The Wounds and Heartbreak of Adoption

In truth, we have to integrate our wounds into our understanding of who we are and what we are really capable of so that we can be whole human beings.  Only from there can we begin the process of healing the brokenness, the broken-heartedness within ourselves that is then the foundation for beginning to heal that in our larger society.
~ Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, Radical Dharma

Many adoptees seek a reunion with their original families to heal the woundedness and heartbreak of being abandoned (the adoptees’ perspective) by their original parents. If it goes well, it goes a long way toward healing those wounds. If it goes badly, the wound becomes further infected unless the adoptee can somehow reflect upon the disappointing experience to find wholeness within their own self.

An adoptee may ask –

When do I get good enough so that my despair goes away ?

Who will love me enough when they see who I really am ?

The shadows and vague memories of what happened to me are hard to sit with. Why do I keep running everyone away ?

Will I suffocate in the silence of my lack of identity, my lack of knowing the origins of my birth ?

What use does crying my tears really do for this pain in my heart ?

Systems of power and abuse depend upon not acknowledging the suffering they cause.  The rainbows and unicorns version of all the good adoption does fails to acknowledge the suffering that the adoptee experiences and the suffering the mother who gives up her child carries the rest of her lifetime.  Often that suffering is so painful, the mother will reject her child, who is only seeking to reconnect with her, because the mother fears being rejected by her child, when her child knows the reality of the mother that gave birth to her.

It is a horrendous cycle of unending suffering in many cases.  My heart breaks for the reality.  And I really don’t have answers, only empathy and compassion for the entire situation.

Am I capable of enduring suffering, facing martyrdom ?
And alone ?
Again the long loneliness to be faced.
~ Dorothy Day

What’s In A Name ?

What is it that a hopeful adoptive parent is seeking ?  For many, they can’t conceive naturally and really want to parent.  It is much more about what they want, than what the child needs.  Many children who are adopted didn’t actually need to be.  Their mom’s were NOT well enough supported to make the choice to raise their child that almost every mother would.

So what’s with changing the child’s name and cutting all ties to their original family ?

It is an attempt to create a fiction.  A fiction that the child was born to you and is related to you as much as they would be if you had birthed them yourself.

In cutting ties, it is an attempt to erase the origins of the child.

Who do these actions really serve ?  The adoptive parents or the child that they adopt ?

If it truly served the child’s needs they wouldn’t go searching for information and even contact with their original family if it didn’t matter to that child.  Just saying . . .

 

I’m OK With It

The truth is, some adoptees will tell you they are okay with having been adopted.  Far be it from me, to say they are not sincere.  My own father was like that and my niece and nephew probably were as well.

With my niece and nephew, they did want to discover their own origins and both were able to do that.  And it was their own initiative.  One can be okay with how they were raised and even come to understand the reasons why it may have been for the best in their particular circumstances.

That does not deny the reality that separating children from their parents causes deep psychic wounds.  It simply does.

And that doesn’t dismiss the possibility that as a society we can do better than we have in regard to children’s welfare – because I also sincerely believe we can.

For one thing, there is no justification for taking a child’s identity away from them and for falsifying the information on their birth certificate.  That is simply wrong.

There is also no reason for keeping adoption records sealed and locked away from adoptees after they reach adulthood.  There are real reasons – such as family health history – for an adoptee to know their background.

And it is every person’s right to know their true story, even the sad stories, even the hard stories.  No person has been handed a perfect, comfortable life.  Even if it appears they have.  There are always issues, even when we don’t know they are there.

Questions Without Answers

Try as I might, my heart longs for answers to questions that I will never be able to truly answer.  I may have theories but they may be wrong.  For too many years, when we knew nothing about my adoptee parents’ origins, we made up plausible stories –

My mom had been stolen from her illiterate parents from the hospital in Virginia where she was born by a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann who transported her to Memphis.  There was no other way she could reconcile being adopted as an infant in Memphis when she had actually been born in Virginia and who could blame her for that confusion ?

Because my dad was dark complected and seemed so comfortable with the natives in Mexico, I thought that he must have been mixed race with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father and that she had crossed the border with her infant and left him upon the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note that said – “Take care of my baby, Maria.”

So my maternal grandmother was exploited by three women in Memphis – Georgia Tann certainly but also Georgia Robinson the superintendent at Porter Leath orphanage who had agreed to give my mom “temporary care” and then betrayed her to the baby seller, Miss Tann, as well as the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley who was Miss Tann’s close friend and could be counted upon to remove any child from their parents for nothing more abusive than poverty and a lack of immediate family support.

And my dad wasn’t Mexican at all.  His dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was a married man, so his unwed young mother went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean  Beach California just west of San Diego.  His father probably never even knew of his existence.  More’s the pity, as fishermen who loved the ocean they would have been great friends.

I’ll never know why my maternal grandfather never came to my maternal grandmother’s rescue or why they separated after only 4 months of marriage with her pregnant already.  I’ll never know why she went to Virginia to give birth, though I suspect she was sent away to avoid embarrassment to her immediate family in a very conservative religious rural community.

I can only live with the questions that will never have answers while basking in the glow of knowing so much that over 6 decades of living never prepared me to uncover.

Hiraeth

I have started reading The Lies That Bind: An Adoptee’s Journey Through Rejection, Redirection, DNA, and Discovery by Laureen Pittman.  I may have more to say about her book when I finish reading it.

Yesterday, I came across this concept of Hiraeth. It is a Welsh word meaning a homesickness for a home or place to which you cannot return, somewhere that perhaps never was; nostalgia, yearning or grief for the lost places of one’s past.

Hiraeth is an unattainable longing for a place, a time, a person or people; a history that no longer exists or may never have actually existed at all. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and yet recognize it as familiar.

There was something left undone within me when I embarked on discovering my family’s true origins.  There was a deep desire for the real.  My original grandmothers both nursed and cared for my parents for several months of their lives, approximately 6 to 8 mos of those lives.  This is far different in my own mind than the mother who gives up her baby at birth.  These women were beginning to know the person that these babies were becoming.  I cannot imagine the pain that followed them throughout their lives.

This morning “family of choice” has a different meaning for me.  My adoptive grandmothers chose my parents to raise as their own.  I cannot say that my original grandmothers truly had a choice.  They were pressured into relinquishing their child.

As I have been uncovering their stories, there is a deep longing in me to know them and I never really can.  I’ve been able to find some cousins and an aunt who can share with me some things about the persons I long for, including the grandfathers I’ll never know as well.  It helps but cannot fill the hole left in my soul when my parents were taken from their parents by strangers to raise.

Facilitating The Search

The more enlightened adoptive parents are prepared from the beginning for their child’s curiosity about their original parents and even a desire to know these people in person.

How does an adoptive parent lay the groundwork for this to occur?

In my own immediate family, each of my sisters gave up a child to adoption. Both of these children, a niece and a nephew, have had support from their adoptive parents to experience a reunion with their roots.

Many begin when the child is very young to admit to the adoption. Even a safe haven baby can someday use inexpensive DNA to locate related persons who might be able to lead them back to their original family. That has certainly worked for me with my own cousins and an aunt (both of my parents were adopted).

Whether this hurts the adoptive parent should not prevent any adoptee from knowing their true origins and as much of their birth story as is possible so that they understand what led to their relinquishment.

Let your adopted child know that you will do everything you can to help them if they want your assistance.

Never pretend you are the only family or parents. Accept the reality and know that family matters at lot and that adoption doesn’t magically make the other family disappear.

Your adopted child will appreciate your reassurance. You do not need to pressure them to reach out to their original family. The choice to do so must be their own.

Normalize these feelings by letting them know that you would want to know if you were an adopted child.

A Strange Club

I finished reading Before and After yesterday. I don’t think Lisa Wingate expected to open this door when she wrote her bestselling fictional novel based upon the horrors of Georgia Tann’s methods of operating an adoption agency – separating children from their original families purely for profit.

However, as she embarked on book tours across the country, the sheer number of real lives impacted by Georgia Tann made themselves evident.  I believe the reunion in Memphis that the new book is based upon was an effort on Wingate’s part to repay the living victims, many of whom are descendants of those directly impacted, for a good story that made her even more successful than she was before (she had written quite a few books before this phenomenal story).

In the Afterward chapter of Before and After, a story about Georgia Tann adoptees and their remarkable reunion in Memphis –

“We need to be given peace and

freed of the misery that comes

from not knowing,

and allowed to live with the truth

before we pass from this world.”

~ Letter from a TCHS adoptee

to her unknown birth family

The reunion proved that people are interested in hearing what the adoptees and their descendants have to say, that strangers care about this long-ago miscarriage of justice.

Countless families have a connection to the horror of Tann and those movers and shakers of Memphis who let her operate until 1950. This is a story that doesn’t have an ending. It never will. For thousands of families, tens of thousands of lives, it will always be a part of their history.

There’s fear of the unknown. My adoptee father had that and he wasn’t a Tann baby.  The Salvation Army separated him from his unwed, poverty stricken mother.

Many, if not most, adoptees hunger for their personal information – their medical history in particular.

Being a Tann victim is like being a member of a strange club. Those who’s lives are somehow a part of the the Tennessee Children’s Home Society story.  There is a shared experience with all of those who’s lives have been impacted by this.

For many of us (myself included) there is a feeling of kinship when we find our long ago “lost” family members. Not all reunions go happy but mine have.

What I took away from reading this book is that there is a universal aspect to the experience of most adoptees. Though the Georgia Tann/TCHS story was a particularly bad scandal, the effects on the Tann adoptees is so very similar to the wounds and trauma that every adoptee experiences (even the ones who aren’t aware it is there – that is my own opinion about it but from exposure to a diversity of adoptees, I don’t believe I’m far wrong).

Before We Were Yours (the fictional account) is a fast and engaging read.  Before and After is a bit more tedious but the real story of real impacts on real people.  I recommend both books.

It’s About Identity

My first awareness of the impacts of adoption on my parents was the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal.  There are a huge number of adoptees that have been impacted by what happened in Memphis.

So, the only “anger” I was aware of was related to criminal behavior in adoption practices.  I thought that was what the anger was about.

As I have revealed my origins, my original four grandparents (both of my parents were adopted), I have also become involved in more generalized adoptee groups.  I have begun to learn what the issues are and also about how those issues affect not only the adopted child, but the original parents as well as the people who adopt and raise these children.

It has finally coalesced for my own self to be about identity.  It was a lack of identity beyond my two parents that troubled me in my middle school years.  It is interesting that the issue of not knowing where one originated troubles adoptees almost universally, while many people who have no adoption impact in their own families seem to not even care about who their ancestors were.

I think it is because the adoptee KNOWS that they don’t know.  While any other person not affected by adoption “knows” that if they ever became interested, someone in their family line could clue them in.

There are some descendants who I am grateful have embraced me and my need to know.  Others seem dismissive or reluctant to welcome in “the stranger”.  I simply have to accept that I have been given some gifts of identity that some adoptees are still struggling to obtain.

Sealed adoption records which began as early as the late 1920s have done a lot of harm to an adoptee’s ability to know where they come from.  Unbelievably about half of these United States still refuse to open the records to adult adoptees.  This is simply wrong.  No other citizen of this country is denied knowledge of their origins.

The Need To Know

I love to read stories about happy adoptee reunions.  They do not always turn out well.  I do believe that the need to know is universal in adoptees, even when they think otherwise.  Human beings are not meant to have no continuity, no connection to their origins and genetics, only a black hole leading into the past.  I have experienced a black hole beyond my parents and I now have the information they lacked.

My mom yearned for a reunion she never realized.  She once wrote to me in an email – “When I found out that my Mother was dead and my Father’s whereabouts unknown, the purpose of my search sort of fizzled out. I just felt that as a Mother I would be devastated to lose a child and never know what happened to it.”

So I love happy stories of adoptee reunions when the adoptive parents are supportive and encouraging of their adopted child’s need to know.  Today, I read a very nice story about a young man named Alex.  His parents were high school students and he was adopted when he was only 5 days old.  His adoptive parents are Jewish.

Alex was a Communication Arts major at the University of Wisconsin and was taking a documentary film-making class.  He needed a personal project and decided he wanted to look for his biological mother and document the development of his search.  His adoptive mother had his baby bracelet that came home with him.  It had his biological mother’s name on it, Trina Dunn.  He used Google and found four women named Trina.  One turned out to be the right Trina.  The reunion is happy and he has discovered another “family” religious perspective.  His original genetic family is Catholic and his parents have been married all these years.

Another story I read today was about Jenna, who was helped to find her original mother thanks to DNA and MyHeritage.  Their DNA Quest project is a pro-bono initiative offered to adoptees who have little information to aid a quest of their own.

Jeanna says, “When you’re adopted, you have no idea of the background that led up to your adoption. I didn’t know if she would be accepting. She was, and everyone in her family was completely accepting.”  Jenna says she now feels a sense of completeness that was lacking in her life.

If you are an adoptee and want to search for your genetic origins – know it is your basic human right to discover where you came from.  If the reunion doesn’t go well, you will know that at least you tried.  There is so much guilt and shame attached to any mother giving up a child that it is not always possible to overcome the damage.  Her response to your effort is not about your worthiness but about her emotional wounds.

 

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.