Monday, October 14, 2013

Free-Falling Into the Baby Rage Zone: Another Adoptee Epiphany

Shouldn't I be done with this by now? I've been processing this adoption stuff for how many years? Shouldn't I be completely and utterly over all of it? 

These were my thoughts as I sat crying in my car in a school parking lot Saturday afternoon. My daughter was inside the school participating in a cheer exhibition, but her group wasn't scheduled to perform for several hours. I was in the car reading, once again cracked wide open by words on a page (or in this case a Kindle screen).

I had been working my way slowly through Christine Murphy's memoir Taking Down the Wall for some time. (My slow pace is no reflection on the book. This is simply the way I read. I typically have multiple books going at once and tend to dip in and out of them over time.) I'd bought the book after interacting with Christine a few times online. I knew her as a fellow adoptee whose thoughts and feelings about adoption often echoed my own. I knew that her memoir described her own gradual (and painful) process of awakening as she came to understand the trauma of her separation from her original mother as an infant. As a fully awakened adoptee myself (or so I thought), I came to the book expecting to identify but not to be shaken. Hadn't I gone through all of that years ago? I expected to skate through the book with the smug satisfaction of someone looking back on her former self, pleased with how far she's come. Been there, done that.

So imagine my surprise when I got to the epiphany part of the book and found myself 100% triggered. I couldn't understand what was happening. I was reading words that seemed familiar to me, words I might have written myself. The author didn't seem to be saying anything I didn't already know. Why was I experiencing almost unbearable pain, like metal being scraped against a raw wound, throughout my body? Every cell seemed to be pulsing with it.

I went back over the passages, highlighting various parts. I read them again and again, until finally I saw it. And it was as if a trap door opened and I felt myself free-falling down into one more (oh dear God please let this be the last) adoptee-issue zone. The deepest (and I hope final) one.

Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at

I have explored grief and loss. I have mourned and cried till I was wrung dry. I have expressed anger toward the system that caused my separation from my original family. I have raged against culture, society, my biological grandmother, and Georgia Tann. But I have never allowed myself to fully explore (or even admit to) my anger at my birth parents.
Of all the epiphanies I would experience on this journey, this was the most pivotal. It was after 4 a.m. and I sat bawling my eyes out. For the very first time in my life, I could see the answer. I was able to sit there and aloud say, “I am hurt and sad and angry because I was left.” -- Christine Murphy
The boldfaced, italicized emphasis above is my own addition. It is the part I was reading but not seeing.
I began to see that as an adult, as a 38-year-old woman, I could understand Diane’s actions. She was not married, did not have family support and did not have the resources to keep me. The 38-year-old in me understood all of that. The problem was, the 38-year-old was not who was actually hurting. The person in me who was hurt, sad, and angry was the one-day-old who was missing her mother. The one-day-old could not possibly understand. -- Christine Murphy 
Again, the emphasis is mine. This anger is not an entirely new concept for me. I've acknowledged it before and identified it as "the baby rage." I've long been aware of its existence and intensity. I've simply never allowed myself to acknowledge its direction: my original mother and father.

I relate to Murphy's words about the distinction between the adult and the child self. The adult me has always understood what happened to me and to my parents in 1966. I fully grasp the social forces that were at work at that time in history: the Baby Scoop Era. The adult me brings empathy and understanding to the position my 17- and 19-year-old parents found themselves in as they dealt with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy at a time when such things were still enshrouded in shame and secrecy. I can place myself in their shoes. I can admit that faced with the same choices, or lack of choices, I probably would have done exactly as they did.

But do you see what is happening here? Do you see how our roles are reversed--how I am the adult and they are the children? What happens if I reverse that? If I allow myself to slip back into the role of the child and look to them as my parents, something frightening happens.

If I am the child, I am the child who was left.
If they are the parents, they are the parents who did the unthinkable. They let me slip away.

In 1966 my mother was abandoned by her own mother.  My grandmother did not behave as a mother should. My mother’s mother let the social code of the day override motherly instinct. She did not support her daughter in a time of crisis. She turned her back on her own offspring. Whatever the social pressures of the day, nothing fully excuses this. My mother’s mother abandoned her motherly role and in doing so abandoned her child. Their relationship would never fully recover.

I have listened to my mother express anger over this, and I have tried to honor her refusal to let my grandmother off the hook. I allow my mother to acknowledge that the historical context of the times does not fully excuse the choices her mother made. But I have never allowed myself to do the same.

What my mother’s mother did to her, my mother did to me. She did not behave as a mother should.

I understand that my parents were tricked into believing that they had no right to behave as parents. But for me, today, the emphasis is on “they” rather than on “tricked.” They allowed this to happen. Whatever degree of power they had or didn’t have, they still had more agency than I did. I was a baby--their baby, their child--and they allowed me to slip away.

I am angry because they didn’t fight for me. I am angry that they didn’t rise up and rage against the system that was tearing us apart. I’m angry that they didn’t realize what was truly being lost until it was too late. I am angry that they allowed themselves to be tricked into believing it would all be okay. Because it wasn’t and it never will be. Not entirely.

If I am the child, I am the child who was lost.
If they are the parents, they are the parents who failed me.

I need to be the child, if only for a few minutes, crying in the car in a parking lot.
I need my parents to be my parents, however flawed.
I need to restore the order of things.

The baby rage has always been with me.

I remember it flaring up once early in my reunion with my mother. We hadn’t yet met in person but we were exchanging frequent letters. I was stunned and amazed to find her present in my life after so many years of absence. I kept expecting that she would disappear again, and in one of my letters to her I expressed this fear.  In her next letter to me, she addressed my concern in a light way, writing, “I will try not to disappear!” Reading those words, the rage flashed through me. I threw the letter to the ground. You'd better do more than try, I thought. You’d better not leave me again!

Almost immediately the grown-up me kicked in. I reread the letter and was able to interpret her sentence in the light, playful way she had intended it. But what I'd wanted to hear was this: I will never again leave you. I will never again allow anything to tear us apart. I am here, for you, forevermore. 

Eighteen years into reunion, I now trust that my mother will not disappear. It has taken that long. For both of us. For 18 years, we have been working our way back to our proper roles. She shared her side of the experience with me when she visited this past summer, admitting in one of our conversations that it has taken her all these years to really feel like my mother, to allow herself to reclaim that position in her own mind. I, too, have been working my way gradually toward more fully occupying the role of her daughter. 

In the beginning of our reunion, we were two people who liked each other and had a lot in common, but we were not entirely mother and daughter.

In Taking Down the Wall, Christine Murphy originally experienced a great deal of resistance to language that acknowledged the original family as family. Words like "mother" and "daughter" and even "sister" and 'brother" were hugely triggering for her. 

I encounter a similar situation in online encounters with the so called "happy adoptees" who claim to have experienced no loss as a result of adoption. The adoptive family is all they need, they say. The biological family is nothing to them. Why would they want to meet their birth parents? Those people are strangers to them.

There is safety in that position. If those teenagers from 1966 are merely strangers to me, just a couple of kids who were never meant to be my parents, then nothing really terrible happened, right? 

I understand the appeal of that position. I understand the need to build protective walls with language. 

Another situation that causes my baby rage to flare is this: I am participating in a conversation online and a mother who lost a child to adoption has jumped in to admonish myself or another adoptee for using the term "birth mother" or any other term that qualifies the word "mother" in any way. "She is your mother and nothing less," they say. "You shouldn't call her anything but that." The first part of my response to this (in my head) is a string of words that I won't repeat here. The second part goes something like this: I didn't choose this! I was a baby and I had zero say in any of this. But I am the one who has to spend my whole life making sense of what happened to me. And if I need a qualifier to do that, then who the hell are you to take that from me?!

In her memoir Without a Map, Meredith Hall (a Baby Scoop Era first mother in reunion) writes the following words about her struggle to come to terms with the realization that the adoptive parents who raised her relinquished son were not at all equipped to do so:
Sometimes I condemn out loud the man and woman who raised him. Immediately, ferociously, Paul comes back at me. "Don't you dare criticize my mother and father," he says. "They raised me." I know instantly that he is right. I abandoned my baby. Who am I to condemn the strangers who took him home?
I understand something of Paul's ferocity and his need to hold his mother accountable. Even though she had very little power or agency at the time of his relinquishment.

Paul was born in 1966, just a few months before my birth. His mother's memoir was a hard book for me to read. Her experience--her powerlessness as a shamed, shunned unwed teen and the emotional backlash that she dealt with in the years following relinquishment--parallels that of my own mother. Her son's story differs from my own in that he ended up in a much worse adoptive situation than I did. But do you hear what he is saying to her? The parents who raised him are defended, even though they failed miserably, for one simple reason. They were there and she wasn't.

I recognize the defiant tone of this adoptee, even as he seeks reconnection with his first mother. Even as he forgives. I have seen it in myself and in other adoptees. I see it in the adoptees who defend the adoptive family (and the adoptee's position in it) as if they are fighting the battle of their lives. Because in a sense, they are. 

We didn't choose this life, but we are the ones who have to make sense of it. We have to grab at whatever we can to keep ourselves afloat. Whatever strategies we choose, we choose for our own survival.

I have been suppressing this anger for 47 years. I feel it now, as I write this post, as physical pain in my body. It is a familiar pain, always there if not always acknowledged. How have I managed to bear this all these years? I cannot do it anymore. The strategy I chose is no longer tenable. I have to let this go.

For 18 years I have been moving more fully into the position of daughter and gradually restoring my parents to their proper parental roles. And now that I'm here, I discover the horrible flip side to the coin. 

If they are my parents, they are the parents who failed me.

Regardless of the context within which it happened, allowing me to be given away to complete strangers was bad parenting. Period.

Even if they had little choice in the matter. Even if, by sheer luck, I ended up with competent, loving replacement parents.

The baby me has no interest in the rationalizations of grown-ups. She is raging mad--and she has every right to be so!

But here's the other part of the equation. Children don't expect perfection of their parents. Not even close.

I've read that children are most likely to thrive when parented by parents who make mistakes but also make amends. Repair of relationship is significant; it is not essential that breaks never occur, only that the connection be reestablished.

I believe repair is possible, even when the break is extreme. Even when it has resulted in the complete legal severing of parent from child. Even when years and years have passed. 

My parents were told to move on from the events of 1966 and never look back. They and others in their situation were led to believe they would turn to pillars of salt if they ever dared to defy those instructions. That was a baldfaced lie. My family was redeemed in the end because each of my parents eventually dared to turn around and come back to me

That reversal may have happened too late for us to have the family life that would have been ours, but it is not too late for us in the current moment. 

I am angry with my parents because they allowed me to be separated from them. I acknowledge that at last, and in doing so, I let it go. Because I must. Because I cannot bear it anymore. 

I forgive them for one simple reason: they are in my life now.

It really is that simple. And it has only taken me 47 years to sort it all out.