W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult.
Why are people so unwilling to hear it?
W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.”
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old.
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale.
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name.
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time.
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this?
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.”
How did she react?
W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that.
Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience?
Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop
is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.
What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma.
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way.
Then recently I was led to think about the effects of prenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying?
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents.
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma. She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until this conversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away.
So what do we do about that?
This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.”
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals, are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so. But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms. It’s rotten to the core.
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents. There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does. The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is. But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history. That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption?
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that.
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy. And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother?
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother.
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term?
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies.
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well.
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up?
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone.
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?
W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that.
But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot.
W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.
We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. She was extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced. We didn’t speak in the first moments. I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.
One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now.
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half.
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging — the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you.
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife. And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other.
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy.
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would.
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required?
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy.
Who required this?
W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If you‘d like to have contact, you can.
There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”
The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing.
So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”
I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away. Mail the documents, please.”
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
And they were still redacted.
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.
It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something.
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am. It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family. No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.