From listening to adopted people for the last several decades, I've learned that a great many of them have spent their lives past the age of reason reassuring their adoptive parents in ways large and small that they love them, fully, deeply, completely. Because of what parents have said about them and to them--You were the answers to our prayers; I couldn't love you more if I had given birth to you, when we found you we knew our family was complete, I thank God every day for bringing you to us...they have fully absorbed the message that they are responsible for their parent's well-being and happiness. This message will be inculcated further if the individual was adopted after having children via nature failed, or a biological child's death. The burden the adopted person carries is heavy indeed, no matter how great the parents' affection.
I heard about one woman's speech at her adopted son's bar mitzvah, and she went on and on in that vein. Then young teen was adopted after the woman had several miscarriages, two births but neither child survived. The amount of suggested guilt this mother was piling on--I'm going to kindly suggest she didn't realize it--would have knocked out a rhinoceros. Anyone listening could grasp this, as well as the fact that searching for his birth parents would be a dagger to her heart. In an essay his mother had already written, she stated that at times she was afraid to leave her apartment because she was worried that he might disappear if she did.
THE ADOPTEE'S BURDEN
Adopted people are taught in so many words and ways that they alone are largely responsible for their parent's happiness and well-being. The cues are can be subtle but they are continual, like a fine mist always in the air. These are the adopted parents who are likely to say: My son/daughter has never expressed any interest in the birth parents. I even asked him/her once if he wanted to search. We never talked about adoption otherwise. He/she said NO, case closed.
So imagine, even after all that, and all that is a lot, such an individual eventually decides to search. It is almost certainly going to be in secret. Now say that they find and meet their other mother, and now she starts telling them how miserable her life was when he/she was born. How the pregnancy and birth made her life a disaster. How awful her parents treated her. How she lived in hiding or was sent away in shame. How her father never looked at her in the same way again. How her boy friend deserted her. How she was raped on prom night when both she and her date got drunk. How her parents would not let her and her boyfriend get married. How she's never been happily married since. How her parents would not let her bring her baby home, and she had no where to go. How she has never stopped thinking about the lost child and how all she ever wanted was reunion...et cetera. In other words, out comes a whole litany of woe....drip, drip, dripping out with each word.
The feelings of loss of the time of relinquishment almost certainly come to the surface when we are faced with the object of our loss, our baby, now grown up. We are transported back in time to the younger and vulnerable person we were at the time we lost our baby. We felt helpless to stop the flow of events that led to our loss. So now we feel guilty, and overwhelmed with grief. We want to explain how societal and familial forces allied against us, and thus excuse our not being able to keep our baby. In telling the story of how our son or daughter was not kept, our sense of powerless and emotional miasma becomes the story. Unconsciously, we are building excuses rather than just saying--no matter what happened--I'm sorry.
We may be asking for understanding and forgiveness, but what they hear is: more responsibility. Now instead of just taking care of one set of parents' happiness, the adopted person finds out that they were the cause of so much pain for another mother! And now her well-being also depends on them. It's no wonder some of them head for the hills.
LOOKING FOR UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE
Without even consciously thinking about who or what they will find, the adopted person is almost certainly longing to meet someone who will love and accept them unconditionally, like they imagined their mother must. They are not looking for yet another person whose need overrides their own. They want someone who will be a boon to their lives, not another person with impossible need spewing out a stream of misery. Instead of a mother who is there to provide for her grown child's well-being, they find another person whose happiness they are responsible for. And the next thought, unconscious or not, is likely to be--How in the hell do I get out of here?
A friend of mine started a search decades ago, even hired an investigator, but she called it off mid-steam. At the time, she was sending her adoptive parents $1,500 a month back in the Midwest. She looked at me and said: What if I find someone who also needs $1,500 a month? Good point. While her example stresses a financial burden, it serves as a metaphor for its emotional quotient--What if I find someone whose future happiness also depends on me? I've got a burden enough as it is.
I was spared much of this because I was able to find and reunite with my daughter when she was 15. Her father was a married man I was madly in love with, which starts out kinda cheesy for a 15-year-old to learn. And I found a daughter who had epilepsy, and a host of problems because of that. So that last thing I was going to do with this teenager is burden her with a list of the sorrows of my life at the time of her birth. I explained but didn't go overboard, or cry when we spoke. Besides, within the week she read my memoir, Birthmark, and learned that I tried to have an abortion. But at the same time she learned how my feelings changed, and how she went from a worrisome blob into My Baby whom I desperately wanted. She read how sad it was to give her up.
Yet the first time she visited my home--five months after we met--we acted out a little docudrama in which she was ad libbing the script as we went along. Within a few moments she had directed the action to the grave site of some shared-but-unknown ancestor....and and suddenly Jane [my daughter] had her hands around my neck, shaking me violently, shouting: “Why did you give me up?” as she stared intently into my eyes, her voice rising. “Why did you give me up?” Whoa!
At first I was too shocked to respond, but I recovered and shouted: Stop! She might have been letting out a scream from her soul, but she was also choking me. Our play-acting came to an aborted ending. Over the next week we talked some more, and we moved on. But I will always remember the fierce look in her eyes, her hands on my neck, me wondering if we would ever get past that feeling, no matter how rich the patina our relationship acquired. Years will go by but we would circle around and always come back to: Why did you give me away? Don’t you know how much that hurt?
How I wish I’d simply said then: I made a mistake. A big, fat mistake. I wish I would have cut out all the padding of “That’s what it was like then,” and “I didn’t feel I had a choice,” and said: I’m sorry you were adopted. I’m sorry I gave you up.” If a friend falls down, you don’t start explaining about the rug that made her trip, or the crack in the pavement, your role is simply to be solicitous. That’s what I should have said that day: I’m sorry. But it would be years before I could speak that plainly. Today I realize how emotionally understanding she was, and I thank both her and her adoptive parents for giving her the heart to understand.
I was lucky in that I don't believe she took on responsibility for my well-being, even though later she did say she knew how her periods of silence affected me--and there were several over the quarter of a century we had a relationship.
RELATING TO THE ADULT WHO FINDS YOU
Most mothers today who are found will come face to face with an adult--not a teenager--and relate to them as adults as we dig around in most likely the worst thing that ever happened to us. Tell the truth, but don't pile on the grief so that they now feel responsible for your happiness. They have had enough parental responsibility already.
Reading this will be upsetting to those whose children became distant after an initial closeness when they spilled out the sorrow. Do accept however, that no matter how your reunion is playing out, your returning adult child may have turned away no matter what you said. Reunion is incredibly emotional--every meeting is overwhelming at first--for both parties. For the adoptee, safety may be returning to known ground--without a relationship with their first mother. No matter what you say or do, it may be too much for some to handle.
Remember too that we are not in full control of what happens in an a adoptee-birth mother reunion, just as we are not in full control of any two-way relationship. Arctic icebreakers may not have been able to break through the wall that an adopted person may have around their heart, so don't beat yourself up endlessly. When we gave up our children, we lost a part of them, and our sanity depends on accepting that fact. We can't undo the adoption, and no one can ever take back what has been said. We can can only move forward.
What to do to repair the breach? I will write about this later, but in short, the advice is: Wait. Perhaps in a simple way you can say that they are not liable for your stability and happiness in a short note or email. Be upbeat. Accept that you may not hear back. Send a cheerful card on your child's birthday. Reach out periodically. Write a note or email that just says, Hello, thinking about you. Hope you are well. Wishing good things for you. The current separation may not be the result of what you said, but internal pressure from adoptive parents, people that the adoptee loves and does not want to hurt.
As regular readers of this blog or Hole in My Heart know, my daughter came and went throughout our relationship. I was always examining what I might have done wrong when she was absent. In the end, after my daughter died, after I found and had a wonderful reunion with the granddaughter she gave up for adoption--followed by a so-far fatal break with her--I came to this conclusion:
The people who want to be in your life will be. You don't have to go chasing after them.
It was a hard truth to accept, and acceptance and inner peace came only after tears were shed, but accept it I did.--lorraine
Some of the above was adapted from Hole in My Heart.
"Dusky's courageous, honest book puts a human face on the emotional minefield of adoption while navigating an often-hidden truth--that at the heart of every adoption, there are issues of loss, guilt, emptiness, abandonment and an incomplete sense of identity. Much more than a good read, Hole In My Heart integrates many important research findings that support the universality and truth of Dusky's personal experience."--