The Cost Of Hidden Stress

The trauma that afflicts many adoptees occurred pre-language and so the source of it’s effects can seem mysterious but the impacts are very real. Today, I learned about this man – LINK>Dr Gabor Mate. It seemed to fit what I am posting so often in this blog that I thought I would make today’s about him.

For example, one of his books is titled When The Body Says No – “disease can be the body’s way of saying no to what the mind cannot or will not acknowledge.” Dr Mate also believes that “The essential condition for healthy development is the child’s relationship with nurturing adults.” And yet, time and again, I read from adoptees that their adoptive parents were really not prepared to be the kind of parents this subset of our population needed. Under Topics, he has many articles related to LINK>Trauma.

During the pandemic, in April 2021, Dr Mate hosted an online event with Zara Phillips. She is the author of LINK>Somebody’s Daughter, subtitled A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption. The event information noted that adoptees and children who are fostered are over-represented in the prison system, addiction clinics and are 4 times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. This talk considered why that would be and what, if anything adoptees and their caregivers can do about it. For many, when we talk about adoption, we talk about placing children in need, into loving homes to parents that want them. The assumption behind these conversations is that love will overcome all challenges and obstacles. What we don’t talk about, or rarely, is that the adoption in the new home comes about because another home has ended, or perhaps not even begun. We forget that all adoption is formed from loss. Love is essential but it is not enough. They discussed what it means to carry the trauma of being relinquished. How adoption is not a one-time event but has a lifelong impact. They considered how unresolved trauma can lead to addiction and suicidal thinking. Also what, if anything, an adoptee (and those that support them) can do to heal and recover.

Often adoptive parents think that their love will be enough but time and again that is proven wrong when it comes to adopted children. Dr Mate brings up the myth of the blank slate baby which Georgia Tann used to highlight in selling babies.

There is a LOT at Dr Mate’s website. I believe much that is there could prove helpful to the people who read and follow my blog. Absolutely, he is about how to heal.

Romanticized Christmas Adoption

It’s everywhere, not only at this time of year but throughout the year. One adoptee wrote – be aware of your Christmas movie viewing. The orphan/adoption plot line is strong this time of year! you may be looking for Christmas movies to view with your children. I have personally decided to use this as an opportunity to teach my kids about my adoption status, and help empower them to be educated non-adopted members of society, and hopefully avoid their desensitization/romanticized experience of others’ adoptive storylines. Join me in my campaign to keep the trauma-aware population growing! (Yes, I am part of such a campaign !!)

Regarding Christmas Princess on Amazon Prime: a former foster care youth adoptee whose adoptee status is her vehicle to position herself as a Rose Bowl Parade princess. There are flashback scenes to her addicted first mother’s neglect, their home removal, and some overt/horrifically blatant guilt tripping from her adoptive parents. (The adoptee says – I’m not being sensitive…when she is wrestling with her attachment issues and then *surprise* is approached by her birth mother, she tells her adoptive parents about it. Her adoptive dad says “it’s like you don’t appreciate everything we’ve done for you! When will you learn we’re you’re family!” Pretty tough to watch for me and they just gloss over it like that was excellent parenting and she’s the one with the problem. Needless to say, I was triggered – which doesn’t happen all that often for me.)

The adoptee adds this side note – as a kid I had an obsession with orphan stories. (Blogger’s note – it is interesting that I was too but I thought my adoptee parents were orphans when in reality they were not – there were families out there living lives we were unaware of.) I read every tragic book I could find, and was not triggered—only intrigued—by the plethora of stories I found (in my desire to romanticize my situation.) So, I’m not saying don’t let them watch potentially triggering material. I mean, by all means, if you know they have a trigger, for the love of everything, please respect that. Not all kids are able to articulate their reactions, so I’m just saying, as in all good parenting: be alert, be aware, be available to talk it out. Literally pause the movie and say “that was completely out of bounds for him to be guilting her like that. It really rubbed me the wrong way. What do you think?” and follow it up with intentional discussion “why do movie makers seem to gravitate toward adoption stories? What do you think that’s about? How do you feel about that?” or “do you like movies that involve adoption? Do you ever relate to the characters? I find myself sympathetic to the adoptive mom, I don’t want her to feel rejected, but even more so, I find myself feeling protective of the kid. The top priority should be their well-being, right?” Engage engage engage! If they happen to open up to you, please please be encouraging and sympathetic in your response!!! If I had felt free to express all of my curiosity, emotion, feelings of rejection without dismissive “How could you not feel lovable?! We love you SO much!” I would have processed much of my adoption better along the way.

Other themed Christmas movies – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer – the island of misfits, Santa Paws (note – my wife watched it and was surprised it has a foster care theme, with it showing the foster mom as mean and evil.), Elf (Buddy is a late discovery adoptee who learns he is not in fact an elf like he had always believed, despite it being very obvious because of his physical size. The whole movie is about reunion with his father and there are some hard rejection moments in there.), Annabelle’s Christmas Wish (is about a boy who is orphaned and lives with his grandfather. There is holiday magic but also an entire plot about how his wealthy aunt is weaponizing Child Protective Services to take the boy away). There are probably others, this is just a short list offered so far.

From an adoptive parent who adopted from foster care – I’m pretty sensitive when adoption is part of a story line, and always concerned about how my adopted child will feel upon watching movies centered around adoption. But yes, my daughter is very intrigued by adoption stories and it gives us a chance to discuss healthy vs. non-healthy relationships and how no two families are the same. She doesn’t yet know everything that happened to put her into foster care. I appreciate hearing adoptees’ perspectives to know how to better navigate parenting her.

Never Good Enough

I’m going to let this person’s words stand on their own merits and be “enough.” Not being “enough” in whatever way is a common experience for adoptees.

I’ve always been the black sheep of the family with how shitty my mental health has been since I was young. Always getting in trouble for being ‘too sensitive’. Yelled at, shamed, ignored or bullied into silence. My adoptive parents had high expectations of me and gave me such a great life. I tried to live up to that, but always fell short…nothing was ever good enough for them. I have burned myself out trying to please them and ultimately turned to addiction to self-medicate.

I was diagnosed with ADD at 14, so I could be put into a private school because I was ‘too difficult’. I wasn’t…I just had a hard time coping in school and understanding everything…It was very expensive and they hold it over my head a lot, because my mental health never recovered enough to attend a university or college…my step brothers also had mental health issues as well, but they’ve both turned out financially successful. They compare us a lot. One brother won’t even acknowledge me anymore, even in family settings, ‘because of how much I’ve put the family through’… the shame is soul-crushing.

It’s been just over a year in recovery, but they’re always quick to point out what I’m doing wrong. They think ‘I should be fixed by now’, yet still tell me I need to improve because no one likes to be around me. This is a long time in the making, but I’m officially exploring an Autsim diagnosis. I’ve kept this to myself, because in the past, they’ve gotten very angry about it…they tell me somethings wrong with me but REFUSE to accept that it’s likely autism, because ‘that would make them,’ a bad parent…it’s not about THEM. It’s about understanding ME. My meltdowns, my mood swings, my ‘weirdness’, how I relate and have relationships with people and the world itself. I’ve been involved with different psychiatrists since childhood, because I was ‘too sensitive’. I feel like I have to argue this diagnosis to them for them to accept and try to understand me.

They tell me I’m a hypochondriac for trying to find something that’s wrong, yet they’re the ones TELLING ME there’s something wrong with me and that I need to seek help. I’m on meds, in therapy, I’ve been on disability long term, which pays my rent and food. I feel I’m doing EVERYTHING I can to make things work…but they’re not doing anything to help this situation, then tell me I’m the problem. I was told recently after an interaction, when I attempted to put up an emotional boundary and explain it, that life isn’t fair and I have to do things I don’t like. I calmly told them, ‘I don’t like much in life, but still I’m rising to meet the task’. The fact that I was stating my needs right then – caused a blowout and I was kicked out of the car.

Honestly I’m so hurt and tired. The self-hatred and shame never goes away…I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming others and not taking responsibility for my actions. I was so blinded by wanting to stop the pain through addiction, I didn’t know how it affected everyone else. I was trying to self-destruct, instead of hurting anyone else’s feelings. When self-medicating, I’d isolate, so others wouldn’t get roped into my misery. I didn’t steal or beg family or friends for money. I wanted my parents to know that I respected them enough not to take their things, even when I was self-destructing.

Now that I’m realizing I was trying to manage my autism, PTSD, ADD – I have started talking with my doctor and therapist about making positive changes to help me. But I’m at a loss with my family. They won’t be receptive to this the possibility of autism and will think I’m ‘trying to find something else to blame’. I’m not…I’m just trying to understand myself, so I can function in this society. Like they’ve wanted me to all along. I’ve been killing myself trying to make them happy and it never feels like enough.

Understanding To Do Better

From a Foster/Adoptive Mother – though here is one adoptee’s comment – This must be satirical. You’re joking, right ?, you must be. You cannot really be this ignorant, while still “collecting” your trophies. Disgusting. So with that in mind, here goes –

I have one biological child. Friends of mine adopted 2 unrelated children at birth. When my friends passed away, I first took guardianship of their children (ages 14 & 11) and adopted them two years later. They are now adults and struggle with the many traumas of their childhood. My daughter’s first adoption was open and she has positive contact with her birth family. My son’s first adoption was closed. Upon reaching adulthood, he found another family to call his own and is pursuing adult adoption.

I am also a foster parent to babies age 0 to 2. I went into this thinking that I would provide love to a child in need, until they could return to their family. If a child is reunified but then comes back into care, they return to me. If they cannot be reunified with parents or extended family, or if they are placed with someone who has one of their siblings, there is always the option for them to make the choice to instead stay with me. No child who comes through my doors will ever lack for permanency.

Fostering is not all sunshine and light. Most of my placements were born addicted. Two children each came to me with multiple fractures (skull, arm, leg, ribs). I can more easily advocate for reunification with addicts in treatment than for physical abusers. I most recently adopted the infant placed with me at three days. The termination of parental rights was heartbreaking. Even so, I celebrated this adoption.

I know that adoption is not all happily ever after. I will continue to make the effort to better understand the harsher realities of adoption.

Personally, I think this is better than not trying at all. At the beginning of today’s blog – I indicated that some of the comments were not kind nor gentle. There is certainly more than a hint of saviorism. Here’s another one – you shouldn’t be allowed to care for anyone’s children. You are clearly toxic and think you own them and the right to decide the narratives of their lives. I’m so sad and so angry on behalf of the children who have to call someone “mom” who is so unwilling to honestly learn.

Recognize Your Worth

Many adoptees don’t even realize that they are carrying unhealed trauma with them throughout their lives. Because for infants who were adopted, this trauma occurred during a per-verbal stage of their lives, they lacked words to describe what their emotions were saying to them. Both of my parents were adopted when they were less than one year old. My mom was adopted after having been placed temporarily in Porter Leath orphanage as my desperate maternal grandmother tried mightily to find a way to support the two of them with Georgia Tann circling them like a vulture. My dad was adopted after the Salvation Army coerced my paternal grandmother into relinquishing him. So both of my parents were carrying unhealed trauma throughout their lives.

The various ways people anesthetize themselves . . . is a wail from the deep. I once listened to Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Weight Loss on cd. I gained a lot of insight into my own compulsive eating experiences listening to her. I see how clothing our bodies in excess weight is a protective device. Both of my parents were more or less overweight their entire lives. I am told that my father was still breastfeeding with his original mother when he was taken for adoption. My mother struggled with her body image due to an adoptive mother who was obsessed by eating and weight issues. I have one memorable experience of that with my adoptive grandmother when she took me to England and embarrassed me dining at The Dorchester in London when I reached for a warm dinner role. I didn’t talk to her for almost 24 hours but gave it up in favor of not ruining our whole experience there together.

Your Blogger at The Dorchester

My mom was passive and secretive about eating. Some of that behavior certainly filtered down to me. My dad struggled with some drunken experiences, one that I didn’t even learn about until after he died, when my sister and I found a letter from him about spending a night in jail for DWI and praying not to lose his job and family over it. But after he was “saved”, he didn’t stop drinking – though he was never a violent alcoholic – and able to work even double shifts and nights at an oil refinery.

Joel Chambers writes about The Lifelong Challenges of Adoptees at the LINK> Search Angels website – Adoptees face more traumas, and more challenges, than many other people, and it affects their lives in ways that we are just beginning to understand. He has also written a post, speaking at great length about how addiction, in all of its various forms, is all too common among adoptees. These have experiences such as grief and loss, self-esteem and identity issues, substance abuse and addiction, mental health, and challenges to the types of relationships that they can form with their adoptive families. Adoptees also deal with feelings of grief, separation, and loss for their biological parents and birth families, even if they never knew them. 

A healing I didn’t even know I needed started in the Autumn of 2017, when I began learning what my parents never knew – who my original grandparents were. Then, it was only natural that I really begin learning about this thing called adoption. My daughter once said to me – “it seems like you are on a mission.” True, guilty as charged.

My Past Does Not Dictate My Future

I was very sad to learn that this kind of governmental judgement takes place.

“I was adopted into a foster home in the 80’s. My babies were just taken from me and are being adopted out. I keep hearing how they will be fine and have great lives and how they won’t experience the same life I have had.”

The first commenter acknowledged – “Sadly Child Protective Services does think that if you grew up in the system, you will not be good enough to be a parent.”

Yet another put forth a different perspective –

I am a former foster care youth that aged out of the system and became a foster parent. It is a lot of hard work to be a parent, especially a parent with trauma. It is something I am aware of and ‘show up and work on every day!’ But that doesn’t mean that we will not be good enough to be good parents or can’t be good parents. Does it mean we have to work harder and be aware that we have trauma that a lot of people don’t?! Yes! But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t incapable, it just means we actively work every day to be different then the generations before us! Child Protective Services asked me very extensively about my past and trauma, and I had to prove in a lot of ways how I have worked on it and that I am aware of it and continue to be aware of it. And work on my trauma and triggers as they arise. Now that doesn’t mean that former foster care youth and other people with trauma aren’t at higher risk for having Child Protective Services involved or their children removed. Because unfortunately, many of the kids I grew up with in the foster system are still in some way involved in the system or dead, it is a hard trauma to break out of. But honestly I feel like a lot of that, comes from the fact that everyone in my life, told me I would never be any better than my parents, or better then my genetics. We need to start telling these children with trauma that our pasts do not dictate our futures, we get to control them. We get to be better. And we need to help them do that. Before their inner voice turns into this message of ‘I’ll never be good enough, so why try to be better?’.

It is a tough world out there for a lot of people. Not every one has the same experience. Here is one that turned out “better” than “worse,” and still . . .

After finding my biological family and meeting my sisters, I definitely had the better life (theirs was full of switching homes, being raised by different people, drugs and addictions, and poverty). I was raised as an only child and had college paid for by my adoptive parents – up to my masters degree. They also helped me and my husband buy our house. Does adoption still affect me? Heck yeah it does. I have horrific abandonment issues, anxiety and depression.

This experience is also VERY COMMON among adoptees –

I was adopted at birth. My adoptive parents were great, and I didn’t deal with a lot of the issues I’ve seen mentioned by other adoptees (favoritism, neglect, abuse, doing the bare minimum, etc) I love them very much and consider them my parents. I would imagine my childhood is what most adoptive parents think they will provide, and birth moms think they’re giving their child up to.

But I still have always had this very deep sense of not belonging or fitting in anywhere. Feeling that everyone will leave me, I can never be good enough. I don’t ever feel “home”. I always thought there was something wrong with me, and despite my best intentions or efforts I still just couldn’t do it “right”.

And I do agree with this person –

I was adopted into an amazing family, always loved and cared for. Had a good life and am a privileged adult. I have a good relationship with my biological family too. However, I despise adoption. It affected me in negative ways regardless of my “good” adoptive family and upbringing. It also has the ability to greatly affect our children and future generations. The trauma gets passed down. Nothing about adoption is ok. It should be a crime to separate families simply because there is money to be made from a demand greater than a supply. We need to overhaul our system so that adoption is nearly non-existent, like it is in other countries.

The outcomes are always unique and individual. No need to not all or even so –

I was adopted within a year of my birth. I had crappy adoptive parents. My life became significantly better after I was kicked out. I worked extremely hard to pay my way through college and live on my own. Life got even better when they stopped talking to me permanently. My biological kids are amazing and so is my marriage. However, I still sit and wait, expecting it to all fall apart. I don’t feel deserving.

One last perspective –

I was adopted at birth and have felt “lost” my whole life – empty – and have struggled. I’ve never felt complete and have always had bonding issues even with my own children. It’s like I love mentally but emotionally it’s a struggle to feel. If that makes sense. I’ve went through years of counseling, when I was in my 40s. I’ve worked my DNA, so I know who all my people are. I have a good relationship with my birth dad and some biological siblings and I now feel complete. But the love side of me, the connection…. I still don’t have it and probably never will.

I have often described my own adoptee parents (yes, both were adopted) as “good” parents but strangely detached. I blame adoption for that.

Loss of Custody in Domestic Abuse

Let’s talk about domestic abuse and child custody.

For everyone who is convinced that children only end up in foster care and/or adopted because the parents were abusive, guess what? Women in abusive relationships are especially vulnerable to losing custody of their children. Spouses/intimate partners use custody of children as an abuse tactic.

Examples:

–If you leave me, you’ll never see your children again.

–Filing false/malicious child abuse reports if you succeed in leaving with your children

–Deliberately impoverishing you so you can’t afford to provide for your children to the standard required by social workers

–poisoning authorities against you by using things like depression, addiction, etc. to paint you as an unfit mother

–deliberately getting you pregnant to make you vulnerable and unable to leave the relationship

Domestic abuse services are notoriously underfunded and unsupervised. Unscrupulous providers can get away with neglectful or even downright harmful treatment of the vulnerable women in their care because it’s non-profit, charity funded, and people assume that they’re doing good things.

Someone in an abusive relationship is in the most danger when they try to leave the relationship.

A tactic abusers might use is to always keep one child with them (as a way to make sure you can’t leave without putting that child in danger).

Abusers might explicitly favor one child over another, creating a situation where one child contributes to the mistreatment of the other child.

An abuser might groom a child to make false accusations against you (projecting and protecting themselves, the real abuser).

Of course not all cases are the same, but there are too many situations in which the mom would be a perfectly fit parent, if she just had enough support. All the things that we talk about – help getting a job, affordable daycare with flexible hours, supplemental income for pregnancy and maternity leave periods, actual maternity leave, and in this particular example, trauma therapy/mentoring/emotional support.

Someone who has fled an abusive relationship often has to cut off contact with family and friends. If there are children involved, this might be a requirement from social services (such as: if you move back to that area, you will lose your child because you’re being a bad parent putting them at risk).

That means being especially isolated when you’re already vulnerable and unwell and stressed. If your case goes to court (and many don’t, due to lack of funds or resources or simply not being able to cope), this can trigger more danger for you and your children. Some women successfully flee an abusive relationship with their child(ren), only to have their children taken away later.

Now imagine that you’re a foster carer or adopter in this situation. You’ve been told by social workers that the child was removed from an abusive family and that you’re “rescuing” them. You’re told the parents are a danger to the children. You’re told about addiction and jail time and all kinds of fairy tale reasons why you now have custody of the perfect parentless child who is yours to shape as you will.

You then go onto social media and repost this false story everywhere. Launch fundraisers, complain that your stipend “isn’t that much,” and say that you need respite care because caregiver burnout is so awful and claim you have “Post adoption depression.”

The reality is that you have no idea what the hell these children have been through. You have no idea what their parents’ situation was like.

Case in point – “Most recently I’ve watched a young lady whose abuser isn’t the parent of her children. He manipulated, punished, and such – until he was able to get the two children to their biological father by feeding him false information. This caused the biological father to be able to gain emergency custody and a restraining order against the mother. All while this same abuser has promised he is “going to help her get her kids back so they can be a family.”

Why Foster ? Not to Adopt.

Recently, a woman contacted me through private message on my Facebook page for this blog. She wanted to know what my group (which it actually isn’t) was about and I explained it to her, as I have often, both of my parents were adopted and both of my sisters surrendered babies to adoption. The blog is about all things adoption but along the way, I also learned about foster care and I shared with her the book I read – Foster Girl by Georgette Todd. She is interested in becoming a foster parent and I suggested the Facebook group I belong to because there are a lot of former foster care youth and current foster parents there who can share with her the reality.

As luck would have it, I spotted this guest essay in Huffington Post and thought I would make this the basis of today’s blog. Here’s Why We Became Foster Parents, Even Though We Aren’t Looking To Adopt by Stephanie Kaloi. She adds “For us, foster care is a kind of community service; it’s a gift that we can give.” It is a reprint of the original written in just after Christmas in 2019.

Our journey toward becoming foster parents began about five years ago, when we realized two truths: Having a second biological child would be nearly impossible and was not necessary for our family’s happiness, and there was a way to experience parenting many children (and for our son to have many siblings) while also doing our part in our community.

Enter foster care.

So we did what every potential foster parent does first: searched “What is foster parenting really like???” online. Unhappy with the results, which were largely a grab bag of blog posts from people who foster to minister religion to unsuspecting children and their families and people who are hoping to adopt their foster children from Day 1 of placement, I started sending a flurry of texts to a friend who also happens to be a longtime foster parent.

Her advice essentially boiled down to three things: One, the relationship you have with the biological parent(s) of your foster children is sacred and should be nurtured as much as the relationship you have with the kids. Two, foster care is unpredictable and there’s no point making plans for how it will go. And three, if you really want to do it … stop taking up my time and sign up for a class already.

My husband and I signed up for around eight weeks of PATH classes, which are the classes that all foster parents take before becoming certified. It’s meant to be all-inclusive, but the reality is that you are in class for two to four hours each Saturday covering huge topics, like ethnic diversity and poverty and child abuse.

The path to becoming a foster parent seems bizarre in retrospect: You take the classes, complete the home study process and boom! You’re now qualified to raise someone else’s child in your home for an indeterminate amount of time.

Still, the training felt like one of the most intense, personal experiences we had shared together. We went into classes knowing we were hoping to foster children, but left classes knowing we wanted to foster children and foster their families — we wanted to support the birth parents of any children we might foster as much as we support their children.

We knew going into it that we could handle the babies and toddlers and school-aged kids of the world (we’ll get to teens … one day), but we left class feeling reasonably certain that we could extend ourselves and support their parents, too.

Approaching foster care as fostering the entire family was a turning point for both of us. The idea gave us a phrase we could use whenever someone asked what our plans were. While the Department of Child Services and PATH leaders constantly remind you that the first goal of foster care is reunification with a child’s family, just about everyone in our classes was transparent about their desire to build their family through adoption.

As someone who wrestled with not being able to conceive a second child the easy way for years, I understood … but as our classmates became more focused on their adoption goals and learning how to work the system in their favor, we became more focused on reunification goals, and learning how the system works against parents who lose custody of their children.

The more we learned, the more it became clear: Just as many in our society will call the cops the second there is even a hint of a perceived threat anywhere nearby, many in our society assume that having your children placed in state custody means you are a predator, a child abuser, an addict ― that are you the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low.

And to be fair, there are plenty of people who are one of those things (or all of those things), and sometimes children are better off with foster and adoptive families. But in our experience … there are just as many people who are simply poor, or uneducated, or who have no perceived alternatives to whatever struggle they are facing.

This is the idea that fed our goal to approach this experience as fostering families: If you don’t grow up with someone teaching you how to successfully pull off what many consider basic life feats, it can feel impossible to figure out how to get a job, pay rent, pay your bills, pay for childcare, provide food consistently, read to your children, play with your children, kick your addiction, etc. Without consistent, healthy support, just attempting to do so is often an insurmountable challenge.

If no one in your family has ever done those things, the odds are stacked against you. When you think about it, a lot of Americans are probably closer than they think to one mistake that could land their own children in DCS custody. (I know that when my sons were very young, I worried that our un-orthodox parenting choices such as unschooling our children or when they acted up in public and required some kind of immediate response from us, not later but in that very moment, we could lose our children due to the interference of do-good, well-meaning people.)

I am not saying that every parent who loses custody is an angel who just needs a leg up. I’m also not saying that every parent who adopts from foster care didn’t try to do exactly what we do. I think one truth all foster parents can agree on is that there is a lot of gray area in foster care.

We didn’t find out we were actually certified until we received a phone call asking if we would be willing to take a sibling set of two into our home. Let me tell you this straight out: I don’t know how anyone, especially first-time foster parents, says no to those calls. Our plan was to foster one child, up to age 8, and we ended up with two babies under 2 because I literally could not imagine saying no.

So what do we do, then, if we aren’t answering a higher religious calling to foster, we aren’t related to the children we foster, and we aren’t planning or secretly hoping to adopt any children? I mean, I suppose I am ministering, kind of: These kids have been introduced to a wide berth of music that we hold dear, and the youngest really enjoyed watching ”Homecoming” when it came out.

But to be real, we begin by nurturing their families, their parents, from Day 1. We offer phone numbers, email addresses, Facebook Messenger access. We start the conversation by telling them our names, describing what our home is like, asking what foods their children like to eat, and telling them we aren’t trying to adopt their babies. We tell them to message us anytime, and that if they don’t hear from us within five hours or so, to message again.

We ask when we can supervise visits, when we can meet up at playgrounds and parks, way before social workers are talking about us doing so. We talk about their goals, their plans, and what they need to get from where they are to reunification of their family.

The “TL; DR” version is this: We begin each placement by treating the parents like they are human beings, like they are people who we might want to know, instead of like they are a scary Other who is standing in our way. Sometimes it doesn’t work, we don’t form a relationship and things go sour. Other times, it works but requires ongoing attention and support, and that’s an exhausting thing to give someone you have met a handful of times.

None of this is easy, and it often feels like foster care is a second full-time job. We are perpetually exhausted by the sheer emotional weight of this journey that we entered into willfully, and that’s not even including the lived reality of nurturing additional children, of loving them, holding them, waking up in the middle of the night with them, feeding them, reading to them, guiding them. Teaching them all the things we taught our son: the ABCs and 123s, who Elmo is and why we love him, the names of The Beatles because it might come in handy someday, how to sit up and how to use a fork. You know, the parenting part of foster parenting.

We have been lucky so far: We have worked with excellent social workers who are very patient, helpful, and kind. The parents we have co-parented with have been easy to talk to, love their children a lot, and a lot of the time, they just need someone in their corner. And this need is the crux of why we are fostering children and their families: For us, foster care is a kind of community service; it’s a gift that we can give.

Sure, it’s a lot more involved than donating books or cleaning a classroom on a Saturday, but it’s something that makes sense for us right now, in this season of our lives. We won’t do it forever, but we are doing it right now. One of the most important ideas our family tries to follow is that while we may not be able to effect meaningful growth and change in areas of the world that are far away, we can do work in our own community that will help people we live and work with grow.

And that alone makes this entire wild ride worth it.

It’s About Being Divided In Two

Two Forms (Divided Circle) 1969
by Dame Barbara Hepworth

At the bottom of this blog, I’ll link the Adoption & Addiction, Remembered Not Recalled video by Paul Sunderland but first, for those who don’t want to watch for almost an hour, I share a few snippets.

The issue of adoption is all about divided attention, it’s all about 2 sets of families. It’s all about the conflicting feelings of wanting to belong, yet fearing belonging. (As the child of two adoptees, I’m certain this has filtered down into my own soul. I have never felt that I added up to be as much as the golden people I surround myself with – whether in social online networking communities or in my writer’s guild up in St Louis – those are just two examples but it probably goes back into my childhood as well.)

Adoption is a pretty weird word because it’s about the only condition that doesn’t really describe what has happened. Talking about adoption is a denial of relinquishment. The relinquishment wounds can be seen as a developmental post-traumatic stress disorder.

The word adoption is a cover-up. When we think about the adoption triangle, we think about the 3 parties in adoption. The adopted child, there are the birth or natural parents and there is the adoptive parent(s). Sunderland’s focus in his lecture is mostly about the adopted child. And as the title of his lecture suggests, his lecture is also about the apparent addition of addiction to that adopted child.

(And I do believe it is in struggling with an abandonment that one is lead into addiction. As an aside, we watched the 2008 Will Smith movie Hancock last night. He is an alcoholic and it seems to me that his alcoholism is due to similar issues of not knowing who one is at the core and feeling abandoned but not knowing by who.)

Back to the Sunderland lecture, he says that when he encounters birth parents in a treatment setting they usually say, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what happened.”

Adoptees are massively over-represented in treatment. And that leads to a question, Why is that ?

He has met quite a few adoptive parents, particularly as cross-cultural adoptions have been so popular. It is clear that many are feeling like, this is just not what we signed up to do.

Sunderland’s perspective is that there are NO adoptions without trauma. What he is talking about in his lecture is an enormous grief. A baby who has been waiting 9 months to meet somebody that they are not going to meet. It is about a mother who cannot live with having her child because society has told her that she cannot do it. Relinquishment goes against her biology.

And very often, the adoptive parents come into adoption carrying their own enormous grief due to having been unable to have a child of their own, naturally. One of the problems that Sunderland has with the word adoption is that it covers up the adoptive parents own grief.

So often, an adoptee will be told that they were chosen but the reality is that child has entered into a family that does not genetically fit them and given an impossible job description. They are forced to be someone that they can never actually be to fix the wound that the adoptive parents have. Infertility is an enormous disappointment for a couple and adoption tries to cover that up.

For an adoptee, the issue of abandonment is life threatening. There is nothing worse than to be separated from the one person (your mother) who you needed most at the beginning of your life. This is preverbal – it can’t be recalled – however, it IS remembered.

The word adoption tries to suggest that it is going to be a happily ever after situation. The human brain begins working before it is entirely built and experience is what programs the brain. If the beginning is a trauma and separation, then this is the experience that is wiring the neurons in the brain of the infant. For an adoptee there is a constant desire to attach accompanied by the conflicting sense that it isn’t safe to do so. There is no pre-trauma personality in an adoptee because there is no normal to compare this experience to as there would be for other traumatic events (war, car accidents, etc).

Being born prematurely and placed into an incubator is another kind of relinquishment when the infant leaves that containing environment. If a child is placed into foster care, that is also a relinquishment. Each change of foster family is yet another in a series of relinquishments. And second chance adoptions, where an adopted child is given back, is another relinquishment. In some cross-cultural adoptive situations, the child is born into such poverty, they are separated from the mother into an orphanage.

The bonding of an infant with their human mother actually begins 2 months before birth, while in utero, as proven by multiple experiments. Adoptees will often share that they have heard stories that they cried and cried. And I think of the mention of that in my mom’s adoption file via a letter from her adoptive mother to the Tennessee Children’s Home about the train trip upsetting my mom but that the doctor had her settled down now (and I always think – they drugged her, though it is not said directly). And I can understand now that my mom was relinquished twice because her mother took her to Porter Leath Orphanage in desperation for TEMPORARY care while she tried to get on her feet because her lawfully married husband had abandoned her and did not respond to a letter that the Juvenile Court in Memphis had written to him about his obligations.

Sunderland speaks about the stability of a child being dependent on a mother being able to know herself (which certainly was a black hole, actually for both of my parents, that I had until I was well over 60 years old and began to discover my own adoptee parents origin stories). People who are adopted and end up in treatment, often present themselves as fairly well put together.

Sunderland speaks of “love addiction” as needing to have the positive regard of a significant other. Addiction is genetically proposed and environmentally disposed. The hormonal aspects of having been relinquished are similar to living one’s life on red alert. In an adoption, there is a slow loss of self. A belief that they cannot be them self and get along with the people with whom they have been placed. The hormonal aspects affect sleep and stomach issues (and certainly my mom had her share of gastrointestinal issues throughout her entire life). Real difficulties managing moods (I think of my dad’s underlying seething anger that occasionally popped out).

If you think about serotonin, it is a soothing hormone. Addiction is usually an effort to self soothe. Eating sugar is one such effort to self soothe. Both of my parents were seriously diabetic and myself to some extent (though I am trying to manage my own sugar issues without ending up on insulin). Serotonin also manages shame and let’s you know you are okay but if your levels are low, the answer is “I’m not okay.”

Some people are not given up at birth and that was certainly true with both of my parents who spent 6-8 months with their original mothers before being adopted. People who diet and then give up on themselves, often multiple times. The chemicals in the brains of adoptees who have early psychological wounds are very different from other people without this personal background.

Adoptees have a tendency towards catastrophic thinking, always expecting the worst. The original wound of being separated from their mother was a life-threatening one. Shame is an unacknowledged aspect that is the understanding that I am not good enough, the bad baby (I’m unworthy, unlovable, there is something flawed in me) because if I was given up by my mother, I don’t have value. People pleasing arises from this feeling. How do I need to be to be accepted ?

Being extremely self-reliant (if you want something done, do it yourself) is also an outcome. It is interesting to note that both of my parents’ mothers had early abandonment or separation wounds from their own mothers caused by the deaths of their mothers. My dad’s mother had the worst one as her mother died when she was only 3 mos old. When she discovered that she was pregnant by a married man that she was not married to, she simply handled it herself and he never knew. With my mom’s mother, she was in her pre-teens and had to become “mom” to her 4 siblings.

Shame and anxiety are at the root of all addictions. There is an attempt to manage anxiety by managing the externals out there. Addictions are attempts to put anxieties elsewhere and explain the inexplicable. And there is the belief that somehow it is your own fault. Up until about the age of 10, infants and children believe that everything that happens to them, happened because of them.

In life, it’s not so much what happens to you as how secure you were with your early attachments. Roots, the secure base. Without these, one is less resilient. Adaption is a better word for what is done, not adoption. Adoptees end up with two minds. Real difficulties making decisions. The limbic system – fight, flight or freeze – is what kicks in with the catastrophic thinking. It is the part of the brain that developed before the frontal cortex. If you have an attachment wound, you never learned how to become a separate person. Any successful relationship exists in separateness, not in trying to adapt yourself to be accepted by that other person. The erotic exists in the space between the two. The real challenge for an adopted person is to actually BE their own self.

The Damage Done By Addiction

It is a personal issue for me but people do sometimes recover. Just this morning I was reading an article by a woman who admitted the difficulty of recovering from the trauma of her past and four addictions. Today’s story –

I am a foster parent and have a one year old child in my home who I have had since she left the hospital. I have a good relationship with her parents, I think about as good as can be expected in this situation. We text frequently, exchange pictures, arrange visits outside of the court-mandated ones. They love her endlessly but are deep into struggles with addiction. Both have had a few stints where they go to treatment for a day or two (so, there does not appear to be a barrier with access to treatment) but do not stick with it. Addiction has been a long-time struggle for both parents.

Her case is very much still open and I am still trying to help them into treatment. But, it’s to the point where the department is asking about permanent placement options. The child has a relative (I think mom’s second cousin, not positive on the exact relationship) who lives about three hours away and is not in contact with the rest of the first family. Relative has said she would adopt if needed, but didn’t want to be the first choice. Parents were asked who they would want to adopt and they said me. I had not talked to them about this and didn’t know it was being asked, so I don’t think they felt pressured. If we get to that point, I would try to facilitate a relationship that’s beyond “open” – i.e., I would invite them to her activities and holidays and would support them seeing her with gas cards and paying for activities and the like. I know many open adoptions end up closed, but to the extent that you can believe an internet stranger, please try to believe that I would not do that.

She also has four half siblings and cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents (none placement options, unfortunately) in the area where I/her parents live. Under these circumstances, what’s the “best” placement option? (Understanding that the actual best option is with her parents). I’m a foster parent who yells at other foster parents about interfering with kin placements, but it seems like parents should get a say here. How does one weigh the benefits of living with a member of your first family vs living outside of your family but having the option to see them regularly? (I know guardianship would be preferable, but the department won’t do that – so, the options are adoption or not adoption for this case).

First of all, straight up, I would NOT want to go to a relative that didn’t want me.

One response seems realistic to me as well – I would adopt if left no other legal choice. If you do allow her parents to see her when they are able, then I think ultimately it’s what best for the girl, if her parents can’t find their way out of addiction and the state is pushing the issue. A similar response from an adoptee was –  If I was the little one in question, and guardianship was not an option, I would want you to adopt me over the distant relative and keep me in contact with my close family. The deciding factor, for me, is that the distant cousin doesn’t want to be the first option, and that is bound to come across to the adoptee, especially if times get tough when they are older. It’s hard enough to know that your biological parents didn’t want to/couldn’t raise you, but when you start getting the same message from multiple sources, it can really compound the trauma.

Someone else writes – Considering the addiction issues, this child needs a home. If there was NO other option but you vs the cousin, I’d prefer you because you live near her family/parents. But, closing this child off from her family at anytime and getting all “she’s MINE” – no, nope, nada. Being a supportive and caring adoptive mom with the child’s mental and psychological health front and center – providing therapy as needed throughout this child life for issues that will pop up – remembering always that you are not this child’s mother….period. I can be on board for you to provide a stable home for this child.

Finally this from a voice of experience – I was adopted at the age of 9. Both of my parents are addicts. My adoptive parents said they would never keep me from my family. True to their word, they didn’t. When my mom was clean and I asked to go back and live with her, they let me. Even paid my mom child support that wasn’t mandated, just to help out. She relapsed and my adoptive dad actually gave me the choice to stay in foster care and finish high school or for him to come and pick me up, since legally he was my parent. I chose to stay in high school in order to stay near my siblings, instead of moving across the country. If you are really going to keep it open, with access to the child’s family, I would say you are the better option than a long distance blood relative who doesn’t speak to the family. I just hope that you always give her parents grace and don’t cut off communication when you are mad. Especially if the child wants to keep that communication open.