Writing the First Letter

Lorraine
How do you write a letter to the son or daughter you gave up for adoption? Before you know her/him? How to begin, what to say? It's a question first/birth mothers are faced with if they must make contact through a confidential intermediary. At the end of my memoir, Birthmark, I have a letter to the daughter I did not know yet--she was thirteen at the time the book was published in 1979, and as many of you know, I did reunite with her less than three years later. No letter was necessary, I made a phone call and spoke to her adoptive mother, and then her adoptive father, and within ten minutes or so my daughter was on the line. Yep. That was, in a sense, the easy part.

But what would I say today if I had to write such a letter? How would I introduce myself?

People sometimes write and ask for help composing this most difficult of letters, and so I sat down and wrote how I might write such a letter today, hoping that it will help some of the first mothers confronted with this task. There is some identifying information in this letter that might not pass muster, but my attitude is, put it in and let the CI be in the position of taking it out. I have heard many stories about redacted birth and adoption documents in which one telling name or place or other detail was missed, and that was the clue that led the person to find the other. So, do not be scrupulous about avoiding every detail, put them in. Some may get through.

Furthermore, what is identifying to one person may seem to be non-identifying to another CI, especially one who is sympathetic to search-and-reunion. For instance, in my sample letter below I mention that my daughter's father was an older man and a political reporter on the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester. Well, that could be one of several people--local politics? national? the suburbs or the city? At the time she was born, there were two newspapers in Rochester, and so I could reasonably argue that there had to be a number of people who covered politics then, on the two papers, and so that would be identifying and might be permissible to be included. You never know what might get through.

And to the adoptees reading, I ask for your advice. Anything I left out? Please add it in the comments, or tell us about letters you have received and what you liked or disliked about them.

Check List for writing to your son or daughter who was adopted:
  • Say that you have never forgotten your child; that you are writing in love, and do not want to interfere in their lives but would very very much welcome him or her in yours. 
  • The adoptee will want first of all to know why she was given up for adoption, so tell that briefly but leave gory details (if there are any) for later in a face-to-face meeting or telephone conversation. 
  • If you can recall a detail about the time of the birth that is comforting to you and will be telling to the adoptee, include it.  (See forsythia.)
  • Include the circumstances of the birth that you can remember--specific time, weight, height, whether baptized on the spot, what your baby looked like if you saw him or her, name of hospital. Like all of us, your child will be eager to learn about himself.
  • Let her know if the other members of your family know about him or her, and if they do not, what you intend to do (tell them!) if the adoptee responds positively. 
  • Then include personal information about yourself: education, occupation, talents, preferences, marital status, whether you had other children, a physical description--adoptees are eager to find someone who looks like them and shares any traits and talents.
  •  If you have had a difficult life (drug addiction, alcoholism, prison) or if the child is the result of a rape, you might hold back these details until you meet, or have more contact.
  • Do not write disparagingly about the adoptee's biological father, or infer anything bad about adoption or adoptive parents in general. The time for exploring these topics is later.
  • You may express your personal sorrow for the fact of the adoption itself that is separate from explaining (briefly) why you surrendered. Simply expressing that you are sorry your son or daughter had to be adopted without saying the times/my parents/the social worker/the devil etc. made you do it acknowledges not only your grief and role in the surrender, but expresses sympathy to the adopted person without assuming additional blame and guilt. It shouldn't be a slavish apology, but one that acknowledges that being adopted is not the same as being raised in one own's family. You want merely to express a tender feeling, i.e.,  I'm sorry you were adopted. That's it.
  • To give the individual an idea of you personally, write it by hand rather rather than type it. Write in cursive script neat enough to read. 
  • Keep the tone sincere and thoughtful. Make it reflect you as a person. Remember, you are introducing yourself to someone who has no knowledge of you except that you gave her life.
  • Don't write more than two pages--unless your handwriting is large and loose. (My sample below must run to two pages.) You want to welcome your child, not overwhelm. (Having said that, I don't know really how long the sample letter I've written would run.)
  • Do not sign the letter "Mom" or "your mother" no matter how much you long to. (But see comment below.) You do not know how the adoptee will react, as he has been calling someone else Mom all his life. You have to let the adoptee decide what to call you, and you might say so in the letter. However, I also would not sign it "your birth mother" or "your first mother" either...as that just feels wrong. I would avoid that entirely and see how things go, and just sign off with "All my love" or something like that, and your first name. You might go with your first name and then "your other mother." One of our readers, Von, however, loved that her first mother signed her letter "Mother"...I'd say this is totally up to you. Do what feels right in your heart. I chose the side of caution, but you may feel differently, and your feeling may be in response to what your child is hoping to read.
  • Include a photo. The adoptee is almost certainly never to have never seen a picture of anyone who looks like him. Even if she looks like the father, there will be some resemblance to you, the mother, and if you include a shot of you with another relative, there may be a resemblance to the other individual. If writing to a son, you could include a picture of yourself with your father or brother. Or the child's father. 
  • Most of all, write from the heart. 
So, here is the letter I might write today:



Dear Daughter--

I am struggling over how to begin this letter to someone I hope will let me back into her life. I say, "back into" because once we shared the most intimate of connections, when I was carrying you. I want you to know that though life has gone on and time has passed, you always have remained in my thoughts and prayers. I could never forget you, and the time around your birthday has always been difficult for me. I think about you especially then, hope you can feel my love, and worry that your life has not been a good one. I pray that it has, but whatever happened, I hope you will let me know you now.

from my backyard
You probably want to why you came to be surrendered for adoption--I hate even writing those words because the day I signed the papers was the saddest day of my life. I was less than a year out of college, and working on a newspaper in Rochester, New York, when your father and I became involved. He was the older, political columnist on The Democrat & Chronicle. He was also married with three children. From an Irish family closely connected to the Catholic Church, he was under tremendous family pressure to not divorce. Yet I want to add we were much in love, and he supported me throughout the pregnancy.

Being pregnant without a husband carried a great deal of shame back in 1966, more than I think it is possible to imagine today. I hope you will be able to understand what it was like in a different era. Before you were born, I quit my job, in fact, and had to go into hiding, more or less. The very few single women who kept their babies were scorned, and I did not have the strength or wherewithal to figure out how to care for you on my own. My parents did not have the financial means to help.

Forsythia was in bloom when you were born in April, and filled the streets as I was driven to the hospital, Strong Memorial. You were born around one-thirty in the afternoon on April 5, 1966, three or four weeks premature. As you weighed less than five pounds, you were put in an incubator for a week or so, and you were baptized Mary by the priest making rounds that day. It is my sorrow to tell you that I never saw you.

I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, in a working class family, and they did not know about you then. My father has since died, but I did tell my mother, and my two brothers, a few years later. She was sad to hear the news and hopes to meet you one day, as do my brothers and their families. I am married to a good man now and have been for many years, and he too would like to meet you.  I never had another child.

After you were born, I found a job as a reporter in Albany (staying in Rochester was unthinkable), as this was what I had spent most of my life preparing for, beginning in high school as the editor of my high school newspaper. I have remained in journalism, becoming a magazine writer and editor in  New York City, and then, author. I have written poetry, but not lately. In short, journalism and writing has been my life. I've written about feminist issues, such as women in business and gender bias in the legal system.

I read fiction, keep up with the movies, love the ballet, and until arthritis crept up on me, was an avid jogger who ran in 5K races. I can still cycle however. My husband Tony and I are backyard bird watchers and modest gardeners.

I have fine dark blonde hair I've been high-lighting since high school; hazel-green eyes, and fair skin. I'm just under five-five and wish I could lose the ten pounds that I put on since I stopped running. I almost never wear jangly earrings, can't snap my fingers on my left hand, and can't carry a tune for more than three bars. The whole family is liberal politically, and follows politics avidly. I've enclosed a photograph of me and my mother. 

There's so much more to tell you and I hope you will let me do so in person. I've wanted to find you since the day I gave you up. I felt for the longest time I didn't have the right to search for you, but hoped you would find me. But lately I realized that you might be feeling the same way, and not reach out to me because you were waiting for me to find you! So here I am, afraid you will reject me, but praying you will want to know me. 

I know that I cannot go back and get back the years, but I hope that we can have the future, in whatever way you are prepared to let me be a part of your life. I don't want to interfere in what I pray has been a good relationship with your adoptive family, I don't want to interrupt your life, or cause any problems. I simply want to know you. No matter how you respond, know that I will always love you in my heart, and will always be sorry you had to be adopted and that I could not raise you.

With all my love,
lorraine, your other mother who has never forgotten you