Having a Sister I Never Knew About Makes Me Think Differently About Parenthood

I grew up with a beautiful, amazing mother. She was the type to search for caterpillars with you on an autumn day or surprise you with homemade popsicles on a hot summer afternoon. It was the 80s, and I spent long days running through the neighborhood with other kids. There were no cell phones. We were outside until dusk. Things felt simple.  

When I was 16, my mother turned around from her passenger seat in the car and blurted out, “You have a sister.” Just like that. 

That was the moment that shifted the script.

I met my sister, and our relationship began

There is much of this story to unfold from that moment, but those details are for another place. Fast-forward to later that year: I met my sister, Anne, I was the maid of honor at her wedding, and our relationship began.  

Anne grew up happy. She had wonderful parents who longed for a daughter, and we lived our childhoods only four hours away from each other. We marveled, now, at our similarities. She also had a long second toe. She loved nature too. She had spent her youth exploring the woods behind her house.

But over the years, as I unraveled more of the reality of Anne in my mind, I felt tricked. Why was this secret kept from me? How did my aunts, uncles, and grandparents all know something I didn’t know about my mother? 

Why had my mother kept her secret from me? (Photo courtesy of Heather Tierney)

The more I learned about my mother, the more my heart broke for her

The more I learned about my mother’s story, the more my heart hurt for her. She had been young. She was unmarried. It was the 1960s, and people didn’t talk about these things. She spent the last month of her pregnancy hidden away. 

She delivered in a special unit of the maternity ward for unwed mothers. And after her baby was born, she returned home — never to speak of it again. She was expected to return to her life as if it had not happened.  

Sometimes my mom wanted to share parts of this story with us; sometimes, she pushed them away. Even years later, after we knew Anne well, my mom would say something out of the blue about these memories. We’d be walking down the street, admiring flower boxes of a home we’d pass, and she’d say, “Did you know your grandfather held Anne for a while on the day she was born?”  

I wanted to know my mother’s true story

Or we’d watch the movie Juno decades later, and my mom would suddenly fight back tears. “It was so long ago,” she’d say.  

For a long time, I couldn’t get past the idea that my mom had this whole complicated life before the existence of our family. My childhood seemed so transparent. She was always so happy. What was the true story?

I searched for those truths for a while, thinking they could be unburied with facts, dates, and details. I wanted to ask older relatives about their story version, but I never did. I knew their lips were sealed. It was what had been expected then, and — I believe — they did not think it was their story to tell. 

I realize now I had a false idea of what the concept of truth is. I believed it was linear. I thought it was as clear as This is what happened . . . 

I realize there is not only one simple version of the truth

I started writing a novel about their story with my mother’s and Anne’s permission. I decided to write it as fiction so that I had a license to create the account in a more readable way. I had it published and dedicated the finished book to my mom. During writing as I neared the end of my writing, I made a discovery: This is what happened and could never really be the basis of any story. It is always much, much more than that.

The true story is this: my mother had a baby she was encouraged not to keep. She chose adoption. She never fully dealt with her grief. And she continued to live her life.

But, the truth is also this: my mother would roller-skate past us at the park when I was 10. She would smile, wave, and continue down the path — walkmen radio on her hip, neon headband around her forehead. She would bring metal cups of Kool-aide to our fort after a long day of playing. She would set up the sprinkler and encourage us to jump in it.  

The truth is that both facts exist. There is no other way to write that sentence. There is no other way to say it — to accept both realities and let them mingle.

We all know, of course, that our parents had a life before us. Our children will learn that about us too. How much of our lives are we obligated to give our children privy? How much of that life are they entitled to know?

How much of our parents’ true stories do we know?

If I could travel through time and land in 1963, I would wrap my arms around my young mother and try to absorb some of her pain. I would tell her that her secret could be shared with me. I would say to her she was not alone.  

But I can’t.

As parents, we are allowed to have our own stories. Some of them need sharing. Some might take years to voice. And some might remain our own.

When my mother and Anne reunited, there were many questions asked. Family members of hers and ours wanted to understand more. Some of those questions were answered; others were left alone.  

And the story continues.  

For more on this story, read Heather Tierney’s The Freedom of a Tangled Vine.

More Great Reading:

What Happened After I Re-Adopted the Daughter I Gave Up as a Newborn

About Heather T

Heather has taught high school English for nearly 25 years.

Read more posts by Heather

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