Just yesterday I was sending photos of old hairstyles to newer friends, and I came across this photo:
This is me, thirty pounds overweight and pregnant with my son. (Yes, the glasses are huge – it was the eighties!) And behind me is my mom. See? She had her moments. She really liked babies, and here she is on a rare (only?) occasion with two grandchildren.
I’ve been wanting to write about her for a long time now, but was feeling too fragile. But feeling strangely strong right now, I’m thinking about her and want to explore some of the complexity of what it is to hate adoption and love your mom and hate abuse and love your mom and to leave the mom you love yet continue loving her and to never reconcile and lose two moms.
That would describe a lot of adoptees, you know. A lot of adoptees have to put distance between themselves and the people who acquired them, controlled them; molded them. And in so doing, they lose a big part of who they are. Again. And for those who bonded with their foster moms, that’s three moms they lost. And some lose even more…
For us adoptees, there is always that duality of nature vs. nurture to contend with. My family was all musical, and despite years of piano lessons and band, I struggled with it. My family were literal yet educated people who spoke proper English, in a plain manner, but never in a socially common manner. And I: I spoke in metaphor or precise multi-syllabic words and, from as long as I could hold a pencil, preferred to communicate in images. And we looked different. So that was the nature half of the equation.
On the nurture half of the equation, I am very much my mother. And this is because we spent sooooo many hours alone in each others’ presence, though we rarely interacted. She, too, was a feral cat and I learned all my spooky ways from her. And because half of me is her, I of course liked many things about her. I liked how she hated PTA moms, Tupperware parties, bridge games, cocktail parties, social gatherings, dressing up / being uncomfortable, family gatherings, etc. Her critic of any obligations made perfect sense to me. Her wanting to retreat and lose herself in fantasy made perfect sense to me. Her not wanting to discuss feelings, her recoil at physical demonstration, her mistrust of others, her cynicism and unearthly composure also made sense to me. She’d had a rough childhood she did not want to discuss or deal with. She was contemptuous and repressed. I got that. On an essential level. She was my role model.
And so, I just knew better that I was not going to get whatever the heck it was I needed from her. It’s just the way it was, and I accepted that. And in a strange way, our relationship had a lot more mutual respect to it than her relationship with my other siblings, her biological children, had, as they were deeply offended by her emotional absence. She just wasn’t nurturing, and they all went a little out of their minds seeking that.
She did what she could. She sang nursery rhymes to me because she once loved to sing. She fed my insatiable appetite for preschool activity books. Later, she taught me how to sew and knit. She purchased art supplies. She scrimped and saved and purchased me things I wanted. And in return, I was to be quiet, not bug her and leave her in peace to escape and read about other people’s lives, fictional lives, lives of satisfaction unlike hers. In return for her sacrifices, out of gratitude, I was to give her no grief and heaven forbid, have emotional needs. My life of quiet desperation mirrored her life of quiet desperation, so how much weight did my private complaints have?
People hear about my abuse and they imagine all kinds of horrible things, or that my parents were monsters. But life is not that black and white. My parents did not look or sound or act like monsters. In their minds they loved me, as much as they were capable. In many ways, they loved me too much. They did the best they could, with their lame and broken tools.
I think that in many ways my parents were just like almost every other adoptee family that exists: there was a deficit in their lives and the hope was that I would fill it with joy. They were unfulfilled, not fully formed or evolving people. And again, an awful lot of adopting couples are just that. They are seeking something they think a child will provide. I get a lot of grief from adoptive parents claiming they are not filling a need by adopting. What are they adopting for then? Charity? And why are they expending energy on trying to convince others?
We have a big job to do, us adoptees. Filling such big holes is not easy. And some, heaven help them, have to fill the shoes of another child, the child that never lived.
It turns you into a tiny parent, because you recognize the insecurity and fragility of your parents, and it is your reason for being to care for them. This is the reality: this is the realm in which you must call home. You just have to be pragmatic when you’re an adoptee because you learn from the cradle that you have no choices. It’s a poverty stricken love, but it’s the only love you’ve known. And you can’t discount that. Well. You can. But I can’t.
Incest survivors will take to task the survivor who holds onto an idealized version of their hostile mother, hostile in the sense that the child’s needs become secondary to their own and they refute their child’s victimization and view the child’s crisis as a threat to their own life, when what the child needs is protection. I don’t believe I idealize my adoptive mother at all. Nor do I disagree that her lack of protecting me was wrong. But I/we can still love the only mother we’ve known. We being me and the child I monitored at CPS, for whom I winced in sympathy when witnessing the attitudes of social workers towards her mom who was labeled hostile, which was required in order to protect children from further harm…that little girl loved her mom, in spite of it all, and so did I. This is the burden of a child of incest. Now, compound that with the burden of a child who’s been adopted.
So how culpable was my mom, anyway? Did she know what was going on? Did she contribute to it in any way? To which I ask – does it even matter? Hadn’t the harm already been done? Would her life having been further destroyed have improved my own at all? Probably not. Did she mother me when she found out too late? No. Would she have protected me had she found out in time? Probably not. Does that make her a monster? Not at all. It makes her a failure at nurture. Her choice was denial, which was nothing new. Her entire life was spent in denial. Hell, I just spent forty years in denial. No. She was just human, and had to live with her failure. So I don’t see the value in blame. I wouldn’t want to be her. That would be hell on earth.
Did she know? Probably. But without my verbal acknowledgment and confirmation, that could forever remain a suspicion, which meant she could continue to cope with her already unhappy life. There were plenty of clues: literally dirty laundry, times she caught me pleasuring(?) myself, increased friction between my father and myself, the conversation I’d overheard them have about pornography whose female subjects appeared under-age. These did not go unnoticed by her, and they all went unaddressed and were buried.
I remember the day she did confront me about my change in attitude towards my father. She demanded to know “Why are you so mean to your father?” I think I was about eight at the time. I knew this was code for: the imbalance of your attitude is really damning, and I want you to stop making it apparent so I can keep on living my life. What is a child supposed to say when confronted with a question/demand like that? I knew nothing would come of it but all hell breaking loose. And so I took care of it (and her) and told her I didn’t know what my problem was and would try to be better. But I also knew that wasn’t sustainable, and the thought that crossed my mind at that moment was, “Damnit. Did you have to go do that? Now I’ll have to be nasty to you too. (to maintain balance in this ruse of a life you require.)” I didn’t want to be mean to her, too. But that’s what I had to do if I was to be able to have any emotional outlet for my own survival – and hers. It was on that day that I lost my second mother, and not nine years later when I left home for good.
I think it is often the adoptee’s role to tend their parent’s mental health. It is our role to fulfill their needs, and tend their emotions. While the physical needs we have require our parents’ oversight, our emotional needs we must always tend ourselves, because it’s not possible for our parents to comfort us, as they have no capital in that kind of trauma, and they are also our loving captors. So we grow up really fast. And we become nurturers at an early age.
So in a strange way, I was forced to be the parent. And I see this a lot in other adoptees too. It has nothing to do with being abused and everything to do with going to emotionally starving people, it just means our relationship went further off track than most. I gave up hope of being her child, but continued to be her parent. And I continued to care long after I was gone, despite being too paralyzed to pick up the phone.
I couldn’t verbalize it then, but I think I had stumbled upon the limitations of adoption that day.
I think the one regret I have about the past few years of disclosure has been publicly discussing my adoptive mother.
Readers have pointed out to me that she was herself abusive for emotional neglect or for not defending me, and that I am wrong to cut her slack by not including her as an abuser.
I guess you’d have to live my very particular childhood to disagree. The one thing I can say is that she treated me no different than my siblings. She was equally distant from all of us. She also sacrificed her own spending money on things for me, and included me in her will, and did every requisite mom thing all moms in the 60′s & 70′s were supposed to do. I guess I’m saying she did her best.
When my daughter was due, she flew to Guam to be there for the delivery. Many weeks later when the baby had still not arrived, she extended her stay. On Christmas day, when we got to come home from the hospital, she started to weep. When I asked her, “why are you crying?” she said she had never spent Christmas away from my father, and she missed him. Despite him making her want to kill herself, despite being miserable and trapped and alone, despite him violating her daughter, she could not deal with being apart from him because her entire world was based around him. How can a child ask a person who feels like that to choose? This woman, who had never once lived independently and only worked for one year of her entire life, prior to marriage, how can a child ask her, after 30 years of marriage and three biological children, ask her to be a single mom for her adopted daughter? The answer is you can’t. The answer is I was not the only victim of my father’s infantile selfishness. Nor was I the only captive.
So I’m sorry, mom. I understand.
And I know it’s wrong for me to have to become an adult early and protect her. But you know what? That’s just what had to be done. It’s just another thing in a long line of wrong things that one just has to swallow and deal with.
These days I think the real crime is not the transgressions of humans, so much as not being given tools to deal with them. And, unfortunately, when the perpetrators are parents, then there is already a poverty of tools to share. If I had my life to do over again, I would wish for a humor gene. Because life is really really fucked up and amusing. And I would share that tool with my mom. And I hope she is laughing in heaven.
Once again, Dr. Gabor Mate brings humanity back to patient care: this time illustrating the deep impact stress during our formative years can affect our emotional/physical well-being.
Mate speaks from his own experience, medical research, and in his work with Vancouver addicts. However, the reason I am posting this is because I stumbled across these interviews with addicts filmed by Beth B. twenty years ago, and I think hearing addicts speak for themselves is just as convincing. I was struck by how I could intimately relate to most of the interviewees and how listening to their stories brings new dimension to them as human beings and not just statistics. And though I’m not an addict, I feel their stories are very parallel to adoptee stories. One of the subjects even is an adoptee.
I think this is one of the most important films I’ve seen in a long time. The artistic intro meant to give the film gravity is a bit long, but your patience will be rewarded as the interviews themselves are extremely engaging. I’m posting the first of the 4 segments, as it is easy to find the trail to the rest.
There is no school today, as it’s a school holiday: the founding of the school. Despite having much to do, I am distracted.
In the absence of air-conditioning, the fan emits this low noise pollution, sucking in organic matter through the window and blowing it and formerly undetected fine white powder from the installation fabric across everything. It clings to every surface and then to my half naked body which moves restlessly from place to place to place. It’s pernicious, this grit. How many cleanings will it take for it to disappear?
I try to make myself feel better: I watch movies, I pick up and drop several projects, I go for a walk, I check out another health club, I look for activities to join, I remember I should eat, etc., but nothing engages me and I just make the circuit of my room over and over again. I feel lost.
Jane’s writing from the TRACK blog grabs my attention:
Each misplaced, forgotten, thrown away, ripped-up, spilled-on, smeared, misstamped, lost and found again later tag still represents one child, one file. We keep finding stray tags now — one at a time, sets of them– unlabeled, unaccounted for. I found a stray tag today next to the door of my apartment, next to the garbage can and the shoes. “Where do you belong, little girl? How did you get here?”
I feel like that lost tag. I am that lost tag.
I am out of place. I am out of time. Despite my best efforts, I am always orphaned and alone and abandoned. Love is a privilege denied me. The losses collect. The white dust is like the grief I can’t wash away.
I know it’s not finished and it’s badly edited, but I don’t know how much longer I can linger on this and stay healthy, so here is my unfinished video gift to Kim Sook Ja and all the other Korean adoptees out there in the world who, despite their best efforts, sing private songs of lamentation when they long to sing for joy:
I hope they have some company, wherever they ended up: someone to take their part and soothe them. This is the best I can do: say I understand the loss and isolation you have felt/feel.
You are not alone.
My spinning wheels and its changing scenery is, I guess, like addiction. As is connecting, however imperfectly and incompletely, to others via the internet. But sometimes it pays off, my repeatedly pushing these buttons. Here’s a gem another adoptee found and shared on-line. It spoke to her for its reference to abandonment. It spoke to me for its reference to abuse, neglect, and abandonment. It is me, without the needle stuck in my arm.
click on the title above to view the video page of this thought-provoking interview on Democracy Now, with Dr. Gabor Maté, Physician at Vancouver Safe-Injection Site, on the Biological and Socio-Economic Roots of Addiction and ADD
Excerpt from the transcripts:
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the people you treat.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, the hardcore drug addicts that I treat, but according to all studies in the States, as well, are, without exception, people who have had extraordinarily difficult lives. And the commonality is childhood abuse. In other words, these people all enter life under extremely adverse circumstances. Not only did they not get what they need for healthy development, they actually got negative circumstances of neglect. I don’t have a single female patient in the Downtown Eastside who wasn’t sexually abused, for example, as were many of the men, or abused, neglected and abandoned serially, over and over again.
And that’s what sets up the brain biology of addiction. In other words, the addiction is related both psychologically, in terms of emotional pain relief, and neurobiological development to early adversity.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the title of your book mean, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, it’s a Buddhist phrase. In the Buddhists’ psychology, there are a number of realms that human beings cycle through, all of us. One is the human realm, which is our ordinary selves. The hell realm is that of unbearable rage, fear, you know, these emotions that are difficult to handle. The animal realm is our instincts and our id and our passions.
Now, the hungry ghost realm, the creatures in it are depicted as people with large empty bellies, small mouths and scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They’re always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. That speaks to a part of us that I have and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we’re empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term, but we can never feel that or fulfill that insatiety from the outside. The addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time. And my point really is, is that there’s no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There’s just a continuum in which we all may be found. They’re on it, because they’ve suffered a lot more than most of us
By Barbara O’Brien, About.com Guide
The Six Realms are an allegorical description of conditioned existence, or samsara, into which beings are reborn. The nature of one’s existence is determined by karma. Some realms seem more pleasant than others — heaven sounds preferable to hell — but all are dukkha, meaning they are temporary and imperfect.
The Six Realms often are illustrated by the Bhava Chakra, or Wheel of Life.
Please note that in some schools the realms of Devas and Asuras are combined, leaving five realms instead of six.
1. Deva-gati, the Realm of Devas (Gods) and Heavenly Beings
2. Asura-gati, the Realm of Asura (Titans)
3. Preta-gati, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
4. Naraka-gati, the Hell Realm
5. Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realm
6. Manusya-gati, the Human Realm
I need opinions on adoptions.?
Answers (14 answers, 12 of them think it’s great)
What is the motivation of adopting transracially? Because they’re cute babies? Because the adoptive parents are fascinated with other cultures? Does this have anything to do with what’s best for the child?
Being a transracial adoptee was not a wonderful thing. It was a world of tension, ridicule, not matching anyone, not belonging anywhere, and somewhat disturbing to be a walking billboard for my parents’ charity. Being a transracial adoptee means always having to explain your situation. Being a transracial adoptee means being sentenced to forever being reminded you were obtained unnaturally. Being a transracial adoptee means having to tell yourself, “I was chosen. I was chosen. I was chosen,” every time you’re feeling pain. That’s just the harsh truth, whether you love your parents or not. It’s unnecessary and avoidable. Racial matching is not being racist – it’s being kind to the child.
Yes it can be done. But it’s a messed up thing to do. It was especially hard for my African American adoptee friends separated from that strong and vibrant culture: there is no substitution for that. To be an oreo is to be culturally killed and cut off from everyone who looks like you, but you still have to pay for your skin color.
People just don’t think. THEY just want to feel good about what THEY want to do to make the world better. Children should not be the social experiments of privileged Utopian fantasies.
adult transracial adoptee living in her birth country