Identity

From an article in Severance magazine.

Growing up as an adoptee, I frequently fielded questions from friends and strangers alike. “Do you know who your real mother is?” “Do you think you look like your parents?” “What [ethnicity] are you?” The first two questions were easy to answer: My mother is my real mother.  No, I don’t look like either of them. But the third question hounded me my whole life. It speaks to a universal quest to identify with a group. And it speaks to the need of others to figure out who we are. For an adoptee, another question swirls around in the mix: Are we valid?

On one hand, our identity is who we believe we are, and on the other it’s who others believe us to be. In essence, the identity question is two-part: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do you think I am?’ Adopted or not, we work to reconcile our personal vision of who we are versus who others believe we are. Yet when you’re adopted, there’s an added layer. For me, and I imagine for many adoptees, there’s a struggle to answer the question ‘Who are you?’ When others challenge our identity because of our adoption status, it’s difficult enough; but it’s further complicated by the fact that we have incomplete information about our genetic roots and, therefore, we can’t answer. And even when we get that information, we’re still left wondering how others view us.

Now my story –

I’ve been going through 30-40 years of saved clutter, old letters to and from family members, etc. Yesterday I found my OMNI Berkeley Personality Test results. One does this for their own self and asks some people close to them to do it regarding that person’s perspectives on one’s personality. I had my husband, my daughter, my two sisters, my parents and my in-laws all do this for me back in the early 1990s. Then one compares how one sees one’s self with how other see them. It does give great insights.

I knew that both of my parents were adopted. Since finally learning who all 4 of my grandparents were so late in life (after the age of 60), I’ve also been reading and learning as much as I can about the effects of adoption on adoptees as well as on their descendants. Much of that learning I’ve been sharing in this blog.

No doubt, adoptees have all sorts of reasons for discovering their birth or genetic backgrounds. My mom felt compelled to try to connect with her birth mother but by the time she made the effort, it was too late. Her mother had already been dead for several years leaving my mom devastated. The state of Tennessee wouldn’t release her adoption file to her at that time because they could not determine the status of her birth father who had actually been dead for 30 years (they really didn’t try very hard). It’s a pity because in her adoption file that I now possess was a picture of her mother holding her for the last time before she was taken to be adopted.

In the Severance article, she writes – “I projected her need to know about the baby she’d given up, basing that assumption only on my own feelings toward my children—trying to imagine how a woman could part with her child. I thought perhaps she might want to know that I’d had a good life.” This is so much like my mom’s own explanation of her need to know. My own reason to do the search was to learn the truth about my own ethnic identity. Simply being “American” as my mom once told me because due to adoption they didn’t know, didn’t cut it for me. It is surprising how important in our melting pot of a country, there is still so much emphasis on our ethnic heritage. It was my public school girl days friends making a big deal about theirs that made me feel like something important was missing in my own life. Even the Census forces you to record some ethnicity other than American.

I am so glad to know today about my Danish paternal grandfather, my Scottish maternal grandmother and all of the English and Irish parts of me. I’m less fond of the strong streak of Confederates in my maternal line but grateful my Yankee paternal grandmother and that Danish paternal grandfather balance my karma out in that respect. I’ve certainly had fun exploring the traditions and places where my DNA originated. It is amazing how often Denmark turns up in my life before I even knew I had that culture in my background.

Seeking To Clarify The Story

Recently a friend alerted me to a writing contest, called the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize that is hosted by The Missouri Review (my home state), that will pay $5,000 to winners in the Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry categories along with a few other perks. At first, I really wasn’t going to add the distraction as I’m in the process of editing my two manuscripts. One is yet another revision of my adoption roots story. However, yesterday, I did a 180 on this. I need to condense down my almost 90,000 word manuscript to 8,500 words. The deadline is Oct 1st and so this is just a temporary distraction that may yet pay dividends for my effort to tell the story.

I realized that at this point in my process (I am almost done with my first read through to correct from a first person present narrative to a third person omniscient perspective and won’t say I’ve caught all of the outliers !!) that tightening up the story to the basic facts might be a good process. Certainly, $5,000 would be welcome and winning this year’s contest would open the door to getting the revised manuscript published. So, yesterday I began the effort in earnest.

I’ve told this story so many times, in so many ways. When sharing it vocally one-on-one with other people, there seems to be some interest. Unlike back in the early 1990s, when my mom was seeking to connect with the woman who gave birth to her (and was devastated to learn that she had died some years earlier) or at least receive her full adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I am seeing today, whereas in my mom’s push few adoptees made the effort, today attempts to create reunions are now common for adoptees and donor conceived persons.

Beyond that, many people are not well versed in their family genealogy and much of my own successful effort was not only connecting with living relatives from each branch of my family (both of my parents were adopted) but learning the stories of my ancestors – some of which stretched back prior to the American Revolution. I found connections to the Civil War that thankfully are balanced in my own personal history by northern Yankees and Danish immigrants in my other family line.

So, I am accepting this pause and this effort for the purpose of getting to the heart of the story of my own journey to know from whom and from where my own origins began.