“…and I haven’t heard from them in a week, and their last update I didn’t get any pictures, and I am so afraid they are pushing me out of their lives!”
“Stop overreacting. They probably just forgot, and are spending lots of time with the little girl YOU chose to place with them. Be happy that she is so loved!”
The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about their impact. The 19-year-old girl, Emma, who had only placed two months prior, hung her head and mumbled, “I guess you’re right.” Her arms wrapped around her torso, and she slumped forward in that awful, aching, empty-arm pose that I knew all too well. She hid her eyes, and I suspected she was starting to cry.
“That . . . was harsh. Not everyone has the picture-perfect situation you do,” was the response later, in private, from one of my best friends. We had met a few years before in our expectant mother support group. Her words hit me hard—my adoption story wasn’t picture perfect . . . but I definitely painted it that way to everyone around me.
Emma’s reaction to my insistence that she just “be happy” stuck in my mind for weeks after it happened. The empty, defeated look haunted me. She didn’t come back to our support group for three weeks. When she did, she had heard from the family she placed her daughter with, she had pictures to share, and she was smiling again. “See? I was right,” my brain exclaimed. It was then that I knew I really had a problem. It wasn’t just to Emma that I had acted this way, I had been this way toward people for at least a year.
I had heard people refer to “drinking the Kool-aid” or “rainbows and butterflies” when talking about people who advocated for adoption and basically told everyone that it was the greatest thing ever. As a birthmother, I should have known better . . . instead, I was the one passing out the Kool-aid and forcing them to drink.
I was completely invalidating others’ feelings. Feelings that were real, raw, and consuming. I had felt those things, I had raged and thrown myself into the depths of despair after placement, panicking every time an email or photo was a little bit late, always assuming the worst. Yet, here I was, 3 years later, essentially telling other girls that their feelings and their losses were insignificant!
Who was I to do and say those things? Who was I really trying to convince?
I was an adoption happiness bully.
“BE HAPPY! BE HAPPY! JUST BE HAPPY ABOUT IT! STOP THINKING ABOUT YOU, IT IS ABOUT THE CHILD! STOP HURTING AND BE HAPPY! RAHHHHHHH!!!”
I was well aware of adoption “meanies” on my support forums online. We all know the ones . . . who talk about how awful adoption is, and try to convince expectant mothers to NOT consider adoption. I enjoyed arguing with them about our differing opinions of adoption. I enjoyed the heated debates and (what I thought was) sticking up for adoption.
Fortunately, the same friend who had called me out on being a jerk in group also made a wise suggestion. She told me to listen—actually LISTEN—to others’ stories. Seek out the ones whose trust and promises had been broken, and just try to understand where those people were coming from. So I did.
I read stories. I listened. For the first time, instead of focusing on how blessed and lucky I was to have an amazing adoptive couple who loved me, I tried to put myself into the position of girls who had placed their babies expecting to see pictures . . . get updates . . . build a relationship… but had instead been shut out, cut off, and made to wonder and question if their child was OK. I listened to women who had placed in the era of closed adoptions, who knew they had a 30-, 40-, or 50-year-old child out in the world, but would probably never meet them. They had lived their entire adult lives wondering, but never knowing, full of regret, anger, resentment . . . feelings that I truly knew nothing about.
My heart broke. Who was I to tell them that they should just be happy? Who was I to tell them how to feel about adoption? Adoption is not a perfect formula. To some of these women, adoption would permanently leave a gaping, aching hole. They may never get closure. They may never see their child again. How devastated would I be if it had happened to me? Would I really want someone to tell me to “just be happy!” about all of it? If it was me . . . what would I need? How did I know that it couldn’t still happen to me in the future? Would anyone be there to comfort me and let me grieve?
When I next talked to Emma, she had just attended finalization. She was so happy for the family, but still felt that small ache that accompanies knowing your child is, legally, no longer your child. There is something so final about it, even though in our state there is no going back once relinquishment papers are signed. Instead of my initial reaction to tell her, “Oh, that is so great! Think of how happy they are, and what a great gift you have given, and now they are a family!” I took a deep breath, forced myself to relive my own first year post-placement, and simply said, “I understand. It’s pretty bittersweet, isn’t it?”
That was all it took. She smiled and responded, “Bittersweet is the perfect word. And that is OK. I am OK. And she is so beautiful!”
Even though my heart aches when I see or hear the not-so-happy adoption stories, I am grateful for the brave women willing to share and be heard. Forcing myself to try to understand others has made me a more compassionate person. I am grateful that I have the ability to remember my own aching moments, and to sympathize with others that I may not even agree with.
The hurt, the ache, the emptiness—it is all real. It will all continue to be real. Invalidating someone’s hurt will not help.
Adoption isn’t perfect… and that is OK.