I was very naive when we began our adoption journey. I had read all the books recommended to me and taken the “Caring for First Nations Children” training program, as well as the “Pre-Adoption Education Training,” which was a requirement for all prospective adoptive parents. I researched and sought out additional books, and I noticed a bit of a theme—many families of adoption seemed to struggle. There were behavior issues, anger issues, identity issues, and biological children who struggled with the changes that adoption brought from previously peaceful homes. The beauty of adoption and the inherent good of it was present in all of these resources, and I chose to focus on that. Any warnings of possible struggles were lost on me—or, rather, I rejected the struggles outright. I had heard and seen the saying “Love is not enough” when it came to dealing with such things as attachment disorder, but I wrote it off as a pessimistic view of an otherwise beautiful journey. In fact, I was quick to write off attachment disorder itself, thinking that love indeed would overcome any challenges that arose in our home. After all, our adopted children all came to us as infants—we fostered two of our children before we were able to adopt both, but those children were never bounced from home to home. Surely, coming home from the hospital with us canceled out any negative effects. The girls would only ever know our home.
It would be fair to say that I was completely blindsided when years of radical love for one of our adopted daughters absolutely did not cancel out her pain of the loss of her birth family. It would be fair to say that I was devastated to learn that our love was not enough to chase off the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder. And it would be fair to say I felt like I couldn’t breathe the first time our daughter told me that she didn’t want me.
Things started out difficult, and stayed that way, although specialists and experts kept predicting things would change. “Just hang on, maybe six more months,” professionals would all say. “Things will get better.” Except things did not get better. From early headbanging in the crib to later self-injury such as hair pulling and biting, to excoriation disorder, we kept waiting for our love to come crashing in like the wave that was surely building, and wipe away her every tear. Year after year, I kept waiting. I remember crying, loud sobs, as the assessment team gently told me that we were dealing with Reactive Attachment Disorder. My husband was circling the lot with a newly purchased horse in our beat-up, rusty horse trailer. I felt so alone. I would have given anything to have had a babysitter that day so that he could sit with me. “That CANNOT be true!”, I wailed when I learned this. I watched the tail lights of the horse trailer go by again. I knew Tyler was keeping four kids happy with fries and music while I got the results from the assessment we had done months ago. “We have had her since birth! She hasn’t bounced around, and she has never been neglected or abused! We did all the right things!”, The team was sympathetic, and the specialists’ words echoed through my head, a memory from long ago, one I had rejected: “Love is not enough.”
I now know and understand that biology plays a role. I also know that cellular memory is being researched and that specialists find children of birth moms who were under extreme duress and abuse personally during pregnancies find issues with adrenal glands, night terrors, and attachment disorder, regardless of whether the child was placed for adoption at birth. As much as we want our love and stability to overcome the genetic top-loading for anxiety or antisocial disorders, and as much as we want our well-planned lives filled with support and all the right things to erase the damage done in early days or years, it is not predictable as to whether that will happen. Each child is unique, and therefore, the outcome is different. Babies can determine a mother by the smell of the milk, the voice. What happens to a child when the baby is not nursed, held, named? As adoptive parents, we swoop in to fill that gap and lavish our love on a child so deserving. Because we don’t live in a choose-your-path book in which we can flip back to the beginning and try again, try a new combination to see what works out best, we can never know if we could have done something different. And really, I wouldn’t want that, anyway. All we have is today.
Our children are all blessings to us, a gift from above. It was becoming clear to me that one of our children was still struggling. Fetal alcohol syndrome aside, she was just struggling. Too soon (because I never would have been ready to hear it), her words came: “I don’t want you. I want my birth mom. WHERE IS SHE? Where is my birth dad anyways? I don’t want Tyler to be my dad anymore.” It hurts to even write it. But it is the truth, and just as I have learned from those who came before me, I believe that someone else might learn from me.
We just weren’t prepared for the anger. To be honest, it felt unfair. We had fought for this child before she could fight for herself; we had strived to give this child the best life. We have loved this child, always. Pushing down the hurt that we felt we didn’t deserve, we started seeking. I needed to find some information that would help me process what was happening because we were living in a hurricane of anger and hurtful words being thrown at us like darts from our beautiful adopted child. In the manner of full disclosure, I have to say we are not out of the woods yet. Things are better, but not perfect. The anger is still there, although I think we know how to deal with it better now. We’ve learned how to deal with the hurt, live with it, but not take it on as our own. We’ve learned to expect the fiery darts she throws, and live with the words, despite not liking the result. We have helped the other kids in our home to understand what is going on, and maybe, why it is happening.
It’s Not About Us. And It Never Was.
A wise mentor of mine told me, “Birth parents will always hold a special place in their hearts. You will never be able to compete.” That saddened me at first because I don’t want to compete. Can’t we both be equal? The answer, for some kids, is no. Some kids feel really threatened by having someone else take that sacred role of “mom” or “dad.” Some kids have not learned, or do not have the ability to hold space for a birth parent and an adoptive parent. It is really interesting, because other children, like one of the others in our home, seem to adapt and adjust and accept the adoptive situation while others just cannot. I have likened it, in my own mind, to when someone has told me to “let it go” regarding some issue or hurt, and I think, “That would be nice, but I just can’t.” I saw a graphic on Facebook showing a stickman holding a huge sphere over his head. Another stick man says to him, “What is that for,” and the one holding the huge ball replies, “I don’t know, but I can’t put it down!” The graphic was referring to anxiety, but I also see this as completely true for some children of adoption. As parents, sometimes the wisest thing we can do is seek counseling for both ourselves and for our child. The quicker we can let go of our own pain, the quicker we will be able to respond compassionately. I never imagined I would be rejected by our adopted child, and I really had to work through my own emotions about how that made me feel as a parent, and what lies I was believing about my own self worth before I was ready to stand up tall to support my daughter however best I could.
Sticks and Stones.
The idea that names could never hurt me is a lie. It does hurt to be cut down. And how badly it does hurt when it comes from our own child, one who we fought to parent, and whom we love with every fiber of our being. If you are dealing with an angry adoptee, you will have to come up with a strategy on how to deflect cutting remarks. If you take the “fun” out of it, it might end sooner. For some children with attachment disorder, you will need to show an inner strength you might not feel. Whatever you do, you don’t want to lock horns. Children with emotional issues have a lot to lose, and the child won’t give in. It is survival for the child—survival at all costs, even if that means hurting you and your feelings. It isn’t the natural order of things, and people may tell you that you are allowing your child to be defiant. At the same time, you aren’t dealing with a typical situation, and the relationship with your child needs to be salvaged and protected at all costs. When I have names tossed my way (and I can be thankful it is things like stupid, dummy and bad mommy), I try to keep it light and reply, “Well don’t say it too loud, you don’t want anyone thinking you have a dumb mom!” or “Where does it say that? I don’t see that written on me anywhere,” as you inspect your arms or legs. Usually, in our home, this breaks the tension, and might even get a laugh. The idea is, if you aren’t easily offended, the fun of offending you is gone, and the child drops it. Of course, it doesn’t always work—sometimes I get an eye roll or more anger. No harm, no foul—you didn’t get into an argument, and you tried to lighten the mood.
You Don’t Know What It’s Like.
After one particularly challenging rejection by my daughter, out of exasperation, I said, “Look, I don’t know what it is like to be adopted, but I get that it must be hard.” My daughter looked at me with wide eyes and proceeded to ask “Weren’t you adopted?” It turns out, she really thought that most adults had been adopted into families. Don’t assume. Break things down, and find out what the thought process is like for your child. In this case, it was a genuine surprise that I was “grown in Grammy’s tummy.” I explained that because I grew up with my birth mom, I did not know what it is like to be living apart from her. Even if you are also an adoptee, you do not understand what life is like for your child, because you are not her. Give grace, be compassionate. Err on the side of love.
Sometimes Things Stay Tough.
Despite your best efforts, despite support and counseling, things might not really improve. I’ve been there. It is hard to live with a child who relishes in rejecting you, and who seeks to hurt your feelings and push you away. Children do it out of pain. Never assume your child is bad or hopeless. Your child is acting out of deep pain he or she likely doesn’t even understand. How people act is a reflection of themselves, or so the saying goes. If you are getting a lot of verbal garbage, think for a moment about how that child likely views him or herself. Think about the anxiety he or she is having, or the pain—it came out, for our daughter, that she really felt we might up and leave her, or that we wouldn’t want her anymore. She was pushing us away, to protect her fragile heart, just in case. And she is still doing it. Some days are better, many are not. For now, we have accepted that we are going to have to keep loving and being kind. We don’t have to accept bad behavior, but we do have to deal with it. We’ve explained to the other kids that she is struggling and that we are doing our best to help. We’ve explained that it is no one’s fault and that while it is not ok to be treated poorly, we still have to react in a kind, loving manner. It is about showing love, even when we aren’t shown, love. It is about being the example we need to be.
Adoptee anger is disheartening and saddening. It feels like a reversal of how things should be, and it is discouraging. It can quickly take a toll on your emotions and even other relationships. If you are dealing with adoptee anger, it is very important to reach out for support for yourself and to get a break. Taking a short walk, doing a hobby, or talking with a friend can do wonders. Your self-esteem may be in tatters—having a child cut you down is one of the most painful things a parent can experience. Be sure to check in with yourself, your spouse, or a trusted friend—someone who can encourage you that you are not a terrible parent. You are a parent dealing with the pain someone else has put on you. Remember who you are, and what you care about. Never give up hope, either in the situation, or in yourself, and especially not in your child. Adoptee anger can last a long time or a short time. Keep the hope that one day, you will get through this, and on the other side is still the relationship you have nurtured and protected with your adopted child. Keep being the example of love and grace, compassion and acceptance that your child needs, and continue to accept. One day at a time, my friend.