It looked like any other notice scrunched up at the bottom of my son’s school bag; white, A4, probably in Comic Sans. Completely innocuous. But still, when I smoothed out the creases and began to read, my heart seized.
“Who Am I? My Family Tree.”
I was immediately transported to my own childhood.
A diligent and enthusiastic primary school student, I loved homework. Scrunched assignments at the bottom of my school bag were like treasures found. But every year or so, the family tree task would be rehashed and a weird feeling of guilt would sweep over me.
But why? My adoption was no secret. I had known since forever, my parents handling this fact so perfectly that I truly believed I was extra special and extra wanted. Our family was not less because of my adoption but possibly more. Abandonment was the opposite of what I felt.
But something about filling out a family origin questionnaire made me feel like a fraud.
My mum and dad were Mum and Dad – the lack of shared DNA was irrelevant in my day to day life. But now this assignment with its innocent questions about Mother’s Eye Colour and Father’s Hair Colour added an uncomfortable scrutiny to our otherwise ordinary family. This task, a very rudimentary lesson in genetics, was designed to show each child how they came to look like they did, the similarities families share. For me, it was an exercise in difference. Writing “green” under Mother’s Eye Colour seemed deceitful. My blue/green eyes did not come from her. It was mere co-incidence.
And the shared eye colour was where the physical similarities ended. There was no-one in my immediate world with whom I shared DNA. And though my parents loved me as fiercely as any genetic parent would, the security of an actual genetic connection was not theirs to give me.
Growing up, I never knew what it was like to look like someone else. I clung to the coincidence of a short grandmother and a fair-haired cousin if ever the question came up as to why I didn’t look like my tall, dark-haired parents. It’s the most basic family connection, to be ‘the dead spit ’ of some relative, somewhere. If you’ve always had that, I imagine you don’t give it much thought. But I craved it. Was it deeply narcissistic to dream of staring into a face that was just like mine? I didn’t care. I was desperate for that superficial connection.
Logically, I understood that a parent’s love is not guaranteed by a shared bloodline. I knew that people took similarities to their families for granted and that some resented the physical likeness.
And it wasn’t just family tree homework that undid me. Where we come from is a part of the everyday. Doctor’s forms are fine until I get to “Family History.” Does heart disease run in my family? Oh, god, did it? A photographer once wanted to know from whom I had inherited a particular facial feature he deemed unfortunate. I could not pinpoint where the blame lay.
So many questions I had no answers for. A constant reminder of where a loving family bond disconnected. I was theirs but not of them.
Then I had a baby. A boy. Momentarily, I was stunned. And heartbroken. Then furious. I had always assumed that I would have a girl first – a little girl who was just. like. me. I wanted that, felt I needed it. As it turned out, my son was just like me. Me with a penis.
“He looks just like you, Angie!” people would exclaim. And my heart was on fire. I would study his little face endlessly and finally, finally, I recognised myself. The planes on his face were so familiar, the expressions were uncanny. Looking back at his baby photos, he looks less like me than I imagined at the time. But what I know for sure is that looking into my infant sons eyes answered questions rather than posing them. And that was such a gift.
As he grew older, my son genuinely did look ‘just like me’ to the point where people would mistake him for a girl. Maybe I let his hair grow longer than it should have. Maybe I didn’t care. Watching him grow and recognising so much of myself in how he looked and who he was healed me. It filled up parts of me that had been empty for so long; parts buried so deep that my awareness of them was only triggered by their sudden overflowing.
So I’m holding this carelessly scrunched homework assignment in my hands, my heart clenched like a fist. And then I remember. He is mine and he is of me. There are no mysteries here.
“Let’s do your homework, mate!” I call to him.
For the first time, I have all the answers.