My dad interrupted himself in the middle of his rant. “Don’t look at me that way. Wipe that look off your face!”
It was just my face. I didn’t know what else to do with it, so I looked down. The scolding continued. I watched my tears fall and melt into the mottled brown carpet.
I can’t remember what I had done wrong, or how old I was the first time I heard my dad mention it, but it became a thing in our house. My dirty looks. My adopted brother, who is sixty years old now, still talks about how I used to get in trouble by just glancing at Dad.
I’ve been told I have a very expressive face. I cannot hide what I’m thinking. I’d be terrible at poker, I guess.
In my adolescent years, apparently, my face really started talking. Dad would tell me that my face could say Go To Hell with just a glance. Were my dirty looks some sort of superpower? I wondered. I became self-conscious.
I spent hours staring into the bathroom mirror, trying on different faces, different expressions, trying to figure out which “look” was the one that would trigger my dad. There was something about my face that angered him. Was it a scowl? I tried to make a scowl in the mirror . . . a sort of frown mixed with a furrowed brow. How dumb I looked.
Try a smile. Ugh, no. Not like that. Try again. Smile with your eyes. Don’t show your teeth. Well, maybe a little. Don’t smile too big, though, or your face looks all scrunched up. Do I have dimples? No.
Thus began a life-long obsession with my face, my expressions, and my burning desire to find someone with the same dirty looks as me.
Who do I look like? Whose face is this? Whose crooked smile? Even when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a familiar face. There was always something wrong with it.
I didn’t know it then, but now I realize what I was missing out on was genetic mirroring. To explain it simply, genetic mirroring is essentially being able to see yourself in your family. This is most obvious when you think about physical characteristics (for instance, my husband definitely has the same nose as his mother), but is not limited to that. In fact, genetic mirroring can be seen in mannerisms, talents, athletic abilities, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, simple likes and dislikes, and in a number of other ways. There are reasons why we see repetitive generations of lawyers, healers, scholars, actors, artists, etc. in natural families. It is not just a matter of continuing a family business or tribal tradition. It is a matter of like characteristics, traits, and personalities being nurtured, generation after generation, by genetic mirroring.
Seeing and recognizing traits in another person close to you means you are more likely to feel good about, or at least be comfortable with those traits.
When you look into your genetic mirror, into the face of a biological parent, or sibling, you know those traits have been passed down from your family. It’s comfort. Familiarity. Acceptance. Having a genetic mirror helps you to feel that you belong – helps you feel that you’re okay as you are because there is someone else just like you.
Growing up adopted, of course I didn’t have a genetic mirror. When I was teased about various aspects of my appearance at school, I couldn’t turn to a genetic mirror for comfort. I couldn’t see myself in anyone else. I felt different; unacceptable. And when my dad criticized my expressions and expressed displeasure at my face, it really hurt. I’ve never gotten over it.
I like to think of myself today as a well-adjusted grown-up. But, I know that I am still affected by the void of genetic mirroring in my life growing up. I’m fifty-seven years old, for crying out loud! But when I’m speaking with someone I know well, a friend or someone I love, it’s difficult for me to look directly into their eyes. I fear what they may see in my face. Even in deep, emotional conversation, I tend to look over someone’s shoulder. Willing them not to look directly at my face.
I know now that it is important to talk about this. To acknowledge that genetic mirroring is real and is a big deal in the development of a person’s personality and identity. This is just one of the things that is missing in an adoptee’s life. As adoptees, we should be allowed and even encouraged to think about this and even grieve it. It is important for adoptive parents to understand this, to be aware of this, to recognize the subtle nuances and unsaid words (and words that are actually said) that fill an adoptee’s mind with wonder. With longing. With sadness. With anxiety.
I’d like to be able to replace the longing, sadness, and anxiety with acceptance, contentment, and comfort. I’ll start by looking into the mirror.