Most people are born into their family. I was adopted by mine when I was 25. It’s an odd story, and at this point, I think I’ve seen every possible reaction: “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that;” “What happened with your old family?” and general reactions of shock, confusion and acceptance.
Now that it’s been five years since my adoption was finalized, I rarely tell the full story anymore. Typically, if it’s relevant to the conversation, I’ll mention I’m adopted, let whoever I’m with assume it was when I was a kid, and then move on. The full story is a lot for any person to understand, and the first thing you learn when you’re adopted is nobody’s opinion matters if their names aren’t on the adoption paperwork.
That being said, I can say taking my atypical path has been worth every confused look I’ve ever gotten and I think it’s important that more people know families can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and be formed in all kinds of different ways.
I originally met my mom, Lisa, in 2010 when I was an undergrad who had recently transferred to New College of Florida in Sarasota. Her daughter, Charlotte, was a classmate in my archaeology class and we’d become close friends. Lisa came to visit during Parents Weekend that fall; I ran into her and Charlotte, said hello and went on with my day.
My life at that time was a rollercoaster ride of undiagnosed anxiety and depression which was made even harder due to a challenging academic program and a difficult relationship with my biological family. To me, struggling was “normal,” but when I look back at my 20-year-old self, I realize that life doesn’t have to be lived that way.
I had always accomplished what I meant to do: get good grades, be accepted into a good college and stay out of trouble. It never occurred to me that the never-ending anxiety was unnecessary or that I should expect something other than criticism from my biological mother. Though I believe she was proud of my accomplishments, her pride seemed contingent upon my doing exactly what she wanted me to be doing.
By December 2013, I had graduated and received my B.A., was in counseling after surviving an assault and had been disowned by my biological mother after we got in a fight when I told her about the assault. I decided to spend that Christmas alone while my roommates — one of whom was Charlotte, who had become a dear friend — went to visit their families. Though they’d invited me to tag along with them, I wanted to revel in the quiet and solitude.
The next day I got a text from Charlotte. She had told Lisa that I was having a rough time.
“My mom wants to know if she can text you happy and encouraging things, is that okay?” Charlotte asked.
Feeling beaten down by everything I was going through, I told Charlotte she could give Lisa my number, thanked her for thinking of me, and assumed that would be the end of it. But let me tell you something: Never doubt the intentions or the power of a good-willed mama.
That’s how my life began to change, and in many ways, it never stopped.
Daily texts from Lisa grew into phone conversations that ebbed and flowed throughout the weeks until they were a normal part of our daily routines. I didn’t understand why my friend’s mom would want to spend her time or energy on me, but I was grateful for it.
Before long, I was confiding in her about any and everything, including my weekly counseling sessions, my overwhelming desire to crawl back into bed every morning and the near-suicidal depression that washed over me most days. She never failed to listen, helped me learn how to filter and deal with my depressive thoughts and shared her life with me as well.
After two years of trudging along and doing what felt like merely surviving, I was finally ready for a new adventure and applied to master’s programs. When my therapist asked me, “If you could go anywhere for school, where would you go?” I immediately responded, “Europe.” It felt scary to choose something so far out of my comfort zone but it also felt right, so I sent in an application for the applied linguistics program at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and I was accepted. The first person I told was Lisa.
A few days later, I came home from work and Charlotte told me that she wanted to talk. I was worried something bad had happened, but it was actually the opposite: She and Lisa wanted to know if I would officially join their family before I left for Ireland, as they wanted to make sure Lisa would be the legal next of kin in case there was an emergency while I was abroad.
We had had some conversations about Lisa adopting me in the past ― I was no longer in contact with my birth family, and these two women had truly become my real family ― but now that there was a clear and definitive reason to legally do so, I agreed.
Fortunately, I was working as a legal assistant at the time. My boss let me file the adoption paperwork through our office and within a week, we had scheduled the final hearing.
It felt surreal to be in the courtroom, but it was all over in 20 minutes and my adoption was approved. Lisa and Charlotte and I were prepared to explain why we were making what many would consider an unusual move, but the judge was more concerned with making sure my name was spelled correctly on the paperwork. With just a few signatures, Lisa was now legally my mom.
Three days later, I moved to Ireland to begin my year-long master’s program. Adjusting to living in a new country was challenging, especially while still working to manage my mental health, but Lisa was there throughout all of it. I called her nearly every day, waiting until it was at least 9 a.m. her time. We continued to chat about everything that was happening in our lives, and I can honestly say I would not have gotten through so much without her love and support. Even though I was an ocean away from her, just hearing my mom’s voice made everything manageable.
As my year abroad neared its end, I was excited to return home and spend time with my adopted family. Thankfully, the emergency we’d worried about never came to pass, but I was grateful that our planning ahead had pushed me to formalize my relationship with my new mom and sister.
Was getting adopted at age 25 worth it? Without a doubt. My mom is the most patient and kindest and most giving person I have ever met. I never thought I would get to have such a close relationship with a mother figure, but I was wrong. Having Lisa and Charlotte in my life has changed me in so many beautiful ways. I’ve realized that family isn’t always something you’re born into, and sometimes a bit of delightful happenstance and the ferocious love provided by people who want what’s best for you can give you what’s been missing.
“Before my adoption, I thought I was nothing. I woke up, went to work and fell back to a depression-induced sleep as soon as I got home. I was broken and only felt disgust when I thought about myself. That all changed when I met my family.”
Just as blood doesn’t necessarily make a family, neither does having a piece of paper acknowledged by the court. What truly matters is the bonds that exist between the people involved, but having that connection and protection should something have happened to me made me feel safer. And, after everything I’d been through with my birth family, being able to join my family in an official way felt incredible.
The adoption allowed me to work through some of the issues I had been grappling with for years and provided me with a sense of acceptance and closure that I realized I had been seeking. Obviously, not everyone needs or wants to go through the same steps I did to create and honor their chosen family — but for me, it felt absolutely right.
Before my adoption, I thought I was nothing. I woke up, went to work and fell back to a depression-induced sleep as soon as I got home. I was broken and only felt disgust when I thought about myself. That all changed when I met my family. Charlotte listened to me and truly cared about me. She helped me process what was going on in my life and she encouraged me when I needed it the most.
As for Lisa ― well, there are no words for all that she has taught me. I never thought I’d get a second chance at having a mom, but she stepped into my life as soon as she heard I was having a hard time and didn’t have any family to support me. It didn’t matter that I was basically a complete stranger ― she saw a girl that needed to know love existed in the world and provided it with no conditions. That, to me, is what being a family is all about.
Do I still think about my biological parents? Very rarely. I believe it’s absolutely possible for families to overcome problems and become stronger as they do it, but I could not allow anyone ― including my birth family ― to break me again. I wish them the best, but I do not miss them. I have a new family and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Jesslyn Parrish is a doctoral student and graduate research associate in Orlando, Florida. She studied anthropology and applied linguistics before pivoting into digital media and technical communication for her doctoral studies. Her doctoral research focuses on understanding how digital experiences can be used to help users understand the impact hearing loss has on everyday life.