Separations

An adoptee wrote – “I hate not belonging anywhere. I hate that I have multiple families, but also really zero. I hate needing to earn my place in people’s lives.” I could relate as I recently shared with my husband and he understood. We both come from small nuclear families and there is no extended family geographically close to us and honestly, few of those as well anywhere else.

Much of this feeling for me comes from the realization that those who were my extended family growing up aren’t really related to me. Those that are genetically biologically related to me don’t really know me, have no real history with me and though I am slowly without too much intrusion trying to build these new relationships . . . sigh. It isn’t easy.

My first family break-up was one I initiated. I divorced the man I had married just before I turned 18 and a month before I graduated from high school in April 1972. By November, more or less, I was pregnant with our first child. She remains the joy of my life and has gifted me with two grandchildren. However, finances separated me from my daughter when she was 3 years old and she was raised by her father and step-mother who gave her a yours-mine-and-ours family of siblings, sisters, just like I grew up with. It has left me with a weird sense of motherhood in regard to my daughter. One that I often struggle with but over the last decade or so, I have been able to bridge some of that gap- both with regard in my own sense of self-esteem and in a deepening relationship with my daughter, primarily since the passing of her step-mother (not that the woman was an impediment but understandably, my daughter’s heart remains seriously tied to that woman even today).

The trauma of mother/child separation lived by each of my adoptee parents (while skipping my relationship and my sisters’ relationship with our parents) passed over to my sisters and my own relationships with our biological genetic children. I seriously do believe it has proven to have been a factor. Both of my sisters gave up babies to adoptive parents and one lost her first born in court to his paternal grandparents. Sorrows all around but all us must go on the best we can.

Since learning the stories of my original grandparents, I have connected with several genetic relatives – cousins mostly and an aunt plus one who lives in Mexico with her daughter. Everyone is nice enough considering the absolutely un-natural situation our family histories have thrust us into. So really, now I find myself in this odd place of not really belonging to 4 discrete family lines (one set of grandparents were initially married and divorced after the surrender of their child to adoption and one set never married, in fact my paternal grandfather likely never knew he had a son). Happily, though a significant bit of geographical distance a factor foe me, my paternal grandfather was a Danish immigrant and I now have contact with one cousin in Denmark who has shared some information with me that I would not have but for him.

Regarding estrangement, I’ve had no direct contact with my youngest sister since 2016. In regard to looking out for her best interests, her own attorneys in the estate proceedings encouraged me to pursue a court appointed guardian/conservator for her – as both of our parents died 4 months apart and she was highly dependent upon them due to her mental illness of (likely) paranoid schizophrenia. The effects of that really destroyed my relationship with her (which had been close until our mother died and then, went seriously to hell, causing us to become estranged). I just learned the other day that the court has released her conservator. I guess she is on her own now. She survived 4 years of homelessness before reconciling uneasily with our parents. I guess the survivor in her will manage but she most likely also now believes the guardian/conservator proceedings were my own self being vindictive, for some unreasonable purpose. Sigh. I don’t miss contact with her – honestly – it was cruel and difficult being on the receiving end of her offensives after our mom died. I do wish her “well” in the sincerest meanings of that concept.

It could also be that without these great woundings I would be less vulnerable and available, less empathic and compassionate, with the people I encounter as I live my life each day. Maybe it is precisely my reaching out, in an effort to connect, that causes me to share my own personal circumstances. A sacrifice of the heart.

Some Thoughts On Trauma

I came across a discussion about trauma yesterday. About a year ago, I had a 6 yr old molar tooth pulled. The dentist even gave me 6 mos to get used to the idea. 6 mos after that yanking out of my tooth, in a follow-up with my dentist, I admitted that it traumatized me. I quickly added that I knew he was a sensitive and caring person and that there was nothing he could have done to prevent my feeling traumatized. I said, since I have been learning about adoption related trauma as I have learned more about both of my parents as adoptees, I think I was just more aware of it.

I knew nothing about Doris Brothers at the time nor did I know about ACE scores. What I learned about her is that Doris Brothers urges a return to a trauma-centered psychoanalysis. Making use of relational systems theory, she shows that experiences of uncertainty are continually transformed by the regulatory processes of everyday life such as feeling, knowing, forming categories, making decisions, using language, creating narratives, sensing time, remembering, forgetting, and fantasizing. Insofar as trauma destroys the certainties that organize psychological life, it plunges our relational systems into chaos and sets the stage for the emergence of rigid, life-constricting relational patterns. These trauma-generated patterns, which often involve denial of sameness and difference, the creation of complexity-reducing dualities, and the transformation of certainty into certitude, figure prominently in virtually all of the complaints for which patients seek analytic treatment.

Below this is what I read yesterday, that struck me as relevant, though the discussion was not about adoption.

“Yesterday I read an interesting article by Doris Brothers about traumatic attachment, dissociation, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Part of what she conveyed was the idea that in a traumatized system dissociation operates to reduce complexity, which serves a salutary function insofar as it functions to eliminate from consciousness that which interferes with the reestablishment of order and predictability in needed relationships.”

“Dissociation may be understood, in part, as a means of simplifying experience through a radical reduction of experiential complexity. . . . To experience such complexity might well heighten what is already a level of uncertainty about psychological survival that is close to unbearable. As complexity is dissociatively reduced, a traumatized person’s relational world comes to be ruled by simple, rigid SECs [systemically emergent certainties] [a concept similar to organizing principles] that are clung to with desperate ferocity.”

“In the absence of trauma, SECs are subject to change according to the shifting needs of the constituents of the systems in which they arise; they are, in other words, context sensitive. Trauma-generated SECs are strikingly different. Emerging within systems dominated by the desperate need to halt the spread of chaos and tormenting uncertainty, they tend to be impervious to the changing environment.”

Moreover, Brothers observes that “traumatic attachments tend to be rigid, constricted and highly resistant to change,” and that “the more trauma, the more risk of inflexibility.”

Brothers also observes that “attachment patterns that form in the context of unbearable experiences of existential uncertainty in one generation may influence the attachment patterns that emerge in the next,” and that “dualities and dichotomies” often characterize traumatized systems.

~ Doris Brothers Ph.D. (2014) Traumatic Attachments: Intergenerational Trauma, Dissociation, and the Analytic Relationship, International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, 9:1, 3-15.

From the person raising the discussion – “All of which got me to thinking about those who promote dichotomous ideologies and Manichean worldviews. Ordinarily, I pull no punches when thinking or talking about these people (especially when they are jockeying for political positions that could affect my life and the lives of people I care about). But if I withdraw for a moment from the impulse to ridicule, I reflect that these may be people whose lives, whose organizing principles, are the product of trauma, maybe even trauma that didn’t happen to them directly, but to their parents. Seen in this light, the impoverished either/or thinking, the insufferably reductive and punitive moralities take on a different hue, that of involuntary affliction, sequelae of a prior generation’s trauma, and those saddled with such worldviews suddenly appear more understandable and less blameworthy.”

Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian prophet Mani, in the Sasanian Empire. Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Clearly, humanity has not progressed very much in reality.

Many adoptees tell stories of a variety of degrees of abuse. An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems.

To Stop Transgenerational Trauma?

Another adoptee shared – a former therapist of mine was adopted (her and a twin brother went to the same family in a domestic infant adoption). She’s also a pastor’s wife. She threw ALL my adoption trauma out the window and basically gave me both this same speech about me getting to skip generational trauma from my biological dad’s family and also that it was all God’s plan. I saw her twice and ghosted her. She also told me I didn’t have Bi-Polar Disorder after I was diagnosed in an actual hospital setting, and after only speaking to me twice for about 40 minutes each time. I swear Christian therapists are insane.

Another one admitted about the therapist that she just said the quiet part out loud inappropriately. The kids that are removed for abuse and similar are adopted out because they’re trying to save the kid and stop the cycle. Honestly a lot of kids DO end up better off, BUT of course there’s the trauma. I feel like an orphan no matter my adoptive or biological connections in adulthood. But that pain had me vowing to give my son a better life. And while I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded at that (married an abuser, we also had to escape) the hope is because I’ve tried to stop and break the generational cycle that he’ll do better than I ever was or could be able to.

Another one said – Separation trauma from adoption IS generational. We can pass to our kids and screw them up and all they did was have a parent that got adopted. So adoption continues generational trauma. Tell that idiot therapist to research epigenetics and then find a new one.

I do believe it IS passed down. Both of my parents were adopted. Myself and my sisters certainly had issues within our own parenting that I do believe is directly related. Thankfully, our children do seem to be breaking those trauma cycles in their own lives.

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.

Prenatal Mental Illness Influences

Today is my youngest sister’s birthday but we are estranged due to her hostility towards me which cause is her mental illness.  I read about this book in a recent Time magazine.  It is listed as one of the 10 best nonfiction books for 2019.  I bought it so that I might understand what has happened to my youngest sister better.  This may seem like an odd topic for this blog but actually it is highly relevant.

I’ve only started reading the first essay but I was struck by this statistic – People diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely to be born in the winter than in the summer – perhaps due to maternal infection during pregnancy.  I have previously written about intergenerational transmission of trauma.  There is a high likelihood of that in my family with both parents being adoptees.

Biological features may mark a susceptibility to already established disorders as well as what types of stressors are most likely to transform those susceptibilities into illness.  I suspect that my sister was always vulnerable.  Something happened to her at some point that caused a marked downturn in her mental health from which she has not yet and may never re-emerge.  She spent some time homeless, which is itself a stressor and I believe caused some of her delusions as she attempted to justify her unconventional lifestyle.

My sister also gave up her only child for adoption.  Adoption was a natural condition in our family even though I now know it is not natural by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, it was her choice from the moment she was aware she was pregnant.  I’ve often wondered now that I know more about mother/child separations if this has been an additional stressor.

She speaks of a subsequent pregnancy that was murdered within her.  I doubt that one also took place but one never knows with her.  One of the ways I have coped with her odd mental functioning is to simply listen without judging the validity of what she tells me because I believe some truth always lies within the stories but the interpretation of the meaning of those stories is off in some manner.

In a review of the book I am reading, I saw this question –

Is there some inner self that lies beyond the reaches of mental illness, a consciousness that disease makes invisible but leaves intact ?

Because I do believe in an eternal consciousness that is ever evolving through a variety of physical lifetime experiences, I do believe there is a witness who knows all of the whys and wherefores.

What Is Enough ?

My mother doubted her worth as a human and as a mother. She never believed she was good enough. Adoption did that to her. She felt broken and torn.

My mom tried very hard to know her roots. She appealed to the state of Tennessee for her adoption file. Though her father was twenty years older than her mother and her mother had already died, she was denied because the state didn’t really try too hard to determine her father’s status. He had been dead for 30 years, when she made her attempt.

She did an Ancestry DNA test and had a profile, hoping against hope to learn some truth. At least, she had some idea of her ethnicity from that effort.  She tried to complete family trees but since they were based on persons who adopted her and adopted my dad, she quit and said to me, “It just didn’t feel real.”  Of course it didn’t.  From a genealogy perspective – it wasn’t the truth.

I now have the complete story for both – my mom and my dad. I wrote everything up in a limited edition book given to family, so that what I worked so hard to learn would not be lost with me, if I died.

There is no risk-free exposure for the children of adopted parents. I know. The wounds and damage passed down my family line and other children ended up adopted too.

Trauma and Stress

The possibility of trauma passing down through generations as genetic mutations affecting health had reason to re-enter my awareness last night.

My mom was an adoptee.  I know for a fact she suffered because of it.  She told me so.  She died believing she had been stolen.  While her made-up story based upon other stories that were sadly all too real under the reign of the notorious Georgia Tann were not entirely accurate, I do believe deep in her soul “stolen” was not that far off.  She died believing it and now that I have her adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I know that her mother never intended to give her up and was trapped into an impossible situation.

She had left my mom at an orphanage in Memphis (Porter-Leath) for temporary care.  That was a decision point from which there was no return of the mother-child bonding for my mom and her mother.  My grandmother was allowed to see my mom one final time before she was ripped away and placed with strangers.  I have those black and white photos now.  The happiness upon seeing her mother again is evident in my mom’s body language.

The adoption file tells me she screamed all the way from Memphis to Nogales Arizona as my adoptive grandmother carried her home.  No wonder my mom felt stolen.  When they reached Arizona, she was drugged to calm her down.  Eventually, with no other choice, she adapted to her circumstances and coped.

Yet, the health impacts left her a medical basket case all her life and I believe her stress at conceiving me as an unwed high school student impacted my health.  And it may go on down the line to my daughter and granddaughter.  Medical science is discovering through research some truth to these theories on my part but they have a lot of work to do yet.

It does appear that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.  Some people are born with genetic vulnerabilities and circumstances can then cause those vulnerabilities to manifest as disease.  This is true for every adoptee, regardless of what the manifestations are or how minimally impacted that adoptee may appear.

Where Does It Begin ?

Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died,
even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence,
fragments of life experience, memory and body sensation can live on,
reaching out from the past to resolution in the minds and bodies
of those living in the present.

~ It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn

At some point, as I delved into my own origins story, I began to wonder if many of the random things that seemed to happen to my family members were the result of something that happened to our ancestors.

I discovered this book that seemed to indicate that it was a real possibility.

Wolynn asks early in his book – Did something traumatic happen while your mother was pregnant with you ?

I would say that any unplanned pregnancy would be – to some extent – “traumatic”, wouldn’t you ?  Most adoptions are the result of an unplanned pregnancy.  My mom was only a teenager in high school when she discovered that I was on my way.  At 2 months pregnant, she married my father.  He had only just started his university education but had to quit school and go to work to support us.

But what about in the days and weeks before the decision to marry took place ?  I did find the love letters my parents were writing to one another as I cleaned out their belongings after they had both died.  I only read one.  It was a note from my mother to a friend (I don’t know whether she ever delivered it) that was stressing about how my father would react to the news.  I suppose if I had known I was going to embark on this origins journey less than 2 years later, I might have saved them for the insights they would have given me.

I do regret not saving the love letters.  Shortly before I started cleaning out their home, I had read an article.  It was written by a woman who lamented her mother destroying similar letters after her father had died.  She told her daughter that they were not for anyone else to read beyond the two of them – not even their own child.  That the letters were private.  That perspective is what guided my thoughts at the time.

Previously, I had received a bunch of letters that my dad’s adoptive father had written, I believe mostly during World War II, from my mom.  I actually read one of those letters at my grandfather’s funeral service as an indication of his love of family and country.  However, most of those letters simply sat here – unread – for a couple of years and eventually, I delivered them to my grandfather’s biological daughter, my Aunt Karen.

I suppose the lack of time I had to hopefully read those love letters, influenced my decision not to keep my parent’s love letters when I had them in hand.  Too bad I can’t go back and retrieve them now.

 

Books

 

Growing up adoption seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I thought my parents were orphans. Neither of these was true of course. The first bump came when my school friends bragged about being French or German. When I asked my mom what we were, she said American. I said but what else? We don’t know, she said, because your dad and I were adopted. We didn’t have the identity so many people take for granted.

As I began to learn about my grandparents, I began to suspect that being adopted and my grandmothers losing their own mothers at young ages (3 mos for my paternal, 11 yrs for my maternal) played a role in the fact that my sisters and I were not able to raise our own children. I began to suspect this strange detachment my parents had about parenting might have also been affected by our circumstances.

The impacts of being motherless daughters and being adopted did have effects. Then I learned about inherited family trauma. Our circumstances began to fall into place, began to make a bit of sense that I had not previously considered. My sisters and I were not purely failures at living, we were carrying wounds passed down to us.

Anyway, without giving too much of my story away, here’s a list of books that proved informative to me on my journey. The more universal are at the top of the list, the more personally specific nearer the bottom but all of them have proven useful to my own understanding.

[1]  The Primal Wound – Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Newton Verrier

While written with a focus on adoption, this book offers a lot of insight into the effects of mother/child separations in general. Adoption is common in our family – Gale Patrick Hart, Julie Sue Hart, Susan Ostrowski and Thomas Patrick Parker – were each given up by their mothers for adoption.

[2]  Motherless Daughters – The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman

While focused on mothers who died young and left behind daughters, a topic that appealed to me because both of my grandmothers, Lizzie Lou Stark and Dolores Abigail Hempstead – lost their own mothers at a young age; however, this book offers very deep insights into all mother/daughter relationships

[3]  It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn

Explores the possibility of inherited family trauma. I had suspected this was a factor in our own family dynamics even before I knew about or read this book.

[4] The Baby Scoop Era by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh

Details about adoption practices from the 1940’s up through the 1970s and more.

[5] Hole In My Heart: A Memoir and Report from the Fault Lines of Adoption by Lorraine Dusky

The memoir of a woman who gave her daughter up for adoption and then later has a reunion with her.

[6] Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Although fiction, she did her research on the Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal as the foundation of her engaging book.

[7]  Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by Jim Webb

Very good historical background of the clan in Scotland and their participation in the settlement and wars of the United States.

[8] The Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut by Joshua Hempstead

Covering A Period of Forty-Seven Years From September 1711, to November, 1758

A glimpse into everyday colonial life by a direct ancestor through that family line.

[9] Memphis and the Super Flood of 1937 – High Water Blues by Patrick O’Daniel

Thorough account of that event.

[10]  Images of America – Ocean Beach by The Ocean Beach Historical Society

Picture of The Door of Hope, a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers, is where Gale Patrick Hart was born. Image on page 116.

Even before I began uncovering my roots, I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond – just after my father died. It made me very grateful for the couple that adopted my mother. It could have been much worse. There are other books as well but these were the most significant for my own self.