The Fog

In adoptee centric communities, one quickly learns about “the fog”. This is the feel good narrative that adoption agencies and adoptive parents “feed” their adopted child. Many adoptees never come out of the fog. Most do not come out until maturity, maybe when they give birth to a biological child genetically related to them and begin searching the adoption related literature, a prominent one is The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. This is the preverbal, subconscious trauma experienced by a baby when they are taken from the mother who gestated them and then gave birth. It matters not a lot whether this separation occurs immediately after birth or months later. My parents were 6 mos and 8 mos old at the time they were separated from their mothers – so preverbal. The trauma is real and has ongoing effects.

So, I was attracted to an article in The Guardian titled Brain fog: how trauma, uncertainty and isolation have affected our minds and memory in the Health & wellbeing section by Moya Sarner. A feeling of brain fog has become more common as a result of the collective trauma of the COVID pandemic. It is described as a feeling of being unable to concentrate. There’s this sense of debilitation or of losing ordinary facility with everyday life.

It could be helpful for an adoptee to understand that this feeling isn’t unusual or weird. There isn’t something wrong with you. It’s a completely normal reaction to a seriously traumatic experience. This can affect you ability to problem-solve, your capacity to be creative in the face of life’s challenges. There can be a lot of different factors that taken together and interacting with each other, can cause these impairments, attentional deficits and other processing difficulties. Humans have effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes, but to pay particular attention when things do change.

For an adoptee, it is life changes such has giving birth that can begin the process of waking up from the fog. The adoptive parents dying, so freeing the adopted child from a need to remain loyal to the people who cared and nurtured them growing up that may kindle a need for their own personal truth. Who were the people that gave them life ? Are they still living ? What is the background story ? Are there other genetic relations ? What can they learn about their familial medical history ? What is their cultural identity ? Waking up to the reality of who the adopted person actually is.

Brain fog is a common experience but it’s very complex. It is the cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion. One needs to think about the mind, the brain, the immune and the hormonal systems to understand the various mental and physical processes that might underlie this consequence of stress.  

When our mind appraises a situation as stressful, our brain immediately transmits the message to our immune and endocrine systems. These systems respond in exactly the same way they did in early humans – with what may feel like an irrational fear.  The heart beats faster so we can run away, inflammation is initiated by the immune system and the hormone cortisol is released. A dose of cortisol will lower a person’s attention, concentration and memory for their immediate environment. 

An experience of the fog is one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. Recognizing the fog is our body and our brain telling us something, a signal – an alarm bell. We should stop and ask ourselves, why am I feeling this way ? What is the trigger ? What is the source ?  The idea is that we have a force inside us that is propelling us towards life. What has been hidden from us is now pushing us into a discovery. To make connections with our familial tribe and seek to expand the meaning of our very own life with the truth. 

The mental weight of our unknowns becomes harder to drag around. We have – at some moment in our lifetime – a will to know something about ourselves and our lives, even when that knowledge is profoundly painful. Paradoxically, there is also a powerful will not to know, a wish to defend against this awareness so that we can continue to live cosseted by lies. An adoptee might chose to live in the misty, murky fog rather than to face, to suffer, the painful truth and horror of their origin situation because the truth of the experience of how and why they were separated from their natural mother is too hard to bear.

We all experience grief, times in our lives where we feel like we can’t function at all. If you find yourself here, may it be mercifully temporary and may you recover from the shocks of reality and move forward, feeling a new wholeness in an expanded identity of yourself.

One Reason Why . . .

Today’s story from adoptionland –

Tonight our 9 year old daughter (we adopted her this year from foster care, has been in foster care since she was 4) was preoccupied and withdrawn at bedtime and I asked her if she wanted to talk. She said that she was just so confused and trying to understand why her birth mom “didn’t care about her enough to keep her and why she didn’t want her or love her”…and by the end of that sentence she was sobbing.

I just held her, rubbed her back, and held space for her. I’m just asking for…idk…input about how to best help her process her feelings? I did assure her that her birth mom DID and DOES absolutely love her, want her, and care about her, but at the time she was struggling so much with drug use (she had already been told all about the drug use in previous foster homes and we don’t know if she’s currently using or not) that she wasn’t able to take care of her and her brother.

After four years the mother consented to our daughter and her biological brother being adopted (before they came to us) but her rights were going to be terminated by Department of Child Services, if she didn’t consent regardless. We have open communication and contact with biological grandparents but not with the birth mom at this point (per her own request and the recommendation of the grandparents) but my hope and prayer is that some day we are able to establish a relationship with her and facilitate communication between her and the kids.

She has been in therapy for years (albeit a new therapist with every new foster care placement/move) and has been seeing a great one for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) for the past year. We see therapy as a healthy part of life and don’t really see an end date so to speak.

How do I help our daughter process the feelings of being unwanted, unloved, and abandoned by her birth mom?

One woman who responded wrote this sad perspective honestly – it never really helped me to hear that my birthmom loved me. I don’t think she knows how to love me as an adult and as a child it confused me more until I realized “oh yes, when people love you, they abandon you. That’s love”.

Another answered this with –  I have zero adoption experiences to relate to, but when I left my very abusive ex-husband I remember the moment I realized he loved me as much as he could, and it just was not enough for me anymore because it hurt and it was unhealthy. I don’t know how that could be discussed with a child about a parent, but I just wanted to say I relate to what you are saying about having confusing feelings about loving someone who hurts you.

One insightful commenter wrote – If she isn’t with a adoption specialized therapist, now is the time to find one. It is good she feels safe to communicate with you.

I have also used this Nuggets video with my kids. At the end I will ask them- do you think the bird could focus on her baby chicks in her nest? What was she able to focus on? Do you think she wanted to stop feeling bad? Do you think she would have wished she could do it over again and make different choices?

That’s sometimes how people who have addictions feel. They can’t focus/take care of/on us because they are trying not to feel so rotten. But they often wish they could do it over again, and love on their chicks and tell them that. Drugs cloud your world. It is hard though to not feel angry or sad or jealous that mommy couldn’t see you. That is about her, how she feels about herself because of the drugs. Maybe we can write mommy a letter and tell her how you feel. Or here is a picture of mommy, I can leave you alone and you can talk to her and tell her how upset you are. And then I will be right here for you when you are done. Because this is hard.

I also have scheduled to do something fun the next day to ensure they had some sort of time of short mental relief. Even if it was to go to the playground. Get that out.

Then, there was this sad personal story – I was adopted at 3 but my mom is very much still a drug user. And I’m dealing with the same issue with my husband’s niece even though she was adopted within her family. She’s 14 today and because I’m adopted also she comes to me and asks me why her mom doesn’t want her but has other kids. My mom had 4 total and all 4 of us were taken away. My 3 brothers were able to stay together with their dad whom tried to adopt me but due to my health from her drug usage, I needed more attention than he could give me (being the oldest) and having 3 younger boys to care for. My adoptive parents had the funds and support to care for me.

Yet another suggested this perspective – trying to make sense that the bad parts are bad. And sometimes there are bits of good. And those moments are the parent too. However brief.

And I do agree that honesty is always best as this adoptive mother shared – It is really important to REALLY hold space, and NOT give in to the urge to try to make her feel better. In reality you don’t know if her mom loves and cares for her – you are not in contact, and the mother has never told you this. We WISH it is so, we hope, we assume… But it is not truthful to pose it as a factual reality. Also, as another response said, if someone “loves her and cares for her” then love and care means abandonment and no contact. Not a great association. I wish you all the best. Sitting and grieving with another’s pain is so hard. Try not to turn away, or deflect with untruths to try to make her feel better. It hurts, that sucks – and nothing you say can make it better. But she needs to feel it, and grieve it and process it.

And another adoptive mother shares this as well – My kids were older adoptees and for good or bad have many answers others do not. I refuse to fabricate and project to “fill in gaps” and “make them feel better.” Saying the “right” thing often comes off as bullshit. My best answers are “I don’t know.” “How can I help?” And sometimes, “Let’s punch something!” Negative feelings are valid and don’t need amelioration; they need to be expressed. It’s our natural impulse to want to make people feel better, but sometimes, it’s only through feeling bad, that we can begin to work through and heal. This is their journey; I’m on the sidelines supporting not dictating plays.

Is It Really The Same ?

It often comes up in the adoption group I am a member of whether it is really possible to love adopted and genetically related (biological) children equally.  Many doubt it and some from experience.

A woman who gave up a child for adoption writes –

I am not sure if I could love an adopted child the same. I mean, it would be a child so of course I would love them. But love them as my own? I can’t honestly say yes.

People always point out how my son and I are so similar. Yes we look alike. But he has my anxiety, my compassion, my sensitive nature. If I had adopted a child, if people told me we were so much alike, some part of me would think they were just pacifying me.

I can’t imagine being adopted and having these thoughts. I struggle with the fact that I have a family member out there that I sentenced to these thoughts. I wish there was a lifelong revocation period for real.

An adoptee responds –

I used to laugh at people when they said me and my a dad look so much alike- we don’t. I used to love to say- that’s funny cause I’m adopted, just to make them feel silly. Somehow it made me feel better to discredit the mention of resemblance.

One woman made the point that an adoptive parent simply has no “biological” obligation to the adopted child.  That is hard to argue with.  A legal obligation certainly.  A financial obligation, one would hope.  I know my mom had told me her adoptive parents couldn’t disinherit her and her adopted brother because Texas law forbid that.

One woman notes she has seen this in spaces where the adoptive parents can remain anonymous. She says, adoptive mothers who have both biological and adopted children do validate the inequality, especially if put in the context of a theoretical question like – “if the house was on fire…who would you save ?”..  Certainly, adoptive parents who have only adopted children do believe they love them the same as if they were their “own” offspring but when the comparison is there in reality ?, that clarifies the issue.

A very honest example matches my illustration above –

I was raised by my natural mom but we are very different people. My next sibling and her always clicked in this way that she and I never did and it definitely f**ked with me.

I don’t know if it’s related but the entire narrative about how you’re supposed to love an adopted or fostered kid from the getgo “like they were your own” always struck me as really f**king bonkers and super gross and violent towards the kid in question.

Like, you’re strangers. They don’t even know if they’re gonna like you yet, leave them the alone and let them figure out their feelings in their own time and space.

One more, as an adoptive parent I would never speak for all adoptive parents, but in my experience as both a mother to a biological and an adopted child, it is NOT the same. There is more nuance, more complexity, more layers. I have often likened it to a marriage commitment. I choose to love her no matter what. Sometimes the feelings are there; sometimes they’re not. But I would also say that it’s true for every relationship. True love is a commitment and a daily choice.

Be sure to choose love regardless of whether the child is adopted or your own.  Love is a state of being and how one acts towards another person.  Love does not need a genetic relationship to exist.  If the love isn’t there, find yourself a good therapist !!

When An Adoptee Becomes A Mother

Adoption is a lifelong process, and becoming a parent adds a layer of complexity as it causes adoptees to revisit, or consider for the first time, the losses that go along with adoption.

This can be surprising for adoptees that were comfortable with their family situation for a couple of decades.  I do remember (since both of my parents were adopted) that we had no medical history at the doctor’s office but we knew there was an explanation – adoption.

Adoption can be a delicate subject. The spectrum of the adoptee experience is vast, and the conversation often feels dominated by adoptive parents who have deeply ingrained fears about losing their child or children.  This is why I focus more on the adoptee and the original parents who usually have a diminished voice in society.

Feelings and issues are bound to come up when adoptees become parents themselves. Questions arise about family and cultural histories, medical concerns and the role of identity in the parenting experience. An adoptee frequently wonders, “Who am I, really?”

One adoptee shared this – “If there was a part of me that yearned for something – a hole that was difficult to fill – I didn’t connect that with being adopted. I struggled with anxiety and trust, and that worsened as I grew into adulthood. But I was certain I wanted to have biological kids — to create them, to grow them, to birth them. I didn’t know why I needed that, or why I was lonely and struggled to trust others. I just knew I needed to fill this hole, to find this missing piece.”

I have felt this with each of my three biological children – it is an emotional response when I see my baby for the first time, feeling a definite bond to that child. It is a tidal wave, taller and more powerful than falling in love. When an adoptee experiences this it is much more – like they had missed something their entire life but didn’t realized what it was until that moment.  The adoptee may even wonder if their mother felt something like that for them.  Or if she didn’t.  What did that say about their worthiness to be loved ?  I wonder if my adoptee mother had these sudden realizations.  She is deceased now and I can’t ask her about it.

An adoptee may struggle with how their own original mother could carry them for nine months and then simply let them go – permanently.

For many adoptee moms, this grief is new, something they don’t understand until they become pregnant themselves. New ways of thinking about their adoption often heighten the myriad emotions experienced during pregnancy and birth.

All adoption is rooted in trauma. Being separated from your original family, and from the woman who you grew inside of, is trauma. The baby does miss that heartbeat, that smell, that undeniable bond. For an adoptee during a pregnancy, it may feel quite novel to realize they are about to meet their very first blood relative.  Adoptees often experience an added layer of appreciation and gratitude for as well as an added connection to their children.

 

To Raise Up A Child

It burgeons like a night mushroom beneath a protective cover of fallen leaves that look sickly and forlorn. The leaves are the symptoms that protect and in some strange way nourish the spores of the hidden genius that it may arise at the right time, possessed of its own unique and unadulterated powers.
~ Jean Houston, A Mythic Life

I think that those people cut off from their own, whether adoptee or foster child and their original parents, are in the early stage of changing the myth. The unicorns and rainbows story of how wonderful it is to be plopped into a stranger’s world. We are seeing that it is an outmoded perception and it needs to change or go away.  These individuals now speak up loudly to help those unaware to see what is going on.

Life is complex. The child (and even the matured individual) who has been impacted may be scarred by a trauma, those who haven’t been subjected to it may struggle to understand.

Finding a way to make sense of it all is something I have been doing for a couple of years now.  A good starting place for my own self has been to accept and acknowledge the sad and tragic circumstances that are part of the thread of continuity which makes me who I am.

For those adoptive parents and foster care givers, it is critical to see, not only the trauma and the wounds and certainly to address those, but also to seek to see the core self that is at the deepest level of the soul, before those impacts arrived. What are the natural talents and capacities, yes gifts, this child has to give to the world ? Nurture those !! Even as you attempt to heal the wounds that will always be within the personality.

Saying The Right Thing

Who knew ?

Everything about adoption is complex and uniquely individual.  For over 60 years, I had no idea.

I gave birth to two sons – one at age 47 and one at age 50.  I don’t let the misperceptions that I am my son’s grandmother bother me too much.  Afterall, I am a grandmother, just not these boys grandmother.  I have two grandchildren, a boy and a girl.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma.  Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma.  Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can rant and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.  This is the way we give an adoptee voice without judgement or push-back.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking.

If you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry.” or “This must really be hard for you.” or “I am ready to hear you without interruption.” Don’t say, “I know someone who was adopted and they are very happy they were.” or “You should be grateful to your adoptive parents.” And don’t say, “Your original mother must have been a monster.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to someone you know lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Finding Out One Was Adopted

Above is a segment of my Dad’s original adoption papers.  He was actually adopted twice (his adoptive mother divorced the first husband and remarried, changing my Dad’s name when he was already 8 years old). Upon discovering one of my Hempstead relatives, the first thing she noticed had entirely been missed by my own self, the Salvation Army appeared to “own” him and his mother’s name was nowhere to be found on the document.

I don’t know how old either of my parents were when they learned they were adopted but I believe each was as old as they needed to be told.  I think they always “knew” even before they consciously knew.

There are many ways an adoptee can learn they were adopted.  They might accidentally overhear a conversation.  They might develop a serious illness that requires accurate medical information.  They may discover papers in their adoptive parents’ files after their death or a stranger may come into their life (thanks to DNA testing) and claim to be related.

Most human beings have a need for love and a sense of belonging, also for self-esteem and a recognition of their value.  It seems the almost all emotional wounds need these and some also highlight safety and security and I believe that is true of adoptees as well.

There are so many sad, false beliefs that filter into the heart of an adoptee – something must be wrong with me because my “real” parents gave me away, I don’t belong anywhere, I probably never should have been born, I don’t know who I am and if my “real” parents could abandon me, anyone could.

An adoptee seeking reunion with their original family fears another rejection.  If they were adopted into a family with children already, they may believe they are loved less and many fear they could be taken away from their adoptive family and even fear that it might be the original family recovering them.

Adoptees suffer many side effects of having been adopted.  They may be subject to mood swings, they feel less equal within a family unit, they may be obsessed with the past, struggle with a sense of identity, see how they are different than the adoptive family they are living within, have a hard time saying good-bye, may be always trying to prove their worthiness, may expect to be deceived or engage in risky behavior and may exhibit behaviors indicating a subservience.

That is a lot but it actually is not the end of it – they may experience anxiety or situational depression, they may need to double-check facts for accuracy, they develop various insecurities, they may be cynical and reject the adoptive family.  An adoptee may fantasize about a reunion with their “real” family and actually seek them out.

On the plus side, an adoptee respects honesty and openness.  It may have been emphasized to them that they were chosen, even if they had a hard time accepting that as a positive aspect of having been adopted.  They are adaptable, analytical, appreciative, centered, curious, diplomatic, easygoing, empathetic, happy, private, sentimental, supportive and wise.

They are as complex as any human being could be.

Acceptance

My adoptee mom shared with me before she died that she had to stop working on the family tree at Ancestry that she had been creating from the lineage of the adoptive parents (my dad was also an adoptee).  She said “It just wasn’t real to me.  I am adopted.”  Then she added, “Glad I was.” because she had reached a place of acceptance that she would never know her origins and whether having been adopted was actually a “good” thing or not.

Acceptance is a phase of grieving.  My mom grieved that her original mother had died before her search began.  Arriving at acceptance can feel lighter, more balanced and has the ability to realize what all of our experiences have brought to us.

Adoptees will likely struggle with what it means to belong to two families.  Coming to terms with that, could also make comfortable – duality, complexity and ambiguity.  An adoptee may be able to see both/and rather than either/or.

What will always be true is that an adoptee can never be not adopted. That’s a given.

Adoption can add an element of compassion.  There is no getting around the reality that the adoptee was given up.  Taken in by strangers. There are consequences to both.

Healing can happen when an adoptee can accept that what happened, happened. This was their fate. They were surrendered by one mother and raised by a different one.  An adoptee can’t avoid the pain that is part of that experience.

Platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” are not helpful.  Nor are attitudes that an adult adoptee should simply “move on” or “get over it” or “stop dwelling in the past”.  These are not helpful either. The past is an adoptee’s history, their identity, their connection to a concept of family.

Babies adopted shortly after birth experience a trauma so early in life that there is no “before” the trauma to return to.  Consider that.  Add to it the pain adoptees experience by being mostly invalidated by society.

So better words don’t include a non-adoptee’s judgement of what would have been better or worse.  A simple acknowledgement of fact is enough.  Adoption can’t be undone.

Even so, an adoptee can know that they are also a survivor with those kinds of strengths and gifts. The adoption system is deeply flawed.  Seeking to reform it is a worthy outcome for having gone through the experience.

Telling The Story

If at any age your child asks you about their adoption and they want to know why –
they deserve the absolute truth. It should be age appropriate.

At a very young age, “Mommy couldn’t take care of you.”, may be enough.

Kids know when their parents don’t want them. They don’t need to be told; they’ve felt it from the beginning. Babies can feel rejection in the womb and it affects their attachments.

The majority of adoptees feel unwanted – whether it is a one time thing, or episodic, or lifelong – the question is how accurate is that perception ?

A parent should not evade an adoptee’s question but they should be sensitive and gentle in their response.

Not answering with the real reason when they ask, can lead them to feel like they aren’t good enough to be told the truth. Or that what they want doesn’t matter. Or that they aren’t smart enough to understand it. Or that they ought to just be happy with whatever answer they are given. And that they should stop bringing it up because the parent doesn’t want to talk about it.

A competent, caring, informed Adoptive Parent can manage to put the child’s feelings first and provide an answer that meets that child where they are developmentally, emotionally and intellectually.

But never lie. There are many subliminal messages that get sent to adoptees.  Children often see themselves as the problem. The Adoptive Parent may not really know the whole truth. It may be very complex.

My dad’s original mother had a love affair with a married man. My dad was with his mother for some months after birth. Even so, she may have come to feel that adoption was her only solution to what may have been primarily a financial problem in the 1930s.

My mom’s story was complex. Her mother didn’t intend to lose her. She was exploited by a woman who was stealing and selling babies. My grandparents were married when my mom was conceived. It is not possible to know the whole story now about why they were separated. They are both dead and the descendants don’t seem to know the details accurately enough to convey them.

Parents should know that their children are incredibly resilient. Whatever the adoptees story is, they deserve to have their history told to them honestly.