Monday, December 7, 2015

My Adopted Brother

Dante's adoption anniversary is the anniversary of the day our parents -- my mother and social father -- finalized his adoption in court.  He was two months old and had lived with our parents since he was strong enough to leave the hospital.   

Every year we celebrated Dante's anniversary by going out with our mother's extended family -- our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many cousins -- first out for lunch at Pizza Hut and then to a movie or the bowling alley and ice skating rink.  I loved spending the day with my cousins, almost all of whom were local and spent every major holiday with us, including nearly a dozen family birthday parties throughout the year.  But I was jealous that Dante had an anniversary and I didn't.  It was almost like getting a second birthday party every year, even if there weren't presents.  I was jealous of Dante a lot, any time he got something I didn't, any time I felt things weren't equal.  I think that's a pretty typical kid reaction to perceived unfairness.

When my mother told me I was donor conceived and immediately told me I could never tell another soul, including my dad or Dante, it cast Dante's adoption anniversary in a weird light for me.  Why was his adoption, or the fact that our parents weren't biologically related to him, deserving of a party, while what I saw as a similar facet of my own identity -- being biologically descended from a secret parent outside our family -- was a dark secret?  It didn't seem fair at all.

In hindsight, I think my mother was just doing what had she had been told to do (except for the telling me I am donor conceived part).  Tell adopted children where they came from (to the extent that you know).  Celebrate them.  Tell them they are "special" and "chosen."  That was where adoption had gotten to when Dante was born.  Never tell children they are donor conceived.  Never tell anyone where the donor conceived children came from.  If anyone knows the truth, the intended father will reject the child and the child won't respect him as its parent.  That was where donor conception had gotten to when I was born.  "For god's sake, tell your child," has been the prevailing wisdom since the '90s, but when I was conceived, secrecy was king.  Adoptions used to be dark secrets too, so it seems to me the prevailing wisdom of "what to tell the children" is a couple decades behind for donor conception simply because it's a newer phenomenon. 

It seemed bizarre to me to treat us so differently when the goal was apparently to treat us both "as their own children."  But the prevailing wisdom of the day was dramatically different for our individual circumstances, no matter how similar those circumstances appeared in my mind.  Secret parents.  God knows how many siblings.  Falsified birth certificates.  The wondering.  The perpetual unknown.  His unknown was twice as big as mine, but my secret was darker.  It seemed we had a lot in common, but I wasn't allowed to tell him so.

I'm not jealous of Dante anymore, or of the fact that he got an extra annual party.  I'm not even sure he liked those parties.  He never talked to me or our parents about being adopted or how he felt about it.  It might have meant nothing to him or he might have been broken up inside.  There was no way to know because we weren't close.  We weren't close, and our house wasn't a safe place to talk about such things.  Had he dared to bring up the topic of his birth parents, even if it was just to express a curiosity in who they were, I can only imagine how our mother would have retaliated.

I can only remember my mother bringing up the topic of Dante's birth parents in my presence two times.  I remember her telling Dante that his mother had been 15 and was impregnated by a man whose children she had been babysitting.  I don't know if any of this was true, nor if it was "consensual," to the extent that sex with a 15-year-old can be consensual.  It struck me as a way for my mother to tell Dante that she was better than his birth parents.  Period.  The "slut" insinuation was there.  I'd like to say I imagined it, but as far as I could tell, my mother tended to view any sexually active woman as a slut who "had it coming," even if she was a child or married.  The only other time I remember my mother mentioning Dante's birth parents was once when he wanted money for something in his teens or early twenties.  She'd sneered at him, "Why don't you go find your REAL parents?  Maybe they'll have some money for you."  It had the desired effect of shutting him up.

I remember once prattling away in the living room as a child and accidentally saying "my mom" instead of just "Mom."  Dante and our parents were the only people to whom I called her "Mom" instead of "my mom," so it seemed like a natural slip up to me, but my mother cut me off and laid into me.  "How dare you?" she screamed.  "I'm as much his mother as I am yours!"  I'd never thought she wasn't.  She'd favored Dante for most of my life.  When he hadn't recently done something to prompt her to turn on him viciously, he was the one she chose for her team while I was left out in the cold with our dad.  I knew how things worked at our house.  I hadn't been trying to insinuate that the only brother I'd ever known wasn't a part of our awful family.  He'd been a part of it for longer than I had.  Still she blanketed me in shame.  It feels strange to feel so sure I had made an innocent slip of the tongue with no deeper meaning behind it and to also feel so deeply ashamed for it.  Maybe that's what good parents are supposed to do though -- defend their children against the perceived slights of others.  It was confusing whenever I became one of those "others."

I wish Dante had known I was donor conceived.  I don't believe it's harder than being adopted (or even as hard most of the time, depending on the family and the surrounding circumstances -- half the unknown = half the trouble?), but it's another way of being different, of being "other."  It's something we sort of had in common.  We don't relate to each other at all, and yet I imagine he must've felt like as much of an outsider in that house as I did.  I felt like an outsider years before I knew I was donor conceived.  I remember being in preschool and thinking I must've been secretly adopted.  I thought I had both a mom and a dad out there in the world somewhere -- people who would understand me and make everything make sense.

I wish Dante knew that I wasn't as favored or as belonging as he seemed to think I was.  As jealous as I was of him (sometimes childishly, sometimes with good reason), I could see that he was treated unfairly, especially by our dad.  And that, as often as our mother gave him an undeserved pass on his bad behavior, she sometimes said terrible things he didn't deserve either.  Did he ever see when I was treated unfairly?  Did he recognize how hard I tried to keep them happy?  Did it ever occur to him that his abuse made my life harder and scarier?  Could he care? 

I wish he knew that it wasn't always just him on the outside being mistreated like he seemed to think.  Nothing there was fair, and neither of us was the full-time golden child.  If he hadn't been a psychopath, we might have been friends.  It would have been nice to have a friend in that house.

Dante is still in that house.  I almost said "stuck in that house," but I suspect that's not how he sees it.  Every time he left -- usually because our mother had kicked him out -- he gravitated back.  When she finally moved out after the divorce, when he was in his mid-thirties, he left his apartment and independent adult life to move back into his childhood bedroom.  Why?  He brought his girlfriend and her son with him, but still, why?  Why would anyone live in that awful, dilapidated house by choice?  And now he lives there with our dad, the person who always treated him the most cruelly.  I don't envy Dante anymore.  He might be happier than me -- I honestly have no idea -- but I could never live the way he lives.  We are too different.  I have never been able to understand him. 

I don't know what effect being adopted has had on him.  No ones knows.  There isn't a "control" version of Dante who isn't adopted with whom to compare him.  I don't know how he might or might not have been different had he been raised by his birth mother, or by more functional adoptive parents for that matter.  This post isn't really about that.  I guess what I mean for it to be about is that you can't predict how someone will feel about being adopted or react to being adopted, and I don't think there is a way to undo the fact that someone is adopted simply by throwing them a party and calling them "special."  And just because you love an adopted family member like they're blood and treat them like blood and genuinely feel like they're your flesh and blood doesn't mean they don't still feel adopted (or donor conceived, as the case may be).  And that's okay.  It'll be more okay if you can let them feel it without taking it personally or trying to make them feel something else.  That's what I think anyway.  I can't speak for anyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It must have been difficult to put yourself out there. You have revealed several things with this post:

    1. The importance of honesty with adopted AND donor-conceived children
    2. Reasons that yearly social worker follow-ups are necessary
    3. How positive and innocent acts can cause resentment in non-adopted children and confusion in adopted ones

    Ayesha Covert @ ChildNet Youth and Family Services