|Path to the family tree...or trees? photo by Ken Robbins|
Commenter Maryanne suggested that when birth mothers begin talking about the family ancestors to a relinquished child in reunion, one could use the word "my," if they appear to be uncomfortable with "your" ancestor, as this seemingly disavows the adopted family and ancestral line the individual has heard about, and accepted, growing up. We agree.
Yet we can understand the emotional quandary of some adoptees, who have grown up making a family history that is not really their own by any stretch of biology, theirs, but now they are supposed to suddenly adopt a new persona in their family tree in the persona of a biological grandfather who emigrated in the early 1900s, as mine did, or an earlier ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, as Jane's did, can seem strange, and invoke a feeling of Hey, wait a minute, not so fast....I've got other "relatives" of my own, and by the way, where we you when I was getting them? You gave me up for adoption.
But as birth mothers who did give birth to the next generation, whether adopted or not, we have a innate and sense that our reunited child is an authentic part of his first family--we gave birth, after all; we know in the deepest possible way, a child is related to us. We nurtured them for nine months in our bodies, we endured the agonizing pains of childbirth, and we produced a body who came out of us. There is no way we can erase our sense that our ancestors are also the child's ancestors, whether adopted or not, because we have produced the next generation. We understand them in the context of generations in our family, no matter how or where they grew up. Yes, some birth families do excise the adopted out, but in a very real sense, they cannot be totally diminished to the status of non-existence, whether or not they are listed in the family tree. Think of this as a variation on Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.
The adoptee, not having had the experience of birth of a lost child, cannot quite grasp that connection in the same visceral way that birth mothers do. Perhaps after the adopted give birth themselves they can understand the emotional link of the biological better.
All of my grandparents were deceased by the time I reunited with my relinquished daughter, Jane. She was interested in our shared background, at the same time I knew she felt very connected to some members of her adoptive family beyond the immediate. As she got older--we reunited when she was 15--she became more curious, and felt somewhat more comfortable with my family. She came to know not only my mother, but my two brothers, and her first cousins, a few relations by marriage, and at least to my eyes, accepted them as her relatives. But that did not negate or disqualify the cousins and aunts and uncles of her adoptive family as also her family.
If anything is called for during the early stages of a relationship it is understanding and a lack of defensiveness, both on the first mothers and adoptees. Birth parents could proceed cautiously and find out what the adoptee wants to know, and when, and find out how the adoptee wants to proceed linguistically. Some will appreciate being included right from the get-go; others might be put off and feel defensive of their learned, adopted heritage; and still others will feel both ways--glad to be included yet protective of their adoptive family history and heritage. There is no right or wrong way to feel here, but speaking up here early on can make the reunion experience better for both sides of the equation, mother and child. Adoptees could say, You know, I feel uncomfortable with you talking about ancestors in that way, this is all so new to me, maybe I'll feel different later. This can get tricky because sometimes the adoptees feel uncomfortable asking about ancestors, afraid of speaking their true minds, wondering if they are overstepping bounds....yikes, reunion is a road full of potholes to avoid.
On the other hand, having been at a conference chock full of adoptive parents who are also academics, they pretty much recoiled in silent horror--at least that is how they made me feel--when I read from my memoir, Birthmark, which ends before I found my daughter and has these words:
"You have two uncles and three first cousins, and a whole bunch of other relatives who already know about you. I sometimes imagine flying home to Detroit with you to meet my mother. She'd be at the airport, make no mistake.The room was as still as that grave, and only one adoptive mother had the courage to talk to me at the following reception. She asked how I felt when I heard adoptive parents say, "This child was meant to be a part of our family...." I was grateful to talk to her because she did want genuine conversation with a living, breathing first mother. There were a few other birth mothers there--including Maryanne--but I certainly felt like an "outlier."
...You're part of our family too, right now. Your grandmother said she was going to change her will and leave you, in a trust, the same she is leaving her three other grandchildren. It's not much, but we want you to know that we think of you. And one time, she told me that when she dies, she wants on her gravestone four grandchildren, no matter who knows and who doesn't and who asks questions."
DOES 'KINNING' REPLACE AUTHENTIC HERITAGE?
Present also was Signe Howell, the imposing Norwegian lady who proposed the theory of "kinning," a kind of emotional twining in of the individual to the adoptive family, which someone has brought up in the comment section about the Dutch adoption situation. From the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, an abstract of Howell's paper:
"With empirical material obtained from a study of transnational adoption in Norway, an argument is made for the concept of kinning. By this is meant a process by which a foetus, new-born child, or any previously unconnected person, is brought into a significant and permanent relationship that is expressed in a kin idiom. Through a focus on adoption within a cultural setting that emphasizes the flesh and blood metaphor as central for kinship, the ambiguities and contradictions embedded in the relationship between biological and social relatedness are thrown into sharp relief. Questions of race and ethnicity also become pertinent to the kinning drama of adoptive parents which involves, it is argued, a process of transubstantiation of the adopted child."Got that? Transubstantiation is the name given to the concept in Catholicism that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ--not a mere representation, but in reality. This always gave me pause in my religious belief--how could it be, the communion wafer was still a wafer. This is also similar to a Mormon idea of a blood transfer that is apparently not taken any more seriously today than I take the body-and-blood concept of transubstantiation.
Of course some of the "kinning" concept makes sense--the child does feel a part of his new family--yet at the same time the original family must then be de-emphasized. As far as I recall Howell made no reference to including the natural family's story into the adoptee's heritage. The original family counted for nothing; their story was simply erased. Howell's lecture made me want to walk out; I felt she was spouting malarkey under the guise of academia. I had few doubts about how she dealt with her own adopted children. I believe she said she had more than one. I also remember feeling--before I knew who she was--that she was particularly unreceptive and angry when I gave my reading. I wanted to duck from the vibes I felt coming from her.
Later quite by accident I found myself walking alongside Howell to another lecture. No one else was around to diffuse the chill between us, as frosty as the nip in the air that day. I was the birth mother she did not want coming back, whom she had relegated to non-status, non-mother, non. She was someone who did not understand how I could possibly feel about my surrendered, and now reunited, child. Jane had not yet died; we were close at this time. We were talking a few times a week. Howell and I had nothing to say to each other. I was relieved when we reached our destination and went our separate ways.--lorraine
Sources: Kinning: the Creation of Life Trajectories in Transnational Adoptive Families
THE KINNING OF FOREIGNERS
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What does "ancestry" mean to an adoptee?
Adoption in the Netherlands is "undutch" while America's love affair with it continues