Tell Me Your Story: Of Reunion

A typical family reunion is filled with joy and laughter, but for adoptees and their birth parents, a reunion is anything but typical. It’s complicated. Adoptees can feel stuck between embracing their birth families and not hurting their adoptive families. There may also be feelings of rejection and long buried anger and bitterness towards their birth families. And what is the mother’s role in her child’s life now? She nurtured and bonded with her child during pregnancy, but now she is a stranger. For many adoptees, reuniting with their birth families is a dream come true, but for others, it brings on another set of problems they are not ready to face. Because of the deep emotions involved, reunions are rarely easy, but with time it is possible to forge a new and different relationship. In her own words, Kimberly shares how she reunited with her son, and how they are trying to move forward despite many obstacles.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.47.35 PMI relinquished my son to adoption in 1990.  It was a semi-open adoption. For us, that meant his adoptive parents sent a letter and pictures every year until he turned 18 years old.  They honored this agreement until his 18th birthday.

I had expected to get a letter or phone call from him on his 18th birthday.  Two years passed (July 2010) until I received a phone call from my adoption caseworker stating my son wanted to send me a letter.  Of course I said yes and confirmed my address.

I received a letter from him in September 2010.  I remember feeling a thousand feelings just holding that envelope in my hand.  I was overwhelmed with memories of my past.  Memories of my relationship with his birth father, the fact I hid my pregnancy from my family (I finally told my parents and immediate family what I had done about 10 years later), visiting him at the foster home where he was cared for until the adoption was finalized (now I know I could’ve changed my mind during that two weeks), and saying good bye to him at the courthouse as I handed him over to his new family.

I think I held it for an hour until I had mustered the courage to open it.  It was addressed “Dear Kim.” The letter was short.  He wrote that he had a good life, he was happy, explained his current living situation, described his girlfriend, and he would like for me to write back and send some pictures if I wouldn’t mind.  He ended the letter “From your son” and signed his full proper name.

I grabbed my computer and ferociously wrote a four-page letter (my handwriting is horrible) and labeled about 50 pictures of my family.  He later told me when he received the letter and pictures, he just cried and cried feeling so overwhelmed by actually seeing current pictures of me and knowing about my current life.  I wanted him to know everything about my family, my past, and me.  Most important, I wanted him to know how much I loved him and will always love him. We exchanged a couple more letters over the next couple months (he’s not much of a writer). The last one he wrote included his phone number asking me to call him if I ever felt like it.

I waited until I had an afternoon off of work and my other two children were at school so I would have privacy to call him.  I held the phone in my hand staring at his phone number for what seemed to be a lifetime.  Again, memories of my past were scrolling through my mind.   Honestly, I prayed that he would answer and say he didn’t hate me, that he understood why I made the choice I did, that he will be able to forgive me and he wants to try this reunion thing.

I was incredibly nervous, excited, scared, and full of anticipation when I dialed his phone number.  When I heard his voice answer “Hello” I immediately felt so much love, it’s really indescribable.  I told him who I was, there was a long pause, and then it seemed we couldn’t talk fast enough.  I let him do most of the talking, just listening to my son’s voice for the first time. Relishing every moment, every second.

After close to three hours, knowing I would need some time alone to process all the emotions of this call, we set up a time to talk again.  It was funny because neither of us wanted to hang up. Even in that awkward silence, it was as if we were afraid of losing each other once that call was disconnected.  When we did finally hang up, I couldn’t stop crying.  I cried because I was happy, because I was sad, because I loved him, because he is my son.

I followed up with an email that night, just to make sure he was doing ok and to let him know I was doing ok.  He responded, “It felt so good to hear my mom’s real voice”.

We continued to call and email each other frequently the next month or so.  The question of when do we meet began to creep into our conversations.  We decided to set up some boundaries prior to meeting.  Unfortunately, neither of us had done any reading/research so we had no idea what kind of “rules” to put in place.  I took the lead and came up with a few: He decides where our relationship goes, parents (adoptive) first, and we will be open and honest with each other at all times.

Up to this point in my adult life I was orderly and efficient at any task. My to do list was always completed at the end of the day and as I worked full time as a registered nurse, had a home, two small children and a husband, and I attended school full time to obtain my Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.  No easy feat, but for me, as controlled and determined as I was, I could do anything.  Complete Type A personality!

Since the first letter, I could feel myself slipping.  After the first phone call, I found myself thinking about him all the time, about nothing in particular, just “him”.  Then the “What if’s”? started coming.  What if I would have told my mother I was pregnant? What if I chose not to follow the “rules” and ran away with him after I made the adoption commitment? What would our lives have been like? And so on and so on and so on.  My husband and friends started to notice I wasn’t myself after that first year. I was crying all the time.  I would do an activity with my other two children and begin to cry because I missed out on that same milestone with him. I did choose to see a therapist.  She helped me see I was grieving! Grieving is something I hadn’t done 20 years ago.  I went through all the stages of grief and then back again.  The first couple years I was a complete mess!

Our first face-to-face meeting took place in November 2010.  He chose a bar and grill close to his home.  I think it was in order to make a quick getaway if needed.  I honestly don’t think I had ever been so full of anxiety, hope, anticipation, and love as I was when I saw him walk through the door.  We greeted each other with hugs, sat down and literally stared at each other for what seemed like forever.  Personally, I was taking in all that was his physical presence.  Did he look like me or more like his birth father? Are his mannerisms similar to mine, etc?  That first meeting was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster ride filled with happiness, sadness, regret, grief, and love that neither of us had been prepared for.

The first year we met at least a couple times a month.  Because he was living at home with his parents, and he didn’t feel he was ready to meet my husband and other two children, we often met for lunch or dinner.  I enjoyed listening to him talk about his trials and tribulations growing up.  He said right off the bat that he isn’t one to trust people easily.

I told him about my life growing up, how I ended up pregnant and alone at age 19.  He knew a little bit about the relationship between his birth father and me as I wrote a letter to him that was given to his parents and left for them to decide when he was ready to read it.  He said he read it when he was 16 and actually became quite angry when he found out his mother sent me pictures and a letter once a year. He knew I was a psychiatric nurse and said his friends warned him not to lie or cover up things because I’ll know. I found that funny.

During this first year, I learned that he was an addict, had no real relationship with his parents, and legal issues.  This added another dynamic to the already complicated issues with come along with reunion.   We developed a trusting and loving relationship, bonding quickly.

After that first year, a push/pull cycle began between us.  He would feel that we were getting to close and start to push me away.  I would feel him pulling away and do whatever I could to keep him.  The first two years this cycle was very intense for both of us.  He knew I would’ve done or said anything to make sure he didn’t leave my life.  Part of that was the “addict” manipulating me and me the “enabler” playing along.   The part of our story that includes addiction is a monster all it’s own.  One that had him cut off all communication with me since his DUI in January of this year.  As I write this, I haven’t spoke to him or seen him in almost 11 months.  This separation has rocked me to the core.  I know it’s not about ME, but it still hurt just the same.

The main struggle for us in the process of reunion has been other people interfering.  His adoptive parents, especially Mom, have expressed jealousy and insecurity throughout the past four years.  According to my son, he has been made to feel that he is abandoning his family when spending time with me.  His mom would tell him how her feelings would be hurt when she would see pictures on Facebook of us, know that we were going to dinner, or just hanging out.  He would lie to her at times about spending time with me. When she found out, she expressed to him that hurt her feelings even worse.

His adoptive mom and I “friended” each other on Facebook and started exchanging messages.  Over the years I’ve asked her many times to meet in person.  She has refused every time.  She has made comments to others that I have been selfish and not considered her feelings during my relationship with him.  I’ve had comments made to me by friends close to him that I have no right to have a relationship with him, I gave up that right 24 years ago when “I gave him away”.  “Ouch”! That one stabbed me right in the heart.  He knew it too.  After seeing what his friend texted me, he did show concern for me by talking with his friend and explaining how inappropriate those words were.  I felt validated and relief that he did really listen to the “Why’s” of the choice I made so long ago.

I will always feel that he has been put in an unfair position of having to choose sides.  He’s told me many times he feels like he’s from a divorced family.  This also breaks my heart.  He’s confided in me, felt safe with me, and truly feels a loving bond with me.  He shouldn’t have to choose.  If I were an aunt or a cousin, our relationship wouldn’t be put under the scrutiny it has.  I try very hard not to take this personally, as anyone who would be his birthmother would be treated the same way.

His legal and addiction issues have complicated things this year as he is on house arrest (at his adoptive parents home) and must comply with the rules.  His release date is December 8th.

So I wait again, wondering if he’ll write to me, call me, or text me as I did when he turned 18.  I have written him short notes every couple months this year so he understands that I love him, he’s my family, and I’m not going anywhere. It’s taken me about seven months to adjust to him not being in my life.  We were getting to a place where he was comfortable in my home with our family.  I miss him dearly, I love him always, and I know this is not the final chapter in our story.

Tell Me Your Story: Of Letting Go

Marlyse and her husband’s adoption story began when Marlyse faced the fact that she would not be able to carry a child due to her heart defect. When it came time to choose where they were going to adopt from, they started by looking into domestic infant adoption, but they were surprised at the astronomical fees. They then considered adopting from Haiti, and it made sense.  Marlyse is Haitian born, she still has family members who live there, and Haiti has always been close to her heart.

In Haiti, children are relinquished to orphanages although one or both parents may be living. Orphanages are often used as a type of foster home until parents can get back on their feet. But in the interim of parents trying to get stable, the children often suffer. They may be deprived of individual attention and miss the family bonds they need to flourish. Marlyse didn’t like the idea of group homes or orphanages, and she is an advocate for keeping families together when possible. But she also acknowledges there are some unhealthy family situations where children cannot thrive and adoption becomes a viable option.

So Marlyse and Monty started the process of adopting their two children in September of 2012.  Throughout the process, the couple was frustrated with several things, including the hidden costs involved with the adoption. To Marlyse, it seemed like someone was always trying to make a profit. She explained that the very people who should be protecting children were the same ones hurting them in the long run. But even with all those frustrations, the couple was determined to keep going.

As a first time mother, Marlyse was also dedicated to learning about the adoptee experience. As she waited for the adoptions to finalize, she stocked up on reading material. She read blogs, books, and articles, trying to understand the adoptee perspective. The adoption process “taught her things about a world she knew nothing about.”  Marlyse initially worried if her children would see her as their “real” mother. She was also concerned with how much contact her young children should have with their Haitian families, not wanting to confuse them.  But Marlyse is willing to do what is best for her children, no matter the inconvenience. She plans to raise her children knowing that they have two families and bring the children back to Haiti every three to four years. She also plans to speak Creole to them at home, so they don’t lose their language. They will also reap the benefits of a mother who will cook them Haitian cuisine. Marlyse is intent on having her children stay in touch with their relatives so they don’t have to do through the pain and heartache of not knowing who they are or where they come from.

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Marlyse and Monty with their two children in Haiti

Marlyse and Monty started the adoption process in 2012, and just finalized the adoptions of their now 3 year old daughter and 2 year old son in October of 2014. They spent more than four times the amount of money they had originally planned to spend. Marlyse recalls the day she walked through the airport in Port-au-Prince. It was a bittersweet moment not just because her children were now out of the orphanage, but because there was a time when she didn’t think the day would come. A long await dream finally became a reality. When the plane finally landed in Miami, Marlyse choked up, the tears a symbol of two years of struggle.

Marlyse invited me to meet her family in Miami, and I had the pleasure of meeting her and Monty, and her two beautiful children. I held her daughter, who was so quiet, taking in her brand new world. At one point, her son curled up in my arms and almost fell asleep. They reminded me so much of myself, so many years ago, beginning a new life with a new family. I later watched Marlyse lay the children on the hotel bed to take a nap. Their little bodies were exhausted, and both were asleep within minutes. The afternoon sun streamed into the  windows, carrying them into a sweet slumber. It seems like an odd thought, but as Marlyse begins her life with her children, she must learn to let them go. They may someday want to have their own relationship with their Haitian families, and the best thing for Marlyse to do as a mother is let them. Her children need the freedom to explore a relationship with both families, a safe place to discuss their feelings, and a mother who strong enough to let them go. And for that, they will one day be grateful.

 

 

Tell Me Your Story: Of a Weight Lifted

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 7.43.46 AMLynne didn’t know her life story until she was 53. And when she finally found out, the details were unbelievable.

Born in St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1943, Lynn’s birth parents were not together. In fact, they were both married to someone else. It was during World War II, and while her husband was off in the war, Lynne’s mother, Minnie, had a one time affair  that resulted in a pregnancy. Minnie was scared. Her husband would eventually return, and she had two other children at home. In addition, the father of her growing baby also had his own two children to raise. In a different time, a much different outcome might be possible, but this was the 1940s.

In another small Canadian city, a woman struggled with her infertility. Anges received a call from a friend about a woman who was having a baby, but couldn’t keep it. Would she be interested? Agnes said yes, and Lynne was adopted. She was picked up from the hospital at a week old. The terms of the adoption were set, and the adoptive family could not be within 100 miles of Minnie and her family. Records were changed, and Lynne received a new last name. Adoption papers were sealed, and for most of her life, Lynne would be kept in the dark about her family history.

Lynne grew up thinking that  her adoptive parents were the only ones she had. After Lynne was adopted, Agnes had been able to have three more children, making Lynne the oldest of four. Growing up, her siblings didn’t find out that Lynne was adopted until much later on, but Lynne found out at the age of eight. Getting into an argument with neighborhood kids resulted with one of offenders yelling,“You don’t even count, anyway. You’re adopted.” Lynne was stunned, but hid her shock. Later, she worked up the nerve to ask her mother. Her mother quietly explained that yes, she was adopted and was told to say, if ever asked, that she was chosen.

But that’s where the conversation ended. There was no further explanation of Lynne’s background before the adoption. After that, Lynne felt she didn’t have the right to know her past.  She wondered who her mother was. Why was she relinquished? Who was her father? Every woman she passed in the grocery store or on the street could be her mother. But Lynne didn’t want to upset her parents, so she wondered in silence.

When Lynne looks back on those years, it’s with hurt and confusion. She says she sometimes felt like an outsider in her family, although she admits she does have fond memories of her childhood. She describes her childhood overall as “happy, and loving, but disjointed.”  For over fifty years, Lynne was kept in the dark about her past. Too scared to rock the boat, she accepted that her life before adoption would remain a mystery.

Until her mother’s passing in 1996. Before Agnes passed away at the age of 80,  she told Lynne who her birth mother was. Lynne was given her birthmother’s name, a key that would unlock so many secrets. Lynne wrote a letter to Minnie explaining who she was, and asked if they could talk. Shortly after, Minnie phoned, and mother and daughter had a long conversation. Lynne found out that Minnie’s husband had passed and had never found out about his wife’s secret daughter. Lynne was unable to make contact with her birth father, who also passed away.

But looking back on the events of her life, Lynne says she knew God had a hand in it all. Minnie’s husband returned from the war a hard man, and life would have been very difficult for Lynne had her mother tried to keep her. Today Lynne is in contact with some of her half siblings, but has since said goodbye to her birth mother who passed in 2003. For a long time, she didn’t discuss her adoption story, still concerned that she would upset her family. At 71 years old, the telling of this story is a turning point for Lynne and proof that she is not defined by her circumstances.

It took a lot for Lynne to get to this place of self acceptance, and she only has one piece of advice for adoptive parents: “Please tell your children they are adopted, and explain way. Be very open and truthful.”  She is no longer carrying the burden of family secrets, but embracing the freedom that comes with knowing and speaking the truth. With the telling of this story, Lynne says she feels a weight that has been on her shoulders for years has been lifted, and she is finally free.

Tell Me Your Story: Of a Boy Who Changed Your Life

Adopting with a partner is not easy, but adopting as a single parent is even harder. As a young social worker, Tia saw a need that needed to be filled, and at just 27 years old, she became the parent of a 13 year old boy. She quickly learned how difficult it was to provide structure to a child who had never been given any. She also realized how important it was for a boy to have a father figure. But through their difficult struggles, Tia was able to share moments with her son that they will both never forget. In her own words, Tia tells her story of a boy who changed her life.

My story is not a common adoption story.  I was a social worker for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 12 years.  It was during my tenure with the Department that I was introduced to a very lively and active 5-year old boy.  This child was not on my caseload, but he was in the office on a daily basis due to being kicked out of his biological relatives’ home for behavior issues.  My son’s story is all too common of a child born into the foster care system.

My son and his biological brother bounced from one relatives’ home to the next until there were no more relatives willing or able to care for them.  Once this happened both boys were placed in foster homes.  The brothers would be separated due to the lack of available foster homes with two beds open to keep the boys placed together.  This is a sad reality of the system.  The children are first traumatized by the removal from the birth home/family, and then often despite the best efforts of caseworkers the siblings are placed in separate homes rarely, if ever, to be reunited.

Once my prospective adoptive son began going from foster home to foster home, his behavior continued to become increasingly difficult to manage.  He was scared, confused, hurt and myriad of other feelings that I will never be able to fully wrap my head around.  I was one of the only two social workers that was able to connect with him and to that end began a 6-year journey that would result in adoption.  You see I eventually worked with his case and got to know his biological mother.  I will not disclose the reasons why my son came into the system, but I will say that his entire biological family continue to battle the same issues that many of our inner city families are experiencing.

His biological mother loved her children but could not seem to overcome her circumstances in order to be a parent to her children.  I saw her struggle, and I personally made a promise to her ‘woman to woman’ that I would do my best to watch over her boys until they turned 18 or became adopted.  Did I mention that at this time I was a single woman and only 26 years old?  I really had no concept of what I was getting myself into, but I am a person of my word.  From that moment on I made sure that both boys were in good foster homes, and I would be sure to visit them on weekends to be sure that all was well.  My son’s brother was eventually placed with a foster family that committed to keep him until his 18th birthday.  My son was still not able to maintain in a stable foster home environment and was moved into a local group home facility.

At this point, I was taking him out every weekend for church and lunch.  It was one day after church that he asked me if I would adopt him.  I had never considered adoption.  So after careful prayer and discussions with my parents, I decided that it was something that I wanted to do.  I loved this young man, and I had become vested in his future.  The process was not easy because I had worked with him and his family on a professional level.  Since the time that I worked on his case I had been promoted and transferred into another division, but still careful consideration was taken before they would allow me to adopt.

As a single woman, adopting a teenage boy from foster care it was probably the most challenging thing that I have done.  The process of adopting from the foster care system is fairly painless because the need is so very great.  They prepare all prospective foster and adoptive parents in a lengthy training program, Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), that allows you to become familiar with the ins and outs of foster care and adoption.  However, just as most people will say to that first-time pregnant mother, nothing can really prepare you for bringing home your first child.

 My son first came to my home at the age of 13 years old.  He came with his clothes in one very small, dirty suitcase with the remainder of his belongings in a black garbage bag, and his defenses were up.  No matter how much he wanted to be adopted by me, his life experience told him that no home is permanent.  This would be my struggle for the next three years.  In retrospect, I feel that having a husband to share in the parenting would have made it easier for my son and me.

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photo credit: Weldon Ryan

I am sure that my next statement will be very controversial, but I must put it out there.  I firmly believe that there are aspects in raising a male child that can only be effectually addressed by a man/father figure.  I look back on a few parenting and disciplinary issues that arose during his teenage years knowing that if a man were in the house we could have avoided some major issues.  There is a certain energy that a dad brings to the equation that offers balance in the home.  Of course I am only referring to dads who are emotionally and physically present in the home.

As a social worker, I thought that I knew all that I needed to know.  I was certified to teach the MAPP courses to prepare families for fostering and adopting, I had worked with hundreds of foster kids and their families, and I knew my son since he was 5 years old.  I thought I had everything under control.  That could not have been further from the truth.  Yes, I knew my son’s background better that any other non-familial perspective adoptive parent of a foster child.  However, all of the training and working experiences with foster children could not prepare me for the daily reality of being a parent.  The first day that I brought my son home was nerve wrecking!  My son was already a preteen when he came to live me!  I think the honeymoon period was about a week, and then it was time for me to learn how to be a mom and prove to my son that I was not going to be another adult that let him down.

It was very important for me to have established my support system prior to making the decision to adopt.  I knew that adopting a teenage boy that had been in foster care for his entire life would be challenging and that I could not tackle it on my own. Thankfully, I had the support of my parents, prior foster parents and my neighbors.  We worked as a team for my son.

Before adopting I did not realize how much my parents did behind the scenes for me as a child.  My life suddenly became more about what I could do to reach my son.  However, in my situation I felt like I was in a race with time because I only had five short years to prepare him for adulthood.  He had missed out on so much parenting from birth to 13 years of age.  Simple things that those of us who grow up with the same caregivers take for granted became critical to impart.  My son basically did not know what it was like to be apart of a functioning family where people do things for one another because it benefits that household.

My advice to anyone interested in adopting an older child is to make sure you obtain and understand the child’s background.   Take an inventory on how you were raised and how that environment has shaped you as a person.  What expectations to you have on adoption?  Talk to your close friend and relatives and ask them how they feel you would be as an adoptive parent and if they are willing to be your support network.   Set up your support system, as well as your child’s support system, because they are not always the same people.  Lastly, don’t forget to have fun!!  Teenagers can be a lot of emotional work even in the best of situations, but they can also be a lot of fun.  You don’t have the luxury of time when you adopt an older child.  The best lessons are learned through laughter.

One of the best memories that I have with my son was when I took him to my childhood home in New Jersey for Christmas.  As a foster child he had never left the state of Florida.  He really had never left the tri-county area.  Taking him to the airport for the first time was magical for this 15-yr old boy.  The trip was marked with so many firsts for him.  He had never experienced freezing temperatures, and although there was only a dusting a snow on the ground he was just hypnotized by it all. He was just so happy and thankful that entire week that we spent at my grandmother’s home.  I think the best thing about the trip was that he got to experience the love of family that I had known my entire life.

Tell Me Your Story: Of Coming Home

There are adoption milestones that parents never forget. For some, it’s the day they decided to adopt. For others it’s the day they first saw their child. And then there is the milestone all adoptive parents never forget – the day they brought their child home.

Paula clearly remembers the days leading up to her daughter’s homecoming. Paula and her husband Gregg flew to Romania to meet their daughter for the first time. At the time, Amanda, who was then known as Brindusa, was living in an orphanage. For a week, the couple visited the orphanage, bringing gifts each day. Separated by language, they tried to bring things Amanda would like. One day, it was a balloon. Another day, it was an orange. Each gift was an attempt to build a bridge between strangers who would soon be family.

By the end of the week, it was time to go home. The orphanage caretakers helped change Amanda into a purple sweat suit that Paula had brought for the trip. Amanda would be turning three in a month, but she was about to take the biggest trip of her life. Paula describes leaving the orphanage:

“Amanda walked out the door from the only place she had ever lived, away from the people that had cared for her. She had never been outside before, but to our surprise, she never looked back.She was very happy to go with us although we didn’t speak the same language; she seemed to know she was ours.”

The flight was long, but on December 18th, Amanda, Paula, and Gregg finally made it back home and were greeted at the airport by over 25 close friends and family members. Amanda suddenly had a new family, including two older brothers. As with any new situation, there was a period of adjustment. Amanda had never slept alone, and to make things easier, the entire family all slept in her room. As the nights went on, Amanda became more comfortable in her new room, and one by one each family member went back to his or her own bed.

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Paula & Amanda on Amanda’s last day of high school.

Acknowledging adoption anniversaries is important, and in the years that followed, Paula and her family celebrated Amanda’s special day by watching the DVD of her homecoming. The family would gather around the television and watch the small crowd who gathered to show their love and excitement to welcome Amanda into the family. As Amanda grew up, the family continued to recognize Amanda’s Homecoming Day, but naturally more attention was shifted to Amanda’s birthday. Today Amanda is 18, and she is getting ready to go to college in the fall. Although she is excited to go to college, she is aware of how difficult it will be to leave her parents.

“When I go to college I’ll definitely miss my parents, and I believe I will have a closer relationship. I went to sleep away camp for a few years when I was younger. I missed my mom and dad so much that I was actually excited to see them. It’ll be hard being apart months at a time. To this day I always sit back and recognize how lucky I was to be adopted by my family.”

As Paula gets ready to send her only daughter off to college, she is reminded of how they first met. As her daughter packs up her room, Paula will always remember her as the little girl in the purple sweat suit. As Amanda takes a leap into adulthood, her mother will remember how willingly Amanda took her hand and trusted her unconditionally. And although Amanda expresses how lucky she is to be adopted, Paula would probably say she is the lucky one.