Sharing DNA Does Not a Family Make

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web_ready_gathering_final_kondrichLately I’ve been seeing stories about people seeking out others whose mothers were impregnated with sperm from the same donor – ostensibly looking for “siblings” they didn’t know they had. There’s even a new TV series called Almost Family, the premise of which is that a young woman discovers that her father, a renowned fertility doctor, used his own genetic material to impregnate many of his patients. This news sends her reeling and in search of biological half-sisters and other half-siblings running around unbeknownst to her.

I object to the idea that sharing DNA makes someone a part of one’s family. Aside from medical considerations such as the need for matching bone marrow or a kidney, there is no real family connection between people conceived in the sterile confines of a medical facility with sperm from the same donor. And the implication that somehow “blood is thicker than water” is a slap in the face to adoptive families such as my own.

I have three biological children conceived, luckily for me, the old-fashioned way. I loved the early bonding I was able to have with them, loved being able to nurse them and know them from even before they were born. I recognize the emotional pull of wanting to have one’s own biological children. And I truly understand why couples go through the rigors, expenses, and discomforts of fertility treatments.

But I also have a daughter adopted from China when she was eleven months old. I missed her very earliest days and the ability to breastfeed her. We had a short adjustment period during which we had to get to know each other, and she had to learn to trust us as her new mom and dad, brothers and sister. Yet today, my closeness with her, my sense of her as my own child is indistinguishable from my feelings for my other three children.

A family is made from shared love and experiences, from late nights comforting a colicky or sick child, from laughs shared at the dinner table, even from fights and defiance and setting boundaries. Families are made, not born, and a tenuous biological connection is fairly inconsequential.

I’m not dismissing the urge for adopted children to wonder about or search for their biological parents. Wondering why they were given away, wanting to know something about the mother, say, who carried them in her womb for nine months is perfectly normal.

But thinking that somehow you’re connected to someone because the same anonymous donor contributed his DNA to both of you? That reduces the idea of family to something mechanistic, impersonal, and ultimately meaningless.

In this day and age, families come to be in so many different ways. It’s unconditional love that makes a family, not the biological origins of one’s birth.

Gotcha

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3628e74410cef8316a75ca354bc5f3e4.jpgThe July day was sweltering in a small city in China the day we adopted our daughter. But the large hotel conference room was chilly as my husband and I entered it to the sounds of babies crying. The rest of our adoption group were there with babies in arms as a small woman with tears in her eyes approached us and handed us a little girl, almost one year old. The baby began to wail as she realized her caretaker from the orphanage was handing her over to total strangers. I was crying too and trying to say “I love you” in Mandarin. My husband was videotaping the whole affair, but he forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. So all we have to commemorate the moment is the audio of lots of crying.

Adoptive parents refer to this day as their child’s “Gotcha” day. Many have parties not only to celebrate their child’s birth, but also that fateful day when their precious child came into their lives. My daughter’s Gotcha day was this week, and it always brings me back to memories of China in the heat of the summer.

For days our new daughter appeared shell-shocked as she adjusted to two new people who looked, sounded, and even smelled different. I carried her in a Snugli through parks, museums, temples, and other sights as our guide showed us the land in which she was born. All the babies in the group were about to turn one, so the guide arranged a little birthday celebration at our hotel. The candle on the cake was shaped like a lotus flower, and it opened slowly when it was lit.

One morning as I fed our baby congee, the traditional breakfast of most Chinese, she looked up at me and gave me the most heartwarming smile. I knew we had crossed a threshold. As we packed our suitcases to leave for home, she started to become animated and engaged, giving us an impish smile as she removed articles of clothing I’d just packed.

The flight back to the U.S. was rough. It was an overnight to L.A. and was widely known as “the baby flight” because it usually held a number of families returning home after adopting their children. Our daughter was inconsolable. She had gotten sick and was on antibiotics, but I’m sure her ears or sinuses must have been hurting. I was dazed and sleep-deprived when we finally landed and went through immigration, thus making our new daughter a U.S. citizen. My husband claims that I scared a celebrity by leering at her while we waited for our luggage at baggage claim.

Once home, we awaited the return of our older children, who had been staying with my husband’s family. Their noisy arrival threw our baby off for a while, but she soon adjusted to three doting older siblings and an extended family who all loved her instantly.

Today our daughter is a thriving teenager, and it seems a distant memory thinking about the forlorn little girl we pledged to care for and never abandon during our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. When people adopt a child, particularly from overseas, well-wishers often comment on how lucky the child is. But we were the lucky ones – blessed with our beautiful, infuriating, fabulous daughter, who we couldn’t have loved any more if I had given birth to her.

Daughter, I’m so glad we “gotcha”!

 

What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.

Material Girl

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My youngest child is a great kid. She works hard in school, plays multiple sports, and is a good friend to many. But she has one trait that drives me a little batty. She is constantly wanting “stuff.” Whether surfing the web on her phone or comparing herself to her friends, she is continually finding items to add to her ever-expanding wish list. When we go shopping, she finds something in every store that she absolutely must have. I could take her to a hardware store or a place selling home health aids, and she would find some doo-dad that she wanted.

This quest for possessions reaches its zenith during the Christmas season. Her Christmas list is almost comically long, and her three older siblings just shake their heads at her rampant materialism. Mind you, all of them have had their share of “wants” over the years as well. But their desires have always been tempered by a measure of good sense and an acknowledgment that their parents are not going to indulge their every whim. But for my baby, hope springs eternal.

Along with wanting lots of stuff, my daughter has a passion for brand names. I’ve noticed that middle school kids have an almost pathological need to get the right brand of jeans, shoes, jackets, and electronic equipment. But that brand fanaticism seems to fall off in high school. Not so with my youngest. She is an advertiser’s dream. Just slap the word “Patagonia” on something, and she will want it.

I have sometimes wondered whether my daughter’s outsized need for things stems from deprivation early in life. For her first 11 months of life, she had to share the limited resources of goods and attention with dozens of other babies in a Chinese orphanage. And even though we showered her with love and attention (and toys!) when we brought her home with us, she may have a nagging sense of wanting that is hard to fill.

Each year, I have had my kids help me shop for and wrap presents for a needy family for Christmas. Last year, this became my youngest daughter’s Confirmation service project, and she indeed threw herself into every aspect of it. It was humbling for both of us to realize that the wish lists for another family consisted of such prosaic items as socks, work boots, and jeans. My husband and I have strived to teach our children that we are incredibly fortunate, that others are not so lucky, and finally, that material things do not bring happiness.

I hope that over the years, through her knowledge that we love her abundantly and will never leave her lacking for attention, my daughter will come to value relationships over material goods. I hope maturity helps her realize that it is how she moves through the world that makes her special, not the label on her jacket. Meanwhile, I will try to handle my “material girl” with humor and compassion.

 

Mothers’ Day

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(Photos: top – Millicent; bottom – Marlene)

One day, we children at St. Catherine of Siena school were instructed to create a spiritual bouquet for Mother’s Day. A spiritual bouquet is a card with a promise to say certain prayers for the recipient – say, 5 Hail Marys, 2 Our Fathers etc. We were told that this spiritual bouquet should be for our mother, whether living or dead. This conforms to the Catholic belief in praying for the souls of the deceased.

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The assignment posed a dilemma for me. My mother had died when I was 13 months old, but I had a new mother, the woman my father married when I was 3. What to do? I made two cards.

Losing my mother Millicent at such a young age must have been traumatic, but I don’t remember her or the time she was taken away from me. After her death, my Aunt Patty, who was married to my father’s brother, took me in and mothered me and my sisters along with her own children.  I am eternally grateful to my beloved Aunt Patty for saving my emotional life.

When my dad remarried, I gained a stepmother. Stepmothers don’t have a very good image in folklore or popular culture. My new mom, Marlene, always said how much she disliked the term. But I sometimes clung to the image, especially when I felt Marlene’s discipline was too harsh. I even recall once wishing my “real” mother were still alive.

When I became a mother myself, I started to realize what a “real” mother truly is, and it’s not just a matter of biology. I looked back and saw what a struggle it must have been for my mother Marlene to take on five new daughters in addition to her own five children. I saw the many sacrifices she made for us on a daily basis – all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, doctor visits, baths, hair washing, discipline, faith development.

My mom Marlene was and is a beautiful woman. I loved the way she wore her hair in a French twist, loved her chic outfits and even her fancy aprons, the ones she’d wear when cooking for company. I loved to go to the grocery store with her and hang around in the kitchen while she worked. In a family of 13, those were some of the only times I got to be alone with her.

I still have vague recollections of the day we kids were all adopted. We got to get out of school, dress up, and go to the courthouse in downtown Chicago. There we witnessed our parents declare they would always take care of not only their biological children, but their spouse’s children as well. So my mother is not really a stepmom, but an adoptive mom. I myself am an adoptive mom, and I couldn’t love my biological children more than I love my youngest child from China.

I’m not discounting the special bond of a biological mother, though. I remember the intimate feelings of connectedness with my children from the very first flutterings I felt in the womb. Pictures of my biological mother Millicent confirm that I look a lot like her, and I know that losing her left a hole in my heart that has been difficult to fill. Surely some of my insecurity and fear of abandonment stem from losing her.

On Mother’s Day, I celebrate the great good fortune to have had not one, but two beloved mothers (three if you count dear Aunt Patty), and I treasure all I have meant to them and they to me in our lives. No matter whether you are a mother by biology, marriage, or circumstance, know that your presence in your children’s lives is the greatest gift they will ever receive.

Happy Mother’s Day!