I understand that my parents want to protect me because I’m young. They don’t want me to be hurt or find out something that I can’t handle, but it’s frustrating and hard at times. I understand that they have to protect me, but it’s still frustrating. —Peyton, age twelve
My daughter Peyton spits into a collection tube, then shakes the tube to blend her saliva with a blue fluid. For this latest project at the dining room table, Peyton has pushed aside her math book, her favorite rubber eraser the size of a cell phone, and a cluster of handmade duct-tape fashion accessories in various stages of development. Despite vigorous shaking, the solution doesn’t blend right away. I see a flash of frustration on Peyton’s face. I offer to help, and she hands me the tube.
I click the top into place, releasing the blue fluid. Peyton begins to shake once again, and I marvel that such a simple act will, in six to eight weeks, reveal answers to questions she has had for most of her life.
Where does she come from? She already knows the city where she was born, as well as a few other details from the two weeks before my ex-husband and I adopted her via domestic adoption. She knows that she has older siblings. She knows her birth parents’ first names. But Peyton has always wanted to know more about her background—what specific cultures and regions of the world might be revealed through DNA testing.
I am a black American, like Peyton, and I have a similar interest in DNA testing and analysis. Nearly two decades ago, shortly after my biological daughter was born, I began interviewing my seventy-six-year-old maternal grandmother. At first she told me about her parents and their parents, repeating stories I had heard all my life.
But then, for the first time, she showed me an enormous hardcover family Bible. Inside, I read birth and death records dating back to the 1890s. I found a handwritten deed to the house I grew up in. Shoved in between the pages of the Bible were funeral programs, paper scraps with names and phone numbers, and letters, many still in their yellowing envelopes.
As I began reading the letters, my grandmother explained, “Those are from my grandpapa to my grandmama. My grandpapa was away a lot because he had a bad temper. He went to see a man about fixing his clock, and he ended up fighting the man because the clock wasn’t fixed when he said it would be. He’d get himself into trouble and just leave town ’til things blew over—he’d take the train somewhere and send my grandmama letters from wherever he was.”
The letters were long and impassioned. My great-great-grandfather missed his wife. He struck me as a bit of a dreamer and a romantic, as well as a hothead. I wondered what traits I might have inherited from him. I’d never physically fight someone over poor customer service, but I can be demonstrative when it comes to my affections and emotions.
“But you know, they say my grandpapa really isn’t my grandpapa,” my grandmother continued.
I was shocked. "Wait. He’s . . . what?"
“My grandmama used to work for this Chinese man, doing laundry. And they say one thing led to another and she got pregnant. With my daddy.”
I had so many questions. Was the “one thing that led to another” consensual? Did everybody in the family know except my great-great-grandfather? Or had he gone after the man who impregnated his wife? And why was I just hearing this story now, at the age of twenty-seven?
Ever since that revelation, I have wondered whether my own DNA test results would shed any light on who my great-great-grandfather was. Though I have not yet completed the testing, like Peyton, I am very curious about the untold, and perhaps uncomfortable, stories running through my veins. But I understand that for a person who is adopted, this curiosity can take on a different level of urgency. Peyton’s interest in her family of origin has always been a part of our life with her. She has asked for this testing and is eager to learn what it might reveal.
She has always known that she is adopted. She has long known what adoption means, thanks to picture books and conversations shared even before she began to talk. Over the years, her dad and I have told her what we know about her first family, so most of the lingering questions she has are ones for which we have no answers. DNA testing will provide some answers about Peyton’s ancestry. She’ll learn where her biological foremothers likely lived, and her respective percentages of African, European, and Asian heritage.
But the testing won’t tell Peyton who her birth parents are. For all of us, this unanswered question is an eternal flame, a memorial to my daughter’s loss of her first family.
Here’s what I have to say to adoptive parents: I think you might get upset because when your child meets their actual birth parents, they might get attached to them. But this is not a bad thing. —Peyton
Thankfully, to my knowledge, no one has ever told Peyton that she’s “lucky” to have been adopted—a common narrative that puts the focus on adoptive parents’ presumed altruism and diminishes the adopted child’s loss. As ours is an intraracially adoptive family, our adoption is “invisible”; we are spared some of the stares and ignorant comments from strangers. But I can’t and don’t want to be lulled into thinking that Peyton’s adopted status is irrelevant just because I love her and we “match.”
A close cousin to the pervasive “adopted children are so lucky” and “all you need is love” narratives is the “DNA doesn’t matter” line. If this were true, Peyton wouldn’t be seeking to learn as much as she can about her biological origins, with our support and encouragement. It’s relevant to her, so it is relevant to us.
What I experience as an enormous gift—becoming Peyton’s mother—is inextricably tied to my daughter’s enormous loss—the loss of her first family and specific information about her origins. “I want to be in contact with my birth mom and be able to access her easily. And I want her to stay in touch,” Peyton has told me. “But what if she doesn’t respond, or starts responding and then stops?”
Peyton’s desire to know more about her first family and connect with them one day has led her to undergo this testing, to search for all the missing puzzle pieces in her life. My love for her, my mothering, is not shaped like any of those missing pieces. Sometimes I wish they were. I wish that I was enough.
I could try to prioritize my feelings and wishes over Peyton’s. I could insist that my love should be enough for her. But that would be a terrible mistake. Being Peyton’s mother has taught me that my love matters—but it’s not all she needs. She needs me to come to terms with what I thought it would mean to be her mother versus the reality of being her mother.
This has meant going beyond the adoptive parent memoirs required for our home study. It has meant seeking out and listening to a wide spectrum of adult adoptee voices. And it has meant letting go of long-held, ill-fitting concepts about adoption and family that claim Peyton should want one—and only one—mother, and compel me to somehow love away Peyton’s longing for the mother she has lost.
In one online discussion I read, an adoptee shared that when she expressed interest in reuniting with her birth mother, her adoptive mother felt so betrayed she threatened never to speak to her again if she pursued it. I imagine that despite the fear and the selfishness, this adoptive mother loves her daughter. But love, I have learned, is only the beginning of parenting. Trying to understand Peyton’s deepest needs and concerns and facing the hard conversations head-on is the essence of my job as her mother.
Being an adoptive parent means I must deal with my own fear and feelings of inadequacy. I must do the difficult work of reconciling the fact that my joy coexists with my daughter’s grief and loss. I must reassure Peyton that longing for the parents she does not know takes nothing away from her love for her dad and me. I must never ask her to do that emotional work alone, or in silence.
I wanted to do my DNA testing because I wanted to see what I could find out about my birth mom. I know the tests don’t tell everything, but I wanted to find out some things. One thing I learned is that I’m less African than I expected. —Peyton
Peyton’s DNA results arrived via email one day when I was out of town and Peyton was with her dad. I sent a text to let her know that the results had arrived and we’d look at them together when I arrived home.
She didn’t reply, so I thought perhaps some of her initial excitement around the testing had worn off. But within a few hours of my returning home, Peyton was back at the dining room table with her laptop, asking to see the results. I was on deadline, so I gave her the option of waiting one hour so we could review the results together, or reviewing them right away on her own. She chose the latter. Maybe it’s for the best, I thought, letting her see the results on her own, with me giving her only half of my attention. I’d still be in proximity if she needed me.
But she didn’t need me. She announced each percentage of her African, European, Asian, and other heritage. She was so excited by each number, happy to simply know. Then she clicked on each of the groups to see the country-by-country breakdowns. She read through her African ancestry, announcing each country with pride.
On Peyton’s results page, a link labeled start a tree beckoned. That would be the next logical step for someone who could complete a family tree by naming, at minimum, their biological mother and father. When Peyton navigated away from the family tree page and back to her results, I wondered (but did not ask) if she was thinking about a recent school assignment that posed the question: “Where is your family from?” Schools should be able to recognize that the traditional “create your family tree” assignment can be problematic for children who have more than one family, or for those unable to trace distant ancestry due to enslavement or displacement. “Where is your family from?” is a loaded question for many children.
Being an adoptive parent means advocating for my child—and, by extension, other children—when the answer to that question is, “It’s complicated.” In conversations with school personnel, I explained that for Peyton, studying her ancestry means so much more than finding places to pinpoint on a map or learning about foods and dances. For her, these questions are just the beginning of what may be a lifelong journey for answers, for truth.
It will be a few years before Peyton has the information she needs to start a tree and discover things DNA testing alone cannot tell her. I hope she will include me in the process. But if not, I will assist from a distance, giving her all the information I have and being available if she needs me. Helping Peyton explore her biological family history is one more opportunity to let her know that even though my love for her is not all she needs, it will be unwavering.
I always reread and second-guess when writing about my family, and adoption especially—the line between what is my story to tell and what is Peyton’s always seems nebulous. I err on the side of caution whenever I can, recognizing that Peyton’s story is hers to tell—all, in part, or not at all.
Any adoption story of mine feels off, somehow, even when I write with Peyton’s permission, as I do now, and even when her words appear alongside mine. Writing in an honest way about our family, about adoption, automatically raises questions about power and justice, love, loss, and longing—questions that our family is still wrestling with and still living through. It’s hard to write a story in progress. The least I can do is give Peyton the final say.
My last word of advice? she writes. Listen to your child.