Today’s guest post comes from Karen Richardson. I have the pleasure of knowing Karen in many different capacities. She is a mental health therapist who works in the same office as my husband (somebody’s gotta keep that boy straight all day), a fellow church goer at our coffee shop turned church, and most of all a friend. We calm each other’s nerves as mothers. I tell Karen how my husband grew up as an only child, like her son, and turned out just fine and she shows me how an adopted daughter, like my own, can find her own identity as a mom. I am always grateful to listen to Karen’s calming voice and today am proud to share her words on growing up adopted and then becoming a biological mom. (And don’t worry Karen, my husband looked like his dad until he was ten and now looks just like his mom. It can happen!)
Awkward. When people ask what it was like to grow-up adopted, I never say “awkward.” But I think it. Oh, I know the right answers—chosen, fortunate, blessed, saved, sanctified, and downright undeserving. But awkward is the standout for me. Even my stable, loving parents—folks who did and would still do anything for me–could not save me from the curiosity and questions of others. From our first years in grammar school, adopted kids are expected to offer commentary on the great mysteries of our lives.
Geez, all those unanswerable questions:
Do you know your real mother?
Is that your real sister?
Will you search for your birth family?
Aren’t you lucky!
I was lucky. I am fortunate. Hands down, there’s nothing better than being raised in a loving family. But most of the time, when the subject of my adoption came up, I was simply stumped. By the time adolescence arrived, I’d honed a deer-in-headlights facial expression that should have cleared the room. But the comments and questions persisted.
The first time I heard, “You have those Jones eyes,” I was around 13 years old and visiting a distant relative. On top of feeling the typical adolescent angst about my appearance, I had also developed a nagging frustration: part of me wanted to own those blue eyes, but another part wanted to know the person—any person—who really looked like me. Or acted like me. Were my birth mother’s eyes blue? Did she play the flute? Was my biological father shy? Did I have a brother out there with double-jointed thumbs like mine? (Actually, I do have a brother–yes adopted, no not from the same mom–with double-jointed thumbs, but that’s a guest post for another time). The great-uncle who commented on my eyes lived in a nursing home for veterans. He had been reminiscing with my adoptive father and grandmother, and I’m sure the family resemblance seemed genuine. But the observation left me feeling as if I had one foot in the Jones’ stock and one foot in who knows where. I had to be careful about where I stepped.
Back in the 1960s, adoption procedures included attempts to match infants with adoptive parents of similar backgrounds and physical characteristics. Consequently, I was placed by a Catholic to be raised Catholic, had brown hair like 2 of my siblings, and the blue eyes of my adoptive father and his family. For most of my life I actually felt more connected to my adoptive mother’s family, though I looked more like my dad’s. My mother’s parents emigrated from Germany, and one of the few pieces of information provided during the adoption process related to lineage. I clung to that lineage like nobody’s business—German, Italian, and Czechoslovakian. That last one made me feel particularly exotic, and so when a friend and I traveled to Prague, I could almost feel roots pulling me into the pavement cracks when we stepped off the train.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t even aware of this need to feel connected to a heritage until my adoptive sister mentioned—in our 30s—how distant she felt from our extended family culture, noting that “nobody’s French or Lebanese.” It occurred to me then that my German blood helped me adopt my mother’s family, while my sister’s Lebanese and French blood left her hanging. This realization led to several conversations about the ways adoption shaped our assumptions, the most surprising of which had to do with our own expectations for motherhood. After becoming late-life parents—she had her first at 35 and I at age 40—we talked about how we’d each assumed we’d never have kids “because Mom didn’t have any.” (Cue deer-in-headlights expression.)
The first time I looked down at my newborn son, I was too grateful for his health to consider his appearance. But as he grew, I looked for signs of myself, and saw very few. Friends and family offered the kindest remarks—the type I’d grown accustomed to hearing during my own childhood:
He looks just like his dad.
That red hair is really something…does his father have red hair?
My, he’s tall! Those Richardsons are basketball players.
So, I wait patiently. That little baby boy is in 1st grade now and still looks like his dad. But I’m waiting. And I’m looking. His hair is becoming sandy-colored, similar to the hair in my own primary school portraits. He is friendly, but easily embarrassed when he’s the center of attention. His thumbs bend in ways thumbs shouldn’t bend. And his eyes are blue. Just like his dad’s, and just like mine.
As an adult, I enjoy blending in with my adoptive family—they are not my first family, but like the Velveteen Rabbit who was loved until he “got loose in the joints and very shabby,” they’re my real family. I have also grown to value the mystery surrounding my birth and relinquishment. Both of these circumstances–both of these families– delivered me into the world, and I’m grateful for the grace to balance myself with a foot on each foundation. My son doesn’t need to look or act like me to become a part of this family mash-up.
As long as he feels like a real son, we’ll be fine.