It Is About More Than That

In my all things adoption group, a woman writes –

Let’s talk about “playing the victim”. I see this come up a lot in this group when adoptees and former fostercare youth are talking about their trauma. I can only speak for myself, but I’d like to explain why this is so bothersome.

This is a group about the realities of adoption. Our conversations are often about adoption. I talk about my adoption trauma a lot in this group. Why? Because it’s relevant to the conversation. The conversations I have in this group are not reflective of the conversations I have elsewhere in my life. This group is only a sliver of my life.

I have trauma from being adopted. I suffer from mental illness. I’ve been diagnosed with BPD (* see below). I don’t blame all of my struggles on being adopted. I can’t say for certain that it is the root of all my problems. But I also can’t separate it. I was relinquished as a newborn. This trauma has always been here. It is a part of the other problems. It is a part of me. But it’s not all of me.

* Note – BPD – Borderline Personality Disorder is a condition characterized by difficulties regulating emotion. This means that people who experience BPD feel emotions intensely and for extended periods of time, and it is harder for them to return to a stable baseline after an emotionally triggering event.

I have trauma from being adopted but I have privilege in other areas of my life. I’m very fortunate to be where I am today. I’ve met many roadblocks as a result of being an adoptee, but I’ve overcome many of them. I’ve made mistakes and suffered the consequences of those mistakes, but I own them. I don’t blame others for my actions.

Being adopted comes with trauma. Being adopted has legal implications that can make things difficult. In a group about facing the realities of adoption, I don’t think it’s “playing the victim” to acknowledge the hard things. You have no idea how anyone has lived their life. We are simply sharing experiences that are relevant to the purpose of this group.

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.

Using Bio in Reference to Family

When one spends time within the larger adoption community (this includes original family, adoptees and former foster youth as well as adoptive and foster parents) the precise use of language sometimes becomes an issue. For my own self, I am entirely willing to learn to use the most appropriate language while giving a large tolerance to the words anyone else uses because we are all doing our best to improve and reform circumstances that have historically not been in the best interests of the child who ends up adopted or in foster care. That is really the most important issue – the well-being of our children overall.

Some of the adoptees or former foster youth have had reunions with their original family that have not gone well at all, only heaping more heartbreak and rejection on already wounded souls. Some had really crappy experiences with their adoptive or foster care families. Life can be incredibly hard at times for a lot of people. I try to always remember that and I too fail to be compassionate and sympathetic enough at times. We all do. Rather than beat ourselves up over our mistakes in judgement and actions, we really can only try to do better in the next instant – every instant after every instant. Life is for evolving ourselves and through our efforts to make ourselves a better human being overall, we evolve our families, our communities, our countries and our planet. It is an on-going process that never ends.

Whatever we call our parents, it can only be whatever feels right to each of us personally. I think every one of my own children has called me by my familiar first name of Debbie at some time or other and it has never truly bothered me. It does get complicated when adoption is in one’s family history. I called my mom’s adoptive parents – Grandmother D and Grandfather D – they were very formal people. I called my dad’s adoptive parents – Granny and Granddaddy. They were very humble, salt of the earth kinds of people.

When I learned who my parents actual original parents were – in my heart, they did take the place of my adoptive grandparents because they are truly the genetic, biological ones. However, I never use a “grandparent” identifier with them. It is their names that I use – Lizzie Lou, JC, Delores and Rasmus (though he preferred Martin, I like the more Danish version personally). So though, when I think of grandparents now (having only learned of them after the age of 60, after they were long deceased and I will never know them but second hand through other descendants of theirs), I think of the original ones but I never use the childhood identifiers for them.

There has long been a raging controversy over the use of the word “birth” to denote the parents who conceived and birthed children who were later surrendered either voluntarily or involuntarily (forcefully taken). Here is one perspective on that issue –

I personally loathe the term ‘birth mother’ and prefer ‘bio’ to differentiate between adoptive parents and family I’m related to by biology. I don’t understand why Lee Campbell (founder of Concerned United Birthparents) insists that ‘birth’ is not offensive but ‘bio’ is. Biology denotes DNA; genetically unrelated surrogates can give birth, so it’s not an inclusive term, as far as I can see. Anyway, as an adoptee—the only person among ANY of my family who had NO CHOICE—I’ll use whatever term I please. I adore my maternal biological family, including my late momma, whom I didn’t get to know past infancy. I feel far more connected to her than I ever did to my adoptive mother. I have three living maternal uncles and we are CRAZY about each other. We don’t use qualifiers referring to each other, but in cases when clarification is needed, I specify with ‘bio’.

Some of the push related to language was actually influenced by the adoptive parents when the whole industry was going through radical change in the 1970s. Social workers started to push positive adoption language. You had adoptive families complaining about the previous terms: they didn’t like natural mother because then they were unnatural. They didn’t like real because that made them unreal.

Many original mothers and their offspring do dislike the term “birth” because a woman who has given birth to a child is much more than just a woman who gave birth. There is a bond formed in the womb and all the conditions and circumstances that occur during gestation that will forever be a part of any human being and of course, there is the genetics as well.

Here is another perspective from a former foster youth who has adopted a child out of foster care – I always refer to my own parents as my biological parents. I honestly don’t have much relationship with either of my parents. I have learned through the years they are truly incapable of having a safe parent/child relationship. And honestly they are simply my biology. Nothing more. As an adoptive parent, I have learned and respect my daughter’s mom and family and refer to her mom when speaking to her as simply – her mom. In posts on the internet I try to always use first family. I will add that I only use first family in areas of the internet when needing to differentiate. In real life, it is simply family, mom, dad, grandmother, etc and no one has ever been confused over whether I was talking about adoptive or her first family.

Another one added – I call my son’s Mom, his Mom. His first family, his family. I can’t handle the terms that make the moms less than.

I totally agree.

And many of these women really don’t like “tummy mom.”

There is also another kind of family where the adoptive parent is actually “kin” related to the adoptee. I know one of these kinds of situations rather well. So one who is a former foster youth wrote –

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I will call my bio parents whatever I want. They are not my “real” parents, because neither of them raised me. It is incredibly offensive when people ask “your adoptive (kinship) mom, or your real mom?” No. My kinship mom IS my
“real” mom. Our relationship is far from perfect. My raising was far from perfect. But she’s the only person who I’ve ever felt comfortable enough regarding our relationship to call “mom”, and I’ll continue to do so.  I hate the phrase “real mom.” My mom is my mom.  Period.

In my own case, my biological, genetically related daughter was not raised by me after the age of 3. She ended up being raised by her dad and step-mother.  My daughter considers my ex-husband’s wife her mom. I accept that. I carry enough conflicted emotions for not raising her – regardless of the reasons that came to pass. But I do acknowledge that her step-mother was the one that was there when my daughter was sick, in trouble or needed a compassionate heart to listen to whatever. I do have a decently good adult relationship with my daughter. I am grateful for that much.

Tricky Situations

I get it.  Sometimes family isn’t really safe.  What’s a foster parent to do, in order to keep lines of communication with original family open ?  And do it safely ?

First of all it may take time to build trust and allow the original family members an opportunity to get to know you as a real and caring human being.  When the original family can see clearly that you are caring for their children in a manner a loving parent would want their child cared for that can go a long way towards developing that trust.  It is about having rapport with one another in common cause.

As a foster parent you may have to put aside your thoughts of worry and/or fears.  Begin by just engaging with these kids’ parent(s) from a perspective of one human being to another human being.  In other words, common courtesy and good manners. Don’t bring up conditions like – “you need to be safe for contact to begin or continue.”  Wow, is that ever a sure way to get anyone’s heckles up. Of course, if something dangerous actually happens, then as the responsible party you will have to make the appropriate call, but don’t anticipate it.

No finger pointing, looking down your nose at the original parent or assuming the worst about them.  Try to put yourself in their shoes.  Think about how hurt you’d feel if some stranger put conditions on seeing your baby.  If this parent does get violent, well of course, you are going have to end that visit.  Logic would dictate that you don’t need to tell a parent in this situation.  In child protective situations, they already know the issues.  As the foster parent that will just need to be the move you make IF the time comes.

Don’t  listen only to or form an opinion solely based on other people’s opinions.  Depend first on your own personal knowledge of the original parent(s).  Your direct experience.  Give this parent who has already suffered the worst possible loss a chance to redeem themselves.  People change.  People learn from mistakes.  It is terrible to be stuck into a permanent box over temporary behavior that was so very wrong – admittedly.  This is not to be in denial of danger or to reject out of hand what you’ve been told but balance that with what you experience for yourself.  Forewarned but NOT pre-judgmental.

Get away from the governmental system as much as possible.  Try navigating the first family relationships organically and as naturally as possible.  If possible, make contact with other extended first family members.  Extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – can be absolute gold in a foster child’s life.

Realize that child protective services and social workers may not be motivated to assist you.  You may have to find the extended family yourself.  You can try searching on Facebook and reaching out to them privately and directly.  It would be a rare case that someone in the child’s genetic extended family didn’t want anything to do with these kids.  There would likely be someone who would love to be in their life and has been prevented with obstacles put in the way.

I want to be clear that I have never been a foster child or adopted, I have never been a foster parent or an adoptive parent and I have never been a biological/genetic parent who had my rights terminated.  I have been intensely educating my own self for 2-1/2 years (even since I began to learn the stories behind all of the adoptions in my own biological/genetic family).  I work very hard to gain an accurate understanding by considering and listening to ALL of the related voices and perspectives.  My desire is to be as balanced as possible, when I write blogs here.

A Black Hole

Until recently, my family history beyond my two parents was a black hole.  They were both adopted and died knowing next to nothing about their origins.  After more than 60 years of living, I know now what those origins are.

Most people KNOW who their parents are.  Even a parent who abandons his family may still be a known entity to his child but not someone who was adopted.  It is all unknown, unless it is a modern, more progressive and supportive adoption – which thankfully, many of them are beginning to be.

People don’t want to hear that you have no freakin’ clue to your identity.  Not knowing is both painful and unusual in our society.  It is associated with negative stereotypes such as “bastards” and “mistakes”.  You hear about “those people” but you never expect to be talking to one in the flesh.

I recently read about the child of an adoptee who’s coping mechanism with that unknown was to tell everyone he was Cuban.  Until recently, I used to tell everyone I was an “albino African” because I could have been.  There was no one to tell me I wasn’t.  Then, I got my DNA tested and finally knew I was Danish and Scottish and English and Irish, even a little Ashkenzai Jew and Neanderthal.

It is wonderful to now have a universe of genetic connections out there instead of being the product of a black hole.

I Am Not An Accident

I had a very deep realization yesterday.  My earliest conception may have been viewed as an “accident”, an unintended consequence of my parents going too far in youthful hormonal impulse.

And on a very deep level, I felt what many adoptees probably feel as well – as though we weren’t mean to be and it is hard and deep and an important healing I believe.

When I counted the months back from my birth to the date of my parents’ wedding anniversary, I knew the truth and it troubled me.  I have always thought what troubled me was my mom’s “good girl” lectures but I understand in maturity, she wanted to spare me her young experience while yet a student in high school.

I was angry with her at first and didn’t want her to touch me.  Eventually, I forgave her because I loved her, not because the reality didn’t remain a troubling paradox for me.

I know I’m not a mistake and I do know my life has purpose – my life has many purposes actually.  I’ve become a mother 3 times.  I’ve been there to handle my parents’ estate after they died.  I’ve been the one to uncover our original grandparents after my adopted parents died knowing next to nothing themselves.

And I have a “voice” and courageously (or foolishly, depending on whatever external judgement of my own voluntary behaviors) and I use it to promote and defend issues that are important to me because if not me, then who ?  Yes, someone else might come along . . . but if everyone were to hide their own truths, what would that accomplish ?

We are all important to wholeness and I know that my ancestors suffered emotional and mental anguish, in order for my parents to be raised by the people who adopted them and in the place where they grew up, which enabled them to meet and my own self to be born.