What Biology Prefers

In my all things adoption group – the post acknowledges what I also believe is a fact –

Biology programs us to prefer the children we gave birth to. You can try to be “fair” but I firmly believe biology and the subconscious takes over. This is how it’s supposed to be. It’s natural instincts. What does it say about biological connection when one says they love a stranger’s natural child the same or just as much? How do biological children in the home feel about this? Is it really possible? What are your thoughts?

I remember reading once that children often physically resemble their fathers so that the man will accept responsibility and care for the family. Of course, it doesn’t universally turn out that way. Yesterday, I was looking at an old picture of my husband’s father’s parents and marveled at how much he looked like both of them in a photo nearby. My sons each have some resemblance and some of the best qualities of their father. I carried my sons during pregnancy and nursed them at my breast for over a year. While they know the truth of their egg donor conceptions, which we have never hidden from them and even facilitated their ability to contact this woman by connecting them to the donor on 23 and Me, they would seem, to my own heart, to be as bonded to me as they ever could be. I am “Mom” to them and no one could be more their mom. I may not have been able to pass my genes on to them (though my grown daughter and grandchildren do that for me) but I am their mother biologically and I do believe that makes a difference. Honesty helps as well.

One commenter posted an article at science.org titled “Do parents favor their biological children over their adopted ones?” subtitled – Study tests the “wicked stepmother” hypothesis. My daughter remains quite fond of her deceased step-mother and yet, I also know that my paternal grandmother, who’s own mother died when she was only 3 mos old, did suffer an absolutely wicked stepmother. The article notes that “Wicked stepmothers would seem to be favored by evolutionary theory. The best way to ensure the propagation of our own genes, after all, is to take care of children who are genetically related to us—not those born to other parents.”

Even so their study found that parents did not favor a biological child over an adopted one in all instances. Researchers compared data on 135 pairs of “virtual twins”—siblings about the same age consisting of either one adopted child and one biological child or two adopted children.

What does support adoptees who feel their adoptive parents did not treat them well is this detail – adoptive parents did rate their adoptive children higher in negative traits and behaviors like arrogance and stealing. Yet, it is interesting that when it came to positive traits like conscientiousness and persistence,  they scored both adopted and biological children similarly. 

This study came to the conclusion that the strong desire to be a parent—no matter the source of a child’s genes—can override evolved, kin selection behaviors that might otherwise lead parents to invest more time and resources in their own offspring.

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.

Women Behind Bars

Women’s incarceration has increased 800 percent over the past thirty years. The incarceration rate for black woman is double that of white women. Woman are more likely than men to be imprisoned for drug-related offenses. 62% of women in state prisons have minor children, many of whom are forced into foster care or left with relatives who scarcely have the financial resources to care for them.

The separation of families is now widely understood as a human rights crisis also at the Mexican border, yet comparatively little attention has been paid to the destruction of black families in the era of mass incarceration. One in four women in the United States has a loved one behind bars, and the figure is nearly one in two for black women. When men are locked up, the women who love them are sentenced too. They suffer from social isolation, depression, grief, shame, costly legal fees, far-away prison visits (often with children in tow) and the staggering challenges of helping children overcome the trauma of parental incarceration. When loved ones are released from their cages, it is often women who are faced with the daunting task of supporting them as they struggle and often fail in a system rigged against them.

~ from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

According to The Sentencing Project, my state of Missouri had the 3rd highest rate of female imprisonment in the United States in 2017. Thirty-eight percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls. More than half of youth incarcerated for running away are girls.

Case in Point

Dorothy Gaines’s life changed when Alabama state police raided her home for drugs. Police found no evidence of Gaines having possessed or sold drugs, yet federal prosecutors charged Gaines with drug conspiracy.  Gaines was a former nurse and devoted mother living in Mobile, Alabama. A self-described “PTA mom,” she always brought snacks to the football field where her son played on the team and her daughter was a cheerleader.

She did not know that her then-boyfriend was dealing drugs. Though the state dropped all charges, federal prosecutors charged Gaines with drug conspiracy eight months later – charges that she disputes to this day. She refused to plead guilty or provide testimony against other defendants, and so, was convicted and sentenced to serve 19 years and 7 months.

She says, “My son jumped in the judge’s lap at sentencing and asked not to take away his mother.” Leaving her children, Natasha, 19, Chara, 11, and Philip, 9, parentless, Gaines was accompanied by marshals to federal prison – her first time on an airplane.

Dorothy explains, “I was always a mother that never, ever went anywhere without my children. I missed taking my children to the park, going to their school, while I was in prison. They wrote me and told me those were the days that they missed, too. Phillip and Chara’s father died when they were two and three. That’s why my children were so distraught: because all that was taken away.”

Thankfully, in December 2000, Gaines received a commutation from President Bill Clinton. Gaines’s advocacy work includes using her own resources to help youth see their incarcerated parents. “My going to prison has not been in vain,” said Gaines. “I will fight until everything has been changed.”

Can We Just Pretend ?

What to do for this little boy ?

Ok here is my question – I adopted our kiddo when he was 4. He has always known he’s adopted, he’s always been excited and proud of it. He introduces himself as adopted. He has a long story but basically he came to us with the termination of parental rights and two failed adoptions. Lots of trauma and 17 placements.

He’s now almost 7 and in 1st grade. So here’s what’s up…all of a sudden he wants us to pretend he’s not adopted. To not talk about it and let him pretend he came from us. He wants us to make up a birth story. We don’t have biological kiddos, so it’s not like he’s hearing other birth stories here. The kids all vocalize adoption and biological families. His mother is deceased and his biological family hasn’t been open to any contact.

He’s super smart but isn’t able to articulate what created this idea. He just wants it. My question is how to approach this…do we give him this? Do we allow it for however long it lasts, while initially reminding him that he can always take it back? Or do we just apologize that his story is his and he doesn’t have to ever share it with anyone he doesn’t want to but that we can’t just pretend?

I’m at a loss. I want to do what’s right by him and honor his experience but I also don’t want to play along, if it’s harmful down the road. I feel like I will make the wrong decision no matter what I choose.

Someone offered this explanation that makes sense – We had a friend that didn’t want people knowing she was adopted. Said she hated when people would say “oh, she’s adopted”. She just wanted to be like her friends and be a part of the family. Maybe that’s how he is feeling.

Then there was this sad reality (kids really can be cruel) – When I was in high school I had someone make fun of me for being adopted and refer to me as a “dumpster baby” multiple times. I was 15 and shut it down and moved on.  IF that had happened to me when I was 7, I imagine it would have been incredibly damaging and embarrassing for me.

Someone else suggested –  I work with young kids, and I think pretending/role playing is their way of reflecting. In order to understand, “What does it mean to be adopted?” he has to first ask, “Well, what would it be like if I wasn’t adopted? In what ways is it different?” Completely normal child behavior; I’d let it happen.

To which another affirmed –  That’s a great way of thinking about it. Children do think about hypotheticals a lot and that’s discouraged more and more as we age. I think that makes a lot of sense given that he’s 7.

An adoptee suggests –  I would personally ask him if there is a reason he wants to – if someone said something or why ? – and just go with it. I would not tell him he can’t pretend. It may just be his way of coping right now because obviously something is going on in his mind that’s causing him to want this. So I would just ask questions to make sure he’s okay and listen to him and go with it.

And I really, really like this suggestion –  “Sometimes I think of “if” you had been born to me but then, I remember you wouldn’t be the same you, if you had. Your mom, DNA and genetics have made you – you – and I would never want to miss you. You wouldn’t be the same you, if you were born to me.”

Now that is beautifully honest.

Is It Really Necessary ?

So is adoption really necessary ?

One could conclude that an orphan should ideally be adopted by the guardians assigned before the parent‘s demise. For foster kids, who would like to be adopted, after parental rights were terminated. Guardianship or temporary fostering could suffice to serve the needs of children in most cases.

It may be that the only time adoption is “necessary” (and one could always argue that word) would be for an older child or teen, whose parents have already signed termination of parental rights.  But only if the child has asked for that without prompting. And the child’s name should never be changed unless the child wants their name changed to feel more in harmony with the rest of the family.  And go slowly on that one because it could be only a temporary phase that won’t be as lasting as changing the child’s name.  The child does need to be empowered in a situation in which they don’t have a lot of control otherwise.

There are very sad and difficult cases.  For example, cases of extreme abuse and neglect where the mother refuses all offers of assistance. Where there is no other family able or willing to help.  There could be no way that this child could ever be safe with their original family. Counseling will be required for every person involved.  Some contact with the original family should be maintained if at all possible, if nothing more than knowing how to reach them.  In the best cases, monitoring for a changed status.  There is always the possibility of change because change is a constant.

Regarding guardianship, some judges and courts may have concerns that the guardianship could too easily be terminated and the child would lose a sense of permanency.  However, a child’s sense of attachment was destroyed the minute their family of origin was severed from them.

Still the question remains – to fully love, protect and be a family is adoption necessary ? Full custody as an alternative to adoption can accomplish the same legal requirements. The system has been an enabler for white saviorism and has made adoption like a free for all.  It’s unethical that so often the natural family is not allowed to give any input and the lack of effort put into connecting these kids to their kin just is mind boggling.

The best adoptive families, upon becoming more enlightened about the impacts of adoption, will make attempts to mitigate the inevitable difficulties for the child (some of these can include not changing the child’s name, learning about the child’s original mother and if possible opening up contact with her and with any other related siblings).  Though most adoptive parents genuinely feel they are doing the right thing . . . when we know better, we do better.

A Grief Deeper Than Death

For adoptees and their original families, mourning can be deeper than simply grieving the death of a loved one.  When our familial bonds are withheld from us so long, precious time is lost and never recovered.  In my mom’s case, when she sought and was denied her adoption file, the state of Tennessee told her that her original mother had died a few years earlier.  This devastated my mom and dashed all her hopes of a reunion.

With my dad, he never showed the  desire that my mom had but when he died a half-sister was living only 90 miles away and could have shared with him real impressions of the woman who gave birth to him.  When I discovered who his unwed mother’s participating lover was that conceived my dad, my dad was so much like him – sharing interests and appearance – I just knew they would have been great fishing buddies.  That was a sadness for me as well.

Today, I read the story of a man who was adopted.  His adoptive parents only admitted to his adoption when a sibling outed the fact.  They never would give him more than the tiniest bits and pieces of information to his incessant questions.  A letter his original mother wrote to him explaining her circumstances that was to be given to him upon his 18th birthday was not delivered to him until he had done an Ancestry DNA kit at the age of 30 and it was likely he was going to come into contact with his genetic relatives.

He was able to find and connect with his genetic sister through Facebook and through her be reunited with and visit with his original mother.  She died just last week after too brief of a time of acquaintance with her.  This has left him bereft for more reasons than her dying, which for anyone, regardless of the relationship they have with their parents, is admittedly a life-changing event.

His emotions are intense.  He says –

I’m angry for lack of a better word that my adoptive parents withheld this information for so long that it wound up costing me time. Time I could’ve used to get to know my biological mom better and form deeper bonds with her. I may not have known her well but I love her and I’m having a hard time navigating the complexity of everything that I’m feeling right now. My genetic sister and I have made a pact to talk often and visit with relative frequency. I simply don’t have this kind of relationship with my brother through adoption.

If you are an adoptive parent, it is beyond cruel if you behave in this manner.

Appearances Matter

A woman has guardianship of 6 year old twin girls.  Their mother is incarcerated but they have some contact.  The father is dead.  Recently, one of the girls said –  “I don’t look like you (taking about her hair). I want my hair to look like yours, and my eyes are different than yours.”  All are Caucasian.  The little girl is fair with blue eyes.  The Guardian has olive skin and dark hair.  She wanted to know the best ways to address this concern.

One adoptee that responded was harsh but truthful.  “None of what you said was validating. You even called your phrases platitudes! All you did was list the reasons she’s not allowed to feel as she does. Regardless of what emotion they express regarding their losses, your response should be, ‘You’re right’.”

“I would have wanted to hear that I had every right to be sad that I don’t look like my caregiver. Then I would have wanted my caregiver to grieve with me.  Many of us adoptees began processing our grief and are STILL processing our grief in our 40s 50s 60s and beyond. What a difference it would have made if the adults in our lives could have put words to that grief, acknowledged our losses, and helped us process those feelings in a healthy way.”

Another said – Here’s the thing: Kids are smart. They know when you’re offering them platitudes, when you’re repeating the things you’re “supposed” to say. Worst of all, they know when those things you’re “supposed” to say don’t resonate with them because you received them from other people who are like you.

Tell them the truth: We look like the people whose genetic material we inherited. Therefore, we look like our biological (and not our adoptive) families. One day, when they have children (if they have children), their children will look like them because that’s how nature designed people to work.

Like all organic things, we take our appearance and our genetic composition from the people who formed us organically. Adoption is not organic, and therefore these children will not look like the people caring for them.  Because love doesn’t make you a parent. Genetics do.

My image of the book cover came from an adoptive mother’s suggestion, though she added – It didn’t seem to impress my daughter, but some kids might like it. We talked about it a lot. She really wanted us to look alike. She is Asian, I am Caucasian with blond hair, so we are very different. We had some matching outfits that she loved, but finally she straight up asked if we could have the same color hair, so I had it dyed a dark brown for quite a while. That seemed to do the trick for her. I’m not sure if she grew out of it or if it met her needs, but she’s a teen now and it doesn’t come up anymore. She’s fairly open about her needs and concerns, so if it was still a thing for her, I think she would tell me.

Many adoptive parents are quick to brush their own discomfort aside and attempt to distract the adoptee from it. Adoptive parents, please develop the courage to face the depth of loss adoptees experience and sit with them in it awhile. Doing so will bring healing and healthy relationships so much sooner.

What Is The Money For ?

It is the middle of May and May is Foster Care Awareness Month.  I am in the middle of reading one Foster Care girl’s experience and it isn’t pretty, though I’m certain just as individual’s vary greatly so do experiences in the system.

Did you know that Foster Parents receive a stipend ?  Imagine what that kind of money might do to keep a family intact.  Of course, that isn’t always the issue.  The girl in the book I am reading (I will review it here when I finish it) had no where else to go.  The family dynamics weren’t good.  The mother had died.  Both the natural father and the step-father were in prison.  The grandfather got trapped in a poor decision related to trying to fix an awkward drug related situation that made him inappropriate for the girls even though he was not charged with an actual crime.  The aunts and uncles did not step forward.

So an issue developed with these unfortunate girls that the Foster Mom (the Foster Dad had died while they lived there) was NOT spending the stipend on the girls and there were cultural issues in this home.  The girls were non-Spanish speaking whites.  The Foster Mom was Hispanic and one foster child in the home before these girls was also and then one that came subsequently.  They frequently spoke Spanish with one another leaving the two white girls feeling excluded.  But what really hurt was the generous spending on the Hispanic girls while little or nothing was spent on the white girls.

One foster parent handbook states that the money is intended to maintain the placement and cover the costs of having the child in the home, including the cost of food, clothing, school supplies, a child’s personal incidentals, liability insurance with respect to the child, and reasonable travel to the child’s home for visitation.

That money is not intended for household bills, or to buy a new car or a new house because you need the extra room.  Other possible appropriate uses for the stipend could be holidays, presents, spending money depending on the child’s age, or to put into a savings account for child.  A sad fact in the book I am reading is that these girls did not receive presents at Christmas.