My writing partner has been trying to get me to watch This is Us for months now. I finally sat down with her last night and, after getting a lesson on how to turn on the TV, I watched the first episode of the season with her.
On the show, the adopted man, Randall, is dealing with the fury of having found out that his mother, Rebecca, hid the identity of his birth father for 31 years, and, most hurtful, hid the fact that his birth father had requested contact when Randall was young. The scenes of Randall finally finding and confronting his birth father made me teary and sick to my stomach. Randall didn’t know his father had asked to see him. He thought his father had 100% abandoned him, and he thought this because his own mother lied to him about his roots.
There is a scene with Rebecca and her husband Jack where she is telling him why she doesn’t want Randall to ever have contact with his birth father. “He is my child. Mine,” she cries.
“And I’m not willing to lose him.” (I may be misquoting. I was a little freaked out when I heard her. I had flashbacks of hearing my mother saying pretty much the same thing.)
It makes me incredibly uncomfortable even to type those last sentences. I get the old reflex in my brain that tells me I’m in trouble, that I’d be better off not existing. I want to erase myself because the thoughts hurt so much. The fact that my existence caused my mother pain, deep pain, is borderline unbearable, even now, even when she’s dead.
Many parents who adopt live with a silent, deeply buried dread that someday they will lose the child they adopted to the birth parents. And this fear gets transmitted to the adoptee generally like this: please don’t have needs when it comes to the before we got you part of the story. Please be satisfied with us.
The couple in This is Us adopted because they lost one of their triplets during the birth. They had three cribs, three hand-knitted matching outfits. There was an empty space that needed to be filled, and there just happened to be a baby in the hospital nursery who’d been abandoned on the steps of a fire station. He needed a home; they had an empty space they wanted filled. Duh.
But wait. The child they adopted was not a place filler. He was a child with a past. Adopting a child and hoping the past starts the day you get him is like buying a plant and being upset when you find out it has roots.
This is what I want to tell you: adopting a child may be the bravest, most wonderful thing you will ever do, the greatest practice in love, and here’s why: if you are a healthy parent, you will live in the land of magical thinking, knowing that the following two statements are true: the child is both yours and not yours (as is true, really, of every parent on the planet), and yet you are going to give him everything you can so he can thrive, grow, and ultimately spread his wings and fly. You are going to love the child with no guarantees of getting anything back: love, a reflection of yourself, future grandchildren. You are adopting a child because the child has needs. Not because you do.
When my mother died, the one regret I had was that she had never held me like a baby so that we could both cry about the fact she wasn’t my birth mom. I loved my mother with all my heart, but I still wanted to know where I came from. I still wanted to know who my birth mother was and what the story of my birth was and what sort of things my DNA held. But I couldn’t talk openly about this desire, couldn’t write about adoption, until my mother was dead because I feared, when she was alive, that if I had been open about my needs, I would have killed her.
And yet she died anyway--maybe I should have just gone through with all this earlier. My mother was strong. The Boston area is full of therapists. Couldn’t she have survived me being fully expressive about being adopted? And what would it have looked like if she couldn’t survive? Would she have died sooner? Would she have given up on me? Abandoned me because she couldn’t meet my needs?
I felt so awful that my mother couldn’t just be enough for me. I felt like a dirty criminal. I wanted to bury my needs so I could come clean to my mother, be her little girl forever, purely, with no other needs in my heart but to be her child.
(Having an eating disorder when I was younger was one way of trying to bury my needs. There are so many ways to try to disappear.)
Existing can be painful. Ask the Buddha. Existing as an adoptee can be excruciating. Parents who adopt, we need your help. Get stronger. Have faith in our love. We don’t want to leave you. We just want to be ourselves. The person you adopted. The one with dangling roots.
*note - I never say "adoptive" parent. My mother is my mother. My father is my father. I have a birth mother and a birth father and a mother and a father. Don't try to take my parents away from me. She is my mom. He is my dad. Mine.