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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Three Nieces and a Birthday Party

As we pulled up to the old brick Colonial, I could see my niece seemingly floating in the air, pressing her face against the glass of the front door.  My brother-in-law, my husband's-sister's-husband, was holding her.  She was wearing a midnight blue baby-ballgown with buttons down her back, a bow around her waist, and tiny rainbow rhinestones covering the satin fabric like stars blanketing the night sky.  Her blue eyes shone from beneath her curls.  I walked passed the planters and jars containing chunky lit candles tied with pink ribbons and into the entry-way which was speckled with red and pink rose petals.  I leaned over and kissed *Button on her cheek.  "Happy Birthday, Button," I said.  She wiggled her little nose at me and squealed.  Large pink and purple handmade tissue paper poufs hung from the chandeliers in two rooms, connected by homemade garland of butterflies, made of cut up magazine paper, connected with string.  I passed by more over-sized jars with chunky candles and ribbon.

Food was everywhere.  My sister-in-laws in-laws are a large, Italian family.  They get to see Button more than I do.  Sometimes I catch myself feeling jealous that they get to be closer to her than I do--if only by proximity.  I learned growing up with the closest adoptive relative living over three hours away, that the cousins who live closer to the grandparents, aunts and uncles, are the cousins that get to be closer to the grandparents, aunts and uncles.  I always feel better ten minutes into a gathering because her in-laws, and all of their many brothers, sisters, wives, and kids, are really nice and welcoming.  They don't make you feel excluded.

I caught myself today, as I wielded my camera capturing every single moment of Button's birthday party that I could, defending my obnoxious picture taking by cheerfully grumbling "well, she's my only niece!"  And then I felt badly.  She isn't my one and only niece.  I have two others whom I have never met who probably do not want to meet me.  It would really hurt me should my original family forget to count me as one of their own though.  Or if my adoptive family excluded me because I'm not biologically related or didn't consider me to be "real."

The truth is, it is sad to have nieces you  might never know.  And even sadder that because of it, you forget to count them as a part of your family when you know you hate not being counted yourself.

I chuckled to myself today when I thought of how much I love being a part of this niece's life and she's not even biologically-related to me.  "I'm never the biologically-related one, wherever I go!"  I laughed to myself, as she wrapped her tiny hand around mine to steady herself as she lead me around the house, showing me her new-found walking skills.  It is funny the things family gatherings make you think of and know how much you've grown when the same old issues of adoption and belonging start bothering you less and less.

Today, I remembered to treat my family how I want to be treated; I have three nieces, not just one.

*Not her real name.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Not Raising Angry Ingrates: a Tall Order for Adoptive Parents


I was sitting across the table from my mother-in-law today; we were casually discussing random topics over lunch.  I asked her if she had seen the YouTube video that has been going around on Facebook, the one where the father pops a couple of rounds in his daughter's laptop with a handgun, because of something rude she posted on Facebook about her family.  My mother-in-law shook her head in disappointment.  "I've been staying away from that one," she replied.  "It would just make me aggravated to watch it.  The story about what he did is everywhere and I think he was over-the-top.  There are better ways to handle a snotty 15-year-old."  She talked about different things she had done with her kids over the years when they had misbehaved.  "And I think they did OK, we had no major issues," she said.  "I consider the fact that no one got pregnant and neither of them ever went to jail a success" she continued, light-heartedly.  She said it jokingly but there was a hint of seriousness there; it is a tough job, raising kids.  She and her husband did do a good job.  They have two college educated*, successful, happy, adults with families of their own.  So did my parents.  They raised a daughter who is a college educated, successful, happy, successful adult with a family of her own.  However, my parents are still failures, ladies.  They may have raised a happy and successful interdependent member of society but they failed on their one main goal as adoptive parents: to raise a daughter who unquestioningly loves the institution of adoption.
Isn't that what people say, any way?  It doesn't matter what a nice person I am or how many good things I do, it all means nothing if I don't love adoption and am not willing to deliver a glowing report to the institution that altered something as fundamental as my family ties.  Isn't this the assumption people make time and time again?  That comes up over and over again in the adoption community?  The thing is, who is "angry" and who is not is riddled with bias.  "Angry adoptee" is one label that people use but there's no set rule as to what "angry adoptee" means.  It is often arbitrarily assigned or is a code-word for "shut up," "you're mentally ill and therefore cannot be taken seriously" (disablism), or "no one should listen to you."  There is no distinguishing this label between adoptees who have genuine anger issues and adoptees who have an opinion someone just does not like.  People have thrown out the "angry adoptee" label at everything from an adoptee disliking adoption, to an adoptee simply being ambivalent, to an adoptee wanting to reform adoption, to an adoptee wanting to search and reunite.  What some people think constitutes "angry adoptee" is completely different from what someone else might think it means.  There's one set rule about "angry adoptee:" and that is, it is a label that has become derogatory and hurtful.
We all have our own biases as human beings.  There are some things some of us have come to terms with that we will never change our minds about.  This is often a bad thing but doesn't always have to be.  For instance, I have come to terms with my conception circumstances.  I am not interested in hearing the ignorant things people have to say about victims of rape or their sons or daughters.  I don't care if someone thinks I am an unequal person or should have my records as an adoptee extra-super-sealed because of circumstances outside of my control.  I do not think people who think so have a point; I will not ever be convinced to acquiesce to lesser personhood. I do not want to hear the bad things people have to say about us and our mothers.  I have decided how I want to feel about my own experience; case closed.  I get not wanting to change your mind about something.  But there are instances where not listening or finding a reason not to listen can be a bad thing too.  Like when we can all be making a positive change in an institution or for other people and, for whatever reason, we not only do not listen to what those who can teach us have to say, we decided something is wrong with them giving ourselves a reason not to listen.
Why am I bringing this up again, besides the fact that it is already constantly brought up in the adoption community and could stand to be brought up pretty regularly?  I found something while doing research for a paper that I had to share.  It's an article by an adoption psychologist that is over 45 years old.  Here's what it says.
The psychologist wrote that a Social Worker had referred to her a letter written by an adoptee who was 8.5 years old at the time.  The adoptee wrote:
"Thinking about my [original] mother makes me unable to do my homework today. My [adoptive] mother told me some things about my mother. These are the things I would like to know. (1) Who [is my] mother? (2) How old [is she] now? (3) Is she married now? May we come and find the answers to these questions and maybe more?"
The psychologist writes in response that this very simple inquiry would be to many professionals and adoptive parents alike, a "cause for alarm" and an indication that the adoptive parents are just not doing their job properly (note the blank spaces where I had to insert text in brackets is due to words being lost "in translation" between the original document and the .pdf reader).
The psychologist goes on to write:
"In the matter of background information, this difference is fairly clear-cut. [The adoptee's] letter indicates the highly personal quality that she attached to the factors of biological and social background. For most parents, however, the involvement with background is of a different sort. Background information is often most important to adoptive parents at the point of deciding on adoption, and is useful as part of their exploration into their own feelings about parenthood, rather than as a factor in establishing their own identity. In fact, we have evidence suggesting that many parents forget what they know about background information once placement has occurred. With their lesser personal involvement with background information and their continuing involvement with the business of being good parents and good people, they are often vulnerable to a distorted interpretation of a child's inquiry about background, seeing this as a comment on their adequacy as parents, rather than simply as a reflection of the child's "natural" curiosity about ancestry." 
The basis of the entire article written by this psychologist was that adoptive parents and adoptees enter into adoption in not only different ways but have different roles and thus, naturally, have different perspectives on adoption and the issues that come along with adoption (e.g. the importance of the adoptee narrative).  While it has, since the dawn of the existence of modern adoption (the past 100 years), perhaps, been an expectation that all members of the "triad" would view and embrace adoption the exact same way, this is in fact not reasonable.  It is unreasonable for all adoptees to be expected to accept the same opinion that society and other non-adopted people accept about adoption.  It is unreasonable to instead not look to adoptees to gain more information about the adoption experience.  This psychologist, along with countless authors on adoption out there, noted, even 45 years ago, that it is OK and even normal, for an adoptee to view adoption differently than someone else and that how an adoptee may view adoption will continue to change as they gain life experience and reasoning skills during development.  If you're familiar with Erikson, famed adult adoptee theorist and the Father of Identity in the psychology world, human development lasts a lifetime.

So, what happened with this 8.5 year old girl after no one freaked out and accused her parents of being horrible because she felt upset and was unable to do a daily task without distraction because she felt the pressing need to know about her original mother?  Thank goodness no one called her an "angry adoptee" and walked away from her hoping to never hear from her again.  Her parents did what they could to find the answers for her and the professional observing the case noted that she seemed happy and went back to playing.

How simple is the justice of truth?  How simple is this than the alternative of adoptee-bashing and the griping that adoptees just aren't "nice enough" about the things they have thus far been powerless over in their own lives?

The misunderstandings that occur when someone is not really listening to what an adoptee is saying are perhaps no better exemplified than by an article that was brought to my attention today.  This 2008 article, derogatorily labels the "Adoptee Rights Movement" as the "Anti-Adoption Movement."  It's important to point out the irony in her argument that activists, such as Unsealed Initiative, have something against original mothers--considering the fact that the President of Unsealed Initiative is herself an original mother.  She probably has not seen the NY-based petition that thousands of mothers have signed in support of Adoptee Rights.  Oh well, one can't see or hear what they're unwilling to see or hear, correct?   In her unseeing and unhearing the real issues, is the still correct?  Is Adoptee Rights is about ending all adoptions?  Au contraire, Adoptee Rights movement is full of adoptees breaking  taboo and standing up and saying "this is what we should change about adoption."  Since Adoptee Rights activists are unwilling to embrace adoption without ethical reforms, we are "anti-adoption" and the author even goes so far as to insinuate that we somehow revel in the concept of women having abortions.  Isn't this sad that this is where society has come to view adoptees speaking out about how adoption has impacted them and what they believe needs to be changed?  Isn't it sad that being Pro-Adoptee now equates to being "anti-adoption" and that the anthropomorphism of the inanimate, non-human, institution (concept, idea, set of laws) that is adoption has lead people to believe that we must ignore the voices of real, living, human people whom adoption impacts in order to unquestioningly stand for adoption at all times and never change it?

Where would this beloved adoption be if no one ever listened to adult adoptees or Adoptee Rights Activists and instead listened to those who urged others not to listen?

In 1975 the director of research for the Child Welfare League of America wrote this about three "angry adoptees:"

"It would be nice to hear from some adoptees whose adoptive experience had not been so bizarre as that of Betty Jean Lifton, Florence Fisher, or Jean Paton."
Then perhaps backpedaling a bit, the CWLA's Director of Information stated later in 1976:
"Because society has delegated to social agencies responsibility for protecting the interests and well-being of all three parties involved in adoption, social agencies have an obligation to hear the messages that adult adoptees are sending. Adult adoptees are a primary source for knowledge about adoption as an institution. Their perceptions are unique, for adult adoptees are actually the only persons who can tell us what it is like to live adoption in a society in which most people are not adopted. Therefore, whether adoptees are unduly goaded by the search for facts and reunion or whether they are at peace with their adoptive status, their reactions should be sought. They can add an important new dimension to the field's knowledge...............Today's sealed record controversy cannot be dismissed as simply the expression of a few vocal dissidents; it must be viewed as a moot issue. In this debate, open-mindedness is essential and such openmindedness has to include consideration of the possibility that adult adoptees may be right in demanding elimination of secrecy."
The CWLA, along with several other major child welfare agencies, have gone on the record supporting Adoptee Rights as ethical because they stopped and listened to adult adoptees.

Those three angry, "bizarre" adult adoptees with "bad experiences" that the CWLA in 1975 wished would be quiet so that some other adoptee who had something "better" to say would step forward?  Do you know what research consistently time and time and time again credits these three amazing, "angry," courageous foremothers for bringing into existence in the adoption world?

OPEN ADOPTIONS.

Yes, not only has their work lead to the empowerment of countless adult adoptees, original parents, adoptive parents and allies.  Not only has their work lead to movements that has opened records in various states and made adoption a bit more ethical here and there (with lots work left to be done!) step by step.  They are a big reason why open adoptions, which so many people love so much, even exist.

But we aren't glad, nay, grateful, for the voices of angry ingrates?  Or is it that we're done listening because adoption is so wonderful now that the voices of the adopted are no longer needed?

How do we know so well that the work is done if no one is listening to the failures or successes of the institution in the lives of those the institution impacts?  What a convenient catch-22.

When will we acknowledge that anger and bitterness are relative and are emotions both given and received through one's personal lens of bias and experience?  If you ask me, there something awfully unjust about narratives only being heard and appreciated if they come in just the right package.  Adoptees are promised and asked to believe in unconditional love despite our fears of rejection--yet is this point truly believable when our very thoughts and feelings are not taken without condition?  Where we are either bitter, angry, or admitting our parents fell short by default if we do not say what we are expected to say and love adoption as much as others, who are in a completely different role, experience, and perspective in the triad, do?

There are angry people in adoption because there are angry people everywhere in every community.  However, this is not what "angry adoptee" means.  "Angry adoptee," as I said before, is code-word for "I don't want to listen to you because you have something that I didn't expect or don't want to hear, to say, and I don't want to hear it."  What would people learn if they actually listened to what Adoption Refom and Adoptee Rights is about?   They might find that what irritates adoptees is something very simple to see: being ignored, being invisible, being excluded, being stereotyped, being insulted, and witnessing, on ad after ad, law after law, website after website, blog after blog the same racism, adoptism, adultism, tokenism, ventriloquism, sexism, ableism, and classism in an adoption that tells us we don't matter any more because it's allegedly all "so different now."

Isn't the 45-year-old article that deals with the same exact issue that the adoption community can't seem to rid itself of now, that something is "wrong" with adoptees if they don't think and feel like someone else does, evidence that some of the most fundamental and important things about adoption are no different than in any other era?
Back to my parents, I will tell you what they did and what they did not do are the alleged failures as parents that they are.  They did not raise a daughter who is their carbon copy and who thinks, acts, speaks, and feels exactly as they do in every single way.  They did not raise someone who grew up willing to become the poster-child of an inanimate institution (collection of ideas, a concept, a group of laws).  What they did do is raise someone who thinks and speaks for herself.  They raised a daughter who voices what she thinks is important even if it isn't popular or people say mean things to her in return.  They raised someone that cares far more about people and how people are impacted by an institution than she does about the institution itself.  They raised someone who does not make apologies for hate and prejudice nor expects oppressed people to pat my White hand and soothe my Christian ego or bow to my middle class wallet when voicing how their disadvantages in society have impacted them.  Expecting my parents, as adoptive parents, to have raised me in such a way that I won't be "embittered" or "angry" by the prejudices in, lack of progress of, and my own invisibility within the very institution that altered my destiny on this earth is a pretty tall and quite unreasonable order to fill.  

I think the fact that injustice does bother me is quite a testimony to the fact that they did their job pretty darn well.



References:

Fish, A., & Speirs, C. (1990). Biological Parents Choose Adoptive Parents: The Use of Profiles in Adoption. Child Welfare69(2), 129-139.

Krugman, D. C. (1967). Differences in the relation of parents and children to adoption. Child Welfare46(5), 267-271.

Phillips, M. (1975). Childhood Deprivation. Child Welfare54(10), 726-728.

Smith, R. (1976, February). The Sealed Adoption Record Controversy and Social Agency Response. Child Welfare. pp. 73-74.

*Please note that the point in mentioning that someone went to college is not to say that someone who didn't is not doing a good job or is not successful.  College is one typical indication of success but the opposite of "unsuccessfullness" is not intended to be implied for those who were not able or did not want to go.  The same goes for any other example of success given in this blog entry.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Two Years Ago Today...


I'll never forget the chain of events that changed my life over two years ago.  It was the second weekend in August when my cousins came to visit us on vacation.  My sister and I share a room in our summer home and my cousin was hanging out with us.  Somehow she started asking questions about our adoptions and my sister confessed to knowing a lot more than I did.  She had found our paperwork a few years before and there was a lot more in the paperwork than my parents had ever mentioned.  Three days later we went home and as soon as my parents left to run an errand, we ran upstairs to the office space and she found the files tucked away in the back of a file cabinet.  We both read through our non-identifying information.  It took her a lot longer because she had a lot more than I did, including names.


I wrote everything down on a tissue and brought it with me when I moved to school the next day.  I started Googling all sorts of combinations based on the tissue but couldn't come up with anything.  I figured I'd wait and try again somewhere down the line.  It was my senior year after all and I had lots of other important things to do.  Yet somehow, I stopped sleeping.  I'd toss and turn all night, wondering about the mysterious people from my past, wondering who they were and what the non-identifying information meant.


I'd never imagined my biological father before.  I figured nobody knew who he was.  That paperwork made him a very real person.  My biological mother had been this mythical figure, and now I had a piece of paper with her handwriting on it.  Her honest to goodness handwriting.  Amazing.  But what did it all mean?


The first week of January I went to New Orleans.  I lost it in front of a group of virtual strangers.  It was the day my parents brought me home and nobody from home remembered.  For the first time in years, I wasn't home with them.  I was devastated.  When I explained why I was so upset to the group, thinking that nobody would get it, I was met with understanding and support.  They may not have "got" it but they vowed to be there for me anyway.  And that's when I decided to give my search another go.


I gave myself a week to make sure it was what I wanted to do, and I hit the search hard.  Finally, I paid for a report that would give me a list of all the women born in my biological mother's birth state on that day with her first name.  I figured I'd get maybe five or six women and I'd track them down until I found the right one.  The report came back the next morning with two names.  One was clearly my first mother.  And the report had a list of related people, one of whom shared the same first name as my biological father.  I was able to confirm they were one and the same person, so I had his name too.  A few hours later, Google gave me information I'd waited for my entire life.  My biological parents had married at some point and had two more children, little girls who were seven and ten years younger than me.  Amazing.  I found them all on Facebook.  For the first time in 22 years, I saw pictures of people I looked like.  I saw my face in my little sister's.  I cried and laughed at the same time.  I looked like somebody.  How cool was that?


I wrote that first letter with shaking hands.  It took me hours.  I wanted it to sound just right.  I scoured the Internet looking for examples of what to say.  I wrote and rewrote three times.  I stayed up half the night.  In the end, I printed it and let it sit a while on my desk.  I signed my name, included my contact information and sealed it in an envelope.


I had an interview the next day for a job I really wanted.  I walked to the interview with the letter in my bag.  I blew the interview because I was so nervous about sending the letter.  I didn't feel badly about the job though because I felt this was more important for my life.  After my interview I walked calmly up to the mailbox.  I looked around, amazing that life in the campus center seemed the same as always.  It was a life changing moment for me, and all my fellow students were going about their normal business.  I looked at the letter one last time.  I took a deep breath.  It was like time stopped and was going in slow motion.  I let the letter go, one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.  I heard the "plop" as it hit the bottom.  I turned and walked away quickly.  It was done.  Now all I could do was wait.


Two years ago today I took that step.  I mailed that letter.  And I'm so glad that I did.  My reunion didn't go the way I thought it would, but nothing in life happens exactly as you expect it.  So happy two-year reunion anniversary to me.  I can't believe I've made it this far!


-Jenn