In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth 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 Veronica Chenik Gilmore
“That girl said we have the same noses!” shouts my nine-year-old daughter. My daughter, son and I are seated at a large round table surrounded by goggling strangers who are squinting their eyes with wrinkled expressions. I feel the strangers’ eyes on me, checking me out. I watch their toboggan-covered heads turn to look in our direction, sizing up our noses.
Who was I? Was I the mother?
It was late February and my children had just gotten off the ski slopes. The layers of clothing were slowing sliding off their sweaty and snowy bodies. Groups of children shuffled into the hotel lobby, removing winter hats, gloves and scarves, revealing their snow kissed cheeks.
I was somewhat comfortably seated, communally with several other guests awaiting an award ceremony for our kids’ Ski Club, held at a rustic resort banquet hall. The presentation was just about to begin when the conversation unraveled in a chitty chatty random fashion between the other skiers and two of my seven children.
“Are you guys related?” asks one of the teenagers, peering through his long burly blond bangs. He’s brave enough to figure out the relationship indifference and query my relation to my towheaded, blue-eyed daughter.
When introducing my children, new acquaintances will comment on the color of my children’s hair. “Does your husband have blonde hair?” they ask. I’m always surprised when the question comes up, and when I reveal my family is blended by adoption, I usually get some type of genuine approval for my kind deed. But, as affirming as it may seem, I would rather avoid the “atta girl” praise from strangers.
Does it even matter, I ask myself. These children could be my stepchildren? Why are people so nosey?
But, depending on the circumstance, it can be a great tool to talk about adoption and dispel some myths people have about adopting older children. I don’t want to reveal anything too personal without my children’s consent, but I also don’t want my kids to feel ashamed or be defined by adoption either.
I attempt to answer this young man’s question kindly and informatively. But then my loud teenage son — the stand-up comedian — interrupts me. He sharply announces, “we look nothing alike.” I smile in agreement, reflective of my own Greek and Polish ancestry. He continues to address my features, my almost black hair and specifically targets my nose, “Her nose is a hook-like nose; it looks nothing like mine” – “or hers” as he points to his biological sister.
The discussion falls silent. Our attention shifts to the window. Outside, the intensity of the snow is increasing in depth, covering and hiding the empty summer patio furniture outside.
I sense a few eyes wandering over again to analyze my face, and then wander over to my son. Am I the impostor?
I start laughing as I look at my son and I shake my head, with the it’s okay, I’ve heard this before, it’s not the first time laugh. I smile. I nod. Keep calm and carry on, I think.
Do we need to look alike to belong to each other?
These comments reminded me of my teenage years. A few friends told me that I didn’t look like either my mom or my father (my third step father). My mother told me that my nose must have been inherited from my paternal side. My nose did not resemble my mother’s or any other family member, maternally speaking.
I had heard the “hook nose” comment before, from my friend Brenda in middle school. I was taken aback when she referred to my nose as having a hook. I think she meant it as a compliment. Mine was special for having a hook, as a nose didn’t radiate any beauty or sophistication, I would think. But sometimes I wanted to change that. In front of the mirror I would temporarily apply clear tape to “fix” my nose so it perked up, instead of pointing down.
As I got older, my nose became significant in my identity, revealing only a small part of who I wished to be. I wanted to be Jewish and I wanted to look like my father. Though I didn’t know what either of these things looked like? I wanted to be able to look into the mirror and secure my ethnicity, and belong to my tribe. It wasn’t until I was an adult, that I was able to fully embrace my nose and understand my identity completely.
When I decided to become a parent, I felt that adoption was an ideal way to build my family. We have a blended family — three biological children and four who came to us from Tennessee through an interstate adoption program (ICPC) via AdoptUSkids.
My motivation to adopt is complex, though it might help to explain my own background. I was the product of an affair my mother had while she was married. She met my biological father in college and I learned very few details about him when I was younger. I was told his name, which my mother remembered somewhat incorrectly.
So the true story of my own conception was a mystery to both my legal father and biological father until I was an adult, when my mother finally revealed the truth to both of them. I suppose that story could have crippled me, but instead, I feel like I became more compassionate and understanding about these sorts of lost and found identity issues.
The search for my “real” self led me to read many books about adoption. To my surprise, I strongly identified with many of the experiences of adoptees. I, too, had a strong appetite for an “adoption story,” to be reunited with my biological father and to seek out cultural, ancestral, and medical information.
Because I treasure my biological identity, it’s important for me to respect my children’s identities too. I think it’s important to discuss our biological characteristics, like hair, body type, or noses. If we don’t acknowledge our inherited differences, we are asking our children to forget about a person that goes undefined. I know this all too well.
The years of not knowing created secrets in my head during the teenage years. The secrets grew like an unknown tumor and festered inside my head, until they exploded like a turbulent volcano. It’s just so messy to figure how these things will turn out. So, how could I honor my children’s biological family and give them a sense of whom they were related to?
When our adoption of the children was finalized, we decided to re-establish contact with our children’s aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, mother and father (there are two fathers, only one is appropriate of contact). A risky move, I know, but it felt so right for us. Our children’s caseworker in Tennessee agreed to receive the letters from family members and forward the letters to us. We wondered, would anyone write?
The letters came, then pictures and then cards. A few phone calls and a Skype here and there.
My husband established a private Facebook page where the kids and their family members can interact and share the latest news with each other. My husband will post pictures and share each kid’s highlights through school or sport photos. The kids will get online and respond to the cheerful comments the family members have posted online. The messages are always inspiring and positive. We have experienced no jealousy, no drama, no blame, and no shame. Really.
My husband has retained a level of respect and integrity throughout the life of the page thus far and monitors it closely. These family members were present in our children’s early lives, when they were just babbling babies, toddlers and elementary kids. I watch this reunion unfold and see the family stories they post. Their family’s stories have become ours, and together, we are all adopted.
Being the other mother, I back off and let the journey pace itself. It takes selflessness for me to step out of this reunion limelight. But it is not my place.
I don’t want to impede on this bond, like a backseat driver. It’s not that I would say anything unkind. It’s just that I don’t want this relationship to be about me. Instead I let my husband take the lead. I can’t imagine how this must feel for their mother, to see her children with a new mom and dad. I cringe at being in the reverse position of all this. It takes strength to be happy for our happiness.
My husband and I offer a soft place for our kids to talk, if they want. Surprisingly, not all the kids are equally interested and excited about talking to old people about the past, a past they have since moved on from.
When our adopted children entered foster care, it was hopeful that their mom could pull things together and they would be a family again. After a year, the contact ceased. Without a goodbye, many questions went unanswered.
Though they may have entered the system of confusion, our children were never forgotten. They were in foster care for 2 ½ years, waiting in limbo, waiting for a new normal. Their parents’ rights were terminated, and they were available to be adopted. Their profiles appeared on AdoptUSKids website and that’s where we met them.
Our adopted children were not clean slates, cuddly babies or curious toddlers. They are insightful and perfectly flawed. They have memories and feelings intertwined with chaos and love, just like any family has. Like ageism on the tail of an old man, they had fewer years to be plucked out and chosen.
I still dislike how prospective adoptive parents discriminate and desire the babies, the toddlers, the blank slates, the ones with fewer issues, more time to attach, they say. Oh, how they are wrong! My husband and I were happy to be chosen for them.
To date, we have quite an extended family. Though we have not scheduled a date to meet up in person with these family members…yet (my adoptive children’s biological family members live in by the gulf coast and we live in Virginia) it is something I look forward to, but not now. Reunions can be romanticized (I know from my own experience with my bio-father) and I want to wait till the time is right for everyone.
Though the kids’ family members could not take on the responsibility of raising these four amazing children, they are grateful to be reunited with these kids again. Peace in knowing that everyone is okay. And in return, we are grateful for their contribution to our photo album. Pictures have been the gift of closure. Documenting our primal desire to know where they came from.
The collected pictures include our adopted children’s biological parents’ school photos. It’s those little snap shots, where I see my daughter and her mother’s resemblance. She holds up a picture of her mom – a first grade school photo, and she asks me “do I look like my mom?”
She does. And I just swoon over the resemblance, I understand the importance of being lost and found in these photos, “you have her chin and lips!” I tell my nine-year-old daughter, “and the blonde hair, what beautiful hair she has” complementing her mother too.
We currently have a photo of the kids’ grandparents on the fridge. The photo is 1960’s black and white and it depicts a young couple in love, huddled in each other’s arms. These relatives in the photo strongly resemble the kids. To see the photos and compare the similarities is extremely cathartic for me to see. We talk about noses and compare chins and eyes.
. . .
That night at the ski lodge, I wore my nose as if it were a crown.
After the long evening at the Ski Banquet, we remove the layers of jackets, thermal long johns and wooly socks. We prepare to unwind after the long drive home in the cold and wintery weather. The blanket of snow like a quilt covers the ground, hiding the road beneath.
I lay down beside my youngest daughter, tucking her in without a goodnight story. Instead we talk about how exhausted she is, and the joy in learning how to ski. I tell her how beautiful she is, woven inside and out with love and strength. I hope she can uncover her true self, I think to myself. It’s such a long path.
We talk about her little nose and my hook nose and she chirps up, “That girl said we have the same nose, and I don’t think we do…But, when I grow up, I want to be just like you!”
Veronica Chenik Gilmore, is an adoptive parent and writer/advocate.She lives outside Washington DC with her husband and their seven children. They are an official spokes family for AdoptUSkids website. Veronica draws from her personal experiences regarding humanist values, adoption and stories of identity and parenthood. Find her blog at Chronicles for Social Change. She is a contributing writer on a book with the same title We Are All Adopted.
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