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 Justin Kirby
The summer before my sophomore year of college, I traveled with a small cohort of students from my campus ministry to Mobile, Alabama, to work with a group of children from the inner city.
At some point along the bus ride, were talking about our families, and I happened to mention how much taller I am than my parents. For reference, I am 6’5”, and my dad is 5’10”. A beautiful, blonde-haired girl, with whom I had never spoken in my life, chimed in, “What, are you like…adopted?”
With a smile that I absolutely could not contain, I replied, “Actually, yes.”
I grew up with wonderful parents in a beautiful, small town in Tennessee. They adopted me when I was six weeks old, and I have always known that I was adopted. They were excellent at helping me understand that I was a part of their family, and that although someone else gave birth to me, they loved me as if I belonged to them biologically.
This was the case even when my younger brother, their biological child, was born. They taught me to be a compassionate person, to have faith, and to put the needs of others before personal desire. My childhood always felt natural. There was no outsiders’ stigma. I was loved, and I knew it.
At the age of twenty-three, I was living out the American dream. In the middle of graduate school with an internship at a premier university, I was taking full advantage of the opportunities made available to me.
I received a phone call at work one day in July 2012 from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. My birth mother had requested access to my adoption file and hoped for a chance to contact me. A million emotions surfaced at once. While I wanted to feel excitement, my loyalty to the only family I knew was also present in a large way.
On October 5, 2012, the aforementioned girl from the Mobile trip and I had another encounter. I asked her to marry me that night. On October 6, 2012, I received a letter with a Georgia postmark, and out of the envelope spilled the most beautiful letter.
Written from my mother to me, the son she had never met, it included a photograph of a family that I had never met but looked so very much like myself. I daresay few people get to experience weekends that are so momentous in their lifetime.
However, it took a great deal of difficult family conversations, tears, and faith between July and October to get to that point. While my family had always assured me that they would support any efforts to reconnect with my biological family, I could see the concern on their faces for what this connection meant now that it was becoming reality.
During the week of Thanksgiving that year, the reunion occurred. I spent a few hours talking with my biological mother, and eventually we introduced the rest of our families to each other. She met my adoptive parents and fiancée; I met her husband and two sons.
It was a beautiful few days spent trying to familiarize one another with what our lives had been for the past twenty-three years. We set up a Christmas visit and planned for my newly-found younger brothers to be the ring bearers in our wedding. I met more of my extended family over the holidays.
Although I know it was anxiety-provoking for them, my adoptive parents supported the reunion. We all came together again in June 2013 for our wedding. It was a magnificent day where worlds harmonized rather than collided, and they all lived happily ever after, right?
The reality of life post-reunion for me is that there are days when I feel exuberant and blessed for the opportunity to have strong relationships with both families. But there are also days when it is frustrating to have to explain my family situation to others, and I yearn for a situation where things are more “normal.”
My biological mother, after placing me for adoption, graduated from college and culinary school, did an internship in France, and is now raising a beautiful family. Saying that I am proud of her is the understatement of a lifetime. While she lives in the greater Atlanta area, her family is from Italy and many of them still live there.
With one glance at me, you would also think I should be eating gelato outside of the Sistine Chapel and playing futbol for recreation. While I share unending physical resemblances and even several identical character traits with her, I am still the child of the parents who raised me and passed along their love, support, southern accents, and love of SEC football.
As I prepare for my first trip to Italy in the coming year, my bouts of identity confusion continue to happen. Even when both sides work to make this as pleasant an existence as possible, belonging to two families has moments of unbearable difficulty. Having to choose between loyalty to the people who gave me life and the people who provided for my life is an impossible conundrum.
Sometimes, as I explain my family situation to a newcomer in my life, I do not want to qualify a woman as my adoptive mother or my birth mother, but simply as my mom, and I do not want to explain why my brother is twenty years younger than I am.
People who have never experienced life with two families – the majority of people in the world – are unsure how to react when I announce that I have a mother in Tennessee whose last name I share and a mother in Georgia whose face and hair I share.
I sense their nervous reactions until I am able to convey that this is a situation that works as well as it can. Still, unless I have already achieved a far-reaching comfort level with the person, I am unlikely to mention my family at all, for fear of those well-meaning, yet awkward and nervous looks.
While dealing with the public can be awkward, dealing with my families proves to be the bigger challenge. They continuously make their best efforts to support me. Luckily, I am an adult, and a busy one at that, so I do not dwell on these challenges on a daily basis.
But my general approach of ignoring a situation until it becomes an issue has proved problematic during a few encounters. It is difficult for two families to assume clearly defined roles in my life, especially when one of them entered my life a mere three years ago.
Who is entitled to more “visit days”? Who has “visit rights” to major holidays? What will the grandchildren situation look like when that becomes an issue? It would be nice if every day were perfect harmony, but I’m also grateful for the opportunity to have to work out such details.
The struggle exists in the life of an adoptee. In a system that was developed to provide the absolute best for a child in a broken situation, there is no escaping the scars left by ripping a child away from nature.
For adoptees in my situation, I see a couple of possible outlooks to have on the situation. One can choose to be frustrated by having family life redefined as an adult and wallow in the sorrows of awkward conversations.
Or one can choose to see the beauty in such a unique situation. For whatever reason, biological parents had to make the heart-wrenching decision to turn over the care of their child to a strange family forever, and now the opportunity to reunite is available and the child can experience life with both families who were pivotal in his or her development.
I struggle to always see the beauty. I just have to remind myself to look, because there are definitely beautiful days in the struggle.
When both my mothers stand side-by-side as I graduate with a doctorate degree, when I hug those younger brothers at every visit, when my support system shows unfaltering abutment for this unique relationship, those are the moments that are beautiful.
I want to express gratitude to those supporting people I just mentioned: my wife (whose quote stole the title of this essay), my dad, my step-dad who is married to my birth mother.
They have all been both incredible and instrumental in making this work. I like to call every encounter another episode in our series of “Modern Family”. It takes a village to make this work, but when you see everyone putting forth an effort, those are the moments when you realize there is a common denominator, and that is Love.
Acknowledge the struggle, but do all that is necessary to love the struggle as well, because those adoptive and biological mothers and fathers are also struggling, and they struggle because of the love they have for their child.
Justin Kirby is 26 years old. He is a pharmacist in his first year of residency after graduating in 2015. He very much enjoys running, SEC athletics, and the chance to inform the public about what adoption looks like in the real world.
Justin’s biological mother also wrote an essay for this series. Read it here.
Are you looking for an awesome children’s adoption book? Check out our new release Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing!
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