Expectations of Gratitude in Adoption

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I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.

It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.

I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.

In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.

But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.

I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.

I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.

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I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.

My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.

Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.

The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.

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My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.

I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.

The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.

To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.

You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.

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This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.

Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.

I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.

Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?

Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.

I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.

Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.

Cuts You Deep

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Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in History, I found the similarities of my childhood and reading the history of Nazi Germany opened up my old anxieties. The interrogation methods of the SS were like pages read out about my own childhood. My adopted mother acted like a Concentration Camp guard, always on the lookout to entrap my sister and me in some wrongdoings. She would face the label of the ice cream carton inside the freezer at a certain angle to see if it was ever moved. If it was, we were chastised for stealing food.

My sister stopped me one summer afternoon when I had a few bites due to my lifelong suffering from hypoglycemia and showed me how to angle or place the carton back into the freezer. I didn’t know it at the time but the low-blood sugar levels made me extremely hungry. I was forced to binge eat when I had my episodes and ate entire packets of cookies so I could immediately get rid of the evidence. I felt guilty wasting food and therefore crammed the cookies down in a couple of minutes. I did this because the first time I was caught, I endured hours of humiliation and punishment that didn’t fit the crime.

If my adoptive father was not in a good mood I was given a spanking with the belt or switch and this was followed by my adoptive mother’s tidal wave of rhetorical commentary and questions such as, “We don’t starve you, so why did you do this?” and “Your theft only indicates you will be a criminal when you grow up, do you want to go to jail?”

I wanted to reach out and talk to people about what I was going through but my family was firmly rooted as respected members of the church, work, and community. I felt the only option abuse 2I had was to remain silent. They made up logical stories and explanations to family, colleagues, and acquaintances to explain their side of the story. It involved half-truths to paint the victim as the aggressor, evildoer, and villain. They did this protect themselves. They did this to remain in the good graces of the community they lived in, even though they were the ones doing harm.

They fabricated stories that the child was the one attacking them, stating the child was unruly, dangerous, on drugs, etc. This gave them an external reason to “protect themselves” and rationalize the altercations and find sympathy from individuals who were unfamiliar with the family issues and interactions. Whenever this happened, my sister and I were at greater risk because getting away with one incident of abuse allowed the perpetrators to continue or escalate the patterns.

Abuse comes in numerous forms:

Physical abuse is violent and uses intimidation, isolation, restraint, aggression, and endangerment as a form of control.

Mental abuse gets into your mind and uses gaslighting, silence, manipulation, and victimization as a form of control.

Verbal abuse goes from your ears to your mind via screaming, bullying, name calling, berating, and blaming.

Sexual abuse is about dominance and uses jealous rages, coercion, sexual withdraw, rape, and degrading acts as a form of control.

Emotional abuse forces you into situations that produce intense anxiety, guilt, confusion, shame, anger, hostility, rejection, and fear to be used as a form of control.

Economic abuse is about limiting resources and uses stealing, destroying assets, dependency, refusing access, falsifying records, and interfering with work environments as a means to control.

Spiritual abuse is using your beliefs such as dichotomous thinking, prejudice, elitist beliefs, demanding submission, excommunication, and estrangement as a means of control.

Types of abuse

When adoptees finally confront their abusers at a time in life when they are no longer dependent upon them, they are often met with attacks from other people who may know the abuser at a distance and feel trust and admiration for them, not understanding what has really gone on.

I wrote several months ago on my Facebook page about some of the abuse and neglect that I faced as a child. My nephew shot several scathing messages asking why I was airing dirty laundry in public. I had an uncle who wrote to me and was very dismissive about the abuse stating, “he had it worse” and “corporal punishment was an accepted use of discipline”. I have long since blocked both individuals but realize these family members do not understand the full picture of what was going on.

Upon reflection, I realize they have been told years of misinformation about me from adults who were established in their community. I think this victim shaming and blaming occurs for the following reasons:

  • The abuse often takes place behind closed doors and cannot be validated by others.
  • Abusers deny their actions and when confronted individuals are met with conflicting stories, half-truths, and outright lies.
  • Abusers blame the victim when in reality they were the ones who were the aggressors.
  • Violence is oftentimes preceded by verbal abuse, this is a tactic used to keep the victim at bay.
  • The abuser needs to be right and in control, they may use their authority or moral standing to explain why they were forced to what they did.
  • The abuser is possessive and may try to isolate their child from friends and family as a means to protect themselves.
  • The abuser is often times hypersensitive and may react with rage. When they lash out – they blame you and act as if you are responsible for their anger.

Abuse

I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of adoptees around the world and many of them have confided in me and shared their horror stories of abuse and neglect. One of the worst experiences is a young woman who remains connected to her adopted family even though her adoptive mother overlooks the fact her husband was sexually abusing her. I met a pair of sisters in the United States who had a father that made them feel guilty to take care of him in his elderly years, even though he was often missing from their lives. Even when he was home, he ignored them and was “terse” at best. Numerous other adoptees felt their adoptive families were not invested in them, they were not “bad people” but they were not connected to them nor had close relationships.

The issue may worsen when adoptees try to sever the relationship or move away. The parents may feign sickness to draw them back into the relationship or offer them promises they never intend to keep and play a game of catch and release with their heart. They may lash out and do things to make you feel guilty or ways to be part of your life. Some of the ways they may manipulate are:

  • The abusive individual may reach out, stating they have changed and then turn on you and lash out in anger as they did before.
  • They will make promises, with no intentions of changing to draw you back into the relationship.
  • They will leverage your actions, distancing you, keeping your children away to portray themselves as the victims.
  • They will change the story of what actually occurred, stating you have an overactive imagination, that what you say is a lie or back their story with the silence of their codependent spouse.
  • They may use money and resources to leverage themselves to make demands and “compromises”.

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I was caught in this cycle of craziness for much of my adult years. What I found helpful was to speak to other adoptees who faced similar abuse. Some of the braver ones pointed out it was okay to sever the relationship to regain my sanity. They were the first to tell me that I was the victim. They were there to answer questions and their strength helped me to take the steps to separate myself from toxic relationships.

Years later I read an excellent book that went deeper into the issue called Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward. It took someone to tell me it was okay to leave my toxic adopted family. This is a personal choice, like other things that could be unhealthy in our lives – such as smoking, drinking or staying in bad relationships. I wish you peace and sanity. I hope this helps.

Further reading:
https://www.facebook.com/SusanForwardPhD/

Citizenship should be guaranteed in Intercountry Adoption

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Intercountry adoption is often portrayed by adoption agencies using words like “forever family” to attract couples wanting to adopt, assuming a child in need is matched into a family, as if born to.  One assumes the adopted child’s place in that family becomes permanent, right?

Wrong!  Intercountry adoption does NOT equate to permanency.  The reality we see today goes against everything that adoption is meant to be about.

Here are some images from the United States (US) Department website (they changed it sometime after this post):

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If we google the definition of adoption, Wikipedia tells us:

Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, from that person’s biological or legal parent or parents, and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parent or parents.

Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction.

Today’s practice in the US of actively deporting adult intercountry adoptees back to their home country because they are not guaranteed citizenship (i.e., permanency), portrays a different message to the definition of adoption.  Why should we take note of how the US are treating their intercountry adoptees?  Because the US is the largest receiving country in the world for intercountry adoption.

How can citizenship not be automatically given?  How is this “ethical” or “transparent”? Why aren’t intercountry adoptions, dating from the 1950s to early 1980s in the US, considered enough to provide permanency to the adoptee as a citizen in their adoptive country?

Here is our newest Citizenship – ICAV Perspective Paper which demonstrates the lack of justice and ethics in intercountry adoption for the child, who grows up to become an adult.

Citizenship of the adopted country SHOULD be an automatic right for the child who is intercountry adopted!