Family Trees, Families of Trees

An illustration of many black barked trees with green leaves. Underground their light green root systems connect to each other. In the central and in the distance, is a figure of a person wearing white top and black pans kneeling down by a tree.
From BBC

Trees are a common theme used with or in relation to adoption because of its frequent connotations to families; the family tree is a symbol that most people understand and have used at one time or another. It is understandable how the tree became a symbol for a family. Different generations of family members and family units branching upwards provides an easy shortcut to understand who belongs or is included in any particular family.

For adoptees, however, the family tree can be a fraught metaphor. I have written about how adoptees are placed on their adoptive family trees without any reference to or acknowledgement of their family of origin. In some ways it often feels more like we are a pear or plum, fallen from our own family tree, or strung on a branch of our adoptive family’s apple tree. At best we might be seen as a graft on our adoptive family’s tree. I have described my Korean family’s tree as a shadow tree, fluttering quietly behind, mostly hidden from view.

Family tree assignments in school are problematic for many adoptees and adoptive families; where does the family of origin fit? How does a student include first/birth family members, or do they want to open up such a personal life story to all of their peers and teachers and be forced into what adoptees Bert Ballard and Jeff Leinaweaver have coined, “narrative burden?” 

In the past several months I have read two books that reference the ways certain varieties of trees have interlocking root systems used to communicate with each other. This system of deep connected roots strengthen individual trees as well as the whole grove. In most depictions of family trees the trunk symbolizes the identified family or individual created from the different family lines represented as various limbs and branches. As Robin Walls Kimmerer and Adrienne Maree Brown both describe the strong root systems of trees such as the pecan or the oak, I was struck by how an adoptee’s disconnected roots makes us more vulnerable.

In Walls Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, her chapter The Council of Pecans includes this description:

If one tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.

Kimmerer goes on to write,

The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected.”

Adrienne Maree Brown also talks about the ways oak trees connect through deep roots through this process of mycorrhization. When I read this, I made a note: How does a single oak or pecan tree, transplanted or planted outside of its community, integrate its roots among others? From what we are learning, the science points us to the additional strength and resilience to weather storms and blight when a grove communicates amongst itself. Do we, as individual adoptees, lose our root system when we are transplanted into a different grove’s system? We may successfully graft, but in a storm, when the winds blow and the water rises, will a tree whose roots are not connected to its community be more vulnerable to toppling over, their roots exposed.

I think this is why so many adoptees really need other adoptees, particularly if we have not had the opportunity to remain connected to our root systems. I think about attending the KAAN conference and IKAA Gathering in Korea this past summer and how strongly Korean adoptees connected to each other. It’s like our roots were getting stronger, rooting deep below, trying to form that web with each other, helping us weather the storms.

During November, also known as National Adoption Awareness Month, you will see a lot of articles and videos highlighting the importance of adoption, calls to increase “forever families” and “permanency” for children in care, and stories by adoptive parents. But with all of the focus on adoption, we tend to not really think about the adoptee. The adoptees who have been grafted on to other family trees; the adoptees who search for their fellow community members and find strength in their deep-rooted, adoptee connections.

Why not National ADOPTEE Awareness Month?

3 thoughts

  1. It’s not adoptee awareness month, because no one wants to be aware of us. We are not seen as part of the adoption equation. This seems odd, because adoption is supposed to be about us, after all.
    Society does not think that adoption actually affects us. They truly believe that we only benefit, and that we never suffer. We get to shrug off our sordid beginnings, and become washed clean in the pure waters of our bright, new and improved families.
    We are to grow up, understanding the sacrifice our saintly, sinner, whore, druggie birth mothers did for our benefit. We are to love the ones who rescued us from the awful fate of growing up in our lowly, deficient families of origin.
    No one wants to hear any other story, so they simply do not hear us at all.

  2. Sorry, this is only tangentially related, but I have wondered for a good long while whether it is common for Korean adoptees to find that many of their “relatives” on DNA sites are other distantly related adoptees searching for their roots. That is my experience, and I wonder if it is because these DNA sites are disproportionately attractive to adoptees, or for other reasons … Also, I wonder what are the percentage of Koreans, who participate in consumer DNA communities. Thanks!

    1. Hi, from what I understand, many Koreans in Korea do not participate in these DNA DTC programs, however Koreans in the U.S. might be more likely and I know of several Korean adoptees who were connected to biological family because of extended relatives (cousins, aunts/uncles, siblings) who were in the U.S. As for the first part of your question, I believe it is probably common that many Korean adoptees using DNA sites have connected with other Korean adoptees also using the site for similar reasons. It is also my own experience.

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