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The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day


grandparents' dog -- on a surprise visit to preschool

 Grandparents’ dog — on a surprise visit to preschool

Recently, we decided to switch pediatricians.  Predictably, this meant I was bequeathed a ream of paperwork to fill out. This included family medical history forms, one for each of my four children. I pretty much know about our parents’ health histories; to fill out the histories for the three I gave birth to required only memory. This isn’t true for my daughter, though. During the flurry of those early days of my daughter’s infancy, I don’t think our old pediatrician pressed for complete medical history. We were focused upon the present—and the quite small baby and her health and the rest of it, the three bigger children. It might have been difficult or felt difficult to ask, had the pediatrician pushed, as everything was so new and felt so fragile. Whatever the set of reasons, I didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of my daughter’s health history. Five years later I stared somewhat blankly at the paper that I must have filled out once before.

This time, though, I scanned the list for the most pressing heritable conditions, such as heart disease or cancers, arthritis and on, and I emailed both grandmothers: my daughter’s mother’s mother and her mother’s stepmother. I asked the stepmother about my daughter’s grandfather and the mother about herself and her daughters. Within hours, I had all the information I needed.

I found myself teary as I read the emails. It wasn’t because there was shocking information—much of it I already knew. I got teary because a small gift open adoption gives was made real right then. To know one’s family medical history is one of the things people put squarely on the plus side of open adoption: that questions like the ones on the family medical history form are answerable. Rather than wonder in adulthood whether the condition you have ran in your family, you could know that answer. I’ve heard people describe medical histories as puzzle pieces. I guess I got to have it on my daughter’s behalf that day. I got to know she’d have this information. I almost felt a little “a-ha” about open adoption just then.

But it was more than the history and more than some theoretical positive about adoption or wholeness or anything that made me teary—I felt the willingness and love from the grandmothers in those emails just to be her grandmothers.

Unlike my mother or stepmother or mother-in-law—yes, keep count, there are five grandmothers all told—I didn’t meet these two grandmothers until our daughter, their granddaughter, was born. Those are two of the many brand-new relationships formed around this little girl, which were intimate—family—and entirely unfamiliar at the very same time.

I am sure I could have asked for information from the grandmothers five years ago or at any time in between then and now. It might have felt much more loaded, even a little scary to ask right away. I felt comfortable when I asked. By now, we really do feel like family.

The family we gained on our daughter’s mother’s side includes four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To our daughter, it’s a wash of people she knows but doesn’t entirely always know. Somewhere inside her, the way the medical history answers meant a lot to me, my daughter responds similarly: she loves, for example, the toy horse her birth mom gave her and calls the horse Taco, the name of her birth mom’s horse. She sleeps with a blanket her aunt made for her when she was an infant. It’s as if there’s conscious knowledge and knowledge that isn’t conscious. Both have to work to try to wrap a heart around what adoption means, and what it feels like. Both are required to integrate something this huge, and this full of specifics.

Meantime, we’ve never met the one other grandmother we know about, the birth dad’s mom. We haven’t met him or seen a photograph. So as I scribbled all over the medical history form with asterisks to explain why the daughter’s family medical history is different than the brothers’ histories, I wrote that we don’t know anything about the dad’s family. I have an appointment set up to meet the new pediatrician without my kids in order to discuss concerns. I want to have a chance to feel the doctor out about adoption and make sure I’ve answered any questions before he meets my daughter. I can file this under a thing I hadn’t considered before becoming an adoptive parent: how to talk to the pediatrician about adoption and family medical history.

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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