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. 

Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More

Both of my parents were Great Depression babies – born 1935 and 1937. For that fact alone, it isn’t a wonder they both ended up adopted, though the reasons are much more complicated than that. But certainly, financial hardship in the lives of my two original grandmothers is the key factor.

So this is on my mind this morning after watching Angela’s Ashes on dvd last night and being reminded of the song – Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More written by Stephen Foster and published in 1854. Some of the lyrics – While we all sup sorrow with the poor, Many a days you have lingered around my cabin door, There are frail forms fainting at the door, Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, There’s a pale weeping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

So what was it like in the 1930s ?, was a question on my mind this morning. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in modern history at the time it occurred. It profoundly affected the daily life of American families in ways large and small. The bleakest point was about 1933 or 34.

The life of a child in the 1930s was very different than a child’s life today. With the Great Depression, children and their families were greatly impacted—millions lived in poverty and had very little to eat, let alone money to spare for entertainment. Times were tough everywhere, and an additional mouth to feed was a burden. Certainly, I believe that both of my grandmothers encountered this mind set when they were seeking aid with their newborn babies.

Food was scarce for a lot of families and many children suffered from malnutrition. As we were watching children die in Angela’s Ashes my husband said, it is the lack of nutrition that makes it impossible for them to fight off diseases.

My maternal grandmother’s childhood family did live on a farm that was not ravaged by the Dust Bowl being west of Memphis in the rural countryside. They probably did grow a variety of crops and raised small amounts of livestock to survive. During the Depression, casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, macaroni and cheese, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular. Jello was actually considered a cheap protein source (had to believe it would be viewed as that – one serving only has 1.6 grams of protein and the equivalent of 4-1/2 tsp of sugar !!) But Jello still found its way into many cookbooks during the Depression. Potlucks were often organized by churches to share food and provide a cheap form of social entertainment. The board games Scrabble and Monopoly were introduced during the 1930s. Both of which my own family has played recently.

Economic struggle caused mothers to leave the home for work and children to leave school for work as a breakdown in child labor law enforcement occurred. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC to help support her family. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. Those that were lucky enough to have steady employment often saw their wages cut or their hours reduced to part-time. With record unemployment, children competed for jobs with their elders to help contribute to their family’s income, often forgoing further schooling. Many children were technically self-employed, collecting junk to sell or doing odd jobs for neighbors.

The stress of financial strain took a psychological toll—especially on men who were suddenly unable to provide for their families. The national suicide rate rose to an all-time high in 1933. Marriages became strained, though many couples could not afford to separate. Some men deserted their families out of embarrassment or frustration: This was sometimes called a “poor man’s divorce.” So, was this what my paternal grandfather chose when faced with yet another child on the way ? Is this why he failed to show up for my grandmother and mom when they returned to Memphis after her birth in Virginia (where she was sent away to avoid embarrassment for her father, even though she really was a married woman).

Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford much for their children, so most of their clothes were cast offs and children often went barefoot. Most middle-income boys wore t-shirts with overalls and girls wore blouses and plain dresses. Both would have one pair of shoes and an outfit for special occasions. The Depression-era motto was: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” I definitely saw these effects in the lives of my in-laws (both born in 1921) and on my dad’s adoptive parents.

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.