Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Before I Knew Them: Growing Up Adopted

I have often been asked, "When did you find out that you were adopted"? I usually answer, "I always knew," though of course that isn't really true. I didn't always know, but adoption was part of the conversation from such a young age that I don't remember not knowing. My adoptive parents introduced the topic in child-friendly language from an early age and my understanding grew over time.

I was essentially told that my original parents had loved me but were young and unable to care for me. It was a satisfying enough explanation, but vague. My a-parents told me that they couldn't tell me anything more about my biological family because that was all they knew themselves, which was also more or less accurate, though they neglected to tell me until many years later that they did in fact know my first mother's name.

Many adoptees fill the information void with fantasy. I never did. I was content to let those other parents remain vague, shadowy figures who were out there somewhere. I did once see a picture of a woman on a magazine cover who had hair and eyes of a color that matched my own, and I briefly decided that she must be my mother, but the illusion was fleeting.

I can't say what it was that prevented me from creating imaginary parents in my mind as some adoptees do. Maybe it was just something in my personality, a tendency to protect myself from feelings of loss by not allowing myself to think too much about people I might never meet. I'm glad, actually, that I didn't create a fantasy family because the absence of one allowed me to meet my biological relatives without preconceived notions when the opportunity finally arose. As I learned about them as real people, they emerged from obscurity and became real to me without having to compete with a child-created ideal.

But the absence of speculation still surprises me a bit. I was head-in-the-clouds kind of child. I daydreamed about just about everything. Why not that?

I would have told you once that it was because I already had a family. I would have told you, especially in my teen years, that my biological parents simply didn't enter my mind. And for the most part that was true. But here's an odd memory that came up for me recently.

When I was in high school it became public knowledge in our small town that a girl who was a couple of years behind me in school had a different biological father than the man we had known as her father. Her biological father happened to be the driver of the bus that both she and I rode to and from school. Their reunion was public--she would get onto the bus at the end of the school day and stand at the front talking to him as the other students continued to get on and make their way to the seats. I sat near the back of the bus, watching them. I did not in any way consciously connect their situation to my own. Not at all. But I had a strong emotional response. I remember being annoyed and agitated by their interactions, and looking back now I can see that it stirred up something in me for which I didn't yet have words: a sneak attack of longing ... a nascent awareness that maybe my perfect adoptee life was missing something after all. 

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