So often we find information about adoption as presented to us by and from informative and knowledgeable adoption professionals and passionate in-the-trenches adoptive parents. Both sources are welcome, needed, and appreciated, but it seems to have only become remotely “normal” recently for members of the adoption community (as well as those who are interested in adopting) to approach adoptees about adoption-related issues.
For many years (and some adoptees might argue this is often still the case), the adoptee seemed to be sort of a silent member of the adoption triad, with everyone else seeming to speak for them. On the one hand, the adoptee is the main attraction. Yet, on the other hand, the adoptee is presented as merely an important member of the adoption triad without a voice—or at least without a platform to share that voice. We would benefit more by learning from adoptees.
Glenn Morey, producer and co-director of the 2018 documentary film Side by Side: Out of a South Korean Orphanage and Into the World, wrote in a guest blog on Psychologytoday.com, saying, “Hearing others’ stories can be deeply affirming. It can help you think about and articulate your own experiences and feelings. Many adoptees have long been challenged by painful issues of loss, rejection or abandonment, upbringing, identity formation and racialization, search and birth family, relationships, etc.”
Morey goes on to suggest to adoptive parents, “So if you believe you know your adult child’s mind, I would examine that belief more critically. Virtually all interviewees told us their parents knew little of what they were telling us—including those who characterized their parental relationships as very close and loving.” He, like so many other adult adoptees, suggests that adoptive parents should not take an adopted child’s hurt or pain as finger-pointing or as an anti-adoption sentiment, but rather as the expected result of a complex situation.
Now we know just how important it is to not only hear adoptees out and listen to what they are saying, but to also learn from the firsthand experience they can share with us. In his blog post, “Coming Out of the Fog”, Mark Kuligowski says of adoptees who find themselves dealing with feelings and realizations that may not have been (or may not currently be) addressed by adoptive, foster, or birth family members, “As more of us come out of this fog and come to terms with our uncomfortable feelings, society as a whole must come out of the fog, too. Come to terms with the fact that there are uncomfortable parts of adoption and foster care, and shedding light on that doesn’t make us negative or angry—it makes us honest.” Mark’s hope is to encourage families and society as a whole to “realize that coming out of the fog is really coming into the truth.”
While some may view some of the harder lessons learned from adoptees as a negative reflection of adoptive families, adoptive parents must not confuse their personal interpretations with the reality of the situation. Most adoptees I’ve spoken with have shared positive stories of adoption—they love their adoptive family and their life in general. But of course, that does not mean being an adoptee has been easy, void of certain things they wish had been done differently, and/or comfortable enough to express emotions and feelings early on.
In my own experience, I’ve tried to pay close attention to adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and adoptees. This has made me more conscientious of the insight adoptees offer and motivated me to make sure the adoption that has brought our family together does not become a wall that separates us with unspoken thoughts or feelings.
When I first began researching adoption and how to become an adoptive parent— taking those first steps toward learning about the adoption journey without even knowing it—I did so coming from an adoptive parent’s point of view (because that’s what I am and mainly who I had contact with at the time). I started by reading suggested articles about adoption, about adoptive parents, and about adoptees (because that’s what you do as someone who is new to all things adoption). Included in some of the about adoptees parts were the summaries you often find on a state’s child profile listing website providing a snapshot of a child’s life.
But lacking is the circumstances causing the child to need a family, how that part of his or her story has impacted him or her, or how that part of the story will impact his or her entrance into a (hopefully) forever family. Such information is confidential, but it will very much become a part of an adoptive family’s story once that adoptee joins them. Unlike preparatory education- and training-focused information, the pictures and words that describe waiting children hits on a much deeper and emotional level. Adoption is not about you, after all; it’s about him and his needs.
In his Adoption.com article “10 Things Adult Adoptees Wish You Knew”, adoptee rights advocate Tom Andriola says, “Adoptees are not all the same. They experience life in their own way, and their adoptions impact them differently. But there are many things that are common among adoptees, and most would want people to know what they are.” The author touches on everything, including dealing with trauma, adoptees’ rights, the need for more transparency when it comes to social and health histories, and adoptees wanting to be acknowledged as adults who are entitled to their own thoughts and feelings (and who love their adoptive families no less, but may or may not feel a yearning to learn more about their biological roots).
In the article “An Adoptee’s Fear of Rejection”, adoptive mom, Denalee Chapman, advises adoptive parents to “remember that adoption as well as search and reunion should always be about the child—even if that child is now an adult.” That said, parents need to be encouraging and sensitive to an adoptee’s emotions—encouraging them to express feelings, such as fear of rejection, that are natural and normal for anyone who has experienced separation and loss because of adoption or otherwise.
That said, not all adoptees want to pursue search and reunion, and that decision should be respected not just by their adoptive families, but by other adoptees who may feel differently. In the Reader’s Digest article, “I Was Adopted—Here’s What Everyone Gets Wrong About Adoption”, Jen Babakhan states, “Not everyone has a reunion story—or wants one. Angela, 30, adopted at a month old, says her life with her adoptive family has been incredible, and she has no desire to reach out to her biological family. ‘It would be interesting to know the story behind my birth, but other than that, I just don’t feel that my [adoptive] mother could ever be replaced,’ she says. ‘And who knows if my biological parents want to be found. I’m sure they have their own lives, maybe other children. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not having that connection.’”
Again, this is why it’s so important to listen to and learn from adoptees, rather than make assumptions.
In all honesty, the first time I sat down to learn about the children waiting on forever families, I found myself tripping and falling down a rabbit hole I hadn’t previously known existed. Every child seemed precious and vulnerable, and the desire to step in and become someone they could count on was immense and overwhelming. On the flip side, learning about adoption as an adoptive parent can also be very self-absorbed, especially in the beginning because. Let’s face it: the process itself is overwhelming, and trying to navigate it requires focus and support.
Hopeful adoptive parents find themselves entering into a sort of adoptive parent bootcamp—reading everything and anything about adoption and what it means; learning whether or not adoption is a good fit for them; learning that not everyone thinks adoption is a great fit for anyone (including some adoptees);reading the pros, but also the scary and not so pleasant cons (which can feel dizzying and in some cases disturbing); learning that adoption does not happen the day you are legally united with your child, but rather the day you become a family together.
What I have learned as an adoptive mom is that my most important resource for learning about adoption (after meeting and learning from adoption professionals) is my adoptee. Agencies, social workers, counselors, lawyers, and caregivers will all give their insight, but learning from adoptees’ first-hand wisdom of adoption is a must. You can learn from adoptees by talking to them among family or friends; by reading the many articles, stories, books, and blogs available; and by listening to things like podcasts of adoptees about their life— before their adopted family life (perhaps with their biological family).
You may not always understand, agree with, or like what you learn, but if you’re willing to acknowledge other adoptees as a resource, you may find ways to strengthen your own adopted family. Their words might prove more beneficial than the words of professionals and parents—no matter how educated, knowledgeable, or well-meaning they may be. Sometimes people may not be able to put the meaning of adoption into words quite so well as the adoptee living in your house.
Don’t get me wrong; as an adoptive parent, you will become a resource and an advocate for adoption on behalf of your adopted child and family. This will happen quickly in some areas and slowly in others. Just when you think you’ve explained everything to everyone, someone new will enter your world. Once again, you will have the chance to speak on behalf of your beloved adoptive circle to teach others what you once didn’t know either.
However, as my daughters grow older, I find myself pausing before I speak on their behalf. This is not because I don’t trust my parenting or what I’ve learned along the way. This is because I now realize that, like so many other things in their lives, their view of adoption and our lives together is evolving and changing in ways too difficult to keep up with. It’s more honest and helpful, I think, to consider what my daughters have taught me and continue to teach me about their journeys before speaking on behalf of the family as if I’m somehow magically coordinating the whole thing.
What I have learned best from my children (and from many other adoptees who I have come to know) is that everyone has a different story, a different point of view, different wants, and different needs from that of their adoptive families, birth families, and others in their lives. Some adoptees are more open and willing to discuss certain aspects of adoption than others. Some prefer not to open up at all.
If you’re considering adoption, I encourage you to not be afraid of learning from adoptees. Hear their stories. Understand their truths. Whether or not your circumstances will be the same is not as important as giving adoptees the credit and respect they deserve by telling in their own words what they think and feel. “20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew”, as compiled by adoptee and author Sherrie Eldridge on Nightlight.org, provides prospective adoptive parents some insight into what adoptees and children living in the foster care system may be thinking and feeling.
Author Jen Babakhan goes on to write in “I Was Adopted—Here’s What Everyone Gets Wrong About Adoption”, “For some, adoption is a small detail in their personal history that goes unnoticed most of the time. Susan …, 58, was adopted when she was just six weeks old and says her childhood was ideal. ‘When I was younger, I would forget I was adopted,’ she explains. ‘I never felt out of place in my family, and people used to say I looked just like my dad, which I loved.’
And adoption isn’t something that should garner sadness or be talked about in hushed tones. ‘A lot of people approach the topic of adoption with sympathetic responses,’ says Angela. ‘There’s nothing to be sympathetic about.’ There is, however, something to be said for knowing how to prevent a conversation from being awkward.”
Adoption is a lifelong commitment on the part of adoptive parents, but also a lifelong journey on the part of an adoptee. Adoptive families are in this together and there is no greater resource than going to the source. The more we are willing to learn from the adoptees within the adoption community the stronger we will be and the better we can help adoptive families—parents, children, and extended family and friends—to navigate adoption.