Monday, October 13, 2008


I've been pondering the meaning of the word "real" the last few days, after a conversation with my cousin Sandi. What does a "real" family mean?

I'm adopted, and I've been confronted with the "real" family question since I was a child. I have always known I was adopted. It's just part of who I am. My parents always told me I was "chosen". I had a wonderful image when I was younger that my parents went to a supermarket to get me. Instead of shopping carts, they used baby buggies. Instead of freezer compartments, there were bassinets and they rolled their buggy down the aisle until they found me, put me in the baby buggy and wheeled through the checkout. I didn't really know what happened at checkout, but I was their "choice" and I went home with them.

I've lost count of the number of times that people over the years have asked if I wanted to find my "real" parents. My "real" parents were at home, or sitting by my side when I was sick, or sitting up in a gas station at 9pm reading a book because I was 15 and my mom didn't want me sitting in a gas station by myself at that hour. My "real" father would sit up waiting for me, even after I had moved out and was home for the weekend. His light was a beacon in the night over the driveway...and his room was always dark when I reached the top of the stairs. He would fake snore, and I would pop my head in his room and call good night to him. There would be silence, and then he would respond, embarrassed that he'd been caught waiting for his 2o something daughter. My real father would phone me in Toronto when I was sick "because my mother was worried about me", oblivious to the fact that I had talked to my mom earlier in the day. My real father is lying in the graveyard in St. Eugene, Ontario. My "real" parents are my mom and dad. I may not have their DNA, but I knew who my parents are.

I have never been curious about my biological parents, although I'd like to know the health information that is swimming in my gene pool. I was adopted at a time when the records in Quebec were sealed, and although there have been a number of legal challenges, to date they remain sealed. I know when and where I was born, and that's it. I have nothing to search with, and no real inclination to do so. It makes for a bunch of medical tests when I go to a new doctor because I have no medical history, but other than that, I know who I am.

I have a massive extended family, and I am closer to my mother's side of the family, the Harveys. It's not that there's anything wrong with the Cheeseman side, far from it. My cousin Pat is my daughter's Godmother, and one of my closest friends. I didn't really get to know the Cheeseman family until I was in my teens and we moved to Kitchener. I grew UP with the Harvey clan, especially the Allison family. The four Allison boys are the closest I have to brothers, and our families were inseparable when I was a child. They lost their mother and father a few years apart, and my mom and dad acted as surrogate parents. It was a conversation that I had with Glenn and Sandi Allison (and Sandi is like a sister because she lived with the Allisons when she was a teenager, and I thought she was the coolest ever with her go-go boots...I still think she's pretty cool, and now I could her as a close friend) at my kitchen table that has me mulling and a bit hurt.

I'm an adopted child and an adoptive parent. My family is my family, my cousins are my cousins, my aunts and uncles are my aunts and uncles, and my child is unequivocally, absolutely my daughter. I've never cared a fig about DNA. Apparently, not everyone in my family shares that belief, because one of my other cousins had made a comment that someone was not a "real" cousin because they were adopted.

I don't know the source of the opinion, although I have my suspicions. I have to admit the comment caught me off guard, because if adopted members are not "real" family...then neither am I nor is my daughter. I'm hurt and puzzled by that. It's beyond my realm of comprehension.

So what makes a "real" family? Is it only DNA? I am certainly closer to some members of my family than others, but I don't think DNA has anything to do with that. I know lots of blood siblings who don't speak, or seem to have come from different universes. I know siblings who are close in age and as different as chalk and cheese.

To me, "real" family is made from love, shared tradition and shared experiences. I have 21 cousins on my mom's side of the family, and when my aunt and uncle celebrated their 50th anniversary, every single one of us was together for the first time since we were kids. We all gathered at the Lefaivre farm, where many family gatherings, and any number of massive cousin hide and go seek games took place in the old barn. My husband listened with fascination at some of the stories of my childhood...and DNA played no part in the childhood raids to get fresh peas from the garden, or the hours of cross country skiing we did out the back fields. DNA played no part in the family chocolate chip cookies, or Auntie Beryl's oatmeal cookies...or the family ghosts. Our shared experience made the family, not the blood in our veins.

Nature or nurture; any adoptive parent is familiar with the debate. What shapes a child? Is it environment or DNA. Is an adopted child not a "real" member of the family? I don't think so, and it makes me sad that others disagree. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree; family does that.

So what do you think? What makes a "real" family member?


Laura said...

My parents immigrated from Italy, leaving all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins behind. But I never felt I lacked a big extended family. My parents had great friends, people we saw all the time, whose children we thought of as cousins. We laughed together, we leaned on each other in times of sorrow, we helped each other, we celebrated many family events together. DNA has nothing to do with family.

Images by Ceci said...

I also was adopted as an infant during a time when the process was kept quiet. Like you, I've always known I was 'chosen'. And like you, I believe my family consists of the people who raised and nurtured me as I grew up.

However, I have also found my birth family. I began the search in order to get medical history for myself and my own son. Fortunately, i found a wonderful group - 9 living sisters and brothers, innumerable nieces and nephews, and my birth mother who was thrilled to be found.

Charmian said...

I can't believe people still make a distinction between adopted children and those that share their parents' DNA.

Love is a stronger bond than genetics. As you said, adopted children are deliberately chosen. Every child should be wanted. We should all be so lucky.

Atlantic Writer said...

I had a converstaion related to this with a friend last night. She is uncomfortable, at best, with her genetic family and has instead created families from friends and loved ones. As the daughter of an adopted woman I have always believed DNA had very little to do with 'real' family. Our brothers and sisters, our cousins, and even our parents are those who accompany us on the journey. Love is what we offer freely to each other and love is what makes family. Anyone who claims DNA triumphs over love is doing you, and themselves, a disservice.