Saturday, June 21, 2014

Adoption Story Part 1 - Growing Up Adopted

Some time ago I mentioned that I was going to write up the story of my adoption, but never really got around to it. It's been a huge part of my life so it was hard to determine what was relevant or not and it sort of turns out that pretty much everything is relevant. In an attempt to not turn this into a novel I will tell my story in a Q and A format and split it into several posts:

Part 1 - Growing up adopted

And to help you keep everyone straight here is my family...

Ruth and Frank 
Adoptive parents 
(I will refer to them as my parents, because that's how I refer to them in day to day life)

(in the past I've often referred to her as my mom) 

Linda and Leo 
Birth parents

Karen and Scott  
Adopted siblings aka, my sister and brother
(I have a gazillion siblings, but these two were also adopted)

Judy, Linda, Barry, Chuck, Ben, Robert, Angel, John
Step siblings
(Ann's kids)

Andy, Megan, Squid, Lindsey, Derek
Birth siblings
(the first three are Linda's kids, and the last two are Leo's kids)

So without further ado...

How old were you when you were adopted?

I was about 2 months old. I was born in January of 1972 and was in foster care until placed with my parents on March 22 of 1972.

Adoption day - March 1972. 

My birth mom made this outfit and gave me the ring attached to the front of the dress. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in a house fire years later, but I have about 20 or more duplicates of this picture. Years later I discovered that this picture was given to my birth mother shortly after it was taken and she's been hanging on to it all these years. 

Why were you adopted?

My parents (remember this is adoptive parents) had two babies in the mid 1950's that died hours after birth (their lungs filled up with fluid). I can't even imagine how devastating that had to be. They went on to adopt my sister, Karen, and then my brother, Scott, in 1959 and 1961. Weirdly, my mom insisted on naming my sister the same name as one of the deceased babies. That's a whole other story, though.

Then 10 years after they adopted my brother they adopted me. I'm fairly certain I was a 'marriage fixer' baby even if they didn't realize that's what was happening. I don't hold it against anyone. It is what it is, but they probably should not have been allowed to adopt as my mom had some serious mental health issues. I've heard multiple diagnosis, but think delusional disorder... schizophrenia. Our family doctor apparently wrote a 3 page letter as to why she shouldn't have been allowed to adopt and I've heard stories that the adoption agencies were going to let her adopt a baby internationally, but not a domestic child. I'm not sure if that was true or not, but let's just say that my mom was a stubborn woman and was persistent in getting her way (oh the stories I could tell). When I ask my dad about that time he says that my mom did all the work with the adoption process and he didn't have to do much beyond signing some papers. That's just the way things were then.

I was about three years old in this picture (which is when my parents divorced). You can see how unhappy (most) everyone was. I was apparently clueless to the mood surrounding me.

What about your birth parents? Why did they place you for adoption? What were you told as a kid?

I was told that my birth parents were young and they wanted the best for me.

When did you first know you were adopted?

Hmm, I've just always known. I don't think we kids ever had a moment where we were sat down and given 'the talk'. My parents always talked about it and in a way that made me feel very special and loved. I never felt like my birth parents had given me up... or gotten rid of me. I truly was led to believe that they wanted the best for me and couldn't provide that at the time. I thought that if they could have they would have raised me and that it was a difficult decision that they had to make.

Do you look like your family (your adoptive family)?

Yes and no. We all have fair skin, and I think 4 out of 5 of us have blue eyes. We could pass for being related, but for someone who is adopted those differences can sometimes be magnified. Sure, my dad and I had some similarities, but I knew I didn't actually inherit those from him. And actually, it wasn't too terribly noticeable for me when I was younger (heck none of those TV families are genetically related so we fit right in on that aspect).

It was when I was a little older that it became more noticeable for me. My parents had divorced and my dad remarried an Italian woman with 8 kids from a previous marriage. One afternoon when I was a teenager we were at one of my step-sibling's house admiring one of their new babies. They all chimed in with comments like "she looks like so and so as a baby" and that's when it really hit me that I didn't have that. It was the first time I really felt impacted by that. Like I realized that I was missing out on really resembling anyone I knew. At the time I had no desire to meet my birth family or have a child so I wasn't sure how to deal with that. There was a little bit of a grieving feeling and then a moving on feeling. It was there, but wasn't so heavy that it was an issue.

My dad and I with 6 of my Italian siblings. My (enhanced) dark hair helps me blend in a little bit.

Speaking of being aware of how you looked different, did you ever feel out of place or left out since you were adopted?

Not really, but there were times. Most of the time I just felt normal, and of course, when I was younger I felt special. I was chosen to be Frank and Ruth's daughter... they didn't just give birth to me. Also, as I mentioned before, it wasn't until later that I became more aware of the differences between myself and my family. This also might have been because my parents divorced and a few years later I gained this new, enormous family.

Did you always want to meet your birth parents?

No. Actually, I had no desire to meet them most of my life. It wasn't that I had ill feelings towards them. I just felt like I had a family. And truthfully, I didn't want to take that risk. I was more afraid that they would want to step in and be my parents than them not wanting to meet me.

What was your relationship with adoption growing up?

When you tell people you are adopted you get all sorts of responses, but sometimes you feel like some sort of mini celebrity. All of a sudden people are really interested in your story... or they know someone who is adopted... or they ask awkward questions about your 'real' parents. I've never shied away from telling my story partly because I wanted people to be educated about adoption, but I know I would also be curious if I were in their shoes.

I also seemed to meet a lot of adopted people growing up. I'm not sure if we were drawn to each other in some way or that we just connected because of a shared experience. However, I wouldn't say that these people were any more close or distant than any of my other friends. It was just one piece that connected us and like all friendships those similar connections often draw you together.

What I learned from those friendships is that we all have different experiences and feelings about adoption. For me, I'm sure I would have had a good life with my birth parents, but I am grateful that I was adopted. Sure there was some crappy stuff in my family, but my dad has been my rock and I'm glad that he is a part of my life.

One of my friends is adopted from Korea. We'll call her Mary. Her story is very different from mine except that her birth parents (or in her case birth parent) felt they were in a place that they couldn't provide what they really wanted to and made the difficult decision to ask someone else to raise their child (also, stating that this is a difficult decisions actually seems to downplay how hard that decision is to make). For Mary, her birth mother passed away. She was the youngest of five girls and her birth dad placed her and another sister for adoption. She and her sister were adopted together by a family that was relatively well off. She never had to want for anything, but she shared that she always thought she should be living on the dirt floor of her family's hut in Korea. That was were she belonged. Her experience was very different than mine. She didn't look like her family and perhaps that was a daily reminder that I did not have to live with, but I understand where her thought process comes from and can respect it for what it is.

Has adoption worked it's way into your life in other ways?

Actually, when I was in my late 20's I started working at an adoption agency as a birth parent counselor. I supported birth parents primarily, but also got to work closely with adoptive parents. Being adopted certainly helped me understand who I was working with and gave me a bit of credibility. Even though I was neither a birth parent nor an adoptive parent I could identify with the situation at hand.

I really liked this job, although I will admit that at times it made me feel like adoption was my main identity. It was during this time when I was 34 that I finally decided to search for my birth parents.

That seems like a long time to decide to search for your birth parents. Did you never think about it growing up?

When I was in my late teens/early 20's my step-mom, Ann, used to ask me if I wanted to meet my birth family. I didn't at the time and didn't really think much about her asking. I understood her curiosity - lots of people asked. But Ann and I didn't always have the best relationship and some of the things she would say were just mean. As I mentioned in a previous post she had some mental health issues and you could say a lot of her jealousy and paranoia were focused on me. She told me multiple times that my dad didn't want to adopt me... that I was the attempted marriage fixer (who says this to their kid?). I never really took what she said too personally (I wasn't dumb, though, and figured I was a marriage fixer baby. I'm not mad about it and don't think my parents really thought of it in those terms).

My dad was always very open with me meeting my birth family. Perhaps I should back up a bit and share that when my mom and dad divorced when I was three, my dad gained custody of me. When I was 7 he remarried and this caused issues with my mom. Her mental illness got really bad at this time and a Judge determined that she shouldn't see me anymore. So from about age 7 or 8 until I was 18 I did not see my mom. My dad followed the Judge's recommendation until I was about 13 and then asked if I wanted to see my mom. I declined. I have to admit I was a little scared and didn't know what to expect. I think I was also a little too young to make this decision (it was far more complicated than this small paragraph can really describe). So I waited until I was 18 and then went to see my mom. It was weird and we never really gained the mother/daughter relationship that most people have before she passed away when I was 24. Anyway, this might seem off track, but it was very relevant in my decision to not search for my birth parents. It was hard to meet this woman. This woman who was my mom - she had so many wishes for me and I was her ugly duckling (trust me, it was a term of endearment with her). And yet, I couldn't be the person she wanted me to be. Why would I want to search for more people that I might let down? That sounds so emotional, but it was more of a feeling of "meh, I like my life, I know what to expect, I don't need to complicate things..."

A few years after I saw my mom again, my step mom got me non-identifying information about my birth parents from the adoption agency I was adopted from. Actually, I don't think they would release it to her and I can't quite remember how this all went down, but it was the first time I had solid information about my birth family. It's funny because my sister, Karen, always told me I was German, French, and I think English. Everyone in my family told me I was German - it was apparently obvious with my square German nose. I'm not sure where my sister got all this from... perhaps we were filling in the gaps as needed, but when I got the non-identifying info I discovered that I wasn't French at all. I was German. At least on my birth mother's side as my birth father's was reported as unknown (years later I would learn that I have a dash of Danish as well).

I would also find out how many aunts and uncles I had and every one's approximate height, weight, hair color, eye color... their professions and interests. I even discovered that I had a half brother two years older than me. I was able to confirm that my birth parents were 19.

I had also been told by someone that I was born cesarean section, but discovered that wasn't true either. Oh, and I discovered that I wasn't the first person in my family to have bad teeth. In fact the exact words in this document were "Your birth mother's health is given as average and that she had bad teeth." Lol. Well, that helped explain a few things.

Even though this information sparked an interested I still  never thought I would search for my birth family... and I think a large part of that decision falls back on my relationship with my mom as I describe above. Overall, growing up adopted was probably a lot like growing up in a family that you were born into. The things that are more significant for me had to do with my mom's (and step-mom's) mental health issues. As you can imagine dealing with that sucked and you might think that I would have wished to never have been adopted. Yes, I could have done without that, but if you ask me if I would change things and never have been adopted, I'd say "no". This has nothing to do with my birth parents (as they are good parents/people), but more to do with getting Frank as a dad. I wouldn't change that for the world.

My dad and Ann with me at my high school graduation

But you did decide to search for your birth parents. How did that come about?

Well, that's a long story... the decision, the search and then finally meeting them. I'll save that for part two.

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