Remembering with No Memories

My fingers glazed over little ceramic bowls, colorful vases, beautiful hand-carved wood boxes, and other products deemed mother-worthy by the store in celebration of Mother’s Day. I walked over to the racks of cards and saw ones with funny animals and others with heartfelt sentiments. As I perused the shelves, I asked myself, “How do I show my mother, the woman who has most shaped the person I have become, the depth of my love and gratitude and fondness of all our cherished memories in just a couple of gifts?”  I purchased some stickers, a book, and a little dish for my mom and headed the rest of the way home after a long day of work.

I felt settled in my decisions and knew that my mom would appreciate the thought. At the same time an uneasiness came over me, and this time I asked myself, “How do I show my mother, a stranger thousands of miles away, the depth of my love and gratitude and longing for all of the memories we have missed?”

The same thoughts arose again last week with the onslaught of backyard grill and fishing equipment commercials for Father’s Day. These family-centric holidays are filled with ambivalence for me as balancing the duality of adoption is made a more critical thought. My social media platforms filled with photos of friends’ and acquaintances’ parents and siblings, and I found myself remarking in awe, “they look so related!”  – a visual reminder of the genetic connections all around me, yet I lack.

I remember reading an article a couple of years ago, titled “How to Celebrate Mother’s Day When You’ve Lost Your Mother,” shared online by a woman who had lost her mother to ovarian cancer. I glanced through the words, hoping for inspiration but instead found the pain from the unique loss of adoption unresolved. The article proposed that individuals perform annual rituals that were important to their mothers, play sentimental music, or display photographs of her. The suggestions were all well-meaning but impossible for those like me who have no memories of our mothers to remember.

The article concluded with one last way to honor readers’ deceased mothers and invited those who had lost their moms to type her name in the comments section. This was yet again, another impossible way to honor my first mother for Mother’s Day. Not having a simple name to hold is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this, and I don’t think a lot of people understand how painful it is to not even have the most basic information.  Not only is this information unavailable to me, the adoption system in China has been set up in a way that it’s unlikely that I will ever be able to obtain any of the clues to my first family and my young self.

Loss through adoption is different than loss through death because with death there is a means for closure. But because I know that my first parents are probably alive somewhere in China,  I can never shut that door completely. Who are they? What happened when I was two years old that I ended up at the police station? What are they doing now? Do they think of me? Who might I have been had I grown up there? What if we are able to reunite someday?  

In college, I learned the term ambiguous loss, coined by Dr. Pauline Boss, which resonated deeply with me and gave explanation to some of what I felt in terms of the loss of my first family. According to MN ADOPT, “ambiguous loss is a term that is used to describe the grief or distress associated with a loss (usually a person or relationship) in which there is confusion or uncertainty about that person or relationship.”  The beginning of my life is marked by uncertainty, and it was empowering to finally have words that recognized that.

The ambiguous loss of first family for adoptees is also oftentimes disenfranchised or diminished because our losses are commonly perceived to be resolved by the apparent gains through adoption – a new family, a new life of financial privilege and educational opportunities, etc. When adoptees give voice to these feelings of grief, we are often labeled by others as maladjusted, ungrateful, or angry. But adoption, in my experience, has been about duality and complexity and holding these two families and two countries in my heart simultaneously.

Though the knowledge of ambiguous loss helps me articulate how I may be feeling, I still am in many ways baffled by the task of honoring and remembering my first family with no memories.  I’ve come to realize that just like there is no closure to so many of my lifelong questions, there may be no clear resolution on how to best honor my first family. I can try to retain my original culture, a link that connects us. I can try to speak the words of my mother tongue, so we can communicate if we ever meet. Living with the reality of ambiguous loss, I know that I honor both sets of my parents when I work hard for my future, when I treat myself with love and respect, and when I advocate for others according to the values that I hope would make them both proud.

Resources on ambiguous loss:

Understanding Ambiguous Loss – MN Adopt Fact Sheet
Uncertainty Management and Adoptee’s Ambiguous Loss of their Birth Parents

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