truest form of unconditional love stems from the bond we create with our mothers. After all, we will never again exist in such close approximation to another within our lifetime. But maternal love was never a steady stream for me. I never had that foundational rock; that soft place to fall that people often reference when talking about their mothers. My mothers’ love always felt much more like the ocean. It bellowed in with all of its beauty and overwhelming power to bring me a sense of peace and belonging and then always, without fail, slowly slithered away as if it had never existed. I would always inevitably find myself back on shore; skin burning atop the parched sand of the dessert; desperate to bring back the beautiful blue majestic waters of my mothers love. And like the waves of the ocean she has come in and gone away over, and over, and over again.
As an adult, I’ve had the astonishing privilege of being a mother to the most incredible and magnetic human for over eight years now. While biology has never been able to account for the reason I have felt – from the mere instant I witnessed his face in a snapshot taken at an orphanage in Ethiopia – that I could and would never love anything more – I have done just that… loved him fully, completely and unconditionally. I have mothered him in the exact way I wished someone had mothered me. And for one another – we have been enough.
This remains my life’s greatest accomplishment to date.
As an aside I suppose that is the irony of me both as a mother and a daughter. I have never been able as an adult to recall the feel of my mothers skin, the tightness of her grasp upon my body — and yet this tiny bourbon skinned boy – whose biology that never mirrored my own – remains the closest I have ever felt to another human in my life.
But I digress…
My journey to motherhood was an interesting one; in that it really began with a book about a woman in Ethiopia who adopted hundreds of orphans after loosing her entire family to HIV; a rock hard and crystal clear overnight decision that I was going to quite literally “take action,” against the global orphan crisis; and an overwhelmingly sheer determination to be the water for a child burning in the dessert longing for the wave of his mothers love.
I would watch videos of children in third world countries hearing they were “adopted” and sob in my dark corner office from the suburbs of Middle America. I look back on the innocence and ignorance of that ideology with softness in my heart.
While since that time, I have learned that adoption is a much more complex and complicated animal, I know that the motivation in my mind (as pure as my intentions were) at the time to “give a child without a family a home, a mother, and a place they always belonged” came from a very different desire than the intrinsic, innate, and biological desire to simply to procreate and mother (a primitive yearning that would overtake me years later). What I also know now is that when that gorgeous three year old boy was first placed in my arms, I was still such a baby in such desperate need of a mother myself, and completely unaware of the subconscious motivations to “right the wrongs” of what own mother was and was not able to be for me at play.
From as early as I can remember, I would unofficially invite myself into other people’s lives in order to become “adopted” by other families. There was one family in particular during my high school years that so deeply embodied the kind of “things” I wanted in a family, the kind that had a mom and a dad. I would drive to their house before high school to eat breakfast at their kitchen table together. I would spend holidays helping them cook an elaborate feast amongst the brightly decorated Christmas tree. There were place settings, and candles and home cooked meals. While that family in particular was so instrumental in showing me the kind of home life I longed for, and has always done everything they can to make me feel included, there was always this sensation that I was sitting outside of someone else’s home looking though the window into their life. Anytime I would find myself in pain and wishing I could have those kind of things for myself I would somehow justify it all in my mind that those kinds of “things” were meant for other people, and that while I was allowed to have a peripheral peek into what that life looked and felt like; I always knew it was not really mine to keep; I never really belonged.
So when at age 22 my ten year old cousin, whose mother was a severe drug addict completely checked out in the parenting department and that precious child was basically being raised by wolves and left to fend for herself; there was no question in my mind that I was going to ensure sure she had a place where she knew she belonged. And for the subsequent years she lived with me – we sort of raised each other in a way. So between her and the tiny Ethiopian boy that was now part of this crazy family puzzle, we three somehow fit together so perfectly, it was as if we were always meant to belong together. Like we were destined to be soul mates. And for the few years I got to experience what if felt like to feel truly at home. I like to think that by being a mom to those who kids and giving them all things I so deeply longed for from my own mother, I was somehow loving and forgiving her at the same time.
I have always and will always love my mother madly…even in all of her madness.
I can still recall the very first moment I was old enough to identify it. I was six years old at the time, sitting in the blue pleather passenger seat of my mothers 1986 Pontiac Grand am while trying to piece together what exactly was wrong with her and why I was so scared of where she was taking me. I knew she turned left instead of right to take me to school. I wanted to go to school! School was safe.
This would be the very first time I really recognized that “look” in her eye. The look that would grow to serve as my warning bell; signaling me to duck for cover when I was too young to leave her, and screaming at me to run the hell away when I realized that I could. The “look” was a blend of bridled determination, fire and madness…. and I could instinctively decode, even at age six, without a true understanding of how and why, this madness was a true threat to my survival.
I knew then, within every single cell of my body, that I wanted to survive.
And it is that grasping, yearning, and running to survive that has, in so many ways, defined me my entire life. Because if I have learned anything it is that when we honestly, intrinsically, and desperately desire to live; to survive – that we as humans have a potential for resilience that is far stronger and more powerful than we could ever imagine. The skill for survival has served me throughout multiple losses and numerous tragedies in my lifetime. I have been told more times than I can count, that I often serve as a reference point whenever my friends play the “what if that happened to me” game in their mind. Weather it was my losing my very best friend at age 31, my almost overnight dissolving of my first marriage, or dealing with one of the hundreds of my mothers psychotic breaks; people have always said the same thing to me, “you are so strong; and if anyone can get through this it is you…” And they were right. As many times as I would reach the end of some new crisis and think to myself that there was no way I could make it through another; I always would. Time, and time again. After all, I was born for this.
On this particular Monday morning, the tornado that is my mother was set on flying to Washington DC to meet with the President of The United States. She outlined her mission to inform the President that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her the week prior to tell her about the imminent end of the world as we parked in the airport garage. It was only days before this that I had laid next to her in bed; studying her face in the moonlight as she told me for the first time of her own mothers suicide, how shocking it was for her as she was only sixteen years old at the time, and that since that moment the Virgin Mary appears to give her these warnings.
I was quickly beginning to fear that “something” was terribly wrong with her version of the story and so without the intellectual or emotional capacity to begin to understand why, I started pulling her arm away from the ticket counter in the airport and towards the exit while screaming as loud as I could “You CANNOT talk to the President mom, please lets just go home!” My tiny baby brother was coughing from the stroller below the counter. Something inside me wanted to kick her or run away from her; which I would later come to know as a fight or flight instinct; this too would grow to become a well-oiled survival mechanism; and something I would have to learn to manage and undo as an adult. I would someday grow up and have to learn how to stop defaulting into survival mode if I ever had any chance at real happiness. But as a young child with no power to change her or my circumstances I had only one option. Survive. Survive. Survive.
A little over forty-eight hours later we would be picked up on the streets of Washington DC at four in the morning by the police. My mother with her fire engine red hair and two small beautiful children in tow made the mistake of letting the cops in on her grandiose plan to inform the President of The Virgin Madonna’s big ultimatum. Between me, my father, my brother and my mother; we have never been able to accurately recount in agreement the exact sequence of events following that moment; but what we do all know for sure, is that my father, whom had been divorced from my mother for only a short time, flew to DC to pick us up from a couple with whom we had been placed through Protective Social Services.
What I remember most from the trip was the contrast of her fire engine red against the white walls and bright lights of the hospital’s psychiatric ward, walking with a strange doctor in a garden on the roof of a hospital, and the smell of my brother’s vomit on the hotel floor. My little brother, who again was only a baby at the time, swears he can still clearly recall waking up terrified from sleeping on a stranger’s lap in the airplane whom he had mistakenly thought was my father.
Somehow I managed to skate through that experience and about a thousand more of them just like it without ever visiting a counselor or without someone ever mentioning the concept of trauma or attachment to me. It was not until I started to educate myself on how to mother an adopted child, that I would begin to learn the ways in which trauma, attachment and stress were correlated. It was through my desire to know everything I could on to heal my child through his own losses that I was able to begin putting together the pieces of my own traumas and they ways in which they manifested themselves throughout my entire life.
I can remember reading a book on older child adoption and all of the frightening and horrific psychological disorders that often present themselves in children with disrupted attachments. I was curious as to why I had somehow managed to make it into adulthood without any major psychological disorders, without ever taking any medications, and was still able to experience to the big, bold, beautiful colors of this life and feel true authentic happiness. That is not to say I have not struggled, or gone through extremely deep dark periods of grief, sadness, anxiety, fear and mourning. That is not to say that I have not sometimes fallen into what I like to call “emotional land-mines” where feelings and emotions surface and it takes days, weeks, or years to understand and process what it means and why. I have been bound by fears. I have spent years being terribly afraid and filled with shame.
But I have always found the ability to stand back up. And for every single loss I have experienced; I have also felt the pure joy that a really moving song on a sunny day with the windows down can evoke. I’ve loved a child as deeply as a mother can. I’ve known bliss. I’ve known love. I’ve known empathy, and compassion, and freedom. I have lived fully.
I once read a quote “ultimately resilience is a process of connectedness, of linking to people, to interests, and ultimately to life itself,” and for me that has been my truth.
And that is really my advice to all of those within the world who have been raised by wolves. The only way out is connect in some profound way to life itself. I have about a million suggestions on how to do that in THIS POST, but I will leave this passage with one last thought. The faster you can connect yourself to the people, love, and pain in the world around you, the faster you can recover from the pains you carry.