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I knew I was adopted before I even knew what “adopted” meant. My parents were very open about it. I met my first mom when I was around 9. I had ample opportunities to ask questions and explore my feelings about being adopted, but I didn’t. I assumed that it was all good, never acknowledging the possibility of adoption loss or trauma. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and about to have my own child that I started wrestling with the fullness of my experience as an adoptee. I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long?
My relationship with my adoptive mother was marked by a lot of raw and vulnerable conversations. As a teen and young adult, I felt safe and comfortable telling her exactly how I felt and hashing out all kinds of things. My adoption was just never one of those things.
I’m now doing that work as an adult and suddenly finding it impossible to connect with my parents, suddenly afraid to broach the subject with them. I’ve been mining my memories, searching the mindset of my younger self for answers as to why it took me so long to face the complex reality of being adopted.
Here are four reasons I didn’t acknowledge adoption loss (that I’ve come up with so far).
- I completely trusted my adoptive parents. When they explained my adoption with the typical positive, religious spin in a matter-of-fact manner, I believed their words were gospel truth. It didn’t occur to me that there could be another perspective. It’s in my nature to be loyal to an authority I trust. So I resisted asking further questions, figuring if they knew more they’d have told me. I resisted entertaining any feelings that did not fit with their positive adoption narrative.
What could my parents have done to help me know it was ok ask questions? I think they would have literally had to say something like, “You know if I were you, I might have a question about __[insert adoption related thing here]__. Are you curious about that?” And I might have said no the first time and refused to think about it further. Eventually though, with regular prompts, I might have felt comfortable questioning things. They also could’ve said something like, “While our experience of adopting you has been wonderful, you might find your experience of being an adoptee is sometimes confusing or difficult. We want you to know it is okay to feel that way and we want you to tell us if you do.”
- I believed everything happened for a reason. My family was very spiritual. Very Christian charismatic. There was a pull to believe my adoption was part of God’s plan for my life and as such, it wasn’t something I felt I could question. How could I question God?! If He wanted something to happen then it must be good for me.
What would’ve helped? If my parents had taught me the difference between what God approves of (perfect will) verses things God merely allows to happen (permissive will) and applied that to my birth and relinquishment, that would’ve helped. I could’ve understood this by high school and it might have opened up space for me to begin to acknowledge adoption loss. However, I suspect they thought that since I didn’t show signs of wrestling with my adoption, there wasn’t any loss to grieve.
- I grew up in an all white world. As a transracial adoptee, there were racial things that happened in my childhood that didn’t get properly assessed and addressed. Why? There was no person of color in our life (at least none willing to take the risk) to point out what was not ok and explain why. I believe I sensed that being racially different was uncomfortable and tried my best to fit in. That meant not questioning what the majority thought or said. That also meant internalizing the racism that I wasn’t taught to recognize as such.
I needed my parents to know things that they didn’t know they needed to know. In the 80’s, being racially colorblind was the moral and Christian (e.g. “God looks on the inside, not the outside”) approach to racial difference. At least for most white people. So while I know it would’ve helped if they’d found an Asian American community and learned to prepare for racial issues, I also know its unrealistic to think they would’ve known to do any of those things. I don’t blame them for not knowing what they didn’t know, but the result of that was still harmful for me.
- I believed adoption was a time-limited event. Adoption, I thought, was something that happened the day I was born and then I just lived the rest of my life like nothing was different. In some ways that naivety provided a buffer from pain. However, this made us resistant to the idea that my adoption could/should inform how we assessed and addressed any issues I had growing up. I got used to looking for any other reason aside from being an adoptee or being racially different to explain adverse experiences or feelings.
What would’ve helped? To help me understand that being an adoptee was going to continue to impact my life in different ways, we would’ve had to have heard that from adult adoptees. We would’ve had to have found someone who knew they were adopted, had come out of the fog themselves, and had the desire and ability to talk about their lived experience.
I share these reflections for two reasons. First and foremost, I hope other adoptees might find something they resonate with and maybe hearing me articulate my experience will help them better understand how to communicate their own. Secondarily, there are a lot of folks out there who love an adoptee and I hope this sheds light into the reasons why some adoptees do or do not or maybe just have not yet felt the need to acknowledge or process adoption loss.