In the wake of Al Trautwig’s horribly insensitive tweets about Simone Biles and her parents (who also happen to be her biological grandparents — bonus! Double the love!) I felt compelled to write.
In all of my 40 years as an adoptee, I have never found myself in the vise-like, breath-stealing grip of a comment as ignorant as the one uttered by one of my colleagues at the beginning of the 2015 school year, when I had just begun teaching English in a new district. This woman was an impeccably dressed mom, about fifteen years older than I, a part-time professional Special Education aid, and as far as I could tell, an outgoing and warm colleague. If I recall correctly, she had been raised in the same upper-class, highly-educated community in which we were teaching. I guess I did expect a level of decorum and eloquence from her as we began a casual lunch table conversation that memorable afternoon. But these attributes weren’t necessarily the reasons why I was so startled by what she said. It was more that while she didn’t know me in the least, she took the liberty of pinning me down with a definition anyway, publicly and unapologetically.
I was adopted as an infant. My parents never hid or romanticized this part of my identity. In our house, the subject floated in the atmosphere at all times, just like air particles, natural and life-giving. This did not mean, of course, that I wasn’t aware of the parent-child connections that our society normalized; I used to insist to my mother that yes, I did so grow in her tummy. It also didn’t mean that I was exempt from my elementary school peers’ wide, disbelieving eyes and “You don’t know where your real parents are?” questions, or from not being able to fill out a health history survey at the doctor’s office, or from wondering how I inherited my gold-flaked green eyes and hyperextended thumbs. But this circumstance of a non-blood relationship to my family has never really caused me shame. To this day, I like to think of myself as part of an exclusive, rather than a marginalized, cultural group.
Flash back to the second or third week in September. At the time, I was still sitting down to socialize during lunch at the table in the English Office, as the suffocating demands of essay-grading had yet to reach their peak. I didn’t know everyone’s names or roles because I had just joined the faculty, but I was trying fervently to seem approachable and invested, like an eager team player…you know, like an accepted member of the clan. We had a smallish lunch bunch on that day, perhaps five or six people. One of my fellow English teachers, a darling conversationalist who manages to orchestrate positive vibes between all of us even in the most stressful of times, asked Sandra how her summer had been, and what her two twenty-something children were up to. Sandra spoke glowingly about her daughter for a few minutes. I don’t remember the details, but her compliments may have centered on her daughter’s recent undertaking of a job that was very noble and very underpaying. When she began talking about her son, however, her expression changed to a mild scowl.
“…And he still has that girlfriend.”
Oh, fun! I thought. I get to sniff some dirty laundry!
“I just don’t like her,” she went on. “I wish he would find someone that’s better suited to him.”
When I was a teenager, I stayed away from boys who did drugs or drank too much, or stole Swedish Fish and Gatorade from CVS, or hooked up with every girl in my class, or cheated on Advanced Biology tests. These boys were not the company my parents wanted me to pursue, short-term or long-term. And of course, no parent would tolerate a particularly arrogant or unkind partner for her son or daughter, and certainly not a physically or emotionally abusive one. I was fascinated by Sandra’s forthrightness in declaring her distaste for this girl, without so much as one qualifier — as in, “Well, she is a talented graphic design artist, but she’s quick to blow off my baby boy to sit in front of the computer to play with colors and squiggly lines, and that just doesn’t fly.” So I was curious as to what Sandra’s criticisms of her could be. Did she stay out partying until four in the morning? Did she bring home mangy stray cats? Did she lie pathologically? Did she vote Democrat? What? What? What?
“What don’t you like about her?” I asked, making sure my tone was appropriately polite.
“Well,” Sandra said, “She’s an only child…”
Hm. Interesting. What did that have to do with her likability? I had an older brother who had left the house when I was only six, so I’d always considered the majority of my upbringing to be that of an only child. I thought I was pretty likable.
“And she’s adopted.”
The word, like a taser, stunned my heart.
All of a sudden, I was in crisis. I was in the midst of an emergency. For a few seconds, I didn’t react.
Sandra was using the discourse of people who take for granted the clarity of their biological origin, and therefore prize the validity of their familial relationships over all others’. She was using this discourse amongst coworkers whom she had decided were products of “normal,” “legitimate” family-making, just like she had been, and just like her children had been. It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone at the table might actually be adopted. Adopted people were other people. Unknowingly, carelessly, she had ostracized me. She had categorized me into a population characterized by self-centeredness and entitlement.
When my heart started beating again, rapidly, on fire, it thumped with a question: fight or flight?
“She’s spoiled,” Sandra continued. “She doesn’t even have a job. Her daddy found her an apartment in Cambridge and is paying her rent while she does nothing all day. He dotes and dotes on her. It’s unbelievable.”
“Sounds like me,” I said quietly.
“Sounds like who?” Sandra asked, grinning in the light spirit of the conversation.
I cleared my throat and smiled back. “I said, sounds like me.”
A cacophony of embarrassed and surprised laughter rose from around the table, nervous looks at Sandra, gesticulating hands trying to wave away the mistake, and the pressure of something larger in the teachers’ room, unexpected in the middle of the day, an inadvertently invited lesson.
“But — I mean — at least you work,” she said. “This girl doesn’t! And I didn’t bring up my son like that. He’s had to work hard, on his own. We’ve never handed him anything. We’ve instilled that ethic into him…and she gets whatever she wants without lifting a finger!”
“My dad doted on me all my life,” I said, “and now that I’m married, my husband has taken over.” I crossed my arms and settled back in my chair. “It’s a pretty sweet gig.”
I didn’t go on to add that my parents had worked hard to send me to a private secondary school and a private college and two graduate programs, or that they had housed me until I was 27 and ready to walk down the aisle. And I didn’t go on to add that they would never hesitate, not one minute, to take me back, to shelter and feed and provide for me, if anything every happened to my career or to my marriage.
My dialogue with Sandra nagged me for the next eight months. It followed me around the office, into my classrooms, my lengthy commute, and my household. Sandra and I sat in the same row of cubicles, and every time I ventured to the photocopier, I had to pass by her desk. It may have been my imagination, but she seemed to make an extra effort to smile at me and compliment my cute dresses as I walked by. I was civil, but in no rush to reconcile. At the department Christmas party, which she did not attend, I told my story to a few of my English colleagues who hadn’t been present at the table that day. One of them who has known Sandra for a long time said, “She’s a really nice person. I’m sure she didn’t mean to offend you.” Of course she didn’t mean to offend me. But why should she have worried about the possibility? She thought I was one of her kind. I wish that there had been more meaning behind it all. I wish she had more meaningfully considered her audience and more meaningfully selected her words.
How helpful it would be if understanding the intent, or lack of intent, in someone’s remark could soothe its sting. The truth is, everyone has a story that hasn’t come to the surface yet, a truth about herself that she hasn’t shared because it’s too personal, or too humiliating, or too painful, or irrelevant, or just plain nobody else’s business. I have no qualms about telling acquaintances and friends that I’m adopted when the time is right. Sometimes, students will reveal to me in their narrative writing that they are adopted, and I will scrawl an enthusiastic “Me too!” in the margin. I figure that they are taking an emotional risk in throwing out this raw secret about themselves, expecting to raise their teachers’ eyebrows. What I give in return is most likely camaraderie that they don’t expect. I know that it’s a relief to not have to explain or justify the tale of how you entered the world, when people who were born to their biological families can easily leave that part of their history unspoken, and not have to answer any questions.
Sandra appears to believe that being both an only child and an adoptee creates a lethal combination. We only-child adoptees are coddled, showered with an unreasonably large supply of love and dedication. We are spoiled brats, used to getting what we want. We are undesirable as wives. We are dangerous to the work ethic of our husbands. But really, we are gifts to our parents, the same way that children who are biologically linked to their mother and father are gifts to them.
Maybe the parents of Sandra’s son’s girlfriend express their love and thanks for their child by ensuring that she feels nurtured, taken care of and supported — even if that means financially. Maybe Sandra and her husband express their love and thanks for their children by teaching them how to be the caretakers of others, by giving these independent souls to the world to institute change. Maybe some people need a little more time and space to figure out their identities. As an adoptee who started off with more tenuous roots than the average person, I still find myself disoriented and directionless sometimes. I am continually searching for a sign that I’m finally who I was meant to be. If we are generalizing about adoptees anyway, maybe we can assume that this girlfriend with a free apartment in Cambridge needs more time and space to define herself, too.