This is an adoptee’s advice to hopeful and prospective adoptive parents.
Hi mom, Hi dad! That’s right, there but for time and space you could be my parents– adoptive parents– or birth parents. Birth parents and adoptive parents. B-Parents and A-Parents. Before parents and after parents. Before has no meaning without after, after has no meaning without before. Time and space. You cannot exist without each other. I couldn’t find the words as a child. Now I have the words to advise you, tell you what it’s like, and tell you why I need to search to help us resolve these issues before they become problems.
So imagine, I arrived in your home helpless; in need of your nurturing. Let’s get the tough stuff over with first: you are the parent. I am not here to heal the pain of your infertility. You must resolve the emotional baggage of infertility before you decide to parent. Unresolved infertility may be a problem when children who are adopted become fruitful at puberty. Unresolved infertility leaves the whole family grieving for the unrealized biological child; leaving me to feel second best. Unresolved infertility puts me in the difficult situation of trying to be the “perfect” answer to your infertility while dealing with the “imperfect” reality of being given away.
Tell me I’m adopted, or you risk a terrible breach of trust. I’ve seen men in their fifties destroyed, when, at a parent’s funeral, some relative spilled the beans. Talking about adoption will diffuse its effect. I will ask more than once, reflecting different needs at different ages. To get information. Meet my birth parents. Be honest but not critical. Remember, I will incorporate your interpretation of my birth parents into my interpretation of myself.
People will say I’m lucky to have been adopted by such wonderful people; who knows what my fate may have been if you hadn’t taken me into your home! Note how this sets me up to be eternally grateful to you. It’s easy to fall into parental martyr syndrome. But you are not just parents — you are adoptive parents. There but for time and space, who knows, maybe another family would have suited me better. Asking for my gratitude puts us in opposition. Remind those who would have our relationship based on guilt, that you, too, are lucky to have found me.
As an adoptee, I constantly wonder what could have been. My life is the luck of the draw. I spent my childhood thinking: these people could have been — or could be — my parents; this could have been my home; those could have been my toys; I could have had to wear that outfit!? One thing is not arbitrary – I was born to someone.
As an adoptee, I believe in things I’ve never seen: birthparents in the guise of guardian angels, fairy changelings, and storks who deliver babies – how else did I get here? I’ve never heard the story of my quickening, my labor, my birth.
Adoptive parents compare themselves to birth parents, but I compare myself to the unrealized biological child. My parents told me they lost a child. I thought they went out and actually lost the child somewhere. I felt guilty because I thought if they found him, they might take me back. I didn’t want that — they were my family.
We, adoptees, refer to ourselves as “adaptees.” My natural laugh is a barking sound but I tried to imitate my adoptive father’s dry hissing laugh my whole life. I was thirty-seven when I learned the origin of my barking laugh. I was at a birth family reunion. My birth mother had not arrived yet. I laughed, the barking laugh and the relatives gathered. They thought I was her.
As an adoptee, I procrastinate, am a packrat, and am not a good decision-maker. I don’t have the facts about my life, I don’t know the significance of anything, so I put off deciding anything until I get the facts.
Excuse me if I’m a little paranoid and indignant about secrecy, I am the product of sealed records. A commodity passed from one party to another with no say in the contract. The physician, and his staff; the attorneys, and their staffs, the hospital staff, the agencies, the staff at the courthouse where my adoption was filed, and, of course, the staffs guarding my sealed original birth certificate and records all know more about me than I know about myself.
Excuse me for being angry. The non-adopted can get their original birth certificates. Mine is sealed from me. I must be satisfied with the falsified document registering who I was after my adoption: but I existed before that. The system makes me angry, but you, mom and dad, will bear the brunt of my anger because you are the closest authority figures. What makes me angry is being treated differently because I’m adopted and the lack of control over these circumstances.
I promise you, that about the time I reach puberty, I will say the dreaded words, “You are not my real parents.” This is not anger. It is insecurity. With puberty comes the challenge of individuation. I must start rehearsing my independence. I’ll hurt and insult you to see how much I can count on you to be there when the going gets rough. Convoluted? This is normal for teenagers but intensified by the adoption experience. Remember, the ultimate achievement of parenting is obsolescence. Do you want me to live at home at thirty?
Moses, Oedipus, King Arthur, the Ugly Duckling, Superman, and Luke Skywalker all have something in common: they were all adopted. They are also some of our culture’s major self-realization archetypes: without the search, there would have been no story. Society sends adoptees the message to search. There is no society on earth without religion. All of mankind is searching for the creator. Isn’t it natural adoptees would too?
I always wondered; search is the adoptee’s active part in the process of adoption. Usually, it’s the childbearing years, late twenties early thirties, when adoptees actively search. I may have an intense desire to know just before puberty. College years, late teens, and early twenties I didn’t want to search – I was too busy separating from my adoptive parents, but if contacted let me make the decision. Please don’t search for my birth parents unless I ask you to, or unless there are real problems you feel may have stemmed from my genetic history or an experience I had before I joined our family.
The search isn’t about you; the search is not a search for parents. It has as much to do with you like my choice of spouse or career. It is a search for my life — for myself. I want to know my story, who I look like, ethnic background, and medical history. To meet the creator. and say, “Look at me, I’m ok, I turned out all right. You made the right decision. “
What is the adoptive parents’ role in an adoptee’s reunion? It is not to voice your insecurities over your ability to parent: your job is to be there for me. To give me the gift of trust. At one of the most intense moments of my life, it is unfair and selfish to play the wronged parent. What does it say about our relationship if I search after you die? The most consistent outcome of the adoption reunion is the strengthening of the search supportive adoptive family.
Why be an adoptive parent? Because it makes a difference. Children need homes, and parents need children to create a family. Mothers teach how to fold towels, to make grandma’s recipes, to play fair, and introduce us to literary classics; Dads teach how to drive, to handle conflict, favorite ball teams, and the best political party. I’ll sleep in your arms, play peek-a-boo, bring “I love you” drawings to put on the refrigerator, alarm you with my adolescent fashion sense, and ask for the car keys. Families never stop growing and learning from each other.
Understanding teaches courage; courage teaches stability; stability teaches trust; trust teaches acceptance; acceptance teaches love, and love makes the human heart elastic enough to make adoption less of a commodity transaction and more of an extension of the family. That is an adoptee’s advice about good adoptive parenting.
Excerpts from the Philadelphia Area Resolve Conference, Sunday, April 26th, 1998. Abigail is President of the Adoption Forum, Vice President of the American Adoption Congress, member of the Pennsylvania Joint State Advisory Committee on Adoption. What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.
Adoption Forum, Inc., PO Box 12502, Philadelphia, PA 19151