This past weekend, I volunteered at Domestic Adoption Camp, which is exactly what it sounds like: a camp for families who have adopted children inside the United States.
I was one of three counselors helping with the pre-kindergarten/kindergarten group. We had five little girls in our group, which was fantastic. The smaller group size allowed us to do a lot more one-on-one activities, which is important with kids that small.
As domestic adoptees and (arguably) adults, my brother Mike and I were invited to speak on an adult adoptee panel in front of adopted parents. I was nervous and excited. Adoption is a non-issue for me; it’s always been a part of my life and I’ve never really thought of it as being a huge deal. It’s not anything that sets me apart; it’s just a fact.
As I get older, I find that adoption is more important to me. It’s something I’m proud of. It’s something I respect and for which I am eternally grateful. It’s something that does set me apart, to a certain extent. It is a curious thing, the way that I now have so many different mothers: I have my birth mom, my mom, my brother’s birth mom, my dad’s girlfriend. I love each and every one of them.
The panel focused on issues related to adoption and how we as adoptees handled certain things like self-esteem, open adoptions, searching for parents, and transparency. I explained that Mike and I have very different relationships with our birth mothers; I told them how envious I was when Mike got to meet his birth father (Mike jumped in to say that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be); I told them that even though I’ll never get to meet mine, the curiosity about what he looks like only grows stronger.
It’s a magical thing, to be surrounded by families like these. I’ve learned a lot about family over the years, as one tends to do when confronted with the inescapable reality that family is non-negotiable and therefore something you’ll have to adapt to. I’ve learned that family is what you make it. I have friends who are family. I have family who is family. I have family that I don’t consider family.
I have been fortunate enough to find so many different relationships, and when I went to my birth mom’s wedding in South Dakota, my family got a little bit bigger. (I’ve been playing a word game on the phone with my biological aunt. It’s been fantastic – she’s a seriously worthy adversary.)
I have been incredibly blessed to build the kind of strong support system that everyone should have. Through my participation in these adoption camps, I have been able to see the strength of family. The powerful and overwhelming amount of love there is something that gives me chills, in the best way.
Speaking on the panel, I told the adults that transparency was important. And unconditional love. I told them that when I started therapy, I told my mom that I might be angry with her sometimes, and in her graceful way, she told me that she knew that and that she supported me. I told them that if I were to be arrested tomorrow, the first phone call would be to my mother. I told them even though she doesn’t always like what I’m saying, she’s always there to listen. And for me, that’s huge.
When I told her my birth mom was getting married, she wanted to go. I was a little nervous, but I think she was more excited. I was grateful that she was there so that we could all share the experience, both of my moms and me. My family.
I watched a documentary called “Closure” about one woman’s search for her family. She had been adopted by a family in Washington when she was an infant, and as she grew older, she struggled with the not-knowing. (It’s a serious pull.) She began the search and was ultimately successful. It was a moving story, but a poignant reminder that family is forever.
In the documentary, they showed a clip of an old home video in which a stranger was questioning the dad about the kids (eight of them, I believe, all different colors and kinds). “How’d you get so many kids?” the man asks. The dad responds, “They stick to us like magnets. Better question: how do you get rid of them?” Laughter.
My favorite part is the laughter. At the last camp, I remember a girl telling the story of how her parents came to find her. They were in Africa, she was in an orphanage. She beamed as she recounted how they picked her up for the first time, and she smiled at each one of them, and they knew that she was their daughter. She radiated joy as she told the story, and my heart ached with happiness. I could tell that the parents had told her that story over and over, and I could feel the pride she felt.
My mom, Mike, and I have our things. We call each other the “worst guy” and we regularly quote The Sandlot. You’re the worst guy if you are doing something annoying, like when my mom senses that the stop light ahead might – just might – change, so she slows down while it’s still green. You can hear the chorus of groans and “Ugh, you’re the worst guy!” coming from both of us. My mom and I dissolve into a fit of laughter-induced tears when we tell the story of Mike falling off the treadmill. (No one, including Mike, thinks it’s funny.)
Family may be what you make it, but for some of us, we’re lucky enough to have more opportunities for family than most people.