A Year of Stories

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 12.44.43 PMA year ago today, I clicked “publish” on my first blog post. As I’ve told others, I started the blog as a New Year’s goal. For the past few years, I’ve always put “publish my writing” as a goal, but I would never get around to doing anything about it. Work kept me busy. My two kids kept me even busier. I kept making excuses, but at the end of December in 2013, I just decided to go for it. I had been kicking around the idea of a blog about adoption for years, and I don’t know if there was any single thing that made me do it, but for some reason I decided I was ready.

My first post was an interview I did with my sister about her time spent with Invisible Children and the connection she felt with being adopted and giving back. After that first post, I didn’t really have a plan for my next post. Looking back, I realize how crazy that sounds. The week after I published the first story, I started reaching out to people on social media, and so many responded, eager to share their story.

Without a doubt, I am a different person today than I was a year ago when I started. I wasn’t really active in the online adoption community, and the only adoption stories I knew of were my own, my siblings, and a few other Haitian adoptees that we grew up with. My views of adoption were pretty limited, and this year I was able to meet people who broadened my view. I met adoptive moms who opened up their hearts and homes to foster children. I interviewed book authors, filmmakers, and vloggers. And I wrote about adoptees, who like me, struggled with the loss of their birth families.

These conversations helped with one of my hardest posts, the Mother’s Day post.  For years, Mother’s Day has always been difficult for me. I didn’t talk about it or share it, but I knew I had a platform to help someone else who might be hurting like I was. So I sat down and wrote a draft. And deleted it. And cried. And wrote another draft. I was shaking when I finally clicked “publish”. It was a turning point for me. For the first time, I made myself completely vulnerable and let my heart bleed. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders when it was finally published. And something in me shifted too. I started to actively seek out other adoptees online and communicate with them. And guess what? I wasn’t alone.

Over the next few months, I shared my hesitation to search for my family, but I received so much support that I decided to finally go for it.  With the help of so many people, something that I had never thought was possible came to life. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that starting this blog would lead me to my mother. As I’ve shared before, it was nothing short of a miracle, and I owe it all to the generosity of strangers.

I knew going into it that this blog would be a short term project. It has helped me focus on what I want to do next. 2014 was a big year, but I am even more excited for the year ahead. God willing, I will meet my family in Haiti. In addition, I’ll be writing for a few publications. You can keep up with all my happenings at www.mariettewilliams.com. I also started a group for Haitian Adoptees on Facebook, and we welcome all Haitian adoptees to join the growing group. I hope that it will grow into a community of adoptees who support each other and the next generation of adoptees.

I have a lot of “thank yous” for everyone who made this blog possible. My dear husband was a silent partner in all of this. He would often take the kids to the park for a few hours so I could send emails, watch documentaries, and write blog posts. Another big thank you goes to everyone who let me share their story. Each person was so gracious in my request for more information, accurate dates, and personal pictures. My understanding of adoption and of myself has deepened over this past year, and I will take each one of these stories with me for the rest of my life. I cannot end without giving thanks to God for giving me the vision and ability to write. And finally, thank you dear reader for taking this journey with me. Thank you to everyone who supported me from day one.

And if you’re here for the first time, I hope you take some time to read these special stories. There are 29 of them in total from birth moms, adoptive moms and dads, adoptees, and adoptee siblings. Hopefully each story will help you understand both the beauty and heartbreak of adoption. You know I love a good quote, so I’ll end with this:

“Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet. When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true…after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

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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.

Akin to the Truth

Unknown-2Akin to the Truth is a memoir written by Paige Adams Strickland after reconnecting with her birth family. Throughout Paige’s childhood, her adoption is never kept a secret, but there is little discussion of any details. When she does ask her parents about her adoption, they tell her to “have gratitude and not fuss so much” because out of all the kids they could have chosen, she was “the one they fell in love with and picked.”

Although Paige yearns to know more about her birth family, she feels powerless to do anything about it. Afraid of being labeled an outsider or a freak, Paige keeps her adoption a secret from almost everyone.Like most adolescents, she wants to just blend in, and but as much as she tries to hide her adoption on the outside, she can’t deny it on the inside. As Paige continues to experience important milestones, the identity of her birth parents, especially her birth mother, becomes more important.

Every summer Paige and her family vacation in Florida, which eventually prompts her parents to relocate the family from Cincinnati to Saratoga. Paige says goodbye to her high school sweetheart, Scott, and enrolls at Manatee Junior College. Eventually she transfers from the Junior College to Florida State University and graduates with a degree in Multi-lingual/Multi-Cultural Education. Paige makes her way back to Cincinnati and Scott where they eventually marry, and she begins her career as a high school Spanish teacher.

The newlyweds settle into married life, and Paige sees that many of her friends around her are having babies, which makes her think about her own family and her missing pieces. With Scott’s encouragement, Paige takes the first step to getting the answers she’s always wanted. She writes the state of Ohio for her official adoption papers and begins lifting the veil that had kept her in the dark for so long.

Paige’s story helps readers understand the experience of an adoptee from childhood to adulthood. Paige never stopped yearning for the truth of who she was. Although she is at first motivated by knowing the truth more than she is finding her family, Paige finally gets the answers she was looking for. At the end of her journey, she is finally “free to walk, work, fly, or be anywhere without obsessing about who was who ever again.”

Read on for our interview!

I can relate to your avoidance of talking about your adoption, and you pretty much kept it a secret outside of a few close friends. Growing up, you wanted to take “amnesiac” breaks from your thoughts of adoption. When did you get to a point where it became natural to discuss your adoption?

It became more natural after I found birth relatives.  Then I felt I had something meaningful with honest answers to talk about.  As I met new people, I felt more at ease discussing what happened.  However, with old friends, it was still difficult to talk about because I’d been in such a habit of covering up for so many years.

Your adoption was considered closed as you had no option to contact your birth family, and the unknown information was a source of frustration for you. What are your views on the more open adoptions today?

I think if the adoptive and birth parents agree to it, it’s the best plan out there.  It’s the most honest form of adoption there is.

I cringed when you were assigned the family tree project in 7th grade. You turned in a project that was not “scientifically factual”, because admitting your adoption “was a potentially deadly move, especially in junior high school.” You also wrote that during this time “adoption made you feel like an outsider or a freak.” What would you say to a young person who is struggling with their identity because of adoption?

At some point you will have to come clean about who you are and who you might be.  For example, I knew my future husband had to know.  I would never have wanted to lie to my own children either.  If you are struggling because you aren’t satisfied with who you are or because you only know a “fall-back story” and you want more facts, then go search as much as you can.  Learn everything you possibly can. I felt that finding out who I was may have been more important than meeting the birth family.  Getting enough facts about how I started out in life was my first goal.  Meeting relatives was like getting bonus points or the game-winning grand-slam.

Towards the end of the novel, you start searching for your family. You waited until you were married and completely independent of your parents before you started searching. Do you think the timing helped or hurt your search?

Timing overall helped.  I was still a kid and would never have had the power to find and meet my birth mother.  She died too early on.  Had I procrastinated my search by more than a year, my birth mother’s former (widowed) husband would have sold the house and moved out of state.  I had one address from her death certificate.  Had he moved out of there, my letter might have come back to me, and I wouldn’t have been able to connect with my sisters.  In my case, timing was everything.

Like many families, yours had its share of secrets and lies. Did you feel any apprehension about writing a book that included some very personal details about your adoptive parents? How is your relationship with them today?

I had a lot of apprehension about writing about my adoptive parents. My Adoptive dad passed away in 1996, so I didn’t have him to deal with.  I don’t think this book would be out to the public if he were still living.  It would have been impossible unless I were to write it secretly and just wait for some day.  As for my adoptive mom, she has mixed feelings, but I made the decision to publish it and hope she would have enough understanding, like she did when I conducted my actual search.   My dad’s situation is no longer a secret, and hopefully readers will see my mom as a woman who came into her own, grew stronger and more independent because of what happened in their marriage.

How does your experience as an adoptee shape your role as a mother today?

I do the best I can to not be a “helicopter mom”, but I think I have more fears than most parents about my kids’ safety and being unintentionally exposed to harm.  My biggest fear, when they were very small and unable to speak for themselves, was that somehow,  we would become separated from one another. That may have to do with not just being adopted but because that did happen to my birth mother when she died young. I have tried to instill in both my girls a deep appreciation for their heritage(s) and who is who in our family.  My daughters are over 21 now, but I’ll never stop wanting to find enriching experiences to teach them or ways to protect them from wrong-doings. Oh, and as a pet “mom”, I adore my animals and feel for all homeless fur-babies.  I’d have a barnyard and a kennel if I had the resources!  LOL

Do you have any future projects? Will there be a follow up book?

I am in the process of compiling reflections and stories about my 30+ years in education.  It won’t be adoption-related so much.  I have thought about writing a sequel to Akin to the Truth.  Many people have asked about that, and I left the story open for that possibility.  I have written an “epilogue” of sorts, which equates to about 10 book pages, so obviously I have more work to do if I go in that direction.  My other writing related projects involve writing adoption-themed essays and entries for anthologies, which will help to promote my book and my name as an author in the adoption community.

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Paige Adam Strickland is an educator and writer and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and two daughters. You can find out more about Paige on her blog at www.akintothetruth.squarespace.com

Finding My Family

The events of the past few months have been surreal. There are no other words to describe it. This blog has done many things for me. It’s been a way to express myself and share my adoption journey. I’ve also been able to hear and share others’ adoption stories. But most importantly, it has helped me find my family.

At the end of June, I wrote a post about Searching. I had several people reach out to me, and each person kept offering their help to find my family. They knew someone who was in Haiti or they knew someone who could help me. I was still scared to start searching, but every time I was discouraged, I thought of the stranger who was sitting on their computer so moved by my story that they reached out to me to let me know they would help. So I started searching.

My family is from Pestel, Haiti, a small town outside of Jeremie. I went on Facebook and found a Facebook Page for Pestel. I sent a private message that I was searching for my family and I listed my name, birthdate, and my parents’ names. The administrator, Jean, reached out to me and kindly translated my message into Creole and French and shared it on the page. He also told me he was from New York, had family in Pestel, and would gladly share my information with them.

About two weeks later, I was on vacation with my husband and kids when I received a message from Jean on Facebook.

Mariette, hope all is ok. Please call Denise 011509********, she will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad. You can tell her Jean ——- gave you the number. Do you still speak creole?, if not I can always translate. I’m leaving for Pestel, Haiti next week.”

My heart was racing. “She will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad.” I don’t remember the next few minutes, but somehow I was able to get the words out to my husband. He was just as excited as I was because he knew how much it meant to me. I somehow got through dinner, and tried to call Denise when we got back to the hotel room. I was hoping Denise could speak enough English that we could communicate over the phone, but she didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Creole. I was frustrated and had to wait until I got home to find help.

When we finally got home, I messaged a long time friend who spoke Creole. I explained the situation and gave Denise’s number. Their phone call was much more productive. We found out that Denise knew my sister Ginette, and knew her phone number. She told us that I had seven siblings (five sisters and two brothers) all living in Haiti. Denise also told my friend that my mother was alive, but my father had passed away last year. The news that my mother was alive was shadowed by the fact that my father wasn’t. I felt guilty for several days. If I had only done this sooner, he could have seen me before he passed. I cried, but was consoled by the hope that I could still be reunited with my mother.

I thanked my friend for calling, but I was unsure of the next step. My emotions were all over the place, and I needed a few days to sort everything out. Over the summer I was working on several interviews for the blog, so I decided to email Marlyse, a woman who was in the process of adopting two children from Haiti, so I could get an update. She knew about my story, and asked me about my search. Wanting to be honest, I told her that there was a possibility that I found my sister in Haiti. I told her I had a number, but no way to communicate. Marlyse wrote back almost immediately. “Do you want to call her this week?”

Three days later, we had Ginette on the phone. I could understand little of what she said, but she was overjoyed to hear from me. Over the next 45 minutes, Marlyse translated as I asked her questions. Slowly, the blurred lines of my history came into focus. Ginette answered every question. She confirmed the information I knew, and filled in what I didn’t. Ginette knew the name of the Haitian woman who had ran the orphanage and given me up for adoption. I had not told anyone this information, and when I heard the name, I got goosebumps. I knew at that moment, this was my sister, my family.

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My sister Ginette

Ginette was in Port-au-Prince and promised to do her best to get our mother to Port-au-Prince from Pestel to speak to me. Within two weeks, I spoke to mother on the phone. She sounded like Ginette, but her Creole a little higher and softer. We told each other things that we had wanted to tell each other for so long, with Marlyse interpreting the entire conversation. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, but it was perfect.

Ginette told me she could send me a picture of my mother with the help of her neighbor. Ginette had a cell phone, but it didn’t have a camera. She was going to get her neighbor to take a picture and send it to my phone. We ended the conference call, and I waited. In the waiting time I tried to keep my hands busy. I kept thinking that I should be doing something special in the moments before seeing a picture of my mother for the first time. I couldn’t think of anything, so I just stared at my screen saver, trying to calm my racing heart.

My phone was beside me, and I heard it vibrate. I opened the email on my computer and clicked on the attachment. I had no words. I was by myself in front of the computer, and I just stared at the picture. I must have stared at it for a full five minutes before moving. And then I grabbed every single picture I had of myself on my computer and started comparing them. I finally called my husband into the room, and asked him “Do we look alike?” He answered my question with one look.

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My mother and I

My mother will be turning 70 on July 15th, and I would like to see her before that happens. A few days after we spoke, she took the long journey back to Pestel by bus. The bus ride was almost four hours, no easy feat for an older woman. When we spoke, she asked for nothing. Just to see me again. She had told me she had been praying every day, never giving up hope that we would see each other again.

So this journey that I’ve been on is no longer about me. It’s not about my wishes or unfulfilled desires. It’s about a woman who was separated from her daughter and never gave up hope that she would see her child again. And I owe this story to every single person who has encouraged me to search for my family. I especially thank Marlyse. She was a stranger who let God use her to reunite a mother and daughter. Marlyse helped give me closure, but what she did for my mother was nothing short of orchestrating a miracle, and I cannot thank her enough. To be honest, I was unsure if I would ever meet my mother on this side of heaven, but she never gave up on me. Isn’t that what mothers do?

Searching

This past May, I wrote about my difficulty on Mother’s Day. Several people reached out to me and asked me if I wanted help with searching for my birthmother, and I was grateful for the genuine desire to help. So first and foremost, thank you! For anyone from the outside, the solution seems simple. If you are searching for something, go find it. But it’s not always that simple.

Although I’ve been thinking about searching for my birth family for many years, I haven’t. I attempted a search almost ten years ago. I was starting my first year of college. Away from home, the combination of curiosity and independence made me believe that it might be possible to find my family. So I asked my mother to mail me copies of all of my adoption papers. About a week later, I enthusiastically ran down to the mailroom and was handed a thick package. But when I sat down on my bed and spread everything out in front of me, the task seemed insurmountable. Doubt crept in. I had no idea where to start, who to contact, or what I wanted to find.

This was just before Myspace, and years before Facebook and Twitter. My online presence was limited to a few email addresses and MSN Messenger. I didn’t have the money to work with an agency, and I didn’t know who to contact in Haiti.  I just didn’t see how I was going to find them. I felt foolish, tucked the papers back into the manila envelope, and hid the envelope at the bottom of my desk drawer. The envelope stayed there all year, untouched, until I packed up my things to move back home for the summer.

Today there are few excuses, but I’m still hesitant for several reasons. First, I don’t know if I’ll like what I find. It’s easy to avoid reality and build up this idea of what someone is like. For now, my family can be whatever I want them to be. They can be good and kind and selfless. My birth mother is still alive, just waiting for me to “come back.” But once I begin searching, I can never go back to this fantasy in my head.

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photo credit: Ali Kay “God’s Children” Series

In addition, searching for a family member in Haiti is much different than searching for family in the United States or Canada. Haiti’s system of  recordkeeping is not reliable. It’s not a Google click away or as easy as searching for a name on Facebook. The orphanage I was adopted from no longer exists. My adoption papers stated that my birth parents cannot read or write, and today they may not have access to modern technology. But Haiti is a small country and does have a good system of word of mouth. I have been told that my best chances would be to actually go to Haiti and look for them.

In the last few months, I’ve watched three different documentaries about adoptees searching for their family members. Each story was so different, but I noticed one theme throughout: each adoptee was surrounded by family. It was not a solo search, but a team effort. Their adoptive families were there to walk with them, offer words of advice, and give emotional support. As I’ve shared before, I live in Florida, while my family still lives in Canada. As independent as I seem, a search for family would be better with my family.

So these are the excuses I’ve told myself over and over. These are the things that are holding me back. Or protecting me, depending on how you look at it. If I’m honest with myself,  I just want to meet my family members to let them know that I’m okay. I don’t know if a relationship with any of my family members is possible. There are linguistic and cultural barriers. And I am not the little girl they said goodbye to over 30 years ago.

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Time did not stand still. Our lives have gone on without each other. But even with all these realities, the yearning remains. If and when I decide to search for my birth family, I know that it doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change who I am. But I would like to someday meet my birthmother again and tell her I love her.