It is Adoption Awareness Month. In that spirit I share some snapshots from my early years, growing in the company of the adopted.
“Did your parents find you in a dumpster?” I just about spit my juice across the table in disbelief mingled with hilarity. Who could think such a thing? A baby in a dumpster, who does that sort of thing? But there at the elementary school lunch table I got my first question from a bona fide outsider, someone unaccustomed to the realities we, the company of the adopted, so deeply knew. Once I got over the giggles – and the image of me in a smelly dumpster – I took the opportunity to educate my pig-tailed friend. “That’s not how adoption works,” I began. I remember feeling so sorry for her because she didn’t know any better, like she didn’t know where babies came from – at least not adopted ones.
Others would ask, too. Did I land on my parent’s doorstep in a basket? Did my mom and dad search for me like a grand Easter Egg Hunt? Was I found floating in a pool like baby Moses? It never occurred to me to be offended or angry, they just didn’t know better. For many, I was the first adopted kid they knew. I got very good at explaining adoption to my peers, demystifying it so that they could understand and stop with the crazy scenarios. I simply became an adoption ambassador.
I remember one morning on the old school bus; faded yellow and boxy like a Volvo, sitting on a green vinyl seat behind the Wasson brothers. They were the cool boys, each middle-school handsome with short cropped hair, flipped izod collars and top-siders. One aloof, the other more approachable, I admired them from the back of the bus most days. But this morning I sat behind Kurt and learned that they, too, were adopted. Just like me – we were part of some secret society and had some newly discovered bond! Sure that I had found a connection with my cute crush; I began exploring our shared experiences of adoption. “We don’t like to talk about it.” His cool slipped a little and he shifted uneasily in his window seat. His youthful confidence cracked and he risked the wrath of the bus driver to vacate the hot seat and move up front with the jocks.
Why would adoption smudge the luster of coolness for a teen-age stud? What’s embarrassing about being wanted, hand-picked and celebrated? I never imagined anyone ashamed of being adopted. The rest of the school year I’d study the Wasson brothers from afar, wondering why they didn’t love being adopted like me. Maybe they didn’t connect with their parents and harbored secret dreams about better birth parents. Maybe their parents didn’t talk about adoption at home, making the word awkward and cumbersome in conversation. But it never ceased to be a sad mystery to me.
My first book memory was of a black and white hardcover with some grey tones and orange accents telling the story of another adopted baby. The simple line drawings sketched out another family like mine – at ease with adoption. The wanted and welcomed baby with curly cue hair looked happy and normal like I felt. Mom read it to me often enough that the images remain etched in my memory: adoption certificates, strollers in the park, homecoming parties and birthday cakes all bound together seamlessly in print as in real life. Picture books featuring adopted families were hard to come by in the 70’s, but my mom proved resourceful. She gave me words early on for adoption, ensuring a vocabulary for all the conversations to come.
As the product of a closed adoption I found it a beneficial paradox that my parents had such an open approach to adoption discussions in our home. No curiosity about my placement, homecoming or birth family was off limits. I’d been given free reign to ask questions, explore feelings and even try to locate birth parents – should I ever be interested. I never had to take a deep breath or muster up courage before I uttered the word; I freely blurted it out at the dinner table or while driving to ballet lessons. I don’t ever recall my mom tensing up at a question asked, though I think I asked precious few since I was quite glad to be adopted – so wanted, so celebrated.
Positive adoption language circulated around our house like a springtime breeze, gentle and welcomed and commonplace. There existed the recognition that this was how God formed our family, making it natural, something good we could talk about together. My parents encouraged me to own this story early on when storybooks, Adoption Day presents and smiles were the most potent language cues. And as I aged they provided more words and space for conversations to continue. In both gesture and word they telegraphed a message in unison – we could talk about adoption here. In our home adoption meant many things, all of them good.
Most of my childhood memories are rather nondescript, all blending into one color-washed mosaic of family vacations, game nights, Saturday chores and traipsing to and from dance rehearsals or dinners out at Sizzler. What pops out bright against the canvas is my adoptive exuberance. I took my role as ambassador seriously, relishing opportunities to tell my distinctive story. When getting to know new friends they always learned of my adoption. Beginning of the school year introduction essays started with my adoptive status. Talking about adoption was so natural for me, like kids who spoke of older siblings or having big swimming pools in their backyards or firefighter fathers. I was proud to be adopted and at ease saying so. I knew it was somehow definitive for me against all that was quite wonderfully normal.
One high school English teacher gave a simple assignment instructing us to write a list of ten ‘I am’ statements about ourselves. The first thing that jumped from pen to page – I am adopted. This was my cornerstone. Adopted is the word that marked me more than any other. It’s always been the best place to start self-description, so good and hopeful and redemptive. When I said I am adopted I might as well have been saying I am wanted. As my parents often said, I was a special baby because I was wanted. I totally believed them and ingested that truth at a molecular level. Adoption defined me in a way nothing else did, capturing something of my own elemental essence. To know me was to know I was adopted. One sentence written in blue ink on college-ruled paper brought it to focus for me.
Adoption is not monolithic. There are as many sensations around adoption as there are stories, most unique to a certain family, culture, context. This is my own coming of age tale, growing up in the company of the adopted and accepting my role as an ambassador, of sorts. But as I am older now, I know I can only speak for myself. There is much I don’t know, and much I might have misread. Maybe the middle-school brothers never thought about adoption, but were completely content in the love of their parents. Maybe others struggle more to accept adoption and find language for it. So again, this is just a snapshot from my own adopted life, my own experience of grace.
For me, adoption has been all grace.