The late Betty Jean Lifton, author of Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience, describes the adoptee’s growing awareness of his desire to know more about his biological family as an awakening: “The act of adoption puts us under a spell that numbs our consciousness. When we awaken it startles us to realize we might have slept our lives away, floating and uprooted…The adoptee awakens when he or she realizes that not to know (who gave them birth) would be to live life without meaning. The curiosity has always been there, waiting to be released.”
Awakenings happen at various times for adoptees, sometimes and to some degree during childhood, often to a greater degree as the adoptee grows older. My greatest awakening was at mid-life, when I enrolled in a college writing class and was assigned to take a few facts, weave them together with historical data, and create a story. Since I only knew a few details about my birth family, I chose that as my topic.
I remember sitting for hours in the library, my head buried in the study cubicle, pouring over tattered, musty books describing maternity homes in the 1940’s. I learned of the awful stigma and shame society laid upon women experiencing untimely pregnancies. I learned about the vulnerability of married women whose husbands were off at war. Dark thoughts and emotions stirred in me and my heart began to weep for the birth mother I never knew.
For many adoptees, the need to find the birth family becomes all-consuming and an actual search begins. I grew relentless in my search for more information. I interviewed elderly nurses and found out what procedures were used during births. “What was my birth like for my mother…and for me?” “Was anyone there for my birth mother?” “Did she ever get to see me or hold me?”
I thought for the first time of the excruciating pain of having to give up a child, leave the hospital with empty arms, and go on with life as if nothing had happened. I longed to tell my birth mother that she had done the right thing. I wanted to let her know that I was all right.
Little by little, my birth family was coming to life in my psyche. Finally I realized what I had been searching for all my life: a connection to my “real” life–the real me–before I was adopted, and the whole truth about my past that would enable me to live my present more honestly and fully.
Going Through Home Again
As a parent you may be wondering, Why is it so important that our adopted child know the truth about her origins? What good will that do? Why put her through all that?
Author Carlye Marney, in Achieving Family Togetherness, once suggested that there are at least 80,000 generations behind each one of us, and that we are incapable of blessing ourselves or giving blessing to others until we are first able to bless our origins. Marney terms this process of blessing one’s origins “going through home again.”
Going through home again is no easy process for an adoptee, for her origins are often shrouded in secrecy. Secrecy about her conception, secrecy about her birth, and secrecy about her family history. How can she bless her origins if she doesn’t know what they are?
Webster’s says to bless means:
• to bestow good of any kind
• to honor, to beautify
• to be in favor of
• to endorse
• to smile upon
• to pardon.
Think about these words in regard to your child. I know you would agree on every point that this is what you want for her. You want her to be able to smile upon herself…to be in favor of herself…and ultimately to pardon others who may have given her a painful beginning. In other words, you want to implant in her a healthy self-esteem, regardless of her past history.
The saying, “When you know the truth, the truth will set you free,” is applicable here. I am reminded of a poster with the above verse and picture of a rag doll being pushed through an old-fashioned wringer. A good reminder that the truth is often painful.For example, when Cathy found out that she had been conceived in rape, her heart sunk at the sound of the words. She was one who therapist Dr. Randolph Severson, in To Bless Him Unaware, described as a “child whose life leapt into being through a degrading, terrifying act of sexual violation.” Cathy never imagined in her darkest fantasies that this could be a possibility. Yet it was her truth, and it led her to a greater truth: that something good came out of that terrible violation of her birth mother. That good thing was her. It also helped her learn about her birth mother and all that she had been through in order to give her life.
There may be many truths that will be difficult to tell your adopted child. Perhaps the birth mother was a crack addict. Perhaps there is a history of mental illness, neglect, or sexual abuse in the family.
Jeanine Jones, MSW, CCSW, and adoptive mother of seven said in an article appearing in Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News: “No, it is not a joyous time when your child wants to see all his information and you’re concerned that what he reads will hurt him. This is a time for honesty, compassion, and relationship building.”
Your child, at the appropriate age, can actually benefit from hearing painful information about his past because he will know that finally you are telling him the honest, gut-level truth. Kids are geniuses at detecting untruths. This giving of information doesn’t have so much to do with the truth about his past as it does with his relationship with you and with himself. He is learning to trust you at a deeper level and he is also developing self-esteem. He is possibly having some of the ugliest and most painful information about his past revealed by you, yet at the same time you are demonstrating that you love him just as he is.
As this relationship of trust and love deepens, he can decide what he wants to do about the option of searching for more facts or for birth family members. Whether or not he goes ahead with an actual search, the relationship between you and him will have grown tremendously.
How to Know When Your Child Is Searching
Now I am beginning to see the necessity of the adoptee going through home again, as well as the challenge, you may be thinking. Are there any behaviors I can look for in my child to know if he is wanting to go through home again?
Yes, there will be behaviors that will help you know if your child is inwardly heading in that direction. Learn to listen, as you have been, with your heart. Keep in mind the wise words of Drs. Brodzinsky and Schecter from their book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. These doctors have thirty years combined experience in dealing with adopted children. When asked what percent of adoptees search for their birth parents, their answer was one hundred percent. “In our experience,” they said, “all adoptees engage in a search process. It may not be a literal search, but it is a meaningful search nonetheless.”
Sometimes the adoptee’s desire to go through home again is subtle or masked. Following are some ways adoptees may express their unspoken need.
• The search begins in their imagination, through the telling of fairy tales and stories.
• Can show up as early as three years old through play. (Look particularly for themes of loss and rescue–lost animals, lost children, etc.)
• After you tell her about her adoption, she asks, “Why did it happen?”
• She may wonder where her birth parents are now. “Where are they?” “Will she come and see me someday?”
• “You can take a dog to a vet and find out what kind he is, but I can’t even find out what my heritage is.”
• “I wish I could tell her (birth mother) how much I love her for bringing me into the world.”
• “Meeting my birth father was validating for who I am.”
• “Now that I have met her (birth mother), I know how to be.”
• “Knowing your birth family gives you a point of reference.”
The truth can and probably will be painful for the adoptee, but most of us want it all. We want truth on every level–physical, emotional, and spiritual.
What Parents Can Do
At the earliest age possible, introduce information about the birth family. The words “birth mother” and “birth family” shouldn’t be some strange term imposed on the child later in life. Instead, the child’s history should be presented in terms which even the pre-schooler can understand. I am so glad your birth mommy gave you to us to love. Maybe it was your birth mommy who gave you that beautiful curly hair!
Vicky remembers her mother’s anxiety about the subject of her birth mother. On the night before she was married, her mother nervously revealed her birth mother’s name and the few facts she knew about the birth family’s history. “Not only did it seem awkward and out of place, but it felt like a betrayal,” Vicky said. “Why didn’t she tell me earlier? Why did she withhold something so vital to my well-being? It also created feelings of shame. Was there something awful about my past or me that made her so nervous?”
It wasn’t until many years later that Vicky learned that her birth mother had been raped. She was confident am sure her adoptive mother was aware of this because her grandmother was the social worker who handled her private adoption.
“If my mother had shared that information with me earlier in life, I am sure I could have handled it,” Vicky said. “Yes, it would have been painful. Yes, it probably would have created more questions about my history, but it would have empowered me to be able to trust and love my adoptive mother more.”
Vicky realizes the toll it took on her. “Because I was not given the painful details of my conception until I was forty-three years old, it took me a lot of time and energy to be able to separate the circumstances of my conception from who I am as a person. For years after finding out the circumstances, I said that ‘I was conceived in rape.’ Whenever I said those words, my soul flooded with shame and sadness. One day I realized that I was carrying the pain and shame of my birthmother. After that I learned to simply say ‘my mother was raped.’ That removed the incessant shame from me and enabled me to love my birth mother more.”
What a gift you would be giving to your child by sharing all of his history with him as the time arises. You would be able to help him work through the complex task of separating the painful circumstances from his who he is as a person.
I am not advocating that you sit down with your four-year-old child and share the negative aspects of his conception and birth, but I am advocating answering his questions honestly whenever the opportunity arises.
Let the child lead. You will know when the time is right because he will begin to ask questions. Expect questions about his birth mother as early as age three. Adoption may seem like a wonderful thing to your pre-school child, but when he reaches school age, he will begin to realize that to be chosen means that he was first rejected by someone. Why didn’t my birthmother want me? Where is my birthmother now? Did you ever meet her? Do you think that she would like me if she knew me now?
I cringe when saying the word “rejection” because it sheds an unfavorable light on the birthmother and her decision to relinquish. This is not my intent. However, it is important to realize that relinquishment translates to the adoptee as rejection no matter how much the birth mother loved him. This is the adoptee’s emotional reality and probably the point at which his questioning will occur.
Think through possible scenarios of how you will answer your child’s questions before he becomes curious. When the time comes, your confidence and serenity will let him know that it is okay to ask questions and express his true feelings.
You probably will not have all the answers to his questions, especially if you adopted internationally. Nevertheless, he can learn to have a settled peace about his origins knowing that in this life there will always be unanswered questions.
Learn to listen to your child’s spoken and unspoken messages. This will clue you in to what part of the information upsets him. “You’ve got to be kidding?” “Oh, no way.” “That is horrible.” “I don’t want to hear any more.” These are indications that he has digested all the information he can at this particular time. What are the non-verbals? Remember that this is your first avenue of communication before words. Does he throw up his hands in utter disbelief? Does he get a far-away look in his eyes or drift off into a catatonic stare? Does he swallow hard? Does his body stiffen? If so, pay close attention. If he stares, he is likely frozen in fear. If he is swallowing hard, he may be overwhelmed. If his body stiffens, he may be communicating that he just can’t tolerate any more.
Remember that adoption is a life-long journey. Questions about his birth and birth family will surface at each developmental stage of life. Times of change–going to high school, leaving home for college, getting married and having children of his own, mid-life, old age–will often be the precursor to history issues resurfacing. However, the information you have already given him will not be a millstone around his neck; rather, it will provide him with a context to learn deeper lessons about what it means to be adopted. Ultimately, growth will occur.
You probably would agree that “going through home again” by learning birth history is not an easy task for most adoptees. Some adoptees have no desire to learn anything beyond the adoption story. However, when your child expresses his need to go through home and learn what he can about his past, no matter how painful the details, trust his instincts. The end result may well be that he will finally be able to look back on his past with pardon and upon himself with favor.
Copyright 1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Random House Publishing. No reprinting without permission of author.