By Shannon Quist
We have our little talks every two weeks or so, assuming one of us doesn’t cancel the meeting invite or move it to accommodate what is for both of us, a busy work schedule. We do our work in the background, sometimes, but most of the time we just talk. She needs it, I need it.
Though she is much more than this, the easiest way I can introduce you to my friend is to say that she is a warm and spirited mentor to me and she is an adoptive mother to a former foster child. Her child and my own are a couple of years apart so we chat about them sometimes in that way, but when she needs to, I also allow her to pick my brain on my own childhood experiences because I am an adoptee. Like all adoption stories vary, mine differs from the one her child lives, but there are pieces that ring true for all of us despite those differences, and that’s what my friend usually looks for when she is struggling with something. Hopefully, you know by now that adoption is never easy and always complicated. We live it. And talking helps sometimes.
One day, after I told her about my birth mother’s birthday and my weird mood, she asked me, tentatively, “Is there some small part of you that is thankful? Grateful?” And I let myself recoil then explained why I hated that question. But then, because she deserves my honesty, I continued on to answer it. I’m writing this now to share with you because it’s such a common question, but also because the only way to ask or answer this question is to be delicate.
I don’t like being asked if I’m grateful. This question automatically centers the story on my adoptive parents. The inquiry is actually: Do you realize how much sacrifice and trouble your parents went to in order to bring you home and raise you? Are you thankful for the rescue? Are you grateful for the change in your situation (socioeconomically)? This question also glosses over the nuances and complexity of my situation and only inquires about the positivity that can be found in my adoption story. But you can’t have blooming flowers without rain. Finally, being asked about my gratefulness insinuates a “should” social standard and demands a performance of it. It says, “You should be grateful. Show me how you’re grateful.”
But to answer the question, yes. I am grateful, but that’s not all I am.
I don’t often center my adoptive parents’ experience because, for the majority of my life, I lived in the shadow of that narrative as the prize won, the rescued child. Stepping outside that shadow to speak my own truth is a choice. But I am certainly capable of seeing them for what they’ve given me and giving them the credit they (and others) crave. I will do so here so that you can better understand the complexities of the both/and state I embody at all times.
I am thankful for my mother, but I struggle with specifying anything concrete about my love for her beyond those small sweet moments she probably thinks I’ve forgotten like when she’d blow dry my hair after a bath or take song requests to play on the piano or let me lick the chocolate off the spoon when we made fudge. I was, for a short moment, at the happy center of her world and then, for another longer moment, at the ugly center of her world. She was a woman who June Cleaver loved me through my childhood, even if that love was a little selfish, a lot confused, and slightly misguided. She read the parenting books and took me to church and hoped like hell that it would be enough. It wasn’t, but the effort is commendable.
She made a lot of very major mistakes, many of them she took years to admit to, and some she still refuses to acknowledge. In so many ways, receiving her love was painful and we still struggle to meet somewhere in the middle. We don’t often know what to say to each other so I let her fill up the silences with things she thinks about or sees in her daily life when I call her. I listen to her small-town stories and ask her for advice when my daughter is sick. These small inconsequential things help us stay some kind of close. Over the past five years or so since I began studying adoption through the lens of an English degree, we’ve had some hard conversations, but she’s never backed down from her love for me. I don’t know how she does that, but we both have more to work on as we continue to grow. I am thankful that through all of the hard times, she has remained here in my life.
I am also thankful for my father, a man who always picked me up when I fell down, even if it was my fault I’d gotten hurt. He taught me two of the most important lessons in my life which are: reach out for help when you need it and be able to apologize for your mistakes. He is a man who is not without his own faults, biases, or shortcomings, but his love is an earnest thing, something I’ve always been able to rely on. It’s funny seeing it now as an adult, how the woman he married is so traditional yet the daughter he raised is more of a first-born son: independent, fearless, a little cocky.
Then again, I also stuck my nose up at all but one of the Ayn Rand books he handed down to me, and he lets me tear apart his religious beliefs whenever I feel so inclined because, to him, it’s a test of faith and his faith is very strong, but also willing to bend if need be. After he read my book, he simply said: “It’s dark.” But then he went digging in the closet and brought me all the adoption paperwork they’d hidden away from me in addition to a flash drive full of pictures from
my childhood. These were no small things, and to me they said, “I heard you, let me try to make amends.” I am thankful for his ability to change and admit fault, even if that’s not on my preferred timeline.
But I have to remind you that this is not the whole story.
Though I am thankful for my parents, I am also disappointed that I missed out on a life with the mother who made me, the one who handed down her fiery anger, her tendency towards chemical romances, and a whole extended family who, in little ways, I only know of by proxy, resemble the physical and emotional quirks that are hardwired into me. It was confusing seeing my parents’ disgust at my mother’s lifestyle choices, their fear of her mental illness, their superiority in having those things like financial stability and religious faith that made them the “better” choice. Maybe I shouldn’t have been raised by a person who didn’t have the support she needed to cope with mental illness, addiction, or poverty. Maybe she should have had that support or at the very least, the option to ask if anyone related to her could help out. But knowing through my parents’ mouths about my mother’s shortcomings made it hard for me to understand that I am allowed to grieve my loss while also being grateful for what I got instead. I’m allowed to love the people I came from, but that love is made difficult with distance, secrets, and shame.
When I’m asked if I’m grateful for my parents, it just reminds me that although I’m asked to step into their shoes and see how difficult it is to acquire a child, how much sacrifice is involved, how gut-wrenching it must be to see a child you’ve “rescued” behave with such entitlement and disrespect, my parents never stepped into my shoes to see what it’s like to lose a mother forever even though she is still alive in the world, what it’s like to have pieces of my history hidden from me, to be betrayed by the people who paid money for the privilege of protecting me.
So, yes. I’m grateful, but that’s not all I am.
Shannon Quist (she/her) is a domestic adoptee, the author of Rose's Locket, and a board member for Adoption Knowledge Affiliates. Her poetry book, Mirrors Made of Ink, will be released in 2024. She is also currently working on publishing an article about her narrative theory, Phantom Worlds, which she's been obsessing over for a few years now. You can follow her on IG @shannonrquist or visit her website shannonquist.com to read more of her work.
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