Everybody reads or hears from time to time about babies found in a trash bin, in a gutter, abandoned somewhere on a doorstep. In Belgium, like in some other countries, they have made ‘foundling drawers’. Desperate mothers can leave behind their newborn in this drawer with the promise of anonymity. In the drawer they can find a page with instructions, amongst others describing how to reestablish contact with their baby if they would have a change of heart in the future.
As a human being I have no objections to these practices. It is not a good thing to leave your baby behind anonymously, but at least the mothers who abandon their child have the certainty it will be taken care of. It will be adopted, and will receive all chances to grow up in a nice and warm family who will adopt it as one of their own. This is the least of all evils, and way better than leaving babies in the gutter.
But there is another side to the medal: once the baby grows up, it will start asking questions about its lineage. During puberty, when an adolescent tries to find an identity, those questions will become stronger and stronger. The void that can be the only answer to those questions will become a serious hurdle during puberty, a handicap that will be dragged along during the rest of this stay on earth.
At least this is how I feel about it, this is how I endured what I started to see as a malediction. I was not left behind in a foundling drawer, these did not exist at the time I was born. Instead, my mother gave birth in a small French town, just over the Belgian border. The French have an appropriate name for this ‘procedure’, the call it ‘né sous X’, which literally means ‘born under X’. No names given, no questions asked, no contact possibilities given to the mother as in the case of the foundling drawer, no way to ever in my lifetime unearth my roots…
The past years there have been numerous scandals around the Catholic Church, all over the world just as we had them in Belgium too. One of these were the locking up of young unmarried pregnant girls in convents in the post-war era until the eighties, and bringing them in secrecy over the border to give birth. There they could give birth anonymously, ‘under X’. As soon as the baby was born it was taken away, never to be seen again by the mother. These mothers did not want this, but were forced to do it. Because they were impregnated by priests, or because a prominent family did not want to cope with the disgrace of their unmarried daughter having a child. So the Catholic Church willingly helped them to dispose in all discretion of this blemish on their honour, or briskly tried to erase the dishonour on the Churches’ name.
As for me, I do not know where I came from. Just that I came from the maternity of a small hospital in a small industrial town in the French Ardennes. The hospital is no more, as are the files. These would not have shown much anyway. I guess. The secret well kept, the Church protected from incrimination and thus from sin. What is not recorded never took place, what never took place never existed, and what never existed never can be blamed on the Holy Church.
Despite this I consider myself lucky. A young, childless and loving couple adopted me. They took me with them to Africa, where my adoptive father (whom I call ‘father’) worked for the Belgian government in development-cooperation. The first eleven years of my life I grew up in the savannah. No school, no stress, just a youth full of exploring and adventure. Later on this past would combine with my unknown origins, and reinforce the uprooted feeling I carried with me my whole adult life.
Oh yes, I tried to unearth my origins, more than once, but all to no avail. When I was 17 my mother and I went to visit the town where I supposedly was born. She was not so sure about going, but I was, and she did not want to let me go alone, for my puberty was a tumultuous episode where all stability and consistency was far gone in my erratic behavior. All we found was, in the municipality, the birth archives where all newborns were registered. And I found the page where my birth was recorded. It was not the original one… Near the binding in the official book a cut could clearly be discerned, and a new page had been glued in. The new page mentioned my adoptive parents as being my natural parents. For the administration nothing ever happened, this was the official ‘truth’.
A French friend of our family, a former missionary who saw me grow up as a little kid with contacts in French politics, found some Member of Parliament willing to help my cause. Supposedly the original documents were classified in some basement in Paris, deeply buried from public scrutiny and kept secret, only to be revealed on courts’ order. The chances on a court ruling in my favor were slim, and the procedure was long and expensive. As a youngster there was no chance to claim my rights via the official way. So I tried the ‘old boys network’. All the MP could dig up was that my natural mother had given birth before me. No names, no contacts, not anything else…
This knowledge, knowing that I have at least one brother or sister walking around on this globe, just stirred up the unrest in me. I always had a dualistic stance towards my natural parents. I blamed my mother for having left me on my own. Even if there was no other way for her. On the other hand I did understand there maybe really was no other way, and I felt sorry for her. This swinging from one mood to the other – concerning this matter – would become a constant in my life. From the moment on I knew that I was not alone, that I had a relative beside my parents, my thoughts focused on that person. In the case of my parents I was torn between love and hate, between feeling sad for them and despising them. How can you ever leave your baby? But the feelings I had towards my unknown brother or sister were singularly positive.
In my head the search for my lineage, where finding my mother was the central question, now focused on being worried about my brother or sister. My life was pretty good, I was in good shape, surrounded by all the luxury a man ever will need, with a roof over my head and wheels under my arse, and I was generally feeling happy. But how was the other doing? Was he or she adopted as well? Did he/she survive? Was he/she happy, or was he/she in need?
Maybe this was the reason I grew uncertain, torn apart because of my feelings in this whole matter. I did start to search for my origins many times during my life. Over and over again. But often, always as a matter of fact, I abruptly give up the pursuit. There is a strong will in me to unearth my bloodline, to find my real family. But every time I start the quest I seem to get torn apart by feelings. Feelings of despair, feelings of rejection, feelings of love, feelings of anger, feelings of hate. Then I wonder what my reaction will be if I ever find a relative? Will I be happy, will I be able to keep my emotions in control, will this be what I imagined it would be?
In the past I have written to two different television programs who help to find people long lost relatives and friends. Wrote long, detailed letters with all I knew. Filled in forms, answered questions. Only to stop the process before it really even started. Twice. And there is an organisation in Belgium nowadays, called ‘Mater Matuta’ (mother of the aurora), which stands up for the rights of the children taken away in a long lost past from their mother, and stands up for the rights of mothers who have been forced by the Church to cede their babies. With the knowledge of the State, of course. The politicians just turned a blind eye and let the Church go on with her schemes. Mater Matuta reached me a helping hand, but when I wanted to reach out for that hand I blocked. It apparently scares me, it frightens me, it confuses me.
Adding to the confusion are my looks. I have a tanned skin, still clear enough to be considered ‘white’ or ‘caucasian’ (what an ugly words these are!), but nevertheless slightly tanned as if I spent some time on a sunny beach when all others went pale in wintertime. My hair is dark, almost black, and it is hardly greying, even well past my forties. Fortunately I now proudly show some grey hairs, though they are relatively sparse, but that avoids the embarrassing questions women asked me when I was a bit younger about which coloring I used for dyeing my hair. In contrast with my dark hair I have green eyes, as opposed to brown eyes common with people from Southern European countries. Some might say I look like an Indian – a Native American – but my chest hair denies this. My description of myself: I am a bastard. Sounds awful for many people, most react shocked when I say this. But I must admit I feel proud to be a bastard, that is the closest I ever got to defining my roots.
Living without knowing who I am, a knowledge which lays at the core of every living human, gives humans stability and gives the soul rest, even when a person voluntarily renunciates his lineage and breaks all ties with it, that makes me restless. The thought of finding my mother, even of finding my brother or sister, that stirs up so many emotions inside of me. And I am just torn in between…