By Rebecca Hackworth, LCSW
Back in the 50’s sociologists said we were a product of 25 percent genetics and 75 percent environment; in the 80’s they decided it was more 50/50. Now they have decided that it’s around 75 percent genetics and 25 percent environment. Who knows what they will decide next!
Sometimes I think I could make things other people’s fault instead of my own. I could blame all my adopted children’s faults on genetics and credit their successes to their environment. Do you think I could get away with it?
Working as a social worker for about 20 years, I see so many traits that adopted children pick up from their adoptive families. As I encounter children at Dillon International’s heritage camps each summer or run into families at the grocery store, those “adoptive mom” gestures or “adoptive dad” expressions sometimes jump out at me! And I want the love, the support, the encouragement that adoptive families endeavor to give their children to sink in deep, to heal every hurt, dry every tear and protect them forever from all harm.
When one of my daughters from Haiti was young, I was working on my social work degree. In that field of study we learn about “affect”—the expression on people’s faces and how we read their body language. My daughter could be happy, sad, excited or terrified, but her facial expression never seemed to change. You never knew for sure what she was feeling by trying to read her face. She would write the sweetest things in notes to other people sharing her love and appreciation, but it didn’t show on her face. I worried, I stewed, and I wondered if we should have her evaluated. I didn’t want to let her down!
I was able to take my girls to Haiti to meet their birth mother in 1995. I remember sitting on the patio at the guest house talking about a lot of things with the birth mother and some of the other extended family members, but the one thing I savored was watching the birth mother share a myriad of emotions without the expression on her face ever changing. Bingo! That’s where my daughter gets that flat affect; it’s not a problem, it’s a genetic thing. I was ever so grateful for that, and so relieved to know there wasn’t any difficulty lurking under that expressionless face. What a gift to all of us!
We know that at each developmental stage, children gain a new awareness of what adoption means in their lives. As their understanding of biology and human reproduction increases, children face some of their biggest questions about their birth families. Who do I look like? What did I get from my birth father? What did I get from my birth mother? How am I like my adoptive parents? Perhaps they worry that there are negative things about their birth family that lurk inside them, but because they do not have the information there is no way to know what they might be? As young people enter adolescence and go through the process of identity formation, these questions can become more intense. The questions about physical traits are often a source of curiosity, but also the question of other traits such as being gifted in art or music. When my girls met their birth mother, these were some of their first questions, not “tell me why you made an adoption plan” but “I can sing, can either you or my birth father sing?” and “I can draw, can either one of you draw?”
We often hear from adoptive families that their children are not asking about their birth parents so they doubt they are thinking about them. Think again! Remember all the family reunions where relatives sat around and talked about how you have Uncle Joe’s ears or Aunt Margaret’s nose? Do you think adopted children don’t wonder who they look like? I remember my mother going down this path with my adopted sister and catching herself at the last minute because she knew that while my sister is a beauty, she didn’t receive that nose or any of her physical characteristics from my parents.
One of our adoptees who had never met his birth parents was asked by his adoptive mother, “Don’t you want to know what your birth parents looked like?” He said he knew! She asked him how he knew and he replied that when he looked in the mirror every day, he got a clear view of what his birth parents must have looked like. That was enough for him at that stage of his development. But perhaps when he has children he will have more questions. The question of medical history is often a glaring missing page of our children’s pasts. And so often when birth mothers are young they may not be aware of any significant family medical history but as they get older, conditions may develop that would be helpful for adoptees to know about. As adoptive parents, remember how helpless you felt at your first pediatrician’s appointment with your child, to not have more genetic information to provide for the doctor? Our adopted children are not the only ones with questions are they?
And that’s just one piece of the puzzle: think of the myriad of genetic traits we get from our family trees, the way things skip several generations and then just pop up. A family of five feet, two inch people suddenly has a son who grows to be 6 foot 3 inches tall. It’s a mystery! With the blank pages of history our children come with and the lack of extensive genetic information, it is no wonder we spend time as adoptive families trying to sort out what came from where.
I suppose in the end, the source isn’t as important as the result. We are a package deal that is made up of genetic tendencies, life experiences, environmental influences, and the cultural identity we are given by the people who raise us. Ingredients like faith and emotional support play a significant role in how we face the issues life brings our way. At some point we simply say, this is who I think I am, these are my strengths and weaknesses, and now, how do I navigate my life to do the most good for those around me and for myself.
I’m thankful for my children, for the mysteries they bring with them: the ones we can unravel together, and the ones we’ll never figure out! This life journey leaves no room for boredom or monotony when the ingredients that make us who we are get on the playing board.
About the Author: Rebecca Hackworth is the adoptive mother of two daughters from Haiti who are now adults. She is Director of Social Services for Dillon International.