Sometimes I feel like an adopted kid from a bygone era. Back when no one admitted you were “not theirs,” older cousins and siblings who happened upon the truth were threatened with boogeymen and punishment if they told you this wasn’t your “real family.” The fear was that finding out your origin differed from what you’d been told or thought would shake you, making you question who you were and your trust in the people who raised you.
It turns out you can grow up knowing you were adopted and still be shaken by the truth well into your thirties.
My origin story was the last childhood token I held in my heart. It was a bedtime story from before I had memory, one I’ve simply always known. Its importance survived 25 years of rocky and often abusive periods with my mother and complacency from my father. My inner five-year-old needed that happy start where my parents waited nearly ten years for me, dreaming of the day they’d become a whole family.
The length of time it took to “find” me, as my mother always told it, was one of the ways she explained how much she loved me — the parental version of when people place greater importance on the partner they “waited so long to find.” I grew up using what I was sure must have been a painful time for someone who desperately wanted to be a parent as an excuse for her behavior and why my own feelings mattered less. I may not want children, but I can empathize with a seemingly unending wait for something you desperately want. I have always honored my mother’s pain and sadness, her patience as well as her excruciating joy at finally having a child placed in her arms.
So when my cousin casually dropped a detail about why I in particular had been selected — why it had taken years and years for my parents to adopt — I was shaken. “My mom told me that it took a while to find a perfect match because your mom was completely unwilling to negotiate regarding you being ‘female, all white,’” she told me one day when we were chatting online.
Suddenly the coffee shop where I sat with my laptop felt like it was on a fault line, and I was getting a lesson in plate tectonics.
The whole conversation had started because my cousin and I were recalling the weird way my mom used to compliment me. Her style was so overblown that the compliments always seemed “off” because they were never really about me. Then we began discussing how my mom had gone from being very open about my adoption to cutting me off if I started to matter-of-factly tell someone I was adopted. It happened when I was around eight or nine — which was the time I got taller, my hair got darker, and I generally stopped looking like her. The topic of her overprotectiveness — which was legendary amongst friends and family — was a natural transition, and I mentioned that my mom had cut me off from a friend when I was in middle school because, in my mother’s words, “she ‘went with a mulatto boy.’” She later insulted a friend of mine in high school because he was “half black.” When he picked me up for a mutual friend’s graduation open house, my mother made sure to remind me, “This is not a date.” (No shit. He was two years older and way cooler than I was; I was lucky we were even friends.)
Considering all this, it wasn’t necessarily my mother’s prejudice regarding her potential adopted offspring that struck me; it was this racism infecting my origin story. She hadn’t waited years and years to adopt me because there was some baby shortage in our small Midwestern town, or because international adoption wasn’t as trendy in 1979. She had waited to adopt because she wanted to make sure she got an “all white” infant girl.
I trust my cousin implicitly; she is the voice in my head, my conscience, my “audience of one,” and has been for most of my life. But we were only kids when her mother told her that my mom had insisted on a white child. I needed to know more. “How old were you when you found this out, and how did this come up with your mom?” I asked.
“I would have been around fourteen,” she replied. “I was trying to understand how the adoption process actually worked — as in, waiting lists, matching, closed versus open. I asked my mom how come it took so long to adopt you. We had another friend who had decided to adopt, and like seven months later — bam! Kiddo!”
“Right,” I said, nodding along.
“Then my mom said all matter-of-factly, as though it was common knowledge, ‘Oh, they only wanted a female who was all white,’ and my dad interrupted and said, ‘I don’t think he [meaning your father] had a preference.’”
“JESUS CHRIST, HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE TOLD ME ANY OF THIS?” My cousin and I tell each other everything. Then the reason occurred to me: “You thought I knew.”
“Yes, of course! I mean, we all knew you were adopted, but I never really asked any questions until I was in high school.”
She didn’t realize it, but my cousin was about to hit on the real reason why my race would have been so important to my mom, and why our relationship had changed so drastically: My mother couldn’t handle feeling like I wasn’t hers. She wanted there to be no chance for outsiders to question whether or not I “belonged” to her.
“My mom said it was important for people to think you were your mom’s biological child, but I don’t think that’s it,” my cousin said. “Your mom never hid the fact that you were adopted. So I think it was more that she believes ‘white parents should raise white kids.’”
“No,” I said. “Your mom was right. Do you remember how my mom’s attitude about telling people I was adopted started changing when I was eight or nine?”
“I remember that’s when she started frosting your hair, because I was jealous,” my cousin recalled.
“I hated that. It wasn’t my choice,” I said. “She frosted it because she frosted hers. My hair was getting darker (not like hers) and I was getting taller (not like her).”
“I never knew that!”
I realized I hadn’t talked about it at the time — even to the person I talked to about everything. It still hurt to remember how things had changed. “She would interrupt if my answer to a question from someone at the grocery store was about to be ‘Oh, I’m adopted’ and interject with ‘Oh, she’s just lucky.’ She’d find a reason to scurry us off, leaving me confused because we’d never been ashamed of it before,” I told my cousin. “I mean, Family Day — the day the caseworkers brought me to my parents when I was two weeks old — was a goddamn bedtime story. I couldn’t figure out if getting older meant I was supposed to be ashamed of being adopted.”
I recalled how my mother used to roll her eyes about my musical talent: “Well, I don’t know where you get that.” Any personality trait she didn’t recognize, any surprising talent or difference was seen as foreign and therefore suspect. I could feel her discomfort long before I was old enough to understand or explain it.
I did feel sad thinking about all of this — sad for my inner five-year-old, learning that her adoption bedtime story was basically a sham. But now that I was forced to face this knowledge head-on and begin processing it, it did fill in some big gaps for me. I didn’t have to explain this to my cousin. We often talk about what’s missing — and filling in these gaps through validation and information-sharing is part of what we have always done for each other. She understood that this conversation clarified a few things from my childhood, and was willing to verify her own story to make sure her memory was accurate. When she followed up with her mom about how long my parents had waited to adopt me, my aunt confirmed it took a long time because my mother had indeed insisted on a newborn, “all white” girl.
Of course. For me to be entirely “hers,” I’d need to be as young as possible (I was two weeks old at my adoption) and have the deck stacked enough so I’d fall in line with her mostly German looks. That way people would assume a biological connection — that is, sameness and ownership. All efforts were made to prevent or at least reduce the chances of my being spotted as an “other.”
Any trait my mother didn’t recognize, any surprising talent or difference was seen as foreign and therefore suspect. I could feel her discomfort long before I was old enough to understand or explain it.
And it worked — for a while. To the best of my knowledge, I’m probably English, German, and Irish; odds are that’s true simply because most while folks from my hometown are from that part of Europe originally (or at least say they are). The twist is that my adoptive father is Hungarian — the dark-haired, dark-eyed, tans-in-an-instant darker-complected phenotype, not the closer-to-Austrian blond-haired, blue-eyed type. So when I hit a growth spurt at age eight, when my hair got darker and my deep summer tan lasted into the fall, anyone outside the family could just have assumed I was starting to look more like my dad. I was clearly going to be taller than both my parents, but no one would have said, “Gosh, she sure doesn’t look like either of you! Where did she come from?”
That wasn’t good enough for my mom. I started to look more like I was theirs, but I no longer definitively looked like I was hers. Commenters who knew I was adopted stopped remarking on how much I looked like my mom despite my origins. They weren’t saying the opposite, but the reassurance that total strangers would look at me and see a reflection of her was waning.
Over time, my mother probably couldn’t see herself in me at all anymore. My interests and talents entirely diverged from hers. When I eventually stopped letting her frost and straighten my hair, grew a few more inches, and immersed myself in school and church activities trying to earn my way into college, we had less and less in common. All of the ways we seemed to differ, all the choices I made that she didn’t agree with — even if only minor slights — seemed to affect my mom so deeply. It puzzled me when I was growing up, but suddenly made much more sense in the context of her imagined, “ideal” vision of parenting: She had adopted me hoping I would look and be just like her, so no one would ever question where or with whom I truly belonged.
While I was initially sad that my favorite childhood bedtime story turned out to be nothing but a revisionist fairy tale, my therapist helped me find a way to understand and reclaim my adoption story, and complete it on my own terms. We talked about how I have always divided my childhood into “up to age eight” and “after age eight,” and why, with this new information now factored into the analysis. Age eight was when I started to feel stifled and “othered” in my own adoptive family, because my dad emotionally withdrew and my mom started showing signs of being injured by my very interests and personality. I could see it on her face as she flinched her way through my stories, reflecting dismay at my new interests and storytelling style. Age eight is when I began to change from the child she’d hoped I would be, the mirror image of herself.
Having a more complete understanding of why this happened when it did also helped me realize that my mother wasn’t pretending when I was younger. She loved me very intensely and completely, and tried to create a safe space for me to develop and grow — into the person she thought I should be. What was real to me when I was little is still real in my memory: I felt loved and secure as a young child, nourished by my mother’s songs and stories and lessons, and that was incredibly important to my development. I wouldn’t have had a foundation to become me at all without that safety and support. Even if she couldn’t continue in what felt so much like unconditional love into my pre-teen years and after, I still benefited from it in those early years.
Seeing my mother pop back up in my text messages the week before Christmas, despite the fact that she mostly disowned me four years ago, didn’t faze me so much. As my therapist charitably said when the text came in: “That’s all she can do.” Understanding that seemingly small thing — “That’s all she can do” — was revolutionary for my mental and emotional health; it’s how I eventually let go of the anger I felt toward my mother for what I’d always perceived as a withdrawal of love and support.
If I never knew my adoption story until recently, my mother did, and she lost control of it when I was still a child. It’s possible she never quite recovered from that disappointment.
I never meant to let my mom down, and she should never have expected me to fill the role of ideal lookalike child in the first place. But if I never knew my full adoption story until recently, my mother did, and she lost control of it when I was still a child. It’s possible that she never quite recovered from that disappointment. I wish I could talk to her about this (or anything) for confirmation, and to fill in any remaining holes. I’ve had to piece it together myself, due to a combination of her choices and an unwillingness to get help for her issues, despite my asking her for years to either participate in my therapy or seek her out her own.
With my adoption origin story recovered and retold, all that’s left is for me to try and find myself again — to invent or fight my way back to the person I can feel comfortable and confident being. Finally, I understand the path that brought me here, adoption and all, and I’m able to see who I really am. It may have taken me a couple of decades to reconnect to the confident, warm, open person I was trying to become when everything changed at home, but I think I’ve found her again.
Now, thanks to my cousin’s accidental gift of knowledge, I can see the fork in the road where my mother’s perfect adopted daughter and who I truly am diverges. I can let go of the last of the self-blame I carried into adulthood. I know that her disappointment is not my fault, and that she did and still does love me. My foundation might have been rocked with my cousin’s revelation, but I’ve settled into a healthier, happier place because I now know the truth about my adoption.
Katie Klabusich is a contributing writer for The Establishment and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio. Her work can also be found at Rolling Stone, Truthout, RH Reality Check, and Bitch Magazine.