Who’s Real ?

It’s a conundrum, a confusing and difficult problem or question. I understand it personally. When I finally learned who my original grandparents were and met relatives who were genetically and biologically related to me, my adoptive family receded into the background.

As a child, I had grandparents who adopted my parents when they were young. They are the only grandparents I knew growing up and going through old family letters from the early 1980s that I need to finally let go of, I see how they were my personal cheerleaders as I left one kind of life I had been living and began the long and slow process of making a different kind of life for myself. I am grateful for their love and concern.

I have aunts who became more significant again in my own life after my parents died. I am grateful for their love and support.

Those of us impacted by adoption often struggle to describe our relationships with two sets of relatives. Sometimes the word “real” is used to describe those that family DNA type websites would consider as being accurately related to us. It gets cumbersome to try and define “real” from “acquired”.

The topic came up yet again in my all things adoption group. I thought this was a good response – “Everyone is real. It’s kind of a given.” Direct and to the point. Even so, it can be confusing to people who don’t know your personal family history.

We aren’t exactly playing along with our adoptive relatives but for an adoptee, the person is often too well aware that their name and their birth certificate have been falsified to change their identity – from the one they were born with to being in effect the possession of the people who adopted them. This was often done to prevent the original parents and the adoptees from ever finding each other, though with the tools available today (inexpensive DNA testing and matching websites) reunions are taking place constantly.

One adoptee admits – I had a hard time with “real” as a kid growing up. When people found out that I was adopted I was always asked, “Do you know your real parents?” “Do you have any real brothers or sisters?” “Do your adoptive parents have any real kids?” People seemed to use that word in place of biological and to my kid-brain, it felt like I was somehow less of a person because I wasn’t my adopters “real” kid.

Add to this that adoptees often honestly do feel that they don’t belong in the family they are being raised within. And quite honestly, that feeling is accurate, even though it is their reality.

I Try To Stay Humble

Before I began to know who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted) – adoption was the most natural thing in the world. How could it not be ? It was so natural both of my sisters gave up a baby to adoption. So, in only the last 3+ years, my perspective has changed a lot. I see the impacts of adoption has passed down my family line, ultimately robbing all three of my parents daughter’s of the ability to parent. Though I did not give my daughter up for adoption, finding myself unable to support myself and her financially, I allowed her father and step-mother to raise her without intrusion from me. To be honest, I didn’t think I was important as a mother. I thought that a child only needed one or the other parent to be properly cared for. Sadly, decades later, I learned that situation was not as perfect as I had believed. My sister closest to me in age actually lost custody of her first born son to her former in-laws when she divorced their son. He has suffered the most damage of all of our children and is currently estranged from his mother’s family, viewing us all as the source of his ongoing emotional and mental pain. I love him dearly and wish it wasn’t so but it is not in my control nor my sisters.

I realize that not every adoptee has the same experience. We are all individuals with individual life circumstances. Right and Wrong, Better and Worse – such exactness doesn’t exist. Everyone heals in different ways. We all begin where we begin. I began where I was when I started learning some of the hard truths and realities about the adoption industry as it operates for profit in this country. I also know that the adoption practices of the 1930s when my parents were adopted are not the same overall in 2021. There are only a few truly closed adoptions now and many “open” adoptions. I put the “open” into quotation marks because all too often, the woman who gives birth and surrenders her baby for adoption because she doesn’t feel capable of parenting, just as I didn’t feel capable in my early 20s, discovers that the “open” part is unenforceable and the adoptive parents renege on that promise.

Those of us, myself included, have become activists for reforms going forward. Society has not caught up with us yet. Certainly, there are situations where the best interest of the child is to place them in a safe family structure where they can be sufficiently provided for. No one, no matter how ardently they wish for reform, would say otherwise. The best interests of the child NEVER includes robbing them of their identity or knowledge of their origins. In the best of circumstances, I believe, adoptive parents are placeholders for the original parents and extended biological family until their adoptive child reaches maturity. Ideally, that child grows up with a full awareness and exposure to the personalities of their original parents.

Any parent, eventually reaches a point in the maturing of their child, when it is time to allow that child to be totally independent in their life choices, even if they continue to live with their parents and be financially supported by them. It is a gradual process for most of us and some of us are never 100% separated from our parents until they die. Then, regardless, we must be able to stand on our own two feet, live from our own values and make of the life that our parents – whether it was one set with a mother and a father or two sets of mothers and fathers (whether by adoption or due to divorce) – made possible for us as human beings. I do try not to judge but I do try to remain authentic in my own perspectives, values and beliefs. Those I share as honestly as I can in this blog with as much humility as I have the growth and self-development to embody.

Wanting to Connect, Fearing Connection

There is a Chinese proverb that states that the beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name. The term ”adoption” does not do this but rather disguises a series of complex, developmental traumas that begin with relinquishment and continues on, sometimes through challenging episodes of care, to the adaptions necessary to attach to the adoptive family. The legacy of this trauma for the relinquished child is a conflict between wanting to connect and fearing connection. This is often experienced as a hyper vigilance that has an enormous impact on relationships and functioning which can disrupt the ability to be present, with feelings that one is both “too much” and “not enough”.

It is hard to imagine a more devastating wound than a child being separated from its mother at the beginning of life. Trauma is an event that overwhelms ordinary human responses to life and as early separation is a relational trauma it manifests later in life as problems in significant relationships and, more often than not, in attempts at self-regulation through chemical and process addictions.

The impact of trauma on functioning is both physical and psychological: heightened levels of cortisol and adrenaline raise anxiety levels leading to difficulties with concentration, while lower levels of serotonin lead to depression, making feelings of shame harder to manage. The trauma victim becomes reactive rather than reflective and experiences disabling feelings around issues of belonging and abandonment. A hunger for attachment means that the capacity for intimacy is compromised by intense and contradictory feelings of need and fear. In relationships there is a belief that they cannot be accepted for who they are and the sufferer is left literally in two minds; at best indecisive and at worst questioning their sanity.

Unlike the computer, the human brain starts working before building is finished. There are 100 billion neurons at birth waiting to make connections based on instructions from life experience. In the first years of life explicit memory systems have yet to be established and the adoption wound is stored, like other early attachment wounds, in implicit memory systems. The unconscious remembers the relinquishment as devastating and makes a mental note to avoid any similar experience at all costs. The conscious mind cannot recall the experience and so has no defense against the old lie that what cannot be recalled cannot have impact. Furthermore, because adoptees have no pre-trauma personality that they can refer to, they develop a false, core belief that their post-traumatic coping behavior, along with the associated shame and anxiety, is in fact their personality.

It is important to understand too that politics and the establishment play, and have played, an enormous part in the psychological wounds of relinquishment and adoption. Traditionally the world of adoption has referred to “the adoption triad” comprising the adopted child, the birth parents and the adoptive parents. However, this term is also misleading and disguises the fourth party in the adoption quartet: The establishment and the adoption business.

The establishment has legislated the assigning of a new identity and the erasing of the birth identity so that it is often not legally recognized. It is as if the adoptive family owns the adopted child. This is a particular issue for trans racial adoptees many of whom, as well as experiencing disconnect between racial self-identification and the racialization of the receiving country, would struggle to obtain a passport from their, or their birth parents, country of birth. Needless to say this has associations with the historic relationships between colonizer and the colonized.

The business of adoption and the industry that facilitates relinquishment and placement comprises state organizations and religious organizations as well as “kidnappers” and “baby finders”. The impact of some of these practices is being revealed.

It is clear that many adoptees have been struggling with a sophisticated, developmental trauma that has been hidden from them and those around them. In many cases it involves a series of traumatic experiences involving attachment changes that are experienced as life threatening. This trauma is hidden from consciousness both by the brain that remembers but cannot recall the events, but also by society that views adoptees as “chosen” and “fortunate”. If mental health is dependent on a commitment to reality, then it is vital that we call these traumas by their proper name. Furthermore, clinical experience shows us that change and recovery begin with acknowledgement and continue with the taking of personal responsibility for solutions. Victims don’t recover but those who dare to take uncomfortable, therapeutic actions certainly can.

Inspired by a blog written by Paul Sunderland titled “Relinquishment and Adoption: Understanding the Impact of an Early Psychological Wound”.

Family That Isn’t

Ohana is a Hawaiian word which refers to a person’s extended family, which can include friends and other important social groups.  In the case of adoption, “family” is a complicated concept.  Growing up, because both of my parents were adoptees, I knew that my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins – while perfect stand-ins for the real thing – were not actually related to me.

I was reading about one adoptee’s experience of having an older brother who was also adopted.  She says, “Even though we grew up in the same household with the same parents, I’ve always had difficulty thinking of him as my brother. He’s my family and I love him, but family is such a weird thing for adoptees. My brother and I are so different. So far apart in personality, thoughts, interests and goals. We didn’t have a single thing in common.”

And I reflected on my mom’s relationship with her brother who was also a Georgia Tann baby and I could see the truth of this.  They were never close as near as I could tell, though she did date one of his neighborhood friends in high school.  She once drove over this young man’s foot getting into the car when she knocked it out of park.  On a date with him, she met my dad at a party – and although she went to the party with this guy – she left with my dad.  It is hard to think of my mom as a teenager but I guess she was about as wild as the three daughters she later birthed.  LOL

Having learned who all 4 of my original grandparents were has totally changed who I think of as my “grandparents”.  Oh, I still appreciate the people who raised my parents and they were influential in my own life growing up.  I still love 2 of my “adoptive” aunts dearly, having become close to them all over again when my parents died.  And cousins are still in my life from those relationships.

However, I am keen now to slowly, without too much pressure, create these new relationships with an aunt and some cousins who represent most of my grandparents, though my paternal grandfather seems to have fathered no more children after my dad.  DNA and the matching sites – 23 and Me as well as Ancestry – make possible finding one’s relations that many states who still maintain sealed adoption records seek to block.  It is a new day and thanking all that is good that it is so.

No image can describe what of our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, remains. ~ Rumi

And yet, it does matter that they are there within us always.

It Wasn’t Real To Me

My mom had her DNA tested at Ancestry because she hoped to find some of her original family.  Since she had a membership, she started creating a family tree but all she could base it on were the adoptive families (both of my parents were adoptees).

Eventually, wanting to know my own heritage, I got my DNA tested.  I didn’t even know at the time she had done hers.  I think she was always a bit apologetic about wanting to know her origins because my dad was not supportive.  He warned her she might be opening a can of worms if she learned anything.

My dad had this idea that once you are adopted, your original family ceases to exist and the adoptive family is all you should be concerned with.  Sadly, he died with a half-sibling living only 90 miles away from him.  She could have told him so much about his original mother.

When my mom and I compared notes about our Ancestry DNA results, she told me regarding the family tree, “I just had to quit, it wasn’t real to me.”  I do understand.

I haven’t had time to get all of the work done but I did start new family trees for each of my parents and I am recording their bloodline information along with their names at birth and a recognition that they died under an assumed name given to them by their adoptive parents.

I loved my adoptive grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins through them.  I’ve not lost anything, I gained a whole world based on truth.  My family tree is an orchard, not so simple as the conventional ones are to complete.