Written by Jennifer Hiltebeitel
My family never talked about adoption.
I was adopted in 1972 when I was four and a half years old. I remember my adoption day, not because we were adopted, but more because my parents took my brother and I shopping for snow boots because there was a big snow storm the night before the courthouse appointment. Shopping for snow boots seemed to be a bigger deal than the fact that we were officially becoming a family of four.
Adoption seemed to be a taboo subject in our immediate family, our extended family, our church, school and honestly our entire community. When strangers would ask us in the store where we got our “beautiful red hair” (which I always hated as a child), my dad would often talk about how his dad (my grandfather from whom I received zero genes) had red hair. I remember becoming so frustrated with that white lie that eventually I started blurting out, “We’re adopted!”. I learned very quickly that was all I needed to shut down the unwanted attention and questions as strangers would quickly walk away whispering to one another. My outbursts were never discussed, my parents would just pretend it never happened.
Looking back I wish my parents would have celebrated our adoption, our adoption day and that they would have let me know how much they loved that I was a part of the family. I wish they would have told me stories about when I first came into their home and how much they loved me. I wish they would have celebrated my unique personality and gifts even though I was so different from them. I wish adoption would have been a safe and open subject, but it wasn’t.
Even though my parents did not have adoption resources or a community to support them while raising children through adoption, looking back I can see two specific things my mom did that honored my story. I remember my mom approaching me when our adoption date was getting close and she wanted to talk about my name. She said she knew changing “Jennifer” would be confusing, but since my last name was going to be changed to my dad’s last name, she wanted to be a part of my name too. So my mom decided she was going to change my middle name and wanted my opinion. My mom gave me a choice of several typical middle names that went with girls named Jennifer in the 70’s. The name “Gail” stood out to me; it was different. And, I had a crush on a boy named, Galen, in my Sunday School class, so I chose Gail. I don’t know if that was my mom’s favorite or not, but it has always meant a lot to me that she kept my first name and gave me a choice about my middle name.
The other thing my parents did was sign the permission form I needed to find my birth family. My guidance counselor and a social worker found my adoption record in the courthouse when I was 17 that had the names of my biological grandparents on it. In order to write to them asking for information about my biological parents we needed one of my adoptive parents’ signatures. My mom was fearful and reluctant but chose to sign the permission form. That piece of paper helped me to connect with my birth family and I will always be grateful for that gift, even though it was painful and complicated.
If you are an adoptive parent I want to let you know that some adoptees battle the fear of abandonment our whole lives. It is difficult as a child to not feel like it is our fault that we were abandoned, and therefore, we fear that other people we love will also abandon us. In fact, I never thought I was worthy of love until my husband chose to love me unconditionally. Also, the question ‘Who am I?’ that most teenagers try to answer is often much more complicated for the teen who entered their family through adoption. So I encourage you to please help your adopted child process their story, their identity and who they are. Talk about adoption, don’t shy away from it, help your child feel known and loved by honoring their story.
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