One day when I was a student I’d been riding the bus to class for several days, and this girl on the bus had been giving me a look and a smile every day. My feelings about this were not entirely happy, as although it was a nice ego boost to be honest she was a bit of a minger. Sorry, scratch that, I meant not quite my type. Anyway, eventually she collared me as I walked down the aisle. Uh oh I thought. I’d like you to meet someone she said. Phew, my internal monologue replied. What happened next was perhaps the eeriest thing that has ever happened to me either before or since. I was introduced to another bloke on the bus (who’d obviously not been prepared for this either), and we just looked at each other. Look, the girl said, you look the same. And we did. I mean *exactly* the same. He looked like I imagined myself. Not a mirror image, cos that’s the wrong way round. No, it was like a photo of myself. A doppelganger. I was pretty speechless, and not a little freaked out. And so was he by the looks of it. I mean, how many people look exactly the same as someone else? It was so uncanny I still remember it vividly to this day, almost 30 years later. I wonder if he does too? I never got his name, he leapt off the bus at the next stop. Could genetic chance really have served up so much of a coincidence? My mum and dad’s families were thousands of miles apart from each other for several generations, so it can hardly be a case of inbreeding. It honestly made me stop and think, at 19 years old, whether I had been adopted. Or perhaps my parents had given up a twin for adoption. I’ve still never told my parents that story. Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.
I find it interesting that adult adoptees often profess to feeling uncomfortable that they don’t look like their adoptive parents or siblings, or don’t share personality traits, interests etc. It seems to exacerbate feelings of isolation and difference. Given that there are so many ways to create a family I would have said that it is actually unusual for a child to be obviously related to their parents just going by looks alone. So many people have step-parents nowadays, but even if they didn’t genetics doesn’t really transfer looks from parent to offspring. The main physical features outsiders notice are things like hair, eye colour, height, weight, facial features etc and they can often be completely different to a parent. In fact what small talk at the school gate would be without a discussion about how different their offspring are to each other and themselves? What people actually notice, when they say they look like you, are the copied characteristics. The accent, the mannerisms, the interests, the walk pattern. When a child actually *looks* like their parents, well, that’s what people comment on as being ‘special’.
My own son is adopted. People are usually surprised because he looks almost exactly like a perfect mixture of my wife and myself. Almost too perfect. No that’s not a humblebrag or wishful thinking. The ‘family finders’ do put a lot of effort into trying to match looks, cultural background, interests etc when looking for new parents for a child so perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. They probably do it in order to help the child ‘fit in’ although as I remember that was never explicitly part of the deal. In fact all adopters are asked if they’d be willing to accept a child of a different race from them. Makes you wonder what would happen if you said no really, perhaps it’s a test question.
But I wonder if my son feels that he looks like us? I have to admit I’ve never asked him. It is never something I’ve even thought about before. Did I think I looked like my parents? Not really. As I grew up I’ve noticed some small similarities with my dad’s early photos in looks, and I am interested in some of the same things as him now, but then I am older anyway, and those interests are not exactly niche, so why wouldn’t I be? I don’t think I share any looks or interests with my mum really. But do I need that to feel like I’m in a family? No. But then perhaps adopted children do need that.
I don’t think my son looks anything like any member of his birth family that we’ve met either. Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? But they really don’t, partly because of a rather chaotic, suspect or plain unknown family tree I expect. They have some shared memories and experiences that obviously bind them. They can reminisce together about things that my son couldn’t do with me, but then that’s no different than reminiscing with friends really. They get on reasonably well. But you wouldn’t even get the impression that they were family really, not as an outsider. Their interests and mannerisms have completely diverged over the years. The siblings have some similar unusual behaviours, but then you’d expect that as those behaviours are all caused by some extremely traumatic events. They are almost a text book example of how your experiences affect your mental health actually.
So why is it that some adoptees feel that the only thing that can help them feel they belong is if they look like their parents? For myself, meeting someone who looked like me was actually pretty weird, it was a kick to the ego probably, like I wasn’t really that special. I do wonder if these adoptees are people who have perhaps not met their birth family at all? That this is perhaps just a manifestation of their desire to connect with their roots? Or is there something deeper there, and for a lot of people looks mean everything? If the latter it does make you wonder what people who hold that belief feel about children who clearly don’t look anything like their birth parents, even though they are biologically related?
Faith is another thing that often seems to come up. In a diverse society like the UK it would actually be pretty unusual for an adopter to share a faith background with the birth parents, and again that is something that is sometimes pointed to as being missing with adoption. For those like me, who have no faith, that position can seem pretty odd, I mean how can that affect a toddler? Religion isn’t innate, you don’t have it just because your biological parents do. If you did I’d be an evangelical Methodist (if such a thing exists :-) ). But for those adoptees who have perhaps been made to go to church, or a mosque, or wherever, against their will, it is something else that sets them apart. The knowledge that if they weren’t adopted they would’ve have been doing something else. Probably being made to go to another church against their will instead, but at least it is their church.
I’m making fun, and I shouldn’t be, these are serious feelings about identity. As an adopter you are told to take into account the birth parents’ faith when bringing up your child. That is actually quite a major intrusion into the sovereignty of the family really if you think about it, and even a problem when considering the rights of a child. Adoption is a parenting role, not a guardianship, and as a parent you’d generally expect to be able to bring up a child in whatever faith you like. Under the (not widely understood) secular laws of the UK a parent also has an obligation to make sure that the child has an appreciation and understanding of all cultures and faiths, not favouring one over another, and when they are 16 a child may choose their own path, regardless of the parent’s wishes in that regard. That would seem to conflict with the expectation that adopters should concentrate on making a child feel part of their birth parent’s faith. It can also be an issue if you have fundamental problems with the beliefs of the birth parent, one reason why people with extreme religious or political views cannot become adopters in the UK.
I think the rule that a birth parent can to a certain extent dictate the parenting of the adopter is a bit of a hangover from the days of relinquished babies. The “my heartless religion is making me give up this baby but I’d still like to make sure it grows up in the same religion for some reason” attitude that prevailed many moons ago. An old-fashioned idea that can also get confused in the bureaucracy. For instance, my son’s information says his birth parents are both Catholic and Anglican. Not two parents each with their own religion, no, the records just contradict each other. In some places in the UK confusing those two religions could cause quite a headache. Another record reckons he’s a Jehovah’s Witness. My son has three official beliefs apparently (not one of them my own — adopters don’t count). However, he has always been vehemently atheist even before he was placed with us, and his adult sister reckons that neither parent had any religion. She took a fancy to being a Baptist at 18, much to the amusement of her Muslim foster carer (given her complete lack of interest up until that point). It turns out that the official record simply recorded cultural and ethnic background as religion — a regular confusion in the UK where people often lazily just record their religion as the default ‘C of E’ on forms even if they are not. But this (and maybe the curse of copy-and-paste) often leads to adoptees being fed the wrong information and building up the wrong picture of their birth parents. For us, it is best to get this kind of information straight from the horse’s mouth really and then just ask our son what he wants, rather than trying to guess or force something he doesn’t actually want. My son’s family finders were looking for adopters with no religion. So at least they got it right.
Identity is a strange animal. It is portrayed as an immutable thing that allows you to know who you are and where you belong, but really it is just what you *think* you know about yourself and where you are now in life. Your ‘identity’ changes throughout life. As a society we are sold something that doesn’t really exist, and ironically, given how minutely their lives are documented and how determined everyone is to give them a solid base to fall back on, adoptees are probably in a position to know more about themselves than anyone but so often they appear to feel the opposite. What more we can do to help them remains an open question but I think the solution is likely to be different from what a lot of people think, because the root cause is often different from what they think.