Birth Stories, Adoption, and Myths

Imagine learning the word “adoption” at the same time you learn words like “mother,” “father,” “home,” ”birth,” or “safe.”

Imagine learning the word “adoption” at the same time you learn words like “mother,” “father,” “home,” ”birth,” or “safe.” Other words you learn are “abandoned,” “given up,” “loved,” “wanted,” and “adopted.” You learn that the one who gave birth to you is a parent, that you have a mother but she gave you up. You learn that the people looking after you are also your parents, a mother and father, who took you and kept you. You are not related to them, but you are. They could not have babies of their own, so they adopted you. You are told your biological mother wanted to keep you, but couldn’t because she was too young. You are told that she loved you, and that you are wanted, yet you know you were still given up. You must reconcile the fact that you have no power to choose for yourself, that these people you find yourself with are your parents, and that you may never fully know who or where you came from. You don’t remember a time where you weren’t told any of this.

Did you meet my father at a New Years Eve party?
Yes! … How did you know that?
Well … I’m born on September 1, so if we count back nine months of pregnancy… that brings us to roughly Christmas to New Years.
Hahaha well, you were also premature, but your deduction isn’t wrong.

Your father and I always wanted kids. We tried many times but God never sent us any that stayed. One afternoon, Grandma called us from Kamloops, saying that she had met a girl named Dawn-Marie who had you in her tummy, and was putting the baby up for adoption. She asked “are you interested?” so we packed our things into the car and zoooooomed up to Kamloops to meet her.

You must reconcile the fact that you have no power to choose for yourself, that these people you find yourself with are your parents, and that you may never fully know who or where you came from.

My earliest memory is being two or three years old; I am on a bed in a beige bedroom, and my tiny hands are holding a large storybook. My adoptive parents are reading to me, telling me the story of a fictional character who was adopted. The story was structured around the child wondering where they came from—what their birth story was. An image that has stayed with me is the child’s face poking out of a vending machine where chocolate bars or Skittles would fall. The child would wonder if they came from a baby dispensing machine after their new parents had shoved some quarters into the coin slot.

I remember feeling strangely about this depiction, both repelled and taken in by its gravity. My adoptive parents (Bob and Teresa) had raised me from the beginning with a picture of my birth mother, and her name (Dawn-Marie), but there was always a sense of the mystical about her—a present absence, not a ghost but not quite fully coherent as a person either. While I knew I was brought into this world by her, I still felt this feeling of not quite knowing where I came from and how I had come into this world. My and my twin’s birth story was repeated throughout our early life, especially before meeting our birth mother, but it still didn’t feel quite real and never answered the question in the back of my mind.

Narratively, a birth comes either at the beginning or end of a story, punctuating either events being set in motion or coming to a close. Parents have their happily ever after, and a new hero is brought into their journey. Simba in The Lion King champions the hero’s birth story, being lifted towards the sky on top of pride rock in front of all the animal kingdom subjects. Birth is rarely figured as a transformative disruption that happens in the middle of the story, a volta. This is what it felt like to me being an adopted child, that my life was beginning in the middle of other people's stories, that there was a big universe out there that I was a small part of and had little control over.

Very early on, I was always aware that our birth story operated on multiple levels. It was constructed to help my twin and I feel secure in being adopted, that we were loved and wanted despite being given up. It also functioned as a litany of reassurance for them too, I suspect, as parents who are not biologically related to their children. I always wondered what story Dawn-Marie told herself about her pregnancy and our birth, and hoped she felt secure too. Throughout my life, there always seemed to be a tension within our entire family. I knew I would never say to them “You’re not my real parents!” because I was acutely aware of the effect it would cause. It was also a phrase I vowed I would never say to my birth mother.

In a way, our birth story was a mythic speech act, where everything within the confines of its narrative had come to signify multiple things, referential squared, or even cubed. It wasn’t so much about the birth itself, but rather everything surrounding the birth, the paperwork, the relationships, the transition from people to parents, and a girl to a mother to a birth-parent. If the birth story was about the birth itself, it would probably be a gristly narrative.

I was standing in the kitchen when my water broke. It was 8:30 or 9 at night, and I had to get Grandpa Barry and Grandma Yvonne to drive me to the hospital. When my contractions sped up and I was actually in labour, a foot came out first and your heartbeat began to disappear from the monitor. We think the umbilical cord was wrapped around your neck. The doctor quickly transitioned to a c-section, and retrieved you first before getting your sibling. You were taken out at 10:01 p.m., and TJ came out at 10:02 p.m. I woke up much later, and the nurses put you both in my arms and I cried.

When we met Dawn-Marie, she asked us “Do you want this baby?” we said “Yes, we do.” Dawn-Marie said “I will think on it.” We drove back to Nelson. Months go by, and then we get a call from Dawn-Marie, saying “I’m having twins, do you want these babies?” and we said “Yes, we do.” Dawn-Marie said “I will think on it. Come up to Kamloops.” So we packed our things into the car and zooooomed up to Kamloops again.

Adoption is a process which structurally severs and forges families. The state separates children from their biological parents in order for them to be given to their adoptive parents. In both open and closed adoptions, the adoptive parents usually have more control and power as to how the adoption will unfold, if at all. The adoptive parents are able to tell any story they wish about the origins of the child they adopt, and the birth mother is usually counted lucky by society if she is included. Many adoptees do not find out about their adoption until much later in life, sometimes not at all. The state has used the process of adoption as another mode of disrupting cultural transference between generations of Indigenous people alongside and after the residential schools, another way of “saving the child while killing the indian.” In the eyes of the state, nurture should and would override nature.

Adoption is a process which structurally severs and forges families.

I eventually met my birth mother at the age of five at the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park. I vividly remember standing out front of the building, posing with all three adults and my twin in the rain, the orca statue behind us. While five years pass quickly for me now, that time where I didn’t know her feels disproportionately long in my mind. During those first five years, I think my parents tried their best to make sure my twin and I grew up with secure attachments, with varying results which are no fault of theirs. A frequent story that was told was our birth story. We would ask for it repeatedly, I think due to the large amount of questions we had but no way to frame it into language yet. Again, this story contained some answers, but did not hold all of them—something I have come to realize defines the experience of adoption. Adoption is a process, an experience, a practice, that resists neat narratives, genres and stable categorization.

It was after this first meeting that I noticed my parents started to trace features of our appearance and how we acted to our biological mother. This seemed strange to me because it wasn’t part of our conversations before we met her, only after. I began to wonder if my parents also had insecurities about the way our family structure was forged. Strange thoughts for a five year old to be having, realising that all your parents are people, wondering if your biological mom was tracing features and behaviours back to herself, or to your adoptive parents. I wondered if her experience being adopted to a white family was similar to mine.

Later in life, during college, I began learning about the Sixties Scoop–about how Indian Agents would steal children from their community, from hospital beds, and adopt them out to white families. The intent was to “kill the Indian and save the child.” It was their intent to stop the transmission of culture that happens within a Native family and begin socialising native kids as white by white parents. During lecture, I drifted off into memory, recalling being a child and saying to my adoptive mom “I wish my skin was light like yours. Kids say I’m dirty because my skin is brown.” Her response was that she wished she was tan like me year round, and it half consoled me. Another memory comes up of my twin and I at the beach, running in the water and then rolling in the white sand while we were still wet to try and see what it felt like to fit in, to not be visible in a town that has less than 1% of a BIPOC population. Seeing the ways white supremacy was steeped inside of me lit a fire in me to burn these internalized ideas out of myself whenever I came across them.

I remember the first time we met. We had spent the day at the Vancouver Aquarium, you were dressed in your cute little rain jacket running with sneakered feet through the various tanks and displays, surprise and curiosity on your face. We walked to the Seawall after, and you were holding my hand when I began crying. You looked up at me and asked “Why are you crying, Dawn-Marie?” I crouched down beside you and looked you in the eyes and I said “I was so scared that you wouldn’t love me.” Your little five year old hand reached up to hold my wet cheek and you said “Of course I love you, you’re my birth mom.”

My twin and I loved Hercules, a movie that came out in 1997, the year we met Dawn-Marie. In the movie, Hercules is told he was abandoned and his adoptive parents raise him thinking he is a gift from the Gods. This tale paralleled the story we had been told of our birth and adoption. Hercules seeks answers to his origins and realizes his grand hero’s journey of reconnecting with his godly family, with fame and fortune and all its trappings. His parents lose speaking roles after he leaves home, replaced by his birth parents speaking throughout the entire film.

As we grew older, Dawn-Marie would visit every summer or so, and we began to hear other narratives surrounding our birth—that she had met our biological father at a party, that he had taken off when he found out she was pregnant and giving birth to the children, that she loved us deeply but couldn’t keep us at the age of 19, that giving us up was the hardest thing she has ever done. This answered some questions, but also raised other ones.

In 2002, Lilo & Stitch came out. As nine year olds, we were still excited about Disney films, and I remember crying in the theatre but not knowing why. Looking back, it was a very different story about family and adoption from Hercules. An Indigenous Hawaiian family is mourning the loss of two parents, and resisting the state in further severing the family. A pet-turned-extra-kid puts further stress on the family, but ultimately proves that the plastic nature of kinship can not only resist state separation but also has the capacity to envelope new members during crisis. No family member gets left behind.

Dawn-Marie asked us “Will you love these babies?” and we said “Yes, we will.” “Okay,” she said, “You can have these babies.” Oh, we felt so lucky and happy!! We drive back down to Nelson. Months go by, and then we get a call saying “The twins are coming, the twins are coming!” So we packed up the car and zooooomed up to Kamloops AGAIN. On September 1, 1992, you and your sibling came into the world. You didn’t want to come out, so the doctors had to open up her belly and get you. The nurses brought you to us, and we counted to make sure you had 10 little fingers and 10 little toes, and you DID have 10 little fingers and 10 little toes.

Puberty is a transition for everyone. When I began puberty, the narrative of our adoption shifted from our birth, to our genes, the adults surrounding us trying to nail down exactly what was Nature in us, with no real interest in pinning down what was Nurtured. Every aspect of how I looked and acted was traced in some way to Dawn-Marie. I was the signifier, a child shifting into something else. What was familiar about me as a child was defamiliarized in my pubescent body; I was constantly signifying to my parents that I was not of their body. The shape of my foot, the sound of my laugh, how short my temper was, my skin stretching growth spurts.

This made me deeply insecure about my body. I thought I was just me, that it didn’t matter if a certain part of it was nature or nurture–desperate, as most teenagers are, to be autonomous and define yourself on your own terms. I feel differently about it now. As the tectonics of my body seemed to cool, and I began to settle into teenage angst. I remember hearing about twin and triplet adoption studies, where twins or triplets were separated at birth and raised in completely different towns, but would grow up to live similar lives—down to driving the same brand of cars, dating similar people, and eating similar things. Not only did this perturb me as overly deterministic and vaguely eugenicist, it made me start to question the ethics of adoption at its core. Is it ethical to raise a child in a way that is so radically different from their peers? Is it more ethical to sever families than to change the systems that produce inequalities that then create the need to sever families? What stories are ethical to tell an adopted child, and what are the long term effects of them?

Around this time, Angelina Jolie was adopting children from her travels. Adoption seemed to be everywhere, and peers at school would draw parallels between what the stars were doing and my family structure. I didn’t know what intersectionality was at the time, nor who Gayatri Spivak was, but I could plainly see how power pervades the system of adoption, of “white women saving brown women from brown men.” At no point did the stories of Angelina’s adoptions centre the birth mother of these adopted children, possibly for safety or security reasons, but Angelina’s purity and kindness took centre stage. How brave she was, and how moral she was, to raise these brown children alongside her biological white children and love them just the same. This epic drag performance of adoptive and mixed family life in LA spelled out to me the way power moves through adoption. The adopting parents are necessarily more empowered than that of the birth mother. It is not a cheap process. There are legal fees, there are checks and balances in the agreement regardless of if the adoption is open or closed.

Luckily, Dawn-Marie had a lot of control in how the adoption went. It was an anomaly that my parents were willing to have a closed adoption on her account, and asked to open it up as we grew older. Both of my mothers refer to each other as my mom, which I count myself lucky for. But my peers still perceived my adoption in certain ways—calling me a “true bastard” because I was born out of wedlock, that I had been “saved from poor living conditions.” When telling our birth story on a public stage, we signify the purity of our white parents and the imposed shame or inadequacy of our brown parents. Instead we speak of the charity and goodwill of settlers, while our disconnection to our origin is erased. We signify the pain our birth parents face in having us and giving us up. We signify the fulfillment of our adoptive parents’ dream to have children. We signify the state’s ugly intent, and unending love of our origins.

Also absent from the narratives are the amount of children in care here on Turtle Island who can not or would not be adopted, another way in which the severance of families has always been violent. Everyone wants to adopt the tabula rasa that is a newborn baby, or perhaps the perfect idyllic orphan who is sad but ultimately just wants to be loved, like Annie. Narratives of adoption, and foster care, do not leave space for messiness, for dealing with the trauma that the very system itself instills in those who go through it. Annie never acts out and breaks plates or intentionally scrapes her knee or inflicts pain onto small creatures as a way of exerting control in a world where children have none. However, these are behaviours myself and other adopted or fostered individuals I know have done before. These reactions seem logical to me, growing up in the confusion and messiness of adopted life.

Adoption severs and forges, it gives and it takes away, it is both secure and insecure, socially and politically concerned with issues of nature and nurture, neither of which are just progressive, liberal, or conservative. It is both an ending, a beginning, and a middle.

Adoption defies stable categories, as I love all my parents while also being keenly aware of the ways in which it has been used by the state to disrupt and attempt to end cultural practices of Indigenous cultures across Turtle Island. I do not count myself as part of the Millennial Scoop, but my adoption produced the same results—because my mother was scooped, and I was adopted, we were not able to grow up in community, practicing our culture. If she hadn’t been scooped, I would not have been born, but at least any child she might have had would have been connected in a way I still am yearning for. This is not to say I wish my life had been different, or that my birth mother's life had been different, but that it was beyond my control. What is in my control is how I talk about this history. Adoption severs and forges, it gives and it takes away, it is both secure and insecure, socially and politically concerned with issues of nature and nurture, neither of which are just progressive, liberal, or conservative. It is both an ending, a beginning, and a middle.

We drove back down to Nelson, and everyone was So Excited to have you home. We drove up, Up, UP! the mountain to the lab and showed you to our friends Judy and Tim, and Jill and David, and Tina and Dave. We drove down, Down, DOWN! the mountain and you met Grandma Ruby for the first time. You puked all down her back as she held you.

About the author

Vance Wright is a 2S reconnecting member of the Tl’azt’en Nation, and has lived in the
territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in what is colonially known
as Vancouver for the past five years. Their practice spans writing, sculpture, painting and textiles,
and is an exploration of two-spirited-ness, family histories, and material agency. Vance is
currently pursuing their BFA at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, majoring in Critical &
Cultural Practices, with a minor in Curatorial Studies.