I recently shared some of my story in the Old Town Crier’s May 2018 issue. You can read it here.
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.
Excited and nervous and then a wrong turn and I ended up at a gas station on the outskirts of Baltimore. I looked at the time on my phone and took a breath. I still had a better than average chance of being on time. Just to be safe though I made a call, “You’re not begging off on me are you?” he asked playfully. I assured him I was definitely on my way but that I missed the turn and was now in Baltimore. “Great. I can’t wait to see you. Drive safely.”
The gas station guy gave me excellent directions and I was on my way to Renaissance Faire with time to spare.
Those moments are the beginning of the love affair of my life. Within the hour I met the man who is now my husband. I was 42 years old and felt in my heart and gut that this relationship would be different because I was different.
Years of picking poor partners had me doubting myself. I’d had enough therapy and spiritual healing to recognize the pattern I’d put in place from an early age was a reflection of my adoptee M.O. I desperately wanted to be connected and to be loved, but I carried a secret, like a little pebble in my shoe, that said I was inherently flawed and would eventually get my heart broken.
Let me be clear. This is MY stuff. My parents are amazing and never made me feel that I wouldn’t be safe and secure for my lifetime. My extended family never treated me like I wasn’t one of them, so much so that sometimes I wanted to tap them on the shoulder and whisper, “You know I’m adopted, right?” I didn’t believe that I deserved all that love and affection. I suspected that it was all a farce that would eventually come crashing down. I’m now 52 years old and there are still random moments when I remind myself that I’m not going to be abandoned.
When I met my husband I knew I needed to face my own fears and my reactions so that I could have an altogether different relationship than I’d ever had before. I came clean on my fears of abandonment and my innate distrust of people who say they love me.
As our relationship grew I found myself in wistful moments wishing that we’d met earlier, counting the years that we didn’t have together and feeling angry that it took me so long to find him.
That same feeling rushes through me now as I think about the time I could have had with my biological siblings. I grew up with cousins and friends who had 5 or more kids in their family and I always wanted that too. (I know my parents would have gladly had more children but it didn’t work out that way.)
Finding my biological mother’s family has been a miracle of joy and laughter tinged with the longing for the time that we missed together. It’s hard to explain that I miss memories with people I only just met, but I do and the only other time I felt that way was when I met M.
With my siblings, I can either focus on the moments I’ve missed (weddings, births, illnesses, job changes) or I can stay present to where we all are today and let these moments build to their own memories down the road.
As someone who always wanted a huge family with many siblings I’ve gotten my wish and I’m so happy that they have accepted me as one of their own.
When I first found my maternal Uncle I pretty much barfed my entire personal journey and every last piece of information I had to him in an email. Until he received my email he had no idea that I existed. Nor did he really care. Why would he? I was just another random person in the world.
However, I knew he existed. I knew he was the youngest of six kids. I knew the names of his siblings and their ages and I knew the names and occupations of his parents. I’d carried that information around from house to house and through 3 marriages. That folder with my non-identifying information was my touchstone and I had turned the people in that folder into semi-fictional characters.
Every year that I couldn’t find them, the less real they became.
Thus the barfing the information into my Uncle’s email box.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t do that. Thankfully my Uncle is a gracious and kind human who was genuinely happy to be found. He welcomed me to the family with no strings attached.
Looking back, I have some recommendations in case you are looking for a way to reach out to your newly found biological relatives:
- Stick to the facts that are directly pertinent to the person you’re communicating with. If your non-identifying information has personal details about other members of the family, leave it out.
- When connecting with someone on a DNA site, stick to the DNA facts. It’s often best to resist the urge to state that you’re an adoptee looking for family. Many people on DNA sites are surprised to find out that a member of their family had an out-of-wedlock child and to identify yourself as such can shut down all future communications as the person tries to determine how to bring the subject up to their family. Instead, let the person know that you’re doing some DNA research and have found a connection and ask them if they’d be willing to communicate to try to find where you are related. (In my search I reached out to a third cousin match with my adoption story and he responded with an earful about his cheating brothers and some not-so-nice terms for his sisters. Frankly, he scared me and I stopped communicating with him pretty quickly. Yes, we are still DNA matches but not immediate cousins.)
- Remind yourself that even though you’ve known about these people for years, they may have no idea you exist. Don’t take it personally if they ask you for proof or even respond saying that you must be mistaken. If the relative you are directly connected to is a sibling or parent who has died, the person you reach may want to protect that person’s name or reputation and thus deny any connection, even if they have suspicions and know for a fact that DNA doesn’t lie. It’s easier for them to keep the secret than to change the way they see the person in question.
- Understand that any reaction isn’t personal. Although you share DNA you don’t have any other connection. Getting to know someone and building a relationship takes time. If they do or don’t want to continue conversation it’s not about you, it’s about them working through this new information.
- Try to be an observer. Put your observer hat on and gauge which reactions are like ones you have and which you feel are so different. I started putting those in my “nature” vs. “nurture” files for future reference.
- Respect the other person. I know many adoptees don’t agree with me on this point and that’s okay. As a human, I believe we all have a right to our feelings and our own process, even if it’s difficult. I wanted people in my biological family to like me and be okay with me being in their world. I wanted them to like me. Even so, I respect the feelings of those who aren’t psyched to have me throwing a wrench in their lives. I don’t like it. I just remember that it isn’t about me and that it’s not my job to judge them or convince them.
- Feel your feelings. As Adoptees, we are prone to compartmentalizing our feelings and turning off our feelings if they are uncomfortable. We may do this by lashing out at the person in question or others in general or we may do it by shutting down. Either isn’t an optimal solution for the long term. If you’re sad, own it. If you’re angry, feel it. Let your feelings sit with you and then they dissipate. If you shove them away or pretend they don’t exist you end up prolonging the pain. (I recommend finding an outlet to deal with your feelings – for me, it’s writing and painting.)
- Give it time. When my biological father and I first spoke on the phone he was shocked! He had no idea I existed. My biological mother sort of disappeared from his life when she got pregnant (as he recalls) and here I was, 52 years later saying, “Here’s a cigar! You’ve got a girl!” While he was gracious, he needs time to process this information and I understand that. I’m hopeful that someday we’ll get to know each other.
- Ask for help and support if you need it. Adoptees don’t love sharing our “stuff” with others, but asking for help and support are truly outstanding ways to cope with the feelings that come up during a first connection. If you have a social worker, a search angel, a coach or a therapist use them to help you. Or tap into your friends, clergy or other people who can hold the space that you need to navigate this new situation in your life.
- Resist the temptation to wallow in anything. Whether it’s pain or joy, instead of blasting it everywhere right away, give yourself time to process what is happening in ways that are healthy and affirming for you. There’s a big difference between feeling your feelings and wallowing – one is enriching and the other is destructive. If you’re not sure of the difference, please find someone who can help.
In no way is this a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will help you navigate the process of meeting your biological family.
Those of you who have gone through this – what else would you add?
It’s not your job to fix it.
Spouses and parents and siblings and even parents of adoptees ask me often how to make things better for the adoptee that that they love and I tell them as gently as possible that it’s not their job to fix it.
Adoptees are as complex as any other group of people on the planet – made up of diverse and sometimes divisive subgroups. Our subgroups range from those who love adoption and can’t imagine it ever being different to those who hate the institution of adoption but love their families to those who ended up in horrific conditions with narcissistic and abusive adoptive parents. Some of us search for our biological families and some have no desire to search or be found.
One thing that most of us have in common? Connection issues! Call it fear of commitment, intimacy challenges or general unlike-ability, but we’re great at making it hard to love us, all the while wondering why we are so unlovable.
In the article, Adoptees and the Seven Core Issues of Adoption, Sharon Kaplan Roszia and Deborah N. Silverstein state, “Adopted persons have reported that they are aware of holding back part of themselves in relationships, always cautious and watchful. Some state that they have never truly felt close to anyone.“
My particular flavor of this was a long history of picking partners that were not a great fit for me. They were nice enough men and good people in general, but they were not partners that ultimately were a good match for the long haul.
I’ve been married three times and divorced twice in 22 years. When I decided to release the judgment about my inability to stay married I found an opening to dig into my habits when picking partners. I had my first crush in first grade and my first boy-friend in 8th grade. Since then I’ve been single a total of maybe a year total. You see, I craved connection all while creating situations where true intimacy would not survive.
Not surprisingly my inner work on my broken marriages led me to my fear of being discarded! I had mastered the art of picking someone that wasn’t a fit, so that I could leave them before they left me! This was the perfect set-up for me – that way, when my relationships floundered I had “proof” that love couldn’t be counted on and that ultimately I’d have to fend for myself.
We all repeat our earliest traumas throughout our lives until we heal them. This just happened to be my trauma that needed healing and no amount of love or good intentions by my friends, family or partners could stop the cycle. The cycle could only be stopped by me.
When I met the beautiful human who has since become my third and final husband I had already begun the deep work of stopping the repetitive poor partner cycle. We had long talks on our first few dates about our fears and I shared, for the first time, my extreme fear of trusting someone else with what was most important to me. In those conversations I let him know how I was likely to act out and shut down and gave him tools and information about the best ways to keep me present. He shared similar things about his own situation and it was magical.
Until the first big fight.
Up to that point, I had two M.O.s when it came to fighting – one was to belittle and talk down to the person – seething and angry and the other was to beg for forgiveness, trying to make myself small so that the other person could be right. Both would end with me giving the silent treatment and replaying how I’d been wronged by this other person. As you might imagine, neither way really worked.
This time I caught myself playing my roles and did my best to stop and regroup. Instead of looking to him as the cause of my pain in that moment I eventually figured out that I had no control over anything but my response.
As I write it out here I’m obviously giving you the condensed version and it sounds like unicorns were dancing in rainbows of ice-cream. Let me tell you that there were 7 years of trial and error before we decided to get married and it’s still a work in progress.
However, as time goes on, I feel less worried about being vulnerable and stronger not only in my trust in my relationship but in my trust in myself because I had to do the work to get here.
At the end of the day, you can love your Adoptee unconditionally, but they’ll need to do the inner work to recognize and receive that love.
All the other kids had stories about their last names. With 30 kids in the class, it took a while to get through the entire assignment. Each student making their way up to the front of the classroom, picking up the piece of chalk and writing their last name on the green board before they began their story.
Some had interesting stories like my little red-headed classmate told the story about her ancestors in Ireland who collected the fees to drive along the roads, and that’s where her last name, Feehan came from. I had a much less exciting story – my last name means son of Arvid, apparently a pretty common first name in Sweden.
That spurred my curiosity about my other surname. I wondered what the story was with that name. I never asked because I knew there was no way to know the answer. That’s when I first consciously told myself, “It’s no big deal.”
Throughout my life whenever I would talk about my adoption I was conflicted. Part of me wanted to shake whomever I was speaking to and look them in the eyes and say, “THIS IS IMPORTANT! It’s the most important thing in my life.” However, I would more often than not brush off their questions with short answers, feeling the blood rushing to my face as I tried to change the subject because it was so close, so personal and I didn’t feel safe sharing that much depth with the other person. In the end, I would give a throwaway, “It’s really no big deal. I have a great life.”
While the great life is true, I was lying when I said that being adopted is no big deal.
Hundreds of times in my life I’ve stated that it’s no big deal. As I reflect I’m trying to figure out why that is and the best I can come up with is that I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable (least of all myself) with the depth of my emotions. If I admitted that it was, in fact, the biggest deal in my life I would be forced to face myself and ask why it mattered so much.
I’d been told my entire life that I was lucky and blessed and special to be adopted. In fact, I’ve felt grateful to be in my family pretty much every day, so how could that feeling co-exist with the distress and ache I felt whenever I thought about being adopted?
It didn’t make sense to me, so I continued to insist that being adopted is no big deal.
In spiritual self-help circles, you’re told that your words hold energy and that what you repeatedly tell yourself becomes true. Obviously, this teaching is good in theory. If you want more income don’t focus on not having income. If you want a love connection, repeat to yourself that you’re lovable and worthy.
What they don’t tell you is that the words themselves are not the magic. It’s the energy you toss into those words – the belief that comes along with the repetition. Why most people don’t fall in love within weeks or months or years of repeating “I am lovable and worthy,” is the same reason that my repeating, “Being adopted is no big deal,” never took hold. I didn’t believe it.
In my bones, I knew that being adopted was a very big deal. It was a big deal for my parents and my family. It was a big deal for my birth mother, and it was indeed a big deal for me.
I’ve started to own the fact that being adopted is my cornerstone. This is the foundation that everything else in my life has come from. The structure of my relationships, the heft, and weight of my self-acceptance, the story that I’m meant to not only live but tell – is that I am adopted.
That’s why I wrote my book. That’s why I show up here. That’s why I’m facing all my deep fears and insecurities about talking about what’s most true for me – because adoption is a big deal and I want anyone else who may be sweeping it under the rug for any reason to know that it’s okay to let it be a big deal for you.
I’d love your perspective. Is adoption a big deal for you or someone you know? Share your thoughts in the comments and if you liked it, please share this post with your friends and followers!