I have a question for the adoptees here that has to do with something that came up earlier, the idea that we are “perpetual children”. This ties in to ideas I’ve had where the non-responsive child adoptee is the ideal, with the ensuing stages of that child’s life requiring a kind of stifling of any response that doesn’t fit the adoption narrative as we know it today.
To resist adoption then in any way would seem to break this narrative, and point out the emperor’s new clothes, as it were. I know that many adoptees become estranged from their adoptive parents, and I am also aware of legal ruptures of adoption, as well as families adopting back the children they previously gave up. I am wondering whether any of you have experienced anything similar? Do we have words to describe this phenomenon? What does it say about adoption as an institution to begin with? Does this break allow us to finally “grow up” and attain adulthood?
Is this from an adoptee to an adoptee? It doesn’t matter, I’m just confused as to where this enquiry is coming from.
Also, what do you mean by phenomenon? I think families adopting back the children they gave up, is a rarity. I thought in order to do that, adoptive parents would have to give legal consent to the original parents, and then legal rights would be transferred back much in the same way the adoptive parents had acquired legal rights to begin with.
I previously spoke with a first-mother on this, and she said this is not true; once the child become a legal adult, parental consent is no longer needed to reverse an adoption.
Which brings me back to the whole “perpetual child” thing. Even if an adult adoptee decided they wanted their original parents to have legal rights again, there would be an uproar so fast it would make your head spin – “What about the parents who raised you?! Don’t they mean anything to you?”
In the occasional case I have heard of this happening, it has always been because the parents were either physically or emotionally abusive. I don’t know of any adoptees who were raised in good households who wanted to be re-adopted for both legal *and* emotional purposes.
Legally an adult adoptee has the power to “go back to” them, but emotionally I think it brings up another layer of issues. It becomes like a game of ping-pong. Because the adoptee has oftentimes formed relationships with the people who raised them, and by this time, built a life and meaningful relationships with family, sometimes extended family, and the life through adoption.
If the adoptee goes back to the family of origin, it’s like trying to squeeze into a spot that no longer properly exists – because they didn’t grow up there, they weren’t raised there, so it exists in the form of a void that cannot be properly resolved.
My question is much less literal-minded. What I’m trying to describe are a variety of overlapping spectra that define in a variety of ways the adoptee experience.
First is that of weight of narrative; the adoption narrative is strongest when a child is youngest of course and unable to voice protest of any kind. This weight carries forward, it seems, until such a time that an adoptee finds their voice.
Second is the pull of original lineage, whether imagined or found. This is coupled with returns to originating place. This also puts distance between the adoptive and the adopted.
Third are those instances where a rupture, legal or otherwise, actually takes place; this is a metaphorical hole punched into the narrative of adoption.
Finally is a spectrum of time, as our adoptive parents age, as we age, as the narrative dissolves or “goes flat”, as we find out the truth of our origins, etc.
The phenomenon I am describing is this–the “going flat” of the narrative such that an agreement takes place, acknowledged or otherwise, toward the “end” of the adoption as it were, when adoptive parents are coming to terms with their mortality, or adoptees are coming to terms with their adoptive parents’ mortality–an agreement takes place on some level where the adoption is seen for what it is: a construct; a false cynosure; an empty vessel, now broken.
I am asking if anyone has experienced such a moment where this is revealed.
Thanks for the question Mei Ling, and for clarifying, Daniel – that helped me a lot.
When I was adopted, international adoption was only ten years old. So, growing up no one: not myself nor my parents were exposed to lessons learned from anyone’s experiences, because my predecessors had yet to find their voice, much less be emancipated enough to speak out, and I don’t think the concept of parent support groups had materialized yet. International adoption was still rare and in the vanguard of liberal things to do, so the adoption myth was based upon the combined and heady fantasy of America’s history of orphan adoption, wars which forced the local to breathe life into the orientalism of their imagination, and the recent glow of American prosperity and baby boom.
The only narrative we had was that delivered in the mail by our adoption agency, and that narrative was not a dialogue. To my eyes, its self-congratulatory feel-good nature looked like promotional material to encourage more adoption. So yeah, I’d say the weight of that narrative was strong and one-sided: there was never any doubt that questioning any of it was unthinkable.
And so we didn’t.
Despite racial isolation, family dysfunction/abuse, and ultimately permanent estrangement, aside from the slightly nagging discomfort of seeing orphans seemingly cataloged for sale and my peers in strange, exotic (to me) places across America being lauded (by their parents) for their accomplishments and success at integration (and where was MY PICTURE, I wanted to know – wasn’t I successful?) that unwritten cardinal law to NEVER QUESTION remained with me for four decades.
Due to the strength of that unspoken mandate, there was also no pull to know about my original lineage, because that would require questioning, which wasn’t part of the feel-good picture.
Resistance was futile and pointless. The reality for us older adoptees is that there was no community and therefore no discourse, and without either of those – no cross pollination of ideas or survey of experiences and circumstances, and for us there was not even any history. When one is isolated from real data, one can’t form real conclusions.
Rupture for us occurred for any reason one could find EXCEPT adoption. Adoption was that off the table.
So were we kept “perpetual children?” I don’t think so. My family was one of those – get with the program or get out – kind of families. I think it would be closer to say that I (and to be fair, I will include my parents) was (were) programmed: programmed to accept (because they were naive and we had no options) the adoption industry’s narrative. Which we all did, so our better than Stepford parents could continue to live their perfect as can be more liberal yet not as pretentious as Stepford lives in their not quite Steford home with their more exotic than Stepford children. It was the age we lived in.
My journey since that break has been not a search for origin, but a search for authenticity – to find ways of being and notions of family that are not constructed: by them, by me. And that takes a lot of time, a thorough investigation of trauma, of why people accept incomplete narratives and why we censor ourselves. It takes a whole lot of time. And distance.
For example, I have a friend adopted from Lebanon whose cousins contested her inheritance as an only child. I also know of a case where adoptive parents put a biological child as executor of a will instead of the eldest adopted child. I’m examining here these instances of breakthrough that reveal the antithesis of the adoption myth, usually late in life.
“Search for authenticity”–I really like what you said in your response, and most especially this. I think now my own question makes sense to me based on your answer! Meaning, the drifting away, the estrangement, the “growing up” (however defined), the growing apart….is perhaps in fact a systematic deconstruction and then reconstruction of identity.
I have made it a point here in Lebanon to throw myself into the unknown, and question every last identity marker I previously had constructed for myself. It is extremely disturbing to see how not-at-all ingrained or permanent they are; how affected they are. I also find myself fighting the desire to replace them with other markers that are equally invalid, and so no calling myself “Lebanese” or “Arab” or anything like that.
The net result is not being comfortable in places or situations that require of me the former constructions, pretentions, affectations.
The other problem is that this search for authenticity puts one at odds with those who maintain these constructions.
Adoption is like a bicycle that rusts, or a brightly colored photograph that fades, or silverware worn down to the tin base: it rots and corrupts over time. When everyone else is done with it, and it has been passed around one too many times; when we have grown older and perhaps estranged, or when our parents pass away, or when the possibility of finding origins becomes impossible, or when we gain our independence, or when we realize that no validity is granted to our lives mismatched from theirs, or when…. At this point we are left holding the truth of it in our hands, still reflecting the original myth carried forward, except the reason to hold on has gone. But it is all we have. We can’t look at it in another light; we can’t see it in any other way: It is a broken bicycle, a wan photo, a piece of tin; and yet—it is all we have. It is charged with the memory and the promise and a skewed truth and there’s no transforming it into something else, there’s no alchemy to conjure up, no material transmutation. And no one else cares about our leaden treasure. They may easily forget it because they gave it to us and it is no longer of use to them. Or else they may feel compelled to endlessly remind us of what it was, in present-tense terms. Or they may actually acknowledge the toll taken of it by time. Or they may ask us to stow it away, in an attic or a garage, or the shed out back. Or they might demand that we be grateful for it, since this is more than many have. Such remarks come easy for those whose lives were a continuum, with or without us; for those whose lives have continuity backward and forward, with or without us. In stark contrast are our lives halted. Interrupted. Ruptured. We are the discontinuous and the uprooted; with no “with or without”. We are trifles with our trinkets; pretenders bequeathed our fool’s scepters; bearers of our also-ran consolation prizes in a game we never asked to play. And that’s all we have. And with that we make do. And we ask you to not ask us for anything more than that.
What a lovely soliloquy, Daniel…
I think it’s something we feel even as small children, but are unable to verbalize. It’s been on my mind for days, because I want to do it justice but can’t. I think you are talking about decay here: the erosion of trust, which is what happens when someone puts a lot of effort into painting a picture more fabulous than reality and making you feel that they did it all for you…
It’s like when my brother came to me all excited, saying he would give me money, and telling me that his giving me ten cents for every shiny, sealed-in-cellophane, beautiful mint Mercury head dime my grandmother had given me was better, because I could spend it. I was conned because he was bigger than me, and I didn’t really have a choice. He told me he was doing it for me. He thought I would be happier with spending money. He looked really happy. Even though I was a little suspicious and wary, who was I to take that away from him?
We were told (just enough to make it seem irrefutable) that we were saved from a life of un-spendable currency, and convinced that we were better off with Eisenhowers. Maybe they were correct. But the discovery the currency they gave me was tarnished and copper-filled, and the realization that their motives were selfish (yes, people, saving can be done without acquisition) and not all beautiful was an early lesson in cynicism.
“We’ve tried to talk to her about her feelings about adoption, but she doesn’t want or can’t talk about it.” Um, duh…
And what price did they pay? What price did we pay? What did they gain? What did we gain? What did they lose? What did we lose? The answer, as you clearly pointed out, was that they had nothing to lose and only to gain.
Speaking about discontinuous, I realized this week that the years I have lived have long since surpassed double the time I spent as an adopted child. These days, it is as if that time never really existed – it’s becoming a far off memory. It’s as if my body is erasing all trace of that disruption…
Here in the country of my birth, I meet adoptees who have reunited with their families and it is so stark and poignant how really truly interrupted, ruptured, and discontinuous adoption made their lives. In all directions. It is as if they were borrowed for a few years…but the disruption was too complete to ever pick up where God & nature intended or even where they left off or even know where to start.
This is not to say our adoptive parents were inconsequential – of course not, as their contribution provided a good portion of our formative years. However, it is to say that we had lives before and body memories and neuronal synaptic connections and personality traits and a path. It’s beyond me how people discount that. It’s always privileged people, people who’ve never been severed from their own lives who discount that. We are not allowed to grieve that loss, because we must support the fabulous picture of these lives that have been erected for us. And even after we are no longer children, we are barred from uncovering our own lives and must experience the anguish of being forever managed in support of the system we were sent to. Telling the grieving they do not have the right to cry or complain is patently unfair. That’s a lonely place to be.
“Telling the grieving they do not have the right to cry or complain is patently unfair. That’s a lonely place to be.”
Or that you can cry or complain, but only as a context cultural convenience.
Yeah. I get you.
Here is a link to a web site founded by adoptees which acts as a legal primer for terminating one’s adoption as well as being adopted back by original family: