What to Expect When You Stop Expecting

            With credit to Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect when You’re Expecting, I thought it fitting to appropriate her title for this sermon, since it is about shedding expectation and is rooted in my relationship with my natural mother.

I’ll begin with a little background about my journey away from, and then back to, my natural family.

            My adoption story is a fairly standard post-WWII story. My mother and father lived next door to each other in a town near the east coast of Scotland. When they finished high school, they went to Glasgow, all the way on the other coast of Scotland – my mother to nursing school in and my father to Glasgow University. When she became pregnant, around the end of August, they decided they would wait and tell their parents at Christmas break. They planned to get married. Suffice it to say, they didn’t get the response they expected.

They went home expecting to end the Christmas break looking forward to becoming a family, building a new life together. It was December, 1966. What they got was a tearful break-up outside my father’s garage. For my mother, this was followed by a stay at a mothering home, a daughter who left the hospital before she did, a bill for my foster care, and, ultimately, my adoption.

My father’s mother had threatened to cut him off if he followed through with his family plan. Even though he didn’t stick to his plan, he got to pay penance by working as a brick layer.

Whatever expectations they had were shattered. On top of that, they were both told to consider themselves grateful, privileged that they had a chance to redeem themselves and move on.

I, too, was told I should be grateful: I had a mother who had loved me enough to give me away.

All three of us wandered into our separate lives being told to be grateful for something incredibly painful; being told not to expect anything further. All standard stuff.  I want to note here that, although all three of us learned not to expect, this is not the productive kind of letting go. The kind of letting go of expectation that my parents and I learned in the wake of our separation is rooted in punishment and shame. There’s no hope in it, and I think hope is key.

Fast forward 18 years. My adoptive father, Dad, had made it clear that he would understand if I needed to search for my natural family, going so far as to take me to the very office from which he collected me in Edinburgh. In Scotland, searches are significantly easier than here in the US – the child has the right to all the records once he or she turns 18. Birth certificates are not altered. So, I went to the House of Records in Edinburgh on a trip back to Scotland. There I found my birth name (Jayne, with a Y), my mother’s name and a blank line where my father should have been. Not what I expected. I didn’t know that they wouldn’t put a name in the case of illegitimate birth. I manufactured all manner of reasons for the lack of name. I also saw that I’d been born in Eastern General Hospital in Leith, which is not the closest hospital to my mother’s home town. Those of you who read Irving Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting, may recall Leith as a haven for heroine addicts in the ‘90s. In the ‘60s, it was a haven for prostitution. So I had some questions. They were enough to squash the sliver of expectation of reunion that had started to develop.

A note here, that adoptees are roughly 2% of the population. Only a fraction of us search. Fewer actually end in reunion. None of us really knows what we’re doing. There aren’t enough of us for there to be a guidebook like What to Expect When You’re Expecting. For me, this turned out to be a good thing.

It took me another 18 years to decide to search. The lead-up to that choice would take up another sermon. Mostly, something had shifted in me; on a trip back in 2003, I decided to walk past the house listed on the birth certificate. I couldn’t let it go after that. I’d like to tell you I’m wise and thorough and impeccably well organized and that I brought all that to my search. I am not wise, often fly by the seat of my pants, and won’t talk about that organization thing. I was led entirely by my gut. I somehow knew that I had to shed all expectation, and hang on to some vague sense of hope, if I was going to survive a search. It helped that I’d had my first child in similar circumstances to my own birth. It helped that I knew a couple of other adoptees in reunion. One had a relationship with her birth father that was clandestine; another’s father drank himself into ICU the first time he met her. Their relationships with all of their birth families were fraught, to say the least.

So my search really began within myself, and this is where hope began. It grew inside me, spreading into the place that had been born out of the shame of adoption. What I hoped was to find my mother. Just that. And even that seemed a gigantic wish. Yes, of course I wanted the Oprah version of adoption reunion, you know the one, where the whole gigantic, attractive, successful natural family welcomes the adoptee (on whom they have all been waiting their whole lives) to the feast table. But I didn’t go expecting it. I pared back and back to what it was that was driving that hope. I knew I had to be whole when I went looking. I had to expect nothing. When I felt ready to do that, I contacted Birthlink – a nonprofit in Scotland that helps adoptees and their natural families in reunion – and put my name on the list for a searcher.

In the waiting time, I asked myself all manner of questions about what my response would be if I found my mother and she turned out to be dying and need my help, if she turned out to be obese, alcoholic, destitute, a retired prostitute, or worse, like maybe (given my liberal leanings), a Republican. I realized that anything that might bother me deeply would do so because I already saw it as a weakness in myself. (Except maybe if she was Republican). In other words, I recognized that if I wanted her to change something, it was really something I wanted to change in myself. (I believe this is also called owning your own stuff).

My brother, also adopted, said, “Look Heather, the only thing you really have to fear is if she comes to the door with her bags packed and says ‘awright, hen, where we gaun?’ thinking she’s moving in with you. Anything else you can just run away from.” Stewart is often good for comic relief with a wee bit of truth embedded. And he was right, of course, either of us could choose to end the relationship at any moment.

And isn’t that the case with all our relationships?

We expect them – especially the significant ones – to go on and on and on. We act like there’s some sort of Relationship Union, like a pipefitters union, that will make sure the contract is upheld, but the truth is, relationships are like living in a Right to Work state – any party (and sometimes a third party, like, say sudden Death) can terminate a contract with neither notice nor cause. All the expectation in the world can’t stop it. In fact, sometimes, expectation can fuel that termination. At the very least, it feeds our capacity to take things for granted. What I knew, what my natural parents and I had all lived for nearly four decades before we came face to face, is that expectation doesn’t guarantee you a thing. We had lived the termination of our family contract. The loss of my mother had framed my life. The most profound relationship – mother/child – can be ended without (from where I see it) cause.

So I entered the relationship with some hope; I entered the relationship owning my own stuff; I entered the relationship fully aware of what it felt like to have it terminated. And I entered with no rules. Here’s the good part about there not being a guidebook – we didn’t have a mental checklist of what a “good” reunion looks like.  There aren’t those pesky magazine articles like the ones that imply that all the other married couples have more sex than you, that the skinny woman next door eats cherry pie for breakfast and still has buns of steel and straight-A children. Those things that build up expectation. And wreck our chances of honoring what’s right in front of us, flawed and human and beautiful.

When I did this, what I got was open space to pay attention, to really see, for instance, the grain of my mother’s freckled hand wrapped around her mug of tea the first time we met; to feel the heat of my own mug in my same-grained hand, the warmth of the tea, brown and smooth, slipping down my throat – tea my mother made for me. I got to experience her with the sureness of adulthood and the heart of a child.

My father was different – when we first met, he was obviously terrified that I might be angry, that I wanted to punish him; he was all tangled up with shame that he hadn’t tried harder to keep us together. Had I gone with the expectation that reunion with him would be like my mother I think we might not have lasted past the first meeting. I would have been disappointed. I had to let go of the expectation of receiving love in a particular way. It came in a last-minute meeting on a street corner where he handed me a box of truffles, easter eggs for my children, a bottle of rare single malt.

What I learned in my reunion is that, when all the expectations fall away, I am left with me and my mother – and it applies to all the other relationships as well – with my children, other parents, siblings, friends – and a whole load of space to hope and to notice. When I am noticing with hope and without expectation it’s hard to measure, which also means it’s hard to judge – I just get to feel the person, the moment, to let it unfold in its own right way and time. I get to stop messing with something that was just fine all on its own. I get to feel grateful for small moments.


Shedding expectation – what we can expect if we stop expecting – allows us to fully see and be present with our loved ones, and ourselves, as we are, in each moment, unfolding into our full, flawed and beautiful selves.

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