The journey of adoption is not unlike a scavenger hunt. Some are scanning the crowd for someone who looks like them while others are searching for someone to bring them home. Some spend years waiting for a child to love or pining for a child they loved but could not raise. Adoption is rarely a smooth road, with unexpected peaks and valleys, but it is always life-changing.
In this series, we will feature stories that highlight the different aspects of adoption, as told by both the adoptive parents and adoptees.
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A snapshot in a photo album fat with memories shows a smiling, little brown-skinned girl sitting amongst her three, tow-headed siblings, squinting in the summer sun. It’s a homey scene on the front yard, complete with short sleeves, bare toes, and four faces looking in all directions. Family photographs tell of our heritage, where we’ve come from and who was with us. The images bring smiles or tears, helping us to recall emotions or fill in the gaps of our own spotty memories, but two dimensions are not always enough to convey the whole story.
Kristen Wilkerson is a local photographer who thrives on taking natural-setting portraits of families. She finds joy in capturing a moment in time and showing a family’s best sides. Her personal family pictures, however, are a mixed bag of love and loss and reunion.
Throughout her childhood, Kristen felt like the child that didn’t belong. Born in Chile and adopted into a family of four biological siblings, she grew up in Arnold, Maryland with a loving father and a mother who pushed her away more than she embraced her.
Kristen grew up feeling the rub of never being fully accepted by a mother who was unable to extend her love beyond her biological children. She has strong memories of praying at night for a mother, her real mother, who she hoped would love her the way her adoptive mother would not. As the peacemaker, always trying to make those around her happy and get along with one another, Kristen was a very self-aware child. Her adoptive father and grandparents showered her with unconditional love, but it was not enough to protect her from the devastation of a failed mother-daughter relationship.
A breakthrough came for Kristen at nineteen years old, as she stared at the name of her birth mother on the adoption papers she had been told were lost. Tracing her finger over her birth mother’s signature, she felt alive. Like the Velveteen Rabbit yearning for the touch of the nursery fairy’s wand, Kristen knew in that moment that someone had given her life. She had always known a search for her biological family was something she was motivated to do, and these adoption papers, casually dropped off with divorce papers delivered to her father, gave her the inspiration and information to begin.
After months of online searches, birth registries, and dead-end pursuits, Kristen felt compelled to at least see where she was born if not find the woman of her dreams. Armed with financial help and blessings of her father and grandparents and a million questions to ask the woman she had prayed for her whole life, Kristen set off alone for Santiago, Chile where she had enrolled in a Spanish-immersion school that had connected her with a host family. She was hopeful and excited by the chance to find someone who looked like her.
However, weeks later, as she neared her departure date from Chile, she sat at dinner with her hosts, exhausted by more failed leads and ready to throw in the towel. Her hosts convinced her to give it one more try, and, on a whim, handed her the phone book. One phone call put her in touch with an aunt and a sister, and two days later she was at their house, looking at a picture of her birth mother.
Despite the questions and emotions that had motivated her to fly down to Chile and find her mother, this was all Kristen needed. She was caught up in the swirl of newfound family, doting over her likeness and declaring her “bonita.” She now had nephews and siblings and extended family in her photo album, but it was all incredibly overwhelming. The isolation of her childhood became an afterthought; she was related to these people but grew up with her family. Or was it the other way around? The reunion had provided her with a baffling array of new emotions that she hadn’t anticipated.
Days later, when Kristen met her birth mother, she suddenly found all those questions she was dying to ask her insignificant. In meeting blood relatives, she realized that she truly existed. She no longer needed to know the details; the only thing that mattered was thanking her birth mother for the gift of life and love.
It has taken Kristen years to learn about her place in the world and rectify that damage she suffered as a child. She often Skypes with Olga, her birth mother, and shares pictures of her two young children and husband over Facebook with other blood relatives. Her trip back to Maryland all those years ago was harder than the trip down to Chile had been in the first place. She came back to face the realization that she was part of two families, not truly belonging to either. Above all she learned that family is not always who you are born to or even who you are raised with; it is sometimes the one you create.
To read the first part of our series, click on Fostering Permanence—Part I of Adoption Stories.