Saturday, January 31, 2015

I AM adopted

I am an introvert by nature, and as a blogger I am also an oversharer. It's interesting to be the kind of person who would rather write something personal for potentially hundreds of people --- many of whom I don't know ---- to read on the internet than to actually pick up the phone and call someone I really love and tell them something I truly want them to know. I wrote about it a while ago here. It sort of amuses me in theory but in practice it’s pretty damn uncomfortable and I know I end up alienating people because a lot of the time I squirm at the thought of having a heart-to-heart. I read in a book about introverts that this is not uncommon behavior but I still think it’s weird and ultimately, it sucks. I never felt that close to any one person in my whole life but I always wanted to be. I wanted to have a best friend I was inseparable from, the kind I could tell everything to, or a twin sister who spoke the same secret language I did. I wanted to find my people, the ones I could kythe with like Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace in the Madeleine L'Engle books I treasured as a kid. When I was little my friends and I would talk about how we’d be best friends forever, go to the same college, be in each others’ weddings and be aunts to each others’ kids. I still want that super close sister like the Braverman siblings on Parenthood or a bestie who lives down the hall from me. But then I would have to TALK to them all the time, wouldn't I? 

One of the things I have written a lot about is my adoption. I talk a lot about it too, now that I am comfortable with it. I wasn’t always; I was raised to think of adoption as a private family matter. And in some ways it is. When I was a child I suppose talking about my adoption would have raised more questions about my parents than it did me. People should know better than to ask others about their fertility and conception issues but they do anyway. When it comes to questions about how I ended up surrendered at birth and becoming a part of my family, those are not mine to answer here; how my parents came to be my parents is not my story to tell. But as an adult adoptee, I don't necessarily agree with adoption being a private family matter anymore because it is a huge part of my identity as a human being, as a daughter and now also as a mother.
I remember once reading in a book about adoption that there is a difference between saying “I was adopted” and “I am adopted.” The book advocated for use of the former because, the author said, it identified the adoption as a singular event. Using the latter instead made adoption part of one’s identity. At the time I bought into that and I still say most of the time that “I was adopted as a baby.” But the truth is that I am adopted. Adoption is not an isolated, singular incident. It’s something I am every single day. I recently read this article and was surprised to see so much of my secret self in this woman’s words. Many adoptees live with a pain that other people can’t understand. As an adult, sharing and writing about my experiences helps me to heal.
Though I was able to "pass" when I was growing up, the truth is that I don't look like my parents at all and I don't act like them either. When I was growing up, we struggled hard to understand each other. It was not easy. I love my mother and father very, very much. They are my parents. I get defensive of them when well-intentioned people ask me if I know my “real” parents; of course I do. And as I get older I appreciate my mom and dad more and more and have a great deal of respect for their journey as parents. Best of all, we have a better relationship now than we ever did. But it wasn’t easy for any of us for a long, long time.
My parents may not have wanted to talk about adoption, but they were always as open with me about it and answered my questions as best they could. They told me that the adoption agency said that honesty and openness was the best way to approach things, and they took that to heart. So there was no finding papers hidden away in a drawer, no hushed conversation I accidentally overheard. I always knew that I was adopted, and I always knew everything they knew. Unfortunately, they knew very little, because my adoption, like most in New York in the 1970s, was completely closed. So really, there wasn't a whole lot to talk about. And that suited them – and me – for a long time.

Even though I have internalized and still grapple with the concept of my adoption being a private family matter, I have written publicly here and here and elsewhere about my experience as an adoptee, especially after my birth mother died three and a half years ago. The love I have for her is unique for me. Hugging her was unlike hugging anyone else in the world. She smelled familiar in a way no one else has. I felt like I fit into her arms in a way I’ve never fit anywhere else in the whole world. It blew my mind that I was developing a relationship with the person I grew inside of, the person who birthed me, saw me, held me before anyone else ever did. She became special to me in a way that was totally separate and apart from the way in which my adoptive mother -- or anyone else -- is special to me, and I was absolutely devastated when she died. 
I am used to a standard set of nosy questions about finding my "real" mother, what I knew, how I felt, my search and so on. I don’t mind the questions. I am so happy that it is commonplace nowadays for families to come in all different configurations and I teach my children that adoption is just another way that parents and children are brought together. My girls know that parents can be of any gender or sexual orientation and that children come into the world and into their families in many different ways. I want to normalize adoption for them because I want adoption to be normal. I want people not to shy away from the tough stuff about adoption. I want them to know that it's hard even when you love your parents, even when you look enough like them that you can "pass." I want them to know what I once heard: that adoption is like grafting a tree. It's uprooting. And it requires a lot of love and work to take. It's a big fucking deal and people who are part of the adoption triad as birth parent, adoptee or adoptive parent carry adoption with them long after the actual event and it’s a part of who they are.
Contrary to the way I was raised, my birth mother encouraged me to talk about my adoption. In fact, the day she and I met for the first time in person at a restaurant we both loved, she told every single person at the restaurant that I was the daughter she gave up 26 years before. She told the maitre d', the waitstaff, the other diners, anyone who would listen. She couldn't stop hugging me and asking them if they thought we looked alike. I was shocked -- and I loved it. She was so open. I wanted to be like her. I was like her. For the first time in my life, there was someone in the world that I was related to.  

Growing up, I didn't know that many domestic adoptees of my generation but those I did know were a lot like me: adopted within the same race and even religion, able to "pass" with their families, all records sealed. Some of them searched, but always for their birth mother. Just like me. Of all the wackadoo questions I was asked, very few people asked me about my birth father. If they had, I wouldn't have had much to say. Until this year, that is.
If my parents knew next to nothing about my birth mother, they knew absolutely nothing about my birth father. When I was 18, I wrote to the adoption agency to ask for my "non-identifying information," which was basically the only thing New York adoptees could legally do to satisfy their curiosity about where they came from. This was supposed to be enough but it wasn’t. How could it be? In the letter, I learned very little about my birth father; it seemed that my birth mother wanted it that way. I read that she refused to give the adoption agency any information about him at all. I didn't know why, but that was enough for me to put him -- and her -- out of my mind for another eight years.

When I was in my mid-twenties, someone told me that adoptees discover something critical about themselves when they reconnect with their birth mothers. This person, an adoptee himself and a former adoption counselor, explained that adoptees often grown up feeling somewhat lost.They're born and then immediately abandoned, after all. Maybe they lack a sense of true belonging. Maybe their identities are somewhat splintered. Maybe it's such a deeply subconscious feeling that they can't ever name it, but they know that something is just... off. He said that when they meet their birth mothers it's like fitting that last piece into the puzzle. And I believed him. But he never said anything about adoptees and their birth fathers and I never thought to ask.
I had never thought seriously about searching for either of them before that conversation. My birth father I’d written off as nothing more than a sperm donor. If my birth mother didn’t want him involved then I didn’t either. I fantasized about seeing my birth mother through a glass window, recognizing my face in hers, seeing her move from afar. In my mind, we never spoke. And yet, we made our ways back to each other and it was easier than I think either of us ever expected.  Some people hear the story and say I found her and others hear it and say she found me. Maybe someday I will write more about how it all happened. One way or another, we found each other and after a decade of trying to figure out who we were to each other, I had a baby and suddenly, she was Grandma and we became very close.
The relationship was and had always been, however, more or less on her terms. She was amazingly generous with me at times, and was the best and most thoughtful gift-giver I ever met. She drove hundreds of miles on a regular basis to spend just a few hours with me. She gave me books when she finished them because they made her think of me. She bought me cookbooks she thought I might like and we made the recipes together. She took me to museums, restaurants and shows she knew I would love. She was always willing to try new things, visit new places and have new experiences with me. She called me regularly no matter where on the planet I was living and no matter what our relationship was like at the time. And I loved her for all of that and more. But there were a couple of things she refused to do.

One of those things was to connect me with my birth father. When we first met, she gave me her high school yearbook and showed me his pictures. She told me everything she could remember about him. She answered every question I had and when I asked the inevitable one about whether she was going to tell him we were in touch, she grew vague and distant. Let’s think about that, she said. If you want to meet him, tell me. I am not sure I know how to find him, but let’s talk more when it’s important to you. I want to be the one to connect you, but not now. I was unsure and afraid, so I tucked that away. I figured we had plenty of time, and I didn’t think I could handle another reunion like that just yet. And what if it was worse? What if he didn’t want to hear from me? So I didn’t push. And then, decades too soon, she was gone.

A little more than a year ago, I got a call from a childhood friend of my birth mother’s. She left me a very cryptic voicemail in which she mentioned my birth father by name, saying she’d had a conversation with him that she wanted to fill me in on. It took three or four agonizing days of phone tag for me to catch up with her. When I did, she explained that she was not only a childhood friend and classmate of my birth mother’s, but also my father’s, and that year their high school class was holding their 40th reunion. There he learned for the first time of my birth mother’s passing and that she and I had been in touch. He wanted to meet me; did I want to meet him? I was excited but afraid. I said I didn’t want to be the one to reach out first, so I gave her my contact information to pass on to him. And when I checked my email the next morning, there was a letter from my birth father in my inbox.

Maybe it’s that I’m older. Maybe it’s that I’ve been through this before. Maybe it’s that I have a better relationship with my parents now than I did in 1999, or maybe it’s that I have children of my own and have less to lose. Maybe it’s that I’ve had years of therapy about adoption, or maybe it’s that he lives 3000 miles away so I don't feel a ton of pressure. Maybe it’s a little of all of that, and maybe it’s that what little of me is easygoing and direct is the part I get from my birth father. Our connection worked right away. 

With him I feel like myself. It’s easy to be with him. He’s funny, kind, generous, emotional.  He cares deeply for me and always has, it seems. I liked him immediately, and couldn’t help but see myself in his face, in his behavior. I thought for so many years that I was my birth mother’s doppelganger and perhaps I am, but I am also clearly this man’s child as well, not only in looks but in personality, in spirit. We met exactly a year ago and we grew close quickly; I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. And in some ways, I guess I have.

It is amazing to me how much of me comes from two human beings I never knew growing up and who, apart from an intense and magical teenage romance, really didn’t know each other either. It’s almost scary. I have flip-flopped considerably when it comes to where I stand on nature vs. nurture, being staunchly pro-nurture as a young person, probably because I hadn’t yet seen any evidence of nature in my life at that point. Then I was essentially agnostic for years, since I felt alienated from my adoptive parents and everyone else. Nature and nurture could suck it, I thought then. I was very isolated. That’s when I started reading books on adoption and learned that many other adoptees felt as I did: lost and alone. Meeting my biological mother was eerie in some ways and made a naturist out of me. Watching her move, listening to her voice, just looking into her face often felt like looking into a mirror. We barely knew each other and yet we could finish each others' sentences. Even when we struggled it was like I was fighting with myself, and I found myself trying to remember all that I had read in philosophy class about predestination because it almost seemed pointless at times to try as hard as I was to pursue a life of my own when I was this much like this other human being. The difficulties we had I believe had less to do with us not understanding each other or being dissimilar and way more to do with how alike we were, both adoptees, both such strong personalities, both so afraid of losing one another, of losing in general. I clung to her as if knowing her gave my life meaning, and in some ways I guess it did.

It’s true that meeting a birth parent is an eye opening experience. Finding your face in the face of another human being you’ve never seen before is indescribable. Then there are phases to reconnection that go beyond the initial reunion. There’s the “coming out” stage, which happily I was spared. I was very touched to learn that both my biological parents had been open about my existence to their families just as my parents had been open about my adoption to me, so there were no secrets to be revealed on either side. Then, introduction. There was the meeting of spouses and half-siblings. Siblings! I am an only child and somehow, I also have four siblings, and two nephews and a niece! I suddenly have huge extended families and lots of people who knew my parents who now also want to know me. It’s all so beautiful and strange and sometimes it’s overwhelming. If it’s hard for a biological parent and child to reconnect later in life and sustain that connection, think about how many times harder it is for the biological parent’s family to sustain a relationship with her biological child long after her death. That’s one we are still working through. There’s no instruction manual there, and we’re all just figuring it out as we go.

I felt deprived of family for so many years and now I sometimes catch myself feeling guilty for having three times as much family now as most people ever do. I find it laborious and, frankly, like TMI to always to have to say “my birth father” so sometimes I just say “my father” and then I feel a wave of shame. What about my adoptive father, the man I still at the age of 42 call "Daddy" like the Daddy’s girl I have always been? How would he feel if he heard me call someone else my father, even if that man really is also my father? But don’t I, an adoptee, really truly have two dads and two moms? I do, and still I feel like I am saying something wrong or that someone’s feelings will be hurt. Oy, some days it makes my head spin. This last and longest phase is assimilation. What am I to these people? What are they to me? Are these people my family? What is family, really? And what if there aren’t words in the English language to accurately describe this experience and the feelings I feel? That this is still something I think about is why I choose to say that I am adopted instead of saying that I was adopted. It was more than a hand-off, more than a signature on a form, more than a heartbroken teenage girl walking away from her baby and more than a baby coming into the lives of a couple who had been waiting for years. It’s still my story.

 Maybe it is a story I need to write someday, so I can create the words and tell people what it’s like, but not today. Because the rest has yet to unfold. I don’t know what will happen and for today it doesn’t matter. I tell myself the more people there are in the world who love and support my children and me in whatever way they can, the better. We are all still learning each other, and with every interaction I also get to learn more about myself. How could that be a bad thing? 


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is so nuanced and complex. I am coming from the other side of adoption; I am an adoptive parent through foster care. My daughter was removed from the bio family home at only 3 months old, so she will not recall the circumstances. She is only 3 1/2 now. I try to share with her, age-appropriately, that she was adopted, that there are lots of ways to make a family...all of the concepts that you share with your children. I wonder how her feelings and experiences will differ, being an adoptee through foster care, than your experiences as a domestic infant adoptee. I wonder if she will want to find her birth parents. I am maintaining a relationship with her bio maternal grandmother, and through her my daughter's one full and one half sibling, but her bio parents are barred from contact until she is 18. How can I answer why she was removed from their home? I don't want to demonize her bio parents, but I do want to protect her. I try to show her how life is about choices, and we strive to make good ones, but we can always try again. I'm concerned that the nature vs nurture question and the idea of predestination could make her think that she has to follow the same path as her bio parents. So many questions, and only time will tell. Thanks again for sharing your experiences; it gives me so many things to think about as an adoptive parent in the hope that I can guide my girl as well as possible.

    1. What a beautiful comment. And what a beautiful family you are! No matter what happens for you and your daughter as she gets older, I can tell that you will love and support her through every step like you already are. She's a lucky girl!!


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