You know what Al Trautwig? You’re right. They’re not her parents and, while we’re at it, I don’t have real parents either. My birth mother couldn’t keep me and my birth father wasn’t in the picture, and so I, like Simone Biles, am the child of nobody even though two lovely people, my mom and dad, raised me, and even though two lovely people, her mom and dad, raised her. I’m so crazy to think what I love most in the world could actually be mine. Excuse me while I go develop an eating disorder or shoot up heroin or do something, anything, to help this hurt stop eating at my heart.
When sports commentator Al Trautwig tweeted that the grandparents who pulled Simone Biles and her sister Nicole from foster care and adopted them when they were young “are NOT her parents,” he might as well have taken a machete and gone for her feet.
Biles showed the world a new level of athletic ability as she vaulted and flew her way to a handful of gold medals, and the audience fell in love with this smiling force of nature. There are so many questions we can ask her about performance and drive and desire and determination. But what is the point of questioning who her “real” parents are? Al Truatwig’s tweet brought to light the reality of how adoption is often viewed as he questioned the veracity of the bond between a mother and father and child.
When people ask me who my “real” parents are, they momentarily strip me of everything that I know. This is what road my brain shoots down: if my parents aren’t real, then my childhood wasn’t real, my friends weren’t real, my schooling wasn’t real… you get the picture. Neurons that fire together, wire together, and when I hear that my parents are not my “real” parents time and time again, I start to believe it.
The first time it happened with my daughter, I was on a plane. A woman sat next to me, looked at my baby, and said, “She’s beautiful. What’s her story?”
You know how some little kids are afraid of the drain in the bathtub? They watch the water get sucked down and imagine they, too, might suddenly disappear into the dark world of nothing.
For a moment, that’s what happened to me on the plane: my place in the world—as the mother of my daughter—disappeared, and therefore I disappeared. My daughter looks Japanese and I look white, and so the woman assumed I had adopted my child instead of considering that maybe my husband was Japanese. The woman wanted to know about my daughter’s “real” background, who her “real” parents were.
“I pushed hard and she came out,” I said. The conversation ended there.
Just this week when the women’s Olympic gymnastics team took the gold, Simone Biles looked up into the stand where the American families sat and blew kisses, yelling, “Mom! Dad!”
Adoption is so complicated. The poet Keats has a term called negative capability which is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Part of being adopted, of adopting, is the ability to live in the mystery of loving someone as if he or she shared your DNA when, in fact, this is not the case.
I don’t remember the first time someone asked me who my real parents were, but I do remember the first time I stole something from a store. I also remember the first time I dropped out of college, the first time I quit my job, the first time I thought about disappearing. The urge to throw yourself away when your sense of self is challenged can be strong.
I think about my family standing in line to buy groceries in the 1970’s in Westwood, Massachusetts, and how, inevitably, someone in line would reach out, touch my brother’s head, and say, “Where did he get that hair?” My parents and my other brother and I had straight hair, but Sam, whose birth father was African American, had curly hair. I don’t even remember what my mother would say, but I do remember wishing I had a response that would politely make that stranger understand his or her question was not innocuous or an ice breaker. As a result of questions like this, Sam would spend hours in the bathroom trying to get his hair straight. Hours he could have spent outside with his friends, having fun.
(In case you are wondering, I refuse to say “my adopted brother” in the above paragraph. Do you say “my biological sister” when you talk about her? I’m guessing no.)
When questioned about Trautwig’s remarks, Biles had this to say: “I personally don’t have a comment. My parents are my parents and that’s it.”
If I had been in her position, I might have cried. I might have gone to the stories in my head that said my mother didn’t want me and that even the people who claimed me as their daughter weren’t really my parents because people like Al Trautwig said they weren’t. I might have let the gold medal slip from my neck and crawled meekly out of the stadium.
Part of being an Olympic athlete is the ability to be one hundred percent in your body. Maybe Biles doesn’t go into her head when people like Trautwig doubt the “realness” of her parents. Maybe she stays firmly grounded in the reality of her self: her bones, her muscles, her organs, her skin. Maybe part of being an Olympic athlete of adoption is to put your body in your body. But for the rest of us adoptees, we may not have that strength, that mindfulness. We just take the pain of the punch.
In the essay, Transitional Adoptions, noted adoption specialist Nancy Verrier wrote,
Adoption is a difficult enough trauma for any child who is taken away from his or her first mother. That child is primed to be welcomed into the world, protected, and nurtured by this mother with whom he has been physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected for nine months. Every sensory aspect of the child expects her, knows her, wants her. Therefore, when an infant is whisked away and placed in a nursery away from mom and then placed in the arms of another woman, it is disorienting, confusing, and terrifying.
If you add to this the impact of people questioning the “realness” of your parents, you have the opportunity for real damage. As an Olympic level athlete, Simone Bile has an exceptional ability to rise above pain, anguish, loss, and injury, so the careless words of commentator are perhaps irrelevant to her. But his words are damaging to others. To my parents, perhaps. To me.
And so, Mr. Trautwig, I am going to give you some homework. The first thing to do is to go home and google “adoption and trauma”. You’ll probably find your name.