Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Birds and Bees for Adoptees: Where’s the Buzz?

Guest Post by Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

Central to all our lives is the question of who we are—the desire to know who came before us and what about them we retain in ourselves. 

Do I have my grandmother’s nose? Who had my shade of blue eyes? On whom can I blame my frizzy mousy hair? Am I hot-tempered because my ancestors were Italian or Irish, or do I brood and go off on long cerebral tangents because they were Russian?

When we look at our biological parents, siblings, and extended families, each of us sees parts of ourselves reflected back. Through the act of sex, genes from each of our parents are transmitted, collide into one another, and then ricochet off to form new patterns.  While not clones—we know, we see, we feel—we are from a common cross-pollinated pool in which we have all been dipped. 

In biological families, we can identify who had sex with whom to produce the people we call our own.

For adopted children, however, this family parlor game of dissecting facial features, body type, aptitude, and temperament cannot be played out. Often, as in my own case—my 11-year old son is a Russian adoptee—adoptive parents know nothing of the ancestry or the biology of their children. Adopted children arrive in our lives fully formed, like the stork delivering the baby, void of reproductive biology or history.

For the single-digit age group, the stork tale is a very serviceable story, up to a point. But pinch-hitting, as is true for any temporary fix, ultimately exhausts its usefulness: the introspection and self-awareness of emerging adolescence inevitably disrupts the story line.

The happy-ever-after fairy tales of Disney’s family sagas, whether about deer, dogs, or elephants, give way to the to the weighted truth of sexual consequences in Juno—from “how did the stork know where we lived” to young teens recoiling at the thought that their parents did “it.”

And, as parents know, talking about sexual intimacy, or “having the conversation,” with your child is awkward, self-conscious, and a rite-of-passage parenting moment best when over. When I mustered the cool to broach the topic with my now 15-year-old biological daughter, she responded, “I know all about that.”

My adopted son, however, recently broached the subject with me. While seeking an answer to a question not out of the ordinary for an 11-year old, what he really wanted was for me to talk about his birth. 

He asked if he had been in my tummy. I had to tell him no.

The biological chemistry of baby-making is the same for every child that is birthed. But for an adopted child the context and subtext are altered. Yes, man-sperm, woman-egg, sex and conception—but with adoption, the parents relating the facts and the child receiving them are not perpetuating familial genetic history from one generation to the next. Instead, the biological tale signifies both a beginning and an end. 

By telling my son he was not in my tummy, I was acknowledging he was not of our genetic pool.  His hereditary history is different from his sister’s, from mine, and my late husband’s. 

Some may think this fact sad or harsh. But in truth, all of us are disparate until we form our own family units and form new lines. My son may not have been biologically conceived by us, but we are now a family. His place in it will be forever woven into the future coda, the story, of our family line. His children will be ours.

Adopting Nick into our family was the beginning of his new life as our son and brother to his sister. But telling my son he was not in my tummy implied he was in someone else’s.

So many times I have asked myself who this woman might have been. What were the circumstances that led her to give up her newborn son, which is all I know about her?  Was she young, old, healthy, sick, addicted, abused, overwhelmed, tall, short, athletic, musical, withdrawn or passionate? What is the color of her hair?

Does my son look like her?

Nick doesn’t ask me those questions, although, when pre-school age, he and my daughter would together imagine what his Russian mother might have been like. Instead, he asks about my husband, who died three months after we adopted Nick. Through these stories, I re-create my husband, a father that Nick never knew. These stories are his compass to manhood. Of his biological father, there is no information.

I tell him, “Daddy was tall, like you are going to be. And you like to tell silly jokes, just like Daddy did.” I also tell him, when he says he misses his father, how proud his father would be of him.

Yes, we are all conceived through sex. But is that collision and random assemblage of genes what binds families or parents to their children? Given the currents of love that surge between my son and me, I say the answer is no.

Sex is fun, mysterious, and one of the perks of our human race. Under the right circumstances, it creates new life. But the sexual act does not dictate the way we love our children, wax maternal, or hover over them like bears with their cubs.

I may not have physically conceived my son, but we did conceive our love for him. The next time he asks if he came from my tummy, I’ll say, “No, you came from my heart.”

Fran Cronin began her writing career in New York, with guest editorials for Sculpture Magazine followed by contributing stories for Technology Today. In addition, she wrote scripts and copy for health and safety print and media campaigns while living in Washington, D.C. She is currently a journalism master’s candidate at the Harvard Extension School. Her most recent article, “Why Do the Russians Make It So Tough to Adopt?” recently appeared in Adopt-a-tude.


Carol Birnbaum said...

This is a very moving piece, Fran! If we look hard enough, we can see a bit of ourselves - good and bad - in anyone and perhaps everyone else. Those of us involved in adoption are simply confronted with this from the get-go.

Alex Speredelozzi said...

Fram, Great job thinking through the complexity of meaning when it comes to heredity in adoption, and then to end with a simple statement of love. Perfect.

Alex Speredelozzi said...

Whoops, sorry about that spelling error, FRAN. Whose idea was it to put the "m" next to the "n" on the keyboard. Back to typing school for me!