When I was born, I was given one name. Eight months later, I was given another. (After getting married, I’m now on my third name, but who’s counting?) Why did I start this life with two names before I was one year old? No, it’s not because I was put into a witness protection program, it’s because I’m adopted. I have two mums, my adoptive mum, and my biological mum.
Terri Apter, a psychologist and a writer who specializes in family, particularly in the relationships between mothers and their daughters once said that “Throughout her life a mother retains a special need to maintain a good relationship with her daughter” because “When a mother quarrels with a daughter, she has a double dose of unhappiness. Hers from the conflict; and empathy with her daughter’s from the conflict with her”. So you might think that having two matriarchs in your life, would give a daughter two of the most positive and valuable relationships that she could ever have. She’d receive twice the love and double the advice, right?
Wrong. Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that having two moms can be a double dose of unhappiness for the daughter. Having two mums is shit.
I’ve been a bit unlucky in the mother sweepstakes. I have one mum who I’m sure confused her job description with that of a prison warden’s, and another who, from the start, mysteriously vanished like D.B Cooper but who now pops in and out of my life, randomly, like Henry DeTamble from The Time Traveller’s Wife.
Before I continue I think it’s really important for you to have a lucid picture in your mind of who I’m talking about and why I’m pretty sure my mums won’t be receiving any awards for ‘Greatest Mum in the World’ anytime soon.
When I speak of my birth mum, picture the Other Mother from the film Coraline and give her trust issues and a bit more emotional baggage to carry.
When I talk about my adoptive mum, picture in your mind a cross between Hyacinth Bucket from the show Keeping Up Appearances, Helen Boucher from the film The Waterboy and a tenacious Honey badger hell bent on world domination, despite not having opposable thumbs.
For those of you who have never heard of Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth’s character epitomizes the fatuous need for people to impress others for the means for upward mobility. Hyacinth and my adoptive mom are like two self-absorbed peas in a status seeking pod. My husband and I are convinced that my mum chose to adopt me because having a child once you were married was “the thing to do” back then, to be seen as “normal” in high society.
Now that you can picture both my mums clearly, let me tell you a few things that have affected our relationships so much that it feels like having two mums is like having two, particularly painful hemorrhoids.
Let’s start with my birth mum, because her appearances in this drama that I call my life are quite limited.
I found out that I was adopted when my mum told me when I was seven years old. Yes, that’s right, a naive, innocent child, was told that she wasn’t really the biological offspring of the person she’d called mum for as long as she could remember. How does a child process that kind of information when all they want to think about is avoiding homework and going to play outside with their friends? Even at 21 I still couldn’t fully comprehended the enormity of what I had been told.
I wasn’t what you would describe as obsessed with finding out who my birth mum was, I did have a lot of questions that I’d silently ask myself. What was her name? What was she like? Do I have brothers and sisters? Do I have another dad? Grandparents? What were they all like? Where did they all live? Have they tried to get in touch with me? Did they think about me? Did they care?
So, on an insignificant and not so dark and not so stormy night in 2006, after I had moved out, I decided to try and find my birth mum. After weeks of independent research, I found her and I wrote her a letter. I explained that I understood that she might not want to get in touch, but if she did, she could. I was just glad that she was alive and that serendipitously, she lived less than 15 miles from me.
On a paltry afternoon I received a phone call from an unknown number. It was her, my birth mum. She told me with great gusto, how happy she was that I had found her. Less than four months later, she reported me to the police for harassment, contacted my parents, calling me a liar and telling them that we, as a family, should work on our own relationships. This bolt out of the blue completely crushed me. Not only had my birth mum disappeared again like Jimmy Hoffa, she had torn apart the last remaining shreds holding my adoptive family together.
Seven years later she contacted me again, this time by e-mail. She told me that she wanted to meet up with me, to talk. We met and spent the afternoon together. It did not surprise me that after that meeting she vanished again without a trace. Damn you, Amelia Earhart!
My mum would control me whenever she could; I was told what to wear (clothes were laid out each and every morning), what to eat, what to read, what to watch; I was never allowed to watch a movie that wasn’t a Disney film until I was 13 years old. When I saw Ace Ventura Pet Detective playing at my friend’s house one day, I thought it was real. I thought that someone with a camera was following these people around and broadcasting what was essentially in my mind, a documentary, I couldn’t comprehend that it was all make believe.
My mum would drive me to and from school and to and from college. I had a bedtime, even in my early twenties, I couldn’t go out with friends on weekends. I was told what I should study at University. My mom controlled my money and what I spent it on. When I got my first job and my student loan, she took my money and doled out a set amount of “pocket money” each week to live off of. I never went out and got hammered when I was at University and I didn’t have much to call my own. (It wasn’t until I had my own place and changed my bank account that I bought my own clothes and a mobile phone.)
For me, our relationship hit bottom in June 2014 when I told my mom I was engaged. She seemed neither happy nor excited. She just rambled on about stories of her own engagement and her own wedding. My mum does this consistently, she competes with your stories and achievements by always trying to “one-up” you.
My mum did not get excited and emotional when I told her I was getting married. My mum did not help in the planning of my wedding. My mum did not go out with me on my bachelorette party. When I got married in September 2015 my mum, unlike countless of other mothers, never helped me get ready in the morning. My mum didn’t shed a tear during the ceremony. My mum left my reception early because she’d found out that I have tattoos.
At one point prior to my wedding, I was considering inviting my birth mum to my special day. I knew it would hurt my adoptive mum if I did, but part of me didn’t really care. I was just looking for someone to be proud of and happy for me. Luckily, or unluckily, I couldn’t find her. She had vanished once again.
Some people say that the relationships I’ve had with my mums explains quite a bit about my behavior. The way I used to always keep myself to myself. Why I never wanted to tell my parents anything. Why I am always scared of upsetting or disappointing anyone, fearful of being rejected and abandoned. Perhaps these things are true, but I feel I’ve actually turned out alright and learned a valuable lesson from my mum’s. Even though you’re told to love and respect your family, you don’t have to if they’re not supportive or kind.
If like me, you’ve got two mums or one mum that has been a domineering maternal force rampaging its way through your life and potentially destroying it, please share my story as a way to reassure yourself and others that yes, this does happen. No one has to go through this alone. As well as counselling, there are several books that you can read to give you the confidence to understand that it’s not always the children who are the black sheep of the family.
Terri Apter’s book Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming their Power
Karen C.L. Anderson’s book The Peaceful Daughter’s Guide to Separating from a Difficult Mother
Karyl McBride’s book Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
Susan Forward and Craig Buck’s book Toxic Parents; Overcoming their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life
Read more of Dani’s work.