November is National Adoption Awareness Month.
She surrendered me for adoption upon my birth. In three months, they took me from the womb to the NICU to the foster care to my adoptive parents. Gloria, my biological mother, did not know she was pregnant, she entered the emergency room for abdominal pains and exited traumatized in a way only birth mothers understand. She died at 50, one day before my birthday. I found her four years too late.
Eighteen months ago I found my biological father. He did not know about me. He has spent the last year and a half coming to terms with being denied knowledge of my existence and figuring out how to incorporate me into his life. Together we are building a lovely and meaningful relationship, but for me, reunion is painful in ways I never imagined. I have spent the last year and a half struggling to navigate it all.
Like the day I collapsed into a fetal position and sobbed.
I am on my bathroom floor, wailing for my mother. I am a newborn. I do not have the words nor the understanding for why I feel this. There is only the visceral sensation of unimaginable pain. I am indescribably sad. Mourning for my scared infant self, the one who searched for a breast that was not there, who searched for the familiar voice she no longer heard, who knew the one holding me was not the one who hosted me. I have reached the primal wound. I am mourning for me.
I look back on that day and wonder if it was the day my major depressive episode began. It took a year for me to break down, but the depth of sadness reunion uncorked was the start of my descent.
Adoption is trauma, and it’s long passed time we talked about it that way.
Being adopted in infancy doubles the odds of contact with mental health professionals. Adoptees are at higher risk for substance abuse disorders. We are four times more likely than non-adopted offspring to attempt suicide. And adult adoptees who search and find their biological families are at even HIGHER risk for psychological distress.
The statistics are staggering.
For me, like most adoptees, attachments, separations, and rejections trigger an anxiety response disproportionate to the event. My fear is unconscious, one imprinted in my neurological system from my first separation. Like all preverbal traumas, the severing of maternal-child bond leaves a wound that we cannot always describe but we can feel.
As Nancy Verrier, MFT writes in The Three Faces of Adoptees:
All mammals know their own mothers through all their senses. Therefore, when a baby is immediately taken from the bio mom and handed over to another mom, the baby is confused and disoriented. “Where is mom?” The new mom doesn’t pass the “sensory test.” She doesn’t sound right, or smell right, or feel right, or have the right resonance or energy. The infant becomes disregulated. This is no one’s fault except that we continue to ignore it and therefore don’t address it. What does the child do?
The child goes immediately into coping mode. Something devastating happened and he/she doesn’t want it to happen again. “My most intimate relationship was severed; therefore, I do not want to get too close to anyone in case they leave me” (the stiff-armed child). Or,” I need to hang on so tight that she cannot get away” (the Velcro child). In neither case is there trust that the mother will be there for the child. This distrust is transferred to every person the adoptee wants to get close to.
The dominant cultural narrative of adoption as a noble act — the whole better life thing — squelches adoptees ability to speak openly about our pain. My life is not better because someone adopted me, my life is different. And no Lifetime movie can capture how complicated reunion feels.
Why does everyone love our tear jerking reunion videos anyway? I mean, think about it. The reason those images are so moving is that the viewer understands that a lifetime apart caused suffering they hope reconciliation will end. A happy ending. A happy ending to a story that no one acknowledges is sad?
Reunion does not get us back what we lost and adoption is not a fairy tale.
Reunion is a marriage. It requires maturity, insight, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, honesty, forgiveness, and commitment. From everyone. It requires fear and insecurity take a back seat to trust, shame clear the way for love, the past resolve for the present to flourish. It is a Herculean task, and that’s why most reunions fail.
And before it is anything else, adoption is loss.
Loss of a child, a parent, a sibling, a story, a history, a past, a bond. It does not matter how well you are raised, how loved you are, how much better your adoptive family is at providing or nurturing or parenting. It does not matter why or if it was for the best or if your life is so much better than it would have been. It does not matter. Because before it is anything else, adoption is loss.
Yet we are asked to mute our pain, our grief, our longing for a biological connection — and the destructive sense that something is wrong with us that someone gave us away — in service of the noble rescue myth.
But adoption can multi-task. She is many things at once. So are we. We are the bastards, the unwanted, the surrendered, the saved, the chosen, the rescued, the loved, and the forsaken.
Allow us our entirety.
Adoptive parents often say “I love her like my own.” Perhaps you do. But this is not about you, your love, or your needs. This is about us. You must celebrate what about us differs from you, and acknowledge that we are not of you, we are of others. You must understand and respect our primal wound, the one your love can’t cure.
Good parenting requires we encourage our children to be themselves and speak their truth, it demands we celebrate their differences and give them agency over their lives. Good parenting means moving our egos out the way. It means we respect our children for the autonomous human beings they are. Adoptees require — deserve — nothing less. Do not fear our grief or demand we mask our pain under coats of gratitude. Trust that we can love you both. Allow us space to be, and to find, ourselves.
Allow us our side of the story. Listen to our pain. Hear our voices.