My Birth Son Probably Doesn't Know He's Adopted
I recently found out my birth son was likely never told he was adopted, and has been publicly speaking out about an ancestral heritage that, genetically, isn't entirely true. And I'm worried -- nay, freaked out -- about how he might feel, if he discovers his adoptive cultural background and biological background don't match.
I don't write much about being a birth mother, as ceaseless hand-wringing over "does my birth son know he's adopted?" gets tedious if you're not actually inside my head. Also, my previous birth mother essay on BlogHer is, in hindsight, laced with bitterness and not entirely respectful to my birth son's adoptive family. So I've been in a holding pattern: maintaining my distance, monitoring my birth son's public information because what else have I got, and trying to wean myself from a lingering hope that, as he's now legally an adult, he might contact me.
Then I found an essay he wrote for his local newspaper in which he defended his (adoptive) cultural and racial identity, and which made me realize he likely was never told about being adopted. And that made me heartsick -- not only because of the likelihood that I may never exist for him, but because he's probably been raised in ignorance of his genetic background. And that is not fair to him.
I found his essay on a lark, by Googling his name and "auburn hair." It is an impressive and important piece of writing for someone so young: He wrote about coming to embrace and celebrate his (adoptive) family's culture and his identity as one of them, and his respect for the people he considers his ancestors. He scoffed at his younger self, who eschewed his (adoptive) family's cultural traditions and practices in favor of mainstream geekdom and Europhilia, in part because he could "pass" as a European-American. He wrote that anyone who made assumptions about him because he didn't share his (adoptive) family's hair and skin color was being racist. He wrote that no one could take his identity away from him.
While you process that, let me take a moment to back him up: Hell yeah for publicly owning his family's culture, the culture he in which he was raised. Hell yeah for denouncing the racism of backhanded compliments like "you're not like other XX folk," and for rejecting his youthful rejection of his family's heritage. I feel proud, seeing him soapbox with such eloquent righteousness. He should celebrate being the person he was raised to be, and those who did the work of raising him.
But I can't be entirely happy for him, not if he doesn't know the truth about his biological identity. While his birth father is indeed from his adoptive family's non-European culture, I am not -- my ancestry straddles the English Channel, via Canada. And though gingers aren't unheard of in his culture, there aren't any in his family. He didn't happen to be born with light skin and auburn hair, he inherited those traits directly. From me.
I believe he deserves to know he's adopted -- deserves to know whether he decides to contact me, or not. Because there are so many ways he could find out. Genetic tests are cheap, and getting cheaper. And what if he ever needs a bone marrow transfusion? No one in his family is likely to match. Does his blood type even match theirs? These are only a few of the possibilities I fret about, and which make me hope the only way he ever finds out who he really is, genetically, is by hearing it from his adoptive father.
I've talked with friends whose families were created through racially and culturally complex adoptions. They share my opinion: my birth son deserves to know; they think it's not just icky but bad for him not to know. They also understand why my feelings about how he should know are not so simple, why I don't just act on my legal right to contact him, now that he's an adult. They understand why "legal" is not the same as "ethical."
Because I understand why his adoptive father might not want to tell him, even if I don't agree with that choice. His adoptive father is older than me, by enough years that his attitude toward adoption is likely that of a previous, more secretive and protective era. I believe he probably saw open (even slightly open) adoption as a scary thing, and me as a threat. I wish he could read blogs like Amanda of Declassified Adoptee, who found that being reunited with her biological family was about expanded possibilities and self-discovery, not about choosing one family over the other:
"Believe it or not, knowing definitively what I inherited from my biological family has not made my adoptive family feel threatened. Rather, they learned what things were inherent to me and received confirmation that they had done a good job nurturing those things. Eliminating the secrets created by the nature of closed adoption and fostering an atmosphere of openness has improved my relationships with both of my families."
If I could go back in time and insist my birth son's adoption be officially open, I would. I'm in this emotional pickle, my birth son is ignorant of his genetic pickle, due to my then-naiveté. Due to a youthful assumption that I'd always have some sort of connection with him, even if that connection wasn't day-to-day. Due to a full and guileless belief that the diary I wrote for him about me and my life and my family would be given to him when he was ready, since when I handed it to his adoptive mother just before his birth, she never said "no" or "we might not give this to him." I went along blithely with our semi-formal adoption arrangement that included pictures and even a visit or two with him as a baby and toddler, assuming that such things would continue.
When they didn't continue, and when communication stopped entirely after his mother died while he was still very young, I went into an emotional tailspin. I never wanted to bother his family or be seen as a threat to them, but I always hoped he'd know I was there for him if he wanted me. But at the time I gave him to his adoptive family, I was too immature to understand many of the truths about adoption, specifically one told by Shannon from Peter's Cross Station:
"…that’s just adoption. Whatever everyone says they will do going into it, that may change dramatically once people are actually trying to live it out."
Though I think it would be reasonable to contact his adoptive father, I'm not going to force matters if he's not willing to talk. So I'll tell you the truths I wish I could tell my birth son, about his background, about me.
And it's like this: Giving him up broke my heart so badly that I didn't just leave the area, or even the country -- I left the continent, left the hemisphere. I went to live in Ghana, West Africa, where at the time mail took three weeks to arrive, phone calls cost scores of dollars, there was no such thing as email, and no one knew what I'd just been through. Where I kept his baby pictures pasted under the bookshelf above my bed, where no one else would see them, but where he was the first thing I saw when I woke up, and the last thing I saw when I went to sleep at night.
I'd want him to know I never, ever stop thinking about him. Ever.
I'd also want him to know I was never ashamed of being pregnant with him, never tried to hide my pregnancy from anyone, never hid the fact that I gave him to a family who could do right by him when his birth father and I couldn't. I fervently believed he deserved only the best. And it sounds like, through his loving adoptive father and extended adoptive family (and doting adoptive mother, though she died so young), that's what he got.
He already has a full life, and all the family a person could ever want, but if he ever wants to get to know me, know his half-siblings, I want him to know that we're here. We're a lot of fun. We're glorious dorks. We don't share his adoptive family's racial or cultural background, but we do get what it's like to be from his quirky region of the state, because I was raised there, too. We've got a lot of culture of our own to share, and would love to learn about his. And if he wanted to find his birth father, I'd help him.
But I have to consider another possibility: He may very well know he's adopted, and his identity essay may be his way of reaffirming his unbreakable connection to his adoptive family. If this is the case, that's actually a good thing. It's healthy for him to be aware of his complicated biological background regardless of how he feels about reconnecting with his birth parents. And if he's not interested in connecting now, his attitude might change -- I've heard from many adoptees who initially had no desire to contact their birth parents, but who changed their minds as they got older.
For now, I am taking solace in musician Suzanne Vega's story: She had a late discovery that her racial identity was not what she had always believed it was, tracked down her birth father, and in doing so made her own happy ending. This is how she felt when she finally met her birth father when she was 28 years old:
"I looked at his eyes and hands, and recognized my own. There was this spiritual connection, too. It was as if I suddenly understood myself better."
Hey, it could happen to my birth son and me, too. In my innermost heart of hearts, I have to believe it could happen.