As the pro-adoption lobby machine kicks into overdrive come this November, for National Adoption Awareness Month, I can’t help but get frustrated by the incessant, no doubt well intended, messages by some adoptive parents that biology doesn’t matter. The ubiquitous catch cry that all is needed to make a family is “love” is a euphemism because whilst love is the ideal ingredient in a family it is not the only thing that matters. If “love” was indeed all that mattered then we wouldn’t have generations of adoptees, from the closed adoption era, accessing DNA testing services, genealogy searches (a search on the internet reveals a plethora of services) and specialized services to support reunions. I am particularly interested in family trees and I always wonder – well who’s tree do I fit within? My family of origin or my adoptive families? In that spirit, here are five reasons (there are of course more) why biology does matter:
- Mirror loss – most people who are not adopted, can look in the mirror and see their family characteristics and who they resemble but we adoptees, from the closed adoption era do not have this. This phenomenon is usually referred to as mirror loss. People take for granted that their characteristics anchor them to their family now and through history. I consider myself one of the lucky ones in that I was raised in the Anglo/Italian culture. My adoptive father (who I adored) was Italian and so were my cousins. When I finally found my father, I wasn’t too shocked to find out that he was a Sicilian immigrant. Meeting him made sense of who I was, from my brown eyes, to my little caricature hands down to my spirited and passionate temperament.
- Temperament and even our facial expression– is largely inherited. When people adopt a baby, that child becomes part of their family but they also belong to another family too – their family of origin. No amount of love will erode the fact that who we are reflects where we come from.
- Health – throughout my life, whenever I experienced a medical issue, I always wondered what if? What if I have inherited something terrible? This led me to being hypervigilant about my health and in turn sometimes caused catastrophic thinking. Since talking to other adoptees I realize that I am not alone in this. This is especially disconcerting when a visit to the Dr yields the all too familiar family medical history question, and my response rolls off the tongue with despair “I don’t know because I am adopted”. Surely it would have been reasonable, even within the principles of ‘duty of care’, that adoptees were provided with a mechanism for getting their medical history?
- What we learn before we're born - a Ted talk by science author, Annie Murphy Paul, which has been viewed close to 1.5 million times, punctuates the points I make – our biology matters. She posits that our health and wellbeing, throughout our life, is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb. In fact, a fetus knows their mothers voice and prefers to listen to it over anyone else’s. So imagine the trauma when you remove a newborn from their mother and place them into the arms of strangers. Adoption is an exciting time for the adoptive parents but we must never forget the loss that that the adoptee and their family of origin endures.
- Close encounters – when I met my paternal siblings, we found out that we had all frequented the same nightclubs for many years. My paternal brother and I were awfully glad (understatement) that we hadn’t dated. I have heard of cases where this has happened. I was also raised in a small rural community unbeknownst to me surrounded by genetic cousins. When I moved to the city, where I had been born, a day never went by that I didn’t scan people’s faces to see if anyone resembled me. I used to fantasize about who my original parents where, more often than not, as a young girl, I would imagine that Joan Collins was my mother and Robert De Niro was my father. I was never allowed to have my birth certificate which further fueled my imagination and in turn I developed idealized notions of said original/first parents.
I know some who are reading this will argue that open adoption will resolve some of these issues. However, I am still not convinced because it’s my understanding, from talking to and reading stories about adoptees (from open adoption), that the relationships, whilst originally entered into with good intentions, are not always maintained. I can only imagine how confusing this would be for some adoptees but that’s their story to tell. In any case, our identity is inextricably linked to our families of origin and we must honor adoptees and all their families.
Addendum: for my views on the SSM debate, please follow the link below to my recent article.