Somewhere between being born and being adopted, abandoned people learn that being pleasing means you’re less likely to be left behind (again). If you’re funny or engaging, kind, people might like you – you might even make some friends. If you’re funny or smart or have some special talent or hobby, you might find your tribe in school or out in the greater world. You might even be popular. Growing up, you learn that being a jerk gets you nowhere (not that you were a jerk to start, but you see how jerks operate and that many of them wind up alone and sour, and, well, you don’t want to wind up like that).
You learn what works, what makes people what to be with you. You also learn what repels them over time and what makes them disappear in a flash.
During one visit to my firstmother at her home, I remember her commenting, “You are, by far, the most polite of my children. Someone raised you well.” As if to say her three kept children were shlumps, which they were not – not in the least.
My adoptive mother’s parenting style was that she impart everything she knew about acceptable behavior, codes of dress and conduct, decorum for every occasion (including letter writing, gift giving and how to compose a proper RSVP – not to mention what RSVP actually means) and what should constitute a classic, timeless wardrobe. Read the right-hand of the menu when on a date (read: look at the prices before ordering). She was all about appearances – propriety, formality, courtesy (though little courtesy from her was practiced at home), and conformity so as not to make others uncomfortable. My bio-sister and I followed directions, operated within acceptable boundaries, and conformed to expectations. My adoptive parents could take us anywhere. We were not wiggly or whiny or bratty spoiled children; we were quiet, tightly-wrapped, very small adults. We were pleasing this way. You’d hardly know we were there unless you looked. What we were not, was allowed to behave like children.
While I was secretly delighted to possess a quality my firstmother noticed and appreciated, I immediately worried that being uptight, compared to her other children, would make me not fit in. Should I relax manners or be less polite so not to remind everyone I’d been raised by someone else? Would I be expected to mask what happened to me in order to be accepted? Should we all pretend I just arrived on the stoop one day, with amnesia? I had no idea how to be acceptable nor did I know what qualities they valued in their family.
The other thing I worried about was the details. I didn’t know any of them. The bringing-home-baby stories as each sibling arrived; the annual school portraits and their haircut narratives. Former boy and girl friends, the broken bones, the braces, snow days, chicken pox, family pets, summer gardens, Halloween costumes, how they decorate at Christmas, or favorite books. I knew none of these things. And, they knew none of those things about me. I could not fake my way into being one of them, I’d have to be myself but the only thing I knew to do was to be easy, be pleasing. So, I every time I visited my firstmother and her family, I was on my very best behavior. Which is to say, I was myself but more tightly wrapped than usual. Trying to balance between how I was raised and who I thought my firstmother wanted had she raised me herself. If she and her kept children deemed me unacceptable I felt I would be rejected, again, and possibly, for good. Between how I was raised and where I am now, I can say, it is painful to have an identity that was formed from rejection, abandonment and critical perfectionism.
That said, I tried. Maybe too much? I tried to be “me”, whoever that was at the time, from late summer 2004 until late 2015. Tired of being in limbo, unsure I was someone’s relative or just an inconvenient obligation, and not sure they even liked me, let alone accepted me, I took myself out of the picture. My siblings from my firstmother are younger than I and, seemingly nice people, had shown no interest in getting to know me outside of the visits to my firstmother. Intermittently, I have wondered if I were to seek resumed contact, would they be resentful I appeared, again? Did I matter? I have no idea. No one asked, what was it like? No one said, I’m glad you’re here. No one offered, I’m sorry you didn’t grow up with us. All of those things would have made a difference in how I showed up to them. For now, I know where I belong and the various tribes I fit; where I can breathe freely and where to unwrap my tightly-wrapped, just-want-to-be-Loved self.