genetics

Genetics, Adoption and First World Curiosities

I was enamored with this photo (this is the first time I met my birth father) for many reasons, but specifically I kept looking at our fingers. The placement on the knee, the spacing between our fingers.
I was enamored with this photo (this is the first time I met my birth father) for many reasons, but specifically I kept looking at our fingers. The placement on the knee, the spacing between our fingers.

For much of my life I've succumbed to the idea that many of my unanswerable questions fall under the umbrella of nature. I hoped that someday my genetic questions would be answered through a one-time meeting or a picture (thinking that was all the openness I'd ever get). I wanted to know if my birth mom is right handed or left handed or if my birth father had dimples. I assumed that everyone in my birth family had brown eyes, 4c hair texture and dark skin. But my curiosities didn't stop there, I was also curious about some of possibly genetically impacted markers like "Achoo Syndrome" (a dominant trait also called, photo sneeze reflex), or "hand clasping" (learning which thumb one automatically places on top of the other when clasping hands together). After reuniting with my birth family I learned some of these answers, bur remained curious about similarities between blood relatives that aren't necessarily within the genetic category, but actually may not have to do with nurture either...

For example, I've wondered; If a birthmother and her child reunite at a later age and find out that they both use hearts to dot their I's, if this a coincidence or explained by genetics? 

Another [recent] example that has me scratching my head;

While on the phone with my birth mother, Deborah, she said

"Your [adoptive] father sure is smart! Don'cha wish you could just crack his head open and take a look at his brain?"

Why yes! - I wanted to exclaim, but Deborah couldn't possibly have known about all of the time I spent time in undergrad researching brains, and that I'd you-tubed every TEDtalk having to do with brain science and the psychology of why we do the things we do, read many books on the neurobiology of our brain, and singlehandedly tried to learn about the key differences between the brains of those who've been abused in utero, and those who were born with healthy utero experiences. I have long dreamed of looking at the minds of people and learning how traumas have affected their amygdala, or what makes different neurotransmitters fire. Yes, Deborah. My answer is yes! Wait...does that mean she's done all of this, too?

Okay - I understand, that one was kinda a stretch, though titillating for sure. How about this one;

When I met my birthfather after being introduced to Bryan he replied; "It's good ta meet'cha Bryan. B-R-Y-A-N, Bryan" spelling his name out loud. At that moment my mom and I exchanged long glances silently flashing back to all of the times I spelled out words just for the sake of spelling out the word. Throughout my childhood we thought this habit was to help me to more clearly understand the word as my hearing loss made it difficult to hear the difference between the words "curb" and "curve." But now...now I wonder - could this be genetic?

Seems kinda goofy, I know, but these are the subtleties that matter after a couple of decades of deprivation. Example #3:

When my sister met her birth mom about two years ago, we all immediately noticed their similar sense of humor and their biting sarcasm (Example - I can guarantee they'll both laugh at this joke; "Two scientists walk into a bar. The first one hits his head. The second one does too, in order to verify his results."). Anyways, more interesting to me was how quickly they began discussing cats. I can't remember a time when our family did not have a pet cat that my sister took care of. She has received countless gifts, cards and shirts that have pictures of cats on them - she can never have too many. It won't surprise me if/when my sister and her birthmother both post a status update with the same pun about cats. Will I think it to be a coincidence? Probably not.

Not only does my brother and his twin look alike (obviously they are identical twins), but they even act alike after living their entire lives in different families. We've learned that they've made similar life choices throughout their lives at the same points in their lives.
Not only does my brother and his twin look alike (obviously they are identical twins), but they even act alike after living their entire lives in different families. We've learned that they've made similar life choices throughout their lives at the same points in their lives.

I'm no longer solely curious about hitchhikers thumb (the autosomal recessive trait of having a thumb curved back at nearly a 90 degree angle), diabetes or depression, but am continually curious about how to reason and understand the non-genetic similarities between biologically related peoples who haven't known each other. Of course, I'm well aware that these are First World Curiosities and that without the good fortune of early childhood nurture, it'd be a far cry that I'd even be positing these questions.

I greatly dislike the idea of using adoptees for scientific experiments, or my first world curiosities, but it'd sure be wonderful to learn whether of not there is a genetic mutation for spelling, hobbies, smiley faces, or...a love of cats.

Nature vs. Nurture

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 PHOTO: Black and White twins - Kian and Remee Hodgson

It is clear that our DNA plays crucial roles in making us who we are physically, but to what degree "are" we our genes?

The age old debate of nature versus nurture swirls around in my head often as I hear so many people refer to newborns being adopted as a "blank slate." Newborns - adopted or not - are certainly not "blank slates" (Tabula Rasa). Many behavioral geneticists have performed studies on adoptees and twins, and have learned that human development does not derive solely from environmental forces - wealth, social privilege and education cannot be assigned to a genetic code.

To what extent are we governed by external factors (nature), and how much is genetic? I think the answer lies in how we individually want to interpret it.  We can hear explanations for dwarfism, Parkinsons, and breast cancer, and try to ascertain that the reason we now have this condition is because of our genetics. However the reality is that our genes can only tell us if we have that mutation. Cancer, among other conditions, may in fact have more to do with our environment (nurture). However, people hear what they want to hear, think what they want to think, and assign blame to whom they'd like to assign the blame to.

I thought that finding my roots, and learning more about my genes and my background would give me answers, but it's actually left me with a lot more questions. I, along with countless others, would like to pinpoint reasons behind seemingly innate talents, distinct mannerisms, IQ, susceptibility to mental health issues, or alcoholism etc., down to either nature or nurture, however I'm learning that though genes play a large role in our creation, much of who we are is also quite random.

That randomness is hard to accept.

The "Unknown" Birth Father

Many have asked me how to approach the topic of not knowing who their child's birth father is with their adopted child. Well-meaning adoptive parents wonder how to tip toe around this topic or how to dance the perfect dance when this child reaches the age of curiosity about their roots. Like many topics within parenting, there is not a one size fits all conversation around the unknown birth father. Honesty, though, is always the best policy. Using only positive language about this unknown man that holds a strong bond and tie to the child is also advised. Whether the birth father was simply unaware of the pregnancy, and therefore, absent, or whether he deliberately vanished once learning of the pregnancy, whether the birth mother didn't want to share his identity, or if the child was orphaned, the possible scenarios are endless. Most of these situations have a negative connotation and likely the child will have internalized this aspect of their story in a subconscious way. It's important to find the positives within the child's story - even when the details are sparse, or the story seems bleak. There is positive in every story and it's up to the parent to find those morsels of good. Attaching the child's positive attributes and traits to this unknown birth father is a good strategy.

It's also important to really listen and interpret the question the child is really asking. Are they literally asking "Why couldn't my birth parents stay together?" Or, are they asking a larger question about abandonment? Are they projecting their own thoughts and fears into that question? Is it possible that hidden inside their question is, "What did I do to deserve to be abandoned by both my birth dad and my birth mom?" or "Are you going to abandon me, too?"

A statement like "None of my friends are adopted, and therefore, they know why they are good at sports and music," is an open door for a conversation about that child's specific traits and an opportunity to wonder along with your child about their birthfather, saying something like "You are so great at the guitar! I wouldn't be surprised if someone within your birthfamily was a guitarist, too!"

The fact that you, as the adoptive parents do not know all of the answers can be a great way to develop and establish trust with your child. The way in which you answer these tough questions - with grace, love and a genuine curiosity will help to answer the question that the child isn't asking - "Do you love me enough to be confident in having these conversations?" The way that you answer these questions will help the child to have confidence in their own story. The ability to be curious right alongside the child will aid in their security in knowing that you honor their story even though you may not know all of the details.

Personally, I felt a huge sense of validation after meeting my birth mother and my birth father for the first time (in my adulthood) as my parents were equally as curious about them and their story as I was. I felt less isolated and alone traveling across the country to meet these strangers knowing that my parents were sitting next to me on the airplane just as anxious as I was.