This is really so common for so many adoptees that came out of foster care into families with biological children through adoption. I’m not going to catalog all of it but will hit a few highlights and say only – it is tough enough to come from a difficult environment and feel so completely disregarded. One wonders why these people do it. One theory expressed in the most recent story rings true – My adoptive parents have high status in my smallish town. Both very well known. I now believe we were trophies for them to flash and extra income that paid for fancy car loans.
The biological children were all younger. The woman notes – I remember thinking their two story home was a mansion. They had a tree house and trampoline. Sooo much property. Any poor kids dream. Even though she also notes – The family who fostered/adopted my sister and I were lower middle class. Their family photos never included the adoptees.
As me and my sister aged things got worse and worse. I had felt very loved initially. Me and my bio sister were much more well behaved than their own. We did as we were told. Mostly because, if we didn’t, we’d be disciplined. My biological sister and I would take on the majority of the house work, simply because the others refused to participate and no one enforced that they helped.
When me and my biological sister pushed back on things, we were told life’s not fair or just gaslit into thinking – it’s what we deserved, as we needed more structure due to our past. My older sister and I were placed into the foster care system the last time at ages 7 & 10. Our emergency placement that night was where we stayed for 2 years as foster kids, until ages 9 & 12, when the family adopted us. Her biological mother suffered mental illness with frightening episodes. She was dependent on sketchy men. They moved a lot, due to homelessness or the men the mother was using for survival. They went without food often.
When her biological sister pushed back harder and grew a bit defiant in her teen years, the adoptive parents went so far as putting her back into foster care. That was devastating for this woman as her sister had been her only constant in life. She admits that her sister was treated much more poorly than her and it causes her to feel regret that she did not stand up for her sister more often. Months later, the adoptive parents brought her sister back home, and readopted her because she had suffered abuse in that foster home. She notes that her biological sister eventually moved out at the age of 18 and went no contact with their adoptive parents for awhile.
She notes – Even so, I was grateful. I had been a good kid and caused as little disruption to their lives as possible. I wanted to please everyone so badly. I thought I should be grateful for what they did offer me because I could’ve had it so much worse without them. When I moved out at age 19, the disconnect got worse for me. My adoptive mother doesn’t acknowledge there’s a disconnect at all. Even though, we live close but go months without seeing each other and weeks without contact. Some outsiders notice how my sister and I were treated differently.
And so now, the woman accepts it for what it was and is. She is willing to play nice for family events and holidays. Without them, she wouldn’t have any family. She responds promptly to any of her adoptive mother’s texts, where the adoptive mother pretends to care. Like, she will make empty promises or fake plans, but clearly she never actually intends to follow through. Which leads the woman to fully believe, anything that does happen is just due to concern for her adoptive mother’s public reputation. What if the adoptee went no contact completely ? Sometimes, the adoptive mother actually follows through and does something special for her, like a baby shower for her 1st child. She notes, however, that it was a very public affair. Anytime, it is something private, her adoptive mother is clearly not as nice.
At the bottom of this blog, I’ll link the Adoption & Addiction, Remembered Not Recalled video by Paul Sunderland but first, for those who don’t want to watch for almost an hour, I share a few snippets.
The issue of adoption is all about divided attention, it’s all about 2 sets of families. It’s all about the conflicting feelings of wanting to belong, yet fearing belonging. (As the child of two adoptees, I’m certain this has filtered down into my own soul. I have never felt that I added up to be as much as the golden people I surround myself with – whether in social online networking communities or in my writer’s guild up in St Louis – those are just two examples but it probably goes back into my childhood as well.)
Adoption is a pretty weird word because it’s about the only condition that doesn’t really describe what has happened. Talking about adoption is a denial of relinquishment. The relinquishment wounds can be seen as a developmental post-traumatic stress disorder.
The word adoption is a cover-up. When we think about the adoption triangle, we think about the 3 parties in adoption. The adopted child, there are the birth or natural parents and there is the adoptive parent(s). Sunderland’s focus in his lecture is mostly about the adopted child. And as the title of his lecture suggests, his lecture is also about the apparent addition of addiction to that adopted child.
(And I do believe it is in struggling with an abandonment that one is lead into addiction. As an aside, we watched the 2008 Will Smith movie Hancock last night. He is an alcoholic and it seems to me that his alcoholism is due to similar issues of not knowing who one is at the core and feeling abandoned but not knowing by who.)
Back to the Sunderland lecture, he says that when he encounters birth parents in a treatment setting they usually say, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what happened.”
Adoptees are massively over-represented in treatment. And that leads to a question, Why is that ?
He has met quite a few adoptive parents, particularly as cross-cultural adoptions have been so popular. It is clear that many are feeling like, this is just not what we signed up to do.
Sunderland’s perspective is that there are NO adoptions without trauma. What he is talking about in his lecture is an enormous grief. A baby who has been waiting 9 months to meet somebody that they are not going to meet. It is about a mother who cannot live with having her child because society has told her that she cannot do it. Relinquishment goes against her biology.
And very often, the adoptive parents come into adoption carrying their own enormous grief due to having been unable to have a child of their own, naturally. One of the problems that Sunderland has with the word adoption is that it covers up the adoptive parents own grief.
So often, an adoptee will be told that they were chosen but the reality is that child has entered into a family that does not genetically fit them and given an impossible job description. They are forced to be someone that they can never actually be to fix the wound that the adoptive parents have. Infertility is an enormous disappointment for a couple and adoption tries to cover that up.
For an adoptee, the issue of abandonment is life threatening. There is nothing worse than to be separated from the one person (your mother) who you needed most at the beginning of your life. This is preverbal – it can’t be recalled – however, it IS remembered.
The word adoption tries to suggest that it is going to be a happily ever after situation. The human brain begins working before it is entirely built and experience is what programs the brain. If the beginning is a trauma and separation, then this is the experience that is wiring the neurons in the brain of the infant. For an adoptee there is a constant desire to attach accompanied by the conflicting sense that it isn’t safe to do so. There is no pre-trauma personality in an adoptee because there is no normal to compare this experience to as there would be for other traumatic events (war, car accidents, etc).
Being born prematurely and placed into an incubator is another kind of relinquishment when the infant leaves that containing environment. If a child is placed into foster care, that is also a relinquishment. Each change of foster family is yet another in a series of relinquishments. And second chance adoptions, where an adopted child is given back, is another relinquishment. In some cross-cultural adoptive situations, the child is born into such poverty, they are separated from the mother into an orphanage.
The bonding of an infant with their human mother actually begins 2 months before birth, while in utero, as proven by multiple experiments. Adoptees will often share that they have heard stories that they cried and cried. And I think of the mention of that in my mom’s adoption file via a letter from her adoptive mother to the Tennessee Children’s Home about the train trip upsetting my mom but that the doctor had her settled down now (and I always think – they drugged her, though it is not said directly). And I can understand now that my mom was relinquished twice because her mother took her to Porter Leath Orphanage in desperation for TEMPORARY care while she tried to get on her feet because her lawfully married husband had abandoned her and did not respond to a letter that the Juvenile Court in Memphis had written to him about his obligations.
Sunderland speaks about the stability of a child being dependent on a mother being able to know herself (which certainly was a black hole, actually for both of my parents, that I had until I was well over 60 years old and began to discover my own adoptee parents origin stories). People who are adopted and end up in treatment, often present themselves as fairly well put together.
Sunderland speaks of “love addiction” as needing to have the positive regard of a significant other. Addiction is genetically proposed and environmentally disposed. The hormonal aspects of having been relinquished are similar to living one’s life on red alert. In an adoption, there is a slow loss of self. A belief that they cannot be them self and get along with the people with whom they have been placed. The hormonal aspects affect sleep and stomach issues (and certainly my mom had her share of gastrointestinal issues throughout her entire life). Real difficulties managing moods (I think of my dad’s underlying seething anger that occasionally popped out).
If you think about serotonin, it is a soothing hormone. Addiction is usually an effort to self soothe. Eating sugar is one such effort to self soothe. Both of my parents were seriously diabetic and myself to some extent (though I am trying to manage my own sugar issues without ending up on insulin). Serotonin also manages shame and let’s you know you are okay but if your levels are low, the answer is “I’m not okay.”
Some people are not given up at birth and that was certainly true with both of my parents who spent 6-8 months with their original mothers before being adopted. People who diet and then give up on themselves, often multiple times. The chemicals in the brains of adoptees who have early psychological wounds are very different from other people without this personal background.
Adoptees have a tendency towards catastrophic thinking, always expecting the worst. The original wound of being separated from their mother was a life-threatening one. Shame is an unacknowledged aspect that is the understanding that I am not good enough, the bad baby (I’m unworthy, unlovable, there is something flawed in me) because if I was given up by my mother, I don’t have value. People pleasing arises from this feeling. How do I need to be to be accepted ?
Being extremely self-reliant (if you want something done, do it yourself) is also an outcome. It is interesting to note that both of my parents’ mothers had early abandonment or separation wounds from their own mothers caused by the deaths of their mothers. My dad’s mother had the worst one as her mother died when she was only 3 mos old. When she discovered that she was pregnant by a married man that she was not married to, she simply handled it herself and he never knew. With my mom’s mother, she was in her pre-teens and had to become “mom” to her 4 siblings.
Shame and anxiety are at the root of all addictions. There is an attempt to manage anxiety by managing the externals out there. Addictions are attempts to put anxieties elsewhere and explain the inexplicable. And there is the belief that somehow it is your own fault. Up until about the age of 10, infants and children believe that everything that happens to them, happened because of them.
In life, it’s not so much what happens to you as how secure you were with your early attachments. Roots, the secure base. Without these, one is less resilient. Adaption is a better word for what is done, not adoption. Adoptees end up with two minds. Real difficulties making decisions. The limbic system – fight, flight or freeze – is what kicks in with the catastrophic thinking. It is the part of the brain that developed before the frontal cortex. If you have an attachment wound, you never learned how to become a separate person. Any successful relationship exists in separateness, not in trying to adapt yourself to be accepted by that other person. The erotic exists in the space between the two. The real challenge for an adopted person is to actually BE their own self.
The person described in today’s story could have been my father. The difference is that he married another adoptee. Both of my parents grew up knowing they were adopted all along. They had this in common but their perspectives on having been adopted were very different. My mom yearned to know the truth of her adoption. My dad acted content with his lot in life. I suppose that these two adoptees found each other, fell in love and had the support of one another until death did part them, kept the loneliness at bay. Still, my mom did communicate to me her feelings about having been adopted because my dad was not able to empathize with her feelings.
Today’s story –
My husband is adopted. He was adopted at birth and has always known he was adopted. That’s about as much communication as he has ever had with his parents about it. His mom told me once “I just let him know he could ask me whatever he wanted to know and that was that.” Since he’s not a very big talker, he’s never really spoke much at all about his adoption with his parents. I’ve always come from the place of it being his life experience and however he wants to go through life with it, is how I will support him.
We have 4 kids. He’s an amazing dad and husband. I often wonder if I’m being a good enough wife in supporting him. I’ve read about how much trauma even the “good” adoptions have and my heart just dies inside for my husband. He has no desire to look for his biological family and says “I have a mom and dad.” I completely support him in that. Is there anything more I can do? Of course it would be easier to just keep going on with my life and not put any thought towards his mental health, since he’s always seems fine. He’s such a people pleaser (especially for his parents, which I’ve now learned is typical with adoptees). I never want him to put on a happy face for us, if he is hurting inside and I could see him doing this.
Is it actually possible to not care at all or to not feel feelings at all about being adopted? To have a happy childhood and feel no trauma and grow up and never have any of it affect your life? Because so much of what I’ve read says otherwise.
The first response was (I get this about men as well) – It’s totally possible he had a great childhood and doesn’t have any trauma, and it’s also possible he is hiding it inside, since men are socially conditioned to be that way. It’s a tough call. I can tell you it’s possible because that’s me. I have no adoption associated trauma. I’m in therapy; my therapist has tried to “get it out of me” and I’m always open to having the discussion but she closed that door once she concluded there wasn’t any trauma to work on. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I can see you truly care about and love your husband and want what’s best for him but forcing the issue may make him drive it deeper into the closet. This is a really tough and delicate situation.
And I do agree with this perspective (BTW my parents were about 8 months old and had spent time with their original mothers before they were adopted back in the 1930s) – You can experience trauma as a newborn and not remember it. It’s not always something you feel. It can just be something that affected you and you’re not conscious of it.
This could be true of my dad as well – he could have dealt with it a long time ago and just doesn’t feel the need to bring up the past. He may be in a healthy place and bringing up that trauma back up would retraumatize him because he thought he had come to peace with it. (My dad used to caution my mom against opening up a can of worms with her own yearning.)
From a voice of experience – I am the spouse of a domestic infant adoptee. I don’t think it’s your place to push, just be supportive. My husband was “fine” until he was not. It was a very, very slow process and I saw things a long time before he discovered them on his own, things like how his behaviors, such as people pleasing and his emotional response to perceived abandonment, the way his adoptive parents treated him, etc. He slowly came out of a fog, and it has been a long and painful process. That being said, not everyone has the same experience. Additionally, if he is in a fog, its something he has to process on his own. I think it could be extremely and emotionally damaging for you to spin this into any sort of realizations (if they exist) that he isn’t emotionally or psychologically ready for. Just love him, don’t push, and support him.
It is often, almost always, difficult for an adoptee to have a conversation with their adoptive parents about how hard it has been for them to be an adopted person. I believe most adoptees are highly sensitive to their adoptive parents feelings and emotions – whether the adoptee tries very hard to be perfect in order to please their adoptive parents or is sullen and defiant or passive and withdrawn.
There is a genuine fear of rejection and abandonment. Most adoptive parents feel passionate about doing a good deed and don’t really want to hear that it may be problematic. At times, it even borders on a savior like delusion. Just as it was with my mom’s adoption through Georgia Tann, even today, adoptive parents don’t want to know that the system that allowed them to buy a child is in any way a corrupt one.
Even in situations where the adoption is as ethical as any can ever be, an adoptee may find it impossible to ask about their original mother, father and other related biological family members. Can not even begin to discuss feelings of abandonment. Many simply sense it would be an absolute nightmare to even try.
The prevailing feeling is that people devoted to the idea of adoption don’t want to understand anything perceived as “negative” towards adoption.
And more often than I care to admit – I read stories like this one.
My adoptive sister and I don’t even say that our adoptive mom was abusive. Since she was a narcissist, everyone else thinks she was so nice and loving but that was her public facade. In private, she was mean. But I doubt anyone who knew her when she was alive would believe us if we tried to tell the truth. It ends up making me feel like I have these big parts of my life that I have to keep secret.
Or this one on trying to talk honestly with their adoptive parents –
They’re convinced I’m hyper-sensitive, over emotional and ungrateful to them. They absolutely have a savior complex. They live as though my biological family doesn’t exist, and I don’t exist outside of the box they tried to keep me in.
And even sadder still –
My adoptive mom is deceased (and told me before she died that she wished she hadn’t adopted at all). It would just be too hard to get my adoptive dad to understand my feelings regarding my adoption. We just don’t really talk about it.
The only discussion I know of my mom having with her adoptive mother was when my mom was in high school and the story about Georgia Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal broke. My mom always knew she and her brother (not biological but also adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home) were adopted and from where. She asked her adoptive mother about it. Her adoptive mother said something like, yes you came from there but you were NOT one of “those” children. That was the end of it.
Some adoptive parents mistake their adopted child’s compliance with the situation as a good outcome adjustment. What I have learned from adoptees that there is an even more intense reaction that is called fawning. Think of the kidnap victim that eventually identifies with their captors – like Patty Hearst did.
Every adoptee is an individual and each responds differently to the circumstances of their relinquishment and their placement in a new home.
Fawning is best understood as “people-pleasing.” Both of my parents were adoptees and I saw this kind of behavior in my mom and learned it from her. This kind of behavior can endear one to other people but it is not always healthy to be this way.
People with the fawn response are so accommodating of other people’s needs that they often find themselves in codependent relationships. Fortunately, when that has happened to me, I’ve found a way out – even if it took some time to get there.
Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. It takes some maturity to take one’s power back.
Sadly, fawn types are more vulnerable to emotional abuse and exploitation. Abusers may suppress a survivor’s fight or flight responses by threatening punishment. The appease response, also known as ‘please’ or ‘fawn’, is a survival response which occurs [when] survivors read danger signals and aim to comply and minimize the confrontation in an attempt to protect themselves. I’ve been there, done that and I’ve seen my mom do likewise.
If you are an adoption survivor (adoption is definitely a form of trauma to a child), you are not alone in using this for safety. There is no shame in struggling with fawning. Fawning, like the other stress responses, is a self-protective armor. It has helped many adoption survivors live through being placed in a family that does not fit their nature naturally.
There is a poem common among adoptive parents and often framed and hung on the wall. There is actually more than one version out there.
“You’re a chosen child
You’re ours, but not by birth
. . . Chosen above the rest.”
“I had to tell you, Dearest Heart,
that you are not my own.”
This concept of being “chosen” is often disturbing for an adoptee. This is not a supermarket where people go to buy commodities. Adoptees are human beings with feelings and so many of the messages they receive are contradictory statements and confusing.
When my sister learned she was pregnant, she also knew that without a willing father to help her raise her son, she needed to give him up for adoption. This being a “modern” version, her son wasn’t chosen so much as the parents to raise her son were chosen.
Couples submitted applications, glossy proposals of why they would be the best choice. I was with my sister as she tried to make a decision. She sent these packages to me for my opinion – though the ultimate decision was one she made for herself.
The messages adoptees receive are paradoxical – they were unwanted, abandoned, and yet chosen, special and lucky. They rarely feel the “yets” as much as the more obvious facts. Their original mothers are often marginalized as “incapable” but oh, they were heroic to give up that baby to a mother who could raise a child no other way.
Adoption is a legal contract to which the child never agreed. They are made to appear “as if born to” with their identity amended to hide their true origins. An adoptee is asked to live their life split off from their true identity. They become masters at people pleasing – sometimes compliant, other times defiant.
A tiny baby who didn’t consciously know what was happening to it.
The child who loved their adoptive parents.
The unsealed records finally arriving but causing an emotional wound.
The adult still trying to figure out what it all means.
My mom was a people pleaser. It could have been driven by a fear of being given back or given away – again. This is simply a logical extension of what the child may have been told – “Your birth mother loved you enough to give you up, and now we love you.” Seems simple and appropriate on the surface.
But what is an adoptee supposed to think ? It would not be surprising if their silent response was – “So you could give me up too ?”
My mom may have been aware that she was the fulfillment of her adoptive mother’s dream of becoming a mother. I have my grandmother’s letters to the adoption agency in the file I received. She was over the moon happy and thought my mom the most brilliant child. So, my mom may have wanted to do a good job of being the fulfillment of that dream. In her teens, she didn’t feel she measured up to my grandmother’s expectations.
My mom never got that reunion with her original mother that she yearned for. I have gotten “some” of that reunion joy as I have met cousins and an aunt on each side of my parental adoption equation. And honestly, it has filled in a gap that I couldn’t even know as clearly as I do now that I am whole.
I literally had to wait many decades to reconnect with my original family.