The Unique Pain of Being Adopted

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.

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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.

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Adoption played a starring role in my life the whole time I lived in the NYC area. It seems, in retrospect, that I’d meet someone new, and within a few minutes they’d know about my son. So it makes sense that I told one of the temps working with me in the admin department of the Lehman Brothers Investment Banking division. Her name was Juliette and she was, at the time, making a film about witches. Like many temps, she was a working actor/producer who needed a day job to pay the bills.

If you could picture a woman who’d make a documentary about Wiccans, you might imagine a goth chick. Juliette was most definitely a goth gal. She wore only black, had long straight hair worn loose down her back, and seemed paler than the average woman. We got to talking about my son’s adoption, and Juliette mentioned that she, too, was adopted. The first thing I (still) wonder, on meeting an adopted person, is whether they’ve had a reunion with their birthfamily. As I’ve matured, I’ve become better at discerning the appropriate time to ask that question – sometimes it’s never appropriate. When I met Juliette, I believe I pretty much blurted it out immediately.

And, not surprisingly, I think I put her on the spot. “Um, well, I’ve never really searched for my birthmother,” she explained. She went on to describe an adoptive mom who was the epitome of June Cleaver and told me she’d never felt quite at home in her family.

“You know,” I blathered on, “chances are that you’re a lot like your birthmom. She’s probably arty and interesting and liberal. You might look like her too!”

Juliette’s face fell. She enjoyed being a misfit in her family, in terms of foiling her adoptive mom’s preference for pearls and dinner parties and Good Housekeeping décor. She had chosen to rewrite history in her head, and had more or less convinced herself that she’d descended, fully formed, into this family. And all of the things that made her different – and in her mind, special – were uniquely hers. Although she was 35 years old, it had never occurred to her that she had progenitors and, due to simple biology, was likely somewhat similar to them. Rather than comforting her, the thought that she might be similar to her birthmother seemed to horrify her.

As a new birthmother, I was shocked by her reaction to the idea.

I hated to think that my son might, out of hand, reject me as his birthmother. This was a lot less likely to happen, however, simply due to the timeline. Juliette arrived in her family back in the days of fully closed adoptions, when birth and adoptive families traveled distinct paths which the agencies took great care to ensure never, ever crossed. With our adoption beginning as semi-open, Kathy, Bruce, Tony (to the degree he was involved), and I were much further down the road toward extensive knowledge about each other – which means the mystery never really existed for our son. He knew who his birthparents were, where we were raised, the kinds and levels of education we’d achieved, what our parents had done for work, our religious beliefs, our health histories, and pretty much anything else he or his parents thought to ask – then and since.

Juliette had none of that. Everything was unknown, so instead of assuming she was like anyone else, she preferred to imagine that she had been a blank slate, and that she, personally, had chosen every trait that made her unique. Again, biology tells us otherwise. The nature/nurture debates still rage on, but the fact is that our physical traits, at the very least, are passed down. And likely personality traits, as well as social preferences and much more.

I lost touch with Juliette not long after she stopped temping with us. I did see and recognize her on the news in the days following 9/11, among the ash-covered faces running for their lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers. And I peeked at her Facebook page before writing this post. She’s still involved in acting, but in an entirely other milieu than filmmaking. According to an article in EOS magazine, the witch documentary did get made, though I could find no reference to it on IMDB. The article mentions Juliette’s teenage escape from conservative Orange County, Calif., but it says nothing further about her upbringing. I can’t help but wonder if she ever looked up her birthmom – or if her birthmom might have searched for her and been thrilled to discover what a wildly creative and successful woman her daughter has become.

Adoption is weird – there’s no right or wrong in terms of how the relationships ultimately turn out. We all just do the best we can. I never meant to burst Juliette’s bubble about her imagined story of origin. But at least a tiny part of me would be gratified to know that I planted the idea of a search that might not have taken hold otherwise.

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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.

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Back in college, long before I got pregnant and placed my son for adoption, I met a couple through the St. Thomas More Newman Center (the Catholic church on the University of Arizona campus). They’d had a child who passed away in infancy, and I recall them referring to him as their little angel who was looking out for them. I remember thinking that was weird, but touching.

At the time I met them, they had recently adopted a little boy at the age of about 2. He was darling – the mom not so much. Remember, this was back years before I became a birthmother myself. And yet I froze upon hearing this mother say that she and her husband were praying (literally praying to God) that their son would have no memory at all of his first family, his birthfamily. Now, I don’t know the rest of their story. It’s entirely possible that they had adopted through the foster system and this little boy had come from a troubled home. Perhaps he’d even experienced abuse. But just the thought that his new parents should hope to make of him a blank slate with no recollection of – or ties to – his birthfamily was appalling to me. He had a first family. He had a mother who’d carried him and given birth to him. He had a place of origin that was different from his adoptive parents. Wishing that were not the case would never make it so.

As I’ve mentioned, I worked very hard to find the best parents for my son – but I am nevertheless grateful for their openness and transparency with him about the adoption. They never shied away from the topic, and Kathy always encouraged Eric to express his feelings, ask as many questions as he had, and even put him back in touch with their social worker when, as a teen, he seemed to be struggling. Unfortunately, many adoptive parents are not so willing to be that vulnerable, preferring instead to try to pretend the adoption away.

I have posted previously about talking to adoptive and prospective adoptive parents on this very topic:

One thing I was able to do when I would speak to groups of prospective parents was cut through the bullshit. I remember explaining, on more than one occasion, what seemed so obvious to me, but always startled the hell out of these would-be parents: “This baby is never going to be your biological child. He or she will bear no blood relationship to you. He or she was conceived and carried by another couple – and they will always have a tie to your child that you don’t. That doesn’t make you bad or deformed as a parent – it just means that your relationship to your kid is different. And the sooner you come to terms with that – the sooner you stop resenting the birthparents for doing something you couldn’t – the better off everyone will be.”

I recently came across this post, written by an adult adoptee, that contains a list of 10 things adoptees want you to know. Guess what they want people to understand:

  • They want to know where they came from.
  • They want their adoptive parents to be their advocates.
  • They want their parents’ help to make sense of their stories.
  • Their desire to search for their birthparents is important to their identity – it’s not a rejection of the adoptive parents.
  • Even those in open adoptions struggle with feelings of self-worth, shame, control, and identity – particularly when their adoptive families (and pretty much everyone else they know) are so hesitant to talk about the adoption. Talk about the elephant in the room.

What was not on that list was a desire to sweep the adoption under the rug, or the desire to forget their first families and erase all recollection – or knowledge – about their places and people of origin.

I realize that as a birthmother, my perspective is quite different than that of most adoptive parents. If one were so inclined, the two roles could even be seen as adversarial. And although the birthparent chooses not to parent – one could view it as a rejection – the adopted person and the birthparent actually have more in common, in terms of emotions and the aftermath of the adoption, than you might think. Particularly in instances where secrecy/lack of transparency is [still] a factor in the adoption.

As with everything, I think that each adoption is different because the people involved in each adoption are different. However, there are emotional norms and psycho-sociological trends. That data is still coming in, but I’m pretty sure that almost anyone with any stake in adoption would agree that openness is a much better approach to this very peculiar institution.

Like many of the people I met earlier in my life, I have no idea what became of that couple or their child. Nevertheless, I hope for all of them that they came to terms with the way their family was made – and that their child was eventually allowed to be his own person, even if that meant searching for, finding, and meeting the people who gave him life and also made his adoptive parents so uncomfortable.

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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.

When You Hope You’re Nearly as Smart as Your Kid

When You Hope You’re Nearly as Smart as Your Kid

When I was pregnant with Eric, I expressed concern to my social worker that the adoptive family might not be able to keep up with him, as he was bound to be a very smart kid. “You don’t know that for sure,” she said every time I raised the issue. Yes, I knew that – more or less for sure. Yogi Berra’s quote comes to mind: It ain’t bragging if you can back it up. I had my reasons for believing this: I was always at the top of my class and in various gifted programs, and Tony was the smartest person I’d ever met. Actually, that record still stands – he is still the smartest person I have ever met. Intellectually, anyway. He didn’t ace the SATs but was in the top ½ percentile. Point is, our kid was very probably going to be of above average intelligence. I’ve long thought the reason Mary tried to caution me was in case something went wrong and he was born with a disability of some sort. She needn’t have worried.

I don’t remember Eric’s Apgar score – Kathy probably knows it. But I watched that baby – maybe 15 minutes after he was born – roll himself over on the examining table. He was close to 2 when he figured out how to unlock the baby gate. And he was 2 when he told Kathy his first joke. She asked him where he’d put his socks. His response: “In the refrigerator. Ha, ha, ha!” In my January 9 post, I mentioned that he was also loading his own software on the computer at 2..

I’ve always been grateful that he attended a Montessori preschool. When he moved to a traditional grade school, the teachers had a hard time keeping him occupied. Kathy told me he would finish his assignments before everyone else. So when a child on the other side of the classroom would drop a pencil, Eric would run over to help them pick it up – he was done with his work; what else was he going to do?

At his high school graduation, his sister told us how frustrating it was that he was so good at math when she struggled with it. She’s 10 years older than Eric, but said that when she was in high school, Eric would offer to help her with her math homework. She might have been joking – but the point is taken, nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly how long it took him to solve the Rubik’s Cube – but it was measurable in minutes, just like his birthfather. I saw a logic puzzle at a seminar one time, and to date, three people I’ve shown it to have figured out the answer: Tony and Eric were among the three. And the third person came up with an alternate answer that, while technically correct, is not the answer that is the “easiest” to spot. Here’s the puzzle:

card challenge

Moving only one card, make 2 rows of 4.
Answer at the VERY end of this post.

So when Eric proposed playing a board game while my husband John and I were visiting him and his family last month, I was hesitantly enthusiastic about it. Which board game? How much logic would be involved? And how much did prior experience factor into things?

The first night we played Scattergories, a word game where each player has to name 12 objects (provided on pre-printed lists) that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet. Objects we had to name included: World Capitals, Female Celebrities, Models of Cars, Things in the Ocean, Things with Tails. If the letter for a particular turn were “A”, we might have come up with Addis Ababa (worth 2 points!), Adele, Alfa Romeo, algae, and African spider monkey as our answers. You get the idea.

This was a word game – I am a writer. Should have been a piece of cake, right? Not really – because the timer was ticking, naming some of these objects was challenging, and I was trying to outsmart a very smart kid. I’ll admit, it was an interesting source of pride when Eric and I would come up with the same answer for the same object (neither player gets credit for their answer in that case) on numerous occasions. We played three games: I won one; Eric’s girlfriend won one; and Eric won one. So we played a rubber game for the match, which I took by a hair.

sequence game

The next night, we played a logic game called Sequence. Chess players may take offense, but it reminded me of chess, in that you have to watch the whole board and plan a number of steps ahead. As a result, you also have to consider what your opponents’ probable next move(s) will be. I don’t remember who won those games, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Lastly, we played a game John and I had received for Christmas, called Exploding Kittens. It’s another strategy card game – ridiculous, really, as if the title weren’t enough of an indicator. I won the first game and Eric won the second. He was really excited after the second game because he felt he’d figured out the strategy, and hence, how to win. We left that game with him, assuming he’d get a lot more use out of it than we would.

One of the things that really impressed me was that this 22-year-old college senior and his friends sincerely enjoy hanging out and playing board games. Make no mistake – Eric and Meaghan spent a lot of time on their phones, too. But Meaghan also pointed out that Eric has seen surprisingly few movies. I’m guessing he was occupied with school? So you know what you do while you’re playing board games with your friends? Drink beer, of course. And you also have conversations, typically without the TV or other distractions pulling at you.

puzzle of the world

Another thing Eric and I share is a love of puzzles. He’s far surpassed me in his mastery of the jigsaw puzzle, though, having completed a 9,000-piece puzzle of the world over a recent visit home from college. He’s found the next one he wants to tackle; the challenge is finding space for it in his small Boston apartment.

Dots

Lately I’ve been playing a logic game of my own on my iPad. It contains multi-colored pairs of dots on a black background. The goal is to connect each dot to its partner, filling in the entire field. Whenever I complete one of these levels on the first attempt, I congratulate myself and think, Yeah – I can still keep up with the kid.

the answer