It’s October, it’s my birthday month and as a transracially adopted person, my birthday can be a bit of a mixed bag. For me, the day I was born has extra depth, meaning, beauty and complexity.
I certainly celebrate my life on this planet and the fact that I was born and I am happy about this. I also celebrate my adopted life and my family — my parents who chose adoption as a way to expand their family and when they did so expanded my family with my brothers and sister, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and extended family members and friends who are like family. For me, all of this is to be celebrated.
At the same time, the reality of adoption means that while I gained an amazing family of experience, I lost my family of origin. I have learned that authentically celebrating who I am and the day I was born means honoring all of me (parts known and unknown) — doing this can be emotional and enlightening all at once. Being born to one family but raised by another can be difficult to balance. This becomes especially poignant around my birthday when thinking about my origins and what happened before I was adopted.
Over time, exploring my identity has become something I value greatly. It comes with challenges, complexities and countless rewards and doing it takes courage. As a child on the surface, I knew exactly who I was. I was April Dinwoodie — daughter of Tom and Sandi, sister to Tad, Jim and Dawn, and friend to Becky and Lori. I loved gymnastics, being a Girl Scout, going to the beach, goofing off with my brothers and singing into hairbrushes with my sister. When pressed (usually by strangers who wanted to know who I really was and where I came from because I was brown and my family was white), I would tell them that Elizabeth Montgomery from “Bewitched” and Harry Belafonte, were my parents but they were too busy in showbiz to raise me so I ended up with the Dinwoodies. It made perfect sense to me. The two of them — one being white and the other black — could have totally created me and my brown skin (which I loved) and fuzzy hair (which I did not). This explanation usually garnered a chuckle or a bewildered expression from the nosy person asking what I always felt was an inappropriate question. I wondered why I had to explain my existence to strangers.
As a child, I was surrounded by love on my birthday. As I was celebrated, I also wondered if the woman who gave birth to me was celebrating me too.
As a teenager, I knew who I was. I was April Dinwoodie — still daughter of Tom and Sandi, still sister to Tad, Jim and Dawn, now aunt to Malena, Thomas, Albert and Mackenzie and with more friends than I could count. My love of gymnastics became a love for cheerleading and with that came a love of football. I started to wonder if my fantasy of the perfect showbiz couple being my biological parents could actually be true. Having seen a bit of the country outside of our small town, I wondered if people I passed by that resembled me were my relatives. I wondered if they would recognize me and if I would know them for sure when I saw them. Would we both just keep on walking? I began to understand that my brown skin (which I still loved) and fuzzy hair (which I still did not) made me a person of mixed race or biracial or mulatto. I was also being a typical teenager, rejecting authority, questioning every rule and pushing parental buttons any way I could. It was certainly normal teenage behavior but there was extra and I was sure my “real” parents would totally understand me. I think back on this now and I cringe.
As a teenager, I was surrounded by love on my birthday. As I celebrated, I also wondered if my biological mother would let me stay out late and do what I wanted without restriction. I knew who I was but did I really?
As a young adult, I knew who I was. I was April Dinwoodie — still daughter of Tom and Sandi, still sister to Tad, Jim and Dawn, aunt to Malena, Thomas, Albert, Mackenzie and now Michon, Kyle and Cooper and with college friends. My love of gymnastics turned into a college job teaching gymnastics. My world expanded in ways I could not have imagined. Being away from home was exciting and excruciating. I put on a game face but leaving home was one of the hardest things I ever did. I knew I was going to college and wanted to go but I remember asking myself who would leave their home and family on purpose? And as ridiculous as it sounds, I always wondered if they’d be there when I came back. I still very much loved my brown skin and was beginning to like my hair. I was becoming keenly aware of my identity as a person of color, and with that, becoming keenly aware of what that meant in my family and in the world. Around this time, I also started going to the doctor on my own. And each year for my regular physical I was asked the same questions about my family medical history and every time I would have to tell them I was adopted and not allowed to know it.
As a young adult, I was surrounded by love on my birthday. As I celebrated, I also wondered how crazy it would be if I already came in contact with a member of my biological family and had no clue. I knew who I was but did I really?
As an adult, I knew who I was. I was April Dinwoodie — still daughter of Tom and Sandi, still sister to Tad, Jim and Dawn, aunt to Malena, Thomas, Albert, Mackenzie, Michon, Kyle and Cooper and with grown-up, professional friends. I was serious. I was working. I knew I wanted to be successful. I was beginning to think I needed to find answers about the parts of me I did not know. I asked some questions and my mom and dad gave me information and all the paperwork they had and their blessing. And with that, I set the wheels of my search in motion. It was 2001. I requested and received my non-identifying information. I realized my name at birth was June Elizabeth. I realized my biological mother was not likely Elizabeth Montgomery. I had half-siblings, grandparents, uncles, and with that likely aunts and cousins. I had a biological father. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see them. I wanted to know them.
As an adult, I was surrounded by love on my birthday. As I celebrated, I also wondered if the wheels I set in motion would turn up anything more than non-identifying information. I wondered if the non-identifying information was really the truth. I began to wonder if I’d ever really know the truth. I knew who I was and I was on a path to knowing even more.
My search did turn up more. I figured out where I was born and wrote a very benign request to the records department. It was a long shot.
I was not supposed to receive my records but I did. The envelope arrived full of facts. I combed through all of it. For the first time as an adult, I knew the time I was born and how much I weighed. I knew my biological grandmother’s name and the names of my half-siblings. I knew my birth mother’s age and her blood type. I got hints to her health history. I knew when she arrived at the hospital to give birth to me and when she was discharged without me. I left three days later and was placed in temporary foster care. This information was incredible to process. It was a lot — especially the part about her leaving and me staying.
My search has gone on for many, many years. With each layer that I uncover, I learn more and more about my adoption, my identity and my families. I have learned that I could never have the courage to search without the unconditional love of my family. I have learned that searching for answers and connections to my birth family does not mean I do not love my adoptive family or that I want to replace them. My adoption experience does not have to be either/or. It can be both and I believe there are never too many people to love or to love me. I have also learned that I give myself a gift every time I am brave enough to open another door — no matter what I find. For me, knowing is better than not knowing.
This year as I celebrate another year upon the planet, I honor the fact that my life began when I was born to Helen and my life was made beautiful and rich when I was adopted by Tom and Sandi. I marvel at unique opportunities to explore the pieces and parts (known and unknown) that make me who I am. I accept the amazing parts, the painful parts and the unbelievable parts — all of the parts. I love my brown skin and embrace the significance of what it means to be a person of color and I am happy to say, I absolutely love my curly hair. I was born. I am adopted. I honor these realities with love, respect and without regret or shame. Happy Birthday to me!
Click here to learn more about April Dinwoodie’s adoption journey and experience in her “Born In June Raised In April” audio podcast on iTunes.