Being The Extra


The only thing I remember about the 1988 movie “Twins” is a line directed at Danny DeVito’s character from the evil scientist who accidentally created him – the unfortunate residue of a genetic experiment: “All the purity and strength went into Julius.  All the crap that was leftover went into what you see in the mirror every morning.”

All the crap that was leftover.

An adoptee in an online group recently said she was just the jizz her father threw away. Obviously, one does not need to be adopted to feel this way, but how many non-adopted can say all these words have been used to describe them:

Unwanted. Abandoned. Mistake. Different. Accident. Outsider. Bastard.

My adult nephew, son of my found half-sister, who has known me his entire life, once said about me in my presence: “Well, technically, she’s our aunt.” It was like a concession. My incredulous reply, “Technically? I think the word you’re searching for is, actually,” was met with blank stares.

Sometimes biology counts for nothing. Even in reunion. I have always lived in the shadow of someone more desired. Growing up, it was the shadows of my adoptive cousins who were better in every way. They looked right. They acted right. They fit in. They loved me and included me, but…

But I had brown eyes and baby-fine hair, both of which were non-existent elsewhere in that family. My personality was even further removed. I was a stand-in, the extra, for the one who wasn’t there: my adoptive parents’ biological child. Competing with born-to cousins is hard enough, vying with a ghost child is impossible. I tried to make up for it by being everything my adoptive parents wanted. But no matter what, I was the substitute. Like a stunt double, I didn’t matter – only the one I represented mattered.

In reunion with my birth mother, I never measured up to my older half-sister, who also could have been an outsider if not for the fact she fit in so completely and had been the much-wanted first-born. As eldest daughter, she rules the family like a gracious queen. Our younger half-siblings of course are “in” because they were born as a result of the current marriage. Again, I’m the extra. A glorified in-law on a good day, a relative by technicality on a bad one. Welcomed, if not remembered.

“Whose birthday is next?” We were celebrating my half-brother’s in October years ago. His wife asked the question. I looked around expectantly, waiting for someone to say mine, since it was in December. It was decided our sister’s was next, in the spring. I was rendered invisible and mute, though I desperately wanted to say, “I’m next! Me! Don’t welcome me then forget about me!” My own mother regularly forgets my birthday. In part because of the trauma of relinquishment, in part because of the crush of the Christmas holiday, and in part because I am still not an expected component. I’m an afterthought.

I do not fit in with my birth mother’s family in other ways. Although the coloring is right, I look nothing like them. And even though our tastes are similar, my personality is often too harsh.

Where I do fit is with my birth father’s family, but I am not welcomed. When I met my paternal half-sister, I finally saw someone who looked like me, and whose biting humor matched my own. Yet I have never been with them, and never will. Completely shut out, not even an extra. When I first contacted those sisters, I reassured them they could think of me as their “auxiliary sister”, a spare to be called upon if necessary. And so help me, if they had needed a kidney I would have given them one. But instead, with no warning, I was shunned. Now I watch them from afar via social media, looking at the faces that are so much like mine, wondering if they ever think about me at all – their father’s mistake, the bastard child.

All the crap that was leftover. That’s what I see in the mirror.

Recently I spoke with other adoptees, and we all had the same experience in that even when accepted into our birth families, we are not really in. One foot in each world, belonging completely to neither. We are expected to maintain the relationships, to continuously reach out, even while knowing if we didn’t, we would not be missed. We were replaced before we even got there.

Today I posted one of those inspirational quotes online. It read, in part:

“Your worth isn’t contingent upon other people’s acceptance of you – it’s something inherent. You exist, and therefore, you matter.” ~ Daniell Koepke 

I hoped it would help other marginalized adoptees feel validated. Instead, one retorted: “A cockroach exists, too. What makes us matter is what we bring forth to the world.”

And here I thought only Christians routinely killed their wounded. Thanks. Nothing like being put on par with a cockroach.

All the crap that was leftover went into what you see in the mirror every morning.

I do try to do something good every day. To be worthy of existing. I fall short every day, and yet I continue. I have to because of my responsibilities. I’m the stand-in, the extra, the afterthought. This is my reality.

Update 2019 – In the six years since I wrote this, I cared for and buried my beloved adoptive father and now help care for my birth mother. I know intellectually I am an integral part of her life, but that primal feeling that I must constantly prove myself and ask permission for the least little thing never goes away. 

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread




2 thoughts on “Being The Extra

  1. Amazing post! Deep and moving, poignant and real. I heard and felt every word you wrote, my cribmate. I love when we can validate each other! We adoptees are seen like some “Pinnochio” waiting to be acknowledged as real. We are real!!! I understand your struggle, and I thank you for speaking it so well. ❤

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