Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Age is NOT Just a Number

The last time it happened, I was sitting across from my doctor, the tissue paper crinkling underneath my weight. I sat up on the examining table, watching her flip through my charts. My son was a few months old, and I had just finished telling her how exhausted I was. I confessed to her that I couldn’t imagine another child in my future. Having two kids under five was hard.  She was sympathetic, but told me that I might change my mind once my son was a little older. “You’re still really young, so you still have a lot of time to think about having more kids,” she said as she flipped the folder closed. “Twenty eight. That’s still a lot of time.” She clicked her pen a few times and tucked it behind her ears. A few minutes later she left the room.

As I sat there, I thought about what she had said. Every piece of identification I had said that I was 28. My driver’s license, my passport, everything said I was 28. So how was it possible that I had just celebrated my 30th birthday?

In order to fulfill the demand for younger children, adoption records are often altered. In countries where there is shoddy record keeping, this means even birth certificates can be changed to suit a prospective parent. In my case, the woman who orchestrated my adoption changed my birth year, taking two years off my life. To her, this seemingly innocuous alteration made me more adoptable, gave me a chance at a better future. But that one decision has followed me my entire life.

My adoptive parents knew right away something was off. Shortly after arriving in Canada, they had me evaluated. After a series of tests, the doctor’s best estimation was that I was not one, but three years old. And from then on, I was. To my parents, in our home, I was a three year old. I celebrated my fourth birthday and then my fifth. But my records didn’t change. When I was blowing out the candles on my fifth birthday, my birth certificate still said I was three.  

My parents used doctor’s notes and evaluations to get me in school. I was too young to really understand what was going on. It wasn’t a big deal until I turned 16. At 16, while all my friends were getting their driver’s license, I still had to wait another two years. At 16, I started to realize the gravity of the situation. I didn’t want to tell anyone, so I came up with excuses. My parents drove me and my four siblings to the private school we all attended at the time, so I didn’t really need to drive. And I didn't want to drive around in my parents' minivan. Plus, I couldn't afford a car. At least that’s what I told people. But it was awkward. How could I explain to my friends that I wasn’t exactly sure when I was born?

I finally got my driver’s license at 19, between summers at college. By then, my friends and I were all graduated, and the excitement had passed. My news was met with lukewarm congratulations. In college, I avoided situations where I would have to pull out my identification to verify my age. I told a few people I was close to, and to them it was this “crazy, incredible, I can’t believe that happened to you” story, but to me, it was still a shameful part of my life.

I’ve since reunited with my biological mother and she confirmed that I was born in 1983, and so the doctor was right. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. One person essentially erased two years of my life. One person decided it was in my best interest to alter something so integral to my identity, a decision that points to a real problem in so many international adoptions. Our identities are not important. We are voiceless, our birthdays, our family histories often decided by those looking for profit.

As I sat in the doctor’s office that afternoon, I realized I would never outgrow the lies in my adoption records. At 30 years old, someone else still had control over my life. I didn’t correct my doctor. That would mean explaining the details of my adoption, filling her in on the backstory. I just didn’t feel like going through it. On my way out of the doctor’s office, I headed to the elevator. The doors opened, and I was grateful it was empty. I leaned my head against the wood paneled wall, tapping my foot until I reached the first floor. The doors opened, and I walked through the lobby into the warm afternoon, wondering how long it would be before I had to face my secret again.

Mariette Williams (@mariettewrites) is a transracial adoptee born in Jeremie, Haiti. She was adopted at the age of three and grew up near Vancouver, B.C., Canada. She founded Haitian Adoptees, a Facebook group that serves to connect and offer support to other Haitian adoptees. In July of 2015, Mariette reunited with her birth mother and several members of her birth family. She lives in South Florida with her husband and two children. In addition to being a Journalism and literature teacher, she writes essays, short stories, and poems that usually focus on adoption.