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Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

IMG_8466A few days ago, I stood outside a friend’s house, hand-me-down leotards from the friend in hand. My friend’s daughter is a couple of years older than mine. Her girl is wiry, fierce, rarely tuckered out without a great deal of physical activity—and into gymnastics. Her girl, when frustrated, sometimes growls. Mine is the same. Both moms imagine the discipline and physicality of gymnastics to be, for these particular girls, a very good, possibly necessary thing.

Both girls are very small. Neither mom is tall.

“Well, she’ll never be big. I mean, I’m not so that makes sense,” I remarked and almost instantly, clapped hand to mouth. My daughter is adopted. My being short has nothing to do with her stature. In that moment, though, I simply forgot. We share everything—practically everything—except a gene pool. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this at times.

I’ve slipped in similar ways about her love of chocolate or the soundtrack to Nashville. My daughter; she’s just like me? More often, it’s less a slip than that I don’t consider why she is the way she is, likes what she likes, or acts how she acts. Another mom with three boys (no girls) at a wedding yesterday mused about how nice it would have been to have tea parties. Her reasoning went like this: if you have a girl, she’d like to have a tea party, because, obviously, all girls like tea parties. My girl’s yet to suggest a tea party—and in a way, I can’t see her doing so. One of my boys had a Mad Hatter’s Tea birthday party years ago. The analogy: girls don’t mean automatic tea parties; adoption doesn’t mean automatic difference.

There are times though when my girl flashes a particular expression—usually it’s a half-smile that involves a tiny crumple of her mouth and is meant to be somewhat sarcastically silly—and I see her birth mom right in front of me. Other times, still, my little girl’s frustration pops like a firecracker with a series of slaps or kicks. Although I know I sometimes hit or kicked (or pulled hair or pulled on arms) as a child, the intensity of her bottled-up fury popping out feels… unfamiliar. Her brothers certainly hit, pinched, kicked or bit. My expectations aren’t for extraordinary calm or peaceful pacifism at all times. However, the sum total of the boys’ small child aggressions didn’t put them nearly in her league. I can’t really say exactly why. Theories: she’s youngest by far. She’s fiery. She’s a girl. She’s adopted. I’ll admit that sometimes as I try to find the calm, firm, safe patience to hold her through a tantrum (very most often in the evening when she’s overtired and her last sparks of energy blow every which way like some wayward robot toy in a cartoon before the final sputter), my mind flashes to this question: might her roiling response to frustration be somehow genetically wired?

A friend with an adopted daughter said to me recently that to raise a child she’s not genetically connected to causes her to think about biology anew. She envisions it as more important as she imagined before raising her daughter. Her remark made me think of something another friend of mine said. This friend is an adult adoptee, who once described to me how she’d always been fascinated by rocks and when, as an adult, she learned that her birth father had been a geologist, it was as if she’d put a puzzle piece into place.

Obviously, in the day-to-day, my momentary lapse that has her short just like me differs not at all from my questions about whether her anger is somehow about hardwiring. When we live so closely in relation to others—as do parents and children—we are deeply connected. And sometimes we’re deeply confused by those connections. I remain somewhat stunned that I gave birth to three boy children, for example. I’m only half-joking to say I find it unfathomable that a penis was created inside of female me. The whole thing is somewhat surreal. More importantly, families challenge assumptions. We learn when we are so close it’s hard sometimes to grasp that we aren’t the exact same person and we are so close it’s obvious that we cannot possibly be the exact same person. This push and pull—sometimes broken into the notion of nature and nurture—it’s ultimately, every family’s to experience.

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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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