Monday, May 11, 2009

Shared Similarities: Family traits not erased by relinquishment or adoption


Lorraine Dusky © 2009

What do amazing coincidences and similarities between birth/first mothers/fathers reunited with children who have been relinquished for adoption mean? They mean we are related. They are the normal similarities that are found between people who share the same DNA. Jane, the daughter I gave up for adoption and I found many similarities throughout the years we knew each other.

What absolutely blew me away were the sandals Jane arrived with that first summer she came to visit. I had the exact a pair of the exact same style and size. Now you might think that doesn’t mean much, but bear with me here. I have hard to fit feet—very narrow with a narrower heel. Though you can’t find this size anywhere anymore—at least where I buy shoes—my shoe size then was a Triple A width with a Five A heel. Really, really elegant, like a ballerina’s foot, I like to think. But all this elegance comes at a price.

It meant that my shoes--made with beautiful leather, impeccably detailed and sewn--never looked like my friend's shoes, which were much more common and could be bought at the local shoe store. This was indeed a trial by the time I was eleven. I wanted the shoes that all my friends had. When my friends were all wearing shoes that resembled white ballerina slippers, I was wearing...something else. A few years later, when everyone else was wearing shoes with "kitten heels," my heels were more stolid and thick, something then known as "Cuban" heels. Yuk, I thought. Another of life's torments just because, I would complain. Life isn't fair, why do I have these stupid feet?

Shoe buying has never been easy for me. But a few weeks before Jane came for her visit, I had found a pair of sandals that fit me fine. Woven leather flat sandals with the strap right across the ankle and a rubber sole. The heel was only a strap that could be adjusted, so I could adjust it to fit my narrow heel. The shoes were Italian made by a company named Famolare. How many pairs of that particular style were sold in the United States that year? I do not know. On the Famolare website today it says that their shoes are made in “very small quantity.”

Jane arrived with the exact same Famolares, size 38 in the European sizing the company used. I was amazed, to put it mildly, and remembered that when Florence Fisher first heard how her mother had painted her apartment--turquoise with lavender trim--she was struck because those were the same colors that she, Florence, had painted her living room.

Florence and her mother's favorite colors, the matching shoes Jane and I had were each one of those coincidences that are either meaningless or meaningful, depending on your point of view. Egads, isn’t this weird? I said to Jane, that you should have the exact same shoe as I have?

Hmmm, she said. She did not sound impressed. I found out later she was doing her teenage best to act un-impressed.

Despite her coolness, we kept discovering how we shared more than shoes. Like me, she had a 24-inch waistline (that was then) and fine oily mousy blonde/brown hair that is truly one of life’s little tragedies. Neither of us could carry a tune for more than two or three notes, or snap our fingers on our left hands. We often laced our language with irony, preferred tailored clothes, especially duds that resembled men’s suiting. In fact, we were extremely comfortable in each other's clothes. In photographs we are often shown standing the same way, one leg crossed at an angle just so in front of the other. She got her big head size from Brian, she had my hazel-green eyes, a combination jaw but not too far off mine, as far as I could tell, his nose (thank god), my eyebrows. If you saw us together, you would assume we were a set: mother and daughter.

One one day that summer, after she had walked up the stairs, my husband Tony remarked to her: “You come up the stairs just like Lorraine.”

"When I heard that, I knew I was home," Jane would tell me years later about Tony's offhand comment.

For what she had heard many times from her adoptive father was, "Jane, can’t you walk quieter?" as she went up or down the stairs at their split level house. Well, no, she really couldn’t without a great deal of effort. Her dad ought to hear my niece clomp up the stairs. We Duskys could be mistook for a herd of small elephants. What is an accepted family trait, not particularly elegant, at my house had been an annoyance to the family she was growing up in.

Family traits. We who have grown up among our own kind can not quite fathom what it’s like to be in a life where shared traits are few and far between. The more social scientists learn about various characteristics, the less they seem to be related to environmental factors.

What traits are hard-wired? They cluster into five basic factors in every culture that has been studied, from Britain to Korea, Ethiopia to Japan, China to the Czech Republic: Extraversion, the extent to which a person is outgoing, adventurous and sociable, or shy, silent, reclusive and cautious; neuroticism, the extent to which a person suffers from anxiety, guilt, worry and resentment; agreeableness, the extent to which a person is good-natured, cooperative and non-judgmental or irritable, suspicious and abrasive; conscientiousness, the extent to which a person is responsible, persevering, self-disciplined, or undependable and quick to give up; and openness to experience, the extent to which a person is curious, imaginative, questioning and creative, or conforming, unimaginative, predictable and uncomfortable with novelty.*

Although this says nothing about favorite colors or same shoes, this sounds like a lot to me. Sounds like a whole personality contained therein. The latest studies do not find a strong correlation between adopted children and those of their adoptive parents; in fact, writes social scientist Carol Tavris, “the correlation is weak to non-existent. This means that when children resemble their parents and grand parents temperamentally, it is because they share genes with these relatives, not experiences.”

Jane and I hadn’t been together, yet we were finding how much alike we were. For me, it was a constant source of amazement and pleasure. How much was evident apparently in my face. A couple of months after I’d met Jane, someone I didn’t know well asked a mutual friend if I’d had a face lift or “something done.” He said I looked “different, younger.” I was 38 at the time. The woman he asked was a birth mother. She knew what was up.

Life was grand, and my daughter was asleep in the room across the hall. Many many years later, Jane would point out to me the ways in which we were alike. Now she was delighted to find them; I had come to take them for granted, and I had not known she was keeping track.
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*Carol Tavris, “A new start in life,” Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008, p. 27. Tavris goes on to quote sociologist David Nettle who writes in Personality:“The area of environmental influences on personality is a morass of unsupported or poorly tested ideas.” If you grow up, as I did, surrounded by people with whom you share traits, they seem natural and you are more forgiving of those that others might find obnoxious. I think that a lot of the children who end up in some kind of therapy are there not simply because they are troubled in the sense that we think of, but because they are so different from their parents that their parents have difficulty dealing with their difference and idiosyncrasies.

17 comments :

  1. "I think that a lot of the children who end up in some kind of therapy are there not simply because they are troubled in the sense that we think of, but because they are so different from their parents that their parents have difficulty dealing with their difference and idiosyncrasies."

    Absolutely. My adopted parents sent me to therapy, not because there was anything wrong with me but because my personality and interests were so different. I was made to feel that the hobbies I enjoyed were wrong, solely because my adopted parents weren't interested in them. I find this kind of brainwashing of adoptees reprehensible. Some adopters have the idea that therapy can "cure" adoptees of any tendencies they happen to dislike. This gets taken to the extreme with the torture known as "attachment therapy," where adoptees are literally forced to re-birth themselves to the adopters. At least one child has died from this treatment.

    My adopted parents used to constantly tell me I was talking too loud. Let me tell you, my five-year-old daughter has a vocal range that can shatter glass! I find myself telling her to be quiet then mentally kicking myself. I have been conditioned into believing that my natural traits are somehow offensive and undesirable, and I end up unintentionally passing it onto my children.

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  2. I love your post, Lorraine!

    In April I visited Nova Scotia for the first time to meet loads of cousins. My mother was born and raised in NS and my ancestors immigrated to that beautiful province 200 years ago. (My mother died in 1996, eight months after I found her). I visited cemeteries and saw the names of my ancestors on the headstones. I have way too many pictures of gravestones now.

    For the first time in my life I felt like I was part of a tribe. Many of my cousins, like me, are fair-skinned with red-hair and blue/green eyes. They are also loud and friendly and pushy like me!

    A friend of mine who lost her parents to cancer, one after the other, 20 years ago, advised me to think about observing the land as my mother would have. That was great advice. She does that when she visits her relatives in Portugal, where her parents were from.

    My visit to NS gave me a stronger sense of connectedness and cultural identity. It also brought me closer to my mother's memory and instead of always saying that I am from my mother, father and the generations of mothers and fathers before them - now I feel it.

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  3. I totally agree that many behavioral and personality factors have a strong hereditary component, and that adoptive parents have a responsibilty to respect that fact - which includes recognizing, nurturing and taking pride in whatever particular abilities their adopted children possess - regardless of whether they are different from their own.

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  4. This afternoon my son was relaying a personality trait of his to me - he explodes in anger then calms down quickly.

    That is my father, his grandfather. I am like my mother, calm in temperament. He says he has always been like this.

    He is successful and has a great family. Had he known this trait existed, or if I had raised him know how my father was, would he have been able to overcome this?

    At least now we can have has that conversation.

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  5. Although the downside of worshipping (not saying you're doing that) shared family traits can be xenophobia. "In this clan we are this; ergo, you must be this too." For the child who inherits traits that don't appear to conform to the prototype. . .this can be just as big a headache. Uh, I believe they call it the black sheep.

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  6. Heredity is powerful, and I believe it is a great deal of who we are, but it is also complex and in some cases as with "black sheep, capricious and unpredictable. Of course someone raised by natural parents is more likely to be like them than someone raised by adoptive parents, but there are exceptions. All parents should let their kids be who they are, not who the parents want them to be.

    Like Lorraine I found my surrendered son has the same feet as me, from a close-up foot photo from their wedding on the beach. Although in our case they are big wide peasant feet with a longer second toe, not princess feet! That really made me smile.

    We also share a deep love of cats and all things feline, and the same writing style and like some of the same kinds of humorous books.
    But there are other traits that come from somewhere else.

    One of the things my son most respected about his adoptive Dad was that his Dad encouraged him to pursue his own interests even though they were nothing like those of the adoptive family. This included getting him a computer in the early 80s when home computers were expensive and rare. I am very glad that his Dad recognized and enabled my son to pursue his interests and talents, and did not try to force him into a mold where he would not fit.

    My husband, not Mike's father, is a computer programmer and we have always had home computers, but I have no talent with math or computers at all, in fact have some kind of learning disability in the math area.

    My brother has no math and little science ability, nor does his ex-wife, yet three kids of theirs are mathematically gifted, one is getting a doctorate in physics and one is a biology teacher.

    We have no idea where any of this comes from in our family. Maybe there was some mathematician or scientist way back there, but nobody we know about.

    Yes, I delight in the similarities I see in Mike, and in my other kids, but also see and delight in the differences as well. Nobody is a clone.

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  7. My mother used to say she sometimes wondered if I was really her child.
    To which the obvious response was "Well, you should know."
    Family joke over.

    The ancient Welsh used to deal with this kind of personality discordancy by believing that babies were sometimes snatched by the fairies at birth and replaced with a "plentyn newid" or changeling, who was ugly, bad tempered and just got nastier with age. It was invariably stupid but cunning.
    One way of identifying and getting rid of a changeling was to cook a meal in an eggshell, whereupon the child would say "I have seen the acorn before the oak, but I never saw the likes of this." The false child would then vanish to be replaced by the original. A few of other (not quite so cute) methods were to place the child in a hot oven, hold it in a shovel over a hot fire, or submerge it in a solution of foxglove.
    I guess claiming to have a "plentyn newid" could be a convenient excuse for getting rid of unwanted or burdensome children.

    Droning on. But seriously, it is a profound thing to recognize for the first time aspects of oneself in a parent or child from whom one has been separated for a lifetime.
    This must be especially moving for adoptees who have never before had any kind of "genetic touchstone"
    I know my reunited son was deeply moved when he first saw and held his new-born daughter, who at that time was the only biologically related person he had ever known.

    Of course, differences should be respected in all children. It's just that adoption is a particular case.

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  8. Hey maryanne:

    My second toe has always been longer than the first. My father told me that was a sign of royalty.

    Of course that was rubbish, but I liked the idea. So, then, you are also...descended from Charlemagne. As all people of Eastern European decent.

    As for the "black sheep" syndrome...I know my mother thought I was as I began writing letters to the local newspaper when I was in college. They wanted me to be a teacher or a nurse (they were from a different generation, and I was the first to go to college in my family) and I had to fight my parents tooth and nail to study journalism. Neither my father or mother were writers of any sort.

    However, many many years later, one of my aunts (also a letter-to-the-editor type) told me that my paternal grandmother, who had died before I was born, used to write letters to the local newspaper in Boswell, Penn. I know it doesn't seem to mean anything, but I was very pleased to learn this, and suddenly felt an extra surge of connectedness. So black sheep may be just traits popping up that were dormant in a generation.

    BTW, this grandmother was also a smalltime bootlegger during Prohibition, I am told. I'm sorry that I never got to know her.

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  9. Charlemagne?? And here I thought I came from generations of miserable potato-eating peasants on both sides!
    My Irish dad used to say me and my Mom had "Polack feet":-)

    Seriously though I have heard from many adoptees how profound it was to see someone related to them for the first time, usually their child. Secret sealed adoption complicates so many things that should be simple and natural like knowing something about ancestors and family traits.

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  10. Yes, Lo, you are right--it's a pot of traits being stirred and the ones that get served up to you may go back generations. That is why even biologically connected parents cannot claim to "know" their children as though copies of themselves (another Jessica DelBalzo chestnut) because it doesn't work that way. But, I agree: the way it works is deeply powerful. I have often thought of the time my daughter will hold her firstborn in her arms and what a life-changing experience that will be.

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  11. Alyce Mitchem Jenkins at 12:30pm May 11
    These similiarities continue to amaze me. I'll always remember the adoptive parents who couldn't break their daughter of wearing big, slogan-covered buttons. When the birthmother appeared for the reunion -- guess what? She was wearing all kinds of slogan-covered buttons! Now how crazy is that!!!!

    PS: Alyce is an adoptive mother.

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  12. Osolo,

    Why do you attack Jess Del Balzo?

    She is a fine person and has written her thoughts on adoption and how she feels she HAS a right, just as you do to express them.

    I wonder why this is allowed, after all she isn't even here to defend herself.

    Lorraine, I thought those who posted here weren't allowed to do that?

    This is the second time, I didn't write first time about this but am writing now. Can it stop, she doesn't like adoption and she HAS nothing to do with it so is that wrong? I have meant many people who love adoption, and they have nothing to do with it?

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  13. Because DelBalzo is a rigid ideologue with no personal experience with adoption. All rant (and all right) all the time.

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  14. A bit more: I don't necessarily agree with everyone here all the time (obviously, I'm an a-parent)but the way experience, feeling, and ideas come together here, it makes them worth respecting. DelBalzo, on the other hand, is a crusader--and no, I don't know of any comparable pro-adoption crusader without adoption experience. Also because her views are knee-jerk and not enriched by much thinking, I believe it is acceptable to criticize them. She is a public figure, after all.

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  15. osolomama:

    If you don't know of any similar pro-adoption crusader, check out the Mormon Church, Bethany Christian Services, Courageous Choice et al.

    You may find quite a bit, and very well funded.

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  16. As far as I'm concerned the fanatically pro and anti adoption factions are two sides of the same coin. Both are zealots for their cause. Both are convinced they know what best for others, regardless of individual circumstances. I am so sick of gurus who believe they know what others think and need.

    One side will push adoption as the "loving choice" without any real thought or concern for the implications of such a drastic and brutal separation for either child or mother; the other will casually compare it slavery and/or child abuse and denigrate other mothers who hold a different opinion from themselves by describing them in such terms as "deluded" or "trapped in the lie".

    One thing about little St Jess d'Arc, she has a great talent for self-promotion. And she's dogged. Though I do find her smug self righteousness overweening.
    I am not amused when someone who hasn't herself experienced relinquishment preens about how *she* would never give up *her* child for adoption (never mind that she was never under any pressure to do so, despite being "single and not rich") and who pontificates on what women should or should not do for their children or themselves under difficult circumstances - all this, of course, "for their own good".
    It's just more of the same old, but from the opposing point of view.

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    Replies
    1. But you would think this, as an adopter who is also a birth mother.

      Delete

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