Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mrs. S. Was Adopted?

My adoptive parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, and the party was the first time that many family members and friends of the family met Ashley. Her addition to our family was a natural topic of conversation, so it's not surprising that I found myself talking about adoption with one of my mother's longtime friends. The part that was surprising to me was learning that this woman was herself adopted.

How could I not have known this? I've known this person for as long as I can remember. Her son is close to me in age, and our mothers got together weekly for coffee when we were toddlers. I was often in her house, and vise versa. She strained the pulp out of my orange juice because I was too picky to drink it otherwise. Her boisterous laugh kept me awake on the nights when "the bridge group" met at our house. Later, in my middle-school years, our two families went on ski vacations together. She's adopted. I'm adopted. But never, in all those years, had we ever had a conversation about that.

I would have loved to have had that information about her earlier. I would have felt a special kinship with her. I knew so few people who were adopted when I was growing up. In fact, I can only think of two other kids in my town who were known to be adopted, and they were considered to be somewhat bad examples because they "gave their parents a lot of trouble." (I had heard it whispered that their bad behavior might have had something to do with adoption; I didn't want to associate myself with those adoptees.)

But Mrs. S! Mrs. S. was adopted? Why didn't anybody ever tell me this?

I don't even know if she even knew that I was adopted; most people in town didn't. We moved to town when I was about a year old and I look enough like my adoptive family to "pass" for biological. My parents told me that I was adopted from the earliest age but preferred not to talk about it publicly. "It's not something that people really need to know," my mother would say. "You're no different from children who were born into their families. We love you just as much." It sounds lovely and child-centered put that way, and she really did have good intentions, but she also never asked me how I felt about the matter. And, of course, the unspoken flip-side to the coin was "I'm no different from other mothers and don't want to be singled out as such." The unofficial family policy was as follows: we don't hide it; there's nothing to be ashamed of ... but we also don't bring the matter up.

And if a code of silence was the norm in my day, it was even more so when Mrs. S. was growing up. Did my mom even know that one of her closest friends was adopted? It's very possible that she didn't. If we in my family didn't talk about adoption, it's likely that Mrs. S. didn't either. It just wasn't something people talked about much in those days. Adoption was considered to be a private, family matter; it wasn't anyone else's business.

But however it came to pass, there we were, the two of us, standing in the middle of the banquet hall as the party swirled around us, completely wrapped up in our conversation, sharing our experiences and nodding in recognition as the other spoke. "Even my husband doesn't really understand," she said. "He doesn't get that I respond to so many things differently because of this."

In Adoption Nation Adam Pertman writes the following (and yes, I do in fact plan on quoting him every other post):
At a dinner party with a half-dozen friends, I once offhandedly cited a well-known statistic among researchers -- that only about 1 percent of American women relinquish their babies for adoption today, a precipitous drop from a few decades ago -- to which one woman at the table responded: "Are you sure it isn't much higher? Just about everyone I know with children adopted them."
Pertman's statistic refers to domestic adoptions and the woman who responds is almost certainly taking into account international adoptions, but the point he is trying to make -- that adoption is currently very visible in our culture --  is a valid one.

Ashley's experience of growing up adopted is very different from my own. Adoption is all around her. Each of my daughters has two friends that they consider to have "best friend" status, and in each of the pairs, one of the two is adopted. And they know of other adopted classmates as well. Adoption is very visible in their school, in our church, and in our home. And of course, all of these kids know that I am adopted; for them, there will be no big discovery moment about this years down the road. It's not something we have big discussions about, but they know.

Adoption doesn't define Ashley, and I certainly don't go around introducing her as "my adopted daughter," but there is a light that shines on adoption that was absent in my growing-up years. Other adoptees may have a different reaction to this, but in my case, the dominant emotion is one of relief. I'm glad to be out of the shadows.

And my adoptive mom? She has come out of the shadows, too. On a recent visit home I went with her and a couple of her friends to visit an art museum in another part of our state. One of these friends is an adult adoptee who was in the process of searching for her biological family, and she already knew, because my mom had told her, about my adoption and reunion. On the long drive to the museum the four of us chatted extensively, and comfortably, about adoption, reunion, and our understanding of the ties that bond the adoptee to both families. It's a good memory for me; I felt happy and connected to my adoptive mom ... more fully present in our relationship because I was no longer expected to hide parts of myself.

Participating in the online adoption community is another way that I now stand in the light. So I'll end this post with a shout-out to the many members of the triad that I have "met" online in the months since starting this blog. I'm a lot less lonely in my adoption status than I was as a child, and I'm thankful for the work that is being done by so many of you to bring all aspects of the adoption experience into the light.


  1. People really didn't talk about anything back then did they? I too knew a few people who were adopted but like you it was more of a whisper and said to be the cause of whatever problem they were going through. I could see how the way you were brought up would be confusing, the we are okay with this, but don't go out of your way to share it, was a popular parenting philosophy in my home as well on a variety of topics. Thanks for a great post as always!

  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head exactly, Kathy. The whole culture has shifted toward more openness in lots of areas and adoption is a part of this. "Diversity" is a word that is now celebrated, but when we were growing up we were all very busy trying to be the same. It quite exhausting.

  3. We are on the same page! The day before I wrote that post I found myself in yet another random ,"you are adopted?!" conversation. Adoption truly is everywhere and I hope we can keep encouraging the dialogue both on the Internet and beyond!

  4. Once again I see just how different my folks were from others in that era - adoption was an open subject regardless of who was present...the good, the bad, and the in-between. Everyone knew and just treated it as normal - perhaps they did because of who mom and dad were in the community which is a distinct possibilty. Also perhaps why I am vocal on the issue in adoption - it has always been part of the conversation in my life. If you hide the bad stuff you allow it to continue. If you bring it to light then it has no place to hide and changes have to take place.

  5. Barbara Jean WalshJanuary 21, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    And then from the other side of the looking glass, I remember all those years when I couldn't say, "I'm a mother, too!" Not to mention how hard it was to get my own mother to admit she had three grandchildren, not two, even after you & I finally reunited and were very public with the story.

  6. Well, of course, you were supposed to forget and move on. (Shockingly, it turns out many first moms failed to do this!)
    Your mother was another story. That's a blog post for another day!