Editor’s note: This is one in a series of posts for National Adoption Awareness Month that seeks to #FlipTheScript on the adoption narrative. If you’re also an adoptee, I invite you to add to the conversation in the comments below.
Rob is the adoptive father of a grown son and daughter and a friend with whom I chat often as I continue to work on my book chronicling the adoptee experience. What struck him, he said, from the anecdotes I shared was something he hadn’t thought about before: Adoption is forever.
Indeed it is. Not in that treacly “forever family” kind of way that is often — to the dismay of all adoptees — also used by pet shelters to move their merchandise. And not in that “gift of love” kind of way that some adoption brokers once espoused in an attempt to place children, especially around the holidays.
Nope. For us adoptees, adoption equals a lifetime sentence of cognitive dissonance, confusion and angst. We are, after all, both relinquished and chosen — factors that are always at odds and necessarily put us at odds with ourselves.
Our adopted status may not be top of mind all the time, but even below the surface, we grapple with trying to understand who our relinquished self is supposed to be while embracing this other self we’re expected to live. The result is an emotional tide that ebbs and flows over years.
One thing I learned in speaking with 110 adoptees is that there is a predictable pattern for the emotional chaos:
It starts, in early childhood, with an initial lack of understanding about what being adopted actually means. That is followed at about elementary school age by a blind acceptance of the typical explanation for why we were relinquished: Our natural mothers couldn’t care for us, but loved us so much that they gave us to our adoptive parents so we’d have a better life.
Then, around adolescence — the time when everyone tries to figure out who they are –there is a change in attitude. Perhaps adoption is not openly discussed at home or is discussed in negative terms by friends or relatives, leading the adoptee to feel ashamed. Perhaps, as was the case for a great many adoptees I spoke with, the adoptee struggles to fit in at home, to feel part of the family unit or measure up to his adoptive parents’ expectations. However, even if the adoptee feels loved and part of his family, adolescence is when he begins to question the script (“Wait, what? Loving someone means you give them away?!”).
By now, other thoughts have likely started to surface:
“Who do I look and sound like?”
“Where do my skills and talents come from?”
“Do I have siblings?”
“Is my mother looking for me? Does she think about me?”
“What is wrong with me? Why wasn’t I wanted?”
Many adoptees push these concerns aside, worried that exploring them will hurt their adoptive families, or thinking that being adopted means not having the right to ask.
Then, whether or not an adoptee searches for biological family, adulthood brings fresh triggers for new rounds of confused introspection. Against the backdrop of adoption, milestones like marriage, the arrival of a child, and the death of an adoptive parent or other close relative can send an adoptee reeling emotionally while he works to sort out his place in the world. He will find himself doing this over and over again.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps the fog around the adoptee’s circumstance starts to lift. If he was raised in the era of closed adoption records, he now realizes how all the secrecy and lies make him second class in the eyes of the law and to much of society. He begins to see himself in a new light. Still the questions remain.
Midlife in particular offers an identity Waterloo — doubly so if the adoptee has reunited with his biological family and now must meet his dual identity head on.
Underlying all this soul searching is a simple question:
Who am I?
Even if reunited with biological relatives, the adoptee is never quite sure. Am I the person I was born to be? The person I was raised to be? Where do those identities converge? Where do they part ways?
Why can’t I get myself together?
People who are not adopted and take for granted that they can know who they are don’t understand why this is a big deal, but for adoptees, this quest for self is everything.
We’re compelled to chase the answer — even if it takes forever.