My adoption is about everyone but me. Or so it seems most days. I can hardly tweet, write about, or discuss it without someone having an opinion that centres them in the narrative. This doesn’t surprise me. In the context of adoption, babies are the merchandise. It’s society, the legal system, and the adults involved in the transaction who have a voice. Some have more agency than others, but ultimately, the baby is neglected.
And adoptees are babies in perpetuity. The legal system has seen to that. Our files, original birth certificates, the identities of our parents and their extended families, our heritage, and really the foundation of our identities are walled off from us. Largely because there is no room in the adoption scenario for an adoptee, who will one day be an adult. Even now, as I steadily approach my sixth decade, I am viewed as “the baby” when it comes to my adoption. My opinions, and even my lived experience, is dismissed because I am forever a baby in the eyes of the adoption industry and its proponents.
My adoptive parents, and though generally I refer to all my parents as “parents” without distinguishing them, so I will add the descriptors of “adoptive” and “natural” for the purpose of clarity, were not the worst parents. When I think about the era in which I grew up, the 1960s and 70s, and recall the parents in my extended family, those of neighbour kids and school friends, my adoptive parents were more or less typical. They were Silent Generation, who reached their near adulthood under the shadow of WWII. Adopted Dad joined the Navy as soon as he graduated from high school and caught the tail end of the war like many of his peers. Adopted Mom grew up, as he did, on a farm and in a big family. They had expectations that were typical of the time. Marriage. Suburbs. Kids. Hanging out with family and friends on the weekends. Basically your American Dream life stuff. They were not expecting infertility to upend what everyone took for granted.
To say that neither of my adoptive parents dealt with the trauma and grief of infertility would be vastly understating things. For my adoptive mom, adopting me and later my three siblings, allowed her to paper over the pain. She wasn’t really cut out for mothering a hoard of small people. At one point there were three of us under the age of four. It was overwhelming, lonely, and she really had enjoyed working outside the home, which the adoption agency forbid if they wanted to be eligible to adopt. Stay at home moms only was one of the Catholic Charities criteria of the time. I have always thought that had they just adopted me, she might have been okay, but adoption did nothing for my adoptive dad.
My adoptive dad’s upbringing was literally dirt poor. They were the poor relations. Tenant farmers as a result of a bank failure in the early 1920’s, and my adoptive Grandad’s being saddled with a very elderly father and having to support his three younger sisters. There was never much money, and the family eventually ended up living with my adoptive Grandmother’s father and farming his land. Dad came back from the Navy to a household in turmoil and immediately was handed the financial responsibilities in a way that his own father must of recognized from his own life. Consequently, he didn’t seriously date until he met Mom about eight years later. He just didn’t have the time or the resources to think about a life of his own.
It had to have been a huge disappointment, and then a life-altering shock, when they couldn’t get pregnant and then couldn’t stay pregnant when it manage to happen that one “magical” time my adoptive mom still talks about. All around them, family and friends were adding babies to the landscape, and they just couldn’t.
I have been through infertility myself, and let me just that as an adoptee, it’s quite the mind-fuck, so I have more than just passing sympathy for what my adoptive parents must have gone through. But in no way was I the preferred solution. And I know this because it took them seven long years of disappointment before my adoption finally made them parents. Had they struck baby at any point during that time, I would be somewhere else right now. As much as I was “chosen” I was never the one they wanted.
My adoptive father always blamed Mom for denying him biological children. As I told my natural father in my first email to him, my adoptive dad really never understood any of his children. It puzzled, disappointed, and even hurt him, that despite all his efforts to mould us to be more like him, we were all stubbornly the children of someone else.
The fact that we didn’t look like he or Mom ate at him. Not knowing what my natural parents looked like, he was convinced I was too fat from an early age and not near feminine enough. Consequently, there were many snide comments and allowing everyone from my pediatrician to our crackpot next door neighbour to put me on diets well before I even hit junior high. I was not smart enough because I had a learning disability that made math extremely difficult for me while it was like breathing to him. I was a effortlessly natural athlete, but I had no competitive drive, which made him insane. Unlike my younger adoptive brother, who rebelled wildly against them almost from birth, I was more subtle, and I won far more of my battles with my adoptive father than he would’ve ever admitted, and this angered him too.
This is not to say he didn’t love me. He did. It was one of those “in his own ways” sort of thing, but he did. He lived in terror of our natural parents coming back for us. In the summer, Mom would leave our bedroom windows cracked to let in air and he would sneak in during the night, close and lock them. Mom would find us in the morning, dripping with sweat, and was outraged he’d do this to us, but Dad persisted because he was sure if the windows weren’t locked, we would be stolen.
He had his moments when he really stepped up for us. Though many of them were reactions to outside forces. And at the end of his life, I think, he’d found some measure of peace with the fact that he’d raised other people’s children. It was likely his grandchildren that brought him to that place because he loved them to pieces in a way that was far more genuine and open than he’d ever been with us.
I haven’t forgiven him like I have my adoptive mother. He was the one who didn’t want to tell us we were adopted. That was one of her rare defiance, which was probably the best parenting move she ever made. He was the one who destroyed all of our identifying information because “they don’t need to know”. This included original birth certificates, adoption files and decrees, and any medical or family information that might have been available. Frankly, he deserves no forgiveness for this. The man had a memory like an elephant. He knew and deliberately kept everything from us. In fact, they both knew the name of my natural mother from the day they got me, and they both lied to my face about until I confronted my adoptive mom after doing an DNA test, and she finally confessed. Six years after my natural mom had died. And yes, I am still way salty.
It’s hard for me to say I don’t have an attachment to my adoptive parents because of course, I do. And I do love them. Though what choice does an adopted child really have in that regard? It’s not like we had any say or any opportunity to choose our own destiny. But I feel the loss of my natural parents keenly and probably more so now that I know who they are and what I lost when cultural norms robbed me of them.
My adoptive parents did not see themselves as saviours. Though I know many adoptive parents do because it helps them justify helping themselves to someone else’s child. Mom and Dad just wanted children like everyone else they knew. It was really always that simple for them in a situation that was always to complex for them to have even navigated on their own.
But at the end of the day, do I wish my natural mother had been given the assistance she needed to keep me? Yes, I do. I will never be okay with the fact she was forced to give me to strangers.