Curriculum Vitae

On Wanting to Impress My Parents

All children want to impress their parents though, don't they? Do you think it's different for adoptees?

- Email from adoption forum correspondent.

On wanting to impress my parents: hmmm. I stopped wanting to impress them so early on that I’m not sure that I ever did, although from time to time I did, in fact, impress them, and that was naturally agreeable. But I never tried, because it seemed like far too much work. I have always been afraid of having to do more than I could accomplish, or of signing up for unremitting labor. Not until I committed myself to writing daily at my Web log did I lose this fear.

When my adoptive sister and I had children of our own (we each have one), I got to watch my mother with small children, and it was obvious that she liked baby dolls. When the girls started to talk, her attitude changed; her delight was no longer unalloyed. She did not relish their independence of spirit. I can’t say that she behaved in the same way when I was a child, but the shift felt familiar. In any case, I don’t remember my mother loving me in any kind of unconditional way. She may well have done, but what she expressed was a disappointment that mounted over the years as I failed to develop into the kind of man she’d had in mind. Long before I took up the possibility of reuniting with my birth mother, I understood that my adoptive mother had been gulled by the adoption racket. She had a cuckoo in her nest. Actually, she had two. My adoptive sister disappointed my mother in entirely different ways.

Although I’m not rebellious by nature, I don’t submit gracefully to authority that won’t condescend to explain itself honestly. I am both curious and observant to high degrees. Growing up in the Fifties as a bright if unmotivated boy, I was keenly aware of the low-grade but pervasive hypocrisy of the suburban society that I lived in. My mother was largely unconscious of it. (My father accepted it as the price of doing business, but he was an absent executive.) She and I quarreled more or less constantly, about everything, but even when we weren’t quarreling there was an air of mutual mistrust. I revealed myself as “bad-natured” with (fortunately) limited bouts of kleptomania and pyromania. I never got the grades that I ought to have earned, and I was physically lazy. I hated sports. My mother was a gifted swimmer who may have read twenty books in the years that I knew her (she died when I was 29). I wish that I could describe how awful it is to be attached to someone who is so viscerally uncongenial. It must have been worse for her.

In my teens, I longed to become an intellectual, although I didn’t really know what the word meant and had no idea of how to achieve “intellectual” status. (I did understand that it had little to do with testing well, but I was mortally afraid that I might be too polite.) No legal objective could have been less suitable to my parents. Their way of life, in turn, struck me as empty. I still don’t understand what got them up in the morning. They both liked to take long road trips and drive very fast along the Interstates. They were very sociable, and gave large parties at least once a year. I can go for a very long time without leaving Manhattan, and I can go for days without leaving the floor that my apartment is on.

From the moment when, aged 7, I learned that I was adopted, I knew that this meant that I was not like my parents, even if I could pass as their offspring to anyone who didn’t look too closely. I suppose that I had gathered as much in some unconscious way beforehand, but the announcement made it crystal clear. I also knew, despite my parents’ talk of love and giving, that I had been bought – even if no money was involved. I had been chosen, they insisted, because I was the most special baby (ditto my little sister). I wonder if it’s true – I wonder if my parents had a choice. But I believed at the time that they did. I was something that they had found at a very special shop and taken home with them. Until I was ten or eleven, I was afraid that they’d try to “send me back.” That’s how far I was from trying to impress them. (March 2007)

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