Sunday, May 25, 2014

An Adoptee Confession

A recent blog post on the website Creating a Family shared the story of an adoptive mother who described herself as having been "blindsided" by the revelation that her adult adopted daughter had been building a relationship with her original mother over the years.

I started to leave a comment on the blog, but I had so much to say and so many conflicting emotions that I found myself stymied.

The adoptive mom describes herself and her husband as "full of fear and puzzlement," and her anguish stirs up something in me that is probably related to my own guilt, confusion, and sadness about why I hold back parts of myself from my adoptive parents, and sometimes also from others.

Here's my confession, and for some reason it's a particularly hard one for me to share:

My adoptive parents know only a small part of who I am. I hide other parts from them.

I don't reveal the whole of myself to my parents, and perhaps this is not uncommon, even for non-adoptees. Don't we all reveal different parts of ourselves in different relationships? Surely many of us -- adopted or not -- play a role in the families we grew up in that is different from the full expression of our adult selves.

I have a complex relationship with my adoptive parents, and especially with my adoptive mother, as is also true for many non-adopted people. So, why do I feel so guilty?

There is an aspect of my guilt that seems to be adoptee-specific. Adoptees are only allowed one official emotion in relation to our adoptive parents, and that is gratitude. I want to emphasize that this is certainly not something that my parents ever told me, but I got the message anyway from the broader culture. Adoptees receive that message in countless ways throughout our lives -- sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. 

Another aspect of the guilt lies in the specific nature of what I hold back. I hold back details of my reunion with my original family. I hold back the complexity and the depth of my adoption-related emotions and struggles. I hold back parts of my personality and leanings that seem to be genetically acquired ... the parts that don't "fit" in the adoptive family.

I am sad about this. I am 47 years old and still trying to make myself small enough to fit into the space of an expectation.

My parents didn't get what they signed up for. I know that. They were told I was a blank slate. They were told that adoption wouldn't affect me in any significant way. They were told that they should tell me early on that I was adopted and that as long as they did that, carefully explaining that I was loved and chosen, all would be well. I would be, for all intents and purposes, no different than as if I was born into the family.

But that was an untruth. I was never a blank slate. I am different than the child my parents would have created from their own genetic material. Being adopted is different than not being so. Adoptedness is a significant factor in who I am.

Michal Marcol

Why do I hold back parts of myself? I do so, in part, to protect my parents, and I also do so to protect myself. On one level I know that I am loved by them and that their love is unconditional. On another level, I don't fully trust that. Could my parents really handle it if I showed up with all of who I am, including my adoption-related pain? Could I handle it, if I saw them recoil, "blindsided" by my betrayal?

Betrayal. Betrayer. I am the betrayer. I must betray them or betray myself. I cannot win. 

To be myself, rather than the daughter of their expectations, is a betrayal. I know that. But here's the rub: it is also a betrayal to imply that their love is conditional or that they would want me to be anything less than myself. Haven't they always told me that they love me? Haven't they always only wanted what was best for me, as any parent would?

My parents are good people who have tried hard to do the right things and to be the right kind of adoptive parents. I often tell people that they did a good job of "nurturing my nature." What's more, they always supported my reunion with my first family.

But I've also noticed that my mother has a tendency to forget things that I've shared about my relationship with my original family. She is not typically a forgetful person, and I have therefore long suspected that this particular forgetting is self-protective. When I tell my adoptive parents things about my relationship with my biological family members, they seem mildly but not especially interested. I never get the sense that they want more details; rather, I perceive them as wanting as few details as possible. I worry that my relationship with my original family is painful for my adoptive family, and I don't want to cause them pain. So I hold back for that reason, but I also hold back for the opposite reason. My relationship with my original family is extremely important to me. I don't want to taint it by sharing it with people who can't fully appreciate that and celebrate it with me. 

I suspect I am not the only writer who finds it easier to share my work with strangers on the Internet than with my own family members, but in my case there is also the additional factor of my subject matter. When I was growing up, adoption was something we didn't talk about outside the family. Now I air my laundry in public. As a writer I reach into the innermost place and pull out what is most raw and personal. I turn myself inside out, bringing what was hidden into the light.

And what do I find in the innermost place? I find all my complicated feelings about being an adopted person.

I did try once try to talk to my adoptive mother about my journey of discovery as an adoptee. It didn't go well. She seemed uncomfortable and soon changed the subject.

Am I reading too much into the small signals of my adoptive parents? Maybe. But this is part of the adoptee package. For as long as I can remember I have been alert to signals from other people, looking for clues to how I should act and, in essence, who I should be. I wish I could drop this. I wish I could just be as I am, and trust that people (including my adoptive parents) will accept me or not, and be fine with that.

I've made a lot of progress through the years, but I'm not there yet. Maybe someday.