Wednesday, November 7, 2012

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Childhood Adoption Narratives

Childhood Adoption Narratives. Describe the story your adoptive parents told you growing up. What age were you? What feelings and questions did you have about this “adoption narrative”? Was it a satisfying explanation for you? Explain. As an adult, whether or not you are in reunion, comment on how much of that story turned out to be true. Has your adoption narrative changed? What story, if any, do you share with friends, acquaintances? How to others react to your narrative? Are they curious, supportive, silencing?

When I signed up to respond to this prompt, I thought it would be easy.  I didn't expect that sitting down to write would drag my difficult feelings to the surface.  Yet my stomach is in knots as I realize afresh how deeply my own understanding of adoption was influenced by the thoughts of the times. 
I’ve pulled out my baby book, the same one Rebecca Hawkes has. Looking through it is both sweet and difficult. Though it contains records of many precious memories, it also presents thoughts on adoption that I no longer agree with, thoughts which I have had to work hard to overcome. The author, an adoptive parent herself, writes in the preface that "...[the book] begins with the DAY you became a "family".." .  (Why she chose to put family in quotes, I do not know, but it's worth pondering.) While there is a small area dedicated to "Your Personal History", there is no mention of the fact that the adoptee's life did not in fact begin with coming into the adoptive family, and there is no mention whatsoever of the adoptee's first family. It's not a bad book.  In fact, I give the creator at least a bit of credit for seeing that something other than a book designed for a parent's biological child was needed.  And yet, it fails to allow for a more complete rendering of the adoptee's experience. 
Turning the page in my baby book takes me to a letter to the adopted child, written by the author's adoptive daughter.  She begins by asking, "Have you ever thought how very wonderful being adopted really is?"  She goes on to say, "I know 'we adopted each other', yet I seldom have needed to talk about it..."  According to her, not only is being adopted just fabulous, it is also no different than growing up in your biological family. Other poems and quotes presented throughout the book emphasize the joy the adopted child is bringing to the new parents
Though the ideas illustrated above were by no means the totality of my childhood adoption narrative, they were at least partially present in our family's discussions about adoption.  To a large extent, my adoption was presented within the framework of my parents' desires.  While honest, this type of narrative puts the adoptive parents' needs, rather than the child's needs, at the center, and it was an explanation I took to heart.  My adoptive mother writes that my earliest questioning began around age three, and goes on to tell a story of how literally I equated the word "adoption" with the concept of happiness. I knew from a very young age that adopting me made my parents happy. Of course it's good and healthy and appropriate for children to know that their parents take joy in them.  This is part of letting children know how deeply they are loved! (And I have indeed received love in abundance.) However, in my young mind this bringing of joy became my job  -- a role around which I built much of my identity.  I didn't realize this until well into adulthood, when my intense need to fulfill my parents' desires caused issues in my marriage.  
I think it's important to note that this is not a role my parents ever intentionally asked me to take on.  I am by nature a fierce protector of those I love.  In fact, certain battle imagery makes me almost ridiculously giddy.  I remember the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  I watched with fascination, nearly breathless, as Eowyn wielded her sword while Aragorn watched from the entrance to the hall. Something swelled within me and I thought I want to be THAT.  Given my natural bent then, the leap from "we take joy in you" to "my job is to make them happy" was really just a small hop. Moving even further into that role, and eventually viewing myself as a "protector" of sorts was only a tiny step.  I do not believe this was an expectation my parents had of me, at least not knowingly.  Nevertheless, the words we use to talk with children about adoption are important.  Writer Ellen Gilchrist is quoted as saying, "We live at the level of our language. Whatever we can articulate we can imagine or explore."  Indeed. 
As I grew older and conversation evolved to include questions about the reasons behind my relinquishment, my parents endeavored to be truthful and shared what little information they had according to the paperwork they had received.
Your biological parents wanted you to have a stable, loving home.  They could not provide this for you.  They asked the agency to find parents who would give you the home they felt you deserved.
This was the extent of what we knew about why my natural parents relinquished me for adoption.  It's truly alarming to me to reflect on how little information we had.   My adoptive parents were left to fill in the blanks, and today I see that there were many.

Had I been asked several years ago whether this explanation was satisfying, I would have said yes.  I had no awareness of struggling with questions or emotions about my adoption.  I had no memories of facing difficulties in my childhood.  My adoptive mother, however, would tell you something different.  She recently shared with me that I used to pray at night, naming all the people who loved me.  From there I would ask if I had been a pretty baby.  She would affirm that I indeed had been, and I would go on to ask, "Then why did she give me away?" 

(Tears people, tears.  Right at this very moment.  But there is no time for stinging eyes and clenching stomach.  I must write.)

I'm angry.  I'm angry that those in charge thought I should be given so very little.  Are the adopted so worthless that we deserve only three short sentences explaining the loss of our natural parents? 

(Write, my dear.  There is no time for your anger right now.)

Obviously, this answer did not satisfy, though I did not realize it at the time. I believed all was well in my emotional world.  I sometimes jokingly referred to myself as a possible poster-child for well-adjusted adoptees.  Yet I thought of my natural mother daily.  Thoughts of a gentle young woman with long, brown hair (my fantasies were remarkably close to reality) permeated my inner life. 

With the rise of the Internet, the sphere from which I could gather information about adoption widened.  My husband and I began considering adopting late in 2001, and like many prospective adoptive parents I joined various forums for discussion.  Suddenly, I found myself interacting with natural mothers. My understanding of adoption had been based on "happiness".  It did not allow for my natural mother's pain, yet the women I was meeting met were expressing a depth of grief which I had only briefly and partially understood upon the birth of my children.  My natural mother's anguish - even simply the possibility of it - tore at my heart.   My comfortable notions were shattered. With the jagged pieces, I began constructing a new, more authentic framework for understanding my own adoption, but the work came at great personal cost.  I could no longer bury my feelings.  I could no longer pretend that I wasn't in pain.

In time, my adoptive parents also experienced a shift in their thinking about adoption.  We've been able to have healthy discussions about many aspects of adoption, and though we may approach the issues from different perspectives, I appreciate their willingness to continue listening and learning. 
Today, I too am in the role of adoptive parent. It is I who must begin to craft the lens through which my daughter will view her adoption. It's important to me that this lens is clouded with neither the bitterness that at times stems from my own wounds, nor the inappropriately-sweetened explanations unfortunately so prevalent in the adoption community.
As I reflect on the way I approach discussions with my daughter, a few thoughts come to mind. The most authentic adoption narratives:
  • Are inclusive of the adoptee's particular history and circumstances
  • Allow for a range of emotional responses
  • Present information factually
  • Guide instead of dictate
  • Allow for complexity
  • Keep the adoptee's well-being in mind
  • Focus on the adoptee's story rather than the adoptive parents' stories
  • Are truthful
As a family member who is also an adoptive parent has said to her children, "It's a hard story, but it's your story and you have a right to know it".  I wholeheartedly believe this to be true.
I'm also thrilled to share that I am in reunion! My relationships with my first parents are still very fresh; we are just getting to know one another.  For now, we have only touched on some of the more emotional topics, but I imagine that in time we will discuss the past more fully and I'm sure that my understanding of adoption will again deepen.  Already, I see that there were shreds of truth in the explanations I was given as a child, though it is much more complex and tragic than I once understood it to be.  I can also see that the ideas of that long ago time continue to have influence, and I understand that in some ways the heart is shielded by hanging on to them. I wonder if these people I care so deeply for will also need tear apart and reconstruct their beliefs about adoption.  I worry about what the cost to them might be.  And so, I remain silent about my grief.

Once again, I am the protector.