After all, my children were placed with us days after their birth. They came to us directly from the hospital. There was no abuse, no institutional care, no multiple shifts in caregivers.
Sure they would have questions, they might be sad -- but we'd handle it. We're loving parents. I'm a child and family therapist, so I know how to manage sad.
This adoption stuff would be easy.
But then my daughter turned 5. And she began to have a deeper understanding of what her "adoption story" really meant.
And then one night we watched one of the "Free Willy"* movies, and at the end, when the young girl must let the whale go back to the ocean, my daughter began to sob. And then she began to talk about her birth family.
That's when I knew she really understood adoption -- that it means losing some people who are really important to you.
That's when I really understood -- this adoption stuff is hard.
That lesson continues to be brought home to me by several adult adoptee blogs I read and, most recently, by Found: A Memoir* by Jennifer Lauck. Lauck was adopted at birth -- back in the days when open adoptions were not the vogue. In fact, she didn't know she was adopted until her adoptive brother, in a typical sibling exchange, informed her in a less than kind way.
Lauck's adoption experience was less than ideal. Her adoptive mother died when she was still quite young. Her father remarried a woman who would make some fairy tale stepmothers seem not so bad before he also died. She was shuffled around to various relatives, none of whom seemed to want her. She was homeless at one point. She was abused. And she struggled to find herself.
Found is the story of her search for identity and her ultimate reunification with her birth family. I read Found as part of The Open Adoption Examiner Book Tour -- a sort of on-line book group with a set of questions and opportunities for online discussion.
Question 1 from the book tour is: Lauck shares a lot of fallout from having been adopted. Issues with identity, control, loss, rejection, intimacy, etc. What do you think of Lauck's drive to prove herself unlovable and of no value to so many in her life? How does this directly tie into having been adopted?
It's easy as an adoptive parent to minimize the impact of biology and biological connections -- after all when you adopt you're placing an awful lot of faith in the belief that nurture matters as much as nature. Clearly in Lauck's case, she was not only separated from her biological family, but she didn't get much nurturing either.
It can be easy for those of us who do provide a nurturing environment to our adopted children to think we can make up for the separation from their biological family -- especially when we adopted at birth, especially if there is no history of abuse, especially if we have some level of openness with their birth family. But one thing I've learned with my children is that nature matters too -- a lot. And so does separation from those whose "nature" you share.
We know that at an almost instinctive level -- even when we don't really acknowledge it. My children have the same birth mother. Shortly after my daughter's second birthday, her birth mother contacted us to say she was pregnant again and still not feeling able to parent. She asked if we would adopt this baby also because she wanted her children to be together, to have one another even if they didn't have her.
Almost everyone who knows this story remarks about how special/lucky/wonderful it is that the two of them are together. (These are often the same people who also say how "lucky" they are to be raised by us.)
People may discount the impact of biology when it comes to birth parents, but the response people have to knowing that my children are not only adopted siblings, but biological half siblings as well, proves how instinctively we know that biology matters. Separation from your birth family matters -- a lot.
In her book, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew,* author and adoptee Sherrie Eldridge begins her list with "I suffered a terrible loss before I even knew you."
I don't necessarily believe adopted children are doomed because of that loss. But part of the nurturing we owe our adopted kids is a willingness to acknowledge and help them begin to understand those feelings of loss, rejection, and confused identities.
Question 2 from the book tour is: Shame figures prominently in Lauck's experience. She traces it to her mother's experience: "was I actually reliving the shame absorbed by my mother in 1963 and thus absorbed by me as the baby she carried? Was I trying to heal the both of us through my reenactment of her past?" (p.94). Later, she writes that "No one spoke of adoptees and their silent sorrows. We were acquired, assimilated, and adapted." (p. 116). Is adoption inherently shameful, or is it only shameful because of when the process and the people involved are treated as unworthy or undeserving? Lauck's language, especially the term "acquired," suggests that adoptees have been treated as commodities rather than people. Does this resonate with you?
I still vividly remember the marketing packet we got from one adoption agency. In big letters on the front it proclaimed "We guarantee you a baby." The brochure then went on to give statistics on how many of their adoptive families brought home babies within a given number of months.
We didn't go with that agency. But it pointed out that bizarre, otherworldly place in which prospective adoptive parents find themselves -- because (at least in our case) the usual route to parenthood (have sex, get pregnant) didn't work, we're turning to what is in essence an "industry" to help us build our family. It bothered me then. It bothers me now.
The question I dread most from my children is not about their birth parents or why they were placed for adoption or why they can't live with their birth parents. The question I dread most is "how much did it cost?" (or even worse, "how much did I cost?").
At one point in the book. Lauck remarks "my father and I were simply two souls thrown together by circumstance. His wife wanted another child (specifically a daughter) and he pulled some strings to fulfill her desire. I was like a handbag or a scarf. Any baby would have done. It wasn't personal." (p.52)
That passage was difficult for me. I adore my children and there are so many things that I love about the people that they are. No one could replace my daughter's vivacious, have-no-fear approach to life or my son's wacky sense of humor. They are not handbags or scarves or commodities.
But the fact that we're together is circumstance. And, if I'm honest, I probably would have grown to love any baby that circumstance brought into my life.
And while it is incredibly personal now, it didn't start out that way. We chose to make it personal.
The third question in the book tour is: On pp. 17-18, Jennifer talks about a baby searching for her mother after being born. How did this sensory-rich passage strike you? What thoughts did it trigger about the role you play in adoption?
As an adoptive parent, it's hard to think about how a baby might be terrorized by separation from the mother who gave birth to him or her. The easy response is to say my children weren't like that.
They certainly weren't babies who pushed away; in fact, both cuddled into me from the very beginning (and still do). They were calm, easy, generally happy babies.
As I read this passage, I couldn't help but remember when we took our daughter from the hospital. She was asleep as we got her dressed and put her in the car seat. But then in the elevator, she woke up. She stayed awake for the 15 or so minutes it took to return to the hotel, and then for another half hour or so afterwards, alert and (at least it felt to me then) engaged with us.
And yet, I'm sure that somewhere in my children's psyche, they must have wondered what happened to the mom they were so intimately connected to for nine months. Is their cuddliness now a way of making sure they don't get "left" again? Was my daughter's alert connection with me a way of trying to figure out why I was replacing the mom who held her only moments after she was born?
I can never really know -- and perhaps they themselves will never fully understand -- how that separation impacted them.
What I can do is acknowledge that separation.
What I can do is make sure they know it is okay to mourn the loss of the life they might have had with their birth family.
And what I can do is stick with them as they learn that this adoption stuff is hard.
To continue to the next stop of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.
* I've linked to the Amazon web site if you want to learn more. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, if you purchase through this link, I get a few pennies from their affiliate program.