Every baby needs both blood and milk to live. First, she needs the blood running through her mother’s body, and through her own. Once her body’s in the shared world outside the womb, she needs milk to nourish that body and bloodstream.
Even today, most babies receive that dual support in one package. For better or worse, it’s one mother, one source of nurture, one family.
The rest of us, though, require a more complex early support system in order to survive. The rest of us are adopted, fostered, orphaned, or otherwise need to start our time on Earth outside the one-mother’s-blood-and-milk paradigm. I grew up knowing I was adopted.
One late-April afternoon when I was in third or fourth grade, my best friend and I were talking about the May Day ceremony coming up in a few days at our small Catholic school. We were going to sing, and one of the eighth grade girls would place a crown of flowers on the statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Soon our love for this icon and anticipation of the ceremony bubbled over into happy talk about mothers in general. Sure, we concluded, they were annoying sometimes, but having a mother was a very good thing.
A lightning bolt of shock ran through me. It carried a new thought: Wow, I was adopted, so I have a double dose of this goodness.
“I have two mothers,” I said. Jackie looked doubtful.
“I do so,” I said. “I was adopted. That means I have Mommy, and another mother who couldn’t take care of me. I have two!”
I meant my words as a gift. This was my biggest secret, my only big secret, and the first time I’d realized how wonderful it really was. I was only aware of my joy, but Jackie looked away. She’d heard, I have two mothers. You only have one. It hung in the air. Then her face brightened.
“There’s the Blessed Mother,” she said, triumphantly. “I have two mothers, too!”
Too young to track her own sense of longing, or to understand her relief at finding its resolution, Jackie’s lack of understanding slapped across my face. If I’d had words for that burn, they would have been, Of course there was the Blessed Mother… everybody has the Blessed Mother. I meant I have something wonderful I never realized before. I never felt special aboutbothof them before.”
“Then I have three,” I snapped at her. My throat felt tight. Having two mothers is a good thing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
In a closed adoption, the “usual” kind, the identity of the child’s biological parents becomes, literally, a state secret. Some adoptees don’t poke the bear, feeling content to let things stay as they are. It’s a choice made, as the other choices are, for any of an infinite number of good reasons. Other adoptees start to explore, then let the search, and the debris around it, settle into the back of a closet. Still others search, fueled by the need to shake the wrought iron fence around the family tree until it surrenders. No matter which group an adoptee inhabits, we all mutter versions of the Serenity Prayer.
Curious, but not driven, until I was nine or ten, I was in that first group. I’m aware of other catalysts for change around that time, but maybe my sense of balance first began to unravel in that exchange with Jackie during our May Day preparations.
From my late teens until I was seventy, I yo-yoed between the second and third groups, searching, stopping, searching, stopping. In April of 2017, courage and loving support, coupled with technology and marketing, overcame my last-ditch internal resistance. I spit into the vial, sent it off to the lab, and waited for my DNA results.
I was alone on the May morning when the email told me my results were in. I felt a chill of anticipation, took a deep breath, gently bit my lower lip, then clicked on the site.
I sort of squealed, or squawked. I’d hit the jackpot: a first cousin had had her DNA test done at the same online source, and was willing to share her results. She’d posted a photo, too.
I stared at her face for a timeless time, feeling my feelings. Hovering in the words, I recognize those eyes…I see them in the mirror, I stared until, full and overflowing, I got up and started to pace around the room. Breathe,I reminded myself. Crustiness, defenses, the old internal armor, fell away and dissolved.
In that first instant, face to face with an undisputed genetic relative, I’d started to become more real to myself. Now I was becoming, inch by cubic inch, a capital-R Real, Velveteen Rabbit Me, more tangible, more embodied, than ever before. And this new me was no longer staring through a plate glass window at what I couldn’t have. My mind circled back to a Hans Christian Andersen story I’d read when I was a child.
Goodbye, Little Match Girl.
And then, What do I do now?
I sat back down at my keyboard. Hi, Katie, I typed. This is going to be even more of a surprise to you than it was to me, but our DNA says we’re first cousins!I was adopted and if you’re willing to help me find my place in this family tree, I’ll be completely grateful.
Two months later, I had lunch with more than a dozen warm and welcoming blood-family members. Getting to that table required surrendering the fantasy birth mother, and the fantasy birth family, that I’d carried in my mind for most of my seventy years. It also stopped me short with a new identity crisis.
It wasn’t my personal identity in question this time. Now that I’d found my genetic family, what would I call my… family? Paired with the words blood family, ‘adoptive family’ sounded cold, like a simple court decision, or temporary patch-up. We were neither cold nor temporary to each other.
We weren’t always warm and fuzzy, either. No clinical black-and-white categories held us together. We were, well, a family. But if I paired the phrases, my DNA family, my blood family, or my genetic family, with my family, that didn’t feel right, either.
I have a strong Scots-Irish heritage in both my family lines. I began to explore books by Tom Cowan, Caitlin and John Matthews, John O’Donahue, Frank McEowen, and others, to find out more. As I read, I realized how deeply they spoke to my very Celtic soul. Somewhere in my explorations, the Irish, and other Celts, spoke directly to my dilemma.
In the long-ago years, infants whose mothers couldn’t breast-feed were fostered to women whose milk flowed abundantly enough to feed both her own baby, and her fosterling. The fostered child grew up knowing her genetic relatives as her blood family. She called her foster-mother’s family her milk family.
Blood and milk. Contemporary western science says they’re the same thing in different forms. After she gives birth, a certain amount of a mother’s blood becomes her milk.
“Traditional Chinese medicine says the same thing,” says practitioner Heidi Harding, L. Ac. “And we take that idea one step farther. Breast milk feeds a mother’s baby her consciousness as well.”
I have a wooden plaque hanging on my office wall. It’s from Chile, painted with acopiue, their national flower, and a bit of Chilean folklore. Amor de madre, abismo sin medida, it reads. A mother’s love is a chasm without end. It’s a litmus test in that country. Whatever you say in response to the words tells a lot about you, they say. Do you see that chasm as an endless abyss, or a sheltering cornucopia?
Standing in the market in Temuco 45 years ago, my response was split pretty much down the middle. Chasm without end? Yeah, a deep, narrow, overgrown, rocky, cravasse… and, Yes, the love is that deep and strong. Everlasting.
I was thinking of my milk mother, Kay, then. Today I know a deep and everlasting love both for Kay, and for my blood mother, Marie. I wouldn’t be here without both of them. Although they’re gone now, together, they’re alive in me.
Mary Kate Jordan is a Master Astrologer and Certified Hypnotist trained in Shamanic Counseling. Find out more at The Jordan Center for Creative Insight.