The complexity of adoptive parents

Adoption is complex.  All of it.  And sometimes we, as adoptees, don’t fully understand how complex it is until we lose our adoptive parents.  Because many times, our adoptive parents, good or bad, are the only people who moored us to existence.

Years ago I read an essay titled “Keep my adoptive parents out of this.”  And I could really relate.  I was going through cancer; I’d lost my dad, with whom I’d had a lifelong contentious relationships; my mom was in a nursing home nearby suffering from severe dementia, but she always knew who I was.  Suddenly, the problematic issues of adoption, on which I spoke with such ferocity, seemed so far away and ethereal as to no longer be real.  I loved my mom.  She protected me, stood up for me, made sure I had access to all those things that would allow me to make friends, thereby ensuring a social network within an upper middle-class tier of American society.  How could I speak against her?  I even asked, in one of my essays, how could I have this conversation of adoption without throwing her, or my birthmom, under the bus?

I’ve kept those two spheres very much divided.  How realistic is that?  And in doing so, how do I created an integrated self?

What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “The complexity of adoptive parents

  1. I agree adoption is complex and for as many “good” adoptive parents there are equal numbers of not so good and very incompetent and bad adoptive parents especially when it comes to transracial adoptees. I don’t think you can keep them ‘apart’ as the are interlocking whatever your experience and your feelings are you as an adoptee exist because of both aspects it’s like a coin you have a reverse and obverse.

  2. I think all adoptees have a divided self. It’s part of what makes adoption. You separate from the life you would have had and the person you would have been. So it’s easy to maintain those two selves, the one who loves your adoptive parents and the one who is critical of adoption. At least it is for me.

  3. Hi Susan,

    It was lovely meeting both you and Daniel at the adoption conference (that I wouldn’t have known about had it not been for my daughter’s interest) and, also, kind of a panic attack to be in that kind of intense emotional environment again. I’m not sure either of you realize how thoroughly (and successfully) I have rejected being an adoptee or having anything to do with adoption; which is in no small way a little at odds with contributing more here at TRE!

    Of course, avoiding adoption is practically impossible so, when I do have encounters, I think again about contributing but end up thinking more than doing. The main thing setting me back has been primarily the desire to leave my words, especially in this space, as an artifact that is bullet-proof. That’s always been hard for me to do because I’m not an academic, not well read, and I don’t have the stamina – or will – to be an expert on adoption studies.

    Despite all that, your personal post triggered all manner of random NOT bullet-proof thoughts and I decided “to hell with it!” and just write some stream-of-consciousness stuff or it will go by the wayside again. Dear reader, if I say something flawed please don’t call me on it! I often say incorrect things – but I’m trying…

    First comes to mind “complex.” After battling the world’s largest adoption agency and moving to the country of my birth and being an activist and then. Not. I have managed to summarize my total immersion in adoption land to the following:

    All I can say is: ADOPTION IS COMPLEX. Period

    To every topic and issue and side branch, there is only one response I have: “yeah, well, it’s more complex than that.” It’s like the one truth through all this bullshit! It’s why TRE exists! To say, “Um, WAIT! It’s NOT THAT SIMPLE! This is not just about me. Or you! Or them! There was no smoking gun. There is no magic bullet. There is instead this web of tangled intervention and blind intention and rationalization and dysfunction and ignorance and…there were many actors and many forces and a whole lot of victims and they weren’t just us adoptees. I’d say all our biological parents were victims. I’d also say our adoptive parents were victims – of being sold a dream and believing it, of not being fully informed, of being raised in a society where taking children from other cultures is acceptable…that creates disconnects and those cause ruptures that I’m sure no parenting class in the world addresses or prepares adoptive parents for.

    Second comes to mind “until we lose our adoptive parents.” I think there are a fair many of us who, like myself, didn’t give ourselves permission to explore adoption until after our adoptive parents were gone. In either case, whenever we gave ourselves permission and even if early, the nasty process of exploring the way adoption transpires implicates everyone who touches it. That process of sussing out What the? How? Damn. is THE most disturbing, saddening, harrowing personal process ever. We don’t know what data to trust and especially don’t know what feelings to trust. Our heart might be jumping out of our chest with love for our adoptive parents while logic might be screaming “How could you not see the political implications of your privileged acts? How could you not comprehend your role in perpetuating social imbalance? Etc. etc.” But the sad truth is, at least for my parents, they were simple when it came to politics, had a narrow definition of what global meant, were gullible and were not beneath some narcissistic enhancement in the eyes of church or society in general, or truly believed it was the finest thing they would ever do in life. They felt, they agonized, they adored, they cared! They just didn’t stop and think much or deeply. In general, they were kind of average. But not something worthy of crucifixion either.

    And so, part of the process is to go through a “how could they” phase. And then feeling bad for even entertaining that inquiry. And then we decide to compartmentalize to protect them or ourselves or both. It’s natural. It’s an ugly awful process. That we all have to go through as we hold and examine every new realization. But unless we are being abusers, there really is no benefit to feeling guilt about that. Because anyone human would run all their adopting parents’ motivations and awareness through all the scenarios that lead to where they are.

    Some initial thoughts (in general, not to you):
    1. I think we don’t have to confront everything all the time. One should ask oneself, what is to be gained? If the answer is “nothing,” then it isn’t worth the effort. I’m learning the soft path can accomplish just as much. Even if nothing is said about the obvious, the obvious is still perceived and noted. Respecting when people are ready makes stepping up easier. Accepting they will never be ready is easier than being disappointed. We can’t change others, though we can be an inspiring example.
    2. It’s okay to critique practices and we can do that without attacking people with good or misguided intentions. I don’t think anyone has to be thrown under any buses. The truth can and does look different from different angles. We can honor each perspective. It’s okay to love your adoptive mom and hate adoption.
    3. Compartmentalizing our output doesn’t mean we have to compartmentalize what we take in. I’m the queen of compartmentalization. Believe it or not, adoption was the least of my worries with my family, so compartmentalizing issues allowed me to present what they could deal with and live as peacefully as possible with my family. I’m a big proponent of it as a tool.
    4. I think integrating ourselves has nothing to do with anyone else and is our own work. I’m grateful for most of these unnatural traumas now, because that forced me to think with a self-reflection with deep intention.

    Maybe the key to this conundrum is to not speak against but instead for? Instead of something judgmental we can instead speak with the parent we’re next to with empathy for the one we’re not with. Turning the judgment to empathy is healing. Turning it to a sharing opportunity is healing. For us adoptees where that sharing is not possible, looking at it from that angle can still change our own perspective and lighten our outlook.

    You know, when I first read your post my throat got a little tight and my eyes a little watery when I read your words, “the only people who moored us to existence.”

    Right now a friend who happens to be Korean has been distraught because her father is dying. Korean culture is rife with family obligations, misunderstandings, resentments, etc. and to top it off she has an exceptionally emotional personality. And I thought, as she tries to mend things with a very critical father who barely recognizes her while the clock ticks, that this problem of unresolved, uncommunicated issues is hardly exclusive to adoptees. What is more the realm of adoptees is the fear that what we say could have catastrophic consequences. The suspicion is that biological children would be given a pass that the adoptee wouldn’t survive. We just fear taking risks which might jeopardize the only existence we have known.

    I was thinking today that a child is home such a short time. Even our most moored existence is temporary. And the adoptee’s existence is fragmentary. The more tragedy, the more important even a sliver of love or normalcy is.

    If fragments are all we have then, by God, let us embrace those fragments.

    If my mom were here today, I would go and fill her iron with distilled water, not tap, and wash the dishes without asking and many of those things that I didn’t do for her when she and I were together, that were only gestures but huge to her because she received no gestures. And I would continue to not talk about adoption and I would continue to let her worship Grandma Holt. Because she did care about me. And gestures, me, and Grandma Holt moored her to existence. But she isn’t. And I didn’t. And I regret that.

    And I would still hate adoption. And that’s okay too.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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