What is it like to be Adopted?

Someone recently asked if I could provide a short statement on these questions:

  • What does it mean to be adopted?
  • How does it feel?
  • And what is it like not knowing who your mother (parents) is?

I struggled to contain my answer in one paragraph but did … and then I decided I’d share the long version because at its essence, this is what we adoptees struggle with and wish others could understand better.

For me, being adopted has meant that I was once abandoned for whatever reason. Mine was in the context of the Vietnam War so I can almost cognitively accept there was a valid reason – perhaps my mother died in the war during childbirth or perhaps my whole family got blown up in a bomb. I still vividly remember watching Heaven and Earth – a film about a Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War and I had a strong empathy for the atrocities many Vietnamese women went through, especially the ones who’s babies were cut out of their mothers stomachs and the women raped by soldiers. My heart ached for whether that might have been my mother’s situation and I overcame my sadness of why I might have been given up with the reality that – perhaps my mother went through more trauma and loss than I did.

The possibilities of why I was given up are endless and almost comforting to know she probably didn’t give me up because of being pregnant out of wedlock as in Korea or because of a 1-child-policy as in China. Perhaps it was poverty as is the case in many other sending countries like Ethiopia. But at the end of the day, I can rationally see children do get abandoned and some are legitimate orphans … and in a war torn situation like mine, domestic adoption, foster care or other alternatives were just not possible at the time due to everything being in chaos with no stable government to ensure the citizens of that country get looked after.

I do believe when we are old enough to understand the political and economic situations surrounding our adoptions – it impacts how we adoptees view inter country adoption. For me, I’ve never seen myself as against all forms of adoption because of my situation where in a war torn country there’s almost a legitimate reason for why inter country adoption was needed. I do question aspects of the Operation Babylift concept which occurred after I was adopted – in particular the speed at which it happened, the lack of clarification of the children who were sent abroad as to their real status, how they were selected, and the politics involved – I dare say if Operation Babylift were done today it would be seen as mass Child Trafficking and receive huge criticism by Child’s Rights activists around the world! Indeed Operation Babylift was controversial in an era were inter country adoption was in its infancy.

For the Korean adoptees today from a Western mindset, seeing generations of babies being sent abroad because of stigma against single unwed women, one can understand why as a Korean adoptee you would become fiercely critical of adoption! The same will apply for the generations of Chinese adoptees being sent abroad to solve their country’s population problem via inter country adoption. Adult adoptees from these sending countries will inevitably grow up to ask the question – what did the Government do to assist these babies to be kept in their birth country rather than being conveniently shipped off via Intercountry adoption where millions of dollars are saved from having to find a solution in-house? What about the Rights of The Child? In countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, and Ethiopia families have been ripped apart from the corruption and greed of baby sellers under the guise of inter country adoption – of course these adopted children will grow up to have an opinion of what happened on a massive scale and question why the Governments of their own birth country and receiving country did little, early enough, to stop more adoptions when there were plenty of indicators that children were being adopted out without any proper oversight and ensuring they were legitimate orphans.

So the question of what does it mean to be adopted starts with the abandonment concept but then depending on which sending country we come from, gets layered with other more social, political and economic issues about why our birth countries allow us to be adopted, layered yet again with how our adoption into another family and culture really turns out, and in the minority of cases, gets layered again if we can be reunited. Complications arise naturally from the actual adoption in whether we are lucky enough to be placed in an appropriate family with support, empathy and help to navigate the complexities of our life at different stages of development – e.g. were we raised in a multicultural setting to allow us to assimilate and not feel like racially isolated; was adoption openly talked about; was it acceptable to express our feelings of grief and not knowing about our first families; were we allowed to be ourselves or were we subconsciously having to live the life our adoptive parents wanted and meeting their subconscious needs; were we supported in returning to our country of origin and wanting to search for information?

Some of us are not so lucky in obtaining the “awesome adoptive parent” lotto ticket and so our being adopted takes centre stage in trying to understand why we deserved mistreatment and hurt (intentional or not) from our adoptive families and only serves to add to our vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness from being abandoned. For those of us who have fantastic adoptive families, I dare say we can move quicker through the minefield of trying to understand what being adopted means because we receive the love and nurturing that is necessary to flourish and develop healthy self esteem and racial identity – but it’s still not an easy journey even with the best of parents.

So essentially how does it feel to be adopted? The best analogy I could come up with as an adult adoptee now in my 40s, is it’s like peeling away layers of an onion.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.18.05 am.png
Keep peeling away through the layers of yourself.  It may cause you to cry but these tears will cleanse your soul and uncover who you really are!

You move thru’ life wonderfully for a while and then hit a new layer that stings the eyes and heart. It takes time to absorb the meaning of one’s abandonment and loss at this new layer and at each level, our identity evolves slowly over time. As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away from them and escape. Once we get to understand this, we are able to move through these layers with less disruption to the whole of our lives. For me, adoption has become less of an issue the older I get because I’ve slowly been able to integrate all these facets and complications into my sense of who I am and why I am.

It’s such a complicated thing to try and explain what it is like to not ever know one’s first mother and father. There’s the not knowing in terms of facts – their names, histories, race, and language. Then there’s the gut feelings of sadness and grief and the why’s of “why we aren’t with them?” Then there’s the “well – who am I then” without being able to answer any factual questions.

When I was younger and before I learnt to stop running from the feelings of grief and loss, I would long for my mother. I recall looking into the starry sky at night and wonder if my mother ever thought of me or missed me as much as I did her. I would dream of her leaving me on a dusty road and me crying out “wait!” I realise now I was full of grief in my years under 10. I missed a mother I couldn’t put a face to but one to whom I felt innately severed from.

There is no doubt in my mind and after reading The Primal Wound and watching documentaries like In Utero, that it is true – we do bond in utero with our mothers and we feel disconnected if we never hear her voice or feel her around us again. I couldn’t really come to allow myself to trust my new mother (my adoptive mum) and I see now as an adult how hard this must have been for her. In my child mind, if mother can disappear than I’d better learn to be self reliant and not trust any other mother. I know my adoptive mum tried to show me she loved me but it’s just I couldn’t psychologically let her in. When did it change? I think it wasn’t until in my mid 20s when I did some therapy with an amazing woman (yes, I knew I had to find a female therapist to assist me in my unhealed “mother” work)! I finally learnt to trust a woman and allow my buried grief to surface – to share that very real and deep pain of being separated from one’s mother – with another “mother figure”. It was really only then I could totally embrace my adoptive mother and allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid that I’d lose myself or somehow be disloyal to my first mother and understand the three of us were connected.

The not knowing is just my reality. I haven’t known any different. Its like everyone else gets given a cup that’s full of water but my cup is empty and I need to have a drink.  Its a basic biological fundamental that our bodies need water!  But how do I fill the empty cup and even if I figure it out, will it be enough to satiate the thirst?  Normally water quenches the thirst just like having knowledge of our parents and our family heritage gives us the basis/starting point for our identity.

For adoptees like myself who have no facts to go by, the not knowing is like starting to write a book or film without doing any research to ascertain the history in order to create the setting/scene. It just begins with us and it can feel like we are adrift in a huge ocean.  There is nothing to shelter against and no other life lines we can connect to to stop us drifting and getting washed around.  I had many moments during my life where I felt like I might get toppled over and disappear forever beneath the huge waves. I honestly don’t know what I hung onto to survive – maybe sheer will power, maybe some resoluteness within me to find the answers and make sense of it all. Maybe it’s what still drives me today – to find meaning to my solitary existence. But the reality today is, I realise I’m not alone at all. There are many of us, thousands, sitting alone on our ocean amongst the waves … by connecting each individual together with the bigger picture, it helps make collective sense to our meaning and purpose and what we can achieve.

7 thoughts on “What is it like to be Adopted?

  1. Wow Lynelle Long What a great article On your views of What does it mean to be adopted?
    How does it feel?
    I respect your views and would not argue about them. However I do Feel that perhaps you may like to reconsider your statement about not being anti adoption I understand that to be anti adoption has become a negative term and the propaganda of the pro adoption movement has been quite a significant force in demonetising this term and it is quite divisive along with there being no viable alternative as yet. There is one Question I have for you and I know that circumstances of course are different in each case however, If there was no severing of your legal right to your heritage,no issuing of a birth certificate that stated that your adoptive couple were your natural mother and farther, changing of your name, leaving you with out your true Identity and If you kept your original birth certificate stating your parents name,also your given name,and was not legally severed from your family Would this have made any difference to your experience ? they are the core difference’s between being cared for when there is no other option or being adopted “As if born to” I ask this with the up-most of respect . William Hammersley

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    1. Thanks William! I appreciate your question and one I’ve pondered on since you asked. I have modified my blog posting so it doesn’t get into the whole anti/pro debate as that is another topic and I also don’t want to unfairly label. As for your question, would it have made a big difference? Definitely as I would have grown up knowing my own name, birth parent’s name, date and place of birth … but the reality was, it was the Vietnam War and I’m told by many other Vietnamese adoptees that they have a birth certificate but know/found out the information is incorrect. I actually don’t have any documentation from before my adoption that states anything either. So before and after adoption, I still don’t know what my birth name and date of birth was, where I was born, or who to. I think the theoretical idea of making sure a child’s birth details are known and not severing ties in this manner is is a great ideal. However, in today’s world of corruption in ICA (and in my case a war torn situation) – the reality of ensuring birth details are correct might be an impossible task. The Sending Countries can barely live up to the “ideals” of The Hague on ICA let alone look at the specific elements this question raises on how does one authenticate birth document details? I can see how in a Domestic adoption situation from a 1st world country like Australia, that this ideal could becomes a central argument to being anti adoption, however, in a 3rd world context, I don’t see how paperwork can ever be qualified given the current lack of Legal will power at Country level to prosecute the obvious traffickers in ICA who make it an art to leave no true and accurate paper trail for the adoptee.

      So in a nutshell, even if I’d had a birth certificate with details on it and had not been “legally” severed from my abandonment ie not adopted, it still wouldn’t have helped much in my specific case because they would have been fabricated. I would have stayed in Vietnam with still no facts/knowledge of my birth family and growing up in a War torn country – hoping someone would raise me. In fact, the Aust Govt waited 17 years for my documents to “turn up” but none were recovered – I was under the Guardianship of the Minister for Child Welfare but I was not adopted until my adoptive parents pushed to get me some ID papers so I could get my drivers licence. I guess in theory I’m stating that it wasn’t really the “adoption” as such that left me with my questions and not knowings because those facts were already in place before my adoptive parents took me to be their child. My true identity had no information except for one lady who facilitated my adoption ie found me from who knows where, and took me into a creche to be looked after. So she did in fact care for me but for what reasons, meaning did she know why I was in a position to have to be cared for others not my family I do not know. I contacted her in my 20s only to find out she’d died and all paperwork from her work, had been left in Vietnam when she fled to France when the Viet Cong took over the South of Vietnam.

      So as you can see, I guess I’ve realised there are so many individual cases for each person I know of to having been “adopted” that I don’t think we can make blanket statements of whether adoption is totally good or bad. Some situations warrant a child being given a new identity, home, family … others there should have been more done in-country to find either extended family, neighbours, or other home care options. Domestic adoption is not the same as International/InterCountry adoption. I think at the end of the day, it is people’s lives and these decisions should never be undertaken lightly as to whether a child be placed for adoption or not. It is to this end that I aim to promote awareness and facilitate understanding of the complexities that will enable those people in charge, to be thoroughly educated in understanding what impact their decision for that child will make in the lives of all involved – all families and children deserve to be with their own blood family and we should do what we can to preserve that where possible.

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  2. Thanks so much for your post. I’m so glad that I stumbled upon this blog. I’m an adoptee from Taiwan. I was actually relinquished by my biological father without my family knowing it. It’s kind of a long story. In 2012, I reunited with my birth family after nearly 3 years of searching for them. My birth parents had both passed away, but I met my 2 older sisters, 1 older brother, uncle and nieces and nephews. It was a very positive experience, and we still keep in touch. I hope to return later this year. I also blog at http://beyondtwoworlds.com where I’ve shared my journey through adoption, which I don’t think ever ends for any adoptee. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

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  3. Thanks Lynelle. I appreciate your response and I have found it quite en- lightening. I support the ICA’s plight and believe it is only a matter of time until the Federal government will be apologising to you all also . I agree not get into the whole anti/pro debate , however I felt I should respond and then leave it at that.
    Yes true Lynelle, “all families and children deserve to be with their own blood family and we should do what we can to preserve that where possible ” and in your case and many other ICA’s for a variety of reasons the paper trail was/is not possible for tracing their origins because the traffickers have made it an art to leave no true and accurate paper trail for the adoptee”and in your case it was the war but for some it may be useful.
    However if a parent was trying to trace their child in Australia, after it was kidnapped off the streets of another country, trafficked to Australia via adoption and given a new birth certificate that states the adopting couple are the natural parents, wouldn’t it be near on impossible for the parents to trace their child in Australia?
    Do you think we should continue to perpetuate the situation and obliterate the paper trail here in Australia as well. ?
    , “In a nut shell” two wrongs do not make a right.
    However it is not only the paper trail I am advocating, it is the legal severing of heritage and pretending that genetic strangers are natural parents.
    You say “I don’t think we can make blanket statements of whether adoption is totally good or bad”.Neither do I. I think sweeping blanket statements are naive, however It is the legal severing of heritage and pretending that genetic strangers are natural parents, that I question .
    If your adopting couple did not have the avenue of adoption. As it seems (in your case they had bought you up until you turned 17 years old with out adoption) and such a system did not exist. Would they or could they have cared for you in Australia under a different method and still got you a drivers licence and offer a warm and loving family to grow up with. I can see how your life would not have been much different but would life have been different for many other ICA’s, if the adopting couple’s did not have the avenue of adoption and such a system did not exist.?
    You also say,” to promote awareness and facilitate understanding of the complexities that will enable those people in charge to be thoroughly educated in understanding what impact their decision for that child will make in the lives of all involved “.
    This is an admirable aim to neither support a system or oppose it and to work towards making it more palatable for the people it currently affects, however no matter which way it is painted, it is a system, that has proven to be flawed in many ways.
    I believe doing this in the short term is important and I commend you for it, however it does nothing for the long term future apart from propping up a flawed system and softening the blow for it’s victims.
    You also say that Domestic adoption is not the same as International/Inter Country adoption.
    Of course it is not, however there are many issues and feelings that are similar and if there was a viable alternative to adoption domestically and adoption did not exist then of course there would be no inter-country adoption in Australia. We would have to rethink how Australia and it’s citizens would support the plight of children in other countries.
    I realise we cannot turn back the clock, however would it be beneficial for children in need, wether they come from another country or from Australia, benefit from an alternative system too adoption?
    I look to the future and learn from the past. Of course I know this is idealistic but without the ideal there is no progress, with out ideals you have apathy and without ideals there is nothing to strive towards.

    William hammersley

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  4. Thank you for writing this Lynelle! Very, very good essay on what it means to be adopted. I think it will help a lot of people understand and for that you are to be applauded. Families and friends need to get it. Adoptees are not well understood. So many people think they should just get over it.

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