By Lisa Regula Meyer
I, like a lot of people, grew up knowing non-traditional families of many sorts. Some were built through foster-to-adoption, some were non-parent guardians (some of own cousins were raised by our grandparents), step-families, international adoptions, single parents, the list goes on. It’s just how life works, right? I never really thought of these families as different, or the kids as anything other than normal, because in my world they were, and looking back, I feel fortunate to have known that diversity. Needless to say, the families that I knew were families where the story about the child’s creation was open and talked about. It wasn’t until I met a good friend’s family that I thought about how the formation of one’s identity might be altered based on the choices of their parents, and it wasn’t until then that I considered the privilege of knowing one’s own story.
Before I met my friend’s father, he had already explained that his dad was adopted. I was fine with the situation, and didn’t think anything of it, and it wouldn’t be until well over a year of knowing D that I would fully understand what that meant for him. Slowly, the story came out, first about his birth and adoption, and later about his lived experience of the process. D’s family is Scottish, and he’s proud of that heritage. His story let me truly appreciate how far we’ve come in family building and children’s rights, and where we can still improve.
D was adopted when he was three, and had spent most of his life in an orphanage before then. He remembers vague bits of this time, he remembers being called “Danny,” he has the teddy bear that he remembers clinging to, he remembers feeling different from his sister- their parents’ biological child. He wasn’t told until he was an adult that he was in fact adopted, and wasn’t told by his parents, but rather his sister. His parents had maintained that he was theirs the entire time.
Once he did find out the truth, and that his feelings had been correct, he set out on a hunt to find his biological parents. D built up a fantasy of his biological parents- good parents from good families, true love, unfortunate circumstances, regret, and wishing that they hadn’t let go of him. Sometimes his stories even included his family trying to come back for him. He had his stories, but he wanted the truth, and for adoptions done in the late ‘50’s and later, closed adoptions were the norm, and records were shoddy at best.
After loads of work, D eventually got some information, and found out his truth. He found out that he had been born with syphilis. That his mother had been a prostitute. That he had two other siblings, both with different fathers than his. All of this sent him into a tailspin, not for lack of wanting to know his background, but for the huge difference in what he had expected and what was reality.
I don’t write all of this to say don’t adopt, or don’t do a closed adoption, or anything else in the negative. I write all this to say be careful and be honest, whether you go through surrogacy, adoption, donor gametes, or donor embryos. I also write all this to remind us all that it’s not what created a family that matters, but the fact that a family was created. Remove the stigma, don’t judge others for having a different family make-up, and recognize that the one thing that builds all families is love. Love is the defining characteristic of a family; the rest is just the details.