An acquaintance who knows I’m adopted — I’ll call her Sue — took time after one of my exercise classes last week to tell me about her boss, an adoptee who found her half-sister after doing DNA testing. Sue’s boss had flown from Connecticut to Seattle so the siblings could meet. It had been a good visit, save for the press coverage the half-sister had arranged without the permission of Sue’s boss. Reporters met her as she got off the plane to chronicle the emotional meeting.
“It made my boss uncomfortable,” Sue said, ” but she just went along with it. That’s just the sort of person she is.”
I started to explain that many adoptees are like that — afraid to speak up for themselves, eager to please and so desperate to be liked that they stuff their own feelings in favor of everyone else’s.
I didn’t get the chance, though. The conversation changed course, veering into the idiotic mythology around adoption that gets me steamed. However, like Sue’s boss, I failed to speak up.
I’m still kicking myself.
Sue left off talking about her boss to discuss when and how adoptees learn they are adopted. How difficult it must be, Sue mused, for adoptive parents to decide when to tell their child he or she is adopted.
Yes, I thought, how difficult for them.
But rather than point out that this arrangement is difficult for adoptees, too, I took a deep breath and explained that there had been a couple of different approaches to this conundrum over the years, and that both of them caused emotional pain and suffering.
The first, popular in the early part of the 20th century, was to not tell the adoptee. The thinking back then was that it was best if adoptees were raised as if born to the family. That way, the adoptee was spared the stigma of illegitimacy and her parents could hide their inability to have children (something that was very clearly expected of married couples back then). Some of these adoptees never learned they were adopted, I told Sue. Others found out later in life, by happenstance, when facing a medical crisis, or when a friend or relative spilled the beans. Most never got over the betrayal.
The thinking around adoption began to change around mid-century. Starting in the late 1950s and ’60s, social workers counseled adoptive parents to tell their child he was adopted early, often and almost always in these words (no matter what the actual circumstances were): “Your mother was unmarried and too young to keep you, but loved you so much she gave you away so you could have a better life. You are special because we chose you.”
This approach mirrored my experience. It is also one I came across over and over in interviewing adoptees for the book I’m writing about the adoptee experience. Many people told me they couldn’t remember a time when they didn’t know they were adopted.
Rather than simply short-circuit later feelings of betrayal, however, this approach caused its own set of problems. I told Sue that small children readily accepted this version, reveling in the idea that we were special. But as we adoptees matured, we realized it didn’t add up. None of us is special, nor were we actually chosen and before we were adopted, we were relinquished.
Think about what that does for a person’s self-image, I told Sue.
“Yes, yes,” she said, “but how hard it must be for adoptive parents to decide when to tell their children.”
By now, I was miffed. Here I was again facing that formidable, entrenched adoption narrative society has swallowed whole:
Adoption is a wonderful institution — fabulous for adoptive parents who so desperately want a family, a godsend for the unwed, pregnant woman; and wonderful for the child (always the child; we’re never allowed to grow up in these discussions) who most assuredly will be always grateful for this arrangement.
Fellow adoptees, it was here that I failed you. Rather than call bullshit, take Sue on and try to get her to see that there is an adoptee point of view to consider, I clammed up, packed my gear, then fumed as I drove home, beating myself up for being a doormat.
Here’s what I wished I’d told her:
We’re having the wrong conversation. Let’s stop thinking only about how adoptive parents or birth parents feel about adoption. Let’s start talking about how adoption — particularly the closed adoptions of the 20th century which hid adoptees’ original identities away — affects adoptees and shapes the way they feel about themselves.
It’s not pretty.
Here are some of the ways the 110 adoptees I’ve interviewed described how it feels to be adopted:
- Out of step
- Second class
- An outsider
- Like there is something wrong with me
- A mistake
- Hate myself
These descriptions are hard to face. It’s far easier to pretend everything is wonderful.
But I, for one, am done lying to myself.