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Being Adopted is Like . . .
by Pat Sanders

It seems I am constantly looking for words to explain to non-adopted people the experience of being adopted. It goes without saying that each adoptee's experience is somewhat different, as each of us, adopted and non-adopted, is a unique individual. In my work with adoptees, however, I do find that although the ages, people, places, and circumstances differ, there are a great many common threads that link us. Many who talk with other adoptees for the first time literally sit with their mouths hanging open as they hear the very feelings and experiences they have had. They recognize each other and relate immediately and intimately to each other's histories; it is a marvellous feeling. They no longer feel that they are the only ones to have struggled with being different because of adoption. They no longer feel isolated and alone.

I believe that being adopted is a positive experience for most adoptees; they gain enormously from being adopted, becoming members of new families and feeling the security that this allows. The fact remains, however, that being adopted is not the same as being born into a family. It is not better or worse, but it is different.

Adoptees seem to happen into life after it has already begun. Without knowing their roots or history, they have no way of connecting to ancestors, to ethnic identity, or to the history of mankind. They just kind of show up. For many, this is an unsettling and impossible way to exist. They cannot rest until they uncover their beginnings. It is almost as if they cannot know the direction they are going without knowing first the direction from which they came. With their histories unaccounted for and no defined ties to humanity, adoptees can feel a sense of insecurity that makes even present reality seem somehow unreal. So they search for the truth, for the reality which was theirs by birth and which validates their present existence.

The reality of adoption includes two families, a birthfamily and an adoptive family. Birthparents create and give life to a child, but cannot raise him. Adopting parents do not bear the child, but take over the tasks and joy of rearing him. Thus, each fulfills a role which the other could not; they are all "real" parents, but their roles are different. The fact that an adoption has taken place never obliterates for the birthfamily the reality of the adoptee's being, any more than a divorce and a remarriage erases the fact that a previous marriage had once taken place.

Every adoptee is caught up in a somewhat fictional existence. The legal system, ignoring reality, decrees that he has only the parents who adopted him. He lives with an altered identity which is assigned him by his new family, society, and the court. Even his birth certificate is completely changed with all of the facts pertaining to his birthfamily replaced with information about the adopting parents--names, ages, nationalities and so on. Quite often the child's exact place of birth, hospital and city is deleted as is his time of birth. In addition, some states even change the county of birth. The adoptee's birth history is altered to reflect the heritage of the adoptive parents, exactly as if the child had been born to them and there was no other history. We are told that this complete severance of the past is necessary and is in the best interests of the child. But the closed adoption system, as practiced in the past, further mandates that the adoptee bear this new identity forever. he can never, regardless of age or need, have a copy of his original birth certificate, know the identities of his birthparents or siblings by birth, or reconnect with his heritage.

Even though there is security in knowing their adopted identities, for many adoptees, this cannot replace their identities by birth. They may feel a need to discover the realities of their births. The way in which this reality is rediscovered usually involves a search for answers and for the missing pieces. Just discovering a birthname is an indescribably joyous experience for adoptees. I was somebody before being adopted! Learning the name of the birthmother is equally as exciting--she did exist!--there was such a person--I was born--I did come from somewhere.

Most adoptees grow up with some facts concerning their backgrounds depending on the knowledge acquired by the adoptive parents and their willingness to share it. But the reality of having come into the world as other babies do is sometimes lost amidst the story of the "chosen child." The child dwells not only on the experience of how he came to become a part of the adoptive family.

Adoptees often feel as if they fell out of the sky one day. Remember the story of Superman? He arrived as a baby in a rocket from a faraway planet. A kind-hearted, childless couple found the baby, took him home and adopted him and gave him a new name, Clark Kent. After discovering the baby's unique abilities and differences from other human beings, they decided to keep his true identity a secret for his protection. The Superman saga continues, telling the story of his need and quest to rediscover his beginnings and to find others like himself. Once having secured the knowledge that he needed to be complete, he was able to re-enter his adopted environment stronger and better suited to reach his potential.

Searching for our beginnings is a search for reality, not a search to replace our adopted heritage. In a way, adoptees have a chance to experience something not available to children born and reared in the same families; they have the opportunity to extend their family perimeters. They do not trade in old realities for newly discovered facts, but rather add to them to strengthen their personalities and become more than when they began their quest to regain that which was theirs by birth.

Being adopted is being different. But our challenge is learning to make the difference work for us. Needing answers, we search until we find them and the people and solutions which enable us to integrate our adoption experience. Being adopted is having the chance to reach above and beyond.

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