Yes, Your Adoptee

In the blog below are excerpts from article by Sara Easterly in Severance Magazine on understanding how the effects of adoption trauma can look so good they get missed.

When I told her that I had promoted her piece, Sara wrote back – “may I ask you to more clearly distinguish my writing from yours? I’m not comfortable with the way our writing has been merged together without my words and thoughts in quotations.” I found it an awkward and complicated practice to pick out and put in quotes those words. Even so, I have done my best to honor her request, which means that to the best of my ability to identify them, her words are now in quotes. What her words made me think of in my own experiences with two adoptee parents are not.

If you find this now just too difficult to read, you can instead simply read her original piece – linked above in the words “Severance Magazine”. There is much more there than I chose to highlight in my own blog here. I regret that somehow something she considered very important appears to have been lost in my own effort to see my family’s lived experience within what she was describing.

“A common mistake adoptive parents make when hearing adult adoptees speak about adoption trauma is discounting their experiences because ‘times have changed’ or their adoptee hasn’t voiced similar feelings. Some parents will straight-up ask their adopted children if they feel the same way and then rest easy when their children deny having similar feelings. Differing details of adoption stories can be used as evidence of irrelevance. Adoptee voices that land as ‘angry’ are often quickly written off as ‘examples of a bad adoption’.”

The truth is that “real and proven trauma” is “inherent in adoption.” “Adoptees are unintentionally groomed to be people-pleasers.” I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced that quality being passed down to the children in my own double the adoptee parents family.

An adoptee will “strive to measure up, doing and saying whatever is needed, to keep” their “adoptive mothers” lovingly “close” to them. I know that my own mother never felt like she lived up to her adoptive mother’s expectations. The people pleasing is “simply a matter of survival.” 

Who knew ? My own “perfectionism” probably comes out of my parents’ own adoption trauma. It may seem like a positive trait that adoptees are often “natural leaders”. Yet it arises out of a sense that “nobody is” actually “looking out” for them due to that separation from their natural mother. I was once diagnosed as compartmentalizing, however, that too may have been passed down. Adoptees spend “a lifetime diminishing” their “feelings and disregarding” their own “deep pain”.

“Adoption trauma” “hides itself from the adoptees themselves.” I saw that in my own parents. No wonder I grew up thinking adoption was the most natural thing in the world. Infant adoptees experience of their greatest loss (both of my parents were adopted before the age of 1) is “preverbal, before” they “learned words for loneliness, isolation, abandonment, and hopelessness.”

Since “developmentally, most children won’t” “have the capacity to reflect upon” their own “adoption loss until much later in life”, the term in the adoption community is “living in the fog.” This mental perspective also passes down to the children, as I have personally experienced. It is “a state of denial or numbness” because adoptees are unable “to closely examine the effects of” their own “adoption”(s). Waking up often comes in sharing experiences with other adoptees. For myself as the child of two adoptee parents, I came out of the fog by being exposed to the experiences of adoptees. My mom had to hide her own feelings about adoption from my adoptee dad because he preferred not to look too closely at his own.

It is true that “some” woke adult adoptees are “angry”. “Society hasn’t made room for” their “voices” in the story of adoption, even though they are its “central players”. “Some” adoptees “have been let down by the people closest to” them. “Some” “haven’t felt seen or known”. “Some” “have been mistreated”. Some have attempted or succeeded at suicide only wanting “to stop the pain”. It is long past time “to shed light on adoption’s darkest manifestations”.

Every “adoptee” is “different”. “Each story is unique”. From my own experience, “listening to adoptee voices”, especially a diverse “array of them”, “is of the utmost importance” to developing a more accurate perspective on the practice of adoption.

Invalidating Adoptee Perceptions

Adoptive parents and even hopeful adoptive parents often say:

“I know many adoptees that don’t feel like their adoption was a bad thing, they are glad they were adopted” or “they don’t have trauma, they are fine” or “adoptees whose lives are fine are not online talking against adoption.”

One of the last emails I got from my adoptee mom before she died, she actually said “glad I was,” meaning adopted. She was lamenting how she just couldn’t finish doing the family trees on Ancestry because she knew the information just wasn’t real – for her or my dad (who was also adopted). So it was not that I believed she actually was “glad” she had been adopted but what else could she say at that point ? Neither my mom nor my dad really knew anything beyond a few names – at most – about their original parents.

I didn’t invalidate her feelings – my dad never expressed his own feelings about adoption to me. After both of my parents died, within one year, I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were, something about their stories and had some contact with some biological, genetic relations.

So those who are not adoptees, who say these kinds of things probably just miss the signs that are there but not verbalized. I know my mom dearly wanted to make contact with her first mother but the state of Tennessee denied her access (which they then gave me in 2017 – wow it doesn’t seem like 5 years already that I have felt finally “complete”). If she had been so happy about being adopted, she would not have tried so hard to accomplish a reunion.

The thinking described above is problematic because it assumes that adoptees always feel comfortable sharing their true feelings about adoption with adoptive parents. That is rarely the case.

One adoptee admits –  I spent 50 years saying I was fine adopted, never an issue and believed it. I knew I responded to things differently than others, but never equated it to being adopted. It’s very difficult for adoptees to verbalize true emotions. The changes in our brain at separation try to protect us from rejections. It’s all subconscious. I had no idea my lifetime narrative was to protect myself, until I did deep work in therapy that focused on opening those areas of the brain to process the trauma. Life changing. The processing is very hard and easily something you’d try to avoid. Once you do it though, at least for me, it was life changing. I was 50. I get so angry I didn’t do it sooner. I didn’t know I should and clearly neither did my adoptive parents because I always appeared fine to them.

They don’t have the support to speak freely about their own feelings. Instead, they say everything is fine because the trust is broken. Maybe they tried to express these feelings in the past and were rejected or judged. The fear of rejection is so ingrained. It’s just not something most would attempt to do. The adoptee may feel too fearful to tell their adoptive parent or foster parent how they truly feel. They may have received a message that feeling any other way than glad is wrong.

One adoptee says – From the outside my life looks quite successful and there are lots of people who know I’m adopted. I’m absolutely certain that there are those who would point to me as a ‘happy adoptee’. No, you idiot, I don’t know you that well or trust you enough to share my pain and trauma.

To say of any adoptee – “They don’t have trauma, they’re fine.” It’s just so very invalidating. Every adoptee will automatically have trauma, no matter how they were adopted. To me, it’s the equivalent of a racist person saying they have black friends. Just because you have black friends doesn’t mean your ideals are not racist or harmful. Adoptees can grow up having a good life while growing up but they all come into adoption with trauma.

Nancy Verrier writes in The Primal Wound: “As adults, we believe what we want to believe, and we want to believe that a child who is not causing any trouble is well-adjusted. It is important to not be lulled into believing that this child suffers no pain-that ‘my child is not having those problems.’ Adjustment often means shutting down, creating a ‘false self.'”

Which leads another adoptee to say – This was true for me well into adulthood. It was not until I was about 40 that I started processing my adoption and how adoption trauma affected my whole life. Even now, I talk about my adoption trauma to some people, but not others. If hopeful adoptive parents think that adoption trauma only happens to those “with a bad experience,” they will continue on with pursuing adoption; and then, not be able to see and address the trauma in the child for whom they are caring.

Adoptees often talk about how they feel the need to be people pleasers in order to be accepted (my mom certainly was that way and she passed that trait down to her children). An adoptee is likely to tell their adoptive parents whatever they think those parents want to hear.

Which leads a foster parent to admit that they had experienced this first-hand. She says, When we started fostering, one of my adult adoptee friends was all rainbows and unicorns about it. As our relationship grew deeper and she heard more about how I was supporting the kids’ ability to know their families and saw how we worked for family preservation, instead of keeping the kids with us, she began to tell me her complicated feelings about her own adoption, and how she felt like she couldn’t have those conversations with her adopted family.

In the interest of fairness to people who have already adopted and may think that many of my blogs are too negative. Few people with any depth of knowledge on adoption think all adoption is wrong. I now present this point of view from an adoptive parent –

I work with adoptive families. I make an effort to learn from people who have experienced adoption trauma. I do this so that I can try to help my own kids, and other adoptive families who have already adopted, to see the signs of trauma and do their best to help manage this. Do the best they can for their kids. What is upsetting for me is when the comments say “adoption is a horrible thing”. I have seen some comments that literally say ALL adoptions are awful and should never be done. Using the analogy of dating apps, saying no one should ever use a dating app because someone ended up raped, would be similar. That anyone you meet from a dating app is actually terrible. Anyone who gets married from meeting someone there is in a fog . . .

Note from the blog author – many will say of adoptees who think their adoption was good and only good that they are still in “the fog” and have not woken up – but I laugh at this because I met my husband of over 33 years through an eligibles ad in an entertainment weekly, back in the day before heavy internet usage – my mom was horrified but my parents ended up being grateful we found each other.

continuing from the paragraph before . . . That such persons will eventually realize that they are miserable. I truly hurt for the adoptees who have parents who don’t acknowledge them or have been cruel to them. It is awful and has changed my mind about many aspects of the adoption process in this country. However being an adoptive parent in itself is not a bad thing. I have seen little acknowledgment that there are birth parents who are not going to parent. And some have no family support. Is it better to put those kids into an orphanage than to adopt them into a family who loves them and tries to give them a wonderful family and childhood?

I don’t think so and here’s why. My daughter’s birth parents were on the road when she was born. They had no idea where they would be living. Her birth mom has lived in many states since then. Anyone who adopted her would have been out of state within a week after she was born. But I was told that I screwed up by adopting out of state and I should have moved (multiple times, I guess) to be near her birth mom. Not everything is black and white.

I would love to see adoptees who have had terrible effects from trauma or adoptive families who are unwilling to listen to use their experiences to help other adoptive families learn how to act, be the way they would have wanted their adoptive parents to act. I believe this would be more productive than just telling them they are awful people for wanting to raise a child. My daughter has literally yelled at me for trying to understand the perspectives of adoptees who acknowledge their trauma. I have tried to encourage her to explore the same places that I have, to see if her adoption has had negative effects on her. I really would want to help her work through that. She has seen some of those places. Her opinion is that they are toxic. I continue to expose myself because it’s important for me to know the other side, so I will be able to recognize if my kids are struggling with adoption trauma – even if they don’t see it.

I am only suggesting that it would be a lot more effective, if everything weren’t so black and white in adoptee spaces. I’m still trying to learn what I can but I do think some people can manage trauma of any kind (adoption or otherwise) with little negative effect, especially if they have loving support. I hope that’s what we are all striving for.

And all of that above received this reply, which honestly is my own opinion too, at this point – I do believe there should be no adoptions. None. Zero. I want universal healthcare, good sex education, universal basic income, easy and free abortions. And any child born to parents who are not safe should be cared for by guardians, not adoptive parents. The harm done by having your life legally altered and severed is unnecessarily extreme.

Finally just to drive home the point to end this lengthy blog –

MOST adoptees had absolutely *wonderful* adoptive parents, and that *it didn’t matter* how good their adoptive parents were, or how much of a “positive adoption experience” the adoptee had; every adoptee still has trauma. Their DNA was still literally altered by early childhood trauma. Their identity was altered without their consent. Most adoptees have been denied the very basic right of having access to their own original birth certificate.

Yes, there are some children who cannot remain with their parents. *Most of the time* those that absolutely *cannot* be with their parents (which is so unbelievably rare), have at least *one* member of their biological family that could raise them. And in the *exceptionally rare* scenario where none of that is possible, adoption STILL isn’t necessary.

If you cannot love a child, care for a child, make that child a part of your home and your family, provide financial physical and emotional support for that child, without having legal *ownership* over that child, then you have absolutely *no right* caring for that child. Full stop. There is no “not all” or “what if” that can change the fact that adoption *is not necessary* to provide care to a child.

Adoption is unethical. There is absolutely *no changing that*. Caring for a child who has no home or safe family is not a bad thing, and literally *nobody* in their right mind would say that (but consider – whether or not there *could* be a safe family for that child, if their original parents were simply provided with good support). And that is NOT all that adoption is.

Many with a depth of knowledge about adoption, would allow that adoption *only* happen for older children (and by older I mean 16+, and even that I honestly hesitate to be okay with, as it’s perfectly possible to adopt an adult). And *only if* that child is ASKING to be adopted, without being prompted in *any way* by either the foster parents or the system itself. And *only if* the child fully 100% understands what adoption means, and has been told explicitly what they will lose by being adopted. *Only then* is adoption even possibly acceptable.

Everyone, please, just stop assuming an adoptee “had a bad experience,” if they speak out against adoption. Many adoptees would be frankly pissed off that you would imply that their *wonderful* and *caring* adoptive parents were bad parents.

I will continue to believe what I now do.

Simply Going Along

I used to be a big Garfield fan but I never knew about McDonald’s offering these glass mugs in 1978 and 1987 until today when I was looking for an image to illustrate today’s blog.

Today’s questions for adoptive parents go like this –

What if your love and security wasn’t enough for your child? Would you know? If your child lashes out and says you’re not their real parents, that’s tangible, specific about their emotions. But what if your child seems simply part of your family, is agreeable, goes through the motions. Says the things you’d expect. Gets upset the way you think biological kids react. Would you think that meant they felt connected to you or the family? Would you consider them to be well adjusted and free from trauma? How would you know if they felt disconnected from you or the family?

Now for some replies –

First this – I’m not an adoptive parent but I was am adoptive child who went overboard trying to be the perfect child. Busyness, perfectionism, not asking for needs to be met. All signs.

And in sympathy, this one – This was me too. I lashed out at my teachers instead of my parents and confused the hell out of everyone.

Now this honesty from an adoptive parent – My son is all the things you describe: agreeable, helpful, thoughtful….But, I can see the sadness in his eyes even when we are all together and “happy”. He is lonely even when he isn’t alone. The only time he seems to shake it is when he is with his natural family. On visits, he seems truly at peace. I can’t imagine how it must feel to struggle with that loss everyday.

And another one similarly – I see the same thing in my girls eyes. There’s definitely some sadness, hurt, anger, and confusion there, even in moments they seem to be happy. There’s a void there.

An older adult writes – To this day I feel like I am performing to expectations with my adoptive family. When I met my natural family it was just . . . well natural. It clicked. I describe it as sitting under a comfortable blanket. It just felt comfortable and easy. I didn’t have to think so much. I could just “be,” if that makes sense.

Then this – If there’s one upside to having blatantly sucky adopters, it was never feeling I had to perform anything. I told my adoptive dad (who was raising us singly because adoptive mom ran off – after the divorce, when I was 4) regularly and loudly I hated him, being adopted, everything about it. I honestly feel bad for adoptees with good adoptions feeling like they have to keep negative things about it to themselves simply in order to make their adoptive families happy.

Another adoptive parent’s perspective – My honest response to this is – an adopted child not having the reactions described would be a large red flag for me. The truth is, I am not their parent and regardless of my intentions (meaning selfish or not) I never will be and I don’t think I should try to force that specific bond. It is not mine to try to take (and if you feel threatened by that as an adoptive parent, you should reevaluate your outlook). But that opinion is formed based on many of the adoptee voices I have heard in a support group. My guess is (I cannot say for sure because I have not walked this) that feeling a connection like family is tough with the trauma of not having your parents there. A child can want to feel that connection and at times, I believe they can feel connected but there will often always be a longing for blood connections. As adoptive parents, I feel like our responsibility is to help keep (or find, if necessary) as many of these connections as possible or we are essentially harming the very child we claim to be “protecting”. But I try to pay attention to what our children are not saying because that often speaks much louder than what they are saying, if you are looking and listening.

I do credit my nephew’s adoptive mother with making an attempt – by contacting me, by doing the work necessary to correct the lie my youngest sister told about who his natural father was. My heart breaks for my nephew. Though his questions are now answered for the most part (I gave him a video of my husband’s and my wedding where my mentally ill – probably paranoid schizophrenia – youngest sister was probably as natural and “normal” as she ever was – so he could see that side of her in lieu of meeting her in person) and he has met his father and related half-siblings. Even so, now that he is a mature adult with a girlfriend who has what seems like an intact birth family that remains close to one another, he has pretty much cut all ties with his adoptive mother in favor of being a part of her family. I hasten to add that a romantic relationship (even when such complications are the truth as in my nephew’s life) can split a person mostly off from their natural family. As a woman, I’ve experienced that with all 3 of my long-term romantic relationships.

Someone once told me that children come in two types – defiant and compliant. I have two sons who certainly illustrate that truth. So, I would suspect that adoptees (from what I have learned in my own study) tend more to the compliant (which does not mean that there are not defiant types), simply because of a fear of abandonment and rejection which is common to almost every adoptee.

Shifting the Narrative

Listening to my favorite weekly inspirational broadcast of the Agape service lead by the Rev Dr Michael Bernard Beckwith, he shared the story of a troubled young man who had been adopted. He had been a difficult child and acted out until . . .

One day, he shifted the narrative of his life from being given away to being given an opportunity. Just that slight shift in perspective made all the difference.

Many adoptees struggle with the sense they were abandoned and rejected. They respond to those feelings generally in one of two ways – by becoming people pleasers or by becoming defiant. An adoptee cannot change the reality that they were adopted.

I was contemplating after some long discussions about the situation of my nephew. Not everyone can see things from my spiritual perspective. However, I came to the realization for him, that he was definitely NOT a mistake. Yes, my sister did something foolish and she compounded her error by not accepting responsibility and facing the truth. I can forgive her because I do know what an awkward situation the whole thing was.

However, it is my belief that my nephew CHOSE to come into this world knowing full well the unique circumstances he was entering through. Certainly, my hearts knows there has been some damage done – to him, to his natural father who was denied an opportunity to have a say in the outcome – but he is a quality young man. My heart believes he will be just fine.

There may be many journeys for him ahead in realizing his full potential but the journey I have taken in the last 24 hours, shifted the narrative for me – regarding my sister and regarding my nephew. I gave generously of my time to that discussion but I am the one who benefited by the effort.

The definition of opportunity is a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something.

Lacking Permanency

After I learned who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted and died knowing effectively nothing about their own familial roots), I began to learn about the impacts of adoption.  I read a really good book on this subject – The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton Verrier (definitely highly recommended for anyone else who is interested in understanding).  I also joined a group about adoption that is all about facing the realities.  Member of the whole triad of original parents, adoptees and adoptive parents belong to this group and I have learned a lot about the issues from the diversity.

From letters written by my adoptive grandmother in the late 1930s to the Tennessee Children’s Home staff – Fanny Elrod and Georgia Tann – there are indications that my mom had been upset the whole time she was being taken by my adoptive grandmother by train from Memphis to Nogales Arizona as a 7 mos old infant and that she may have been drugged by a doctor upon arrival there to calm her down.

Though letters from my adoptive grandmother in the early years of my mom’s life indicate that she was over the moon happy with my mom as her adopted child, I know that my mom never felt she lived up to my grandmother’s high standards.  I understand this personally as she was a phenomenal woman and I had my own run-ins with her opinions about me that were deeply hurtful.

My grandmother grew up not far from me in Missouri.  Her mom was lazy by my grandmother’s accounts – only interested in her bible and not in her household – and both her mother and sister were fat (confirmed in photographs of the whole family together).  My grandmother maintained a very trim figure all her life to match the trim figures of her sisters-in-law and worked hard at that by denying herself fattening foods to maintain her figure.  She criticized me once in a public place quite loudly for taking a dinner roll and putting butter on it.  I didn’t even speak to her for a whole 24 hours I was so upset.

Adoptees do not feel special because someone chose to adopt them.  They always feel at risk of being rejected and abandoned all over again if they don’t live up to their adoptive parents’ expectations.  For that reason they become people pleasers as my own mom definitely was.  She was described very positively after she died by the people who knew her but I wonder now – at what price internally did she accomplish that high regard ?

Living In The Fog

Adoption Fog – the hazy perception that everything about adoption is (or should be) simple, straight-forward, beautiful, and most importantly, not questioned.

Adoptees are told what to think, not how to think.  They are told the perspective from which they should see their adoption.  They are told to be grateful.  They live in a fantasy land.  They were too young or too afraid to realize the truth of the situation they are living in or to feel the full impact of it.  I can see now that as I began to understand the stories of my parents adoptions, I was in a fog before and in the early part of that process of believing the unicorns and rainbows version of adoption.

Coming out of the fog can mean enlightenment and healing.  Along the way, there are painful realizations and personal acknowledgements.  Coming out of the fog does not necessarily mean searching.  One can be searching and still be in the fog.  Maybe simply curious about family and heritage.

Adoptees are conditioned from the beginning to be grateful. They were “chosen”.  There is a story, ingrained lovingly, about how the biological parents were not able or did not want to take care of the adoptee. “They loved me so much they had to give me away so I could have a better life. I was saved by my adoptive parents from life as an orphan.  Adoption is a good thing.  Without it where would all the abandoned, unwanted children go?”

While such stories are meant to be comforting, it is often scary for the child.  To be “chosen” by one family means to be “unchosen” or rejected by another one.  And it is that fear of rejection that causes many adoptees to become people pleasers.

It is only natural, that as they come to maturity, they begin to understand that their very lives fulfill a desire on the part of their adoptive parents.  Adopted children are therefore often fearful (either consciously or subconsciously) that they could become rejected again.

There really is no such thing as a well-adjusted adoptee, or even child of two adoptees, even if it appears to be so.  The contradictions are simply too big to reconcile.

When You Don’t Control The Narrative

When adoptees are little, it is natural to fixate on matters such as birth and death, and to even try to appeal to and please the adoptive parents by talking about the adoption in a fairytale way (as a safety mechanism for survival; trying to be always in good graces, and assure one’s self that everything is fine, because your identity and sense of security are fragile).  Adoptees suffer complicated emotions like grief, loss, and triggers in isolation.

Some adoptees believe their feelings are always wrong.  They are expected to think about everyone’s feelings but their own. No wonder so many adoptees are people pleasers (which enforces the ‘good complaint adoptee’ persona as a necessary expression and explains why so many adoptees are afraid of speaking out – fearing rejection by the larger society).  It can leave them with a lot of issues related to control because they feel like their life story isn’t their own. Everyone else is defining it for them.  Personally, I tend to rebel at being forced to do anything that isn’t my own idea to begin with.

Imagine the adoptee then.  Effectively kidnapped at a very young age, many on their first day on Earth.  It’s no wonder some infants who have been separated from their mother and placed with complete strangers scream for quite a long time.  There is evidence in my mom’s adoption file that she required sedating medication to calm down.  So sad.

If they are nothing else, adoptees are survivors – IF they make it to adulthood, even a little bit intact – though many exhibit behaviors that are self-harming.  Many become victims of an effect similar to Stockholm Syndrome.  This is a condition which causes hostages to display a psychological cooperation with their captors during captivity.  Sadly, adoptive parents are a variety of captors.  Adoptees must exhibit a fierce loyalty to their adoptive parents because their very survival is at stake.

Worth a few minutes to watch – Blake Gibbins, an adoptee, telling it like it is.  “Kidnappers with pretty stories.”  https://youtu.be/kvBHlrLuats

 

Being Good Enough

I think this is how my mom felt, especially when she discovered she was pregnant with me as a junior in high school and all the plans her mother made for her life would never be.

I’m certain that my maternal, adoptive, grandmother wanted to believe that my mom, because she was not causing any trouble, was well-adjusted. Knowing how I was, I can imagine my mom was “relatively” well-behaved at home, was subtle in her wildness, and kept most of her unapproved behavior a secret from her adoptive parents.

Adjustment often means shutting down – creating a “false self”.  It staggers my imagination to understand now that both of my parents, adoptees, lived false identities – that they knew for most of their lives, were not the ones they had been born with.

Many adoptees believe that the child they “become” has to be “better” or they will be abandoned again.  They become people pleasers who constantly seek approval.

As children they may be very cooperative, polite, charming, and generally “good”. Yet, it is now known that locked inside of them is pain and fear. They can never truly bond with anyone because they are not being their true and authentic selves.

They are afraid of showing negative feelings – anger, hostility, disappointment or sorrow. The false self they create is a coping mechanism.

Though they may create a “good” self false persona, many adoptees perceive themselves as less than ideal, defective or bad.  They have a pronounced lack of self-esteem.