Why Doesn't She Want Me?
This piece was partially inspired by the iconic Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode in which Will Smith delivered his most memorable line, “How come he don’t want me, man?” You can see a clip of that scene here. What I’ve written here doesn’t really follow any sort of traditional format: it’s raw, unedited, and represents a very present tense struggle I’m walking through in trauma therapy. With the release of my first book last week, and a wave of public appearances, interviews, and messages of congratulations and affirmation of my accomplishment, the primal wound of this rejection has been inflamed in new ways. This is a deeply vulnerable share for me, so please be gentle in your responses.
The girls huddled in close under the playground slide. I whispered into the circle, “My real father is a king of a tiny European country. You won’t find on most maps though, only because it’s too small. He and my mother had me secretly smuggled away during a war to protect me. That’s the real reason I was adopted. But someday he’s going to come back and get me, and restore me to my rightful place in line for the throne. You can’t tell anyone though, because it would put me in grave danger. It has to stay a secret.”
The story wasn’t true, but it wasn’t really a lie either. It was a tale I had repeated to myself so many times that by the afternoon I first whispered it on the playground I could no longer say for certain that it wasn’t in fact reality. On countless occasions I had snuck quietly around the house, rifling through closets and dresser drawers, trying to find a gold crested locket or a parchment document with a royal wax seal - some sort of proof of my noble blood and the parents who would do anything to protect me.
Proof that I had never been unwanted.
I stacked a handful the well worn alphabet blocks into a makeshift castle as the counselor continued to prod me with questions. The toys in this office were clearly intended for kids a fair bit younger than I was, but it was far more tolerable to arrange my little scenes than to deal with the uneasy intimacy of sustained eye contact for the hour long session. I rummaged two plastic horses out of their colorful canvas bin when she asked, “Stephanie where do you think your birthmother is right now?” I paused for only a moment as I processed her question, and then returned to the canvas bin. I pulled out 4 lengths of white plastic fencing, setting them onto the table in a makeshift square, then grabbed a nearby action figure and plopped it unceremoniously into the center. “She’s in jail,” I said matter-of-factly, as I returned to my castle scene.
The answer wasn’t true, but it wasn’t really a lie either. I knew that she had used drugs, and I knew that drugs were illegal. I knew that she had left me alone for days at a time, and that it was certainly against the law not to take care of your children, which is ultimately why I had been taken away from her. I also knew the story of the day she had produced a weapon at a visitation, incensed by my insistent cries for my foster mother in the other room - a story I knew well but the memories of which were little more than jumbled fragments and blank space. She was in jail, I had surmised, because obviously people who do illegal things go to jail. And besides, that was the clearest explanation for why she was never around. She couldn’t come for visits, or come see my dance recitals, or even call me on the phone, so it must be because the prison wouldn’t let her.
It couldn’t be that I was unwanted.
I sat uncomfortably on the dated couch, looking all around the room at a home that felt so intrinsically familiar despite nothing being discernibly recognizable. The face of the woman next to me held the same discomforting paradox: intimately familiar yet entirely unrecognized. Around the room were photos chronicling the childhoods and milestones of two strikingly similar faces to my own, faces I would learn belonged to the half-siblings I had never known. A vintage photo album was produced from its hidden mausoleum in a hall closet, page after page containing priceless artifacts I had long assumed didn’t even exist. A photo of my grandmother proudly holding a newborn baby girl, donned in a white ruffled dress that had been repurposed from one of her collectible dolls. That same newborn baby posed amongst the bright orange poppies in the yard, an equally ruffled bonnet now added to her ensemble. A toddler situated awkwardly in a vintage plastic walker with a colorfully fringed party hat perched atop her head.
But the unexpected treasure trove of photos were paired with an equally unforeseen pronouncement: the stories in my case file, the painful history I had carried for decades, much of it wasn’t actually true. Details had been exaggerated by case workers with an agenda towards adoption. Some had even been outright fabricated. The real story, as my birth mother told it, was that both she and I had been unfortunate victims of an unjust system. She wanted a chance to rewrite the history I thought I knew, and finally set the record straight on just how much I had always been loved and well cared for.
I had never been unwanted.
After two years of emotional work reconnecting with my birthmother, the other end of the line was unceremoniously cut off, without warning or explanation. She told me she had missed me every single day of the almost three decades we were apart. She told me she would do anything to make it right. And then she disappeared without a trace. It’s now been three years since my birthmother vanished from my life a second time, seemingly unwilling to continue our relationship or even offer an explanation as to what suddenly changed her mind. As a child, I instinctively created stories to convince myself of the mother I desperately hoped was longing to be with me, stories that could offer mitigating explanations as to why she was so painfully absent. I had often comforted myself through the years with the insistence that if she could only see me now, see all that I was accomplishing, see the person I was becoming, that surely she would want me. Surely she would love me.
But this time it’s different. This time I’m left without a single viable thread I could use to spin a comforting fantasy. She met me. She saw me. She knew me. And she had still chosen to abandon me once again.
It would seem I am unwanted after all.
Through the course of trauma therapy, an unsettling truth has poured new salt into freshly reopened wounds: the stories my birth mother had told me over that outdated coffee table appear to be as much mythology as the stories of my royal bloodline whispered under the playground slide. Not only is there significant evidence that the details of my case had been accurate all along, but long hidden memories are now coming to the surface as therapy affords both the tools and the space my brain needed to feel safe enough to fully process them. As layers of protective fantasy are slowly being peeled away, it becomes painfully apparent that much of what my birth mother told me simply couldn’t be true.
Perhaps she lied to protect herself, a manipulative attempt to squelch any possible anger I may have one day leveled in her direction. Or perhaps they weren’t as much lies as they were stories she had told herself so many times that she could no longer remember the harrowing truth that was just too painful to face.
Perhaps she needed to believe she had wanted me, just as desperately as I needed to believe I hadn’t been unwanted.
At 34 years of age I find myself instinctually reverting into that 4 year old girl, rummaging through boxes and drawers, desperately hoping to find some tangible proof of my rightful place in the world. Yet just like that child, my search always comes up empty, and I’m left with unanswered questions and blurry memories. The story of who I am feels like a puzzle I will never complete, not only because there are pieces that are likely lost forever, but because the pieces I’ve collected thus far appear to be incompatible bits taken from multiple different puzzles. It would seem the hardest task may be determining what image it is I’m supposed to be completing in the first place.
I don’t know if my birth mother will ever try to re-establish contact, but I’m doubtful. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out why she abandoned me all over again, or why she disappeared without so much an explanation or even a goodbye. I don’t know if there are parts of the stories she told me about my childhood that are true. I suspect there are, but it seems impossible to accurately segregate truth from fiction.
I think the hardest part is knowing I may never get an answer to the question that plagues me most of all: