Losing My ?

As the child of both parents being adoptees and as the sister to my only two sisters, who both gave up babies to adoption – I’ve said “adoption” was the most natural thing in the world for me. But that isn’t quite right – it’s not natural – and all of the kids I grew up going to school with didn’t have adoptee parents (though thankfully, my parents were NOT my adoptive parents) and adoptive grandparents and adoptee uncles. So, I can’t really say it was commonplace to have adoption be so primary in our lives.

The closest I can come is that it was the reality. Not having a medical history for my parents when asked about that in doctor’s offices was just the reality.

Not knowing our racial heritage was just the reality. In fact, it may seem a bit odd but until I knew better (in 2017, when I was already 63 years old and both of my parents deceased), I honestly thought my mom was half African American and my dad was half Mexican – not kidding about that – that is how I was able to explain to myself that my parents had been given up for adoption – they must have been mixed race, which made me at least 50% mixed race along with 50% white (because I was definitely light skinned, blond haired and blue eyed). The truth was far from my creative imaginings. My mom had a lot of Scottish along with some English and thanks to slavery a smidgeon of Mali. My dad is half Danish.

My 4 adoptive grandparents were all wonderful people. My mom’s original parents were highly thought of and loved by their relations. My dad’s mother was loved and his dad, well he was a lot like my dad. Never knew he had even one child, let alone a son. More’s the pity – I think they would have made great fishing buddies.

Yet for about 5 years now, I’ve been reading the thoughts of adoptees wherever I find them and my perspective has entirely changed. I do not think adoption is a good thing in most cases. I actually thought my parents were orphans for the longest time – like until I was grown and heard from my mom that she was trying to get the state of Tennessee to release her adoption file to her because she was CONVINCED her adoption had been inappropriate (to a great extent because Georgia Tann had been involved) and she wanted to contact her original mother. Then, the state of Tennessee broke her heart because they told her that her mom had already died a few years earlier. She knew her dad was likely (and even that was not certain) older than her mom, so probably dead too. About 2 years after my mom died, I was able to do what she never could – get her entire adoption file from the state of Tennessee.

I do have Ancestry as well as 23 and Me to thank for most of my progress on my dad’s side. I now know who all 4 of my original grandparents were (something my own parents died never knowing). I have contact with some genetic, biological relations who are still living. I feel whole in a way I never even knew I did not feel before I learned all of that.

Somehow this song speaks to my feelings about all of this . . .

Fitting In vs Belonging

The image could be the mantra for many adoptees. A lifetime of trying to fit in, be accepted and feel worthy is exhausting and traumatic. We don’t always even know the toll it takes on us emotionally, but it manifests in so many different ways in our lives.

Now that I actually know I am 25% Danish (my adoptee dad’s original father was a Danish immigrant) this story captured my heart. An adoptee writes about her struggle fitting in.

I’m an Asian European. My mother is Danish and my father is an American. I’ve grown up in both places but have moved home to Denmark and am staying here because I feel this is my true home.

Both my Danish and my American family are white, all my friends here in Denmark are white and I’ve almost lost contact to all of my Asian friends in the US because they mistakenly think that I want to be white, my husband is white (I chose him because of who he is and not what he is), and my two sons are often mistaken for being white. So whether I like it or not – and I actually don’t – I’ve developed a white identity.

When I look in the mirror I’m actually surprised to see an Asian woman and I honestly don’t know how to feel about the woman I see. I actually expect to see a white woman with rosy skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Not because that’s what I want to look like at all but because here in Denmark most women have blond hair and blue eyes.

My Asian friends in the US were South Asians, so I never really had any…what should we say ? Mongoloid Asians as mirrors to compare myself to and therefore, I have no idea whether I’m ugly, average, or beautiful. It’s a very strange feeling.

I have to admit that my family’s feeling about Asians and non-whites haven’t helped me to become a proud Asian either. They’ve always made it clear that it was probably a mistake to adopt me. I was never allowed to call my parents mom and dad but was told to call them by their first names. The family has said things like “you’re not really like them (other Asians), so you don’t have to mix with them”. They went hysterical whenever I was with non-white friends or boyfriends and they nearly threw me out in the cold, when I tried to discover the Asian in me.

I was actually disappointed when I fell in love with my husband. I thought, now they’re going to have their way. Oh, aren’t they just going to be thrilled that I’m marrying a white man and to make it all worse for me (better for them) he has blond hair and blue eyes like most Danes.

It doesn’t help the situation that my husband has said that he always imagined that his wife and children would be fair and have blond hair. I get so hurt when people say “your sons could be mistaken for white, you can’t even tell that they’re half Asian”. Said in a tone expressing ? relief or pride ?

I know it’s a lengthy message but I hope that after having read it the reader understands why I’m not exactly a proud Asian and that it’s easier for me to try to blend into the white community and culture that I live in because this is the only place I feel at home. I am Danish; I’m Danish-Asian.

~ posted on Reddit

One comment touched my heart – it is the last one on that linked page but wow, two adoptees who married, that is like my own parents.

To the Danish adoptee, I am so sorry you were adopted into such a racist, white superiority, piece of crap for a family. OOH IT makes my blood boil when I hear stories like yours. How dare your family to even get a chance to adopt a person who is of color. There is definitely a glitch in the adoption service when it comes to screening the proper families to adopt internationally. When I hear stories like yours it makes me sad, angry and I can’t help thinking that there has to be way to solve these problems. I can only begin to understand how much pain you have gone through and trying your whole life to make sense of what it is that you have gone through. Let me tell you, you aren’t alone in this world. I am married to a Korean adoptee and he didn’t have the best adoptive parents either. I am also a Korean adoptee and being married to an adoptee, it is extremely complicated and trying at times. Our adoption and how we were both raised comes out in our marriage a lot.

Reversal

Sadie & Jarvis, with Godparents, Kennedy & Brandon and kids

I have written before about the special challenges that adoptees of a different race face when placed with a different race of adoptive parents. In the past, this has usually meant Black and Asian children placed with white adoptive parents. In a somewhat recent development, Black couples are adopting white children as shown in my photo above. I was made aware of this couple today.

For most of my life, I really did not have much of a racial identity. True, my skin was unmistakably white. I grew up on the border with Mexico and so my environmental was predominantly Hispanic. My parents were both adoptees with no more than a minimal knowledge of who they might have been before adoption. I used to say I was an Albino African because really I couldn’t prove otherwise and neither could anyone else. I honestly suspected 25% Black, 25% Hispanic and the rest White for much of my adulthood. Now that I know something that my parents never knew – something about the people who conceived my parents and gave their genetic heritage to us all – I know that I have 25% Danish, a lot of Scottish and Irish, quite a bit English. These are the real realities and it is a gift I never expected for over 60 years of my life to receive. Yeah, it matters.

This story has an interesting twist. After agreeing to foster a newborn, actually premature, baby boy they named Ezra. After agreeing to foster, the birth parents deciding to surrender their son to this couple for adoption. Next, the Sampsons chose a new and somewhat surprising path that I am also familiar with – embryo donation. This allowed Sadie to experience pregnancy. Their twin daughters were named Journee and Destinee and they are also white. Their family motto has become, “Families don’t have to match.” 

Because I am familiar with reproductive medicine, I know the difficult next stage – what to do with leftover embryos ? We allowed ours to be adopted. It was all arranged online independently but the couple did hire a lawyer. I never questioned their race nor did the thought cross my mind. Clearly, it was not a predominant concern of my own at the time. Sadly for that couple, the process did not result in a pregnancy and live birth.

White supremacists worry a lot about the dilution of the white race. It is a fact of modern life that the races are mixing. Interracial marriage, the children born to such unions and adoption are all – let us hope – leading to a better understanding that human beings are more alike than different. That peace and harmony on this planet may be the eventual result. The only real question remaining is the issue of adoptee trauma and that many donor conceived persons also have issues with how they were conceived. It is a tricky path to walk but some brave souls are stepping out ahead of the rest of society. With a better understanding of psychological impacts, it may be possible to avoid some of the worst of the worst outcomes. I do hope over time that proves true.

Realizing the Value of DNA Testing

Getting the results of my own DNA tests (both Ancestry and 23 and Me) did NOT bring surprise results to me – in that I knew BOTH of my parents were adoptees at the time I did the tests. What was I hoping for ? Answers to my cultural identity. A question that had plagued me since public school. What are we ? I asked my mom. We’re Americans, she answered. No, I said, what ELSE are we ? We don’t know because we were adopted, she answered.

And I did get insight into what I had yearned to know from childhood. Yet, my DNA tests did something for me that I did not anticipate. As actual genetic, biological relations were found at the two platforms, my DNA test proved to these that I actually was related to them. Me, someone they never knew existed. Though to be honest, I never knew they existed either. Building relationships with people who have decades of history with my original families (the families my parents were conceived as part of) and none involving me is slow and not earth-shattering but soul warming never-the-less.

I am pretty certain I came as a surprise to some of these – especially on my dad’s paternal line. His father’s family was located in Denmark. Several of his father’s siblings as well as his father immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, his father never knew he had a son. More’s the pity. My dad did look remarkably like his own father and they shared an interest in boats, the ocean and fishing. They would have made wonderful friends as father and son. So, that family has been the most amazed at my existence. I originally found my grandfather’s step-granddaughter who told me quite a bit about him. And only recently, I now have email contact with one of his nephews in Denmark, who has told me something about my grandfather’s early life in that country before immigrating.

With my other 3 grandparent family lines, there was some awareness of my parent’s existence. One of the first that I met shared the same maternal grandfather with me. His daughters (my mom’s half-siblings) were aware of her existence. My cousin said to me upon my emergence into her life, My mom always wondered about your mom and wanted to have an opportunity to meet her. Sadly, I barely missed this half-aunt of mine. She died only months before I began my own search into my roots after BOTH of my parents had died only 4 months apart.

Next came cousins and an aunt on my dad’s maternal line. 23 and Me outed my cousin and she wrote me in excitement, Delores or Dolores Hempstead/Barnes is my grandmother. The aunt is her mother and she was living only 90 miles away from my dad at the time he died. He never spoke to me about being adopted except that one time after his adoptive father died and my dad was going through some papers and marveled that his original surname was Hempstead. My mom did tell me that he was not supportive of her own effort to search, warning her that she might be opening up a can of worms. That has informed me somewhat about his perspective – that the people who adopted him were his parents – end of story. We did know that my granny “got” him at the Salvation Army. There is so much more to that story that I have now been able to learn and I will always believe that the Salvation Army coerced her into surrendering him to adoption as she was unwed. I’m told she regretted losing him the rest of her life. One cousin lead me to another cousin who had the breadcrumb clue that my paternal grandmother left as to my dad’s father’s identity. A few photos and some notes written on the back of these.

Though the initial focus of my adoption related searches was my mom’s Stark family line, that one took me the longest to finally connect with the children of my grandmother’s youngest brother, who I also just missed as he had died not all that long before. I did learn early on from a woman “related by marriage” who was also a genealogist that my Stark family was Scottish. She belonged to the church across the street from the cemetery where my grandmother, her second husband and her parents are all buried. My maternal grandmother was a victim of Georgia Tann and the baby stealing and selling scandal of the Memphis Branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. My mom knew some of this background information, believed that she had been inappropriately adopted (her words for what happened to separate her from her mother) and actually tried to get her adoption file (the one I now have the complete file of, including photos of my grandmother and baby mom) but was denied it by the state of Tennessee. These second cousins (as they are my age but would be genetically my mom’s cousins) had close and fond relationships with my maternal grandmother. They gave me the warm kinds of intimate details about the kind of person she was – what my heart had yearned to know since I began my own journey.

I believe I have fulfilled my destiny to reconnect the broken threads of our family’s origins – the reason I managed to be preserved with the parents who first conceived me out of wedlock (my mom still in high school, my dad had only just started at an out of town university – high school sweethearts they had been. They did marry and remained married until death did part them).

Until I began learning more about the traumas of being adopted, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. So natural, that both of my sisters actually each gave up a baby to adoption. Thankfully, I’ve met and have contact with both of these wonderful, valuable persons – my niece and nephew. It’s impossible to know how their lives might have been different if my sisters had kept them. If my parents had never been surrendered for adoption – the miracle of it all for me personally is – I simply would not have existed. I love my life and for having one at all and with my original parents, I am grateful. So, I am also grateful I wasn’t given up for adoption – it would have been the most normal thing in the world to have happened to me.

The Grandfathers I Never Knew

My mom’s father with her half-sisters

And I never will know my grandfathers, or my grandmothers either, because they have all died. But I’ve seen photos and heard some stories which is more than I had for over 60 years of my life.

My mom wasn’t much inclined towards this man and showed no interest in these half-siblings. She only yearned for her mother who was already dead when she pushed the state of Tennessee to give her details as an adoptee (which they still denied her). I think my mom had a pre-birth and infant sense that her own mother felt abandoned by this man with good reason. The true reasons for their separation and why he didn’t come to her aid in Memphis, I’ll never know. I have this picture thanks to my cousin, the daughter of the younger girl in this photo.

An article in Severance magazine where the aftermath of separation is often detailed by those who have experienced it is shared caught my attention for it’s headline – The Grandfather I May Never Know. I still need to actually read it (and will before I finish this blog) but I would suspect from the headline, it is still possible for the author.

In her article, Bianca Butler writes – “As a young child, I didn’t know that my mother and her twin sister (now deceased) had been adopted in 1960. I found out in 2000, when, after nearly 40 years of silence, their biological mother wrote to the twins asking to reunite.”

She describes one outcome of their reunion – “By meeting her biological mother, my mother learned her biological father’s identity and that she and her twin are of mixed-race ancestry: African American and white. Their biological mother had been a young African American college student at the University of California, Berkeley when she relinquished her twin daughters for adoption. They were born in a time in the United States when interracial unions were not only taboo but also illegal (Loving V Virginia) and when young unwed women were shamed and stigmatized—a time known as the Baby Scoop Era, from 1945 to 1973, before Roe V Wade in 1973.”

Since the suspected father of the twins denied paternity, the author decided to get her DNA tested. She goes on to share that “The Ancestry DNA test confirmed that I’m 31% Norwegian and, through the DNA matches, that I’m related to his cousins. I sent him the DNA results, but he’s still in denial and, sadly, not open to a relationship.” She admits that – “Finding biological family and taking a DNA test can bring great joy and excitement, but it can also bring rejection and disappointment. . . . It can be very emotional opening up old generational wounds that still haven’t been healed. . . . some people don’t want to be found, especially when race and adoption are factors, and I’ve had to accept that reality. “

She adds a happier note – “On a positive note, through Ancestry DNA I was amazed to connect with a cousin on my mom’s paternal side who is close to my age and open to connecting. She moved to Sacramento from Minnesota last year for graduate school, and we plan to meet. From her own ancestry research, she was able to give me more information about our shared heritage and ancestral homeland in Fresvik, Norway, which, in addition to Oslo, I hope to visit.”

This happened for me as well (thanks to DNA testing). I have contact with a cousin in Denmark now. I have learned details about my paternal grandfather’s early life. I would love to travel to Denmark and visit the family there (who never knew my grandfather ever had any children, and he probably never knew either as he was a married man and my grandmother simply handled it quietly).

I do share this perspective with the article’s author – “As an adult, I’m doing the healing work to educate myself on intergenerational trauma, loss, and abandonment that happen through adoption.”

Vagabond, I think the man with the pipe in his mouth is my paternal grandfather.

Cultural Displacement

I was over the age of 60 when I began to learn about my own genetic/cultural heritage. I have a lot of Danish, some Scottish, a lot of English and some Irish. I got excited when my husband showed a piece of woven textile to me that was odd in shape. He had picked it up long before he met me at a second hand shop when he was living briefly in Denmark at a Peace College. Of course, I fell in love with it and claimed it as my own and guessed and then with google images proved it is a shawl. Probably homemade but someone who wasn’t wealthy. As I draped it over my shoulders, I did feel warmer.

I learned about my Scottish heritage all the way back to an incident with the King of England who was saved from an aggressive animal attack and so named the family Stark. Christmas two years ago, my husband gave me a Pendleton Black Watch plaid wood shirt. I love that it connects me to my roots. My dad’s maternal great-grandmother was full blooded Irish. He was born one day off St Patrick’s Day. His natural mother didn’t name him Patrick but his adoptive mother did and he really did love beer.

When someone has NOT been robbed of their genetic/cultural heritage by adoption, they struggle to understand why it matters so much to one who has. I used to tell people I was an albino African because who could prove differently ? including my own self. I once did the National Genographic DNA test for my maternal line and sure enough we originated in African – actually because ALL human beings did. Our appearance and various genetic characteristics developed over time due to environmental factors.

Today, in my all things adoption group, I read this –

I’m part of a couple DNA test related groups, and there is a pretty outspoken group of people who think that if you’re only learning about your genetic heritage as an adult, and weren’t raised in it, you don’t get to claim it. Basically, the thought process is that if you weren’t raised in a culture, then trying to join it later in life is similar to appropriation.

I’m usually the only displaced adoptee/former foster care youth in these conversations and generally get ignored. I don’t consider myself a person of color on account of being very white, but I’m half Iranian, and was hidden from my birth father because my birth mother was convinced he would steal me and “go back to his country”, so a lot of my experiences are very much based in racism.

So, in my case I get “well you weren’t raised Iranian so what makes you think that you can claim it as your culture”. And on one hand I get it, because it’s not like I grew up with immigrant parents like I would have had I been raised by my birth father. I didn’t grow up speaking Farsi or experiencing any of it. So my ‘claim’ to any of it will always be bastardized because I’m only able to absorb what I can and integrate it into my life. But it feeds into an imposter syndrome that adoptees already deal with.

An adoptive father who is white replied – in general culture is more complicated than this. Heritage still makes up part of who you are, whether you know about it or not. As does DNA.

Someone else wrote – I have found similar issues in some (not all) groups on anti-racism and cultural appropriation. Some people have a huge lack of knowledge about the experience of transracial or transethnic adoptees or others with unknown or misattributed parentage (I am donor conceived and am half of a completely different ethnicity than I thought).

Then there is this heart-felt account –  I still struggle with this. I’m half black and I have the worst imposter syndrome because I was raised by white people and I pass relatively well (I’ll get clocked as mixed or not quite white often, but I would never be seen as straight up black). I think how you claim culture depends on if it’s… ok? For lack of a better word? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to claim your culture that was taken from you, and it’s not fair to claim otherwise. But on the other hand if you’re not going to respect the culture and engage in it in a meaningful respectful way, I could see why people would be upset about that. But in reality I think they’re talking more about people who found out they’re 5% Native American, who have white biological parents and who want to start claiming Native status, than they are about people like us. I still call myself mixed instead of black because I don’t present as black (even though all of my black friends and family say it’s fine and that I AM black and I SHOULD claim it since it’s a part of me). It’s a really difficult conversation though, with a lot of nuance and in this case, I feel like adoptees should be able to claim whatever heritage feels like the best fit and this applies especially to trans-racial adoptees.

I 100% agree with this perspective based on my own experiences shared above – There’s a difference between stealing something and taking back something that was stolen from you.

And yet another perspective – I’m not adopted, but I found out as an adult I’m a lot more Jewish than I was told, and much to the identity crisis of my brothers, we aren’t as Italian as we thought. For me, I use it as a bonding thing with my stepfather and a few Jewish friends that I participate with in some cultural activities, but I don’t feel I can claim ownership of it because I’m so far removed from the family that was Jewish (they are all long passed away). Everyone I’ve opened up to about my DNA test has been welcoming, and I want to learn and respect the culture, but I doubt I’ll ever confidently claim it as my own.

To which this response was received – Someone with a maternal Jewish line is as much Jewish as any other, whether he was raised Jewish or found out after retirement (it happens!).

Another sad experience was this one – I struggle with my identity a lot, both race & ethnicity. But, fuck them! I was raised in a white family. My adoptive parents did their best to raise me around my culture (I’m Paraguayan). But racist fucks (my adoptive brothers included) helped to push me away from my culture and make me feel very unwelcome in this country. It’s definitely not appropriation to reconnect with a culture you were TAKEN from without your consent.

Though my own experiences are far different, I can seriously relate to this one !! I grew up White on the Mexican border. A true minority there.

I’m a half-adoptee, daughter of a fatherless woman, granddaughter of a fatherless woman, great granddaughter of an adoptee. My whole maternal line is very fractured and we have no idea who or what we are. Until recently, when my mom DNA tested and came back with significant percentages (like, 20ish) of Black and “Eastern European”. My grandmother responded to this news with “oh, he told me he was Black and Gypsy but I thought he was kidding, he just looked Indian.” My mother has an unusual hair texture and features for a White woman, as well as the pigment condition vitiligo. Being part Black and Romani answered so much for us. As to me: I reconnected with my genetic father at 23. Apparently his mother was an enrolled Choctaw woman! So now, I’m a few shades of White, Black, Romani and American Indigenous. Nearly 50% of me is nonwhite. I have never in my life felt a part of Whiteness, nor have I felt like Whiteness wanted me. The culture, the appearances, never. I got bullied for being “ugly” most of my life, I’m pale as snow but I don’t look like other White people. I can see now that the reason I was bullied by White, Black, and Brown folks all the same pretty much came down to “Well you don’t look like us, but you don’t look like them either”. So now I’m adrift, a mixed breed without enough claim to anything to belong anywhere. My only mirror is my mother and grandmothers.

This is also how it feels to be an adoptee with DNA testing now so inexpensive and accessible – I have found out recently (I’m 67) that I’m 52% Italian. Funny thing is I’ve always been enamored with the Italian ethnicity. If someone said to me that I have appropriated any culture, I would tell them to fuck off. All my life I had to pretend I was someone, something else. I’ll be damned but I’m not taking any shit from anyone about cultural appropriation. I had to live in a culture that was not mine from the beginning.

Another one – It isn’t cultural appropriation to connect back with what you were taken from. Slaves were taken from their country to this one. Then they had kids here and sold off and forced into American/Western customs. Them wanting to explore their ancestry and know where they came from and reverse the damage of colonizers isn’t appropriation. It’s normal to want to undo the brainwashing.

I have a good friend who recently discovered her father wasn’t who she had been told all of her life he was and that she is half-Puerto Rican. As I read this next one, I thought of my friend –

There’s a difference between race and ethnicity. Race has more to do with if you’re white passing or not. You can’t claim to be a race you aren’t. Your ethnicity is something that can’t be seen unless you get a test done. For example, also displaced and white. My biological father is Puerto Rican and Spanish but I’m white, just with a Latino background. I absolutely think being connected to your roots will bring you healing. I was disconnected from them and am currently trying to get in touch. It’s very hard and I know for me, I always felt like there were missing pieces. I’m in the same boat as you. I don’t think it’s appropriation.

Glad I Was

The author with her parents (both adoptees) apologies for the poor quality

My mom wrote about being adopted to me in an email “glad I was” but it was half-hearted because she died never knowing why. The state of Tennessee had rejected her request for her own adoption file while breaking her heart by telling her that her original mother had died some years earlier. In beginning her quest, my mom had said, “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”

It is exceedingly sad that she didn’t receive her file. Her mom’s photo, holding my mom for the last time, was in it. Had she read through it, she would have known how much her mother loved her, wanted her and fought to keep her. My mom had defined her adoption as “inappropriate” in her letters to Tennessee. She was stating her belief delicately because she couldn’t reconcile having been born in Virginia and yet adopted in Tennessee while still an infant. And my mom knew all about the scandals of Georgia Tann, who’s agency my mom was adopted from.

The truth is that in the kindest of terms, my grandmother was coerced and exploited to take her baby from her for a woman who was willing to travel from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to fetch my mom and then return to Arizona by train with an upset baby.

That remark from my mom came as I informed her I had gotten my DNA tested at Ancestry because both of my parents were adopted I didn’t know anything about my genetic origins. I had previously participated in National Geographic’s Genographic study of my maternal line (it was a gift from my brother-in-law for my birthday). The results were vague and minimal, only telling me my maternal line came out of Africa, validating my assertion that I was an Albino African – no one, including myself, could prove otherwise. The truth is I am very European, mostly Danish, then Scottish with a healthy dose of English and Irish to top it off. My mom had a smidgeon of Mali, I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew and Neanderthal.

My mom surprised me by telling me that she had also done an Ancestry DNA and had attempted family trees but they were based on the adoptive families for my dad and her self. She admitted that she lost motivation – “it just wasn’t real to me” she said – and I understood. Someday I will create REAL family trees for both of my parents. It just hasn’t been a priority nor have I had the time so far.

I recently went through a long exchange with some woman I didn’t know who had included my parents in her own family tree. She was really dense and it was difficult to get through to her that the people she was saying my parents were related to – they weren’t related to. Finally, she got it and said she would correct it when she had time. I never went back to look.

Someone recently described being adopted as being forced to play a silly game of pretend. I understand. My parents had to pretend to be the natural born child of the people who adopted them. My dad’s perspective matched that. He believed once you are adopted the people who gave you birth are insignificant. Only the people who raised you mattered. The pity is – unknown to him – at the time of his death a half-sister was living 90 miles away from him in the same state of New Mexico and could have shared with him so much about his mother and the family that came of her.

Choosing One’s Ancestors

Because I didn’t have any genetic ancestors most of my lifetime, knowing who they were and where they came from filled a void in me that my two adoptee parents were never given the opportunity to receive.  They both died knowing next to nothing and within a year of my dad dying (four months after my mom died), I knew who all 4 of them were – including my dad’s unnamed father (his mother was unwed and he was given her surname at birth).

Because thoughts about race and identity are currently prominent in the United States and because of the horrendous injustice that has occurred here all too often (so that even in other countries, the protests have also grown in awareness of the issue), I was drawn to a conversation that took place between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 as shared by Brain Pickings.

During the week I spent in Jean Houston’s home in Oregon, she spoke frequently about her dear friend and mentor, Margaret Mead.  She even has a larger than life portrait in her front door drawing room that she suggest’s Margaret insisted be painted and delivered to her after Mead’s death.  Houston writes about the influence of Mead frequently in her book A Mythic Life.

In this conversation between Baldwin and Mead, Margaret says – “I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.”

She goes on to add – “The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.  We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.”

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity.

Before I knew who my parents biological/genetic parents were, I made up my racial identity.  Since my mom was born in Virginia, I thought she ended up being given up for adoption because she was half-black.  I find it interesting now as I steep myself in issues of racial identity, that I believed my dad was half-Mexican because of his coloration and how well he related to the people in that country when he crossed the border at Juarez/El Paso.

Neither of these was actually the truth.  Turns out my mom does have a bit of Mali in her DNA and that on her mother’s Scottish side there were slave owners, a fact that I am not proud of.  Yet, until I knew better, I would say I was an Albino African (and said it quite proudly as I tried to recover a sense of identity that adoption had robbed me of).

My dad’s father was a Danish immigrant and quite dark complected.  I don’t know enough about the Danish people to know why that was their skin color or why their eyes were brown.  Maybe someday, I will explore that aspect of my own racial identity.

I found this story which Baldwin conveyed in that discussion quite illuminating –

“I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

“Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.”

So it is for adoptees who’s rights are second-class, some basic rights of knowing where they came from often denied them.  Over decades worth of time, they have been robbed of that sense of identity that so many people take for granted.  However, as a woman who’s skin is white, I am grateful that racial identity was not emphasized in my childhood home and that as a white person growing up on the Mexican border, I was definitely part of a minority race.  I will admit that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows that the black race has in this country but I could not fully embrace any idea that I was somehow superior because of the color of my skin.  I consider that one of the few blessings of being ignorant for most of my life about my racial identity.

Family Contact Matters

I understand this as the child of two adoptees.  The adoptions for both of my parents were closed and my parents both died knowing very little about their origins or the details behind why they ended up adopted.  Since their deaths, I have been able to recover a lot of my rightful family history.  I now know of genetic relatives for each of the four grandparents.  It has been quite a journey.  It wasn’t easy (though maybe easier for me due to our unique circumstances than for many) and it required persistence and determination to see it through.

Certainly DNA testing and the two major matching sites – Ancestry as well as 23 and Me – were instrumental to my success.  Since the genetic relations I was coming into first contact with had no prior knowledge of me and I am well over 60 years old, seeing the DNA truth that I was related to them, I believe it mattered.  It is hard to refute when it is right there clear and certain.

My mom had four living half-siblings on her father’s side when she was born.  One died young of a sudden heart failure.  I barely missed getting to meet my mom’s youngest half-sister by only a few months.  I was lucky to connect with her daughter who had all of her mom’s photo albums and possession of a lot of family history, including written accounts.  One afternoon with her and I felt like I had lived my Moore family’s history.  The family photos I now have digital copies of are precious treasures.

Though my Stark family was the first I became aware of and within a month, I had visited the graves of my grandmother and her parents east of Memphis in Eads Tennessee, those living descendants were the last I finally made a good strong connection with.  The reality is that I simply can’t recover 6 decades of not living with the usual family interactions with my true genetic relatives.  All I can do is try and build relationships with whatever time each of us has left.  The personal memories of my grandmother that my mom’s cousins possessed (she was our favorite aunt, they said) made her come alive for me.

The Salvation Army was somewhat forthcoming with information about my father’s birth at one of their homes for unwed mothers in the San Diego California area just walking distance from the beach and ocean.  They were able to give me my father’s full name and the missing piece of how he got from San Diego to El Paso Texas where he was ultimately adopted.  Once I knew my grandmother’s first married name (born Hempstead including my dad, later Barnes, Timm at death) and a cousin did 23 and Me, my discoveries were off and running.  Her mother, my dad’s youngest half-sibling, was living only 90 miles away from him when he died.  Mores the pity.

I thought I’d never know who my dad’s father was since his mother was unwed but the next cousin I met who I share a grandmother with had her photo albums and she left us a breadcrumb.  Clearly she had no doubt who my dad’s father was.  His father, Rasmus Martin Hansen, was an immigrant, not yet a citizen, and married to a much older woman.  So, he probably never knew he was a father and that’s a pity because I do believe my dad and his dad would have been great friends.

I now also have contact with my Danish grandfather’s genetic relatives.  If it had not been for the pandemic, they would have had their annual reunion there in Denmark.  I haven’t heard but I would not be surprised to know it is postponed.  My relative (who I share a great-grandfather with – my dad being the only child of my grandfather) planned to make the Danish relatives aware of me.

To anyone who thinks not knowing who your true relatives are – if the adoptions were more or less good enough, happy enough and loving enough – I am here to tell you that not knowing anything about your family (including medical history) and being cut off from the people you are actually genetically related to DOES matter.  Adoption records should be UNSEALED for ALL adult adoptees at their request.  Sadly over half of these United States still withhold that information.  I know from experience as I encountered this problem in Virginia, Arizona and California.  If my mom’s adoption had not been connected to the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby stealing and selling scandal, I would not have gotten my first breakthrough.

Marginalizing Adoptee Voices

This meme by a PRO-adoption group is meant to diminish the reality of adoptees by suggesting their lives could have been worse.  Maybe their lives could have been worse but that does not mean they have to be grateful for what they lost.

This is an apples to oranges comparison –  like saying the kid with the broken legs at the hospital can’t complain because the kid next door has cancer.  We can be grateful things aren’t worse for us but that does not mean we are grateful for the wounds we suffer either.

Its not a competition. They are two separate, traumatic situations. Comparing unlike situations does not serve either of them.

The person who originally posted this meme is an adoptive parent who is attempting to co-opt the adoptee experience by starting a propaganda campaign in support of adoption.  You would NOT believe how MANY adoption related groups are listed at Facebook.  This group Adoption & Samfund Ungdom is Danish (I am 25%).

Here is a blurb in English from their page –

“Finally a Facebook page on adoptees who are glad they are adopted. I am thankful to God for all the good things I have in my life, including simple things like food, clothes, shelter and good health and I teach my adoptive children to be thankful to God (NOT thankful to me) for these too. I am happy there are many adoptees who are quite normal unlike the crazy businessman Arun Dohle who makes huge money out of adoptees.”

I would wish to note here that Arun Dohle was adopted by a German couple from an Indian orphanage.  Like many adoptees, he started to search for his roots in his late teens. The Indian orphanage did not want to provide access to his file. Arun addressed his issue through the Indian Courts.  It took him 17 years to finally obtain access to the desired information.  It should NOT have to be so hard.

My own mom tried to get her adoption file from the state of Tennessee and was rejected in the early 1990s.  I finally received her full file in 2017 after her death (not that she had to die to get this – she was never informed that the law in Tennessee was changed in the late 1990s that would have allowed her to receive it – more the tragedy really).

I simply want to make this clear.  An adoptee can be grateful for their blessings and still have deep traumatic wounds from the realities of their adoption.  I seriously have a problem with making adoption about God, even though I have a deep spirituality that connects me to my own creator.