In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth 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 Megan Hugel
“How long were you in an orphanage?”
“Were you left in a basket on their doorstep?”
“Does this mean you have an identical twin somewhere?”
“So if you’re adopted, your parents must be millionaires, right?”
I am in second grade explaining to my class that I am adopted. In the years before Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Sandra Bullock, adoption was explained through fictional stories like Annie, It Takes Two and Anne of Green Gables.
I was adopted from birth. My parents arrived at the hospital nine hours after I was born and took me home four days later. There was never a point in my life when I didn’t know I was adopted.
I’m in third grade, and we move to The Mission, the Hispanic neighborhood in San Francisco. For the first time in my life, people who look exactly like me surround me. My wavy brown hair and summer-kissed skin blends in, while my family’s pale complexion sticks out. “Que hora es?” a woman asks me as I walk to the corner store. “Um, I don’t speak Spanish,” I reply.
In high school, Spanish is my worst subject. My mom hires a tutor for me, and we translate poetry by Pablo Nuredo, but I still fail my Spanish tests. It’s Halloween, and our teacher has asked us to describe what our costumes are. I sit there in my poodle skirt and side ponytail and answer, “Yo soy un muter de cincuenta.” I am surrounded by blank stares. I think, “If I hadn’t been adopted, I’d be fluent in Spanish.”
My dad’s leukemia returns for the second time. The doctors say he may need a bone marrow transplant. The most likely donors are biological family members. My sister, adopted from another biological family, and I look at each other and realize that we can never donate. We will never be able to donate or receive from any of our family. I look at my health history forms and realize they’re incomplete.
I’m in fifth grade in Art class, and we’re told to draw portraits of our families. I draw my parents, my sister, my cat, my birth mom and my biological half-sister who grew up with my birth mom. We all stand under a rainbow in a garden of flowers and after the project is done, I bring it home, give it to my mom and she hangs it in her bedroom.
Years later, I look at the faded paper still hanging in my mom’s bedroom, and I ask her if she ever felt uncomfortable hanging in her own bedroom a family portrait of her daughter’s biological family members.
She shakes her head. “Never,” she says. “As a mother you want your child to be loved and cared for. I’ve always been happy that you have so many people in your life who love and care for you.”
I’m in tenth grade, and my parents have given me a curfew. I’m the only one of my friends with a curfew. “It’s not fair!” I scream at them. “Life is rarely fair,” my mom responds. “I hate you! I wish you had never adopted me! I wish I could go live with my birthmom!”
“I understand why you must feel that way,” my mom says. “When I was a teenager, I hated my mom too. I wanted to run away to the circus or to my friend’s house or be anywhere but with my mom. I wished she hadn’t had me, or that I had been adopted. Your feelings aren’t from being adopted, they’re from being a teenager with a curfew.”
I broke curfew that night. My mom grounded me for two weeks.
I am fifteen, and my birth dad has been released from jail. He is back with my birth mom in Southern California. He has a serious liver condition and is not expected to live much longer. He wants to meet me before he passes away, and my other biological family members decide this is the perfect chance to meet me as well.
My mom and I fly an hour and a half south to meet twenty-five people to whom I am biologically connected. They turn out to be a genuine, kind, humble group of individuals, and I find myself hoping those qualities can be found in me as well. I answer questions about high school and my passion for creative writing and acting. I tell them about San Francisco, and they tell me about relatives I may never meet.
For the first time in my whole life, I see my face reflected in others. My mom’s light skin and hair stick out. I think, maybe this is my family. Maybe I’ve finally found where I belong. I listen to story after story, smiling and nodding, and try not to be overwhelmed. And then, when I can’t imagine answering anymore questions, my mom senses my stress and asks me if I’d like to head back to the hotel.
That night, my mom and I eat steaks, rare like my grandparents always did, and swim in the hotel pool. My mom never asks me what I thought of the visit, because she knows I don’t like to talk about feelings, but she simply tells me she will always pay for another plane ticket or take me back here again to visit my birth family whenever I want.
When we arrived home the next day, we realize I left my sweater in the hotel room. “Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ll take care of it,” my mom says and immediately calls the hotel and arranges for them to mail it to us.
I’m graduating from college surrounded by my friends, and we stare out at the crowd of families. They find their parents; their faces fitting perfectly in the middle; a collage of mom’s nose and dad’s eyes. They find their siblings; younger or older versions of themselves.
“Which ones are yours?” they ask me. I look out at the crowd, no mirror images reflecting back. I see my dad frowning at his camera trying to figure out the zoom button, focusing as intensely as he used to at every soccer game and school play.
I see my mom sniffling into a pack of tissues, holding them with the same hands that soothed every fever and bandaged every cut knee. I see my sister cheering and clapping between them, always my biggest fan.
“There,” I say, “Those are my parents. There’s my family.”
Megan Hugel is 26 and lives in San Francisco, CA where she grew up. She currently works as the Operations Manager at a charter high school. She is grateful to have inherited her dad’s love of baseball, her mom’s love of reading and her birth mom’s love of laughter.
This year’s Adoption Portraits series is filled. You may send a submission for next year’s series to Carrie Goldman at email@example.com.
Check out Carrie Goldman’s award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.