I discovered this book and author, Paula Gruben, quite by accident when I was tagged in an author takeover on a Face Book page I belong to sometime last week. She is an adult adoptee who has written an autobiographical novel detailing her experiences and struggles with a sense of self and finding her identity as an adoptee. She offered me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review so here goes….

But first, a bit about the book:

umbilicus-3dCharlotte van Katwijk guards herself like a secret. Kids are cruel, and she knows if they find out she’s adopted, she’ll be a bully’s easy target.

When they are fourteen, Charlotte’s best friend’s mom commits suicide. It triggers in Charlotte a sense of urgency to find her birth mother before it’s too late, and the answers to her burning questions are taken to the grave.

Seven years later, a tormented Charlotte comes face to face with her past. Will discovering more about her biological parents, and the circumstances surrounding her relinquishment, be enough to lay her demons to rest?

Umbilicus by Paula Gruben is a coming-of-age story set in South Africa’s biggest port city during the dying days of apartheid. The tumultuous zeitgeist of the era mirrors the inner turmoil of an angst-ridden adolescent as she grapples to form an identity and find her place in the world.

As an adoptive mother, this was not an easy read for me. I cried and was quite tearful throughout the book. It’s highly emotional and really gives you a front row seat to one woman’s struggle to find her identity, her sense of self, among the secrecy and bureaucracy of closed adoptions in the 1970’s and 1980’s. 

There are a number of things that struck me about Paula’s story. Her anger towards her adoptive parents, while understandable, frightened me, I am so fearful of raising my own daughters under a shroud of secrecy pertaining to their adoption and in so doing potentially hurting them in the process. This book reminded me once again, that for everyone in the adoption triad, there is hurt but more so for the adoptee than anyone else, the adoptee who is the ONLY one in the triad who had NO CHOICE in their placement.  It gave me a lot to think about, we’ve always been open with our girls about how they are adopted, we show them photo’s of their birth parents, in Ava’s case we even Whatsapp and message each other. But is that enough? Are we doing enough to ensure that our children never have to second guess their choice over their own personal search for their birth parents. In Paula’s story, her parents felt they had been open, but there is a passage in the book where she talks about how while her parents verbally encouraged openness, their actions, reactions and subconscious communication sent her a message of discouragement. That scares me. I don’t want Ava or Hannah to feel that way about us.

The other thing that struck me as sad, purely for my own selfish reasons, was the shroud of secrecy that covered her initial interactions and contacts with her birth parents. I have always said that we would love to be involved in Ava and Hannah’s search for their birth parents one day, that we would encourage it and love to be a part of their reunions. Reading Paula’s story made me realize that that is quite a selfish sentiment on my part. That while we can encourage and support their search, their reunions have nothing to do with us and we will very much be the outsiders interfering in a deeply personal, emotional reunion.  That this is the part of the journey they will probably want to do on their own without their emotions and reactions being affected by the presence of their adoptive parents. 

I’d love to have read more about how Paula’s relationship is with her adoptive parents now? Have they managed to heal, have they managed to rebuild the breaks in their communication and relationships? Perhaps a second book on the cards Paula?

I also loved how Paula ended her book, with a letter to her son. I think having children in itself is such a healing experience, irrespective of how one comes to be a parent. It gives us insight into our relationships with our own parents and understanding of the how’s and why’s of the choices they made as parents to us. Having a child, being a mom or a dad changes ones perspectives on life, it’s only once you’ve had a child that you can realize the depth and breadth of that undying love, that self sacrificing love for your child. 

This is in my opinion, a must read for all involved in the adoption process, as well as adoptive parents, adoptee’s and birth parents. One of the things I’ve often blogged about is how we went into our adoption journey blind to what the future may hold. We just wanted a child. It was only as our babies started growing up, into little people with thoughts, opinions and feelings all of their own that we began to get an inkling that there is a deep seated hurt, a primal wound, that would result in additional challenges in raising them. A hurt that we may not be able to fix just by loving them. 

While adoption has changed much since the 1970″s, I feel this primal wound is the one area that adoption professionals still do not give enough air time or acknowledgement to. While so much is focused, in terms of birth parents and adoptive parents, on the relevant screening, matching and legalities, very little attention, if at all, is given to adoptive parents to help inform and arm them for the challenges they could face once their child becomes a teen and starts to struggle with identity, sense of self and the importance of genetic mirroring in that journey to well adjusted, self accepting adults. Paula’s book could/should play a key roll in helping all of us understand that process.

I give this book a solid 5 star rating as it was hugely insightful for me as an adoptive mother! And I’d encourage anyone who is involved in adoption in anyway, or forms part of the adoption triad in anyway, to read it, whether you be a birth parent, an adoptive parent or an adoptee.

You can buy your Kindle copy of the book here:


Or, if you don’t have a Kindle, find out where you can buy your book here: https://paulagruben.com/buythebook/