Jessie grew up an only child, but one of her earliest memories is of babysitting a little boy. She would entertain him while both their mothers chatted, their conversation just out of Jessie’s earshot. The visits were sporadic, and Jessie thought nothing of it at the time. Later, she would find out that the visitor was actually her birthmother.
If this is surprising, consider that many adopted children are never told they are adopted. Some are told when they turn 18, and others find out in ways that leave them wounded for years. Jessie found out she was adopted when she was in the 4th grade. She remembers spending an afternoon roller skating with one of her cousins. What probably started as an innocent argument between two young family members ended with her cousin yelling,“You’re not my real cousin anyway.” Jessie felt the angry words slap her face, and spent the night summoning up the nerve to ask her mother for the truth.
When asked about it, her mother admitted that Jessie was, in fact, adopted. Tears ran down her face as her world suddenly shifted out of focus. To Jessie’s bewilderment, her mother, upset at her daughter’s tears, recanted the story, saying she was only joking and laughed it off. Jessie was confused, but part of her didn’t want to believe she was adopted. But at 15, she learned the truth. If there was any doubt in her mind, it was erased the moment Jessie found a picture of herself with her birthmother. The picture was accompanied by adoption papers and a letter from her birthmother.
Jessie’s adoption was never openly discussed in her home, and her adoptive mother asked Jessie not to discuss her adoption with her father or grandfather because it made them uncomfortable. Jessie tried to have a relationship with her birthmother, even attending her college graduation, but their relationship was uneven and she felt like an outsider around her birthmother’s two other children. She was essentially stuck between two worlds and two families, but never felt acceptance from either one. Understandably, Jessie felt a sense of connection with few people. Her experience of family was limited to two mothers unsure of how to navigate the delicate birth mother/adoptive mother/adopted child relationship.
The search for identity is not uncommon among teens, but for adopted teens it sometimes takes on a life of its own. Jessie spent her entire life ashamed of her adoption, but two years ago, at the age of 25, she decided to take what she calls her “adoption situation” into her own hands. She started a blog and started following adoption groups through social media. At first, she felt like the “adoption circle” was an exclusive club. She didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know how to adequately express her opinions. She felt there was always a “right” answer, and that others had more of a right to share their adoption stories than she did. Even with all these doubts, she was determined to keep learning and keep searching.
About a year into her journey, Jessie suffered several setbacks. She was reeling from ongoing panic attacks, debilitating anxiety, and “a self-hate so strong and suffocating” words could not give it meaning. She felt like she didn’t have anyone to turn to which seemed to compound the pain. Jessie knew she was on the verge of a turning point, but she didn’t know where the turn was going to take her. It started with an invitation to both her adoptive mother and her birthmother to celebrate Adoption Month at dinner with Jessie and her friends. Her birthmother didn’t return her emails and text messages. When she asked her adoptive mother, the silence was louder than words. The experience with both her mothers left Jessie embarrassed and ashamed, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating. She continued with the dinner and took her first step in liberating herself from their inability to support her.
After the celebration dinner with her friends, Jessie was determined to do something with her life that had meaning. She came across FLACK, a magazine catering to the homeless in the UK. Wanting to escape her life in small town Ohio, she blindly emailed the founder asking for an opportunity to work for the publication. To her, what she received was better than a job offer. The founder emailed her back, thanking her for sharing her story, and gave Jessie one line of advice that would serve as her mission and her motivation: “Find something close to you that inspires you. If you cannot find that inspiration – then you BE that inspiration.”
Soon after, she decided to start a documentary project called Voices of Adoption to bring together adoptees, birth families, agencies, and supporters and inspire other young adoptees to speak about their experiences. The documentary will cover everything from adoptee rights, rehoming, and the adoption process. Jessie’s hope is that one day she will be able to use the success of the documentary to put together a book of short stories, poems, artwork, music playlists, and even a national directory of numbers and links to help people with adoption. In her words, she wants her book to be “The Holy Grail of all things Adoption.”
Jessie would love to someday turn Voices of Adoption into a center serving the needs of her community. Her vision is that anyone will be able to walk through the doors and receive counseling, attend weekly support groups, or relax in the recreation room. Right now Jessie is in school studying Human Services and working on becoming a counselor. She would like to eventually earn a Masters and Doctorate degree. Last March, Jessie symbolized her journey with a tattoo, and she didn’t do it alone. It was a huge step for her as she went from being ashamed and embarrassed about her adoption to proudly sharing her story with the world.
If Jessie could impart one piece of advice to current or prospective adoptive parents, she says it comes down to one word: love. Through emails she has received from different adoptees, she says the happier more adjusted adoptees attribute their success to their adoptive parents being unconditionally loving. These parents don’t guilt trip, shame, or demand gratitude from their children. They tell their children that they will never stop wanting them or loving them.
So for Jessie, finding her identity meant helping others do the same. She stopped looking for something to inspire her or for someone to fill the void and instead looked at how she could inspire others. She may never have the relationship with her birthmother or her adoptive mother that she needs, but she is realizing that the definition of a family is different for each person. For Jessie, it’s the friends who surround her and love her unconditionally.