The Bonds of Motherhood

By Sara Afzal

 

It was taco night at the Angulo family’s home, and my best friend Tessa, 14, and her mother, Teresa, were gathered around the kitchen island. They had the same soft features that fell easily into glowing smiles and laughter. The two of them looked so much alike. I was shocked when I first found out Tessa was adopted. “We get that all the time. No one ever believed me when I would say I was adopted,” Tessa Gardner, née Angulo, said.

One night during one of our many sleepovers, Tessa showed me a stuffed teddy bear. She pressed a button on its stomach, and the jovial sing-song voices of two small girls rang out “Happy Birthday Tessa!” She told me they were her two half sisters from her birth mother, Cindy, who had remarried and started a new family. Although Tessa received gifts and letters from Cindy, she has never met her.

Over the years, their correspondence was sporadic, and Tessa’s mom tended to correspond directly with Cindy more often than Tessa did. After a lapse in communication, Cindy wrote a letter to Teresa in 2009 implying the possibility of a meeting. “As Tessa neared 18; I was nervous that she would be interested in meeting me and on the other hand nervous she wouldn’t. I didn’t want to be torn on your side or hers if I kept in contact. If anything should have transpired; I wanted it to be a decision she made,” Cindy wrote.

Tessa chose not to pursue a meeting at that time.

“Growing up I always wondered what it would be like to meet her. I kind of went back and forth with it, but I just wasn’t ready. It’s a big thing… to meet your biological mom. You never know what could happen,” Tessa said later.

Tessa’s parents, Teresa and Tim, pursued adopting children after it became apparent that Teresa couldn’t become pregnant easily. “They didn’t really have a diagnosis,” she said after going through fertility testing. In her early 30s, she considered trying the in vitro process, but she decided against it. Teresa turned her focus on going back to school and furthering her career as a nurse, but realized at age 36 that she had to be a mother. “It wasn’t so important that I have a birth child. I just wanted to raise a child, so that’s when we started looking at adoption.”

Tessa was their first child. She was born premature after 16-year-old Cindy unexpectedly went into labor six weeks early. Tessa had a breathing tube when she was first born, and only weighed about four pounds. She spent 10 days in the hospital before going home. As a nurse, Teresa persuaded the hospital to let her take the baby home, where she fed her every two hours. “For me, from the moment I saw and held Tess, I was in love with her. My bond to her was instant and complete and I still feel that bond,” Teresa said.

Teresa and Tim decided from the beginning to have an open adoption with full communication and identifying information from the birth mother. Although Tessa decided not to initiate a meeting with Cindy, letters went back and forth throughout her life. About 55 percent of families initiate open adoptions and 40 percent are semi-open adoptions with mediators, according to a Donaldson Adoption Institute survey of 100 adoption agencies. The survey also found that 95 percent of agencies offer open adoptions. 

Tessa’s adopted sister Tori decided to meet her own biological mom, who had Tori at 17. Tori came out of the experience realizing how different her childhood would have been with her birth family, and grateful for her current circumstances. Tessa said Tori came home, gave their mom a big hug, and immediately thanked their adopted parents for the life they had given her.

According to psychology professor Abbie Goldberg, whose research focuses on adopted families, “Adopted individuals are not confused by contact with their birth parents. They benefit from the increased understanding that their birth parents gave them life but their ‘forever families’ take care of and nurture them.”

The Angulo family maintained open communication with their children’s biological parents, but also allowed Tessa and Tori to make their own decision with meeting them. “I wanted our kids to know their birth parents. What a huge hole in your life if you had no information. I know Tessa has never met her birth parents, but she got all of their information, she’s gotten letters from them, she knows of them, where they are, what they do, what they look like…I think that’s important,” Teresa said.

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Tessa and Teresa

Teresa said she would constantly tell Tessa about her birth mother as a baby, and read her bedtime stories about adopted families. Tessa remembers knowing from a very early age that she was adopted, but despite the open communication throughout her life with her birth mother–she didn’t feel ready to meet her.

“I really didn’t think about being adopted too often unless it came up in conversation or I got a letter from my birth mother. I felt so comfortable with my family. They just never made me question anything. My mom and dad were super supportive,” Tessa said. “I see a lot of people not having a close relationship with their parents and it’s really sad to me. My mom and I have always been really really close. She’s my go to person and always has been,” Tessa said.

At 29, Tessa is now married and a mother to a two-year-old daughter named Ava. They live in Santa Barbara near her parents, who are active in their granddaughter’s life. To Ava, Teresa is known as Nan (short for Nana), the one that takes her to the library for story time, picks flowers with her, or helps her feed the koi fish in their small front pond. “I love being part of Ava’s life. I’m thankful Tessa is here. You connect with your child when they have a child of their own,” Teresa said.

Tessa says she is fascinated by discovering her own biological traits in her daughter. Whether making the same “hangry face” or getting a spell of the giggles. “Her mannerisms are similar. Certain faces she makes my mom says she looks just like me,” Tessa said.

Recently, Tessa discovered that her birth mom, Cindy, named one of her daughters Ava as well, a coincidence that immediately gave Tessa goosebumps. Cindy was just 16 years old when she had Tessa. A high school cheerleader, was dating a football player, Ernie, when she became pregnant. According to Teresa, he was never involved in the pregnancy or adoption process.

“I honestly can’t believe what my birth mother went through. When you are pregnant you have this bond with your baby and go through this whole pregnancy journey,” Tessa said.

“I think now that I’m older, I would totally would love to meet her. I think my mindset is different, and I can handle the situation better,” Tessa said. “I feel like I owe her. She did such a selfless thing. I would like to just hug her and tell her thank you.”