"What 'Real' Means to Me"

Growing up adopted, I heard the word 'real' more than I could handle. Over time, I learned the true meaning of the word.

An adopted girl with her family.

I was born in Brooklyn, in 1958, and was adopted by my parents as an infant. I was their second child. My older brother Jim was adopted, too.

When anybody asks me how I felt when I found out I was adopted, I tell them I have no memory of the event. I believe my parents must have told me I was adopted when I was in the crib. It’s just part of who I am, something I’ve always known. I guess that could be an essay on its own — how thankful I am for parents who did it right, who never made who I am or where I come from into some kind of shameful secret that could be shared only when I was old enough to cope.

But that’s not the point I want to make now. I want to talk about the word “real” and how much that four-letter word has hurt me over the years.

Just a Word?

I was in fifth or sixth grade when we studied dominant and recessive traits in school. That night, our homework was to draw a family tree, mapping out our family’s traits. I didn’t know what to do. If I just did the assignment, I figured my teacher would tell me I was wrong — that I hadn’t been listening during class, that I’d made a mistake. I had curly brown hair and brown eyes. My brother had brown eyes, too, and both of our parents had straight hair and blue eyes. I’d just learned how that couldn’t happen.

I drew the tree, because I figured I’d get a grade for doing that, but I wrote a note to my teacher, as well, explaining that I was adopted, so the whole dominant/recessive thing wouldn’t make sense. And that was how kids in my class found out I was adopted. I wasn’t ashamed of that fact, it had just never come up. When families adopt children of a different race, it’s obvious. But I’m probably Irish, and my parents are, too. I can’t remember if some of the kids overheard me discussing it with my teacher, or if I showed my family tree to someone. I just know that’s when kids started asking me if I knew who my real parents were.

I felt conflicted because I knew I was loved, but I also knew, in my 10-year-old head, that those kids were saying that their parents were, somehow, more real than mine. And then I wondered if those resemblances other families bore — moms and daughters with the same hair, fathers and sons with the same eyes, families that just had the same “look” — made them love each other in a deeper way.

In a high school social studies class, I was assigned a part in a debate about which was “better,” abortion or adoption. My friend Eric was my opponent. He didn’t know I was adopted. During the debate, Eric said that kids who are adopted are never loved as much as kids who are being raised by their real parents. That upset me, but my friend had no idea why I marched down the hall away from him as fast as I could when class was over. When he finally cornered me, I was crying. Not because I believed what he said, but I was a kid, and he had hurt my feelings. I told him I was adopted and I remember Eric looking stunned as he said, “I didn’t know.” And that was that. He never said anything like that again. He was a good friend.

And it goes on and on. I guess if I’d been counting, I could say I’ve heard biological parents referred to as “real” a thousand times — along with the implied message that adoptive parents, my parents, are pretend, less than. I know it’s just a word, and a word is just a collection of letters. But some words pack a painful punch. And finally, after being punched enough, you might start to believe the message it’s spelling out.

Realizing What Matters

For some reason, I didn’t discover Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit until I was in my twenties. I’m glad I didn’t, because then I was old enough to get it. The first time I read it I was awed by her words. I loved the Skin Horse’s explanation of what it means to be “real,” and I thought about all the times people had asked me if I knew who my real parents were. And then I thought about my parents, whom I love so much. I remember calling them that night, just to tell them I loved them.

I now have three kids I gave birth to. My daughter is kind of a mix of my husband and me. But mainly she looks like my husband. My first son just looks like himself, and he has blue eyes. My youngest looks a little like me, but he has blue eyes and straight blonde hair. Temperamentally, none of my kids remind me of myself. That’s because they’re themselves, not me. But none of that matters. I understand that now. We don’t become parents in order to raise people who look like us or act like us, or to extend our shelf life. We parent because we love, because we want to help someone else down the road of life.

So, “real” isn’t about whether or not you carried your baby for nine months, and it doesn’t occur the moment a nurse puts a baby in your arms. “Real” doesn’t happen all at once. You become…slowly. When you rock a baby to sleep and crawl on the floor with a toddler and introduce your child to his first grade teacher and wait by the door to wrap your arms around him when he comes home, and cry with her when her friends shun her, and teach him to dive in the ocean, and read and sing and dance and fight and make up, you become real.

Yes, as the Skin Horse says, it hurts sometimes. But when you’re real, you would rather get hurt than miss a single moment. And then one day you look at that child, and maybe she’s eating an ice cream cone and it’s dripping down her chin, or he’s singing a hymn and you can hear his sweet voice in your ear as he sits next to you in church, and you realize nothing in your life has been more real.


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