The Importance of Story

by Luanne

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”
― Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Everybody and everything has a story.  According to Terry Pratchett, we are all shaped by stories.  This quote might mean that reading a variety of stories helps develop us into who we are.  But, in fact, we are shaped even more by the stories which are unique to our selves.

We create stories out of our complex lives.  To understand ourselves and others around us, we tell ourselves stories that make some sense out of it all.

As Patrick Rothfuss puts it:

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Most of us come to our consciousness with family stories told to us by relatives.  Even in families which are reticent to talk about the past, there is a pattern which is story in hearing that one has the same stubborn streak as one’s father and that he has hammer toes because his mother couldn’t afford to buy him new shoes when his feet grew.  These elements become part of the story of the child.

Some people have stories which are missing big gaps.  Imagine having amnesia in your fourth grade year.  You can remember the rest of your life, but there is a hole where an entire year should be.  Many adoptees have a hole larger than this.  If an adoptee was not part of an open adoption, it’s probable that she was not given much information about who her birth parents were, what their stories were, and what their lives were like when she was not yet born.

The person who was adopted might not know anything about her own birth or what her life was like as an infant.  When there is information shared, it can be sparse and not tied into a narrative.  It might not even be accurate.  It could be lies.

I was not adopted, and I have been told plenty of family stories.  I grew up with family stories and photos.  Many of the dots were connected for me.  Recently I’ve done some genealogical research, and it astonishes me how some of the stories I was told turned out not to be accurate.  However, the most fundamental information has been true, unlike that for some adoptees.

My children were adopted as babies in international adoptions.  We received some pages of information from the agency.  Mainly, we learned about their medical exam results while living in the orphanage (son) or with the foster family (daughter). We learned their weight and health when they were brought to Holt. But there is also information on the charts listing the ages and education levels of their birth parents, and what areas they came from.  When we read these pages with our case worker, she filled in information, providing us with story fragments.

I took all the information we had been given—both written and oral, guesses and facts—and wrote up stories for both children, providing them with a story which pre-dates their lives in our family.

It seemed important that they have their own stories.

“[T]here’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.”
― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Think of this: “behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin” [my italics].

So while it seems important that the kids have their own stories, these stories had to begin with the stories of their birth mothers.

Next time you wonder why many adoptees search for their birth families and wish to to learn information about these families, remember that you are who you are because you have your own story.  They are only searching for part of their story, a story that is important to their very identity.


  1. Really good post… I think you would like this ted talk I found, and posted on my blog back in Sept of 2010. The danger of a single story – Chimamanda Adichie

  2. I have always asked about why adoptees have that yearning to find something in the past, even if they’re living great lives, now I understand because of what you have shared. Thank you!

  3. So beautifully written Luanne! Thank you for this expression.

  4. It’s funny, I’m adopted, but never thought about my biological back story until I was in my early twenties! A couple friends asked me about my ‘adoption story’ and I was like, “hmm. I don’t know. I’ve never asked!” I immediately called up my mom and she told me the story, which was kind of an amazing story!
    About a year or so later I contacted the adoption organization for “non-identifying background information” of my birth parents and it was crazy to read (personality traits, hobbies, what they were up to in life when I was conceived/born, what they looked like, how many siblings they had…). Once again, it’s funny to me in retrospect that I had never thought to ask these things, I mean, what can I say, my mom (who adopted me) is my mom, ya know…? 🙂
    Also, I am UC Berkeley alum, and one of my fellow American Studies major buddies majored in Storytelling. How awesome is that?! (The American Studies Dept is an interdisciplinary dept. in which we could create our own curriculum:)

    • Thanks, myfeministbriefs (looove writing that!). Yes, I understand about the “my mom is my mom” as that’s what I hear from my kids, and I also think everybody has a different personality and situation. While I am for open records and complete access to adult adoptee (and for children except in certain cases) records, my son (who was adopted) is not for it and has his own reasons. We have discussed it, but he’s adamant, although not as passionate about it as I am! Storytelling would be an amazing major, in my opinion. It’s so rich. The world is just chockful of stories!

  5. One of the things I made for each of my kids is an “adoption” photo album containing photos and small bits of narrative illustrating the early stages of the adoption process until shortly after they came into our lives. It is sorely lacking in tangible information about their beginnings and in no way can substitute for the narrative you talk about. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wonder about their birthmothers stories.

  6. I really enjoyed this. I may refer back to it sometime. Even if the story is a sad one, it is part of who we are!

  7. I love this post! It’s so well written. And the last paragraph is very important. I wouldn’t be surprised to see people quote it to others who question open adoption or the importance of knowing one’s biological roots.

  8. Thank you, as always, for a very good post. You explain the point of a lifebook very clearly.

    I am currently reading a book on this subject which you might find interesting: Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory. This particular book is written from a Christian perspective. My sister (the one who is a social worker) informed me that lifebooks are more common for children in foster care. She gave me a good tip for the one I’ll create for my daughter. It is to use a binder should she want to share her life story with friends or family, so that not all of her story has to be shared at once.

  9. This is a great post, and very useful to someone like me. I have a fear of sharing my son’s story with him when the time comes, but this has altered my perspective a little – thanks

    • Instant Mama (below) definitely has a good idea. Sharing your son’s story with him from the earliest is best so that it’s part of him and nothing comes as a shock to him later. When you read adoptee narratives finding out new information that has been withheld is one of the worst shocks.

  10. Sorry if you get two comments from me! I really like this post, it helps me as a new adoptive parent put into perspective the fear of talking to my son about his story when the time comes. Thanks

    • Onehandman, I was just clicking around on your site. Congrats on parenthood! I love that this post has given you some insights into sharing your son’s story with him. Might I suggest considering making a book like a couple people mentioned in the comments here. You’d have to figure out what to put in it, but then just make it accessible to him. Read it to him now while he’s young. Most people that I have heard of that have trauma regarding the fact that they are adopted is because they found out after they were older and it really shook their world. If they always know, then it ceases to be as big of a deal. Plus, talking with him now while he’s small gives you some space to get comfortable before he’s old enough to recognize what an awesome and big deal this is!

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