Let’s Get Real: Embracing Duality in Adoptive Families
In her book Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton addresses the sticky issue of the word “real” in adoptive families:
“The adoptive mother believes she is the real mother because she is the one who got up in the middle of the night and was there for the child in sickness and health. The birth mother believes she is the real mother because she went through nine months of sculpting the child within her body and labored to bring it forth into the the world. They are both right. The adoptive mother who loves and cares for the child is the real mother. And the birth mother who never forgets her child is also the real mother. By denying that adoptees have two real mothers, society denies them their reality.”
These words are of particular importance to me as an adoptee because not only did “society” deny me my reality, but I also denied it to to myself. An important therapeutic moment happened the day I fully acknowledged myself as the child of two mothers, allowing myself to embrace that duality and all that it meant. I suspect I am not the only adoptee to internalize the struggle between two mothers. The day I gave up the belief that I needed to prioritize one definition of “real” over the other, something important shifted within me: I found wholeness.
Lifton also writes, “For me, a real mother recognizes and respects the whole identity of her child and does not ask him to deny any part of himself.” By this definition, I am happy to say that my adopted daughter Ashley clearly has two real mothers. The acknowledgment and valuing of all that Ashley is, including those parts of her that come from the other mother — this is the core, the very essence, of what her first mother and I are attempting to accomplish through our open adoption relationship. Acknowledgment of the whole of an adopted child’s self, writes Lifton, “is difficult to do in a closed adoption system that requires the child be cut off from his heritage, and that pits the original mother against the replacement mother.”
I don’t want my daughter to have to wait until she is an adult in therapy to discover wholeness. In traditional family situations, nature and nurture come in one package. In adoption, they are split, but they don’t have to be pitted against each other. The more that I am able to embrace my child’s whole identity, the better equipped she is to embrace it herself. Like me, she a child of two mothers and is loved, wholeheartedly, by both of us. We are each a part of who she is, and we are both very, very real.