Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Adoptee's Arboretum

I cannot believe that until now, I hadn't read Betty Jean Lifton's Twice Born: Memoirs of An Adopted Daughter. I have been hungrily reading adoption memoirs steadily for about a year, and have enjoyed and found resonance with most of them, but Twice Born is possibly the most satisfying one I have read to date. It was published in 1975, just as the adoption rights movement was beginning, and it chronicles Lifton's life as an adopted person, and her search for and reunion with her birth parents. One would think that something written over 30 years ago on the topic of adoption might seem dated, but sadly for us adoptees, much of what she says still holds true.

In one section of the book, her school-age son, whom she has not yet told that she is adopted, approaches her with a class assignment to create a family tree. He wants her to help him with her side of the family tree. She resists, wondering "Does the adopted person go on the tree she was placed on biologically or the tree onto which she was transplanted? Who's to say?"

I have been wondering how to explain to my five-year-old son that I am adopted. He knows he has three grandmas, and he thinks that's awesome--the more adults who love him and get on the floor with him to play Thomas the Tank Engine, the merrier. But he doesn't know why he has an extra grandma, and he hasn't asked, so I haven't told him. I want to, but I don't know if he's developmentally ready. How does one know these things?

My parents told me I was adopted from the moment they got me, and I thank them for that; I am so grateful that there was never a time I didn't know I was adopted, and more importantly, that there was never a time when I suddenly found out I was adopted, which I think would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

The time is soon coming when I will explain to my son the intricacies of what Betty Jean Lifton calls her family "arboretum." I love the idea of a family arboretum rather than a family tree (or, as I have heard suggested for adoptees, a "family orchard"), partly because I love arboreta, especially the arboretum near my house, which boasts not only lots of cool trees and plants that make me very happy, but also a garden railway, which makes my son very happy. Also, sometimes I get to teach creative writing classes there, and that also pleases me greatly.

I look forward to describing the adoptee's arboretum metaphor to my son, when the time is right. I thought it might happen a few months ago, when we were eating dinner one night several weeks before getting on plane to visit my birth father for the first time, and I said "We're going to visit _____ when we go on vacation!"
"Who's _____?" he replied.
"Well, that's a very good question," I said.
And I took a deep breath, preparing to tell him that Mommy has two dads, one is Grandpa Bob, and the other is this man we're going to meet in a few weeks, etc., etc., but before I could get a word out, my son asked "Can I have dessert?" and with that we had moved on to another subject, entirely eliding my personal arboretum. I took his response to mean that he wasn't ready/ it wasn't time, but who knows? I could have probably just hauled off and told him, and he would have said, "OK, Mommy,"--he is, after all, one of the most flexible children I've ever met, the kind of kid who rolls with whatever comes his way, and I really appreciate that about him.

So I have to surmise that my reluctance to spell it all out for him is really about me, not about him, dangit. I'm afraid that when I tell him I have two dads and two moms, he'll wonder which one is the "real" dad and the "real" mom, and then he'll wonder why didn't I grow up with the parents to whom I was born. I'm worried that this information will cause him to wonder if he's likely to be given to another set of parents, and I'm worried that I won't be able to dispell that notion, no matter how hard I try.

So the issue is really still mine--all this stuff probably won't bother him, but it bothers me. After all these years, I am totally freaked out that he will ask me, "why did your original parents give you up?" and I'll be flattened because I still wonder that myself, even though intellectually I know that the 18-year-0ld girl who was my birth mom could not keep me, could not parent me alone, didn't have support from her family do do so, was shamed by society for getting pregnant out of wedlock, etc. There are so many reasons she couldn't keep me, but there is the part of me, the part I call the "Baby Self" who will never understand or accept why she was given away. And I don't want my son to see that part of me because I think it would scare him. It certainly scares me. But when the time comes, I'm going to call upon the strength of the oaks and cedars and redbuds, and all the other trees I love-- to explain to him my arboretum, and then we'll build a swing hanging from one of the tree's branches, and we'll play and play on it.

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