As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that when it comes to family, there is no such thing as normal — there is only what we know. A close friend of mine is adopted and people often ask about her “real” parents, meaning biological. She answers the same every time: “My adopted parents are my real parents. My adopted family is my real family.” Below, under an anonymous moniker, she recounts her experience growing up adopted and explains how it shaped her as an adult.
I knew I was adopted from the moment I could understand more than two sentences strung together. There was no sit-down conversation with my parents where I walked away thinking, “I’m different.” It was assimilated into the conversation from the get-go, something my immediate and extended family has always been very open about. My brother’s adopted, too (he’s younger than I am), and same thing: He’s always known. It’s always been our normal. I do remember my mom saying, “You didn’t come out of my tummy like most children, but you came out of my heart and dad’s heart.”
My parents got married when they were 27. This was a small town in the 80s; they were the last of their friends to get married. Their friends had kids; my parents were already godparents. They wanted kids of their own.
My mom was able to get pregnant three different times, but she had ectopic pregnancies, which is when the fetus develops outside the uterus. This is fatal to the fetus and very dangerous to the mom.
Now, I can’t corroborate this, but this is what my parents tell me:
A local OBGYN wanted to help two groups of women in the community: women who were getting pregnant and unable to keep their children, and women who couldn’t get naturally pregnant at all. He was friends with a lawyer who became his unofficial partner to handle the legal side of the adoption process.
My birth mom was a patient of this OBGYN. She was in college when she got pregnant and made the decision to put me up for adoption. My mom — my mom-mom, who would later adopt and raise me — just had her second miscarriage because of an ectopic pregnancy, and her friend, who would become my future godmother and who had heard about this doctor/lawyer partnership, spoke to the OBGYN about my parents’ situation. The OBGYN was also my mom’s doctor. That sounds like a breech of patient/client privacy, but this is a small town we’re talking about and it was the 80s.
Then my mom got pregnant again for the third time. She was pregnant for three months, the longest she ever had been. Everyone was holding their breath to see what would happen. Then one day, while on a walk with my dad, she collapsed. There was blood everywhere. My dad carried her back to the house and drove her to the hospital. When she woke up and learned she has miscarried, she said to my dad, “I can’t give you a baby with my body. If you want to leave me, I understand.” My dad told her he didn’t marry her so that she could give him babies, he married her because he loved her.
My mom returned home from the hospital, still recovering. She had stitches from one hip to the other. It was October in 1987, and my was dad out hunting — like in a marsh, staying in a cabin. No cell phones back in those days. He was literally in the middle of nowhere. My mom gets a call one day. It was her OBGYN, who was like, “Hey, just calling to check in, I want to make sure everything’s okay.”
“I’m okay, tired all the time,” my mom said.
“Well, I think you’re about to be even more tired pretty soon,” the doctor said. My mom was thinking, Oh great, assuming she had to come in for more tests. Then he said, “because your daughter’s being born right now.” The adoption wheels had already been set in motion after my mom’s second miscarriage by the OBGYN and my mom’s friend. Then the doctor told my mom to “come and get her daughter.”
My mom was like, “What the hell?” So she called her mom, who drove her to the hospital, and somehow they got ahold of my dad, and he met them there. Crazy, right? I learn more about this story every year.
“Well, what am I?”
When you’re in school and you’re learning about ethnicities and where people come from and the history of the US, kids are always sharing things like, “I’m 50% this, I’m 25% that.” I would always ask my parents, “Well, what am I?” When I was adopted, somewhere along the lines there was misinformation shared with my parents. They were told I was Mediterranean, so I grew up saying I was, thinking that maybe I could be Greek, or maybe from Italy, on the coast, but it was always a question mark. In class, I’d have to say, “I’m not 100 percent sure what ethnicity I am because I’m adopted.” Kids would ask, “Where are you adopted from?” And I’d be like, “Same town as you.”
I recently did 23andMe, which tests your DNA for ancestry, carrier status, genetic health risk and traits. It used to be super expensive to get that kind of test done. It certainly wasn’t an option for me, but as it became more accessible to the general population (it’s now around $100), my mom asked if I wanted to take it. I said yes, one thousand percent. My brother did, too. She gave it to both of us for Christmas this year. We took the test together and then sent in the sample vials. I was really excited to get the results. Those were like a Christmas present in and of themselves. I was at work when I got the results, and then I started crying.
Turns out I am not Mediterranean. I’m Irish, British, French and German. It was cool to have that, to know that. If I’m lucky enough to have kids, I’ll be able to share that with them. The 23andMe test also tests you for traits, like whether or not you’re more likely to have a cleft chin or unattached earlobes. It also tests you for any diseases you may be a carrier for.
Every time I go to a new doctor and have to fill out the “family medical history” portion, I’m like, “N/A, N/A, N/A, I’m adopted.” I get tested for things more frequently, or earlier, than people who have a good grasp on what their family and medical history is. I think I have to do a blood test or something with the person I choose to marry to make sure we’re not related. There are lots of funny things like that.
Some questions that people ask me a lot are, “How old were you when you were adopted?” or, “Do you and your brother have the same parents?” Another common one: “Do you know your real mom and real dad?”
I grew up with my mom telling me, “The phrase isn’t ‘real’ mom and dad, it’s ‘birth’ mom and dad. We’re your real parents.” They are.
And I don’t know if I can say it was divine intervention, but it was definitely serendipitous that my two best friends growing up were both adopted, too. That was helpful at that age, where you don’t know how to answer these kinds of questions, when you don’t know what to say. Being friends with them made being adopted feel normal because the three of us could talk about it, or not talk about it, or be like, “That’s cool!”
My birth parents
A lot of people ask me if I want to know my birth parents. People are nosey. Some are considerate about it — they’ll ask a question then apologize for being intrusive, and usually I’ll say, “It’s cool.” Others ask a million intrusive questions without asking if it’s okay to do so, and then they tell me their opinions that I didn’t ask for.
As to whether or not I want to know my real parents, the answer is not right now. I don’t need to explore that part of my history because I’m content with the parents I have. Between them and my brother and my extended family, I don’t feel like there’s a hole I need to fill.
In all the conversations I’ve had with my mom and dad about this, they’ve made it clear: My birth mom loved me so much, a kind of love you can’t even fathom, because in putting me up for adoption, she had to go against her deepest instinct. It’s ingrained in a mother’s bones. They were clear that the decision she made is the hardest decision you can make. When you’re nine months in, and you can feel that baby swimming around in there…you can’t even imagine. But she made the decision to give her daughter a better life than she could give me at the time. I think someone once asked, “Are you mad your birth mom gave you away?” She didn’t give me away. She gave me all of her love inside of her.
It took a village
Now that I’ve moved back home to the small town I was born and raised in as an adult, I realize how special it is to have so much family all in one place. Around here, your parents’ friends and aunts and uncles are so critical. It’s true: It takes a village to raise a child, and they had a whole village behind them. All these people wanted my parents to have kids. Having that backing, that community, allowed my parents to talk about their struggles conceiving with the people they love the most, and that whole village helped support my mom and dad to do what they did.
In our family, among aunts and uncles and cousins, it never felt like my brother and I were the “adopted kids.” Adoption was just part of our family story. My aunt and uncle gave us books about being adopted, we all talked about it when we were younger. We were part of the family, just a little different. Now that I’m getting older, I think about the kids I hope to have one day. I think about how I won’t be the adopted kid anymore, I’ll be the parent explaining to her kid what it means that her mom is adopted. Having navigated those conversations when I was young, I think I’ll know how to explain it to my children. I definitely want to try to have my own kids. I always say, “If I’m lucky to have children,” because knowing what my mom went through, it really does seem like luck. If that’s not an option for me, I would definitely adopt.
I’ve only shared this with a few people because it’s hard to explain, but the amount of gratitude I have for God, for my birth parents and for my parents is immeasurable. I’m here today. I am the person I am. Sometimes I get this crazy perspective seemingly out of nowhere where I’m like, I could be living a completely different life right now. My life really could be totally different. I might not have had as many opportunities as I’ve had. I might not have had as many life experiences if it weren’t for my family. I have this really intense, immeasurable gratitude because I was adopted.
In my eyes, my parents did everything right. I don’t have questions or fears or anxieties that surround my adoption. My brother and I are happy people. Sometimes my dad will say, “I forget you were adopted until you remind me.” [Laughs.] I’m like, “I know, dad.”
Photography: Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Creation Direction: Emily Zirimis
Want to keep reading? In the mother-daughter theme: Seven Mother-Daughter Duos on their Unique Relationship. For another as-told-to: What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom.