Not flesh of my flesh nor bone of my bone, but still, miraculously, my own.
These are words inscribed on a wooden plaque that hung above my bed as a child that would go on to frame the first 39 years of my life. They are words that absolutely resonate with my adopted mom. For me, I think I have been more like a chimp trained to use sign language — Do they really understand what they are conveying or are they simply repeating something familiar in the hopes that it one day finally connects them to the rest of the world in an authentic way? I have been really good at repeating these familiar phrases: “I know who my real family is.” “I don’t even care if I ever meet my biological dad.” “I met my mom once, but you know, that’s all I needed.”
“I’m so lucky.”
And I am lucky. The more I learn about my biological family, the more I know I got the best fighting chance at a fulfilled and healthy life. The more I learn about my genetic predispositions, the more I am grateful that the nurture part of the nature/nurture dichotomy was what it was for me. My adopted family is the most authentic family I will ever know because they helped shape me into the person I’ve grown to be. And they probably rescued me from a life I would not even recognize today.
But there is more to my story. There is a part I was never permitted to tell — not because my parents would not allow it. Not because any one person was refusing to let me speak. It’s because the collective narrative surrounding adoption has been so one-sided for so long. It is always presented as this magical thing that happens where families who desperately want a child but cannot have one for some reason or another finally get to participate in the coveted role of parenting thanks to birth moms who are making the ultimate sacrifice. Ironically, the person conspicuously missing from this story is the adopted child. Or rather, the adopted child’s perspective is missing, traded in for an imposed narrative about how they should feel so blessed and happy and whole and wonderful about their origins.
That is simply not who I am. I am not whole. I do not know my origins. Yes, I have had a wonderful life so far and I am thankful. There is nothing I would trade in the world for the love I’ve been given by my adopted family. But my story is not about a trade-off. I’m not seeking a new family or a new life. I’m trying to find myself — the rest of me. The part of me that so many of you non-adoptees take for granted. You know your birth story, or at least parts of it. You might even know your conception story. You know your family’s history of illness, their struggles with mental health, their longevity. You know at least something about your ancestral links to the distant past and to the countries from which your families migrated. Until now, except for a few fragments I have procured, all of that has been absent from the story of me. I don’t even know what went on in the first six weeks of my life (read more about that here). And until the day I finally saw my biological dad’s face, I didn’t understand what Nancy Verrier meant when she said, in her book, “Coming Home to Self”, that adopted children are constantly searching for their authentic selves, “after living without seeing themselves reflected back all their lives.”
I saw his face, finally, after 39 years, and I just knew.
All the searching and saving of random pictures from yearbooks of people named Andy or Andrew that looked maybe a little bit like me, but nothing quite fit. All the scouring of birth records that led nowhere since my original record is sealed and cannot be obtained without some serious legal action. All the times I tried to reach out to my birth mother, but was stymied because her life has been one heartbreak after another, and she doesn’t even appear to have a stable phone number or address. Even though I met her long ago, I don’t recall this feeling I had when I saw my dad’s picture. It was like all the wrong turns and roadblocks and misguided inferences finally resolved themselves as I saw his blue eyes looking toward me with the same melancholy and world-weary heaviness I try to bury deep in my gut when I utter those aped phrases. The professional philosopher in me had to step aside for a minute and let the feeling wash over me.
Intuitive. Non-theoretical. But knowledge all the same.
And then I sobbed. Uncontrollably. Off and on for a week.
As more information has poured in, I have been filled simultaneously with joy and sadness, relief and anxiety. There is too much to recount here right now and I’m still processing it all. I haven’t met him yet — I’ve just seen pictures. And I don’t know if I will meet him, though deep inside I think I know I must. There is a lot a I am still unsure about, but one of the things I finally understand is how thankful I truly am — not just for my adopted family — I’ve been saying how thankful I am for them my whole life. I am profoundly grateful that I will not have to live the rest of my life in darkness about this other half of my story. Or, as Denise Clemen talks about it in her most recent article:
“The children who find themselves in foster care and the infants who are procured for adoption from mothers who feel they have no other option did not fall to Earth unscathed and waiting to be chosen. They have suffered life’s most profound and enduring tragedy. They have lost their mothers, their fathers, and the entire circle of family that should hold them most precious. In many cases these ties are permanently severed, not out of necessity, but out of custom. Genetic and cultural histories are lost. Forests of family trees are clear cut, the terrain unrecoverable.”
I don’t have to be one of those lost children any longer. I have found all sorts of extended biological family and they are telling me stories. I am learning about my origins. I am becoming whole. And I am telling my story in its entirety finally.
As I’ve started to recount this other side of me, it’s been met with a lot of support, most especially from my adopted parents. They are 100% here for my journey and that means more to me than I could ever fully express. But I’ve also received a lot of ‘be careful’ and ‘be thankful’ types of replies. And I get it. These responses are coming from a place of good intention, much like when people ask me when my baby is due, even though I’m not pregnant, because there is still a pooch leftover from my two children. They mean no harm. But intention and impact are not the same. And it’s harmful to ask a woman if she’s pregnant when she’s not, ESPECIALLY if she is acutely aware of how she looks, has struggled with body image her whole life, and plans to get surgery to correct the condition. It’s harmful to tell an adopted person to just be thankful when they are ABSOLUTELY thankful every damn day, but are living with a gaping hole, a ‘primal wound’ as Verrier describes it.
“I am thankful and I hope YOU are too. You will never know how hard I’ve searched for what you have always had. I sure hope you appreciate it.”
When my son was born, I started an email account for him and I’ve done the same for my daughter. I write them both emails periodically — funny little stories about things they said or did, more serious musings about my role as their mom, insecurities about being a good parent, and so on, and most importantly, their birth stories. The plan is to give them access to these accounts when they are old enough to appreciate it. My son, whether he wants to know all the details or not, has a record of my 50-hour labor with him at home, with no drugs, that ended in an emergency C-section 10 hours after that. What I wouldn’t have given to have known my own birth story before I went into my first labor. You can read all the books and think about it nonstop, but nothing prepares you for it and it is as individual an experience as falling in love. Nevertheless, I would have loved to talk to my birth mom about it, just to know what it was like for her. My adopted mom was with me the whole time as I labored. I knew it meant a lot for her to be there, but I also felt sadness for her. She has never had a biological child and does not have the firsthand knowledge of what that’s like. I am ‘miraculously her own’, but that doesn’t mean she has never experienced sadness and heartache over the missed chance to participate in this biological ritual. The good in life does not cancel out the bad, nor vice versa. That’s not how it works. I know for a fact it is something she wanted to experience in life, but eventually she had to let go of it. In its place, she got me, and my adopted brother, and she will always view that as a blessing. (I’m a little less convinced I am a blessing, but I digress). I am ‘her own’ but I am also my own person and I want my kids to know about all of me, not just the contrived happy me. They will know all of it — the emptiness, sadness, and despair, along with this moment, where I finally started getting answers — and they will never have to wonder about where they came from.
The full poem that hung above my bed as a child was:
Not flesh of my flesh nor bone of my bone, but still, miraculously, my own. Never forget for a single minute, you did not grow under my heart, but in it.
I will never forget how I grew in the hearts of those who have loved me since November 7, when I was adopted. But I will no longer let those memories cloud my vision, allowing me to forget that there was also a heart I grew under. There is a story — not just about how I was shaped — but how I was made. There are people connected to me physically and they matter to me too because they are part of me. And I found one of the key figures in my story.
And I stared at his eyes.
And I finally saw myself staring back.