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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Essential Adoptee Question: Who Made Me?

Where do babies come from? ... A quintessential childhood curiosity.

Heck, at her insistence, I’ve already had to explain to my unsqueamish (biological) four-year-old the important distinction between a stomachdigests food, and a uterusgrows a baby.

As a mom, I enjoy reminding my kids that they used to be tiny, tiny beings inside me; that Daddy and I made them.

Perhaps biological children are secure in the knowledge of their origins, so they simply want to know about the process, the details.

Do adoptees ask different questions?

Trying in vain to fill the void

As a child, I certainly thought I knew where babies came from.

Clearly, you get a baby from a birth mother, and it has something to do with her “loving the baby enough to give it up.”

Instead, I wondered, Who made me?

Being adopted defined my sense of self, and yet the severing from any connection by the State of New Jersey to who I was before I was three weeks old left a hole in this identity.

As I entered pre-adolescence, I couldn’t put the emptiness into words and felt guilty for not being grateful to my mom for adopting me. We never went to counseling or socialized with adoptive families. I was left without any point of reference that others had been through the same thing.

Hoping to recognize myself, to find the person who made me, I stared into each late-twenties female face I saw. It didn’t occur to me that the probability of seeing her at places like Laurel Mall in Prince Georges County, Maryland, was slim.

Testing my adoptive momWould she give me back?

Late at night, I often worked myself into crying fits about meeting my birth mom. My adoptive mom tried to comfort me, but really, what could she say? She would hug me and leave me to cry myself to sleep.

I wondered about my self-worth. Literally. I accused my parents of buying me. Even if they just covered hospital expenses for my birth, I insisted that they paid money to get me, like a slave. 

The unspoken, subconscious test was this ... Do my adoptive parents also “love me enough to give me away”?

I tried to hide my curiosity about my birth mom but would nevertheless explode in anger. My adoptive mom was unable to connect with me emotionally, to talk through my feelings so that both of us could understand them and work through them.

Mom was much better with action.

The Letter

As I entered fifth grade, she suggested we contact the adoption agency for more information about my biological family. Several weeks later, we received the two-page response I mentioned in my last post, My Adoptee Family Tree is Actually an Orchard.

The Letter, as I came to call it, had no pictures or identifying information, but I cherished it.

At seventeen, my birth mom stood five-foot-nine and was a slim 130 pounds (when not pregnant). Her four siblings were also tall and thin. Everyone was healthy, including her parents. My birth mom took ballet classes, but had to stop at age thirteen when her parents got divorced. She got all As and was a varsity cheerleader.

The relief I felt was palpable.

The Letter became my life guide

Picturing myself growing up to be the same height as her, same build, same weight, The Letter offered concrete information as to who I was supposed to be.

Ballet, check. Straight As, done. Future high-school cheerleader, no problem.

I never imaged my birth mother moving on, going to college and having a successful career, becoming a wife or a mother to another child. In my adolescent mind, she was a beautiful seventeen-year-old, stuck in time.

My plan became clear: I would do my very best to emulate her, so that when my records became magically unsealed at age eighteen, I'd be sure she'd be proud of me.

To be worthy of knowing the person who made me, I had to be perfect.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more about Laura's adoptee perfectionism in her memoir, Adopted Reality, available on Amazon. Connect with Laura @ adoptedrealitymemoir.com


  1. I identify with your sense of a need for perfection. I did not know anything substantial about my original mother until I was in my late 20s, but I felt an inner drive always, always to be perfect so that she would be proud of me. That was an immense, heavy weight to bear.

  2. Thanks so much for writing. Being perfect for my adopted family (so they don't give me back) and being perfect for my birth mom -- it is a heavy weight to bear. You're right. I'm curious - did you reunite? If yes, how did that affect your perfectionism?

  3. I was perfect for both families, definitely. The straight A's, and as good behavior as I could manage (no drinking, no drugs, no staying out all night, except for a couple times I wasn't caught). I was valedictorian, went to a great college, on to grad school, the whole thing. Married a guy who on paper was perfect, too. Maybe in real life not so much, but adoptees love to find and help damaged people. At least this one. I have the two beautiful kids, the good job, the nice house. On the outside, I am pretty formidable.

    I reunited in my 40's, quite recently. I think my nfamily finds me a little too perfect, and definitely daunting. They don't know what to do with me. We come from the same economic and social backgrounds, but different regions and polar opposites in terms of politics. I think they see me as too good, maybe "Goody Two Shoes" with a splash of crazy. My afamily accepts that I have depression and am a little wacky. My nfamily simply doesn't talk about deeply personal things, or things that upset them. I have made major faux pas in trying to discuss things openly that seem to be troubling them. Not done. Absolutely not done. But then again, I don't know the code!

    I liken being adopted to returning from exile. When you've been exiled from a foreign country since birth, you have no idea of the country's laws or customs. It's easy to mess up the customs of the country if you don't know them, and if people aren't compassionate about your not knowing the rules, well, it can make for a bumpy ride. I find myself back in the hinterlands after a short trip to the capital city. Mostly by choice, but not completely so. Sometimes you just don't fit in; I don't want to change to fit, and if I am not accepted for the foreigner I am, so be it. I love myself, and that's what matters. Funny to say that, but it feels good.

    I am glad that I reunited in middle age (again, not completely by choice--my mother rejected me for a long time). I have learned to be kind to myself, much kinder than I was in my 20's, or even my 30's. I know that no one is perfect; no one can be! I am able to forgive, but I also know how to maintain boundaries for my own sanity.

  4. Thanks for writing. If you want to connect "off" a public forum, please, email me at laura @ adoptedrealitymemoir.com. Your experiences feel eerily similar to mine! I love this comparison to having been exiled; then returning and being utterly oblivious to the local customs.

    When I published my memoir about my adoption, reunion and subsequent bout with insanity, I (wrongly) thought my bio family would have a reaction such as: Wow, I've always wondered how she felt about all of that; I can't wait to open the lines of communication.

    Ha! I mean, I did get input from my birth mom during my writing process. I wanted to feel secure that I got her story right. But, as for the majority of my birth family ... silence. It's just same-old-same-old. Secrecy, silence, don't talk about it, don't think about changing your preconceived notions.

    I hope, when I reach my 40s, I can be more forgiving of myself. I feel, like you, I've progressed somewhat since my 20s, but I still have periods of debilitating depression.

    Looking forward to learning more about you,


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