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6527212 August 17, 2009

All in the Family: An Aberration Story

I love my life and all the family members in it.

When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, we were still watching Leave It To Beaver, dressing up in our Sunday best for church, and thinking that children of divorced parents were the only ones writing curse words in the baseball dugout at the park. Those were supposed to be the 'good ole' days. The definition of family was fairly standard: a mom, a dad, and a few kids, all spawned by the resident parents after the wedding night. Most of us seemed to fit that definition; in my neck of the woods, those who didn't were swept under the proverbial rug in one way or another. It's amazing how much energy, and pain, was spent on living up to that definition. For some, it came naturally. For others, it was hell.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all just exist in a cookie cutter world where everything was just peachy creamy? Where everyone effortlessly upheld their obligations, and we all loved one another because we were just so perfect and wonderful? Maybe. I'm not sure because I don't think that exists if we're being honest. In some ways, it's not a bad dream to wish for, but it somehow ignores certain levels of creativity and the amazing individuality of our existence. It sucks the unique dry.

Years ago, living in the Leave it to Beaver aftermath of our parents' world, there were so many things that were still "hush-hush" compared to now. Those who were willing to stand up and chose a life that was a little outside the normal definition were ground breakers in my book. Too many of the avenues these ground-breakers chose continue to be criticized today in some corners of our society. Certain choices, behaviors, etc. are still frowned upon, even if behind closed doors. And I'm not just talking about the obvious ones; there are still too many adults struggling to live up to impossible, unrealistic, or counter intuitive standards imposed upon them by others.

It makes me so sad.

But then maybe, like my guest today, Lisa, I'm overly focused on how to make everyone around me happy. When a child has an invisible brand across their back that says, "Someone important in my life wasn't able to love me like they should," regardless of the circumstance, it potentially impacts their life. Even when we understand the reasons, and have coped with them, we don't forget. The best we can do is focus on all the incredible love surrounding us. That's what Lisa has managed to do. She's a great example of how focusing on the positive is the best medicine for what ails us. And furthermore, her family seems to be composed of a bunch of heroes who understood years ago that family is just a word, and it's love that matters most.

You were part of an 'in family' adoption. Can you explain what that means and the circumstance?

First of all, I would like to say that all my answers are my impressions of what happened. Facts may be skewed due to family lore and what I always grew up believing. When my family reads this, they may tell me that some things in my accounting may not be accurate. So, having said that, let's go on this journey.

I was adopted by my birth mother's sister. As I understand it, back then it was frowned upon to do in family adoptions but whoever it is that took care of such things allowed it although I understand they had to go through the same process as a regular adoption.

When my birth mother got pregnant with me, as I understand it, my father decided he couldn't handle that responsibility so he left her. She went home to have me, and my birth mother's sister and her husband decided to adopt me. Family legend has it that my (adopted) sister said she wanted me as her sister so they adopted me. I'm sure there was way more to it than that but I like that legend.

Growing up, did you know the circumstances of your adoption? If so, how did you feel about it? How was it presented to you?

I knew from a very early age that I was adopted. I don't ever remember being shocked to hear it. As I recall, my grandfather and I were in his old station wagon, and I don't know if he thought I was asleep or knew I was awake, but he told me that I was adopted and that I was loved and always, always my family wanted me, but that the circumstances of my birth didn't allow me to be with my birth mother (he put in in little kid words but those are the meanings I gleaned from it). So, I always knew. And, I remember one time, I was at the Dr.'s office and on my chart it said "adopted" and I asked my adoptive Mom what that meant and she said "Let's go get an Icee!" Pretty much, it's the only time that I remember that I ever, as a child, asked anything about my birth or parentage. Hey, I got an Icee out of the deal, but I don't remember her talking to me about the adoption.

I assume you know your birth mother. How does your love for your birth mother and your adopted mother differ? How are they similar?

I have always felt close to my birth mother, Brownie. I always knew we were tied in a special bond that could never be broken. I spent summers with her and went on family vacations with her (she's remarried and has another girl from that marriage) and have many things in common with her, including, among other things, looking very much like her.

I have and will always have an inexpressible gratitude my adoptive mother, Ethel. She taught me all the things mothers teach their daughters (except they always wear clean underwear--that's for her in case she reads this--it's a family joke). She instilled in me a love for God and family. She taught me to love myself (that's a pretty good one right there) and to respect others and always do my best, no matter what. I never felt that I didn't belong where I was. There was never any differentiation between me or my big sister as far as love and devotion. I was never second best to her.

I love them both and am truly grateful to both for different reasons. Ethel, for the reasons I stated above, and Brownie because she was wise and strong enough to allow me to be raised by people who loved me unconditionally.

I love and have always loved Brownie, but even though I know I'm her daughter, there are some things that you don't get from a mother you don't live with. Like, while I appreciate her input and insight into things, and take them into consideration, Ethel's opinion will always carry more weight with me. I always call Brownie when I have news to share, etc., but as for the "mom" things, it's always Ethel. It's not that I love Brownie less, it's just that some things are more mom oriented, and or those things I communicate with Ethel more.

Have your thoughts and emotions about your situation changed as you matured? If so, how?

When I was younger I thought I was a honeymoon baby and that my father just got overwhelmed with all his new responsibilities. While that wasn't okay or excusable, I dealt with that information as I could. When I learned (later) that my birth parents had been married for five years when I was conceived, it was a bit of a shock. My feelings were hurt that my father didn't want to have anything to do with me--a person he helped create. And how must Brownie have felt? He was willing to throw both of us away due to whatever it was inside of him that couldn't allow him to love either of us.

However, at the time I found this out, I had an adoptive father, a step-father, and an uncle (whom I have always a great fondness for--essentially another father figure) and I felt I had enough daddies who loved me for who I was and as I was. I didn't need to waste time lamenting the one who donated his DNA to me just because he was was ignorant and didn't know what he was missing. I wasn't missing anything in the daddy department.

How is the relationship between your birth mother and her sister, your adoptive mom? Has it remained consistent over the years?

As far as I know, they have remained the best of friends over the years and I have only seen them close.

I do remember one time we all went camping, the entire clan. At that time, I had my first son and he was the only grandchild. Somehow something happened and from what I heard, there was a "I'm the grandmother" come-to-Jesus meeting between Ethel and Brownie and that's all I know about that incident. I wasn't even aware it was going on at the time. I did realize that something was up but didn't know it involved me. I've never had the nerve to ask about it. It wasn't really my business ... or at least I didn't think so.

Looking back, do you feel that the best decisions were made in your family with regard to the adoption?

Without question, yes. I can't imagine my life any other way. Really, I am blessed with the best of both worlds. I have a loving mother, a loving "birth" mother whom I know and love, a sister who asked to be my sister, and another sister who, when she found out about me, embraced me as her sister, no questions asked. How could my life get any better? You know when you're learning math and you have those circles and they are intertwined? There's some in Circle A, some in Circle B and then there are some in both? I am the one that's in both and I embrace that. I appreciate that.

Being either a parent or child in an adoption situation often makes one contemplate what love is, and what makes a family. What are your thoughts on this?

I've never questioned what a family is. It's at least one parent who loves you no matter what. It doesn't have to be a birth parent--just someone who can love you unequivocally. Ethel did (does) that for me.

Has being adopted impacted the key relationships in your life. Has this changed over time?

I think that my need to please people (thinking that will help them like me more) probably comes from being adopted. Always trying to keep things light, especially in tense situations probably stems from that. I think that, in my life, I've had a father throw me away (essentially) pretty much. It can't get much worse than that as far as feeling unloved. So, anything I can do to keep someone from feeling like they can "throw me away," i.e. please them, make them smile, love them unconditionally (sometimes undeservedly, as in the case of my first husband--hard lesson learned there!) etc., is my "raison d'etre". It's not conscious, in the forefront of my mind day in and day out, but looking at my life, I tend to try to be lovable. And my self-analysis tells me that this is probably why.

As I get older, I'm learning that it's IMPOSSIBLE to make everyone happy. There are just going to be people who don't like me, no matter what, and that I will live through that. It's taken me awhile, but, I'm getting there.

Although thrilled to become a sister, my daughter (who was adopted by my husband) became quite curious and concerned when I was pregnant with her sister. I believe she feared that her dad would love her sister more than her. She was 10 at the time. Based on your experience, can you provide adoptive parents with any tips or insight into how best to explain adoption to their children?

You know, I don't have any answers. All I can say is honesty is always the best policy. Age appropriate honesty. Make sure there is no differentiation in the way you treat the children. Unfortunately, ten is old enough to see how parents (naturally) dote on a baby, therefore, natural feelings of jealousy will emerge. However, I would buffer those feelings with stories of when she was a baby. Such as "you know when you were a baby we did this with you, too" and just make sure she knows you still love her. You cannot show/tell a sibling, adopted or not, that too much.

Someone once said something to me like "adopted children are special because they were chosen" or something to that effect. It's true, I feel special because, as I said earlier, my sister said she wanted me for her sister, and that offsets that "my father threw me away" mentality to some degree but reminders are always welcome for an adoptee.

I'm lucky in that I had Ethel who was willing to take me in as her own and I never felt I didn't belong there. Bob, Ethel's husband, loved me to the end of his life as his own and often told me the luckiest day in his life was the day I came into it. Henry, Ethel's second husband, treated me as his own and although Henry was tough and expected much, I knew he loved me. Brownie has always been a constant source of love and understanding and her house has always been a safe haven for me, no matter where she lived. And Brownie's second husband, Howard has, in his own way, shown me that he loves me. He sat down with me every night when I was taking college algebra and helped me with my homework. And, my sister? Try sisters. At this point in my life, I really don't differentiate between them. I have two sisters. One I grew up with and the other I watched grow up. I am blessed to be loved, as a sister, by both. And, as if that weren't enough, I have two great brothers-in-law and they both know the situation, but, again, love me as their own and I love them.

Life is good for this adoptee. I love my life and all the family members in it.

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