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 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.
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.
I need opinions on adoptions.?
Answers (14 answers, 12 of them think it’s great)
It’s great if you want to make a child who’s already had to adjust to a new life even harder, because the world is not color blind, and transracial adoption isn’t going to change that. Who has to bear the brunt of this wishful thinking? The child. And race is also tied to assumptions about culture. And is the other race parent really going to be able to pass the child the necessary skills to deal with that disconnect and lack of cultural knowledge? Poorly at best.
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
I was going to post about this exact same topic, but Harlow’s Monkey beat me to it. Well said.
Today I’m a little homesick. I miss my kids, my one true family. We’re a little strange. I haven’t even spoken on the phone to them the whole time I’ve been here, but that’s not something that’s ever been necessary with us. We know we’re in each other’s thoughts. And when we’re together, we don’t have to do anything special or even talk much: just being present is enough. There is no obligation, no negative history. Only love. It is enough for me.
My stay in Korea has been…incredibly difficult. From the moment I got off the plane and the bus driver screamed at me in Korean for something to do with loading my luggage, because he didn’t understand that I didn’t understand Korean and thought I was being rude…It’s been an exceptional and incredibly draining nine months.
But still I want to love Korea.
This weekend I go to eat Thanksgiving with many other dispossessed ethnic Koreans of the adoption diaspora. We’ll eat turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. All of us here, trying to love Korea. All of us here, separated from our families, many of us estranged from our adoptive families. Do I go there because I love to hang out with adoptees? No. I only know one or two of them and don’t care to know more. In America, some gather together just to acclimate themselves to seeing other Asian faces and get to know them as real people. It starts as fear-of-Asians phobia therapy and then evolves into a sanctuary. But here, that’s not necessary, as there are Asian faces in spades. No. I don’t have to speak to even one of them. It just comforts me to see so many gathered in one place who KNOW. That’s all I need. Not community, because I’m too traumatized by something so claustrophobic and distrusting of people in general; not even solidarity, because not all adoptees agree or are in the same place in this journey. No. I go for the adoption awareness.
This month is adoption awareness month. It is a time when those promoting adoption gather their collective voices to extol its virtues, increase its numbers, and lobby for its ease.
But to me, adoption awareness is the knowing of what it feels like to be adopted. It is that unspoken thing we all share, whether we are “happy” adoptees or “angry” adoptees, we who have returned are not here for naught. That thing we share, is a loss nobody should ever know, that those who were not abandoned or relinquished will never know, but that binds us, like it or not, (for me mostly not) together.
Over three decades ago, America was riveted to their television sets watching the dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots. It was not just an exploration of where he came from, but also how he came to be here. And to my wonder, it seemed as if the entire nation finally learned to respect African American brotherhood, and to understand that being displaced against one’s will should rightly unite them on the deepest level.
However, in this adoption awareness month, there is no popular respect for our “pilgrimages,” because we appear ungrateful for our displacement against our will. We reject the notion that our loss should be something we should also be grateful about. We are united on this deepest level. That is why we’re all here. My silence during adoptee functions just goes hand in hand with this understanding. I don’t have to speak to the other returnee adoptees to know that I love them and they me. We just know. That’s enough for me.
And so in silence I will gather with my fellow returnee adoptees. I go there for the ritual of thanksgiving, the pale substitute for the Korean Cheusok thanksgiving that venerates our first families, and their families, and their families before their families. I go there for a small taste of the only ritual feast I’ve ever known, the feast of my adoptive family’s culture, in commemoration of the voluntary displacement of their ancestors. I go here to say, “please pass the stuffing” and know others will understand what “pass” means and what “stuffing” is. I go for the saving grace of cranberry sauce. I go there to give thanks. For the little comforts we have.
And I will thank my mother for the Stove top stuffing, the Durkees freeze-dried onion green been casserole, and the Cool Whip covered Eagles’ brand pumpkin pie. And I will still wish I had never been adopted.
- 2 weeks ago
2 weeks ago
I agree that it’s not healthy to “stuff” feelings. But is it assumed that adoptee’s who claim to be “not bitter” do that?
NOT CHOSEN Best Answer:
Sunny – I wish I could give you ten thumbs up!
Questioner – I’m going to answer your question, but maybe from a more literal stand-point, just because (most) everyone else is being refreshingly on point and trying to be objective and you’ve got some great general answers there.
– First, I think loss is loss is loss.
– Second, I think you can weight the losses. For example, losing a mom is HUGE, no matter what your age or circumstance, on a visceral level
– Third, losses ADD UP.
losing your country
losing your culture
losing your heritage
losing your language
it’s like a soup of pain: the bulk of each adoptee’s experience is loss of mother. then each soup is made unique depending on the combination of other added losses.
my best adoptee friend has all of the above. she lost her mother by death. a few years later she literally got lost. she lost her father by adoption when nobody searched for her father – even though she was 9 and knew his name – she lost her siblings – she lost her country when she was sent to America – she lost her heritage – she lost her culture – after two years, all her language was lost – it wasn’t long before her innocence was lost when her adoptive father abused her – and all this time. she was fully aware of her powerlessness because of her age. So in the end she lost all the relationships she valued, she lost faith in the charity and responsibility of adults, and she lost trust in those pledged to care for her.
We tend to focus on the main loss, but there can be so many. This is why I call myself an adoption survivor. Because for me and many of my fellow adoptees, we shoulder so many losses on top of the main loss.
How can you measure something like that? I’d like to measure it in dollars and sue the adoption agencies. I’m hoping someone with a water tight case can and does.
As for your additional details.
I personally have a great deal of empathy for the “not bitter” adoptees, though I do wish they wouldn’t protest so much and see me and my experience as the enemy. Just like them, I don’t want to be pitied – I just want to see change for the better, and that requires some sympathy. Two different animals entirely.
Regarding those so-called “kool-aid” adoptees, I feel for them. When you’ve got everything as good as it gets, then whatever feelings you have about losing your mother become incredibly treacherous waters to navigate. When you’ve got no other additional losses that can share some of the heat, then you’ve very little allowance to complain. The margin for even the smallest expressions of pain becomes extremely prohibitive. That’s a tight-rope I wouldn’t want to walk, and a much more difficult position from which to discern one’s deepest feelings. Some may call this denial. I call this an ineffective way of dealing with the core issues.
I’d also like to add that a “healthier outlook on their adoption” and positive outlook and self esteem are not the same thing. I can have a positive outlook and very high self esteem and still have a negative outlook on adoption. Maybe instead of “healthier outlook on their adoption” you meant “more socially acceptable outlook on adoption” ? Other than that, it’s just common sense that those who have been treated with more equality and given the truth won’t have to add injustice at the hands of their parents onto their loss will have less of a burden to carry.
We all experience loss and struggle with it in our own ways, due to our infinitely varied circumstances. We all do the best that we can because we have no choice. Peace does come through acceptance of our adoption circumstance. However, some things no human should be asked to be at peace with: like violations of our civil rights, exploitation, abuse, etc. And as long as adoption is involuntary, as long as there is exploitation, as long as there are violations of our civil rights and the obliteration of our identities, then we should not rest.
Because no child should have to experience even one added loss on top of losing their mother, and no child should lose their mother just to fill the arms of another, which happens far more than anyone cares to admit. These losses are preventable. Prevent, and we don’t have to ask these questions.