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 whose 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 intercountry 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 intercountry adoption was perceived to be 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 intercountry 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 intercountry 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 intercountry 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 or 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 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, 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 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” lottery 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 received 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.
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 each new layer and level, and our identity evolves slowly over time.
As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away and escape them. 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 Die Urwunde 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, allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid 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.