Family. Most people are born into a family and don’t think much about it. As the adage goes, “You can’t live with ’em, and you can’t live without ’em.” I’ve known many families who truly seem to enjoy being with each other. My in-laws are such a family. They have a great time when they gather. There’s a lot of laughing and teasing, and it’s a lot of fun to be around them. I’ve known other families where it’s not like that at all. The house crackles with tension when they’re together, waiting for some explosion to happen in the form of an outburst or argument.
My own family growing up was a happy one – or at least I remember it that way. We were four kids growing up with a mom and dad where my dad worked and my mom stayed at home with us. I didn’t say, “We were four kids born to…” because we weren’t. We three oldest were all adopted when my parents realized they probably weren’t going to have any children of their own. I was adopted at six weeks, and was about a year and a half old when we adopted my middle sister, so I don’t remember much of her arrival. I was probably four or five when we adopted my brother. I do remember going to pick him up. The nuns who cared for the children there sent him to his new home with a giant teddy bear, a big plastic bag of toy soldiers and assorted other toys. I promptly confiscated the soldiers, plopped down in the teddy bear’s lap and told my parents we could send him back now.
As often seems to happen, once my parents accepted that they weren’t going to be able to have children, my mom got pregnant, and my youngest sister was born on my seventh birthday. I thought that was pretty cool… for a while. I got over it. (Just kidding) Really, it was fun sharing birthdays. She and I have been very close all our lives.
I was born in an era when adoption was a dirty little secret for many people, as was being unwed and pregnant. Most couples didn’t disclose that their baby was adopted, and girls who had gotten themselves into “trouble” were taken in by various charity homes until they had their babies. I was supposed to be matched up complexion-wise to be brown-eyed and brown-haired like my parents, but… I popped out with red hair and blue eyes. Our parents always told us, from the time we were tiny, that we had been adopted, and they made us feel special about it. In fact, I used to tease my baby sister all the time that mom and dad got to choose us, but they had to take her. (She still insists she was a miracle, but that’s a whole other blog post…)
I know that many adoptees, especially those generally my age (let’s just say 40-60 and leave it at that), came from a system of sealed adoption records with no way of knowing their biological origins. For some adoptees, that unknown torments them with many questions: “why was I given away?” or “who were my real parents?” or “do I have other family out there?
Those questions, that search for family or, more importantly, the search for the meaning of family, is the central theme of my newest novel, Year of the Monsoon.
I used bits of my past in making up Leisa, my main character in that story. Like her, I was supposed to have been given up for adoption as soon as I was born. My biological mother apparently changed her mind. For those first six weeks of my life, I had a different name. I was told she really struggled with making the right decision. I have a hand-written note from her detailing how I liked to be fed and my sleeping patterns. I think – I hope – that there was love in that note. I treasure that connection to her, but I have never searched for her.
If I was accurately told what age she was when I was born, then she should be in her late 70s by now. I know, statistically, if I don’t search for her soon, my chances of finding her alive are getting slimmer.
I’ve never been tormented by the “why” and the “who am I” kind of questions. I am myself. I was raised by two wonderful people who are both gone now. I have a big extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins whom I don’t get to see often enough, but I know they’re out there.
When I was in school, I wrote a paper on the pros and cons of unsealing adoption records. My mother said she would understand if I ever wanted to look for my biological mother, but my dad was defensive about it. I think the prospect scared him. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now.
I guess if I did ever get to meet my biological mother, the main thing I would want to say to her is, “Thank you.” For loving me enough to make the right decision and give me to people who were ready to raise a child. For giving me a better chance in life than she probably could have given me.
For others of you out there who are adopted or maybe have adopted children, there are no easy answers to these questions. The need to find those answers is a very individual thing. I can only relate my experience. I can tell you that simple honesty takes care of a good many of the questions.
The concept of family is such a varied, morphing thing. For LGBT people, the concept often takes on a different meaning. So many have been disowned by their biological families that they have no choice but to put together a new one. If we choose to have children, we have to think about how we’re going to make that happen. My partner and I have friends here who are our family, and they are included any time we get together with my sister and her husband and kids. We’ve put together an eclectic family. It’s kind of weird sometimes, but it works. (My partner does remark jokingly that she is glad I’m not biologically related to my family.)
So, here’s to family – big, little, biological or not, those you love and those who drive you crazy. I hope you have others in your life whom you consider family.