I was born in a government hospital in the Ratnapura district of Sri Lanka. My birth mother, a young Sinhalese Buddhist, cared for me for three weeks until I was adopted by the mother and father who raised me, an Australian (“Anglo”) couple with no other children. I left Sri Lanka by KLM Airlines with my Australian parents.
I did not have any other contact with my birth mother.
Being pregnant was the first time that I truly understood the connection between a mother and their baby in utero. Up until that point, I felt ‘genetics didn’t apply to me’ and I had essentially ignored biological processes. I had no concept of babies or being pregnant as not many people around me had been pregnant, including my own Mum. Sure, I had dealt with a lack of medical information at the doctor’s office, but as I was rarely sick, my unknown medical history had not been a problem. I had simply accepted that I did not have that information. I did not know any different. And I certainly had no concept of pregnancy whatsoever.
I started thinking about all things baby and discussing with my Mum many things about my own ‘baby-hood’. However, another aspect of ‘babies’ also started making its way into my mind and that was the inextricable connection between a mother and her baby in utero. My baby was, at that stage, a part of me. Literally. This experience led to full emotional understanding that I too, had once been part of someone else. My mother – my birth mother, that is.
When adopting me, my parents had been told that my situation (ie illegitimacy) brought a great deal of shame to my birth mother in Sri Lankan society and culture, and when I was older, I saw that my adoption documents repeated this same story, saying it had led her into poverty. This information left me feeling that it would be too selfish of me to look for her. Was my mother even alive? I had believed that the ethical thing to do was not to search since she had already endured so much and didn’t need me hanging around bring up any social shame she had (hopefully) transcended. I cannot say I had any discussions in my life (with anyone) about meeting my birth mother (other than when strangers asked, ‘Have you met your real/biological parents?’). So, throughout my life, I put out of my mind, totally, 100%, the possibility of finding her. (I realise now that this might have been a conscious step taken to compartmentalise my adoption).
When I was pregnant though, I realised that love for my baby, which is so innate, would certainly overwhelm the concept of shame for me, about anything. I thought how extremely and utterly cruel it would be to not know that your child was safe. Thirty years of not knowing about your child’s safety would be enough to make someone sick. I truly believe this. I talked to many other soon-to-be mothers at this time, and they were all of them were feeling similar things. That is not to say that my mother, in her culture, with her own views, would feel the same, but it was the first time I really understood any of her experience first hand, through pregnancy. I realise that my birth mother might feel just as we did and the least I could do was to find her and tell her that I was fine.
I brought up the idea of searching for my Sri Lankan mother, with my Australian mother and she suggested that I do it without delay – my mother was young when she had me, but of course, 30 years had gone by. We didn’t know anything about Sri Lankan life expectancy (now I know it is actually very high). Unfortunately my pregnancy became high risk, so the idea of finding my mother did not go passed that conversation until my son was almost one. We had recently moved cities and settled in to our house and everything seemed more normal (as normal as parenthood can be!). This is when I finally had the peace in my mind to think about searching again.
I decided to go down as many avenues as I could – reading about reunion stories and what to expect and reading about ways to conduct searches overseas, particularly in Sri Lanka. I got in contact with friends who had reunited, non-profit organisations and government agencies. (I’m a lawyer and I have an honours degree in psychology: I research, therefore I am*). I talked extensively to my husband about it. Somewhere along the line, I felt a seed of hope and joy….I started seeing a possible search for my birth mother as not only for her (ie to let her know I was safe), but for me also. For me to know where I came from, to learn my ancestry, to connect with my culture and to know my birth family. But it is this seed of hope that brought me intense fear and panic. Would I open a can of worms? What if it turned out my birth family weren’t nice people? What if we had nothing to talk about given we hadn’t been together for 30 years…and what if my birth mother couldn’t see me, or didn’t want to see me?
Worst of all…how would I face my birth mother if my conception really had pushed her into isolated poverty for 30 years?
The decision was not simple. I agonised, cried, got mad at irrelevant things and felt that I didn’t want to deal with the whole thing. There was fear. There were risks. The rejection, other people’s judgement, other people’s feelings. The unknown. Why couldn’t I be like everyone else? I mean, how normal is it to search for your own parents? Why didn’t I already know the woman who gave birth to me, whose genes, looks and ancestry I shared? The whole thought process consumed me.
In the end, I decided the fear and the risks were outweighed by the excitement, deep, cellular-like desire to understand where I came from and a need to let my birth mother know that I was OK. I decided that yes, I would do it.
I would search for my birth mother, and hopefully, I would be able to meet her.
* I have since learnt that it is quite common for adoptees to find out as much information about a situation as they can, a state of constant vigilance or hypervigilance and a way to gain some control of that situation.