For a teeny-weeny double helix, DNA sure packs a punch.
A couple of readers asked earlier this year what I thought about how one’s DNA answers the question “who are you?” — especially in light of adoption. This was back when Who Do You Think You Are? debuted on NBC (it is scheduled to return next month).
So I had to sit down and think some thoughts.
I’m not a genealogist, but I do enjoy looking at old photo albums that belonged to my grandparents and that feature their parents. The generation of my great-grandparents goes back to the 1880s, and we don’t have any photographs from before that time.
I enjoy the stories of my maternal Scotch-Irish grandfather, who grew up in a sod house in Nebraska, a twin and one of nine children. I mourn that I don’t know much about my paternal Jewish grandmother’s history, other than the fact that her father owned a shoe store in Manhattan. She converted to Catholicism before my Dad was born, and her Jewishness was hidden from us until a decade before her death. I missed out on some of my heritage.
When you think about it, isn’t it amazing to contemplate a thread that goes back farther than your mind can grasp? That there is an unbroken line from you stretching to the dawn of humankind? That line, and the relationship webs that accompany it, connects each of us to every person who has ever taken a breath on this planet.
Teeny-weeny DNA makes me think gigantic thoughts like that.
DNA and the role of genetics can weigh even more heavily on people involved in adoption. Adoptees grow up with the biology of one clan and the biography of another, and are sometimes unsupported in healing that split. Adoptive parents must accept that they have no hereditary influence on their child. Birth parents may grapple with the idea that a child of their own genetic line was lost to them.
So the question is: do I like poring over those musty photo albums because the people in them are part of my genetic line? Or do I like poring over those musty photo albums because I can see the people who raised the people who raised me?
It’s probably both. Nature AND nurture both play a role in my fascination with my roots.
I don’t have to put nature and nurture in a hierarchy because in my case they are the same. But people who were adopted are often asked to rank their influences. Who made you MORE of who you are — your parents or your birth parents? In asking the question that can’t be answered, there is no win, only loss, because the question itself emphasizes and reinforces the split.
Why can’t we simply acknowledge that both biology and biography are important? Why don’t we move from either/or-thinking to and-thinking? I’m not even talking about 50-50 or equal measures because some things should not be put on a scale.
I’m just saying that DNA matters. And as a mom via adoption, that doesn’t bother me at all.
Because I matter, too.