Adoption and the Body
Increasingly I am growing to look like my mom. My legs, my eyes, and my skin are all merging into my memories of what my mother looked like when she, too, was in her 50’s.
There’s the idea that dogs and owners grow to look alike, and so maybe this is true of some adoptees and their parents. My father and I are both tall and fair skinned, and we have light eyes, so it was easy for people to believe he was my father, but I didn’t take our similarities as personally as I did with my mother.
As a teenager and older, it wasn’t that I wanted to look like her: I wanted to be as unlike her as possible, and yet here I am, thirtysome years later, looking a lot like the daughter of the mother who adopted me.
On the podcast Design Matters, the playwright Sarah Jones tells Debbie Millman that sometimes when she, Sarah, is getting a massage, she goes into character, and the massage therapist once told Sarah that her body changes along with each character.
This makes sense to me.
When I was a little girl I imagined my birth mother was a queen. She was tall and regal and had blonde hair in a wonderful pile on her head. I wonder what my body and face and hair would look like now if that fantasy hadn’t been popped. I wonder if my shoulders would externally rotate instead of the way they internally rotate now, protecting my heart, the classic position of the tall girl trying to make herself small, my mother’s stance. I wonder if my eyes would be less like my mom’s, less sunken, less worried. I wonder if I would favor long hair instead of the short hair my mother always favored. I wonder if I would have worked out more or less so that my muscle tone wasn’t so similar to my mother's.
I also wonder about things like makeup and clothes. What outfits would my birth mother have bought for me when I was a child? Would I wear heels now if I hadn’t been adopted? And, while we're at it, would I believe I could dance? Sing?
My hair is blonde, but I pay money to get it that way. Really my hair is much darker, much like my mom’s was when she was my age, dark brown going grey. The first time I dyed it in my thirties, I was horrified. I sat in the stylist’s chair and looked at my reflection. I looked so fake. I looked like I was trying to be someone other than who I was.
And then I grew to love it. I’ve tried to go back to dark, but the blonde hair makes me feel and look happier. At least in my mind. It's the one thing in my appearance that I staked as my own.
The first time I met my half-brother, the son of my birth mother, he stared at me. “You wear your hair just like my mom—our mom—did.” His mom—“our mom”—had refused contact with me, and so I never thought of her in terms like “mom”, but I liked that we wore our hair the same way. I liked the idea that maybe genetics are so persistent they show up at the salon.
I am a white girl in a white family and I have thoughts about hair. What if I’d had black hair and been adopted by a white family? What if I had been a Korean child adopted to a white family with blond curly hair? (These white people are just so determined to raise babies. If only they felt the same way about older children in need of families.)
In my book You Don’t Look Adopted I wrote about having an eating disorder in my twenties where I went from 150 pounds to 132. Later, I would learn that my birth mother weighed 150 pounds. That made a door open in my head: you are okay. My mom weighed 132. It was a major moment for me when I was able to wear her Levi’s. I felt I was getting to a point where I was beyond criticism. As long as I was the same size as my mom, I was okay. I grew out of that, but not until I got the information about my birth mother.
What if my fantasy birth mother the queen had weighed 160? 120? What would I weigh now? A different number from my standing 150?
What if my mom had been a relaxed person instead of an anxious type A? Would I finally lie on a massage therapists table and not be told, repeatedly, “Relax”?
What if what if what if what if. I think this is a song that plays deep in the subconscious of many adoptees brains, the brain trying to figure out who it’s supposed to mirror, who it’s supposed to be.
What if this song didn’t play anymore? What would take its place? Whitman’s barbaric yawp? I’d like that. I’d like to yawp all over the place.
I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
If Whitman is right, we are all adopted. We belong to each other. This goes to the idea that we only think we are separated beings, that really we are just individual expressions of the same thing: love, energy, universal force, God.
Maybe I am so busy living in small mind (who is my mother? who am I?) that I am missing the exuberance of being alive (it really doesn’t even matter who your small m mother is. It’s all about the big M. The Mother of all mothers.)
I’m going to walk now and think about all of this.