I’m not addressing you as adoptive parents, for that was never how I referred to my mom and dad. They were my parents, and to add an adjective such as adoptive, would mean, essentially, that while all my friends had parents, I had something else, something not as real. And my parents were very real. They were the ones who tucked me in at night, who read to me, who took me camping, who made sure I got through college. They were the ones who called me their daughter, who told me they loved me, who gave me a room of my own and a sense of family. I was the oldest daughter, the first grand-daughter, a cousin to many.
My parents treated me with respect. They rarely yelled at me and never hit or physically abused me. They took me to the doctor when I was ill. They bought me books they had loved when they were my age. They told me I was smart and beautiful and could do anything I wanted with my life.
I don’t remember being told I was adopted, so it feels like it’s something I have always known, like the fact I am a girl. I grew up thinking being adopted was not a big deal, just a little twist to who I was that would surprise people when I told them. I didn’t look adopted, so people would often have no idea what to say after I said my parents had picked me up at the agency when I was ten weeks old.
Being adopted made me feel special, unknowable. Like a had a secret room that no one else I knew had, except for my brothers. They also had no idea who their birth parents were or where they had been for the early part of their life. We were normal kids with secret compartments.
Except maybe we weren’t that normal. We did things that caused stress in our family life. We stole, lied, set fires, struggled in school, suffered from depression, fits of rage, things that were seen as either parenting problems or character flaws in each of us, but now, in my fifties, after spending a year researching and writing about adoption, I see that we were just acting like adoptees. But my parents, with their house full of books, had no books on parenting adopted children. Not one. And so they had no idea what to do with these children who just couldn’t seem to get their collective acts together.
My parents thought they were the problem. They also thought we were the problem.
Growing up, intellect mattered in our house. My mother was a writer and an editor, and my father was a lawyer. It was important to be able to express what we thought in a logical, grammatically correct manner. And we could talk about anything. Politics was an especially dear topic to my liberal parents. We could talk about anything except adoption. That was the one topic made my mother leave the room.
And this, I believe now, was the problem.
After writing a book about adoption, I created a private Facebook page as a place where adoptees could talk freely amongst themselves. Recently someone on the page asked if we had ever talked openly about adoption with our birth parents and/or adoptive parents. The emotion in the answers was palpable, and the consensus was “no”. A few people said yes, but the yeses seemed to come at a price. This is a private page, and so these posts are also private, but what I am trying to tell you is that adoptees generally do not feel free to talk about their feelings about being adopted with you.
Have you ever been in a bad accident? Like a car crash? You usually, for a period of time, sometimes for the rest of your life, tell the story of the accident over and over. Your brain is trying to process what happened, and you seek solace, understanding, and compassion in the telling. Human beings don’t just experience trauma and move on; we don’t just shake it off like a lion in the wild. We hold on to trauma. We act like crazy people because we hurt long after any visible physical damage is healed. The nervous system and the tissues of the body remember the trauma, and they feel the dis-ease.
When you are a child and your mother has to relinquish you, it’s a bad accident. It’s a car crash, and there is a death: the primary bond between you and your birth mother is gone.
When parents adopt a child, more often than not, they want a shiny child all their own. One whose past can fade away into the story of “This is us as a family. You are ours. We can love your past away.” But adopted children are covered with the fingerprints of the birth parents, of the social workers, of god knows who else because so many of us don’t know where we were or who took care of us before we were adopted.
Adopted children aren’t clean of the past. We carry it with us, and when you, sweet parents, try to look at us as unmarked, as solely yours, you do not see us. And the damage is awful.
To not be seen wholly by your parents means you are not real. It means no one really loves you as you are. It means you can trust no one, for if the people who raise you and love you cannot see you for who you are, who in the world possibly can?
The solution is conversation. I used to draw princesses when I was a child. I thought my birth mother was a queen, and when I was angry at my mom, I used to imagine that one day my birth mother would come in her snowy carriage and take me back to my castle. What if my mother had one day asked me to draw my birth mother next to one of my princesses? What if my mother’s face had looked open and loving and curious as she said the words “birth mother”? What if I felt my mother was sincerely interested in my past? In my story of origin?
I would have felt so free, so validated. So real.
My mother is dead now, and I will never be able to tell her that for as much as I wanted to meet my birth mother, my heart had a mother, and it was her, my mom. The woman who raised me. I can never cry as my mother holds me and tell her how much it hurts sometimes to be adopted and to feel both real and not real. I can never tell her how confusing it is to know I could have been anyone. I can’t talk to her about the fact that she and my father didn’t choose me: I was given to them. They could have just as easier adopted another child in my place. These facts are confusing and painful.
It feels better to say these things out loud. It’s the holding in that really hurts. The pain of adoption is lessened, I believe, when a child or adult is free to say it hurts.
Life hurts. We are born to die, and this fact is painful. Adoptees were relinquished. This fact is also painful. But we are alive, and that’s the glorious part. That’s the part we get to play with. But let us have both: the pain and the glory. It’s who we are. Let us talk. You’re going to have to ask a lot of questions because we don’t want to hurt your feelings. Read up on adoptees. Fill your bookshelves. Talk about adoption until you are blue in the face. Don’t worry about talking about it too much. The adoptee knows how to change the topic if she wants. She knows how to talk about weather. Or politics.
Talk until the word adoption falls from your mouth like the word mother or father. Life-giving. Loving. Holy.
And then keep talking.
May this coming new year bless us all.