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Family Matters

Adopted Family Trees

August 28th, 2014

By Barbara Ohrstrom

I grew up in a small town and attended elementary school with the same 30 kids from first grade through 8th grade. Everyone knew I was adopted, and this made it possible for me to forget the gaping difference between me and other kids.  But in 7th grade, in a home economics class, a “new” teacher quickly shattered the illusion that the roots from which I originated were identical to the roots of the other kids.

This teacher had given a homework assignment:  We 7th grade girls were to bring our baby pictures to class.  I did not bring any.  As the 13 or so girls crowded on the benches around the scarred, rectangular heavy wooden table, I sat in the middle on the long side.  The teacher sat at the head of the table, imperiously pointing to each girl, who promptly displayed and then passed her baby pictures.  She pointed at me, and I said, “I don’t have any baby pictures.”  The teacher’s lips grew thin with fury and contempt.  “You forgot them.”

“No, I don’t have any to bring.”

“You don’t have one single baby picture.”

“I do not.”

“You’re lying.”  At this, the class collectively inhaled.  I felt the red of my face deepening as I stared at my hands, folded in my lap, but said nothing.  The truth would have defended against this, but my lips remained stubbornly sealed.  I did not know if my shame were from not having baby pictures, from being called a liar in front of the other girls, or from having been a child “surrendered” by her mother and father.  

The silence stretched.  Finally, one of the other girls spoke up, “she’s adopted,” she said.  The imperious finger moved on.

Later that day, I looked as light of the sun glinted sharply in the pristine puddles of snowmelt.  A field stretched away from the school where a moose had stood the previous fall.  And a giant oak spread its limbs in a perfect dome formation over the trunk of the tree, its green leaves inscribing a shelter around the circumference of the tree.

The tree formed an image of the Tree of Life, a symbol that resonates in many religions across time and space—ancient and modern, European and African, Mayan and Asian, Arabic and Persian.  The Tree of Life symbolizes the idea that all of creation is not only connected, but also bears a single root.  From this image comes the family tree—a smaller, yet no less poignant image of the connections that stretch backwards through time and grip families in the present and in the future.

Yet even as the root grows into a trunk, branches, limbs, twigs, leaves, and seeds, so too does each of us grow separate identities.  Even as an oak tree bears acorns and not pears, so too does the original identity of the adoptee bear the injury of being severed from one family tree and grafted onto another family tree whether the adoptee searches or not.   As adoptees, our responses to this severing and grafting of roots may shape the direction of our identities in the future, but the severed and grafted roots always remain the same.

The searching adoptee and the non-searching adoptee also share the process of the growing graft.  Just as a graft to the a new tree grows, the adoptee, grafted into a new family tree, adapts to this new identity and begins to take this new identity as his or her own.

Some adoptees prefer the new identity and experience no need to search.  But I believe the shadow of the invisible wound may have something to go with this decision.  For instance, even within my biological group of siblings with whom I was adopted, I was the one who searched.  My twin brother and older sister did not share my need to know or to discover why we had been relinquished.  I think they may have felt the relinquishment itself had hurt them enough—why bother with the story or the reasoning?

If my brother and sister interpreted their surrender and subsequent adoption as rejection, even unconsciously, and blamed our biological parents, then logic dictates my siblings would not want to know our biological parents’ story or change their surnames.  One of the quickest and most natural responses to rejection is to reject retroactively:  ‘I didn’t want you anyway, so your rejection means nothing to me.’  This rejection can be absolute:  not only are the biological parents themselves retroactively rejected, but also their stories, reasons, suffering, names, and identities.  If this rejection also encompasses a rejection of the original family tree, does it matter?  After all, the adoptee cannot travel into the past and regraft her now mutated identity to get the growth and time she lost on the original family tree.

This choice, this identity, is as valid and substantial to me as the identity of the searcher.  And if the non-searching identity contains an acceptance of the wound of rejection and an attack against that wound, my identity as a searcher identity contained a hope, a fantasy that something—anything—good might emerge from my severed roots.  I too sought a balm for my injured dignity.  I wanted the dignity of having the right to the truth and to the details of what created that original grafting to the foreign tree.  I wanted to be reunited with my original family tree of life, and found, much to my agony, that the wound of severing and grafting can never be undone.

We become what we do.  I became a searcher. My sister and twin brother became skilled adaptors to their new family tree.  But we all suffered from losing our first parents.  Our first parents suffered from losing us.  This tragedy forms the very root of our identities, and though our responses to this tragedy may differ, the tragedy, and its shaping of our identities, remains the same.

Barbara L. Ohrstrom is the author of Searching for the Castle, available at and  The book, told from the point of view of a young adult, details her search for her biological parents and shows compassion for people involved in adoption and foster care.  She works with young adults through her work as project manager for writing centers at Northeastern University.  Her website is

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