I recently shared some of my story in the Old Town Crier’s May 2018 issue. You can read it here.
I feel I came out of the womb believing that the tiniest infraction could cause me to be abandoned, left to fend for myself.
With all due respect to the vulnerability movement that’s all the rage these days, being vulnerable was my kryptonite. My sense was that if I let my guard down for one tiny second and shared how I really felt or told you what I really thought about something, you’d be on the next bus to Peoria, leaving me out in the cold holding the remains of our charred relationship.
To this day it’s hard for me to stand up and take a stand – not because I don’t feel deeply and strongly, but because I have the sense that my opinions and beliefs can isolate me. I built a persona that said I didn’t care what other people thought. I seemed like a tough cookie who could take care of herself. However, I long for connection. I’ve never cared what a stranger thinks of me and my beliefs, but I care deeply what friends and family think. Therefore, I’ve learned to squash my voice to keep the peace. By the way, no one (other than my birth mother) has ever abandoned me. To give my birth mother credit, I don’t think she had much of a choice and I don’t think she wanted to leave me. Besides, no one had ever done a study of the effect of being adopted on a child’s psyche, I’m sure she believed in her heart she was doing the right thing by me.
This ability to talk circles around people while never revealing what I really think and feel, obviously makes navigating relationships a bit of a challenge. I think of the ways I’ve pushed and tested the people closest to me, willing them to read my mind and know what I most desired, all the while refusing to open the Pandora’s box filled with my truth.
It’s not easy loving someone like that. It’s frustrating and I imagine you feel like you’re constantly being set up to fail the relationship test in some way. I get it.
Admittedly, therapy, coaching, and a personal spiritual practice have helped me learn the art of vulnerability. I don’t think I’ll ever be great at it though. It feels, well, too vulnerable for me.
My fear of speaking up, my need to placate and peace-make, and my desire to quash any quarrels before they begin are part of this hard-wiring. Whenever my husband and I disagree I feel my entire body clench up and I immediately want to shut down. We don’t quarrel much and when we do it’s usually something stupid (like why won’t he just take the directions I give him for a new route home??!!!) Still, those moments of disagreement set off an alarm in me and I immediately want to flee. I’ve spent years reminding myself to never be in a position to be left again – so instead of writing it off as a simple difference of opinion, I have an inner dialogue that tells me I need to pack my bags and find a way to fend for myself.
I know this is drastic and I’ve made enough progress that I no longer state, “Well, maybe I should just leave,” after any heated discussion.
My parents comment on the fact that I’ve always been sensitive to anyone having a disagreement. As a small child, I’d try to get in the middle when friends or family were discussing politics. I’d do everything in my power to change the subject, resorting to singing, soliloquies, and comic routines if I couldn’t shut down the conversation.
Does every adoptee have this tendency? Do others who lost one or both of their parents to death or divorce at a young age do this? I have no idea, but I’d like to know if I was born this way, or it’s something I learned as an adopted newborn.
“Oh, well then, you MUST be Italian or Jewish!” a new acquaintance chortled as we talked about my love affair with food. For the first time in my life, I could honestly answer, “I AM Italian!” and laugh along with her.
I’ve never had that feeling of freedom before. There was always an uneasiness when those types of casual comments would be brought up in conversations. I had no idea. Since I knew I was Polish and Irish according to the information provided at the time of my birth I couldn’t rule out Jewish but I had no idea about Italian.
I do have a love affair with food. Until I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis I looked at the culinary world as my playground. I wanted to try just about everything and I craved pasta and spices that were literally and figuratively foreign in our family. My parents are relatively open to trying new foods and taught us to be the same, but the foods I would come home raving about just didn’t hit the same high notes with my parents as they did with me.
I’ve learned that my sense of taste is another product of DNA. Who knew?
For instance, I abhor cucumbers, melons of any sort, bananas and coconut. I don’t like to be in the room when someone is eating melon or cucumbers — yes, even watermelon. The smell is awful to me. My parents love melon. They wax poetic about its ripeness and flavor whenever it’s in season. They implore me to “just take a bite.” The answer is always no.
In a recent conversation with one of my half-sisters, she said that her/our mother didn’t like melon either. I think she also said she didn’t like cucumbers but I was so over the moon about this melon pronouncement I didn’t hear the rest of what she said!
That’s the thing about feeling like an odd duck in a family of swans, you know you’re not quite the same but you can’t figure out where you got your cockamamie ideas and tastes. When you hear that your biological mother had the same trait, it’s enough to soothe your heart for weeks.
Such a simple thing as knowing that I’m not alone in my distaste for melon can make me feel whole.
As time goes on I can’t wait to learn what else I’ve inherited.
Dorothy: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Glinda: You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
Scarecrow: Then why didn’t you tell her before?
Glinda: She wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Scarecrow: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I—I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em — and it’s that — if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?
Glinda: That’s all it is!
~ adapted from Frank L. Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Fascinating! My entire story is summed up right here. I’ve had the answer all along!
I’ve spent most of my life searching for my biological family. I wanted to find people that looked like me and I wanted access to my medical records. I needed to feel connected to people who were, literally, my flesh and blood. For me, it was a compulsion, even when I wasn’t actively searching, I’d still have flashes of
wanting needing to be in connection with genetic relatives.
The process of searching took me much deeper. I learned things about myself that I might otherwise never know. I learned to face things that didn’t make me proud of myself and I learned how to face them and grow and learn from them.
For instance, I have always had a low tolerance for people I deemed “whiners.” This, I’m sorry to say, included many people I first encountered in Adoptee and Adoption groups on the internet. I’d last a few days in a group where members were opening their hearts and baring their souls to seek solace from their adoption pain and I’d say to myself, “What a bunch of whiners. Pull yourselves up and move on with your lives!” Then I’d leave the group and tell my friends how annoying these groups were.
As I sat down to write my book I remembered those groups and how they made me feel and I wondered if maybe I had some of those feelings buried deep within. I wasn’t looking for pity and I wasn’t looking to be “fixed,” but maybe, just maybe there was a part of me that hadn’t healed because I hadn’t explored the feelings.
I rejoined groups and instead of judging, I decided to listen. Instead of trying to “fix” the people in the groups by telling them to “buck up and move on” I sat with the emotion that their words brought up for me. As time went on I recognized the voices as familiar but hidden.
While I’d done a great job of shoving my feelings into far recesses so I wouldn’t have to deal with them, I hadn’t actually healed anything. This wasn’t “self-fulfilling prophecy” or me “sinking” to a low level. This was me moving out of my intellectual space and into an emotional place. I decided to invite my inner 5-year-old to come out to play and I’d run the thoughts and stories of other adoptees through her world-view.
It wasn’t long until I started to feel better. I wasn’t just acting as if I were better and ignoring the weight I’d been carrying around literally and figuratively, I was beginning to feel better and lighter. Instead of feeling annoyed or burdened by the stories of my fellow adoptees, I began to feel a kinship. No, I’m not interested in wallowing and blaming, but I am interested in owning the stories that are mine. In every group, you find people who like drama for the sake of drama and I’ve learned to steer clear of those people wherever they are.
One thing I’ve recognized is that the adoptees who are genuinely healing and helping others are those who listen to the uncomfortable stories and face the ones they have in their baggage too. It wasn’t enough for me to carry that bag around with me, it was necessary to look inside and find out who and what was in there. That’s how I found out that I already had the keys to going home to myself. Just like Dorothy, I had my heart’s desire with me all along.
“Do you have kids?”
It’s a natural question to ask a woman of my age. It used to bug me. I’d think, “You wouldn’t ask me if I have sex would you?!” Then I realized that people with kids generally want you to ask that question because they want to talk about their kids! What I saw as invasive was really just a way for new people to try to bond with me.
I don’t have kids of my own. I’m proud to have a complicated and sometimes strained relationship with three young adults who are my husband’s offspring. However, having my own kids wasn’t really on my radar.
I’m sure as a little girl I was conditioned to see myself married and mothering, but I don’t remember loving the idea of playing with baby dolls or playing house. On the other hand, I loved playing with Barbie Dolls and setting her up on dates with Ken and GI Joe. Dressing her up for work and a night on the town was all kinds of fun!
When the long-awaited season premiere of This Is US began with Randall trying to convince his wife that they should adopt a child I was intrigued. He was motivated by a number of things, primarily his own adoption. The following day there was much discussion between other adult adoptees on whether or not we had desired to adopt because of our own situation. More than half of the adult adoptees indicated that they had not ever wanted to adopt. Those that did want to adopt children (or had) were strongly in the camp of those who had a positive adoptee experience themselves.
Of course, this got me thinking. Why didn’t I want to adopt? Why had I not had kids of my own?
Many adoptees say, “I desperately wanted someone who was a part of me, biologically” and I can relate to that. However, during my childbearing years, I had no idea what exactly it would mean to have someone who was biologically related to me. Would I be passing on genes that were detrimental? Would I be unleashing into the world a child who would turn into an adult with severe anger and rage issues? Did I turn out relatively well-adjusted simply because I had been adopted? What if my genes included serial killers, pedophiles or addicts? I knew that as much as I would love a child, I wouldn’t be able to “fix” them if they were born with cells imprinted with these issues. More to the point, I wouldn’t know what to do if these types of things happened – because I hadn’t lived with it and had no experience of these illnesses and issues in my own family.
Not knowing my medical history was hard enough, I didn’t want to go through all those appointments with my child, explaining that I had no idea what his or her medical heritage brought to the table.
That’s one of the reasons I didn’t have children.
Another reason was the fact that neither of my first two husbands impressed me as particularly good “father” material. Remember I told you about my ability to pick poor partners! These were nice enough men, but they weren’t men that I could see co-parenting a little human being alongside. I had high standards for my imaginary children, and since I didn’t know what my DNA brought to the table I needed to know that they were bringing some serious great skills and genes to the potential of parenting. Their stories are their own, but there were reasons I wasn’t comfortable with them as fathers.
Parenting is hard-ass work. I watched my own parents do it and I know it wasn’t easy. They were in it for the long haul though and that seemed daunting to me. As my friends began having children instead of feeling like I was missing out, I starting feeling like I missed a bullet. That’s a definite sign that maybe you’re not cut out to have kids, I think.
I was also honestly worried that I might decide I didn’t want the child after I had him or her. All the stories, movies and TV shows in the world couldn’t convince me that as soon as I had a child I’d fall madly in love and be smitten. What if I turned out to be the mother who didn’t want her child? What would I do then? In my heart, I knew I didn’t want to take that chance. After all this musing I realized I was ambivalent at best and that was no reason to bring a human into the world.
Why did I have that lingering fear? Because the fact of the matter was – I was given away. Sure, the circumstances and the times were different, but I was a baby who wasn’t kept by her mother. I had no basis to believe that it was for any reason other than it seemed like too much work to keep me.
By the way, this isn’t a pity party here. I’m not mourning the loss of unborn children and blaming it on my adoptee status. I just want you to know why I don’t have kids.
Notebooks in every room. Scraps of paper in the car, in my purse and in pockets. I’m a girl who loves the world of analog notes. It’s as though a thought isn’t fully formed until I’ve written it down, pen to paper, and let it sit for a day or so to gel.
Writers write. It’s what we do. I’ve been writing since, hmmm, first grade? That’s more than 4 decades of practice and I’m still learning.
Notebooks and day planners and the odd scrap of paper have been filled for years with my thoughts and studies and observations about Nature vs. Nurture. I’ve always wanted to know what traits I got from my biological parents and which I received from the family I have known all my life.
My personality is very much like my Dad’s personality. He’s funny, charming and a good conversationalist. He is fair and tends to be even-keeled even if he isn’t terribly patient. We both have turned around in the parking lot of a restaurant when we see tour buses (too noisy! too crowded! and too long a wait for food – especially at a buffet!) We both complain to anyone who will listen about traffic and the lines at toll-booths. My Dad has been a salesman his entire life and I followed in his footsteps. I’ve sold different things but the consultative approach that I learned watching him has stood me in good stead.
We’re also very different. And I think that’s the case with all families. There are similarities and there are differences. The things I mention about our similarities are definitely traits that you learn from proximity to someone. I don’t know that you’re DNA pre-disposes you to hate waiting on line.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that our general dispositions are genetic, and if we, as adoptees, are lucky enough to get placed in a family with a similar disposition we get the golden ticket.
My parents are generally happy people. They like to find the silver lining. They’re realists and don’t gloss over challenges, but at the end of the day, they’re focused on the good and the ways to connect and to love deeply.
What I’m saying is this – you can choose to be a victim in all situations or you can choose to see how you fit into the crapstorm that seems to swirl around you non-stop. If you feel like you keep getting rained on, why not bring an umbrella?
I know, easy for me to say – I have the disposition of someone who sees the glass as half-full. Life has thrown its share of pain and heartache my way, and I’ve had periods of time of darkness, however, I still saw a sliver of light. I think that may be genetic and I think this is why my reunion seems to be going well.
My biological siblings are generally positive, funny and loving people. They are quick to embrace and slow to judge. They are open to new things and to letting someone else in – they are curious and genuine. In essence, they are like me!
In observing adoptees who have had painful, sad, uncomfortable or downright awful reunions, I notice that the general disposition of the biological family is generally negative, close-minded and fearful. Often the adoptee had a painful life and was seeking solace with them only to be rejected again. I’m not a sociologist, but there seems to be a trend related to the general disposition of the biological family and I wonder if that disposition has been genetically passed on to their children, adopted or not?
Every adoptee dreams about their biological family at some point in their life. Even those adoptees who have no desire to search for their families share that they have a vision of what their biological parents might have been like.
When I was in my angst-ridden teen years I fantasized daily that my biological family was like me! I felt certain that they asked questions about church and God and finding a way to impact the world in a positive way. I hoped that they were broad-minded with a good sense of humor. I dreamed that my biological mother would look me in my eyes and just know all the things I was feeling so I wouldn’t have to try to spell it out.
Like I said, it’s a fantasy of an angst-ridden teenager.
As I’ve gotten to know my new-to-me siblings I’ve learned that they are all those things and that the generation before them was much more close-mouthed and secretive. (Obviously, Cathy and I were two big secrets that our biological mother took to her grave!) Yet, MY generation is full of people who are all the things that I dreamed about and that is amazing to me. How wonderful that we all created that space in our lives – together and separately. We run the gamut on religion and we’re all committed to making the world better in our ways. We have big brains that explore new ways of thinking and we all love to learn and expand our world-views.
It’s hard to explain if you’ve never been adopted, but I can feel how we are alike and how we are different in my bones. That familiarity is the gift of nature that I’ve been seeking for a lifetime.
There are so many things I want to write about when it comes to adoption and being an adoptee. There are many things I want to explore more in-depth and many conversations I’d like to have with anyone affected by adoption.
In the adoptee community, there are a number of “sides” and a great deal of “us” versus “them” when it comes to members of the triad. In general, you’ll find a number of groups, founded and administered by adoptees that had a terrible experience in their adoptive homes. Some are more militant in their anti-adoption stance than others, but all have something to share and teach us on the topic.
I’m not always comfortable in these groups because I feel guilty for having such a great life. When I write that out it sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? I’m sure it seems ridiculous to you to read!
Regularly I find opportunities to see how sheltered my life has been. I do in fact live in a bubble of white privilege and I know it. I also live in a cloud of adoptee privilege because my parents adopted and made a family for selfless reasons. I’m sure they wanted to fulfill their dreams of having a family and that’s what prompted them to go searching for me and then my brother. When my sister came along they thought there might be even more children to come. In the end, we were a family of 5 and that suited us all just fine. (Notwithstanding my desire for a ton of brothers and sisters.)
It will kill you if you let it and it’s something we can either accept or not. Most people have something they feel guilty about and when I meet someone who is oblivious to the feeling of guilt I’m wary and a little scared.
Carrying guilt for being a happy adoptee and a white woman in a racially divisive world and country isn’t helping anyone though and I’m working to move my guilt into a space of open listening and deeper questions and reflections on how I can use my status in both these areas to improve the situation for others who don’t have the privileges that I do.
Part of getting over the guilt in the adoption arena has been the process of listening to others before I jump in with my opinion. I believe everyone’s experience deserves exploration. Some people do seem to like to be in their drama and enjoy being victims, however, most do not. They are simply working through their feelings the best way they know how.
Creating a community around AdoptionConversations.com is important to me. In the coming months, I’ll be introducing a podcast, sharing my progress on my book about adoption and hopefully publishing in other venues where we can really get the conversation started. Until then, thank you for being here. I value your input – both privately and in the comments and I’m so glad we’re beginning this conversation together.