By: Lauren Jankowski
My brother often asks me why I chose to major in anthropology rather than creative writing. Surprisingly the answer has a lot to do with my work.
I’m an adopted child. I’ve grown up knowing that and so I don’t see it as all that unusual. I’ve always been upfront about my background, which surprises a lot of people and leads to some rather insensitive questions. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, a major running theme through most of the things I write is a search for identity. A lot of my characters are searching for where they fit in the world and what that means.
Whenever I’ve mentioned that I’m adopted, there is almost a knee-jerk reaction question: “But don’t you miss your real mother?” When I was very young, I had no understanding of what this meant and would often reply quite comically, “Why would I miss my Mom? She’s coming to pick me up after school.” This would then lead to the other kid repeating the question and me still not understanding what in the hell they were talking about.
As I got older, I became a little less open about my being an adopted child because I got sick of answering that same question. It didn’t matter how many times I carefully explained that I was adopted when I was two weeks old and therefore had no memory nor attachment nor feelings towards my biological mother; people just couldn’t accept this. So I basically gave up trying.
Our society has a very narrow definition of what a mother is. People want to fit everyone into neat little packages and roles. Even feminists sometimes fall into this trap. There is actually an anti-adoption movement on the basis that it is unfair to the biological mother. I’ve even heard closed adoption, which is where you give up all rights to the child like my biological mother did, called “the dark ages”. Being pro-choice, I find this incredibly hypocritical. It’s saying that a woman can decide up until she has the child and then all choice is eliminated. That just isn’t right.
Some months back, I had decided to search for an older half-sister. I was curious about what she was like since she was the one I knew least about. I even knew more about my unnamed biological father than I did about her. I have since given up the search for a variety of reasons, one of the main ones being that I stumbled across some rather important family medical history that had been withheld for purely selfish reasons. Furious at the irresponsibility of this action, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with my biological family. To date, my biological mother has made one attempt to contact me. It promptly wound up in the paper shredder.
The immediate reaction to this was my being chastised by some close to me for being cruel. Automatically, the offensive term of “real mother” or just plain “mother” came back into conversation. “How can you be so cruel to the woman that loved you so much?” I wanted to yell and scream. I wanted to snap that they had no idea what adoption was like and therefore were forming an opinion on something they knew nothing about. It was as if my own mother didn’t exist or was just some person in my life, nowhere near as important as this other woman who happened to share the same DNA. It was aggravating and offensive as hell, but I remained patient since I had been expecting such a reaction.
A couple months after this, I met with my adviser and former anthropology professor for a friendly visit, just to catch up. During the midst of our conversation, I let it slip that I was adopted and he was immediately fascinated. I was scared that this was going to be another bout of justifying my actions or feelings, but he surprised me with how open-minded he was on the topic. He told me that the island where he works, a small island near Papua New Guinea, is the adoption capital of the world. It is not unusual for a sister with many children to give one or two to her childless sister. They practice matrilineal descent, which means they call their mothers and aunts by the same terms.
That kind of understanding was refreshing to me and was exactly what I needed. Here was a person that actually understood adoption and was completely nonjudgmental about it. I had already decided that I would major in anthropology, but that wonderful discussion cemented my decision.
My professor mentioned that our culture has such a strange definition for kin. It’s very true. Western Culture seems to think blood is the be-all end-all of everything. We put too much emphasis on biology and not enough on kinship. We romanticize parenthood and family in much the same way we do matrimony. Anything outside our understanding of these concepts can’t possibly be right or healthy.
Perhaps I’m doing the same thing and over generalizing a complex issue. I can only speak from my experience. My mother raised me and loved me as her own and I have always felt like I was her daughter. Does it really matter that we have a different set of genes?
Lauren is a freelance writer living in Illinois