The True Meaning of Family


In my last post I talked about the results of my DNA ancestry test, and how it started me wondering about my family tree. I’ve tried researching my family tree before, but it didn’t feel right researching my adoptive family, and I could not really explain why. Then a friend who is adopted told me that most adoptees were given names by their birth mothers. It was a requirement, apparently (a rather cruel one, if you ask me). She said I could send away for a copy of my original birth certificate to find out, and so I did. My intention was to use the information to research my family tree, though I knew that finding my birth parents might also come out of this.

My certificate was waiting for me when we returned from a family holiday, and I learned my birth name and the name of my birth mother. I immediately searched her on the Internet, but found nothing, so I moved on to the family tree. I got an account on Ancestry and began my research. I found one record for my birth mother, a baptism record, which gave me the names of my biological grandparents. From there it was pretty easy work to trace back my grandfather’s line to 4 or 5 generations. I spent several days putting together a detailed family tree, and I was enjoying myself immensely. The process appeals to both my interest in history and my obsessive need to categorize things and place them in order.

What I found interesting was the immediate connection I felt to this family. I felt that this was my family, that these were my great-grandparents and great-great-Aunts and second cousins. This was my story, and I felt that I rightly belonged there regardless of the circumstances of my birth.

But I also understood that a family tree is a story: it does not capture the interpersonal relationships, the individual personalities, or their day to day lives. These are two different aspects of what it means to be a family – the story, and the actual people. I felt very strongly that I deserved my place in this family tree, that this was my story as much as anybody else’s in the tree. But that was not the same thing as feeling part of a family, the people who raise you and with whom you develop relationships based on blood ties. That lesson was to become more clear to me as time went on.

But it did explain why I had been unable to get emotionally invested in creating a family tree for my adoptive parents. I would have this nagging sensation that these were not my people. That puzzled me, because I have never felt disconnected from my family in any way. I have never felt any holes in my life as a result of being adopted. The whole thing just didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but now I understood. Because a family tree is just one kind of story, and I did not really belong in that story for my adoptive family. And that was okay.

Going back through my maternal grandfather’s line was pretty easy, but my grandmother’s line proved a bit more difficult because the first record I found for her turned out to be for a different person (same name, same year of birth). I spent a few days researching the wrong ancestors until I realized that some of the information didn’t fit. Once I’d found my real great-grandparents on her side, I very quickly discovered a family tree with my birth mother on it. There was no identifying information other than her name, but it did show that she had married someone with a first initial “S” and a last name. Once I knew her married name, I very quickly found her on Facebook. And that’s when things went from family tree research, to actually reaching out to my birth mother.

It’s an odd experience to take a first look at a person’s photo and try to see yourself in them. Other than my skin tone, I could see no resemblance between myself and this woman in her profile picture. However, when I clicked on her daughter’s profile, I definitely saw myself in that face. I spent the next several days trying to contact my birth mother, but older people and Facebook Messenger don’t always mix, and the message was not getting through. Finally, I tracked down an email address for the daughter. I did not say why I was looking, but the daughter confirmed that her mother was the same person I was looking for, and she gave me her email address. So I wrote her “the letter”.

I will write more about our communication in a subsequent post. But what I wanted to share today is how much this process cemented my earlier feelings around the family tree. Yes, this woman and her ancestors are part of my family tree, and I still feel strongly that I belong in that schema, that those ancestors are as much mine as they are hers. But in communicating with her, and learning a bit about her family, it soon became clear to me that historical records on a family tree are not the same as the relationships we have with our family. I did not feel like I belonged with her or her children. I did not feel as though she was “the mother I was supposed to have”. If anything, it made me feel even more connected to my own family.

Yesterday, I spent the day visiting with first my father and then my mother (my adoptive parents, or my “real” parents, as I like to call them). Talking with them, hearing about my cousins and Aunts and Uncles, sharing news with them about my kids (their grandchildren)…those were the stories of family. Not the family tree kind of stories, but the real relationship stories, the personal histories of events and memories, of trials and tribulations, joys and losses that are what makes family come to life. It drove home the fact that my connection to my biological family could never match the connections I have with the family who raised me. And confirmed my lifelong sense that I did not even want to try to have that sort of connection with them.

Thankfully, I don’t think my birth mother wanted that either, and so for now we have closed this chapter. My interaction with her was kind and pleasant and wonderful in many ways, but I have the answers I wanted, and I feel at peace with how this all went. I’m relieved in a sense to get back to my own life, to my real family, as this has all been a rather wild emotional ride. With my 50th birthday looming around the corner, I feel that I have given myself a gift: the gift of knowing my story, and of claiming my place in the history that is my family tree. But now it’s time to move on, and I’m happy to do so.

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