That’s what I just might have said to you when I was about the age of three or four and just been introduced to you, “Hi, I’m abopted!”. With my smile on my skinny little frame and pixie-cut brown hair I proudly announced what I believed to be a badge of honor. And it was! My new friends if they were fellow children would look somewhat confused, or if an adult, would appear surprised at what at the time was an admission of something kept private rather than a public declaration, because of course we know back in the late 60’s we American’s didn’t talk about – well – anything deeply personal, even within our own families. And we certainly didn’t admit any ‘abnormalities’ like being adopted.
But I didn’t know those norms and didn’t care. My parents raised me with that healthy and loving indoctrination that I was special, was wanted by them, and that being adopted was something to feel good about. I don’t remember being ‘told’ I was adopted, I only remember ‘knowing’ I was. But that’s actually a funny story I’ll get to in a minute. Let me first introduce myself.
My name then was Jean Elizabeth Kelly, and I’m writing this story to share my own and encourage others to do the same. Adoption has many facets and those who are part of this experience share both similarities and differences in their emotional, physical and formative experiences with their adoptive families. The institution of adoption is hardly perfect – there are flaws – because we ourselves are all flawed. But for the most part, I believe in the goodness of its intent, and the practice of adoption when ethically done can be an amazing experience. In no way am I going to gloss over the hard stuff – my family wasn’t perfect (as if there is such a thing, which I think is a fallacy our collective cultural psyche should give up), but I think there is at least the attempt to do right by all of the parties involved: the adopted children, the parents who raise them, and the birth mothers (and fathers) who give them up.
Going back to my story now…apparently there was a day when my mother had me curled in her lap reading to me, and the book mentioned how babies are born and that they come from their mother’s tummies. I was very young here and have no memory of this at all. But apparently when I asked the very natural question of, (you all know what’s coming now…), “Mommy, did I come from your tummy?”, and my mother said in that moment of heartache, “Yes.”.
That night when my father got home from work, my mother completely fell apart in his arms crying and admitting what she had said to me, completely hysterical from the guilt of it. This was the moment my parents sat down and told me that I was in fact adopted. They gave me the full info in a simple way, and the story goes I said ‘OK’ and moved on like nothing of any consequence had occurred. Never mind my mother’s practically having PTSD on the incident, I really wasn’t concerned. After this point apparently my parents spoke often and openly about my status, reinforcing to me how much they loved and wanted me, and that was all I remembered.
I guess the lesson here for all of us is that things brought out into the open are easier to deal with than things left in the dark. Even bad news, while sometimes awful and tragic, is better when shared. Which means talking about it, whatever it is, and is frankly talking, and actually listening, is something our American culture is really not good at.
Sadly, I know of several adoptees whose parents were not open about their status, and that can be devastating when the full truth comes out. Back in 1965 when I was born, adoption was often a secretive thing, and even a source of shame among grown married adults who could not conceive. This was still considered to be deeply personal and at the time, adoption agencies were even matching hair and eye color and other heritage where they could so that the adoption would not be obvious. That seems strange to our modern-era eyes when international adoptions are in fact more common than adoptions between families in the US.
Biases were also strong in our culture at that time for many other reasons. I remember vividly in the early 2000’s an aunt on my husband’s extended family who knew I was adopted, stated clearly she would never consider adopting any child from the US or anywhere else because, “you would never know what you’re going to get.” Mind, I adore this woman and she is incredibly sweet, but this was her view and she was completely unapologetic for it. She was roughly my parents age and in her seventy’s at the time, and I simply stated that I was glad my parents didn’t share her biases. She didn’t apologize or acknowledge her comment in any way, and we moved on. So much indeed, has changed.
I’m a product of the times I was born in and thus do share many physical similarities to my parents, and most people would never know I was not biologically their offspring on a glance. However, I’m so grateful to have been adopted by good people who did their best to love me, teach me, care for me and raise me with a positive identity for who I am and where I came from. I know that others were not so lucky, and you’ll see these stories told as well. However, from my chair, I’m also still proud to be, ‘abopted’.