Row upon row of tombstones lined the lush lawns as I drove through the tall black iron gates toward my adoptive parents’ graves. An elderly man filled a plastic pitcher at a spigot and the smell of freshly mowed grass filled the air. A new grave was being dug across the way, a vivid reminder that loss is an undeniable part of life.
On the seat beside me were two long-stemmed roses, symbolic of my late-blooming gratitude to my parents, who had weathered the growing-up years with me. I was returning to their graves as an adult who had finally come to grips with the fact that adoption had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life. This was to be my day of reckoning, forgiveness, and closure.
As I exited the car and headed toward my parents’ graves a tidal wave of grief washed over me, and I felt like an orphan once more. How I hate that feeling! I was gripped by the cold, hard fact that the people who loved me most were buried below.
I tiptoed over the mounded grass to their rose-colored head stone. Retha G. and Arden J. Cook, the etched letters read. As I ran my fingers over the smooth granite stone, I whispered, “I hope you knew how much I loved you. Thank you for loving me when I was so unlovable.”
Without a doubt, my parents did their best to be the kind of parents I needed. And I wanted nothing more than to be the kind of daughter they could be proud of. However, our hearts rarely, if ever, connected. Instead, we were like ships passing in the night.
Outwardly, we appeared to be a close family. We took vacations and played golf together. I remember my parents proudly watching the events of my life unfold. I was a model child: captain of the cheerleading team, first-chair clarinet, homecoming representative for my class. But behind the scenes I was starving myself, being sexually promiscuous, and stealing. My parents didn’t have a clue. I never thought about the discrepancy between the good girl/bad girl aspects of my life or considered sharing my struggles with my parents. I was driven by a force I wasn’t even aware of.
What was the problem? Was it my parents? Were they second-class? No! Was it me? Was I damaged goods because I was adopted? No! A million times, no. The problem, or enemy, was ignorance–ignorance about unresolved adoption loss and the need to grieve.
The “L” Word
As with most everything in life, adoption has positive and negative elements. None of us wants to acknowledge the negative, painful side–that is, loss. But the truth is, the very act of adoption is built upon loss. For the birth parents, the loss of their biological offspring, the relationship that could have been, a very part of themselves. For the adoptive parents, the loss of giving birth to the child they call their own, the child whose face will never mirror theirs. And for the adopted child, the loss of the birth parents, the earliest experience of belonging and acceptance. To deny adoption loss is to deny the emotional reality of everyone involved.
An adoptee’s wounds are hardly ever talked about. They are the proverbial elephant in the living room. Dr. David M. Brodzinsky and Dr. Marshall D. Schecter, a psychologist and psychiatrist specializing in adoption, say in their insightful book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, that loss for the adoptee is “unlike other losses we have come to expect in a lifetime, such as death and divorce. Adoption is more pervasive, less socially recognized, and more profound.”
Grief is the natural response to loss, and those touched by adoption must be given permission to revisit emotionally the place of loss, feel the pain, scream the anger, cry the tears, and then allow themselves to be loved by others. If left unresolved, this grief can and often does sabotage the strongest of families and the deepest potential within the adopted child. It can undermine the most sincere parental commitment and force adoptees to suffer in private, choosing either rebellion or conformity as a mode of relating.
Since adoption loss is somewhat difficult to understand, I will use the gardening technique of grafting to illustrate not only adoption loss but a variety of adoption dynamics.
A Lesson from Nature
A grafted tree. Magnificent to behold. One of a kind. Contrary to nature. Luxurious leaves and intricate roots. Loaded with horticultural challenges for a gardener, but ultimately yielding a tree with unparalleled beauty.
The adopted child. Magnificent to behold. One of a kind. Biological features often contrary to yours. Intricate roots that need to be healed. Loaded with behavioral challenges for parents, but ultimately yielding a life of unparalleled beauty.
How do you react to the above? Some might be saying, “Yes! A thousand times, yes! This describes our child. She is one of a kind and we are so glad she is ours.” Others may be saying, “You’d better believe our adopted child presents us with challenges! He can peel wallpaper off a wall at the speed of a shining bullet, make holes in the drywall of his room, be verbally and physically rebellious, tear up anything in his room, and then collapse in a pool of tears.”
Wherever you are in the spectrum of possible reactions, believe me, you are not alone! As the editor of a national adoption newsletter, I receive many letters from adoptive parents who are searching for answers. How can I most effectively parent my adopted child? What are some of the obstacles I may encounter? Why is my child acting out? Am I doing something wrong? I also receive many letters from adults who were adopted as children, searching for help with in dealing with their long-buried past.
Also, on a personal level, I can understand your questions and concerns. When I was adopted fifty-three years ago at ten days of age, my parents’ desire for me was just the same as every other adoptive parent today: they longed to see me thrive and live up to my fullest potential. They also longed for that parent-child intimacy which lays the foundation for all other healthy relationships in life. If only we had known years ago what I have learned in the past several years about adoption and loss.
Back in the 1940s when I was adopted, adoptive parents were counseled by well-meaning professionals not to talk about adoption or the circumstances surrounding their child’s birth or his birth family. After all, “babies don’t remember,” they said. “Don’t talk about the differences in personality or appearance; capitalize on the likenesses!” Birth mothers were given the same message: “Go on with your life. Put this behind you and all will be well.”
Frankly, it is this kind of counsel, sometimes given even today, that makes my blood curdle, for it is the seedbed of denial and has proven wrong for many thousands of adoptees and their families who were never given permission to face and grieve their hidden losses. Child welfare supervisor and open adoption practitioner, James Gritter explains in his hope-filled book, The Spirit of Open Adoption, “We must be careful not to sanitize, sentimentalize, or even glamorize the pain of adoption; it really is miserable stuff, and it is intensely personal. It is interior. The pain of adoption is not something that happens to a person; it is the person. Because the pain is so primal, it is virtually impossible to describe.”
Not every adopted person experiences his loss in the same way or at the same level, of course, just as not every abused child responds the same way to his wounds. One adopted adult in his early thirties told me, “After my wife and I had our first child, my adoptive parents gave me the little bit of information they had about my birth family and told me they would support me if I wanted to explore my history or search for birth relatives. I’m not sure why they even think I’d be interested; I’m not. I’ve always felt okay about being adopted, and my parents are my parents. I don’t feel any big need to know any more than I do about my past, and I’m not aware of any adoption issues I need to deal with.”
While this man’s perspective on his adoption experience is not uncommon, the majority of adoptees do run into ambivalent or painful feelings about adoption at some point in their lives. Psychologists call the thoughts and feelings many adoptees experience “cognitive dissonance”; adoption experts call it “genealogical bewilderment.” The true experts–adoptees themselves–put it in much more earthy terms:
- “It’s a vague feeling inside that something is wrong.”
- “It feels like a part of me is missing.”
- “It’s an intangible battle between heart and soul.”
- “I have spent my whole life roaming and never felt stable.”
- “I search for answers I am never sure I can find.”
- “I look at life through a lens of rejection, expecting it at every turn.”
Nine-year-old Jamie illustrated adoptee loss in a conversation with his adoptive mom after an acting-out episode. It was during a time period when he was asking about finding his birth mother someday. When his adoptive mom asked him what was the matter, he said, “I don’t know. All I know is that something inside doesn’t feel right.”
What Happens When Loss Is Not Grieved?
When adoption loss is not validated, verbalized, and grieved, every member of the family suffers. Sometimes the communication between parent and child becomes very superficial: “You seem very quiet today (child’s birthday). What are you thinking about?” “Oh, nothing,” the child replies, when all along, he is wondering if his birthmother is thinking about him. Or the child may act out in a variety of ways, as I did. One adoptive mother, whose daughter has been acting out for three years, recently lamented, “I love her so much and have hope that she will recover, but it has taken a toll on my health.” Some parents lose heart and conclude they were not cut out for parenting after all. Then the adopted child concludes that her greatest fear has become a reality: “I am too much to handle and therefore deserve to be rejected.”
The same dynamics happen in nature. When a graft fails, the point of union is weakened. The failure may show up immediately, or not be evident for years. Listen to the words of adoptive mother, Connie McGinty, as she tells her family’s experience:
I have a fifteen-year-old adopted daughter who was placed in our home at the age of ten weeks. She was a wonderful baby and couldn’t have been more loved or accepted by her adopted family or adopted extended family.
When she started seventh grade at age thirteen, however, she became depressed and started to abuse over the counter drugs to try to lose weight. She attempted suicide and was placed in the adolescent ward of our local hospital for two weeks. She was treated for depression, suicidal tendencies, anorexia nervosa, low self-esteem, risk-taking, and numerous other problems. All this has happened to a child who was a straight-A student all through grade school, involved in sports, music, dance, and had lots of nice friends.
We have two biological daughters and this crisis has taken a severe toll on our family and our marriage. We feel we cannot cope much longer with her living in our home, but to send her “away” would mean another rejection like she received from her biological parents as an infant. If you know of a support group, therapist, or program specifically geared to adoption issues like ours, PLEASE contact us as soon as possible. Thank you for your help with this devastating situation.”
Another reason adoption loss is not grieved is that the adopted child may outwardly appear “fine.” However, talk to many adoptees, and they will confirm the fact that they have built high walls around themselves to keep others at bay—walls of perfectionism, achievement, and self-sufficiency. What they want and need most, they often resist.
Why Adoptees Don’t Talk
If ungrieved adoption loss hurts so bad, then why don’t adopted children talk about it? In a word, TERROR! The majority are terrified of rejection. Their reasoning goes, “If I let anyone see how needy or hurting I am inside, they might reject me too, and then where would I be? I would have no one.”
“But I would never do that!” I bet you are saying. “My child is so precious to me. The last thing I would ever do is reject him!” If you are to develop sensitivity to the unspoken needs of your adopted child, however, you must understand that something happened long before you ever saw your beloved child which changed forever his view of the world. Even if his adoption plan was created and carried out in the most loving way possible, and even though you may have been there at the birth, the relinquishment by the birth mother and separation from her almost always translates as rejection and loss to your child. As a result, he probably reasons, “Maybe they will reject me, too.”
One mid-life adult adoptee, who had healthy relationships with both birth and adoptive families and who had been through individual therapy to work on adoption issues reflected, “I realized that there was a little baby at the core of me who had lost her mommy. I felt so sad. I wept uncontrollably.”
Many adoptees, no matter how positive their adoptive home, live with this unspoken fear of rejection. But I have always encouraged my child to talk about her birth and adoption, you may be thinking. I listened to one adoptive mother say these very words in an adoption support group a few months ago. But when she casually mentioned her child’s birth mother to her child, the seven-year old timidly asked, “Is it okay to talk about that?” Realize that this adoptive mom was the creme-de-la-creme as far as adoptive moms go: she was devoted to her daughter and was read-up on the newest adoption books, yet her daughter’s question amazed her.
This is a good illustration of how adoptees not only need to be given permission to talk about their uncomfortable feelings, they need to be openly invited and encouraged to do so. This is one of the twenty things we will deal with in more detail later in this book.
Another reason adoptees don’t talk is that the pain that accompanies loss is illusive, subtle, and hard to wrap words around. Renowned child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg once said in Every Child’s Birthright:
Can a baby under one year “remember” this traumatic separation from his original parents? No, he will probably not remember these events as a series of pictures which can be recalled. What is remembered, or preserved, is anxiety, a primitive kind of terror, which returns in waves in later life. Loss and danger of loss of love become recurrent themes or life patterns. What is preserved may be a profound moodiness or depression in later life, the somatic memory of the first tragic loss, which returns from the unremembered past even, ironically, at moments of pleasure and success. What is preserved is the violation of trust, of the ordered world of infancy in which love, protection, and continuity of experience are invested in people. The arbitrary fate that broke the first human bonds may damage or shatter that trust, so that when love is given again it may not be freely returned. And finally, what is preserved is likely to be a wound to the embryonic personality in the first year which may have profound effects upon later development.
False guilt is another wall many adoptees erect. False guilt is the emotion we experience when something painful happens over which we had no control, but for which we feel responsible. Children of divorce feel it, a widow visiting her husband’s grave feels it, and adoptees of every age feel it. Many adoptees feel false guilt over the painful loss of the birth family over which they had no control. They often feel guilty just for being alive, and they cringe when they hear the words “illegitimate” or “bastard.”
I’ve heard adult adoptees say, “I always feel like I have to pay back something nice that someone has done for me. I can never just receive.” One man said, “I was like the perfect Holiday Inn guest in my adoptive home. I even made my bed and folded the towels.”
There Is Hope
It is clear that healthy grafting doesn’t always come easily in adoptive families! Neither is it spontaneous or natural. Rather, it is a labor of sacrificial love and commitment, occurring whenever a parent (or therapist) observes behavior symptomatic of unresolved adoption loss, comprehends the unspoken needs and feelings masked by the symptoms, and compassionately engages the child in conversation which fosters identification and verbalization of the feelings and needs. Here healing begins. Here the delicate tissues from the parents and the severed branch mingle together to form a lasting, intimate bond that will serve as a model for future healthy relationships.
In grafting, sometimes a problem of incompatibility can be solved through grafting a third element between the stock and scion–one that is known to be acceptable to both. In adoption, attachment problems are often resolved through the intervention of a bonding and attachment specialist—a professional with in-depth knowledge, training, and experience.
Unresolved adoption loss is not an unconquerable mountain! Adoptees, no matter what their age, can learn how to connect emotionally with others and form healthy relationships. When you understand the challenges that may lie ahead and how to meet those obstacles successfully with your adopted child, you have every reason to hope for a beautiful, thriving child and family.
(This is chapter 1 from Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. Purchase here: http://SherrieEldridge.com/shop/)