I’ll get right down to it. I was adopted at the age of two months from an orphanage. My parents had tried natural methods and IVF to get pregnant before turning to adoption, and then they also adopted my older sister, who was nine at the time, and three years after adopting me, they brought home my little brother, then a six-month-old baby. I have never kept the fact of my adoption a secret, and from a very young age, people have asked me what it was like. I encountered some who were judgmental, others who were inspired or touched by the knowledge of my adoption, and I thought I’d share a little of my experience in the hope of tilting the balance toward the latter, via the form of questions I’ve heard over the years.
1. When did you find out you were adopted?
I have always known I was adopted because my parents never kept it a secret. When I asked where babies came from, they would explain the natural processes that eventually lead to childbirth, and then add that sometimes, for some reason or other, parents aren’t always able to take care of their babies. And parents who aren’t able to have babies adopt them. My mom found a great way to explain it to me, and I’ve used the same line for three decades to explain it to others: Being adopted just means you grew in your mom’s heart instead of her belly.
2. Do you think it’s different from being the natural child of your parents?
I’m always surprised by this question because it so often comes after I explain that both my siblings (my sister Zarah and my brother Eric) are adopted too. So the truth is, I would never be able to tell you if or how it is different from being my parents’ biological child simply because I’ve not had that experience. But I’ll tell you this: my parents loved me from the moment I was placed in their arms. I know this with every fiber of my being. I know this because of the stories my mom tells me of that magical moment when I smiled at her and my dad for the first time in an orphanage in the city of Manila. I know this because every memory I have of my dad, who died when I was a child, featured a smile I knew was just for me. I know this because of the love they raised me with, and the same love they taught me to share with others. I know because as much as it used to embarrass me as a teenager (and still sometimes makes my eyes roll), my mom calls me her “treasure.” She never hesitates to tell me she loves me and she’s proud of me.
3. Do you know who your real mother is? Have you ever tried to find her?
Yes, I do. She’s the one who raised me, clothed me, fed me, disciplined me, taught me, loved me, and never for a moment made me feel anything but wanted. But if you’re asking about my biological mother? No, I never knew her, and I’ve never felt the need to. When I was young, I used to make up stories about my biological parents and what might have led them to giving me up. But they were the kind of story that always ended with “and then I got adopted by Mama and Daddy,” the way you’d end a fairy tale with “and then they lived happily ever after.” My adoption story is my happy beginning. And I’ve always held that even if biology offers some the opportunity to be parents, you aren’t a real parent until you have loved and raised and disciplined and protected your child.
4. Doesn’t it depress you that your family gave you up for adoption?
I feel like people who ask me this are glass-half-empty kind of thinkers. I’m glad the woman who birthed me gave me up, whether or not it was done willingly. Because it feels absolutely great to know that your real parents (and I think I’ve already explained who those are) loved and wanted you in their lives so much that even if they couldn’t be the ones to give you life, they went out into the world, found you, and went through mountains of paperwork and red tape to make you their own. My parents may not have given life to me, but they gave me my life and played a huge part in making me the person I am today.
5. Did anyone ever try to hassle you about being adopted when you were a child?
Yes, of course! But you know what I’ve found? People—and especially kids—will find things about you to poke at whether you’re adopted or not. These are usually the things that make you different from everyone else. You can choose to reject that part of you and be ashamed of it or you can embrace it and correct other people’s mistaken assumptions that what makes you different makes you somehow less. I’m thankful that my parents raised me to be confident enough to do the latter. And, like good parents do, they did what they could to shield my siblings and me from the narrow-mindedness of others. For example, they pulled my sister out of a school where the educators were overheard commenting about my sister with the words “ampon lang ‘yan.” I’ve learned to understand that it wasn’t just because of those people’s attitude toward adoption, but because my parents didn’t want any of us being raised in an environment where any child could be encouraged to think of themselves as “only” (lang) or in terms of what they were rather than who they were.
6. What are the best and worst things about being adopted?
The best part is absolutely knowing that your parents wanted you more than anything. It’s a joy to know you’re a part of a wonderful family, and there’s a chance it might not have happened if you’d never been adopted—but then again you could say that’s true if you substitute “adopted” with “born,” right? And the worst thing? Dealing with people who are close-minded about what does and doesn’t constitute a family. And maybe having to leave the “family history” field in my medical forms blank.
7. What would you say to someone who just found out they were adopted after their parents hid it from them?
My parents were pretty liberal and forward-thinking in their approach. They believed that keeping secrets attaches a kind of shadowy shame to those secrets. So because there was nothing to be ashamed about, they didn’t keep it a secret, and I’ve always patterned my attitude toward secrets on this philosophy. But you have to remember that our parents were raised in a different time, and not everyone realizes how damaging keeping a secret like this can be. Most of the adopted people I have spoken to who have struggled to accept that they were adopted had more problems with the fact that their parents kept this secret or actively lied to them for a huge chunk of their lives than with the actual adoption itself. But remember that true adoption is an act of love. The parents you’ve always known as your parents are still your parents. You are the same person you always have been. And whether you joined the family by being pushed out of a womb or through a pile of paperwork, it doesn’t change the fact that you are a family. Don’t let those details distract you from that fundamental truth.
8. What would you say to couples thinking about adoption?
Yes, please, do it! If you are a parent who has love to give a child (or another child, if you already have children of your own), then please think about the fact that the child of your heart may already be in the world, waiting for you to find him or her.
It upsets me to know—and I do know, from the comments I’ve heard over the years and also from the stories my friends tell me—that there are still people who are closed-minded about adoption or who dismiss adoption as a kind of Angelina Jolie wannabe sort of fad (as if children were collectible items rather than small people to be raised and loved and protected). There are two events in my life that have had a humongous impact on the way I live, how I think, feel, and react: my adoption into a loving family, and my marriage to an awesomely supportive guy.
That people don’t see it for the gift it is to the adopted child (and as my mom always insists, the even bigger gift it is for the parents) disappoints me but also inspires me to share my story and talk to as many people about adoption as I can. There are so many babies and children in the world in need of parents to love them, and so many people who want children to love. How can the idea of matching them up be anything but beautiful?