In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By David Butts
A few years ago I was at dinner with some friends, and one couple announced that they were going to be adopting a child. I remember feeling excited about the news, which I think is the way you’re supposed to feel. As they continued sharing, they began to talk about their excitement. Finally, they were going to be able to start their own family. Finally, they are going to have their own child. Finally, they are going to be parents.
The more they talked, the more I could feel my emotions rise. Eventually, I actually had to get up and walk away. I sat outside on the curb, hidden from everyone, and started to cry.
My parents explained to me that I was adopted before I can even remember. I was “chosen”, which made me a very special child. They gave me the language that allowed me to understand my difference from everyone else in the world, while they also gave me a way to travel through life understanding I was wanted and loved.
But possession of that information didn’t mean I always shared with others that I was adopted. Instead, I created a plausible narrative to explain my connection to my family history, and when I wanted to seem like everyone else, those were the stories I told.
When people asked intrusive questions like, “Is one of your parents white”, I was ready to explain how fair-skinned my father’s mother was because she was part Pennsylvania Dutch. This was actually the truth, though it’s not at all explanatory in relation to my skin tone.
I think I felt that creating these pseudo-fictions gave me a greater connection to my family, yet… in the back of my mind, they also pointed out that I have always been different. If nothing else, I look different. I suspect there are lots of other differences, but how would I really know when I don’t have anything to compare it to. After all, my experience is the only one I know.
As a 43-year-old adoptee, I now find myself struggling with the concept in ways that I never did growing up. Adoption afforded me a life for which I’m extremely thankful. I, like many adoptees, had a life I couldn’t be more thankful for.
My family has been a blessing that no one will ever understand. My mother, father, and their families have been the most supportive people a child could ever dream of. They have given me love, opportunities… and me. Their love has always been without question.
I never thought about my parents as selfish, and it pains me to even postulate that possibility. Yet, these days, that’s how I am seeing two parts of the adoption triad. When I listen to people talk about the reasons they adopt, I rarely, if ever hear them talk about anything other than themselves and the fulfillment they’ll receive. They talk about the family they’ll finally have, the child they’ll finally have, their dreams that will finally come to fruition.
Throughout my life, I thought, if I don’t have my own children for some reason, I might adopt. It was such a good outcome for me that I thought I might be able to be that for someone else.
Outside of those thoughts, I didn’t invest a lot of energy into my own history until my early thirties. My mother’s family has reunions every two years, and I always love when I’m able to attend. I feel loved and envious at the same time. People come from all over to spend time together, if for no other reason than they’re family. One year I was asked to give the keynote address at the banquet dinner. Of course, I chose to talk about family and acceptance, and near the end of my presentation, I expressed my gratitude to the family that adopted me, and accepts me.
Yet internally, every time I look at our family tree, I can actually feel the knowledge that I don’t belong to those bloodlines. I see my face hanging from one of the branches but understand I’m there with an asterisk. I try not to let that ache own me. I suppress it. But I know it’s there. It was that feeling that compelled me to begin my journey to find out where my eye color comes from. To find out what family tree I also belong on.
Unfortunately, due to the unforeseen consequences of a 1964 law that sealed Ohio adoption records, my journey would not be an easy one. I quickly discovered that anyone adopted in the state between 1964 and 1996 could only access their original birth certificates by way of court order. While I wanted the information, I took it as a sign that maybe it was information not meant for me to have.
So once again, I suppressed that need to the recesses of my mind, along with all the other likes I try to hide for. But a few years later, the need seemed to come back out of nowhere. This time, for the first time, I fought through the feelings of betrayal and went to my mother with a few questions I had never asked before. Did she have any information about my birth family? Did she know why I was put up for adoption?
Graciously, through her own emotion, my mother shared that she believed my birth name was Ricardo and I likely had an older sibling. The knowledge that there was someone out there who shared my exact bloodline significantly changed my thoughts and inspired me to want to know about the sibling that I never had growing up. So back to the search!
I was unable to uncover much information, until December 2013 when I found out there was a group fighting to change the law that blocked my access to my own original birth certificate. The Adoption Network Cleveland, and Executive Director Betsie Norris had been working for more than twenty years to pass a law that might open the door to my past.
As a result of all their efforts, birth certificates for more than 400,000 Ohioans would be accessible for the first time on March 20, 2015. If I ever really did believe in signs, this had to be one… my birthday is March 20th.
I had never been in a room full of people who understood my personal struggles with adoption until I went to Columbus, Ohio on March 19, 2015. I sat alone, in a kind of peace, among a crowd of adoptees in pursuit of the same information I desired. I listened a lot, shared a little, and was inspired by the strength I saw in others. It was obvious to me that the struggles I endure in silence aren’t only mine. There was a world of people who knew what I had been going through and I finally felt like I didn’t have to hide in plain sight.
While the previous year and a half seemed to crawl by, I don’t think I was ready for the light speed change the next few months would bring. About three weeks after standing in line with hundreds of other people in search of information, I received my original birth certificate in the mail.
As I sat alone in my living room, I learned my mother was right. I have a sister who is exactly three years and one day older than I am. In addition, for the first time, I was exposed to my birthmother’s name and my birthfather’s name. I can’t tell you how I felt. I just don’t know. There was a kind of dialectic between a sense of detachment and a compelling pull to be connected. So of course… I Googled.
Within fifteen seconds of putting both my birthparents’ names into a Google search, I was reading an adoption search website where someone had obviously been looking for me since 2008.
In a flash, I learned my sister’s name was Latonya Owens, and she wanted to know me. I didn’t even know how much I needed to know that. During my search I had been committed to being noncommittal.
I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do with my birth certificate information when I got it. It just seemed too overwhelming to try to make a plan, so my approach was to take it one step at a time and take it how it came. But now, there was someone out there, who shared my blood, who had been thinking about me for years, had been looking for me, wanted to know me, who was my sister.
After waiting a couple of days, just trying to digest what was going on, I sent my sister a message on Facebook (my, how social media has impacted our lives). After a couple of leading messages, and asking me to wait a bit for her to stop shaking, she wrote “I have been yearning for a brother that was adopted away when I was a baby… I cried so hard just now… but I don't wanna get my hopes up too high.”
To which I simply replied, "Latonya... I am your brother.”
A few short weeks later, I was nervously on my way to Cleveland, Ohio, to meet my sister, her six children and six grandchildren. As I walked in, I could see people who had similar characteristics to mine, and it felt like a dream.
My sister and I sat, talked, and comforted each other about a life we may have never known, but that we both shared. I felt comfortable, yet uncomfortable. I was finding out something about myself and hoping that I wasn’t abandoning things about myself.
Sharing my life and experiences was like trying to confirm the special ways that my family has cared from me, yet looking for a place to fit in something that was taken from me. My sister talked about her family not talking about me, and then I thought about my trying not to think about them. The one place I think we really found as ours, was that she and I had nothing to do with the decisions of others. She is my sister, and we did not choose to be unknown to know each other.
My sister and I sat and talked while we waited for my birthmother to arrive. Yes, my birthmother wanted to meet me, and when she walked in, I was left trying to internalize what this experience was.
I did know that it wasn’t like meeting my mother; it was more like meeting a stranger. I’m sure people would say, of course it was, but I don’t know what I thought it would be.
I couldn’t tell if this is what it was supposed to be, or if it was living up to what I expected. Maybe that’s because I had pushed any expectation so far from my reality that I didn’t have a space in my mind to internalize this new… thing.
I do thank her for her choice and I thank her for wanting to meet me. My birthfather, long since divorced from my birthmother, has chosen to not have contact with me.
As my birthmother told me, his response to my showing up was, “how do I know that he’s my kid?” As if I were in search of what would by now be a hefty check for forty-three years of back child support. I do think it’s fair for my birth family to struggle with my presence.
Personally, I feel as though I have essentially kicked down the doors to the past that other people believed they had securely shut. I don’t feel good about that. It’s as though I have chosen my own needs over those of others, but maybe it’s my turn to be selfish. Nonetheless, I don’t like the way that has made me feel.
Unfortunately, my conversations with my birthmother have been difficult for me. Most of the dialogue consists of her justifying her choice to place me for adoption, which I never really needed. I did anticipate that, and I knew I would be there to allow her that opportunity. I have never been angry about my life circumstance, because the family support I have had, and continue to receive, can’t be measured. I’m thankful.
So as my birthmother tells me of the challenges she faced that led her to the decision she made, I can only thank her. However, something interesting has come from my interactions with my birthmother. The conversations have not seemed to evolve. “Nobody understands what I was going through”, can only go so far. And frankly, it makes me really think about the birthparent portion of the triad in a way I never did before.
Are birthparents making the choice to use adoption to take care of themselves or their children? How much of their choice is one of selfishness? I don’t dare try to overgeneralize the experiences of all who choose adoption for their children, but as a result of my personal experience and thought process, I am struggling with this realization.
So where am I today, as I write this story? I feel as though I’m a leaf in the wind, subject to everyone else’s whims. Maybe it’s the child in me that feels as though I don’t have control, and because of this journey I now feel as though I am in the middle of two different words, alone.
I think my search has made me feel more alone in this world. As an only child, maybe I have always felt alone to a certain extent, but today the loneliness is profound. I want to be a part of a family tree. I want to feel like I’m being fair to everyone involved. I don’t want to betray, and I want to belong, but I know that’s not a reality for me yet.
Hopefully that will come with time, but as of now, I feel withdrawn and isolated. Today, I am 43 years old and have no children. As a result of my recent exploration into my birth family, I wonder how adoption has impacted my current family life circumstance. If I could have any impact on others entering into the adoption triad, I would ask them to question their motives. If it’s about filling your needs, maybe you should really consider the child who one day may end up feeling pulled apart.
As for my friends moving forward with their adoption, I certainly hope the best for them. Because adoption as a topic is such a sensitive, off limits for public critique, I didn’t want to rain on their parade with my individual questions and experiences. I know them to be good people, and am sure they have a world of love in their hearts to give to a child. And certainly, there are many kids out there who can use it.
David is currently a teacher at the University of Dayton in the Department of Communication.
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