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Risk

January 26, 2012

Shortly after my dad died, I came across a handmade card in the top drawer of his dresser. I had been in my dad’s dresser before, mostly to put away his laundry, but seldom in the top drawer, unless at his direction. That’s where he kept the crisp $20 bills he brought home on pay day, the cuff links he never wore, the new brown billfolds and the cotton handkerchiefs that hadn’t yet made it into rotation, and the Kennedy half dollars he never spent. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the weight of the glossy, walnut-stained drawer in my hand as I slide it from its slot; I can smell the wood and new leather, the unopened shine of my dad’s things. In the back of that drawer was a stack of cards that my siblings and I had made for him over the years, including one of my creations drawn on red construction paper. At first I mistook it for a Valentine until I opened it up and read:  “Happy Adoptee Day, Mom and Dad. I luv you!” For most of my life, I have insisted, to myself and to others, that being adopted didn’t make an ounce of difference in my life. Unlike adopted kids in earlier times, other places, other circumstances, I didn’t consider my adoption to be an important part of my identity. Rather, it was one of many labels I positioned behind my name:  twin, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, Midwesterner, Missouri Synod Lutheran, student, athlete, musician, writer, and somewhere in there, adoptee. The list grew as I did, changed as I did: vegetarian, Catholic, East Coaster, professor, wife, mother. Somewhere in there still: adoptee.

It’s hard to say what part of me is who I am because I am adopted, and maybe that is the reason for my reluctance to attribute aspects of my personality to the fact that I am. I am a quilt of selves, none of which overshadows any other part of who I am. But I can’t deny anymore that being adopted made no difference in my life at all. It did. It does. I understand that when I look at the card I made for my parents to commemorate Adoptee Day, March 17, 1971, the day that we legally became theirs. In my crayon rendering of that day, my sister and I stand beside the judge, dressed in Bible-style tunics with ropes around our waists. We look like sacrifices, like Isaacs on the legal altar.  The judge’s words in the bubble next to his head are a warning. There’s risk involved in adoption. There’s risk involved with these two girls. You don’t know who you’re getting, what you’re getting yourself into. Be wary. Be careful.

Was I going for humor?  Or was I tapping into an anxiety I imagined for my parents, then took on for myself? Perhaps a bit of both. I’m not sure.

I do know that when I was a child, I worried a lot about being a financial burden on my parents. I never wanted for anything, but there were times when money was tight and we ate government cheese and butter and discounted boxes of food from my dad’s union. There were times when my dad lived away from home for weeks and months, working at nuclear power plants on shutdown in neighboring states because those were the only jobs to be had. I began to think of myself as a liability. Even before those tough times, I worried. My sister and I never asked for anything when we were in stores with my parents, never once resorted to childhood begging for something that caught our eye. We just knew, in words we whispered only to each other, that we shouldn’t ask, that asking for too much of anything might make our parents doubt their decision to keep us. Our younger brother, he asked for things because he wasn’t adopted and he could, and we understood that, too, and didn’t resent him for it. Years later, when I told my mom about these childhood fears, her face crumpled in anguish. I never knew, she said. I would have assured you that there was nothing that would have made us not want you or love you. Why didn’t you girls tell me what you were thinking? 

Because children can be irrational. Because adopted children can be silent.

I don’t know.

But this I do: The first few months after giving birth to each of my three children, I lived in constant fear that someone would take them from me. Part of my fear–the part that I connect to adoption–was the knowledge that my babies, so young, would forget me. They would never remember my face as it gazed on them with such love and longing while they nursed and slept.  They would never remember that love itself other than, perhaps, as something of a shadow. For the first months of their lives, maybe the first years, it was hard to leave them, even to go out to dinner for an hour or two with my husband. What if I never came back? What if they were gone when I got home? I knew that my panic was drenched in the most unlikely of catastrophes. But tell that to my adopted-nursing-mother-sleep-deprived self, grappling, each birth, with more profound love than I ever thought possible. There is a risk to that kind of love. Take them at your own risk.  

There were times, many times, days, months, years, when my birth mother stayed at the back of my mind, so quiet I didn’t even notice her. When this thing called adoption works as my birth mother and parents were promised, that’s exactly how it should be. We go on with our lives. We are loved. We forget what we were too young to remember. Our innocence spares us of the pain.

But it also spares us of remembering another mother’s love.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 6:33 pm

    This is a beautiful, honest, incredible piece. I relate in many ways though our roles are different in this adoption story.

    • twinprint permalink*
      May 9, 2012 7:52 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Danielle!

  2. May 1, 2012 4:16 pm

    I wonder if you have read the book the Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier- it talks about these types of feelings that adopted children and adults have. I too feared my children being taken and did not want to be separated from them at all, even for an hour. I think had a knowing of what it is like to be separated from ones mother and did not want to inflict that on my own children. Very interesting thoughts. And yes- adoptees are very silent…. I too did not ask for anything from my adoptive parents and even had elaborate plans of how I would financially pay them back for what they did as a child. But I was expected to be very grateful for the life they provided for me because had my original mother kept me…. I could have been poor. Of course as an adult now I know much different.

    • twinprint permalink*
      May 9, 2012 7:59 am

      Hi Emille,

      Thanks for your comment. You know, I have read Primal Wound but I’m not a huge fan although I do appreciate Nancy Verrier’s important work in adoption and that she provides a way of understanding adoption for so many people. It just doesn’t fit for me. I’m drawn to another way of seeing by Dr. Michael Grand, who has written a book called The Adoption Constellation. I believe there is room for multiple narratives, multiple ways of understanding. The more I learn about adoption, the more I read, the more people I meet, the more humbled I am by the many many stories, ones that are similar to me (I worried about being a financial burden, too!) and ones that are different. I’m looking forward to checking out your blog.

      Jenny

  3. Helen permalink
    January 29, 2012 6:51 am

    Jenny, you are a very GIFTED writer! While your adoptive parents were struggling with the financial squeeze, another family in Missouri were struggling to raise 3 children born to us in five years! I guess the same must be true for our biological children as they did not get a new toy or candy every time we shopped, as most children do now days! Yes, we would have loved to give them more material gifts, but couldn’t afford it. And they (all four – one born 7 years later) reassure us that they felt loved. And when I express my regret over them all working in H.S. & summer, they assure me that this was helpful when they went out into the “real” world, as they put it. I know you are approaching this from beding adopted, and I can’t begin to understand how you feel, but I do know one thing FOR SURE and that is that God blessed you & Jackie tremendously when you became adopted by two wonderful Christian people who have nurtured and shaped you into who you ARE.

    • jes97003 permalink*
      January 30, 2012 6:09 pm

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Mrs. Sasse. Oh, rest assured, we never wanted for anything growing up! And I’m glad I worked those high school and college jobs, too. Made me all the more grateful for my parents’ own hard work.

  4. Linda Dunirl permalink
    January 29, 2012 12:51 am

    Jenny, very good. You need to write a book about your adoption. I smiled & teared up. You were really loved by your mom & dad. Love, Linda

    • jes97003 permalink*
      January 30, 2012 6:09 pm

      Thanks, Mrs. Durnil!

  5. J. Fermon permalink
    January 26, 2012 10:07 pm

    Oh Jen, I adore you. Miss you, my friend. Much love.

  6. January 26, 2012 5:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing this powerful record of your thoughts. Those of us who are not adopted cold never imagine what it must have felt like to wonder if you could be taken away or given back. And if you felt it with the wonderful parents you had, how awful it must be for the children of less sensitive parents! I thank God, who adopted me, that I never have to fear not being wanted or loved.
    Keep writing Jenny. This is a mission of great importance and power.

  7. libby permalink
    January 26, 2012 4:48 pm

    Note to self…don’t read theses before an important meeting. I am about to meet with the Dean of the School of Social Work and thought that spending time with your art and memories would be a nice way to spend some sit down time in the waiting room. I hope he won’t notice the wipped away tears. -I couldn’t put this down. Your articles are WONDERFUL and addictive.

    • jes97003 permalink*
      January 26, 2012 4:50 pm

      Aw, thanks, Lib. Love you.

  8. jamieplus6 permalink
    January 26, 2012 4:39 pm

    I watched a lecture recently regarding adoption via online . . . the man suggested that we do not recall, but we remember . . . so while we cannot recall our separation experience from our birthmom, it is remembered in our body and our brain–and so we were formed with some fears of catastrophe and such. Apply those thoughts as you wish. 🙂
    Love, me

    • jes97003 permalink*
      January 26, 2012 4:58 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Jamie!

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