Being the chosen child
It can be hard being an adoptee, but not always
It was 1967 in British Columbia when Erma Merchant explained to her six-year-old daughter that she and her husband Robert had to take their three sons, but they got to choose their little Lisa.
“To me, that was awesome. Like, they had no choice with my brothers, but I was picked. I was chosen,” says Lisa Merchant, who remembers bragging to others about being adopted after hearing Erma’s story.
Residing now on Roncesvalles Avenue, Merchant reflects on how lucky she was in comparison to other adoptees.
“I was never bullied about it,” Merchant says. “Nobody was like ‘oh, you’re the adopted one.’”
But it’s not that way for all adoptees.
Psychotherapist P. Anne Winter, who specializes in adoption, says that a lot of adoptees endure bullying that’s incorporated even in the subtlest of ways.
“It’s really important for people to feel like they’re a part of a community — it gives them a sense of belonging,” Winter says. “One thing that I’ve heard quite often is the introduction where someone basically says, ‘Meet our family and this is our adopted child.’”
When this happens, Winter says that the adoptee can feel singled out and frustrated because they believed they were a part of the family.
“I was never singled out,” Merchant says, not recalling any disagreements in regards to her place in the family.
“My brothers and I had the usual sibling fights. They could easily have pulled out the adopted card, but they never did,” she says. “My mom was honest about everything — she didn’t pretend like she gave birth to me. But she made it clear that I was her daughter 100 percent.”
Despite feeling like she belonged, Merchant says that she couldn’t help but grow curious about her roots.
“There was a lot I didn’t know about myself,” she says. “I didn’t know my heritage. I would look in the mirror and think, ‘I don’t know anyone else who looks like me.’”
What followed was a long journey of self-discovery. In 1997, she was able to search for her birth mother through a government-recognized agency. However, the response came as a disappointment to Merchant.
“She said I could write to her through a third party, but she wouldn’t reveal who she was,” Merchant says. “She said she found the whole thing very difficult and thanked me for being understanding.”
It wasn’t until 2004 when the government in Alberta, where Merchant was born, opened up their adoption files that she received tangible information. Unless the birth parent wrote or spoke to the government and requested a veto on any contact, their information could be released. Merchant, at that point, had her father’s full name.
A previous letter from her birth mother informed Merchant that her father was a man from Italy named Natale Renzullo. Merchant soon hired a private detective in Italy to find him.
Renzullo was a family man, living in a very small town east of Naples. He wanted nothing to do with Merchant when he heard the news.
“I felt heartbroken. I knew it wasn’t personal because (my biological parents) didn’t know me. But at the same time it felt very personal,” says Merchant. “But I tried to appreciate the fact that they have their own emotions to deal with. It wasn’t just about me.”
According to Winter, the meeting process between adoptees and their birth parents entails a lot of emotional preparation.
“It’s confusing for all parties concerned,” Winter says. “Sometimes it’s just the mother that’s aware of the child’s existence and the father is completely taken by surprise … And the child might have high expectations for their birth parents, only to find someone very far from what they envision.”
Winter says that it can be helpful for the adoptee to start seeing someone who is well informed about adoption issues before they search for their birth parents so they become aware of all possible outcomes.
Merchant, for her part, finds a kind of equilibrium between nature and nurture in her situation.
“I think I can cope with the reaction from my birth parents because I’m so close with my adopted family,” Merchant says.
“Maybe there’s this balance between having these people who can’t come forth and meet me and then having this great, loving family that I grew up with.”
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