On Colin Kaepernick, Adoption, and Swedish High Jumpers

I guess I should thank Rick Reilly for making the Super Bowl interesting for me this year.  This time last week, I didn’t much care who won.  This year felt more boring than usual, though I might be a touch grumpier that my darling Bungles blew their playoff chances over a month ago.

Then the ESPN columnist Reilly put out this gem.  The op-ed suggested that the 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick needed to meet his birth mother.  Kaepernick was adopted when he was five weeks old.  Based on information in the Reilly piece, it appears to not be an entirely closed adoption.  Kaepernick’s mother would send the birth mother pictures and updates, but the woman declined to participate in young Kaepernick’s life.

A short while back, she changed her tune.  To avoid sounding like a supreme cynic, I will try to avoid the dubiousness of a situation where a woman who previously stayed away from the child she gave up magically reappeared out of the woodwork when Colin displayed a level of football acumen that would likely translate into a lucrative NFL contract.  I won’t bring it up beyond this point because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that Rick Reilly’s piece is the most offensive piece of adoption-related tripe I’ve read in a decade.

Perhaps I should mention this key fact: I am adopted.  It is always a little funny when it comes up in conversation, as I will frequently have been friends with someone for several years before it gets mentioned in passing.  To me, it is nothing, but they will often be a little surprised. “You never told me.”  Some seem to feel like bad friends for not knowing. I think some may feel hurt they didn’t know sooner.  Honestly though, I have just never felt like it was something I needed to be up front about.  Moreover, it is difficult for it to come up in conversation. “See that woman in all these photos of me growing up over the years? I did not pop out of her birth canal.  Just thought you should know.”

Kaepernick is in a different boat than I am though.  As a mixed race person with white parents, it is pretty clear where he didn’t come from.  Reilly, who has an adopted daughter of Asian descent, is in a similar boat and he treated the situation differently than the Kaepernicks chose to handle it with Colin.  He encouraged his daughter to meet her birth parents when the opportunity arose.  He referred to the situation as “healing” for both her and him.  And this is why this poor misguided man decided to pen this op-ed and stick his nose where it does not belong.

I don’t doubt the Reilly family got a lot from his daughter meeting her biological mother, but here is the thing. Some of us don’t conceive of our adoption as something we need to “heal” from.  Perhaps it is the result of a remarkable ability to compartmentalize emotion or because we were simply raised in a household in which adoption was never considered a bad word or a big deal because we always knew where we came from, I actually don’t harbor any resentment towards my birth mother. In fact, I think of her giving me up as one of the more selfless acts of kindness a person has ever done for me.  Knowing she couldn’t provide the life she felt I deserved, she asked Catholic Services to find another Catholic family that could. And then I never heard from her again.

My sister is also adopted, from a different set of biological parents.   Unlike me, she has quite a bit of curiosity about her birth parents to the point of reaching out to Dr Phil or Oprah when casting calls come around.  My mother doesn’t take offense to this curiosity (though our terrifyingly introverted mom does take offense to the thought of being on TV and has repeatedly said if Debbie gets chosen for a show, she will be going it alone), she and my dad were told by social workers this curiosity was normal and to be expected.

Perhaps that is why Reilly is so shocked that Kaepernick does not have this curiosity, especially when he looks so visually different from his parents.  What Reilly missed in those meetings is that there is another perfectly normal reaction children in relatively closed adoptions have to their birth parents: complete indifference.

I am completely indifferent about my birth parents.   That is not to say I didn’t daydream about them a little in my youth.  I knew a few key pieces of information about them, most notably that my birth father is Swedish, as in likely still lives in Sweden.  With that information in mind, I became the most fervent six year old American fan of Patrik Sjöberg to ever live. 

In the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Sjöberg earned bronze in the high jump event after taking silver the previous Olympics.  To date, he still actually holds some high jumping records as he is one of the few in the sport to never test positive for PEDs (this wouldn’t be a Super Bowl post without a mention of PEDs, am I right?).  Watching this Swedish man with long blonde locks lithely sprint and leap on TV, young me became wholly convinced this was my biological father.  I was devastated when he didn’t win gold and it was about as personally connected as I’ve ever felt to the idea of my birth parents.

Since then, the idea of meeting them has just lost importance to me. I once considered pursuing a search for them for purely selfish reasons.  If I could ever identify my birth father, I would qualify for dual citizenship, something that would have been very beneficial in my career field at the time.  The reality of the situation kept me from pursuing it though.  More than likely, this man does not even know I exist.  My adoption was held up almost six weeks in courts trying to relinquish paternal rights. This sort of thing is normally only done when the biological father can’t be found and notified, leading us to believe I was very likely the byproduct of a one-night stand.

In this context, it might make more sense as to why I feel more attached to a Swedish high jumper than the idea of my actual birth father.  This is a person who doesn’t even know about me.  He doesn’t wonder what happened to me or what I am up to these days.  I am not even a part of his subconscious, let alone his actual life.  So, the thought of trying to falsely construct some sort of relationship with this person thirty years later sounds like more trouble than it is worth to me.

Reading about Kaepernick, it sounds like his birth was not the product of a loving relationship either.  I am purely speculating here, but his biological father did exit the picture very early on that it does seem somewhat possible he never knew about Colin either.  So, the more I read about this person, the more I grew to like him, because he seemed like the kind of role model for adopted kids I felt was missing in my life.

Then Kaepernick dropped this quotation in response to a probing question about why he doesn’t have any interest in meeting his birth mother:

“Is that how you feel?” I asked Kaepernick on Tuesday at Super Bowl media day. “That it would be disrespectful to meet with your birth mother?”

“No,” Kaepernick said. “It’s not really a respect thing. It’s just – that’s my family. That’s it.”

“But aren’t you curious?”

“No.”

It was at this very moment that I became a San Francisco 49ers fan and, more importantly, a Colin Kaepernick fan.  He dismantles all the crap Reilly tries to drum up over a couple thousand words in 15 words. Hell, he really gets at the meat at it with just three.

“That’s my family.”

I’m grateful for my birth mother taking responsibility and seeing that I got a chance at a good life. I’m grateful for the Swedish high jumper making my childhood imaginations a little more lively and have a lot more international flair. But the person I pick up the phone to call when good and bad things happen to me or when I just want someone who understands me to listen is my mom.  And the man I pine for every day and wish was here and a part of my life is not a random Scandi, he is the man who died 21 years ago after taking care of me for the first nine years of my life. These are my parents. There is no gray area here.

That woman and man who physically created me are great, I’m sure, and I would probably be willing to sit down with them if they came out of the woodwork someday.  However, they aren’t my parents and to label them with that word is disrespectful, but not in the way that Reilly thinks it is.  It is disrespectful to all parents who define their relationship with their children not by the fact they physically birthed them or share DNA, but by the days of teaching them to ride bikes, learn the alphabet, differentiate between right and wrong, and the process of raising them to be good, righteous people.  These are the accomplishments of parents, the rest is just the nine month preamble.

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