Photo: Courtesy of Maia Williamson
The first time someone made a negative comment to me about my son’s birth mother, I wasn’t at all surprised. I was actually expecting it at some point—it’s easy to criticize what you don’t understand. What did shock me, though, was how angry it made me and how defensive I was of her.
I was sitting in my office at work, telling a few colleagues about my upcoming trip to China to finalize my son’s adoption and bring him home. One of them asked about his birth situation and birth mother. When I told them what little I knew, which is typical of Chinese adoptions, they both unleashed a barrage of negative comments and insults directed towards her. I was taken aback by their judgment but also by how upsetting it was to hear. Is this a thing? I thought. Since when did we start hating on birth mothers without knowing anything about their stories? And why is it so shocking that I don’t?
Going through the adoption process, I never felt any resentment towards my son’s birth mother. I understand that there are instances where it's hard to avoid—when children are neglected or abused—but that doesn’t appear to be the case with my son, so I never harboured those sorts of feelings. However, I did not expect to be fiercely protective of her and feel such compassion and tenderness towards someone I’ll never know.
My son was born in China, which has a controversial history of government-based family planning policies. In 1979, the country attempted to alleviate some of its poverty and overpopulation by introducing a one-child policy, which also subjected women to mandatory contraception and, in some cases, forced sterilization if a family had a second child.
The policy is said to have never been enforced in a consistent manner. Wealthier families often evaded punishment for any unauthorized children, whereas poorer families were given fines that they simply could not pay.
Policy critics also believed that due to the overwhelming bias for sons in China, there was a stark increase in families abandoning girls or disabled children and putting them up for adoption, sometimes on the black market.
Effects of the policy have proven to be a stressor on the family unit and line. Since families are so small by design, the care and responsibility for elderly parents places a heavy burden on an only child which can, in turn, affect his or her family unit as well. And if a couple loses a child for whatever reason, they are potentially childless forever and without that safety net as they age.
Although the policy was relaxed in 2015, there is still a stigma brought against a family with more children than they can take care of. Even today, birth parents may only relinquish their parental rights by presenting credible evidence to governmental authorities that they are not financially capable of supporting the child. Therefore, the potential shame around an unwanted pregnancy or one that will financially burden parents leads me to believe that the exact circumstances of my son’s birth story are likely a complex mix of a number of these socioeconomic factors.
Despite all of this, I have never, and will never, shy away from the topic of adoption with him. I have openly talked about his adoption since he became my son in 2017, when he was two years old. In fact, I started before I adopted him—conversations in the bathroom mirror or in my head on the subway to work. Practice makes perfect, they say. And since we’ve been a duo, I’ve told him his “story” so many times he can now recite it. Of course, I will tread lightly in how and when I share a few of the more sensitive details that I know. But they are his, and he deserves them when the time is right.
Recently, we’ve begun to talk about how he was in the tummy of another woman—his “birth mother,” as we’ve labelled her—and how he came to be my son. He’s asked typical questions, like what her name is and where she lives, but he’s also asked a few that took me by surprise. He’s asked a few times if she’s nice and if I’ve talked to her.
The last one stayed with me because I certainly have not spoken to her, but it got me thinking about what I would say if given the chance.
The first thing I would tell her is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry you were in the position to have to give up your child. I’m sorry if you felt guilt over the events of that day. I’m sorry if you’ve felt any regret since you made the decision up until this very minute. I’m sorry if you agonized over what would become of him.
Next, I would say he’s okay. He’s healthy and happy. He’s inquisitive. He asks a million questions a day about how things work, what things are used for and what certain words mean. And the best part is, he usually remembers what I tell him. He’s slowly learning to read and write and is obsessed with math. He loves superheroes and Lego and dismantles them just so he can build them back up several times a day. He’s good at sports, especially basketball, and is learning the not-so-subtle art of trash talk that goes along with it. He tells the shittiest jokes, but is somehow still the funniest person in the room wherever he goes. He loves board games and cards, and he’s totally okay when he loses. He eats more yogurt that I think is humanly possible but thankfully eats just about anything I give him. He dances and sings his way through most conversations and begs me daily to have dance parties in our living room. Above all, he is kind. I catch him talking to our cat in a soft voice every morning, asking her how she slept and if she missed him. He willingly gives up toys and clothes when we go through his things to make donations for less fortunate families. He asks about his cousins and aunts and grandmother when too much time passes after seeing them. He leaves me love notes around the house which are usually just pictures of us as stick people sitting under rainbows and suns, oftentimes holding hands, always smiling. He comes in my bed in the mornings to cuddle, and he doles out hugs with the automaticity of breathing. He is thriving.
And he’ll always know who you are. We will celebrate you each year on his birthday. We will speak of you each year on Mother’s Day and how we can honour you and your role in his life. Because you are his mother too.
Whenever he hits a milestone or accomplishes the impossible, whenever the wonders of life light up his face, I think of what you’re missing out on. And in a strange way, I wish you didn’t have to.
Make no mistake, he is my son, and I wouldn’t trade that honour for anything. However, it’s not lost on me that out of your trauma and tragedy came my greatest gift and source of happiness.
So thank you.
I know we’ll likely never meet you or get more information about why you made the decisions you did, so I can only hope that the universe envelopes you in peace and leaves your heart whole.
And I will continue to hold you in mine, not judge circumstances I know nothing about, decisions I never had to make, weight I never had to carry.
For you are his birth mother, his other mother. Always.