Years ago, I spent an unforgettable weekend at a small bed and breakfast sandwiched between cow pastures and barns in Ontario, Canada. I woke up surrounded by the typical B&B flowers and lace while the perfume of breakfast wafted through the house.
My parents were still sleeping in the room next door, and my husband was snuggled up next to me under the flowery bedspread. I stared at the ceiling for some time, wondering what this town was like when my other mother—my first mom—roamed the sparsely populated roads between the tiny farm towns which connected these communities. Did she dream of escaping or was she comfortable in these single stoplight towns?
I walked across the hall to grab my mom, Elsie. I loved eating breakfast with her.
After seating ourselves, the host greeted us. My mom and I dug into the freshly baked muffins that were piled high in the middle of the table. As I slathered my muffin with butter and jam, I noticed the host staring at me. A few awkward moments passed until she walked over, sat down and reached out to grab my hand. I was taken aback for a moment, yet also felt a strange connection with this woman. Her eyes glistened as she stared down at my hand. Moments later, she looked up and said, “You must be Ann’s daughter.” This was a strange thing to say to a woman and her mother. But we all understood.
My mom, Elsie, looked down and grabbed my other hand. I think all of our eyes were glistening now. And then our host spoke. “I am a nurse at the local hospital, and we nurses are always looking down at each other’s hands. Your mom, Ann, was also a nurse at the local hospital, and I would recognize her hands anywhere. You have her hands.”
Before I could even take this in for myself, I instinctively glanced toward Elsie to see her reaction. Our eyes met, and she smiled softly, giving me permission to embrace this moment and not worry about her feelings.
That gift is one that she gave me often, and it is the best thing that I have ever received from her.
She gave me permission to embrace the grief and the glory of adoption. And she taught me that “real” is not a word that is reserved for blood relatives or love relatives. Real is whatever the Adoptee wants it to be.
What a gift it is to be able to look into the eyes of family and see a resemblance. Maybe you have your father’s eyes, but your mother’s legs. This is something that people around you have noticed since you were a child. So even if you were ‘blessed’ with Auntie June’s unruly hair, it’s easier to accept because you have someone to share the misfortune with. The good and the bad join together in a miraculous way to help us know that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves—that we belong.
I never had that growing up. For many people, the gift of seeing the family around you hidden in your own reflection is a foreign experience—we can only dream.
When I was a child, I often sang in church with my dad. Our voices blended nicely together and there was an ease that existed amidst our collaborations that were often attributed to our familial connection.
“Your voices blend so well together. You can certainly tell that you are related!”
“Only family can sound that good together!”
“You clearly take after your father.”
Over and over I would hear these comments and secretly wonder what it would feel like if we were really related by blood. When people made these comments, my dad and I would steal a glance and indulge in the idea that we were ‘cut from the same cloth;’ no need to remind others that we weren’t really related. It felt wonderful to believe that I always belonged just to one family for a moment and that outsiders saw a connection I often longed to see myself.
For those brief moments, I didn’t have to manage the difference between real and adopted.
When I look at my own reflection now, I see not just a physical reflection but a spiritual one. I know now that I belong in more than one place and I don’t have to choose between real and adopted because my family’s reality includes both.
I encourage you to look deeper than what you see at first glance. If you do recognize your father’s big crooked nose, or your Auntie June’s unruly hair I hope that you can find something beautiful about that reflection connection.
For those of you that don’t see that physical likeness, and familiarity staring back at you, look deeper. Remember there is someone out there who has your nose or rosy cheeks. More importantly, remember that you do belong somewhere. What is real to you is your choice.
Family can transcend the power of blood relations, but minimizing the importance of the genetic connection isn’t helpful for adoptees. Finding ways to prioritize your child’s ability to manage all the parts of themselves, including the ones you don’t understand as a second parent, is essential. Giving your kids the permission and space to find their own identity and craft their narrative will be one of the most valuable gifts you can give to your kids.