Shame

I’m only going the summarize this article but provide you with the link because it is well worth your time to read it – I Kept My Family’s Secret For Over 60 Years. Now, I’m Finally Telling The Truth by Yvonne Liu – published in The Huffington Post.

I believe shame had a lot to do with adoption records being sealed to begin with. Closed to access by the very person – the adoptee – is the information matters most to. Early in my “adoption issues” education I encountered the issue of dumpster babies. There are also babies left in a basket. For most of my life, I thought my own father had been left in a basket on the doorstep of The Salvation Army in El Paso TX because his Mexican national mother lacked her family’s acceptance of a mixed race baby who’s father was an American national. Nothing was further from the truth but I was well in my 60s before I knew that. My father never expressed any interest in learning the truth and details of his own adoption and I believe it was because he was afraid of what he might learn. By the time I knew the truth, my dad was already deceased and knew next to nothing.

Today’s story relates to a baby left in a basket in a Hong Kong stairwell near Sai Yeung Choi Street. She was taken to St. Christopher’s Home, the largest non-government-run orphanage on the island. Officials at the orphanage named her Yeung Choi Sze, after the street where she was found.

Infertility was the shame her adoptive mother hid. That is not uncommon among adoptive mothers, especially those of Chinese descent because Confucius believed a woman’s greatest duty was to bring a son into the world. This adoptee’s mother couldn’t produce a son, much less a daughter.

In June of 1960, this baby girl from China landed at O’Hare International Airport. Her adoptive mother was disappointed in the baby she received from the beginning. She was a sick and scrawny baby, clearly malnourished. Her mother’s first reaction upon seeing her was, “Why couldn’t I have a healthy baby like everyone else?” Throughout her life, the family’s story about her was a lie – that she was born in Chicago. Every school form, all of her college and job applications, and even her medical records listed her birthplace as Illinois. 

The adoptee’s parents were never warm emotionally. From a young age, she was afraid to upset her mother, who was often emotionally volatile. Her mother showed her attention when she needed her daughter. If she dared push back on the relentless demands to refill her teapot, type her Chinese cookbook or vacuum the house, her mother would retreat to her bed, sob, and say, “You don’t love me because I’m not your real mother.” Hugging her, the adoptee would desperately proclaim her love for her adoptive mother, telling her, “You’re my only mother.” Then she would quickly and quietly fulfill her mother’s commands.

Her adoptive father was not any warmer emotionally. From her time in the third grade, she threw myself into becoming a star student in hopes of earning her father’s love and attention. After immigrating to America with $50 in his pocket, her adoptive father earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry while working as a dishwasher on the weekends. He was chronically depressed and withheld any affection from her, even though she wanted that desperately.

The adoptee won a full scholarship to attend a top MBA program and enjoyed a solid business career. She even married the nice Chinese man her mother chose for her. But for as long as her parents were alive – and even after they died – I continued to keep the family’s secret that she had been adopted. Eventually, she told her husband and children but asked them to continue keep the family’s secret. That’s how deep and dark she considered her secret shame to be. I truly believed I would carry it with me until I died. The ancient Chinese beliefs that she must have come from an immoral mother, would mean she was tainted by her origins.

In 2020, locked down by the pandemic and having just turned 61 years old, she finally began questioning why she had internalized her adoptive parents’ shame about infertility and adoption. Feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity and anxiety as well as lingering questions about identity, rejection, belonging motivated her to learn more about adoption. She did a lot of the things I did as well – read books about adoption and joined Facebook groups for adoptees. Like her, I was already in my 60s as well.

She came to realize that there was no reason to hide her truth any longer. It was time to live an authentic life. She had nothing to hide. She choose to tell her truth publicly in The New York Times. A 98-word Tiny Love Stories piece about her adoption. Then my brother (also adopted) gave her a dusty manila file he discovered during pandemic cleaning. It was labeled “Yvonne’s Adoption.” At 62 years of age, she finally read the documents her adoptive parents had deliberately kept hidden from her when they were alive. The yellowed tissue-thin papers held the truth of her beginnings.

She writes, “My heart ached for the baby who languished in that orphanage for 15 long months. Surely a caretaker would have picked up my malnourished and anemic body when I wailed. Surely someone helped me when I still couldn’t sit on my own at 9 months. Surely a hired helper gazed into my eyes as she fed me diluted Carnation formula, water and congee. I sobbed, imagining how that tiny baby must have experienced those first few months of a life that would turn out to be mine.”

For much of her childhood, she was a quiet child, afraid to be a burden. On the rare occasions when she complained or questioned her parents, they would answer, “Where would you be if we didn’t adopt you?” They never said the same thing to her adoptive brother because he fulfilled their traditional Chinese filial duty to have a son to carry on the family name.

Then, she wanted to understand, why the lies ? So she learned Chinese history, read cultural and sociology books, pored over Chinese memoirs and novels, interviewed Chinese cultural experts and people who lived in China at the time her parents had. Now she is able to recognize that her adoptive parents were a product of tradition, circumstances and time.

She was able to realize some gratitude for the circumstances of her life. Because her birth mother loved her, she left me at a busy stairwell to be found. Because she made that choice, the woman has lived a full life. She is also able to be grateful her adoptive parents chose her. She is no longer ashamed of being an adoptee.

You can read more of her writing at YvonneLiuWriter.com. She is currently writing a memoir about adoption, childhood trauma and mental health. 

When School Becomes Home

On the car radio on Sunday, I caught the tail end of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge episode – Was The Art Worth All The Pain ? – that was an interview with the visual collage artist, Nathaniel Mary Quinn. What really got my attention was, even though he was not an adoptee – abandonment and trauma issues – were quite similar to what most adoptees experience. And his resilience and maturing perspective on what happened to him in his earlier childhood was inspiring and remarkable. At the end of the episode, he indicates the abandonment he experienced gave him faith in a larger reality that he interprets as Divinely guided in which what happened to him was necessary for him to become what he was capable of.

When he was 15, his family simply disappeared, leaving him to fend for himself at his boarding school. He had earned a scholarship at a really high quality school. His mother had died and when he came home for what he expected to be a Thanksgiving shared with his 4 older brothers and father, he found an empty, abandoned apartment. It was traumatic not knowing where any of his family was but he returned to school and worked hard. Really hard. He developed a study schedule and stuck to it because he knew he was one bad report card away from losing his scholarship and becoming homeless.

At school, he was fed 3 or more meals a day and had to wear a uniform so clothes were not an issue. On Sundays, the school band he was part of at Culver Academy in Chicago would put on a parade performance. Afterwards, when everyone else went to lunch, he went to a mound of grass on a golf course and grieved to a song by Al Green – on repeating loop 10 times – for 4 full years.

Today, he is an acknowledged artist with works included in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His first solo exhibition was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Quinn’s work is a complicated blend of painting and drawing that achieves the appearance of collage, a combination of human faces with comic book figures and other provocative images. Quinn describes his art as “luminism.”

“The technique of light,” says Quinn. “It’s the torch that I’m carrying from the platform of cubism. Cubism was a technique designed to show multiple angles and viewpoints of a particular object, but to show it on the same plane. “Well, luminism is designed to show the multiplicity of viewpoints and dispositions of the internalized world of that object.”

“Whereas in cubism one would paint the multiplicity of viewpoints of a cup, luminism will show the multiplicity of viewpoints of the internalized world of that cup,” he says. He applies a perspective of luminism to collages of human, often family, figures from his life.  His art draws on a difficult upbringing spent in an impoverished public housing project in Chicago with a broken family.

It can be uncomfortable to look at. His collaged and fragmented figures are meant to demonstrate that we are all the sum of our experiences. In his words, “I hope to convey a sense of how our experiences, both good and bad, operate to construct our identities. I also want to portray a mutual relationship between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the grotesque and what is aesthetically pleasing.” Formed from an amalgam of family photographs, images from articles and advertisements, and his own furious brushstrokes and charcoal marks, the men and women who populate his compositions appear as hybrids, at once monstrous and delicate. For Quinn, they are portraits of his fractured family and images of all human beings’ multi-faceted selves.

Disappointing Reunions

Worse than not having the opportunity at all to experience a reunion with the woman who gave birth to you is having one that turns out crappy.  This story breaks my heart –

Feeling so lost and broken. Although a relationship can be built, it’ll never be the same as being raised by my mom. Currently stuck in Nebraska and waiting to leave the hotel at 4 am. No point in sleeping for 3 and a half hours.  I’m stressed, hoping Uber shows up on time so I can make it to the train station in time with my 3 kids.

To make a long story short I got a ride to Nebraska last week.  My hubby’s job traveled from Chicago to Nebraska.  So I said, “Please take me with you.”  We got a hotel after begging my mom to make the 3 hour trip from South Dakota to Nebraska to see us. I had to pay for her gas and give her the king size bed in our hotel.  I slept with my 3 kids on the sofa bed.

Then, my husband’s job finished by the end of that same week.  I said to him, “You go home.  I’m gonna go back to South Dakota with my mom.  She said she’ll bring me back in her van.”

I was there almost a week and the plan was for us to leave and go home today. She texts me from her room and asks me to leave on a plane.  She can’t handle the kids.  Their noise causes her fibromyalgia pain to be worse.

I reply, “Can we wait till you feel better and you can take us home?”

She said, “No, I really can’t take it.”

So I went online to check flights.  A last minute effort is really expensive.  So I try to rent a car but I can’t because my credit card is maxed out. The train doesn’t depart from South Dakota.  I have to find a way to get back to Nebraska.

My mom’s husband drops us off at the hotel in Nebraska that my husband paid for.  He also paid for (what feels to me to be unnecessary) train tickets, but that is the reality.

This trip to reconnect with my mom cost more than a real vacation to Wisconsin Dells.

Today I feel so alone and abandoned – once again.  Sorry, but I really wish she had aborted me.  Mine was a Termination of Parental Rights adoption due to neglect and drug use.

And – she has the audacity to tell me I need to parent better and get off of my phone !?! At least, my kids are alive, well fed and loved. MY KIDS ARE KIDS.  THEY ARE NOT SOLDIERS!

I actually said, “Let’s not talk about parenting.”  LOL  I really wanted to add, “the nerve of you.”

So, I am just feeling completely broken.  This is the first time I have ever actually cried in front of my kids.  I just couldn’t control it.

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I’m just going to let this one speak for itself.  I have no words to offer but lots of compassion for the heartbreak and disappointments. 

Not Only A Happy Ending

I’m not personally in favor of either international nor transracial adoptions and I really have no right to an opinion on either but I do realize they are both fraught with complexities that no one should enter into unaware.

Adoptees are not a monolithic variety of human being. They differ as much as any individuals do.  Jillian Lauren is both an adult adoptee and an adoptive mother.  With her husband, Scott Shriner, the couple adopted an Ethiopian boy.

She says that she does not love adoption because it is one long Disney happy ending. She loves adoption for the way its struggles have defined her life and made her strong. This is a realistic perspective.

Here’s her adoptee story –

My story began with my unwed birthmother stranded alone in a snow-blanketed Chicago, feeling terrified and foolish. Across the country, my soon-to-be-mother had cried herself to sleep in her West Orange, New Jersey apartment every night for years, longing for a child. A deal was struck, a baby passed from one set of hands to another. I was adopted just barely before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. My mother says she did not once put me down during the entire trip home.

To be so unwanted and so wanted at the same time can carve a fault line in you.

She admits that at one time, her perspective on adoption was similar to what Laura Barcella once wrote – “Being forsaken by my biological mother has burdened me, for as long as I can remember, with a sense of inborn exile — a gaping hole where my identity should be.”

Indeed, adoption does not give any one who has been adopted a life that is always comfortable or easy.

Jillian Lauren goes on to describe what it has been like with her adopted son’s profound anxiety and fear. It is derived from having survived malnutrition, illness and unimaginable loss in his first year of life. For almost the entirety of his first three years with the couple – he ate little, slept less and had violent tantrums roughly 10 times a day.  Lauren admits that during this time, he often bit her until she bled.

Adoption is a narrative that begins with loss and definitely trauma.

She shares that through the trials with her son of the past few years, she has come to understand herself as selfish, vain, petulant and unequal to the task of mothering. To be certain, she has also found resiliency, determination and resourcefulness.

Each person grows through their challenges.  The good and the bad both have qualities that can serve our ongoing journeys.