Parental Impostor Syndrome

It’s one thing to pretend when you are a child, quite another when you are a mature adult trying to pretend you are the parent (though actually you are) of your adopted child. An article in The Guardian caught my attention – “Everyone knows you’re not a real mum.”

The parental impostor syndrome some adoptive parents have – that they are faking it, and will never cut it as a parent – is seldom acknowledged. The concept of an impostor syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and not feeling good enough. There are certainly quite a lot of adoptees who have felt they were not good enough in their adoptive parents perspective.

Ranee, 52, lives in south-west London with her husband and their two adopted children. Ranee is of Sri Lankan heritage and her husband’s family are from Mauritius. Because of this, it took a long time for them to be matched with their children as many councils are keen to match the ethnic backgrounds of potential parents and children.

Ranee says, “It was as if I had fake written on my forehead.”

During that time, Ranee and her husband went through a rigorous vetting process, yet when the process was complete and they were a family with children, she felt disoriented by how much she didn’t know. “I remember walking into the playground and thinking, ‘Everyone knows you’re not a real mum,’” she says, upon taking her five-year-old to school for the first time. “It was as if I had a siren above me, or ‘fake’ written on my forehead. Just trying to talk to parents on a playdate, or wondering what other kids would eat was tricky. My children were really picky eaters, and all of this made me think I didn’t know what I was doing.”

She says she had done courses and read books to try to prepare, but nothing quite readied her for the experience of becoming a parent. “I didn’t have any mum friends and I’d gone straight from working to being a stay-at-home mum. I kept thinking, ‘Does everyone feel like this? Is this how it is?’”

Ranee, a food photographer, says now that the adoption is completed, her impostor syndrome has largely gone. “Occasionally it comes back when we’re dealing with school issues, but I now have a network of friends who have also adopted and that has helped me gain some perspective.”

As well as the fact that she and her husband went from a couple to parents of two in one day, Ranee thinks anxiety about whether she was doing things “right” played a big role in feeling like an impostor. “I sometimes felt as if there was a model parent out there, but I learned to lower my expectations, and understood that my children don’t know any different. I now subscribe to ‘good enough’ parenting. I know I will make mistakes and I have to forgive myself and not get het up.

“I used to want to run out of the playground and hide under the bed. But I’ve learned that you just have to set your own standard. Trust that you will be a great parent, and fight your children’s corner. One day you’ll fail, the next day you’ll feel less of a failure, and so on, until it normalizes.” Years later, she says, things look very different. “I have two amazing kids who are teenagers, and I know they will forge their own lives, and I just want them to be happy.”

And parenting it doesn’t get any easier with more children, because each child will have a different personality requiring different methods of parenting. My sons certainly teach me that lesson all the time. One keeps to himself a lot but will eat anything I cook. The other one is socially outgoing but a very picky eater, I say he is a purest. And there’s something about being a parent in your 50s and 60s, you don’t have the physicality of your 20s or 30s.

When I was having lots of challenges with my older child, I realized it was a cry for attention. He had “lost” me to his younger brother who understandably needed nursing and diaper changing. When I realized this, I swapped with my husband when we were out with the family and even at home, spending one-on-one time with the older boy and the problems turned around very quickly.

We think we have to live up to other people’s examples but that can make us feel inadequate. All the parenting books are suggestions but you have to invent your own way of parenting, because every child is unique. Good enough parenting is a good goal. The mistakes we make give our children space to grow into better adults, things to rebel against, and it helps them forge their personality. We love our children but what is more important is to respect them. 

Don’t let your self-doubt define you. Enjoy your own parenting style because it allows you to display your authenticity to your children and gives them permission to have their own style.

Never Too Young To Grieve

Today’s blog is courtesy of a Facebook post by Stacey Jackson Gagnon.

Have you seen a newborn grieve loss?

How about a 6 month old?

I didn’t recognize grief. Through all the years and all the foster babies that came through my home, I didn’t see it.

I never realized that a mother is not interchangeable; you cannot just change a known mother with an unknown one.

I guess I thought these babies were coming from such horrible circumstances, that they wouldn’t understand the loss; because in my mind, my home was a gain. They were gaining safety, love, attention,…I now understand that foster care and adoption begin with loss; the loss of the known.

I used to think that a foster baby coming into my home would not remember.

I was wrong.

While in the womb the child knows not any difference between mother and self; they are one. They are tasting, smelling, touching, hearing and seeing within the womb.

Upon birth, a separation occurs and what had once been a unified, indistinguishable source of life, is now separated. And suddenly there are things that prohibit the attention and care that had once been always present and never-ending. So the baby learns to express a need for this attention and care; they learn to cry. And the mother responds, and she is known…the baby knows her smell, her sound, her touch, her taste. All is remembered and well.

But then imagine, this mother is suddenly gone. It is now someone else’s face and eyes; someone else’s touch, smell and routine. The mother is gone and replaced by someone who is unknown.

All is not well. Where has the known mother gone? Why has she left me with this unknown?

I was the unknown mother and I didn’t recognize the grief.

I wish I had understood that every foster baby coming into my home was experiencing grief. No matter the circumstance of their removal, they were experiencing loss.

Grief is a normal response to the greatest loss.

I was an unknown mother. Every baby I held still remembered the known mother. Grief was not assuaged by my home, my family, my deeds, or my words…it was instead held in the space of shared daily moments.

And slowly over time I became known too. Babies remember.

Duty ?

Today’s story –

I was privately adopted as a baby. I was raised by my adoptive parents and 2 of their biological sons. My adoptive father was my favorite in the family. He took care of me and loved me and stuck by me, but more so for his biological sons. Even so, I felt closest to him. I’m 52 years old now. I have been taking care of my adoptive parents for about 5 yrs as a live-in caretaker.

My adoptive dad died 2 months ago and now I am stuck with my loveless, bitter, jealous adoptive mother who never seemed to like or love or want me. I believe she adopted me for charity status and attention.

Now that my adoptive father isn’t here to buffer her emotional abuse and filter her words for me, I am living in a nightmare situation. She doesn’t want me here but needs me. I feel like I owe her because that’s how she’s always made me feel. I’m grieving the loss of my adoptive father.

This happens. Both of my parents were adoptees and they both ended up having to care for or make arrangements for the care of their adoptive parents and to administer their estates (which is the most thankless job, I can tell you now because I had to help my dad after my mom died and administer their estate after he died 4 months later). It was my parents examples that allowed me to muddle through it and see it to the conclusion of all the related affairs. My adoptive grandparents were all good people. My mom’s adoptive father died early on and left my adoptive grandmother living alone for decades. My mom did have a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother but my adoptive grandmother’s decline certainly turned some tables between them, which I do believe was healing – somewhat.

One bit of advice for the adoptee trapped in difficult circumstances above (which I do agree with) was this – You don’t owe her anything. Coordinate her care with her insurance and take care of your emotional health.

Being a full time caretaker for someone who mistreats you should never be the duty of any person. This kind of work can be handled by others who are trained to do it. I can understand if there is love and care between the persons but if it isn’t there, it is better to get one’s self out of the role.

This thought occurred to me as well –  She has two sons to take care of her. Where are they? Also there are wonderful old folks homes, where people chose to do this work and get paid to take care of the elderly. This is not your job.

This is not (sadly) an unusual situation – I had that same relationship with my adoptive mom. She was abusive yet felt entitled to my attention because she “sacrificed soooo much” for me. I cut ties with her two years ago. I have no intention of ever speaking to her again. Birthdays, holidays, deathbed, NOTHING. You don’t owe her ANYTHING. If you are able to walk away, do it.. and never feel guilty for it.

From another – You don’t owe her your life and happiness. Is there a way to navigate getting her a state guardian or some other sort of assisted living arrangement? Do what serves your whole-self. And another – At the very least her sons should share the load. People take care of their parents when they age, out of love and charity, not because they HAVE to. You don’t owe her that for adopting you. What you’re doing is selfless.

There is serious truth in this one – Taking care of a parent is hard under the best circumstances. Adoptive and abusive add layers of complexity. I was in a similar situation with my adoptive parents and my mental health improved drastically when I moved out. And truth in this one too – You don’t owe her anything. Anything and everything she did for you growing up was her job and responsibility to do as a parent. Anything and everything she did to diminish you growing up, that was also her choice. If you choose not to sacrifice your happiness, sanity, mental health, and peace to be her caretaker, that’s just a consequence of her choices and actions. It’s okay to choose yourself and put yourself first.

I understand this reality as well – The problem with “put her in a home” or “there are wonderful elder-care homes” is that most of those “homes” are run, often by large corporate entities that own many such “facilities,” for profits and cause much misery and too early death to the helpless folks stuck into them. 

My parents and my in-laws all wanted to die at home with family. I am thankful that all of them were able to have these wishes fulfilled but none of these were cruel and abusive. That changes the choices one must make for their own good. We also had to have the help of paid care-takers in addition to our management of their situations.

A Life in the Shadow

Actors – Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks

On Friday night, my husband and I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on dvd. It is one of those occasional unexpected finds that impacts me deeply. Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks in the movie based upon the book. Since my name is Deborah, I connected with this powerful, at times tragic, portrayal of Henrietta’s daughter. Since the title of my blog is Missing Mom and that is what drove Deborah, who lost her mom at such a young age and who she was always missing, needing the truth about her, felt somewhat like I how felt about my missing grandparents (both of my parents were adopted). So, I am happy to share Deborah’s story here. I highly recommend either the book or the movie.

The only surviving daughter and fourth child of David Day Lacks and Henrietta Lacks, Deborah “Dale” Lacks Pullum spent most of her early life wondering what happened to her beautiful mother and worrying about what it could mean for her own life and identity. Day was Henrietta’s first cousin, neither had living mothers and were being raised by grandparents who had them sleeping in the same bedroom. No wonder by the age of 14, Henrietta was pregnant. Day married her 6 years later when she was 20.

It is hard for Rebecca Skloot, an independent science writer, to gain Deborah’s trust given her early life of familial abuse, followed by the general disregard of the scientific community for Henrietta’s family. Deborah’s need to connect with her mother’s story is intensified by her difficult childhood and a non-existent relationship with her father, whose lack of attention has disastrous effects on her emotional life:

After Henrietta’s death, Ethel and Galen move in with Day to “help take care of the children.” But Ethel always had a hatred for Henrietta because Galen was attracted to her, and she transferred that with gusto to the children. She forces them to work the farm all day without food or drink and beats them if they disobey. In spite of Deborah’s protests, Galen sexually molests her as often as he can.

Despite the beatings by both of these guardians and the molesting by Galen, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had felt with her father. When he wasn’t hitting or molesting her, Galen showered her with attention and gifts. He bought her pretty clothes, and took her for ice cream. In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl.

Enter Lawrence’s (who was Henrietta’s oldest son) wife, Bobbette. She insists that they take in and raise the younger Lacks siblings to get them out of the clutches of the abusive Ethel and Galen. Bobbette makes it pretty darn clear that if that couple ever touches Henrietta’s kids again, she’s going to open up a can of ??? on them.

In Henrietta’s absence, Bobbette also acts as a mentor and inspiration to young Deborah. She tells her to stay in school because that’s what will get her success in life. She also encourages her to fight off the advances of her boy cousins because, she said, “That’s uncalled for.” She warns Deborah about the dangers of first cousins having children together.

Deborah reads articles about HeLa cells (named after an abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks name) with a dictionary in hand and learns to use the Internet to make sense of her mother’s immortal life. Her brothers don’t understand her need to pursue something that has been so hurtful to them. Deborah is quite clear in her mission: “All this stuff I’m learning,’ she said, ‘it make me realize that I did have a mother, and all the tragedy she went through. It hurts but I wanna know more, just like I wanna know about my sister (her sister Elsie had defects that eventually institutionalized her, where she later died young). It make me feel closer to them, but I do miss them. I wish they were here.”

The need to know and to be in control of her past is always stronger for Deborah than the need to forget her past and protect herself from future harm.

Her older brother, Lawrence, never stopped taking care of Deborah. He put $6,000 on his credit card to pay for her funeral. She died less than a year before the book, written by author Rebecca Skloot, about her mother was published.

“Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. The immortality of Henrietta’s cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA.”

Why Is The Truth Hard to Hear ?

Today’s thoughts –

Relationships between adoptive parents and their biological kids are different than relationships adoptive parents have with their adopted kids. The connection with one’s biological kids is often deeper, biological connections are often stronger.

Many adoptees talk about how they could clearly see those differences in their adoptive families and in the way they were treated. Adoptive parents always defend themselves. “I love all my kids exactly the same. My connection is the same with all of my kids. My kids don’t feel that way and never will.”

There are a multitude of similar comments that have been uttered a thousand times.

If the reader is an adoptive parent – why is that something that’s hard to hear or gets you so defensive ?

No one is saying that adoptive parents don’t love their adopted children, or that they don’t have any connection with them. It’s simply not the same because biological connections matter. Yet an adoptive parent will immediately feel hurt because they don’t believe this is true about them.

For me, loving my biological children has always been natural, easy and effortless. Our bond was amazing the moment I laid eyes on them after birth. I hope my children all feel equally attached to me as their mom.

I suspect that anyone with adopted children has found they have had to work hard to love them with the same kind of overwhelming devotion (and some clearly don’t, as when the child is put back up for a second chance adoption). An adoptive parent must get to know their adopted child during the worst time in their lives. An adoptive parent may have to break some really hard news to them. In my own family, I had to explain to the adoptive mother of my nephew that his mother has a severe mental illness and that she has indicated that if she were in his presence she would not really be all that warm with him. It is very sad and I suspect he struggles now with all the truth that has come his way, including discovering that the man my sister named as his father was not and that the actual father was a co-worker with our dad that my sister seduced. No wonder she wanted to put the evidence of her behavior far away.

Any person who adopts has directly caused trauma. An adoptive parent may find that they did not bond or attach easily to the adopted child in the beginning. It may have taken a lot of work, a lot of therapy, blood, sweat, and tears. As parent and child, they may have had to work through mountains of pain, and will likely have some always. And maybe it is still hard somedays.

You can love them fiercely and they may even get more one on one attention than your biological children most days because they need it.

Yet, if you are being totally honest with yourself, you will admit that your bond with them is not the same as it is with your biological children. The love – while it is there and it is strong – is not the same, your biological connections with those children are strong as hell.

And as difficult as it is for you as an adoptive parent, it’s even more difficult for them. You are not their mom or dad, you never will be. They may have love for you, and maybe you have achieved some bonding, but the truth will always be that if they could go live with their mom/dad or other biological relatives – they absolutely would – without a second thought, simply because biological connections are strong as hell.

As an adoptive parent, if they can be honest with you, then you can know that your connection is strong. If you are able to hear them say that they wish they weren’t adopted sometimes, you are doing a great job. If you can suffer them telling you that they wish they were with their mom, you are humble and real.

They can tell you that even though their biological family treated them badly, they may still wish they lived with them – so they could (potentially) also be with their other siblings (often the case in these families that sibling groups become separated).

Maybe they are able to tell you that they are mad that you didn’t adopt their other siblings and maybe it wasn’t an option available to you at the time.

Most importantly, they know that you will respect and validate everything they say without trying change their minds, and without making excuses. They know that your love for them isn’t fragile and can’t be broken because they are able share feelings that sometimes hurt you feelings or make you feel bad.

Know this, your feelings are your problem. Don’t put them on your adopted child. And admit this, though your love for them, despite it being deep, is different than the love you have for your biological children, you will not deny the facts. Acknowledge that your connections, and bonds are different.

As an adoptive parent, these are things you should do your best to understand. It’s not about you and your image of saintliness out in the world. Your adopted kids know it’s different, don’t try to convince yourself that it’s not.

A Disconnect

I’ve been reading about infant development lately in a book titled Healing the Split – Integrating Spirit Into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill by John E Nelson MD. I often reflect on my own mothering of my daughter at the age of 19. Though the love was never lacking, I was not as good of a mother for her as I might have been, had I know how to be a good mother.

I believe some of that comes of the slight disconnect in my own parents as regards their parenting of us. It is not their fault, they were both adopted. Oh, they were good parents, not abusive, and we knew they loved us but there was something missing in them and it affected their parenting of us.

What was missing in my parents were their natural mothers, who carried them in their wombs and gave birth to them, may have breastfed them. I know that was true with my dad. I don’t have a record of that for my mom. She was taken to an orphanage for temporary care by her own financially desperate mother and put on a formula. My dad was allowed to stay with his mother and continue to nurse for some months as he accompanied her when she was employed by the Salvation Army, through who’s home for unwed mothers she had given birth to him.

I was reflecting on this as I sat out on the deck overlooking the field at my writer’s retreat. I was bundled up in a cozy jacket as the temperature is not more than the mid-30s and drinking warm tea.

I was thinking about how my mom took my bottle from me at 13 months to give to my newborn younger sister. My mom intended no harm, she didn’t know better. We can’t do better than we know how.

So, as I was drinking the warm tea, I imagined mothering myself. I imagined being warm and cozy in the soft embrace of my mother, drinking in the warm, nourishing liquid.

In that moment, I forgave my mom and had to extend that forgiveness to myself. I can acknowledge that I might have done better if I had know how to do better and in realizing that, I can acknowledge that my own mother would have done better had she known how to do better.

My late life sons (born when I was 47 and 50 years old) have benefitted from having a better mother in me. Certainly, I did have previous experience when the first boy was born and I had a huge amount of support from my in-laws who came every day for the first 4 months and only stopped when my husband begged me to ask them to back off.

My husband was always a good and nurturing co-parent as he did not become a father until he was personally ready to commit to that responsibility. When the second boy was born, he doubled down on the attention he gave the older boy, that he suffer less from the loss of attention of his mother, due to a newborn in the house.

It was a situation that I had to rectify when the younger boy was about 2 or 3 and the older one about 6 as he was acting out a lot to get my attention. With sufficient attention from me, that behavior quickly ceased and the younger boy benefitted from having more dad time.

Hindsight doesn’t replace ignorance but ignorance is not willful neglect.

Birth Order

My husband and I are both first borns and I see the personality traits are present in us.  We both have a middle and a youngest sibling of the same gender that we are.  Siblings are raised essentially in the same environment, so it could be assumed that we might be more like our brothers and sisters. Yet it appears that the same home environment makes up only 5-10% of our personality.  Many of us would agree that we are somewhat or very different from our siblings.  Genetic factors have more impact on our personality, maybe as much as 50%. Nurturing, how we are cared for must matter a lot.

Does birth order matter in adoption ?  That is a question that I came to this morning’s blog with in mind.  Does it matter if children are adopted out of their birth order ?  My mom was the first born of her original mother and also the only child but was the youngest in the home she was raised in with an older brother who was also adopted.  My dad was the first born and the oldest in the home where he was adopted.  He grew up with a younger brother who was also adopted.

One study concluded that the rearing order of the children had little impact on personality except for conscientiousness, which was higher for children who were raised as first-born. The child’s sex had more impact than did rearing order.

Most adoptive families do not consider the impact that rearing order will have on infants who are first born to their biological parents, if they enter an adoptive home as the second or third child. If a child is an infant, it is assumed that such a child will have the characteristics associated with the rearing order in which they are placed.  More often, adoptive families want to know the impact of adopting children out of age order on the children already there— especially on the oldest child or on several younger children when adopting an older child.

Sibling rivalry and the need for attention are very real factors in any multi-child home.  I have seen it up close and personal with my two sons and have experienced a misplaced idealism upon my own reality that simply was not real by my youngest sister.  I have seen frequently that the younger children often look up to the oldest.  I have experienced first hand that parents expect the oldest to be an example of a “good” person – whatever that means in any family’s context.

Here is one reality some adoptive families face – maybe you have a larger age gap among your genetic/biological children.  So you chose to adopt a child who can fill in the gap in age differences. Neither the oldest nor the youngest child’s position in your family is displaced by this decision.  However, in any adoption of an older child, the chronological age of that child can be quite different from the child’s emotional age due to the trauma they have experienced.  The reality you may find is that this new “middle” child is more like the youngest child in the family.

In any adoption – it is all about your expectations as an adopting parent. If you adopt a child who fits nicely into the age range where your children are right now, this newly adopted child may not blend in as well as you anticipated.  Some precautions will be necessary when adopting an older child or when adopting a sibling group.