I asked the question in my previous post… As someone who was adopted, who has siblings who were not adopted – Did my parents love me less?
This is a thorny one. Short answer: I am not sure love is quantitative. I think it’s qualitative. They loved me differently. Not more, not less. They loved me differently because I was different. How much of that difference is down to adoption, I can’t say, because I haven’t had my other life, and I’ve never been another person [that I can remember].
How I’ve felt about it: I have different answers based on different stages of my life.
Stage 1: Babyhood
I was adopted when I was a few days old, from a country in a different continent from the UK, by white British parents. It was back in the 70s, and it’s not like adoption is now, with a process and forms and whatnot. By all accounts my parents went to the adoption place, spoke to the person who ran it, she thought they seemed trustworthy so they got given a baby.
I was the first, and I was much wanted. My parents had been married for a very long time and hadn’t had any children – they had unexplained fertility. They were living in the country where I was born, so they weren’t adoption tourists as such. They purposely chose to adopt a girl because more girls were available for adoption. (I think this is the case for a lot of countries, where females are valued less than males. Ironically in the Western culture it seems like people fantasise about girl babies, for some reason…) My parents weren’t really like that; it was a pragmatic choice based on availability.
My parents didn’t choose me. I was next in the queue. But they did choose the idea of me, which I think is okay. It’s not really that different from getting the baby you give birth to, in the sense that you can’t pick the characteristics they’re born with. You can’t decide what your child is going to look like (although you have a better idea than people who are adopted, you don’t have any control over it, nor can you ensure they’re going to have positive personality characteristics – it’s all a gamble, but with more assured odds in the genetic lottery than the adoptive one).
The place where I came from was a place where unmarried mothers could go to, in the knowledge they’d be looked after during pregnancy and the babies would go to foreign adopters. This was mainly the US and the UK as far as I know, although the US seems to adopt a lot more than the UK, possibly based on scale. Where I came from wasn’t an orphanage. I had living parents. (It was run by missionaries. I probably have a touch of conflict about this, because I’m an atheist even though I was brought up religious, but I’m aware that they shaped my destiny… Which reminds me, I need to add the abortion question to my list of questions.)
If my baby photo albums are anything to go by, they loved me very much. There it is in sepia (it was the 70s, and we printed pictures, and we didn’t have the internet – can you believe it)… Me staring into my mother’s eyes, a quizzical and slightly bald baby, and my mother the dewy ingénue looking rapturously into mine. (My dad – ever the realist – later told me that I was the only baby he’d ever met whose stare could stop a person in their tracks from across the room. Let’s just say I’ve always had The Look.) Here I am again. My first bath. Me laughing on a rocking horse. Rocking a velour tracksuit. Grinning a toothy grin. The photo albums are lovingly collated for me and each of my siblings, catalogued and archived by child in diminishing numbers as time goes on (the last sibling has about half the albums I have)… Life caught up with them, and their attentive ministrations to me that were lovingly documented in Kodak moments were replaced by the chaos of family life with multiple children baying for attention. Feeding time at the zoo!
I still joke with my dad that they should have stopped at one.
Stage 2: Childhood
I can’t remember a time when my younger sibling, #2, wasn’t there. Also adopted, and also from the same country, but not my “real” sibling. (You’ve no idea how many people feel like it’s totally okay to ask that question, as if it somehow adds to their life to know.) During our childhood we were pretty much treated like twins. We joke that white people can’t tell us apart. That’s the thing… White people do tend to conflate people of the same ethnicity, even if they’re a foot difference in height with completely different features like my sibling and I are. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s annoying.
We were super close when we were little. Twinnies in matching but slightly different clothes. My mother used to dress us all the same, which is funny when you’re different genders and races. But cute. I got to the age where I cringed about it a bit, but looking back on it, and judging by what I do to my dog (a very tolerant of being dressed up dog as it turns out), I can see where she was coming from.
But I digress… Our twin-matchy / ethnic / adopted / cutesy / centre-of-my-parents’-universe world was kicked into touch unexpectedly when I was 5. My mother was pregnant. My 5 year old brain wasn’t really in touch with my feelings about it although subsequent examination of my handmade “Congratulations you’ve had a baby” card in honour of my new little sibling tells otherwise. (I’m not sure it was entirely coincidental that I drew a load of indians firing arrows at cowboys.)
The Firstborn. The funny thing is, my mother calls me her firstborn. In her mind, I was born to her, and anyway it’s just terminology of what you call your oldest child. The Real Firstborn (RFB) was the golden child, the miracle baby, and I was hopelessly jealous of him all through my childhood. And I was a total b*tch about it. (You’d be surprised how much of a b*tch a 5 year old girl can be.)
Because #2, my adopted sib, was always a follower, and #3, RFB – a leader. A miracle. The Golden Child. My mother could never really disguise her absolute joy about him. And as an adult, I can understand it. I completely do. Imagine being told you will never have children and going through all the pain and effort and longing and getting two babies by adoption and suddenly you have what you wanted all along. RFB was that. A miracle baby. And I hated him.
Did I feel my parents loved me and #2 less? I don’t think I ever felt that they loved us less than they had done, but I definitely felt that there was something qualitatively different about the love for RFB. The big thing was, he was and is the image of my father. And what is more beguiling to a parent than a little being in the image of their spouse? It’s biology. It’s why baby animals are designed to be cute… It’s evolution, designed to make the non-birth (male usually) spouse stick around. Babies look like their dads so their dads will believe they’re theirs and nurture them.
I was a quiet, some might say repressed child. Even though in person I could be called bossy (I hate that girls are called bossy and boys are called leaders) – I never ever spoke about the things I was really thinking. I developed different ways of being lovable. I was super smart. I was well behaved. I was polite. I made myself like things that other people liked. I had fads which pleased people I wanted to please – as a child I was very artistic and I was encouraged to do that, so my thing was to make nice looking art. #2’s thing was music. RFB’s thing was Being The Child Every Adult Adored. I mean, if you ever saw him in action – he was (is) a charmer. I really never understood it until I was an adult. It felt unfair. It felt like he was gifted something I didn’t have… and as a child, I thought it was to do with him being a boy, and maybe about looking like my dad. (My dad who everyone likes… See – there’s a pattern when you’re genetically related to someone.)
Who was I like? Nobody. I looked weird. Very cute and ethnic as a baby/small child. Awkward and not white enough as an adolescent.
The Baby was another happy accident. The Baby I never felt the same jealousy for, because by that time I was a bit older and I was old enough to adore and nurture and probably dominate. I always loved The Baby. The Baby was the archetypal white child, the aryan supreme, and being second bio, not so much of a novelty. And RFB was always so goddamn perfect that it was a waste of energy being jealous of anyone else. The Baby was mine. #2 was my twin and The Baby was my shadow, and RFB was a thorn in my side.
During that time, in hindsight, I don’t think my parents loved me less. They were probably too busy to measure out love in the way that I expected it to be measured. I was obsessive and weird as a kid*. I really did think there should be some sort of rule book about how much time your parents spent with you compared with your siblings. (I used to try and get extra 1:1 time by going to the supermarket or any other silly excuse.) And how many gifts they gave you. If I had my way as a child, every minute would be measured out fairly and every gift would be exactly financially equitable to your siblings’ gifts, because those were measures of love and I wanted love very badly.
(*I’ve been told I’m autistic/Aspergers before, but I’ve never been diagnosed and I am not sure I am, I mean I have a “good” job and whatnot and I’m a functioning adult but everyone’s on a spectrum anyway and I think I’m maybe just a bit more extreme than other people, and I’m not sure how much is adoption and how much is genetics anyway. I kind of think weird kids grow into interesting adults, but that’s probably my parents’ fault for instilling in me the fact that being smart and weird was a good thing!)
So. I know one of the overriding emotions of my childhood, apart from the general happiness of it, was jealousy. I’ve always had real difficulty controlling jealous emotions. It’s like I have this uncontrollable rage about it. I want to be loved the best! I’m jealous of other people who are loved better than me. Nothing makes me happier than being the centre of someone’s world. (If I’d have had a dog earlier, we probably could have avoided a lot of heartache. Although the dog still, I suspect, loves me slightly less than he loves T. The little sh*t.)
This probably gives you the idea that I had an unhappy childhood. Far from it. I had such an amazing experience, and it’s only because I’m looking at it through this critical lens, so don’t get the idea that my parents are monsters, because they’re really not. They’re normal(ish) fallible human people and they did their best and they were probably a little bit naive about the whole transracial thing, but I don’t think that they were any different to other parents I’ve seen in how they doled out their love. I was just a weird scientific obsessive kid who thought it could be measured and wanted jealously to have the lion’s share. That’s a bit difficult in a large family, and younger children always tend to get more attention, because they’re more dependent and scream the loudest and especially if you’re a people-pleaser (who isn’t very good at people pleasing), you just come across a bit weird.
But how I saw it when I was little was that I needed to be better. I needed to be the one who was loved the most, because I didn’t really feel that I was. (This is probably b*llocks because I think you have to go through a lot of effort to adopt someone. And I know how much I love people, and I don’t have anyone in my life I’m biologically related to, so quite frankly I was just being a little confused child who couldn’t articulate her fears.) It’s been something that followed me into adulthood, this need to be loved the best. I didn’t need everyone to love me (though that would be nice). But I wanted one person to tell me I was their favourite.
My dad was pretty good about this. He’s quite pragmatic and he says things how they are, and I would try to find ways for him to admit that I was his favourite. He was usually pretty diplomatic about it and sometimes I could almost get him to admit it in a roundabout way. (He should have been a lawyer.) I would think, well if RFB is my mum’s favourite then I can be my dad’s. (This still knocks out the others, which seemed unfair, but also they didn’t seem as bothered about it as I was. #2 was always a dreamer and The Baby was my favourite, so wasn’t short on love.) It was me who was always grasping for it, always shooting for stuff that would put me on the best list. I had to be top of the class, and artistic, and polite, and do everything people asked. Not because I thought I’d be sent back (for some reason I never thought that, maybe because my parents probably said they never would – they were quite reassuring in that way) but because it somehow seemed super important to me.
I can’t believe I’m confessing this but I even had a list of comparisons in my desk which I wrote when I was about 7, which was all the unfair things where my other siblings (esp RFB but also #2) had benefited and I had not. This included things as “unfair” as #2 and I having the same bedtime. Because we were treated like twins, I felt like I never got the benefit of being the oldest. I got the rap but not the privilege. RFB and The Baby were far enough apart to have different bedtimes. And also, RFB being a boy had all the toys I wanted but never had.
I was really bad at articulating what I wanted when I was little – the 2 things I wanted the most were a remote controlled car and Transformers, and I never got them. Probably because girls didn’t typically get given “boys’ toys” in the 80s. And I never really pushed it… But RFB got them, simply by virtue of being a boy. By the time he got them, I was probably too old to ask for them or play with them, but it cut me to the core that he would receive the things I wanted without even asking.
The sad thing is, I’m sure if my parents knew how much I wanted something they would have given it to me. They would have done anything to make me happy. I just wasn’t very good at asking for things, and they weren’t good at reading my mind. I even remember – weirdly… I remember the strangest things – my dad asking me the meaning of something I’d put on my list to Santa. I must have been about 4 or 5. And I was coy about it, even though I really wanted it. I said to my dad it was none of his business – laughing – and it wasn’t much later when Santa didn’t deliver and the little me realised I probably should have told my dad what it was that I wanted. (It was a doll that had various built in functions, as far as I can remember – and strangely, I never liked or requested dolls again.)
I don’t think that’s necessarily an adopted person thing. It’s probably more a gender thing. But the point was – it took me until recent years (my 30s) to tell people when I had that kind of material, deep seated disappointment. I would just internalise it and feel bad and jealous instead of saying “I would like a remote controlled car and I don’t care if you think it’s for boys”, or [later, in adult relationships] “I need you to say you love me and I need you to be demonstrative and not expect me to take it for granted”.
All the things we lose by not saying what we feel. I don’t know if that is adoption, or upbringing, or me. I do know that was how I felt about love as a child, as an adolescent (when I started trying to rationalise it) and how I feel now. I think for so much of my life, fear of rejection stopped me from articulating my desires and my needs around feeling loved.
Stage 3: Adolescence
I was a total miserable sullen sh*t during adolescence. Geeky, awkward, angry. In that sense I wasn’t anything different to any other adolescent. My parents were amazing through my awkward teen years, loving me when I wasn’t very lovable. (That’s the thing about family. You don’t get to decide to love them – you just sort of have to, as far as I can see.)
I was depressed. But so were 99% of adolescents. It was the toughest time for my sense of self and identity. I always felt so ugly and awkward and unlovable and a lot of that was because I looked different. I wanted to be white because it seemed like all those kind of ugly feelings stemmed from being an ugly ethnic person. I had nobody (other than my little sweet, crowd pleasing #2) to model my satisfaction with my looks on. Nobody with black weird hair. Nobody with a flat nose. I used to spend hours staring in the mirror and hating myself. Looking at my disgusting ethnic face and trying to understand how my parents could say it was beautiful. It didn’t feel beautiful. It wasn’t enough that they said it was when everyone at school made fun of it. (Later, men would fetishise ethnicity… That’s a whole ‘nother post.)
The great thing is that I had #2 and RFB and The Baby who all idolised me (apparently). At least I wasn’t in any doubt that they loved me. I think my folks did pretty well with me during that time. I was an absolute idiot. I directed my self-loathing outwards into anger and identification with sub-cultures, and #2 directed hers inwards at self directed depression. In comparison to our bio sibs, we had a tougher time, for sure. But… maybe that’s race. Maybe that’s gender. I don’t think it just has to be all down to adoption.
During this time a few things happened:
I let go of my overriding jealousy of RFB.
#2 got sick and needed a lot of attention.
I went to uni. The Baby stopped being a baby.
My parents had to redistribute their love to cover the ones in need (#2 mainly) and the fact that I was far away. During this time you might even say they loved #2 more. Without going into too much detail, I was angry about the situation with #2’s illness but I understood the need for attention. And maybe I moved my misplaced jealousy obsession thing away from RFB to #2. It’s hard being jealous of a sick person. But really – how could any parents deal with that differently? When you have a very sick child who might even die… who could blame you for shifting your love-showing priorities towards them?
I grew up, a bit.
Stage 4: Adulthood
It’s evolving, but the key milestone here is I got my first boyfriend. (I was a very late starter. And I pretty much went with the first guy who asked. And the next. And the next. But… for all the lack of quality of young adult love, the hotheadedness, the heartache, I think it made me easier for my folks to love.) It took a bit of pressure off my relationship with my parents. I wasn’t running after them so much. And moving into a new adult relationship with my parents was a new paradigm. A paradigm where I pretended to be self-sufficient, and where my folks actually seemed pleased to be checked in on over the phone rather than needed in that dramatic, childish way.
During this period I:
…Grew up. (It’s a very long period, from 20 years ago to now. And it’s ongoing.)
…Had a few boyfriends. A few exes. Turned into a bit of a sl**. Eventually stopped being a sl**, but was still vulnerable to pretty much anyone of the opposite gender showing me anything that might be mistaken for love. Settled down. Got unsettled. Settled down again. (I’m settled now; I promise.)
…Realised that being jealous of siblings really isn’t a good use of time. Harbouring jealous nasty thoughts is silly and rotten to yourself. It hurts you more than it hurts them. As Elsa would say… (you know the song). That perfect girl is gone!
…Understood that we all have our own gifts and our own love-ness / love-ability / whatever the word is for deserving being loved. We all deserve to be loved. I mean, unless you’re a really really bad person, worse than [insert monster here], you deserve to be loved and shown that love and even the monster you put in the last box was probably just damaged because he/she didn’t understand that they were loved.
…Made peace with my parents. Fell out with them once or twice. Made peace in the in between times and throughout it all I loved them and they loved me. They’re the only parents I ever knew and by my entirely subjective reasoning, they have such richness of experience and opinion (even though they are quite clearly wrong in many ways in the way that adolescent me used to get cross about), I’ve been pretty fortunate to have had so many opportunities for such varied experiences in my life, and to have been supported by ever supportive, happy, slightly crazy but-wouldn’t-change-them-for-the-world-because-they’re-mine parents.
They loved me before I knew what love was, and they never stopped. They never loved me less. They loved me different. They loved us all. They made a family and we all love each other (including RFB, who for the record, I’ve apologised to for my heinous childhood behaviour). I can genuinely say, without apology, without any expectation, that we are family and we are [our own special, crazy, different type of] love. It’s all I’ve known. I’m okay with it. I’m happy. Not more, not less. We’re different and we’re special and we are good.
There’s still more to say on that, but it’s more connected to the relationship post that I’m planning to write.
And I have to go now, because I am loved.