I Don’t See Colour!

#2 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series for Adoption Awareness Month 2019

A common comment made to intercountry adoptees. Our responses?

When someone says “I don’t see colour,” to me this means they don’t see me. They will argue that they see me as a “person,” just like we are all people. But I counter that view because my personhood, my identity, my humanity, cannot be uncoupled from my brown-ness.

Pretending not to see colour has the effect of negating everyone’s ancestry, personal and familial history, and their lived experiences in the racialised society we all live in – no matter where we live. In intercountry adoption (ICA), this “colourblind” view can be absolutely devastating because ICA is dominated by white people adopting brown and black babies from all over the world. If white adoptive parents refuse to see their child’s skin colour or their own skin colour, how can they fully parent and love their child unconditionally?

For, it would seem, being colourblind is only possible under certain conditions: (a) I don’t have to see your colour; (b) I don’t have to acknowledge my colour; (c) we never have to talk about what your colour or my colour means; (d) we never, ever have to talk about how those colours exist in relation to each other within the larger context of culture and society.

From the perspective of a brown intercountry adoptee like me, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger towards anyone who espouses a colourblind mentality because they essentially negate the history of my brown ancestors.

If you refuse to allow that humanity has attached certain assumed behaviours and levels of privilege and importance to different skin colours, how can we possibly have a conversation on why these structures are in place, who’s benefitting and who’s being harmed by them, and why it’s important to create a truly level playing field?

When white adoptive parents pretend to be colourblind, how can they help their child be proud of the skin they’re in? How can they recognise their child’s need for racial mirrors? How can they help their child understand the beautiful and rich aspects of the child’s ancestry and culture as well as the pain and oppression their race has experienced and continues to experience, and how those dynamics relate to each other? How can they help nurture a racially competent child who grows up into a racially competent adult – even if that means their son or daughter is racially competent in a race that doesn’t match their own? How can they see the role that their white privilege has played throughout their own lives and via the intercountry adoption of their child? How can they decide how to use their white privilege going forward?

None of this is possible if we are teaching and encouraging people, including white adoptive parents, to pretend not to see colour.

by Abby Hilty

Congratulations you’ve just completely erased my first culture, my birth family, my genetic history, my country of origin! Look I know you meant well, but underneath this, there’s an insensitivity or lack of awareness about everything that I was and still am before I was adopted. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Good job – you have assimilated so well that you’re just like me/us now!” But I’m not.

One of my fellow intercountry adoptee friends joked about how we are coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny.

My adoptive parents tried to show me books and documentaries about Vietnam when I was growing up, but I wanted nothing to do with anything that highlighted my difference. When I got sunburnt on my nose, I asked mum if I’d be white underneath. So I got caught up in the “not wanting to see my colour thing” either.

I was very good at being a chameleon, it’s like I had to become one to survive. I was so desperate to fit in and to belong that I learnt fast about how to adapt my personality to be loved and liked. I still do this to this day, but I’m learning that I’m enough as I am and I don’t need to perform to be worthy of being loved.

by Kate Coghlan

The popular TV show This Is Us wowed audiences again with its coverage of transracial adoption. I don’t watch the show, and a lot of adoptees can’t bring themselves to watch it either. And yet it’s immensely popular with adoptive parents. The supposedly “mic drop” scene is as follows:

Jack: When I look at you, I don’t see colour. I just see my son.

Randall: Then you don’t see me, Dad.

During NAAM, it’s particularly biting to see this interaction getting mainstream attention. You see, many of us adoptees of colour have had this exact dialogue with our colourblind families and friends (myself included). 

This isn’t an original line, and dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers lurk in adoption spaces and stole this from the stories of adoptees, co-opting our stories for better ratings. 

This isn’t some TV script for your entertainment; this is a painful part of our real lives. It hurts us in deep, existential ways to be denied access to our birth culture and traditions and then to be unseen by our adoptive families. It is actively rejecting us a second time. 

If you refuse to “see” the parts of me that are a brown Indian, then you are actively refusing to support me on my journey to discover who I was born to be. Your choice to take the easy road to claim, “I’m not racist” actively isolates me and in turn plays into its own racial problems. Take the harder road with me, with any of the people of colour in your lives, and learn how to unlearn racial biases. This work requires you to see, so take off your (colour)blinders. 

The fact that it takes a network TV show to get this concept to take hold rather than the direct words of real adoptees should disgust anyone and everyone who loves an adoptee. 

I challenge adoptive parents and allies who support the adoptee attempt to “flip the script” during NAAM to think about how prioritising entertainment over the real words of adoptees is its own form of silencing; to be more intentional about whose voices you choose to uplift; and be more critical of the media you choose to consume.

#NotMyNAAM
#NAAM
#FlipTheScript
#adoption

by Cherish Bolton

Somewhere along the way in my life, I got the message that I’m not a real Asian. As a mixed race adoptee I don’t even dare try to join Chinese adoptee communities or Indian ones for fear of not being enough in some way. I can’t make sense of what it is to be a Malaysian Chindian — I don’t know any others, I’ve never met one. There are no books I know of, no museums or movies. Even if there were, I would be reading them the way an outsider learns about history.

Something I resent is the suggestion I should do something in order to belong. Belonging isn’t a citizenship test!

As an intercountry adoptee brought to England by a white couple with no friends of colour, all the markers of my culture have been erased. Except my skin colour, my hair, it’s texture, my eyes. Each time someone says, “I don’t see colour”, or simply behave as though they don’t, this implicit message that I don’t belong in my biological culture is reinforced and I’m erased a little more.

I don’t forget that my gay friends are gay, I don’t forget their struggle to belong or to feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. To erase that would be a failure of empathy and allegiance. Of course it isn’t the only part of their identity and I’m interested in all the other parts too. The ones that are like me (or not), the parts that amaze, amuse or confuse me — I love them all.

Everyone just wants to be seen. I wonder what makes you feel unseen?

When we experience ourselves differently to how we are seen, there’s a disconnect, a disruption to our identity which isn’t resolvable with free will alone.

Belonging is relational – by its very nature it demands the acceptance of others.

by Juliette Lam

Since the later years of coming to terms with my identity, fitting in between my two worlds (adoptive and birth), understanding the impacts of being relinquished and adopted, I have shared many of my experiences to wide audiences but one situation close to me, never ceases to frustrate me the most. This is when my own adoptive family make this comment, “But we see you as one of us” or “We don’t see you as being different” after trying to explain how I’ve always felt so different and out of place.

I acknowledge, in their eyes, they are trying to say to me that I am accepted and embraced by them as being one of their “clan” despite my skin colour and outward obvious differences. But without any in-depth discussions about the complexities of being intercountry adopted, these types of comments just made me feel even more disconnected and isolated from them. What it showed me was they had very little understanding of my intercountry adopted journey. When they don’t have these important conversations with me, they are oblivious to how their comments make me feel even though I know it is not what they intend.

What would I prefer my family to say? I would prefer them to acknowledge my differences and really try to understand where I’m coming from. For me it’s about the discrepancy I experience on a daily basis because strangers throughout my life meet me once and make basic assumptions that I am NOT one of them (white Australian) based on my appearance – my skin colour, my eyes, my hair. The internal battle I face as an intercountry adoptee, is that whilst in my private family circles I might be fully accepted, it is NOT the experience I have in public outer life.

The constant jarring reminders of “not belonging” in my wider adoptive society leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions of who I am, where do I belong, who are my clan, and how did this reality eventuate. Are my adoptive family even aware of these impacts? No because they are so blind to what everyone else can see and received very little education on race, culture, and the importance of open discussions. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.

So when my adoptive family says, “I don’t see your difference, you’re one of us” when clearly I’m not as clarified by many strangers, this comment only acts to shut down the conversation instead of opening it up and allowing me the space and love to process competing realities.

Being intercountry adopted is not a reality we adoptees can ignore for too long!

by Lynelle Long

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, but we don’t use the word “colour” to describe a person. In Sweden, we use “foreigner” as opposed to being Swedish. So instead of saying “I don’t see colour”, people would say “I never think of you as anything but Swedish” or “I see you as the same as us”. They say that to be nice.

When I grew up there were very few people in Sweden with a darker complexion. Most didn’t speak the language well and some of them (of course, a small minority) appeared shady. Swedish mindset is to question if they (dark complexion people) could be trusted.

To tell me that I don’t appear foreign means I am a person they trust. But … when I go on dating sites strangers viewing my profile, only see colour. I get less guys who write than my white peers, less matches with white skin but more super likes from “foreign” men.

One time I wrote in my profile text that I was adopted so as not to appear scary. Then I thought adopted might also sound scary, because in Sweden that implies psychological problems. So I deleted it again and had to come to terms with being less popular online.

My close friends have never said these words to me about not appearing foreign but I do things said like this occasionally and every time, I am offended. As if that random person has a right to put an approval stamp on me. As if I were to do anything untrustworthy, he or she would judge me much harder and say, “Hmm, I guess she wasn’t like us, after all”.

by Sarah Mårtensson

Coming Out of the Adoptee Fog

Guest post by Mark Hagland, South Korean intercountry adoptee raised in the USA.

One of the topics that we adult transracial and intercountry adoptees talk about a lot–A LOT–is the “adoptee fog” and our coming out of it.

I have to tell you that it took me several decades to pull myself out of the transracial adoptee fog. I grew up in near-total whiteness, and intensely internalized racism towards myself, ending up with a massive complex about my own physical appearance that I’m still actively working on healing, even now, at 59.

Here’s the thing: growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of the US in the 1960s and 1970s, even with wonderful, wonderfully loving parents, was incredibly devastating for me. It completely disabled my ability to navigate the racist society we all live in, and, as I say, I totally internalized racism towards myself. What society told me every single day was that it was an atrocious crime not to be white, but at the same time, I was at least undeluded enough to know that I couldn’t ever BECOME white–I just couldn’t. So basically, I felt like some kind of alien and criminal.

I instinctively knew that I had to get away from where I grew up (again, even with very loving and wonderful parents there), and had to find my way to the big city and somehow find an identity that I could live with. But, having grown up in near-total whiteness and having internalized both a white internal identity and racism into myself, it ended up being an incredibly long, complex path. Having had zero access to birth-country culture or to any significant number of people of color, I flailed at first.

I was incredibly, incredibly lucky in one respect: when I came to Chicago for graduate journalism school, I was admitted to a school that was run by deans, a significant number of whom were Black journalists, and who were committed to diversity and to the empowerment of young journalists of color. So for the first time, I actually found myself in an environment in which I wasn’t one of only a couple of or a few people of color, and I began to “get it.”

And, over time, I found friends of color who would accept me. I was lucky in that regard, too, being a young gay man, because it is easier in the gay male subculture to meet people of color and to socialize across races.

Through my 20s and 30s, I began to create for myself a social environment that worked for me, and then when I was 40, I was brought into the transracial adoptee community, and my head exploded, and my development accelerated dramatically. I was able to begin to truly embrace an identity as a person of color through interacting with fellow adult transracial adoptees, all of whom had also struggled as I had, to find our identities, given that we were all raised in significant whiteness, and had had to figure things out entirely by ourselves.

Over time, I was able to build my own social environment, and to learn how to interact successfully with fellow people of color. It took decades, but I managed to do it. And now, finally, in my 50s, I have a proud, relatively integrated sense of identity as a person of color in the world.

And I’m absolutely committed to mission, and that means supporting my fellow adult transracial adoptees on their journeys, and educating white adoptive parents, so that they can learn and can help their children of color to move forward successfully on their journeys.

And in that context, I am constantly, constantly urging and imploring white adoptive parents to move into diversity for the sake of their children. I do not want the littlest transracial and intercountry adoptees to experience what I’ve experienced. I do not want them to have to spend literally 40 years before they begin to feel comfortable in their identities as people of color.

Above all, I want everyone to understand that raising a child of color in total or near-total whiteness is profoundly devastating to that child. It means that that child will grow up inside an intense transracial adoptee fog, and will inevitably spend years struggling to begin to build a successful identity as a person of color. And that is tragic.

So I am absolutely committed to this mission. And I am glad to be fully out of the transracial adoptee fog. It only took me several decades to accomplish it–WOO-HOO! LOL. But seriously–no transracial and intercountry adoptee should have to struggle that long. And honestly, I know a significant number of adult transracial and intercountry adoptees who are still fully in the fog, and don’t even know it.

Please don’t let this be your child. Please.

Name

I give you a name

I call you my mom

You expect me to reach out

You expect me to call

 

The title I give you

Is one you didn’t earn

You didn’t give birth to me

You were not the first

 

I’m so angry at you

I’m not your mini-me

I’m not the child you wanted

But I pretend to be

 

My heart rages against you

Like a hurricane against the trees

You blow past my boundaries

Cutting me to my knees

 

You forsake me and

Oh how your words sting 

No, you’re not my mother

You’re the woman who raised me

 

We play this game

My move, then yours

Ping pong our relationship

Back and forth, back and forth

 

Strangers, you and I

Acquaintances at best

But you believe we’re closer

Every conversation like a test

 

So we dance very carefully

Around elephants in the room

Afraid to touch them

Afraid they’ll move

 

I get anxious and nervous

Every time we meet

The mask I wear around you

Makes me feel six foot deep

 

You say “I love you”

But I’m not sure you do

When asked what you love about me

You responded “Well, I know I love you.” 

 

I drown in your expectations

You criticize my every move

You say, “Care about your family.” 

Like it’s something I have to prove

 

You don’t know who I am now

And it’s like we are estranged

Because the more we talk about nothing

The more I see how much I’ve changed

 

I no longer call you my mom

Because you don’t act like it anymore

The name I give you is your first name

The one you were given when you were born

 
Written by Anonymous

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!

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

 

Mental Health and Adoption

Mental Health Awareness Month.jpg

Mental illness, mental health – words which most people don’t like to read in connection with the word adoption. We usually like to think of happy forever after families but the reality is, adoption is based on the trauma of relinquishment and loss so it’s no surprise that adoptees suffer rates of mental illness far higher than the non-adopted population.

So instead of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, lets talk openly about what we might do better to assist individuals and families with a lived experience of mental illness.

In Australia, October is Mental Health Month and I’d like to explore how we might reduce the feelings of isolation and the daily struggle for adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness. How do we be more sensitive and not inadvertently trigger underlying pain? Not only do adoptees with a lived experience suffer the same loss from relinquishment as all adoptees, but they suffer a double whammy from the stigma of mental illness that further compounds their early life traumas.

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Over the years of connecting and peer supporting my fellow adoptees, the toughest experience is feeling like I let down my fellow peers with a lived experience of mental illness. I do not come equipped knowing intuitively how to support them and what makes it hard in my role as a peer, is the boundaries of peer support via social media and face to face are loose and undefined. What I’ve learnt is, adoptees with lived experiences of mental illness need stronger boundaries because it’s helps them feel safe when reaching out.

I know there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from those who live it. So, I’ve asked one of my peers who has some ideas from a lived experience perspective. She has kindly shared her thoughts on how we can provide better support to adoptees and she is currently working as a volunteer peer educator in mental health. I personally thank her for providing this wealth of information which she has gathered over the course of her life journey! She does so in the hopes it helps her fellow adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness.

Here is what she provides, including the list of resources at the bottom.

Throughout this article, the term lived experience refers to someone who identifies as having a mental illness, or comes from a complex trauma background, or could be a carer for someone with lived experience. Most importantly we need to recognise that someone suffering from those symptoms has lived experience which is not a label nor does this define them as a person. Just as people aren’t their “broken arm” or their “headache”, physical and emotional / medical illness needs to be treated with the same respect.

Here are some of my ideas of what could be done to better support adoptees with lived experience in mental illness:

Purposeful Storytelling

Encourage others to hold adoptee-with-lived-experience events like a meal or a forum / workshop where they can talk about their recovery journey. This breaks stigma and is not a rant but a shared story with a purpose to help others in sharing what helped.

You could frame the purposeful storytelling like a set of questions for the adoptee to share on such as: What has helped vs what didn’t help? How have you changed from then to now? What would you like to see done or said differently? What do you need more or less of, to continue your recovery going forward?

Social or Workshop Events

Hold weekly or fortnightly coffee catchups or have a walk or art group, but the emphasis is not counselling. Ask the adoptees with lived experience in mental health to write a list of resources that helped them and make it accessible to others online.

Invent an Adoptee wtih Lived Experience Day to honour those adoptees and have a fun, self care activity day. Do this also for their Carers. You could include info booths, pamper booths, plant a tree activity, food and art activities, talks by people with Lived Experience and people of social standing to attend and open the event.

Training / Supervision

Adoptee peers should go through Trauma Informed Care (TIC) training and Developmental Trauma Disorder training (same as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training). TIC training is all about asking what has happened to a person and considers the context. This is in contrast to asking an invalidating question such as, “What is wrong with you?” or ” Why are you not fitting in?”.

Training and supervision is about the peer support person learning to respond not just react. General awareness about how we speak and act around people with lived experience is necessary and learning about Boundaries, Duty of Care, Accidental Counsellor, Suicide, Mental Health First Aid are all good tool kits to add to your belt.

Training is also about being, doing and using appropriate language at all times and noticing our own triggers and judgments arising and tending to those.

The Recovery Model or Strengths Approach

Both these models are currently the best for providing a framework for engaging people with lived experience of mental illness. You can access these through Recovery College or a similar type organisation. The focus of these models is to bring awareness to what the person can already do for themselves and what has helped so far. There is also training available for carers of people with mental illness.

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People with trauma experiences may not always show or say anything if they are triggered. So it is important to check in and ask if they are okay. Do things like setup safe places / chill zones during events, just in case.

Self education, training and being on boards / committees of organisations like SANE Australia or Beyond Blue was a way I helped myself. They provided opportunities to share my story or join their speakers bureau. Access to education and event opportunities is important for those with lived experience.

If a peer adoptee with lived experience wants to go on to become a peer educator, I found Recovery College and One Door Mental Health teach all the modules needed, including Purposeful Story Telling. After one completes the modules you become a certified “peer educator” and can then teach at the colleges. One Door Mental Health reimburses those who tell their Lived Experience Story at workshops. You can also be reimbursed when One Door Mental Health are asked by a service organisation to speak on a specific subject like BPD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.

Anybody’s recovery is as good as the social connection, support networks, finances for support, understanding and opportunities to contribute. Being treated as normal as possible but with the context of trauma, considered as far as our behaviour / limits / expectations can go. This includes what others are capable and willing to be open minded about and setting a context to the bigger picture.

Everyone needs to know that they are seen and heard and that people care. We who live with mental illness matter and have a purpose. We are often shut out and marginalised and our behaviour makes us vulnerable and an easy target for being overlooked as a valued contribution and educational resource to the community.

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List of some Mental Health Resources in Australia

Dear Stranger

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A letter I wrote to my adoptive father

The last time I called home, my adoptive father asked me to come and visit. I spoke to my biological sister who was raised with me and she told me the last time she was home, our adoptive father apologized to her. I’m guessing he will do the same when I go home. Unlike my sister, I cannot accept his hollow apologies and allow him to live his life as though nothing has happened. I want to address the major wrongs he has done to me, things I always wanted to raise but never had the courage to, until now.

Dear Stranger

You may be hurt or upset by the fact I have addressed you as “stranger”. It’s not done intentionally to evoke anger, resentment or animosity. However, I use this term on purpose. To me, you are a stranger. We have had minimal contact throughout the 30 years I have been on my own. I refuse to call you father because I am a father and I know the joys and pains of being a father. You are not deserving of that title. You have done nothing to build this relationship and I do not know anything about your life. As a father, I have placed the needs of my children first, I have given them every opportunity to grow and flourish, and I have loved them unconditionally. I am their father and everyone who knows my children, knows me too.

Your request for atonement?
I’m assuming you will ask for forgiveness. I know you want atonement in exchange for a simple, “I’m sorry”. How can one single phrase ever be reparation for the wrongs you committed, over many years? I cannot give this to you. There is a saying that one can forgive but never forget. This is how I feel. When I write about you and what you have done – this is not lashing out, this is not done to discredit you, this is not done to make you embarrassed … it is simply my own therapy on how to live through the trauma and pain you instilled on me as a vulnerable child.  This is recalling only a fraction of the things you did to me and my sister.

You are toxic and here are the reasons why I know you are toxic:

  1. You failed to provide me with affirmation and security
    In your mind what you did was tough love. I’ve lived my entire life thinking I was a failure, not worthy. This perceived failure and rejection stems from your toxic refusal to provide me with the right amount of security and affirmation during my formative years. I have beaten myself up enough and I no longer need affirmation from you.  I know I am a good human being.  I know I am smart enough. The long list of accomplishments throughout my life give me this affirmation – not you.
  2. You were overly critical
    You disapproved of everything I did. I didn’t do it right, fast enough, or I did it incorrectly. You criticized everything. You believed I needed to learn to do things properly but this caused me to be a harsh inner critic – to the point that it became crippling. It took me a long time to stop being overly critical of myself.  Do you remember the time you pushed my face into a pile of mashed potatoes because I was unable to say the word gravy? Why was it hard for you to understand that learning a new language as a four and a half year old boy was difficult? It was more frustrating for me than it was for you.
  3. You constantly made fun of me
    You called me “stupid” and “wimpy” all the time. You constantly made jokes about me and stated that my actions would lead me to a life of crime. I don’t know why any parent would say such damaging things. It was never funny to me. Your words were hurtful.
  4. You constantly justified your actions and tried to make out that I was the problem
    You twisted normal behavior to be wrong, to suit your thoughts and beliefs. I remember all the times you made me read biblical scriptures and gave me lectures on why my actions were wrong. I was a damn good kid and I had no mean or evil bone in my body.  Yet in your eyes, having a snack was stealing. Watching TV was evil. Listening to music was evil. How did you have such twisted logic for two small children entrusted to your care? You also thought it was normal for other children to do the same things that you denied us.
  5. You never allowed me to express emotions
    If I expressed a different opinion, you called it “sassing back” and often metred out some form of punishment. You never considered my feelings or the way I perceived the world or situation. Even more hurtful were the slaps I had to endure from your wife each time she perceived me to be talking back. I had to suppress the things I wanted to share with you as my parent.  The bullying I endured all through high school and the racism I felt from the community I lived in. I suppressed these things because you didn’t want to deal with these issues. When racism occurred, your advice was to, “ignore it!”
  6. You used guilt to manipulate
     I remember the letter you shared with me that was written by Philip. It stated I was an unruly child because I did not sit still and listen to his instructions. It’s amazing to me that you preferred to take instructions from a man who never had children of his own. You used that letter to justify what you did and you used manipulation like that letter to make me feel ashamed, guilty, and worthless. You used words and your religion to make me feel guilty for being a kid.
  7. You placed your needs and desires before my own
    Your priorities were always about the businesses you ran. I wanted to do sports –  but I was not allowed to participate. Boy scouts and numerous other things that I wanted to participate in, were always shelved. I was seen only as slave labor and never allowed to pursue things I was interested in.
  8. You never established healthy boundaries
    I did not have any safe spaces to be my own person. My room was open to inspection at any given time. The “traps” that were laid to catch me doing something “wrong” that any other parent would deem as normal was your way of proving I was a bad child. The tactics used were the same tactics used by the Nazi’s to entrap and capture the Jews during World War II. You felt that every aspect of my life was open to ridicule and I had no safe place to flourish. I was always in fear as a child. I lived in fear of reprisal and never had any privacy. No healthy boundaries were ever set.
  9. You made us responsible for your own happiness
    Your wife forced me to clean the bathrooms. I was forced to clean your filth. I was asked to massage your wife’s feet, back and shoulders at her beck and call. I was told that my actions were the reasons why you were unhappy and miserable -because I could nothing right. As a child, it was never my responsibility to make you or your wife happy.
  10. You were a control freak
    I was punished for playing with other children at the gym while you played basketball. I was yelled at. I was told to sit still and watch the game. I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. I was told, “Children were meant to be seen and not heard”. When I wanted a soda, you forced me to drink milk with every meal. Most Asians are lactose intolerant but you didn’t care. You forced us to drink gallons and gallons of milk.
  11. You robbed me of my childhood
    When was I ever allowed to have friends over? When was I allowed to stay at my friends’ homes? Where were the trips to Disneyland or places where children want to go?  You told me to grow up and be an adult when I was only a child. On my 12th birthday, you told me I was “no longer able to eat off the children’s menu” and needed to start acting like an adult. My entire childhood was filled with memories of getting up early in the morning and going to work.  Baling hay in the hot summer sun until exhaustion. Being covered head-to-toe in filthy dust and allowed to shower only once a week. Where was the carefree, worry free childhood? I had none.
  12. You were never my advocate
    An advocate is a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. What I remember is that you threatened me. You stated you had good standing in the community and nobody would believe a person like me. You said these things when I threatened to expose the cruel things you did to me and my sister. When I wanted to go to college, you mater of factly told me to find a way to do it on my own. You had no vested interest in making me a better person. You were never present at any mile marker of any achievements or important dates of my adult life. You were never present at my wedding, the birth of my children, college graduation, sworn in as an officer, and the dozens of other important milestones of my life. I can count on one hand the number of times you called me in the thirty years of adulthood.  The real reason why you never called is you did not care.
  13. You lacked empathy
    The word empathy means that a person has the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When the bully wrote on my face with a permanent marker – what did you do to ensure I wasn’t bullied? I was bullied because of my race. I was bullied all through high school. I sat alone at every meal at the lunch room. You always assumed I was the culprit, that somehow, I committed some offense. In fact, you told others you suspected I was on drugs. With what money did I buy drugs? How could I have obtained drugs when I was isolated in school? You were always quick to assume the worst in me. If you hated us so much, why did you adopt?

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Acknowledge your behaviour was emotionally abusive
Can you acknowledge that you yelled, name called and belittled me? This by itself is not emotional abuse. Your attempt to control me by using emotion is however the definition of emotional abuse. Your belief that you knew best, your threats, name calling, shaming and criticism was damaging to my spirit. You also spoke to other family members and neighbors about me in a negative manner to destroy my credibility and isolate me from being able to tell my side of the story. This is abuse. You allowed your wife to constantly play mind games with me and my sister: checking to see if we watched tv, adjusting the container of ice-cream to see if we ate any of it, the lack of privacy, the pitting the siblings against one another.  This was emotional abuse.

Acknowledge your actions were physically abusive
You purposefully made me fearful of you. I felt I had to avoid certain topics and was walking on eggshells because of your anger. You believed you had the authority to be abusive. Despite your Christ-like example of gentleness, kindness and understanding – you chose to hold onto the mentality of “spare the rod and spoil the child”. In fact, you referenced this numerous time when you exercised corporal punishment on me and my sister. You often denied us food when we were “bad”. You used physical restraint techniques of pinching and grabbing us by the neck. Your overpowering frame that is 6 feet four inches was intimidating alone but you felt the need to use physical force on us by whipping, spanking using belts and razor straps. You blamed us for your violent behavior. We were punished for every minor infraction. I suffered hypo-glycemia and one of the symptoms is extreme hunger. I didn’t understand what my body was going through but when I had a cookie to increase my blood sugar, you considered this to be stealing. Later, I would eat entire packets of cookies and throw the wrapper into the woods to avoid the ridicule of being a “thief and sinner” in your eyes.  Lastly, the beating you gave me in front of the milk tester was not justified.  It was embarrassing. Your violence was NEVER justified.

Acknowledge you neglected me (us)
I know you believe that you cared for me to the best of your ability – but to me, this is the furthest from the truth. You refused medical care for me and made me suffer on numerous occasions. When I had appendicitis, you made up some story that I had a stomach ache from eating apples off the tree. Eating fruit off a tree typically does not induce vomiting and severe abdominal pain, where a person needs to be hunched over when attempting to walk. Your disregarded my health and it resulted in me staying in the hospital for a week on IV antibiotics. When I got ring worm, you allowed the fungus to spread across my arms, torso and buttocks. It was “treated” by my grandmother by smearing a strong cleaner on my skin. The ringworm and cleaner left scars on my skin. Furthermore, you refused to provide me with sufficient clothing and gloves. I had to work outside in sub-zero Minnesota temperatures without gloves and proper outwear. I have deep fissures in my hands and the tight shoes caused me foot pain. When a boy’s foot protrudes from holes worn at the toes it is not caused by neglect from the child! It happens because the child has outgrown their shoes and it is neglect on your part as parent. A child should not have to beg to be given gloves to work outside nor put up with wounds in their skin because no gloves were provided.

Acknowledge you refused a child from personal growth and self-fulfillment
You never gave me encouragement nor surrounded me with positivity. You did not allow me to pursue things I was interested in. The music I listened to was “devils music.” I don’t think many people would call Madonna, The Commodores and Tiffany as “devil’s music.” Gewirth notes that “to seek for a good human life is to seek for self-fulfillment”. Can you honestly say you provided a good life or childhood for me and my biological sister?

Acknowledge there was no reciprocation
When your parents needed things, I sent money home. I did the same for your wife’s mother. Have you ever asked me if I needed anything? When you were hospitalized, I flew home to make sure you were okay. You never flew home to be with me when I underwent numerous surgeries in my life. When important people in your life passed, I made every effort to fly home to show support. You missed all the important mile markers of my life. Most of all you never reciprocated the love that I gave you as a child.  I have worked hard to share my life. I have traveled to see you. I have sent numerous letters and phone calls. You have not. We have grown apart over the years and I do not know you at all. We have become total strangers.

Acknowledge you lied
Abusive people will stop at nothing to make sure they are seen as the “nice” person. They do this so they don’t have to admit the bad things they have done. As a child, I saw your willingness to help others. You were willing to give the shirt off your back to assist anyone. It’s amazed me that you did not hold the same regard for me. Now I understand why. You lied about me. You painted me to be a monster. You gave half truths about what you did and reasons for why you did these horrible things. You talked yourself into believing your own lies. Why would a person say such things if they love someone? It’s because you had to hide this lie from others.

Acknowledge your religious fervor was destructive
“Most of our world’s major religions each assume that it is their faith alone that is the “absolute truth” and refuse to concede that those traditions may be mistaken. Instead, they discover ways to force conflicting information to adapt to their own doctrine.”
You, like many other religious adherents, have no problems in understating the irrationality of other religions yet you were unable to apply the same logic when came to your own faith. Your revered bible has hundreds of verses where it literally instructs people to kill disobedient children, kill disobedient women, commit genocide, subdue and silence women and to enslave people. If one committed any of the offenses today, they would be committed, incarcerated and deemed evil. You used these texts to intrude, torture, and hurt me and my sister. You used your scriptures to subjugate, to justify inequality, and to control. I cannot believe in a faith that is so evil. You lived this evil instead of the love and acceptance that was also mentioned in the same scriptures.

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It’s too late to apologize
You had a lifetime to offer an olive branch to me. You had your chance to visit me and my family. You had your chance to call me. You made NO effort to be a part of my life. It’s been said that “our life is the sum total of all the decisions we make every day, and those decisions are determined by our priorities”. With that said, I was never a priority to you. As a child I was hurt by your lack of empathy. As a young adult I was hurt by your lack of interaction. I didn’t expect you to make me your priority, I was hoping, however, that you’d be there when I needed you. This has not been the case and I have learned that I have no need for a person who has been a stranger to me all my life.  The best we can be is … apart.

About Jayme

Would Adoptees Adopt an Orphan?

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Here is out latest ICAV Perspective Paper, a compilation of responses from ICAV’s members around the world, who wanted to contribute and provide answers to the question:

Would we Adopt or Not, via Intercountry or Transracial Adoption?

This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.

Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.

Parenthood Made Me Better

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One of the most memorable moments, forever ingrained in my memory, is the birth of my son. I remember the anxious months waiting for my beautiful son, developing inside his mother’s womb – feeling his small frame kicking about and waiting to be born.  I remember staring at the ultrasound pictures and wondering who he would look like. Would he look like me? His mother?

I remember rushing my wife to the hospital and the miracle of birth as he brought into the world. I felt scared and excited at the same time as I stood in the delivery room, watching the nurse wipe him clean and cut his umbilical cord. I was in awe, wonder and amazement as he suckled at his mother’s breast. I witnessed a miracle of life and entered the realm of fatherhood. I wanted to give my son a life that I never had: to give him happy memories, a sound education and the best things I could afford. But little did I realize my son would give me something in return, far more than anything I could ever do for him.

It wasn’t until years later when I sat with other adoptees and shared the memories of my son’s birth and they too shared how they were overcome with a flood of deep love and extreme emotions at the birth of their children. For many of us adoptees, with our constant issues of abandonment and loss, I wonder whether the birth of our child is far more meaningful and overpowering than to the non adopted person? I believe there are several reasons why I think the birth of our child is more overwhelming to us:

First Family

For many intercountry adoptees, the chances of finding biological family is literally one in a million. Our birth papers are often forged, misplaced or incomplete. The birth of our child could be the first person we meet who is biologically related to us.

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Shared Genetics

We grow up hearing strangers and family members talk about having a relative’s eyes, nose or other body features. I have been curious about my physical features and who I inherited mine from. I am no longer jealous of other people because now I see my traits passed onto another human being and I can experience what it is to share genetic features, gestures, and traits.

A new Respect for my Birth Mother

I watched my wife suffer from morning sickness, frequent trips to the bathroom, and fatigue. Motherhood changes the body and hormones – the kicks of the fetus, the need to eat unusual foods, the thousand other quirky things that happen to a woman during pregnancy. I could not help but imagine what my mother experienced with me during her pregnancy and realize it’s a life-changing event that one cannot forget or dismiss.

As a Parent, understanding what it means to Sacrifice

For an overwhelming number of adoptions, a large number of mothers were either single or the family was placed in a financially precarious position and forced to relinquish their child. Despite the hardships, the mother’s still carried their child to full term. As a father, this was the first time I had to routinely place the needs of someone else above my own. I now understand what it means to sacrifice as a parent – even if it means the smallest person in the household gets the last cookie.

My Life became Fuller

Having a child changed my social life dramatically. I ended up shuttling little people to lessons, classes, and clubs. I gained an appreciation for silence. I tried new things I never dreamt I would do. Children tested my patience and expanded my ability to accept things I could not tolerate before. It’s because of these experiences that my life became richer and fuller.

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First time I understood “Longstanding Love

The Greeks believe there are six types of love. Many of them I felt within my first relationships. I had experienced Eros, the sexual passion. Also, Philia, the deep friendship with those we are really close to. But the first time I felt Pragma, the longstanding love, was when I had children. Pragma is where I am willing to give love rather than just receiving it.  If you had asked my younger self whether I would love sitting on the couch watching Dora with my daughter, enjoy playing tea or spend hundreds of dollars finding an Asian version of “American Girl” doll with matching outfits for her – that younger me would be in disbelief!

Closure and Peace

I once felt as though I were an empty vessel. Relationships, commendations and achievements could not fill this void. I’ve worked hard. I’ve traveled to dozens of foreign countries to fill my mind with the sights and sounds. I’ve spent thousands of hours searching for my biological family and looked for things that could give me closure with my adoption experience. Nothing seemed to help until I had children of my own. They gave me the love and satisfaction to be myself and gain the closure I needed, to move on with my life.

I have met individuals who have rushed into having a child, mistakenly thinking it would resolve relationship issues. I am not recommending that at all. I think that is a wrong motive to have a child and could actually lead to a repeat of what happened to our birth mothers who lost their child to adoption. This happened to my biological sibling who was raised with me in our adoptive family. Sadly she lost the custody of her children. I saw her fall into despair and into the deep abyss of depression and denial.

For me having a child changed me forever and helped me to re-connect with the world and bring meaning to my life. I could say my child was the catalyst that helped me to start living a better life. Becoming a parent forced me to change for the better. It was the catalyst for me to accept my adoption journey and helped me to find closure with the issues that once bothered me.

Sharing: Have you experienced similar things as an adoptee when you became a parent? Would you recommend single adoptees get pregnant if they decide to stay single forever and want a child? How did having a child change your life?

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.