O'TOOLE: A happy and normal adoption story

Dec 4, 2012


I’ve just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” She describes hiding paperbacks under her mattress because she’s not allowed to read anything except the Bible. She describes wandering the streets begging for food on the frequent occasions her mother locks her out of the house overnight.

She describes having never been loved by her parents. She is adopted.

I am adopted. And Winterson’s book is as close to my experience as Grand Haven is to the far side of the moon.

Of course, nice, normal parents make for boring books. But this is not a book. So I am going to tell you my adoption story in less than 800 words.

My mother told me I was adopted when I was 5. She was brushing my hair before the bathroom mirror when her belly kicked me in the back. She was pregnant with my sister.

“What was it like when I was in your belly, Mommy?” I asked her.

I was never inside her belly, she explained, because I was adopted.

“We loved you the moment we saw you,” she said.

I didn’t know what “adopted” meant. I imagined my parents chose me the way you choose a new TV or car. I imagined them in a baby shop, strolling among aisle after aisle of cribs, pausing to peer at the infant in each one. When they reached my mine, my mother took one look at me, turned to my father and said, “This is the one. I love her already.”

My younger brother and sister were not adopted. Mom and Dad were stuck with them. Not with me. They picked me specially.

However, that meant they could return me if I didn’t rise to their standards. I didn’t want that to happen. So I became obsessed with high achievement. I mostly succeeded. I earned good grades and academic honors.

My siblings did not have the threat of returning to an orphanage to motivate them. Teachers asked them, “Why can’t you be more like Kelly?”

It was difficult living up to me, each of my siblings confessed in separate conversations. To quote them: “It sucks having you for a big sister.”

My parents gave to each of us equally in everything: their money, their time, their love. For six years, Mom and Dad huddled together under layers of blankets at Friday night football games to watch me play my flute in the marching band. They couldn’t hear me because their eardrums froze. For my brother and sister, they burnt to a crisp at countless summer softball and baseball games.

There is one incident where my parents showed favoritism toward my brother. When I was 15, my friend Judy and her boyfriend invited me to the Ratt/Poison concert at the L.C. Walker Arena. They already had tickets. My parents said no, I was too young. My ticket went to someone else.

Three years later, my 15-year-old brother saw the same groups at the same venue. There’s no way he appreciated Bret Michaels in his bandanna headband and tight leather pants as much as I would have. Oh, the injustice!  

I eventually figured out Mom and Dad didn’t select me from a baby store; that a woman gave birth to me then gave me away.

My childish brain couldn’t imagine a scenario where someone would voluntarily give away an infant. I could only conclude that I had been such a repulsive baby that my own mother couldn’t bear to keep me. Mom and Dad did their best to convince me otherwise.

Besides treating me like a princess, they told me regularly that my mother had loved me, that she had wanted me, and only gave me away because she couldn’t take care of me and she wanted a better life for me.

But adoptions in Michigan were closed in the 1970s. My parents didn’t know who my birth mother was, so how could they know whether or not she loved me?

It turns out they were right. My birth mother told me so herself in a letter she wrote to me when I was 32. It turns out she was only 16 when I was born in a Salvation Army hospital. Her parents and a social worker arranged my adoption. Unwed women rarely kept their babies in that era. It just wasn’t done. There wasn’t a choice.         

I hadn’t been unwanted, after all. Unexpected? Yes. Unwanted? No.

Nor had I been a repulsive infant. Hallelujah! What comfort. What peace.

The worst punishment I ever received was a spanking, which was well-deserved. I never had to beg for food. I was encouraged to read and I was always loved by my parents.

Thank you, Mom and Dad.

— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist



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