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Genes aren’t destiny, and other things I’ve learned from being adopted

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"You're adopted?"

That's inevitably how people respond to me when the word comes up in conversation. I can almost hear the italics around it: "You're adopted?" I know there are dozens of questions lurking beneath the word, if only I'll talk about them.

And I always will talk, because being adopted is pretty boring, honestly. It's a fact of my life, but it's background radiation — always there, but not always on my mind. The facts of my adoption have, at various times in my life, been a badge of honor I wore to make myself seem cool and different, a thing I didn't like to talk about, and a complicated story I'm still in the middle of writing even as I begin this article.

So let's talk. Because yes, I'm adopted, and it's both more interesting and less interesting than most people imagine.

To research this article, I read a number of papers and books on adoption, and I interviewed many of my fellow adoptees. But this, inevitably, is my story. Take it with as many grains of salt as you need.

1) Your adopted family is your "real" family

The first thing 95 percent of people ask me is, "Have you met your real parents?" To which I invariably respond, "Yes, I grew up with them."

I understand what this question is getting at. I really do. We still, as a species, tend to think of parenthood as the act of birth, the part when a mother and father greet their newborn in the delivery room and hold their baby close, basking in the wonder of that moment. And for so many people who want to have children, that will be their reality.

But my reality, and the reality of many others, is the person who gave birth to me realized that as a college student, she wasn't in a great place to raise a child. So she gave me up for adoption. She held me a couple of times after birth, then turned me over to an agency, which placed me in a foster home for the first two months of my life. And then a couple from South Dakota, who'd been trying for a baby for years without success, brought me into their lives and raised me.

My parents are so much my parents that they rewrote the past to make me theirs. That's pretty impressive.

My parents were there for me when bullies made me cry, when girls broke my heart, and when I needed a car to get to school and work. The issues with parents that all of us have and talk about with therapists or spouses or friends, for me are attached to these two people.

Similarly, my sister is my sister, even though we don't share nearly as much DNA as most siblings do. She's the one who drove me nuts as a kid, and the one at whose wedding I gladly served as groomsman. She's the only other one who understands completely the story of being raised by our parents, in all its weird complexities, just as your brother or sister is the only one to understand the story of being raised by your parents.

Let's put it another way — the name on my birth certificate is Todd VanDerWerff, even though I didn't get that name until two months after I was born. My parents are so much my parents that they rewrote the past to make me theirs. That's pretty impressive.

2) It's also not your real family, and that can make you feel like an alien

There's a reason Clark Kent is our most famous fictional adoptee — and a reason so many adoptees (including me) strongly identify with him. He might love his parents and adopted world, but there will always be something that connects him to a secret history he carries in his heart. If there's a common thread among the adoptees I've talked to for this article, it's that weird link between known backstory and personal truth.

Clark Kent, adoptee, and his parents. (DC Comics)

I used to tell my wife that when I was a teenager, I often felt like an alien who had been placed among a bunch of people who would never understand my biology. She finally rolled her eyes one time to say, "Todd, everybody feels like that as a teenager." But that "alien" word resonated with lots of the adoptees I talked to.

Look at it this way — yes, most teenagers have that moment when they wonder, "Oh my god, can these people be my parents?" But adoptees actually have, on some level, the knowledge that their parents aren't their parents, at least if DNA has anything to say about it. And if you don't really look like your parents or siblings (as my sister and I don't), that gets even more potent.

Or — as my sister told me when I interviewed her — when she found out as a kid that she was adopted (from me, as it turns out), she just assumed I was my parents' natural-born child and she was their adopted daughter. Suddenly, here was a place she could put all of her perceived differences from me and from our parents. Except I felt the same things, over and over and over, just in different ways.

Even as very young children, we often test boundaries, trying to find ways to discover our own identities amid the chaos of childhood. Adoption gives kids — and especially teenagers — a ready-made out.

3) The connection to your biological family is real — and strong

Yes, I've found my biological family. And there is nothing like it on Earth. It's a powerful sensation I wish I could bottle and give to you right now.

But let me try to describe it, at least a little bit. Meeting your biological family, seeing siblings who've just learned you exist, walking into the homes of your biological parents, even just having a drink or two with them — it's like stepping out of the life you know and into an alternate history of yourself.

If you are the biological child of the parents who raised you, you probably can't understand this. We all wonder "what if," certainly, especially for things that didn't quite go our way in the past. But those "what ifs" remain just that: unvisited other selves who disappear into the mists as quickly as we conjure them up.

I've found my biological family. It's a powerful sensation I wish I could bottle and give to you.

What makes a just-met biological family so very powerful is the fact that all those what ifs become real. You'll hear stories about the wild parties your grandparents threw, or what a brat your sister was as a child, or what soda your father preferred to drink, and it will be so, so easy to see yourself in the middle of those stories, even as you know you weren't there. Because you almost were. This is the person you could have been, but for one decision somebody else made for you.

For the most part, I've found, adoptees prefer the lives they were raised in, but the connection to that other self can be intoxicating. The first time I met my younger biological half-sister — one of the first times I'd ever seen somebody who looked like me on the planet — and we hugged was one of the best moments of my life, comparable to the moment I met my younger biological half-brother a few seconds later.

Those hugs, you see, weren't just hugs between two people who had just met. They were between two people who had always known each other but didn't have a word for it yet.

4) But genetics only go so far

That said, you know what? In the battle of nature and nurture, nurture has so much sway. I know because I've been there.

My sister and I often joke about what workaholics we are, how we'll throw ourselves into projects and devote ourselves to them utterly until they're done. And there is simply no explanation for why we're that way, other than that our father may have told us, "If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well" more times than any phrase other than "I love you" in our collective childhoods. And, yes, like all kids, we rolled our eyes, but as with all kids, some of that sunk in.

This is true for all adoptees I talk to. There's something they've taken from their parents that they perhaps didn't even realize until they were much older. That might be something they're proud of, or something they despise, but it has nothing to do with DNA and everything to do with the way young minds soak up the lessons adults try to teach them.

My friend Allison, who's an adoptee and now is pursuing her doctorate to be a certified nurse midwife, chastises me on my tendency to ascribe things to genetics that don't actually deserve to be placed in that category.

For instance, my biological father — whom I never got a chance to meet, thanks to his untimely death — loved Dr. Pepper. So do I. But where I see this as evidence of some tie to him in my genetic code, Allison sees it as a weird coincidence. Everybody everywhere, she says, tries to believe in DNA as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, but maybe I just like Dr. Pepper because I like Dr. Pepper. What's important is the way we're raised, the way our parents are or aren't there for us, and the way our developing minds deal with that.

5) Fear of abandonment can totally fuck you up — and it's way more common among adoptees than you might think

This is the hard one, the one most adoptees have trouble talking about, sometimes even in therapy. And yet there's a ton of psychological research around this notion, even suggesting that adoptees are somehow aware of this as infants.

We know babies need a safe, stable environment, and we know they're at least somewhat aware of things like their mother's voice in the womb. Thus adoption, particularly if delayed by weeks or months, becomes an early disruption that throws things into upheaval. It's the chaos that defines these infants' lives, at least for a little while, and it never entirely dissipates as time passes. Or so the theory goes, at least.

I don't want to lose anything, ever again, and that's woven into the deepest parts of my brain

In my life, and in the lives of other adoptees I interviewed, this holds true, too. Even if you don't buy the theory about infants being somehow cognizant of what's happening to them, it still makes a kind of sense. When you're adopted, at some level, your story is defined by a person who did not want you. Not wanting you may have been defined by wanting the best for you — in fact, most of the time it is. But it's still this factor in your life that you have no control over, an internal mechanism that can tell you constantly you're not good enough, if you'll let it.

And in my life, at least, it's led to a constant need to hang on to things, long past the point when many would give up on them. That's made me a good friend in trying times, and it's saved my marriage. But it also means I sometimes take on too much, or let my life pile up with mementos I don't really need any more. I don't want to lose anything, ever again, and that feeling is woven into the deepest parts of my cerebral cortex. And that's more common than you might think.

6) Trans-racial adoptees often have it hardest of all

I mentioned my friend Allison above; the other thing you have to know about her is that she was born in South Korea and adopted by a family in a small Midwestern town, where she grew up as the only Asian person around. People might look at my sister and me and say, "Hmm, they look pretty different," but the reality of Allison's adoption was easy to figure out the second anybody saw her with her parents and Caucasian brother.

International adoption has become more and more popular in recent years — it was still relatively uncommon when Allison was adopted in the early 1980s — and there have been some incredible articles written about the strain that can open up between white, American parents and the children they've taken in who've had vastly different experiences.

But there's also the simple impossibility of any white parent to wholly and completely empathize with their child when it comes to the matter of being of another race. You can try your best to highlight elements of your children's biological culture as much as possible — as Allison's parents did — but they'll still be placed in a situation where the people they see around them and the person they see in the mirror don't seem to match up.

Allison tells me the defining element of her childhood wasn't the fact of her adoption but instead the fact that she ended up in a small town in Iowa, where she had to deal with regrettable, all-too-casual racism. While a minority child raised by her biological parents might be able to turn to them for advice on how to deal with racism, Allison simply didn't have that, because her biological parents lived half a world away, in a place where they were the majority culture. (And because of the murky paperwork surrounding adoptions like Allison's, she still hasn't found her biological family and is unlikely ever to do so.)

Allison, every time we talk about this, is careful to spell out that in so many ways, her childhood was the same as anyone's. But that tiny splinter between her and her parents was so much wider for her than it ever was for me. We like to believe love can conquer all, and that's often true. But in this case, love can't conquer the fact that people are sometimes assholes, no matter how much parents in trans-racial adoptions might hope otherwise.


7) Juggling multiple families is not an easy task

My wife and I live in California. My family and my wife's family live in South Dakota. My sister and her family live in Iowa. If you are married, you inevitably know the complications of trying to split up holidays among multiple families.

Now consider doubling this. My biological half-sister and her family live in Idaho. My biological half-brother lives in Arizona. My biological father's parents lived in Michigan until they died, and his sister is still there. My biological mother also lives in Michigan. If you want to see everybody once or twice per year, it gets a little nuts, and the scheduling drives my wife and me a bit crazy sometimes.

The most consistent fight in my marriage comes from the thought that we're spending more time with my family than with hers. And there's simply no way to not make this true, because I have, like, 500 families we have to visit. (I have had, for instance, eight grandparents in my life. Think about the logistics of that.)

Now consider another weird little reality of my life. My biological mother has opted not to tell her kids of my existence, a decision I understand and don't question. But someday I will be at her funeral, to pay my respects. Maybe nobody notices me. But how easy would it be for this to end up as a weird, Dickensian plot twist?

Obviously, some adoptees never meet their biological families. Even those who do don't always particularly like theirs. And there are families in which the decision to meet the biological family weighs heavily on adoptive parents. (Mine were so supportive they constantly ask to see pictures of my half-sister's kids.) That reality, thankfully, is not mine. But mine is still hectic.

8) Giving birth doesn't make you a parent; parenting does

This lesson has been so thoroughly gobbled up by well-meaning public service announcements and the like that it's easy to forget just how powerful the notion is. The idea of dedicating yourself to the proper care and education of a tiny human being, that he or she might someday grow up into an adult who will leave you behind and chart a new path — that's incredibly powerful.

In my experience, adoptees are more aware of this than lots of people. One friend I've talked to in the past (who declined to be interviewed for this article) told me he had no desire to ever find his biological parents, because they had forfeited their right to be his parents when they gave him up. No matter what conflicts he had with his adoptive parents, no matter how he disappointed them or they him, they were the people who'd stuck out their necks to raise him, who'd made mistakes, who'd been there when he needed them.

I have had eight grandparents in my life. Think about the logistics of that.

So much of childhood is defined by how we position ourselves in relation to our parents, how they go from seemingly omnipotent superbeings to our super-cool, super-smart landlords to people we can't stand to real, live human beings with flaws and strengths, like anybody else. Even the worst adoptive parents mark themselves as parents by that willingness to be the people their children define themselves against for the better part of their lives.

I think we so often believe adoptive parents aren't "real" parents because of how pervasive the idea of rotten adoptive or foster parents is in fiction. Think of Harry Potter, say, living beneath his aunt and uncle's staircase and pining away for a better, more magical life. Adoptees often pine away for that better, more magical life, but when they find it they discover it's just as mundane as the one they came from.

We're all, every single one of us, trying to discover who we are. Sometimes I think being an adoptee was beneficial for me in that regard, because I got to realize, later in life, that there would never be an easy answer, an escape pod from my home planet, a giant who came to the door and delivered me to Hogwart's. Instead, I, like everybody, was going to have to fill in the blanks myself.

9) In the end, it's worth it

I ended every interview for this article with the same question: with everything you know about adoption, would you do so if you were unable to have children naturally? And everybody, even people who had awful experiences with adoption, tells me yes, they would, if it came to that.

To look at the question from this side is to suddenly see your parents all over again, as people who very much wanted something and didn't know how to cross the gap between wanting and being. Or it's to suddenly see your biological parents all over again, as scared kids, or as people who couldn't afford another child, or as people who just decided there was a better life out there somewhere than the one they could provide. There's something beautiful in that very notion, no matter how much heartbreak it can cause along the way.

Allison concluded her talk with me by saying she's never much put stock in her birthday. For one thing, the Korean adoption agency that placed her with her parents might very well have gotten the date wrong. And for another, she just doesn't like it. Her story, like mine, with those missing two months, will always have a mystery to it.

Now, however, she works in maternity wards, which she says is fitting. To help a child into this world, in any capacity, is to celebrate the continuum we all find ourselves on. If Allison's own birthday has always been hidden and hazy in the midst of that mystery, well, she can still be present for so many other birthdays, an endless string of them. In that way, she said, she reclaims the past for herself. She gets to have birthdays, even if they're not hers.

I see that desire to reconnect with an origin story in lots of adoptees, actually. It's certainly why I write and interview others — a brief visit to all those other lives I didn't lead but maybe could have. And as I get older, I also embrace how this helps me accept that no parent, including mine, gets it completely right. To make it to adulthood is to see your parents as human beings, to see how they screwed you up — but also accept that you will screw up your own kids somehow, if you have them.

To adopt, then, is to accept that you don't get to be there at the start, don't get to give birth. It's to accept that you, too, will fail and struggle and utterly mess up, but that you will still be a parent — so long as you try and try and try anyway.

VIDEO: The big business of searching for ancestors

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