You Can’t Counsel Yourself into Belonging

Facebook Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, Gammy, Photographed by Michael Becker

Watching Angela Tucker be invited to the Red Table to address transracial adoption from the perspective of an adult adoptee was possibly a landmark moment for many of us. I‘m thrilled that she had the chance and the courage to speak on a subject that adoptees know creates disruption, and frequently outright hostility.

I waited all day for it to appear watching a back catalogue of episodes including one that I couldn’t bring myself to watch before that day, addressing the question “Should white people adopt black kids?” in which the guest is a white adoptive parent and notably absent are any adult adoptees.

It’s not lost on me that one such episode on white privilege the family discuss the meaning and impact of the quote “Prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance”. In another episode on relationships between black women and white women, Jada talks honestly about the difficult feeling she gets around white women, especially blonde white women. Later I will think of this and imagine what she would say if she were asked to fit in with a group of blonde white women the way it seems they expect Angela can do in a black community.

Angela expresses things many adoptees will relate to in one form or another, while others may not. For example, she currently feels more comfortable in white communities and parenting white foster children, and I see a lot of criticism online for that, from both adoptees and non-adoptees.

If there’s one thing we know about being an adoptee it’s that we can hold changing perspectives on our own experience over time and offering others the space to be where they are is to offer it to ourselves. 

One moment that touched me was when Angela said “I’m hoping that I live to see the day where people say, when I say ‘I’m adopted’, they say ‘oh my gosh, did someone try to keep you with your family first?’ instead of celebrating her adoption and expecting gratitude for it. When Jada said “I’ve never thought of it that way before” I exhaled, there’s healing in having your experience seen and acknowledged that way. I’ve felt it lately with friends, who told me “You’re really opening my eyes”. In a world where people actively fight to deny my reality, I’m so healed by having people in my life who can and do shift their perspective. Equally, I can see that those moments have often come over several months in which I share openly and not without misunderstandings. So perhaps it’s a lot to expect a 20 minute show to shift perspectives very far in one day. It will take time and more of our voices to build understanding.

Back at the red table, a tonal shift in the conversation occurs swiftly with Angela’s vulnerable admission that she feels fear in the company of black people, in this moment I sense she lost some of her hosts empathy as Gamma tenses and asks her to explain why she chose the word ‘fear’. The fear of black people is so inextricable with a legacy of discrimination and violence it’s hardly surprising the word fear is alarming, I myself held my breath. But ‘real talk’ is at the centre of the show and to understand transracial adoption is just that, real. Gamma had shown evidence of it herself in an earlier show when she admitted she had found it easier to accept a white man into the family than a white women.

As a fellow adoptee what I know is that the fear I feel around people of my own culture is also an implicit memory of my own relinquishment. Around people who look like those who gave me up and those I’ve lived without, I feel vulnerable, rejectable. Can a non-adoptee ever truly understand that feeling? 

Getting into her stride, Gamma soon advises Angela to ‘counsel yourself’ for questioning how she could teach a black (foster) child to be black, Gamma points out that Angela counsels white couples in transracial adoption. Angela however, doesn’t counsel white people on being black, she doesn’t counsel them on fitting in to black culture, instead she uses her lived experience as a transracial adoptee to educate adoptive parents on the hazards, missing racial mirrors and role models. That’s not the same thing as actually being a black person trying to fit into a black culture they’ve grown up without.

You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.

You can’t learn belonging any more than you can learn to be a peacock. You may learn enough to hang out with peacocks without alarming them but try to fly and you’ll know you’re not peacocky enough pretty quickly. Just so with the iceberg of culture. A myriad of secret handshakes lie beneath, unspoken tests and initiations sit between ourselves and others.

Belonging is at the heart of identity. Those who think it’s enough to decide who you are independently of others beliefs, are underestimating the role that being seen plays in our identity. Self-acceptance in our identity is a small, sometimes inconsequential island, validation of our identity is a continent. For transracial adoptees there can be a lot of sea between our island and that continent.

I think about Angela sitting at that table with three generations of black women, secure in their kinship with each other, bound together by biology and a shared history. Across the table Angela sits between a white couple who raised her, and look nothing like her, and the black women who gave birth to her – who looks like her but is foreign to her. I try to imagine what Angela needed from those women across the table chiding her to counsel herself.

I think there could be healing both for Angela and many adoptees who relate to her if they could have said, “I’m sorry you have to struggle to belong with your own people, I completely understand why you feel that way. We want you to know that for us, you belong right here at this table here with us”.

Angela and all adoptees – you belong at our table, your voice is important to us, thank you!

The King

We don’t know what we think we know.

As a child my dad never tired of yelling, “Who’s the king?” and I’d enthusiastically yell back, “Elvis” as I’d been taught to do, always to hoots of laughter and applause. I was too young to understand the meaning of my words, I only knew what the adults wanted of me.

‪As children, even as adults our words can have a performative nature; we say things all the time to delight others, sometimes to provoke, or just to make people comfortable in order to maintain harmony. We perfect this skill as children, keenly aware of the stated and unstated demands for loyalty, for silence or for allegiance.

I can think of so many ways in which I would speak someone else’s thoughts packaged as mine.  My words had nothing to do with my beliefs and everything to do with fitting in and seeking approval. Something not exclusive to adoptees but particularly difficult for us – as it is for anyone who feels they don’t fit into the community they find themselves in.

If you find this relatable then perhaps it won’t be a leap to consider that the adoptee you know isn’t as fine as you think. Perhaps you see the danger in the viral video of a little girl talking about meeting her adoptive mother for the first time expressing nothing but love and gratitude.

Both the larger scale ethics of using this for pro adoption marketing and the more personal danger to this little girl who must already be in an environment in which she understands on a deep unconscious level what’s expected of her in order to be safe. Spoiler alert, it is not to have curiosity or longing for her birth family or the identity she’s lost.

When I look at happy smiling photos of myself as a baby or as a little girl I feel I betrayed myself, and yet I know I was just a child trying to fit in, I wasn’t an ambassador for adoptees. For the little girl in the viral video, I feel pain for her because I see that possible future for her and more so because of the public nature of the video and how it’s being used. 

If you haven’t yet been in a community of friends and family where the seemingly perfect couple break up or divorce to the complete surprise of you or those around you – give it time. If you haven’t yet stumbled on the fact that one or more of your loved ones have been suffering with depression or mental health problems for decades without you knowing, perhaps even without them knowing, I suspect you’re in a minority. I hope that you never have and never will have to wonder about the true nature of a loved ones’ state of mind after they take their own life.

Even those who pay close attention to the wellbeing and feelings of others can and will be misguided about the deep-seated fears and fragility of others. Our society is a boot camp in emotional armoury, perfectionism and side-lining feelings.

If you’re not an adoptee, I talk about this in the hope that you can recall a time you were mistaken about someone or some part of yourself, perhaps revisit what you think you know about those you care for and learn how to look a little deeper and trust the lived experiences of adoptees instead of discounting them.

If you hang around adoptees long enough with an open mind, you’ll see some universal themes emerge, and likely discover that we don’t know what we think we do.  If you can allow for that, we can begin to be more honest with ourselves and others about what we do and don’t know.  You can listen and inquire with humility, kindness and willingness to learn from those willing to share. Help us do better to define the real issues, recognise the biases holding back progress and build the right support for adoptees.

The Cycle of Harm in Celebrity Adoptions

Adoption is not heroism.  It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.

Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity Adoptions.pngCelebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.

Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.

In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.

Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.

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Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.

As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).

But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.

I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.

In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.

This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.

The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?

The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate.  In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
Listen to Adoptee Voices.jpg

If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.

Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.

Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!

Celebrating Secrets and Sadness

sad birthday

It’s early morning, I’ve only the birds for company for a few more hours. Until my favourite person wakes up. Across the world in the place I was born it’s already early afternoon on my birthday.

Birthdays are a strange, strange day for adoptees. The days preceding it are pensive and sad for completely different reasons to those who perhaps see only more candles on cake. It’s an odd day to celebrate given the anniversary of loss eclipsing that day.

My birthday is one of normalised secrets and mysteries, unspoken questions unanswered. Who was the woman to whom I was born on this day? How was my birth? Did she hold me at all, for how long, minutes, days, weeks, months? How was she feeling? Sad, relieved, resentful, frightened. Decisive?

Who were the other women who cared for me and brokered my adoption? Nuns convinced they were doing a God’s work. While from my perspective it seems more like a Handmaids Tale.

I know my mothers name, her age and that she was Indian and I have her ID number, assuming my birth certificate wasn’t falsified as many were in other parts of Asia. That’s all, except perhaps that she was likely Catholic. You would think a name and an ID card number might be enough to find her. But it’s another continent, another culture. One in which I have no sources, no allies or relationships and no sense of the unwritten rules and expectations.

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Her name now brings up an obituary listed in late 2016. A woman with this name died leaving behind a husband and a daughter. More mysteries, could it be my mother, and if so, is the daughter me, or a sister? Is her name common in Malaysia? Are those whom Google uncovers with this name, no more likely to be relatives than a Brown or a Smith? Or is it more rare? The first search reveals a young man, a journalist in Malaysia, a crime reporter. He’s on Twitter but he has only a handful of followers and very few tweets showing me who he is. Should I follow him, and see if he follows the clues back to me? Am I a random stranger whose profile of a Chindian Malaysian adoptee is only of passing interest or could it resonate with the possibilities of a shameful family secret? How does an adoptee reach out to people in these circumstances knowing the possible weight of consequences?

I could hire a detective – perhaps with this information it wouldn’t take a well connected expert long to find people and information. But I’m told it’s common practice to expect to bribe people for information. For my information. I’m resentful about how much it might cost me to find out what everyone else takes for granted. A history they’ve never even had to consider a human right. It just exists. Perhaps it’s even a little boring, the story of the day you were born, told again and again.

If I take my search to another level, there’ll be no going back once a certain line has been crossed. So much can unravel once it does in a family across the world, and in one here.

Only adoptees will really understand this, perhaps they will always mean more to me than family. They are mostly strangers across the world, they know intimate details about my adoption story and almost none about my day-to-day life. A kind of Adoptees Anonymous.

Today a call with my British adoptive parents will be unavoidable. There will be pseudo jollity. They’ll wish me a happy birthday, ask me about my day and presents, and no one will mention the secrets and mysteries of this day in 1972 in Malaysia.

Not My Adopted Child!

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If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”

I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.

So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.

I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.

For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or  new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!

Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.

Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.

When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.

I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.

To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.

About Juliette

 

Adoptee Body Keeps Score

(Also shared at Musings of a Birthmom.)

marginalised

As an intercountry adoptee from Malaysia to the UK, I am still so marginalised that it took a lot of anger at the age of 44 to motivate me to claim my own ethnicity. Yet, when I spoke out loud with frustration, confusion and anger, “I am an immigrant” and “I am Asian”, repeating it to friend after friend and to family; I expected at any time that someone would tell me that I am not. I watched their faces intently for signs that the statement was true or false. I was so confused about my own identity and how I was viewed in the eyes of others.

I am so marginalised that I censor my own thoughts for fear of who they will hurt. I find myself left with disembodied stress and pain, unnamed and unattended, because I can’t even allow myself those fantasies or thoughts. I remember that I had burned my own journal in my twenties, and in so doing buried and destroyed memories of sadness and isolation.

In meeting a distant-but-still-biological cousin for the first time, I noted with practiced distance the eager curiosity of people asking me how I was. How had the meeting gone? Even people across the world were asking my husband. I told them all, “It was lovely, it was fine, we had a lot in common”. And we did. And it was.

Yet, it wasn’t until the plane ride home that I was finally alone with my thoughts and pulling together the threads of what I had voiced for the first time with a wise friend and with my husband via Facetime from Australia.

These discussions floated incongruously in my mind, high above the ground literally and emotionally. I experienced a growing physical anxiety and increased heart rate, which continued through the night as I tried to sleep. I woke several times in the night hearing mysterious sounds and my hyper vigilance kicked in alerting me to the possibility of an imaginary intruder in the house. Had I left my keys in the door on the outside in my tired and bamboozled state? Was someone here with me?

I locked the bedroom door. My husband, who had long since anticipated moments like this, had added a deadbolt to the attic door, creating my own private panic room.

But no, there was no intruder. The intruder was me, my own thoughts, my own body!

A therapy session began to unravel that I had held a long time secret fantasy about having a sister. I had privately hoped my cousin would be just like that imagined sister. I hoped that she might look like me, that she might resemble me in other ways. Indeed, we shared a bond through many eerily similar experiences and common hallmarks of intercountry adoption:

  • colour blindness
  • secrets
  • racially charged political differences in our families

.. but our personalities, our responses to these experiences, and our basic physicality were inherently different.

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My adult protective self had already distanced me from the fantasy, knowing it to be unrealistic and a one-way-road to disappointment. But another part of me silently and stubbornly held on with the steely resolute grip of an inner child. Disembodied, unspoken, unacknowledged; no wonder I experienced such an overwhelming physical anxiety once I allowed myself to visit my own thoughts.

It’s all true, the body keeps the score.

I don’t know why planes are such emotional places but it does seem to be a universal experience. Maybe we all still have a sense of wonder about the miracle of it. And then there are memories of flying between countries between homes, between possibilities and flying off on adventures. But I do know that my first plane ride was when I was seven months old, leaving my country of birth. Maybe that’s a preverbal and body-held memory. My plane ride to meet my cousin and returning home was not just THIS moment, THIS trip. It was that first trip, all over again.

About Juliette

Resources

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessen van der Kolk