The fourth of July is upon us, a holiday that signifies a meaningful moment in U.S. history, a date that marks our official independence as a nation. Over time, freedom and independence have come to take on very deep meaning for me as a transracially adopted person.
As a child, the 4th of July was all about food, fun, family and family. Freedom and independence was all about the spirit in the air, something that I felt but could not really articulate. Looking back at activities like riding my bike down our big hill with no hands, body surfing in the waves at our town beach and swinging on our homemade swing, I clearly see they represent freedom and independence from the realities of being a grown-up. Like most young people, I learned the basics of the holiday in school: In 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed, marking the colonists' independence from Great Britain and the birth of the United States of America as a free and independent nation. It all seemed pretty simple and straightforward.
In my teen years, I dug in and tested my freedom and the very reasonable boundaries my parents set. Thinking I was already grown and navigating a complex identity, I pushed for the things that I thought I should be able to do. I did not always get my way, but we all managed to make it through those challenging years without too much drama. As a teen, I also began to understand that independence was about working and making my own money. I loved to work and I loved having the means to buy things independent of my parents.
The push and pull of adolescence and testing the waters of freedom and independence was shaping me -- and who I would become -- but there were parts unknown.
In college, on my way to becoming a young adult, I started to see the world through different lenses and my understanding of freedom began to shift. First, I was learning more of the nuances of history and I was getting a sense that July 4th had layers. As a person of color, I began to connect the dots and think about this country's founding principles and what that meant to slaves that were not free. I found it extremely difficult to understand that freedom did not apply to everyone. Still today, as much as I can intellectually comprehend the history, it is incredibly hard emotionally to understand and reconcile my feelings surrounding race relations in our world.
As I began to get a better sense of my identity related to adoption, freedom took on a different meaning. While I had a strong and loving family, legally I did not have the freedom to know my genealogy, understand the circumstances of my beginnings or connect to blood relatives. I had a birth certificate, and it had the names of the only parents I had ever known listed, but there was another reality, another document out there that had a different name that was also my name and the name of my biological mother (and maybe my father). This document existed but I did not have the freedom to have it.
In my twenties I began the process of trying to uncover what happened before I was adopted and to get essential information about family genetics. I went to vital records and was told that yes, indeed, they had my original birth certificate, but no, I could not have it.
Freedom? Where was my freedom to know what most non-adopted people know from the beginning -- their heritage, their backstory, their medical information? I could not fathom the fact that I was denied information that was mine. How could not having what was inherently mine be legal?
Ironically, having a rock-solid adoptive family gave me the confidence to explore my identity and seek out the pieces and parts that were not known to me. I was not looking to replace them but to fill in the many gaps of who I was. Thankfully, when the bits and pieces were not coming together and I encountered gut-wrenching rejection, my family was there to hold me and comfort me. It is not either/or -- it is both/and. Because of the strength of my family, I am able to fully embrace the exploration of my identity and who I am.
Unfortunately, within a closed adoption system the process of adoption is treated more like a one-time transaction instead of a lifelong transformation. Sometimes the hard emotional but necessary work that needs to occur does not happen, leaving many in the adoption community to fend for themselves without even the language to articulate feelings surrounding our experiences.
As a transraqcially adopted person, I fully embrace the exploration of my identity. I have to; there are missing bits and pieces that are important for me to know and understand. I have come to realize that the freedom to practically do this via access to information is a blessing that many have and don't fully appreciate. As we march on toward reform as individuals and as a community I savor the moments when it feels like there is positive movement forward and a recognition that together we can make the necessary changes on behalf of children and families. I hope that the hard work is interrupted occasionally with that glorious feeling of riding my bike down the hill with no hands and shrieking with joy...ahhh freedom!
Learn more about the Donaldson Adoption Institute's work at AdoptionInstitute.org.