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adoptee math

Adoptee Math

What do Cher, President Obama and adoptees have in common?

This earworm was on the radio the other day and made me think of all three.

Half breed. That’s all I ever heard.

Half breed. How I learned to hate the word.
Half breed. She’s no good, they warned.
Both sides were against me since the day I was born.

I felt sorry for the subject of Cher’s song. Must be awful to claim parts of two cultures but to not have them claim you back.

½ + ½ = ?

I noticed the same about Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Wikipedia says his mother was “of mostly English ancestry” and that his father was from Kenya. I’m not the first to bring up the fact that some people consider him black (“the country’s first black president”) and others consider him not black enough. While he has claims on multiple heritages, those groups don’t necessarily fully claim him.

Sadly, sometimes a half + a half a whole.

For both Cher’s character and for Barack Obama, their two halves had trouble existing in harmony with the world at large, in being fully claimed by either of their sides.

Betwixt & Between

Which can also happen with adoptees. I asked my friend Torrejon, who grew up in a closed adoption, about this idea of halves, and she had this to say about adoptee math.

I think it was BJ Lifton who said that adoptees are “betwixt and between” two worlds like Peter Pan.  I always hated Peter Pan, maybe that is why.   Other people compare being adopted to having one foot on each side of a road.  I don’t think of it like either of those analogies.  I’ve got both feet on both sides of the road at the same time.  I’m not half here and half there…I’m fully both places at the same time.  It is counter-intuitive and impossible. Have you ever heard the expression:  “Half is something I want no part of”?  It is sort of like that.  And the Romani gypsies that I know will tell you that they are Spanish and Romani…not half and half…both things.  Those two terms are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive.  Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1…adoptee math. 

However, I do think adoptees can end up with a 0 if they are divided into exclusive halves:  ½ + ½ = 0

Whatever analogy or model I try to come up with, (haven’t yet found a perfect one) I always test it against my own kids and me. 

For instance, I’ve got two kids.  I’m not half a mother to one, and half a mother to the other; I’m a full mother to both of them.  That doesn’t mean I’m two halves…or two people.  I’m simply a mom with two kids.  So, by extension, I prefer to think of myself as existing fully in my two families.  By the way, I don’t presume to speak for others…we’ve all got our own ideas about how to think about this.

See the Ridiculousness

Don’t you love how she reverses the generations to make her point? By splitting the parent between the children we can see the ridiculousness of splitting the child between the parents.

The key for adoptive parents, then, is this: how can we ensure that 1+1 = 1, like the Romani gypsy and not ½ + ½ = 0, like Cher’s character and President Obama? One reason I advocate so strongly for openness is that I believe it provides a way for an adopted child to experience the first formula. Openness helps two halves become whole by having both families — birth and adoptive — fully claim the person, and vice versa.

Your thoughts?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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14 Responses

  1. This is such a wonderful post and to me, makes such sense.

    I want our daughter to feel ‘whole’. The fact is, she has two families, two sets of parents. And there is nothing ‘half’ about that.

    In fact, it’s kind of amazing. Amazing that she gets to be exposed to so many more different things, people, cultures.

    In fact…she may be gifted because of it. That’s what I like to think of it.


    Welsh + German + Aboriginal/First Nations + Spanish + Adoptive Parents + First Parents = On heck of an amazing little girl.

  2. Let me preface by saying that I don’t disagree that open adoption might help adoptees feel more grounded.

    Do you think that many people have a hard time finding their place? I’m finding it really hard to separate what might be from adoption and what might be a natural result of having a questioning mind and a sort of intrinsic restlessness. I read some of these links and books that you recommend or that I’ve found (because you’ve sparked my interest), and I recognize some of these same sorts of reactions from people who are intimately familiar with their entire family history. So that makes me wonder if people are attributing feelings to one thing when it’s just their actual nature. And how do you separate those? Questions leading to more questions…

    1. An excellent point, A. Is it possible to tease out the human experience from the adoption experience? I touched on this during the Primal Wound book tour ( when I said, in response to a comment by Anonymous on a different post:

      Me: Anonymous, I gather, suffers from a Primal Wound.

      “I was adopted as an infant, I have a great adoptive family that I love very much. I was not abused. I got everything I ever wanted, went to college and have had a good life. I would give it all up to have been raised by my 17 year old emotionally immature birth mother. I would give it all up to experience what it would be like to grow up feeling normal, like I belonged and happy.”

      In essence, Anon asserts that the road not taken (the abstract) is superior to the good life s/he has had (the concrete).

      The appeal of that road is that it is a fairy-tale road. There are never any potholes, and the sun always shines, but not too hot. It’s a smooth, gently sloping road with bounteous apple trees adorning the sides. In short, it’s the angel you don’t know compared to the devil you do.

      No one can ever prove or disprove Anon’s notion that a life with a not-ready-to-parent biological mom would have been better than a life with those who parented her. Because we each get just one road.

      This is the crux.

      The comment started a new train of thought about roads not taken, which, as Melissa pointed out to me, is not just part of the adoption experience. It is part of the human experience.

      1. I love the adoption math of 1+1=1 and that is what we strive for with our three open adoptions… is complicated and also deeply human and raw at times.

        I hear Anon’s perspective with my adoptive mom ears and validate her feelings even though it squeezes my heart. With openness, the adoptee has the oportunity to draw many of their own conclusions about nature vs. nurture that are impossible in a closed situation which results in a fantasy life created where real experience is missing.

        I cannot speak for my three children, 21, 17, 17, but we talk when the time seems appropriate. I think they see the nuances of how they came to be in our family. They experience their families of origin and certainly try to see how they fit and the “might have been,” but that process can bring surprises.

        For example, I don’t believe my daughter even likes her birth father, they have very little in common and she often expresses that she fully embraces being placed with us. At the same time, his mom (her paternal birth grandmother) is one my daughter’s favorite people.

        My younger son’s birthmother is my SIL and she stays with us occasionally. He loves her but as a recovering alcoholic, she brings a great deal of baggage. Being close to her illuminates the reasons she cannot parent.

        My oldest decided to rent a room from their birthfather while in school. It was an amazing learning experience, especially since their personalities are very similar. It drove a wedge that I hope they will work through. My heart is full when I see my growing kids make their own critical decisions about birth families.

        1+1 =1 Don’t assume it is smooth sailing. A wild ride…lots of work and many potholes but so rewarding.

        1. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into what can happen when openness in adoption makes the unknown known. So helpful!

          And a reminder that having all the pieces doesn’t automatically and immediately lead to wholeness/

  3. Speaking as someone with two racial backgrounds, my math is that 1/2 + 1/2 = something else entirely. I identify more with other multiracial people, even if they’re not the same backgrounds as mine (e.g., Obama, Lenny Kravitz, Tiger Woods, Christina Aguilera…) than with people who are monoracial from either of my backgrounds. And it’s also the case that strangers with my same mix look far more like me than anyone from either side of my family.

    I’m not sure how that relates to adoptees though.

    1. It does relate in that adopted or non-adopted, we try to see how we fit in, who we identify with. I didn’t know that about you, that one of the things that “resonate” for you (or the visual or heritage equivalent) is multiple ethnicities.

      I think this would make for fascinating research.

  4. I struggle with knowing how to approach Baby X’s background. He’s 1/2 and 1/2, but neither is Caucasian. To make things more complicated, we will never have contact with the family of one of his “halves”. How to make sure he can identify with both halves, and reconcile being brought up by something else entirely will be a big issue. I hope that at least being in a open adoption situation with his birthmother will help him in his personal identity.

  5. Wow- I never thought of it this way – you are such a great writer and explained this so well. Thanks and again, so thought-provoking. Something I honestly never thought of.

  6. I have to be honest, I have a little jealousy toward anyone with deep roots in a culture -whether they belong to one or a million. I think that family (and where you come from) pride is wonderful. My family didn’t talk about it much, so I just know a few things – mainly that I’m a really pasty white girl from Denver….booring. Almost the same as not knowing anything about where you come from, right? I guess I could really dig deeper, but my passion for it is not there. Maybe one day?

  7. Personally, I would prefer to live in a world where there isn’t any 1/2 + 1/2. My children have been taught that there is no difference in any of us. We are all cut from the same cloth. If the human race (wishful thinking) would adopt this policy, I don’t think we would question what anyone’s heritage is. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we have to define our ethnicity…I wish it was this: You are a HUMAN BEING and you are loved. End of story.

  8. Thanks for that. I’ve been contemplating my sons’ very open adoption and what is best for everyone. His “mommy jenny” has lost so much that I would not want her to totally lose her son. She did create this wonderful little boy. There’s enough of him to share. But, I do want him protected from the bad choices she continually makes. It is such an interesting dilema.

  9. This would be great if both families did accept adoptees. Both adoptive and birth mothers may but that doesn’t mean the families do. My dad’s parents didn’t accept me because I wasn’t “their blood.” They said that to my folks in front of me when I was about 5 and my dad just got up and said we’re going and I never saw them again until my dad’s father’s funeral. My mother’s parents were a little more able to cover their feelings, but I always felt it. One time my mom came home from there so upset and knowing her I knew the only thing that would make her that upset was something about me. Sure enough–they made the same comment that I wasn’t their blood. I knew that all along. So we can be accepted by some but if everyone doesn’t, ……

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