The Big Idea: Cynthia Hand
I’ve always had a hard time with the way adoption is portrayed in television and film. My central complaint, speaking as an adopted person, is that the portrayal is so often wildly unrealistic. These stories tend to focus on the search for the adoptee’s “real” parents and give little-to-no energy to understanding the adoptive parents. For example, look up, “Who is Superman’s father?” and you’ll find page after page on Jor-El, not Jonathan Kent. Or think about how in Once Upon A Time, the biological mother, Emma, does battle with the adopted mother, the literal evil queen. Or how the creators of The Umbrella Academy responded to questions about the incestuous relationship between Luther and Allison by saying “They’re not even related,” and “They are not biological.” The message comes through clearly: what makes a relationship “real” is blood.
For most adoptees, that is simply not the truth. Our “real” relationships are with our parents, and by parents, we mean the people who loved us and took care of us every day.
Therefore my goal as I set out to write The How & The Why was to give a realistic portrayal of adoption–one that thoroughly examines the different sides. The big idea was to show the point of views of both a teen birth mother and a teen adoptee and to examine the way each of them experiences “family.”
What ended up happening as I wrote the book, of course, was far more complex. Yes, my characters have a variety of family in their lives—biological and adopted, friendships, connections, and support systems that defy the conventional definition of what it means to be “related” to someone. What I didn’t expect was how much of the novel ended up being about how people shape their identities out of the stories they are told about themselves.
This made me think about how I had shaped my own identity, as an adopted person. I followed my character, Cass, as she tried to understand herself through her adoption, asking who am I over and over again. Then I followed S, the birth mother, who was basically asking the same question. I could see the invisible connections S had with Cass: the shape of their feet, their hatred of anything cherry-flavored, how they both felt gazing up at the moon—things they shared without even realizing it but that still inevitably connected them.
This made me wildly uncomfortable when I applied it to myself. Through the writing of these fictional people’s stories, I came to realize that who I am has been shaped by my relationship with my parents, of course, but it had also been forged from what I got from my birth parents, both in DNA and something even less tangible–those invisible connections I still had with them. Which are real, too.
Writing is funny that way. You start off having something definitive to say — adoptive families are real families — and then the narrative veers away toward something deeper. You come to figure out what you know through writing it. You discover things about yourself you never dreamed were there, lurking in the unexplored shadows. It’s what makes writing worth it, in the end.