Once when I was two years old, my parents played a game with me. My father asked, “What color is the pillow?” “White,” I answered proudly. “No,” my father said, “it’s black.” He looked at me with a completely serious face. I looked from him to the pillow and back again, my fear mounting with every pass. Then I turned to my mother, expecting her to correct my silly father but instead she said with a smile, “No dear, that pillow is black.” I threw a tantrum—I couldn’t understand the humor or the fun in this odd game. It was devastating beyond measure to have what my parents affirmed as reality not match with what I could perceive. Needless to say, we never played the game again.
Life was very frustrating when I was nine and had a five-and-a-half year-old sister. It was simply impossible to protect all of my toys from the wrath of her play. One day she took the only stuffed animal I really cared about and twisted its head around. I was so furious with her when I found it that I sat for a while to think of something truly hurtful that I could say to pay her back. “You are not my real sister anyway; you are adopted.” We looked at each other after I said it. She had not expected such a heavy blow. I began to sob uncontrollably. As I sat in my room for three solid days (the heaviest punishment I had ever received), I came to feel guilt for the first time in my short nine years. I was convinced I could never undo the damage I had done.
Growing up as the biological child in a family expanded by adoption was, for me, confusing. I remember being about twelve years old, walking up from the river with my cousin and a friend. The friend started talking about my sister: “What a pain she is,” she said. I was ready to rally and join in when she said, “I guess it’s because she’s adopted. I feel sorry for you having to have her instead of a real sister.” I was devastated. My cousin turned beet red. She was adopted, too. I responded in a typical twelve-year-old fashion by punching our friend in the stomach and telling her to shut up.
When our parents asked, neither my cousin nor I confessed to what had actually been said. Somehow, I knew I hadn’t done enough, but I didn’t know what else I could have said. Each attack on my sister or cousins, on our family structure, seemed like it should be responded to, but I had no idea how. We talked about adoption as a family. We knew who was and who wasn’t. But we never talked about what people said. “We love you both the same.” “You are real sisters.” “Adoption is a different way of coming into the family, not a different way of being in the family.”
I got married in my late twenties. My husband and I knew that we wanted to have children right away. I believed I was meant to be a mother, though in my gut I feared there was going to be a problem. I went to my doctor and asked to be tested just months after we began to try. She insisted on a year of temperature charts and timed intercourse. And so began five years of treatments and tests that always came up empty. “You are so young, you can keep trying for years to come . . . so many new technologies . . . everybody wants to have their own baby.”
When my husband first began to suggest alternatives such as adoption, I felt an enormous pit in my stomach. When I finally confronted my demons, I recognized that they related to my sister and cousins. It took me a long time to understand that I had never been allowed to question adoption—never been allowed to acknowledge the world’s belief, and my own fear, that if adoption is different, then it is also “less than.” I had grown up with family who was only parroting what they were taught: don’t dwell on the difference, tell the truth and then act just like a real family (translation: biological family). I felt that in order to stand up for my sister and the legitimacy of my family, I had to call the pillow black. It’s just the same . . . it makes no difference . . . she’s not acting out because she’s adopted.
It took me 30-plus years to say it. The relief was overwhelming. Being adopted isn’t “just the same.” It does make a difference. Adoption may be playing a role in her behavior. The pillow really was white. I had been afraid that our family would fall apart if I ever said any of those things, if I ever even thought them. And of course, all along I had been thinking them, and so deep inside I lived with the guilt. I believed that I was responsible. I was making it harder on my sister because I wasn’t adopted and that unfairness, which had never been addressed, I carried until that moment of clarity.
When my daughter was born, we rushed to meet her; I held her for the first time when she was just three hours old. As I bathed her little face with my tears, I wished to never let her go. The social worker told us that her birth mother was having a hard time and it might be best to just leave without allowing her to see the baby again. I questioned her for a moment and then let it go, relishing in my own pleasure and need to make this baby mine. When we got home with our most precious gift, I found myself weeping inconsolably. I knew I had somehow stolen her baby and I hated myself again for being the “lucky” one. We called and talked and before the signing of papers I flew back and brought our mutual daughter for her to see.
I cannot recall one person who thought this was a good idea. I recall many who did not. But I think I turned a corner that day. I knew that I had to tell the truth. I knew that adoption could never be my experience first. I knew that my daughter would need her mother to choose to place her with us. I wanted her mother to know that this would be a relationship of trust in two directions, not just one.
My sister and I are closer now than we have ever been. More than any single act or a lifetime of words, the adoption of my two children has healed our relationship beyond measure. We talk often now of adoption and indulge ourselves with fantasies of the special role she will play in my children’s lives. Only now, more than 35 years into it, do I understand that one of the most profound themes of my life is to be witness to, supporter of and lover of others who are adopted. To learn to speak the truth, sometimes for them and always to them, but never to take their experience away from them—always to be a privileged bystander to the experience of being adopted.
Not long ago when I told my four-year-old, in response to her question at a family gathering, that yes, she had two mothers and that neither one was better than the other, it was my sister alone who stood up for my choice to be honest and not use terms like “birth mother” to make this family feel less threatened. I was truly proud.