The Unique Pain of Being Adopted
No birthmother is happy at the thought that she’s hurt her child by placing him or her for adoption. I can only speak for myself, but I imagine many must feel, as I did, that we were doing the best thing we could for our babies – or older children, as is sometimes the case. I definitely could have parented my son – I was old enough, with a steady job, and health insurance. In other words, I had the means. But I’m not sure, to this day, that doing so would have been the best thing for him. I’m not unmaternal, per se, but I never felt the overwhelming drive so many moms – and would-be moms – seem to have. I think kids are cute enough, but I’ve never gone out of my way to meet a baby or felt something in my life was missing because I did not live the parenting experience.
That’s a challenging admission to make, given that my son could certainly take it as abandonment. And strangely enough, it’s only through the self-inspection, recollections, and research I’ve begun doing for this blog that I realize how deep his pain might have been. Just because I adjusted fairly well to the separation doesn’t mean he did. It’s long been my belief – and experience – that the older person in the relationship (e.g., the parent, teacher, older sibling) sets the tone for the relationship. So in that regard, the tone I set in my relationship with Eric was that I wasn’t going to be his mother. Partly, if I’m honest, because I didn’t want to be anybody’s mother (it wasn’t about him, personally) – but mostly because I didn’t think I could do a very good job at it. My role models had been iffy, my biological clock non-existent. And the one thing I knew was that he deserved a great mom – great parents. So I went through a lot of effort to ensure he got them.
It took me a very long time to find a life partner in my husband, John. I was 42 when we met, and 43 when we married, a first marriage for both of us. He was the first man I dated seriously after Tony, my son’s birthfather. We met through the Craigslist personals. I’d been posting there on and off for five years when we met, yet mine was the first ad John ever responded to. The thing is, as I look back on it now, all of those first dates were a lot like the profiles I saw for prospective parents. I could have said yes to a second date with any of them – just as I could have agreed to a meeting with any of the prospective parents from the first 11 profiles. But I would have been settling for less than what I really wanted, and I wasn’t willing to do that.
I’m not comparing choosing adoptive parents for my son with choosing a mate; the former was far more important, because it affected a little person who was wholly dependent on me to make good decisions for him. If I dated and subsequently married badly, society would easily allow me to divorce and get a “re-do.” If I chose the wrong parents for my son, there would be no take-backs. So maybe holding out until I met the right people to become Eric’s family was practice for holding out to meet John. One thing is sure: I got it right on both counts.
I will say that as John and I were briefly considering the idea of parenting, it did niggle at the back of my mind to wonder how Eric would feel if I’d had another child I kept after having placed him with Kathy and Bruce. I’m not quite sure how much that thought affected my decision not to have a child with John – perhaps more than I realized.
And even though it seems my son has had a great life, I know he has struggled with the adoption, as virtually every adopted kid has. Fortunately for him, the adoption has been at least semi-open since the start, so he’s known who his family is and has been able to see photos, meet his aunts and maternal grandmother, and have his questions answered as they arose. He has a full medical history for my side of the family, and a few details about his birthfather’s. In short, he has a lot more access and information than many adoptees do, even in today’s era of “openness.”
I was banging around, looking for a photo idea for closed adoption when I came across the website, IAmAdopted.net. Grit your teeth and gird your loins if plan to do any reading there – because a lot of its information may hit you hard in the face, especially if you are an adoptive parent. The goal of the site, it seems, is to foster better, more open relationships between adoptive parents and the children they call theirs. There is helpful, eye-opening information for birthparents, too. For instance, one of the posts I read is titled “If Adoption Was About the Child.” It begins with these lines:
“Every day … I read about the experiences and narratives of adoptees, and the overall conclusion I have made is that adoption is about birth parents and adoptive parents. When will we be real about it and admit that?”
Her point is that it’s only in the rarest circumstance when adoption is solely done with the child’s well-being most central. Usually adoptive parents are adopting because they want a [bigger] family – not out of a desire to help a needy infant or toddler. And likewise, adoption is often a solution for the birthmother. I felt defensive reading those comments – and yet I must admit this blogger has a point.
She then goes on to delineate the ways adoption would work if it were truly centered around the child. I am paraphrasing, unless a direct quote is indicated. But please go read the original post!
- All adoptions would be open. Check.
- Adoptees would be allowed consistent contact with their birthfamilies – providing safety wasn’t an issue – without the adoptive parents fearing their child would like their birthparents better. It didn’t start like that, but we got there in a way that unfolded at Eric’s pace, not mine or his parents’.
- Adoptees would have access to their original birth certificates. I wanted this – but even the birth certificate I have does not name Tony as the birthfather. I must have been angrier with him than I remember. And the one Eric’s family has was redacted and changed to indicate their last name, not ours.
- Birthmothers would not deny contact with the children they placed for adoption. While I cannot imagine doing this, from what I’ve been reading, the guilt and shame some birthmoms experience is overwhelming and they feel they don’t deserve access to their children. What they fail to realize is that in doing so, they’re creating a second rejection that might be even more painful than the original one. The writer calls the behavior selfish, and I’d have a hard time arguing with her.
- Adoptive parents would allow their children to search without getting overly emotional and making it about themselves instead of about their children’s need to claim their identity. This was not relevant in our adoption, but given how open Kathy was from the beginning, I doubt it ever would have been an issue.
- The experiences and narratives of adoptees would be validated – not questioned. Adoptees wouldn’t be labeled as angry or bitter. Adoptive parents and birthparents need to admit that everything won’t always be rosy for their kid, no matter how much he or she is loved. The separation of adoption is a form of trauma, requiring attention and recuperation. Rather than scolding them for experiencing their emotions, it would be far more helpful for the parents to help them express their emotions – even the uncomfortable ones. Check, on Kathy’s end. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t always realized the depth of this pain.
- There would be no lies told or secrets hidden from the adopted child. Check.
- Adoptees wouldn’t be expected to always feel grateful for being adopted. Wow – this one caught me off guard. I don’t think I overtly did this – but perhaps I expected Eric to be OK with things just because he had all the information. Well, I’m his first mom and I chose to let another person come in and take what would have been my role. How could any of us expect him never to feel even a little resentment for that?
- There wouldn’t be an exorbitant amount of money exchanged for facilitating the adoption. Her direct quote is: “(When will birth mothers and prospective adoptive parents learn that they are being duped by the multi-billion dollar adoption industry?) You can change that by demanding lower to no-cost adoption. Adoptive parents hold the power in adoption land.” Yep – I agree with this one, even though I wasn’t on the paying side of the equation. Actually, because I had health insurance, I covered most of the costs for doctor visits and my hospital delivery, which makes fees an even stranger consideration in our case. I did, however, receive a stipend of a few hundred dollars for maternity clothes.
- We would admit that race matters. This, again, was nonmaterial to our adoption, but I love this thought. Especially this part: “If you are going to adopt transracially, be prepared and don’t make excuses for not being able to move or how far you must travel to the nearest city that is more diverse after choosing to spend thousands of dollars on your adoption. Put it in the budget.”
- Adoptive parents would help adoptees locate their birthfamilies and demand legislation to open all adoptions and provide adopted persons with their original birth certificates. Yep – 100 percent agreement on that one, too.
So if I were keeping score, I’d say we did pretty well with the items on this list. But I’m not really the one to ask – I wonder how Eric would feel we did. A few are beyond our personal reach, but even though we’re not directly affected, we can still get involved in changing things. If we want whole, healthy adopted persons to come out of the strange relationships created by adoption, openness in every area needs to be the standard.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.