I’m going to try to communicate some of what it’s like to be adopted.
My life began with a devastating trauma; on the day I was born, I lost my mother. I don’t consciously remember this, but I lived it and experienced it. I was there and although I didn’t realise the full extent until recently, it has shaped me in deeply fundamental ways. (how could it not?!)
I was given up for adoption at birth. My mother indirectly surrendered me to my adoptive parents hoping that they could give me a better life than the one she could provide. I know this now. I suspected it for most of my life. In my head I understand. But this is not how I experienced it when it happened. I experienced it as abandonment.
One of the greatest fallacies in the world of adoption is the idea that when adoptive parents receive their infant child, he or she is a blank slate. My parents believed this. At the time, everyone believed this, but what they actually received was a child with a rich and full heritage and family tree, genetically coded to be a branch of that tree. My adoptive parents became my parents, but I was never a blank slate; I was someone else’s child and especially at the beginning, my parents were strangers.
My adoption in the late 1960s was, as most were, a closed adoption. This means that once the adoption was finalised, my name was changed, my birth certificate changed, and an impenetrable wall was erected which prevented me from ever reaching back into my own story further than my arrival on my parents’ doorstep. The connection between my mother and I was lost. I couldn’t find her and she couldn’t find me.
The question always comes up, ‘Is she really your mother anymore? After all, she gave you up”. The answer for every single adoptee is that we have two mothers and two fathers, whether we acknowledge it or not. The entirety of what makes up a mother and what makes up a father is shared between two people for us.
So why do a growing number of us search for our birth parents? In my experience (and opinion), it is a combination of two things:
- It is an attempt to deal with the unresolved sense of loss that has been present since the very beginning. As Betty Jean Lifton has so eloquently asked, “Who ever heard of an adopted adult?” Many of us are still just that child wondering where their mother went.. Even if it’s not conscious, we are searching because something was lost.
- Because two people are required to completely encompass the role of mother for us, (one gives birth and the other raises us), and two people are required to encompass the role of father, (one fathers us, and the other raises us), the desire to know all four parents is primal.
Again, we are searching for parts of our being, our identity, which are lost.
Now, this is the experience of every adoptee. Every adoptee, no matter what their age when it happened, experienced abandonment, and, unless they were adopted by extended family, also experienced being severed from their heritage and genetic inheritance. The difference, and there are as many differences as there are adoptees themselves, is how we deal with these things, both by choice and by subconscious reaction.
Adoption fog is a term that is a bit hard to pin down but generally describes the state of denying the hurt, fear of rejection or abandonment, difficulty in trusting people, and a host of related issues that adoptees are finally finding their voice to express and allowing us to collectively discover that to varying degrees, we all share them. There is no pulling someone out of the fog, but once you are out, there is no going back- all of these issues well up and finally come to the surface leaving you wondering, ‘how could I have not seen this?!”
What triggers this coming out of the fog is different for everyone. It could be the birth of a child. It could be reading a book about the adoptee experience. If it hasn’t happened by the time reunion takes place, it is often triggered then. In my own experience, It happened a few months after meeting my birth family in person and reading Betty Jean Lifton’s book, Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience. That book was very confronting and a literary slap in the face that ejected me out of the fog quite forcefully.
What was it like for me in the fog? I went through the better part of 50 years believing that I was a well adjusted person who, while identifying as being adopted, didn’t feel that it had much, if any, effect on me. I recognised that I have some issues, but I thought that they were just the product of my personality; it’s just how I am.
Reading Betty Jean Lifton’s book was a slap in the face for me because I recognised that my ‘issues’ are common enough themes in adoptees that I clearly recognised myself in those pages. Since reading that book, I have read several others- all of which echoed what I initially read in Lost & Found. What catapulted me out of the fog was the realisation that, yes, my issues are ‘how I am’ but how I am is conditioned by my reaction to being separated from my mother at birth, and my being in a broken adoptive family ripped apart by divorce and a narcissistic mother.
I look back on my life and my experiences both remembered and not, and with a brutally clear hindsight wonder, “how could I have not seen this?”
And now, I not only have the gift of clarity in being able to see the why and how of much of the way I think and react, but I am learning a vocabulary I’ve never had which is allowing me to verbalise something that happened to me in the pre-verbal stage of my life. As difficult as this clarity has been for me, it really is an incredible gift. Now that I recognise these issues and their source, I have something to grasp onto. I have a means to deal with these issues and hopefully, in time, overcome them. It’s like living all of your life with a mysterious locked door in your house and finally finding the key.
Does everyone come out of the fog? Absolutely not. I will apologise in advance for yet another Matrix analogy, but not everyone is ready, or even wants to be woken up. Many adoptees look back on the bliss of the fog and think, “wouldn’t it be nice, to go back…”
Neo: “I can’t go back, can I.”
Morpheus: “No. But if you could, would you really want to?”
So with this in mind I think that it would be helpful to think of adoptees as being in one of the following places in their journeys:
- Adopted in the fog
- Adopted out of the fog
- Adopted in reunion in the fog
- Adopted in reunion out of the fog
I’m not doing this for the purpose of labelling, but because I feel the differences between these ‘stages’ is significant.
So what is reunion? I am in the position of having found and met a significant portion of my birth family, so I am considered not just an adoptee, but an adoptee in reunion. The words used here are very important; even though I had a ‘reunion’ in that the event of my meeting my birth family occurred, it turns out that reunion is not just an event that happens and is finished(hopefully!). Reunion is a never ending process of re-unifying not only with members of your birth family and starting the long process of building relationships with them and ‘making up for years missed’, it is also the process of the adoptee finally being able to unify ALL the pieces of their identity.
An adoptee before reunion is like a swiss cheese; there are holes, but an adoptee in reunion is becoming a solid cheese; perhaps like a nice cheddar or something.
Reunion is often misunderstood, even by adoptees themselves. My search for my birth parents encompassed 35 years of my life. Finding them- meeting them- was my ultimate goal; almost like my happily ever after. I think it became that because my search took so long. It took so long that by the time I finally broke through and found them, I had begun to think that I would never find them. It became something that I couldn’t see beyond.
It’s very much like training in the martial arts. You train for years and years with the goal of becoming a black belt. Once you finally pass your test and get your black belt, you realise that this is not the end of the road at all! You are not a master of your art, in fact all a black belt does is identify you as a serious student and NOW the real training begins.
Achieving reunion is like getting a black belt; now the real work begins. There are serious issues to work out with your birth parents if you are lucky enough to find them receptive (and alive). There is often more than just your parents- they may have families. You may have siblings. There are relationships to build with each of these family members. There is also extended family- aunts, uncles, and cousins. And just like the dynamics in every single family on the planet, there will be new dynamics for all of you to deal with; some good and some no so good.
Even before that though, there is the minefield of emotions and fears that accompany a search for the very people who abandoned you. I can’t even begin to describe what that fear is like and how strong it is as you begin to reach out to birth relatives. It is so strong and often overwhelming that it prevents so many from searching to begin with. It’s often not until the need to know and the need to connect becomes stronger than the fear that an adoptee steels themselves to be rejected but quietly and fervently prays for anything but, as they venture forth to begin their search.
It takes an incredible amount of courage to step out, facing your greatest fears, and often in spite of friends and family telling you to let sleeping dogs lie, or not to open Pandora’s box, or things that are so hurtful and showing such a complete lack of understanding that I won’t repeat them here. What I will repeat is what I learned from my own journey:
The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity.
The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity.
It takes true courage to choose to search even in the face of friends, family, and society marginalising you as ungrateful or even crazy.
At the very best you get welcomed and can begin to build relationships with both sides of your birth family.
At the very worst you get another devastating rejection.
At the very least you may get some answers to help fill in some of your swiss cheese holes.
Most adoptees will get some combination of these three outcomes. My own combination is an overwhelmingly loving and open welcome from my maternal birth family, but my mother has passed away and taken with her answers and a connection that only she could provide. I missed my birth father by two months; he has only recently passed and out of respect for their loss, I have put my plans to reach out to that side of my family on hold. I have some communication and answers from an uncle on that side and know that my reaching out will be a surprise; they do not know about me.
I missed the chance to connect with both of my birth parents, I am dealing with their loss, but the treasure at the end of my search is my siblings; 5 sisters. 4 maternal and one paternal. The four sisters I’ve met are exactly that; my sisters. They are everything I could have imagined and more. I look forward to connecting with my paternal sister when the timing is better.
So what about the journey and the issues that are faced by the birth parents and the adoptive parents? I have deliberately focused only on the adoptee experience in this article. Adoption is a triad of the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents- it is enormously complicated! You really can’t see the whole picture until you see it from all three perspectives. That is why there are books, because it takes a whole book (or more) to adequately discuss adoption. We will be publishing articles which focus more on the other two members of the triad- to give them their say. but for now I’ll ask you to remember that this article is entitled, “Adopted: What’s That Like?”
I hope that this gives you a small taste of what it’s like. Are we all basket cases? Absolutely not. Should we just “get over it”; forget our pasts and look to the future? I’ll leave you with this thought:
Your past is what makes you who you are.
Here are some books that will explain it all far better than I could:
The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. By Nancy Newton Verrier
Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience. By Betty Jean Lifton
Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. By Betty Jean Lifton