by Marcella Moslow born in Colombia and adopted to the USA; trauma therapist
The heavy realities that adoptees must navigate are staggering and complex. The voids we carry with us are enormous and no matter the amount of love we receive, it often feels like it is not enough. The connection and attunement we seek, the culture that we have a right to, the attachment we were wired for is stripped from us, leaving deep wounds behind. This is devastating to an individual’s system and carries into future generations. We grapple with the reality that not only did we have something happen to us, but we also were deprived of so much of what we needed. Trauma can be both — what happens to us, as well as what doesn’t happen to us.
Hello. My name is Thomas Fernandes but everybody calls me TJ. I was born in Nanjing, China in August 1998 as Yu Ming Yang. I was found with baby formula at only 4 months old which makes me honestly feel that my Chinese family cared about me.
I was adopted by awesome family at the age of 6. I have three siblings and my older brother was also adopted from China. My parent also adopted my sister from India. I was also born deaf with microtia which is an ear deformity. My sister from India is also deaf like me. This mean that when I was adopted into the family, the communicate was not that hard because they were already familiar with creating an environment supportive of deaf kids. We would communicate by pointing to things and using actions. My parents were a doctor and nurse so they knew medically what was best for me. I am truly grateful for what they have provided to me and my sibling.
I was 7 years old when I started to learn my first language which was American Sign Language. I used sign language until I got my hearing aid at around 8 years old and from then, I was able to learn how to speak English. I went to the South Carolina School for the Deaf until 8th grade. Then I went to MSSD (Model Secondary School for the Deaf) which is on Gallaudet University (a well known university for deaf and hard of hearing students). After graduating from MSSD, I am currently at RIT (Rochester Institute of a Technology) for my IT Technician major (3rd year). I am also currently studying Korean and Chinese at the same time.
In thinking about my past, I learned that my orphanage, known as Changshu Children’s Welfare Institute (in Nanjing, China) is a place for children who have a disability and with special needs such as down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness and heart disease. The nurse put me in a room where it has many beds and I remember that my bed was near the wall. I did try to make a friend but I noticed their mouths moved a lot and I knew that they were hearing. I tried to talk with them but I didn’t know how to speak Chinese.
Lucky for me, I did make one friend and she didn’t talk. She was very hyper so I decided to hang out with her. Surprisingly her bed was right next to me. We always communicated a lot about what we saw in the books and on the television. Her and I would always watch Teletubbies shows and my favourite character was the red one. I think she might have been deaf too because she seemed normal to me.
One day I saw her with a group of people. That was when I knew she was going to be adopted. I was deaf at that time and didn’t have a hearing aid. I tried to get her name so I ran to school (in the orphanage) to get a note so that she could write her name and I could find her when I got older. But since she was deaf, she didn’t know her name either. I also didn’t know my name at that time. We only knew our character name but didn’t understand how to write it. So I went to nurse and pointed to her, then at the paper, trying to communicate – could she put my friend’s name on the paper – but they didn’t understand me. I was left crying and bawling hard because I wanted her to be my best friend for rest of my life.
I still think about her and wonder how she is doing. I hope I see her again one day. That was the most heartbreaking experience for me. I do think of her and hope she’s doing great. I hope she was adopted by an amazing family just like I have because she deserves it. Maybe I might find her someday, maybe in one of the groups for asian adoptees?
I wish I knew her name! Hopefully she’ll recognise my orphanage photo and remember me. If she does, she can contact me here.
To my fellow adoptees who were triggered recently by the news about the Stauffer family who publicly told the world about rehoming their 4 year old little boy Huxley (of Chinese origins also living with autism).
I speak out with you in solidarity against the way some adoptive families and the adoption industry continues to treat us as a commodity! The recent coverage crassly reminds us of how traumatic our life has been .. the adoption wounds together with our bedrock of relinquishment trauma, gets further layered upon when multiple abandonments occur. I know when the “system” allows or facilitates re-abandonment like this (deportation is another form), we personally feel violated, as if it has literally happened to us, again.
I personally know adoptees who have lived this experience of being relinquished by multiple adoptive families – “rehoming” is such an impersonal term for an experience that is so immensely personal! What most people don’t understand is the trauma never leaves our being and it takes us decades to war through it – if we get through at all!
I want adoptees who suffered this experience to know, it wasn’t something wrong with you — it’s that there is SO much wrong with the current system of intercountry adoption that allows this to happen.
The recent experience highlights everything we adoptees speak up about that is wrong. We are treated like a commodity! Given away and discarded when it becomes too hard, not the ideal that the family signed up for (and purchased).
There is something inherently wrong with the mantra of adoption that everyone naively believes Huxley will be better off with his second family. This assumes that second time round, the agency and adoptive family will get it right — but our lived reality of adoption highlights that the process of matching is such a random lottery! The agency may do no better the second time round, especially when they have no incentive or punishment for either outcome, nor are they forced to be held accountable for failures like this or to report it.
I’m sure that you, like me, might feel mad about this situation because we continue to receive the message that something is wrong with us – that we are not good enough. As relinquished children, this is an internalised message we spend our lives fighting to correct! We often feel like damaged goods. Sadly, not even the best adoptive family in the world can ensure Huxley or others like him, come out of messes like this without lifelong consequences.
The system is wrong when prospective parents are not adequately assessed, educated from a trauma informed base, nor rejected. Not everyone should be given the privilege to parent us! It takes a very gifted and emotionally aware type of person to truly help an already traumatised child to heal, flourish, and feel accepted enough to be able to overcome their beginnings!
There is also not enough post adoption supports to ensure better long term outcomes. Governments and agencies treat adoption like a once-off transaction where their responsibility ends the day our adoptive parents take us home. They are rarely given adequate support and their “education” ends the day the transaction is complete, whereas we know, every phase of life opens up a new layer of complexities to unravel. We have no independent advocate who watches out for us long term to make sure we flourish and no reports exist on our long term outcomes over decades. There are certainly very few mechanisms for adoptees to report or take action at the time or later on, when we are mistreated or further damaged. Will Huxley be given a fund from the adoption agency or first adoptive family to provide him with a never ending supply of professional helps should he want – to wade through the maze of compounded traumas? I can’t imagine so! And when we speak out about experiences like this, our voices are usually silenced in preference for the adoptive parents and it is expected the child should “move on” as if a “magical other adoptive family” will “fix us”, so we can live happily ever after! Problem is, we are not living a fairy tale and the next adoptive family is probably not given extra post adoption supports for life either!
The myths in adoption such as “forever family” create unrealistic ideals of adoption that add to the mountains we adoptees and our adoptive families have to overcome. Even with the best family and resources, sometimes there is just too much trauma and sometimes, nothing ever makes it better! Do they teach prospective parents this to set more realistic expectations?
What makes this recent experience for Huxley so triggering for me, is the lack of respect for his personal journey and struggles – his journey made public from day zero with almost a million viewers seeing every detail! His additional challenges publicly displayed to the whole world. That the family monetised their YouTube channel off the back of his trauma is unforgiveable and he will one day consider all this when he’s in his 30s or 40s and ask all the questions we adult intercountry adoptees ask now — how could a family do that, when they are supposed to be supporting and loving? Was it ever really about him or them? We are not a cockle or a peacock to be displayed and show cased when it suits for adoptive parents to be seen as a saviour! Our journey is a lifetime of trauma and loss! Ignorance on a scale like this only acts to compound existing traumas. I wonder if he’ll consider it abuse when he’s older? I would.
It is not okay to participate in an adoption system that churns and spits out adoptees as if we are a gidget with no feelings or soul! We are of immense value, we are vulnerable and deserve better. If this is how intercountry adoption is conducted, we should be all shouting out for it to stop until it’s done in a more appropriate manner that respects us as human beings and teaches families that you either take us with all our gifts and challenges – or you let us go, help us stay with our family and culture, or with another family who has the capability to be there for us long term! With the sheer volume of adoptee led platforms in cyberspace that provide education and insight into our journeys, I wonder how any adoptive parent or agency can continue to claim ignorance and naivety.
I hope the collective anger we adoptees feel right now will encourage us all to shout out from the roof tops about our experiences and free ourselves from the inherent shame we feel in being abandoned and rejected. This is not our shame to bear – it is a system that perpetuates further trauma onto our already traumatised bedrock.
For adoptees who experience rehoming, it’s abandonment multiple times. There is nothing wrong with us but everything wrong with a system that perpetuates a type of people who adopt from a naive and grossly inadequate understanding, fooling themselves into believing they can rescue us – only to fall flat on their faces. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I totally know how hard parenting can be – but I’m also an intercountry adoptee with foundational traumas and I understand how important it is, that we get this right so that the trauma vulnerable children live, is no longer compounded by the damaging system we see glaring right in front of us!
Note: I have been astounded by how many amazing and astute adoptive parents exist out there in cyberspace who have been as angry about this as I. I hope that you too will turn that anger into encouraging adoptees to speak out and be heard. Help to elevate our voices!
Since sharing my thoughts, I have seen many other intercountry adoptees writing and sharing theirs! Wonderful to see our voices coming out of the dark and giving exposure! Here’s a list of what’s been written since:
A post from an adopter on my Facebook page got me thinking about an issue.
Is there an exception to the rule where intercountry adoptions should be allowed?
The woman stated that, “All 13 of my children from China have special needs. Some pretty severe. One thing for sure … no-one in-country stepped up to adopt them.”
I have thought about this issue for along time and believed there should be special provisions and derived a list of these:
Orphans that are in imminent danger and have a high chance of dying, such as a natural disaster or a conflict (examples, Haiti and Vietnam’s Operation Babylift)
Children that are discarded by society and have a poor chance of survival (examples: HAPA children – this is a Native Hawaiian word which literally translates to “part” or “mix”. In Hawaii, the word refers to a mixed ethnic heritage such as half white and Korean. In Korea, such children are ridiculed, tormented and rejected by society).
Children with disabilities. As the adopter described, these children are unlikely to receive health care and such children are normally shunned by society. Sometimes these children would receive barbaric treatment of being beaten, starved and refused medical care.
On the surface, this sounds like a great idea but after much consideration, I found this logic to have some shortfalls. I listened to a podcast called Freaconomics (link in resource list below) on the subject of organ donation. Here you see something valuable that is given to a recipient for free. No money is allowed to be exchanged between the parties to prevent corruptive markets and abuse. Surely, a child is as valuable, or more, than the thousands of organs that are transplanted each year in America. The Freaconomics episode named “Make Me a Match” stated this economic proposition eloquently by saying:
“Matching markets occur where money and prices don’t do all the work. And some of the markets I’ve studied, we don’t let prices do any of the work. I like to think of matching markets as markets where you can’t just choose what you want even if you can afford it — you also have to be chosen. So job markets are like that; getting into college is like that. Those things cost money, but money doesn’t decide who gets into Stanford. Stanford doesn’t raise the tuition until supply equals demand and just enough freshmen want to come to fill the seats.”
Here we see a proven method of exchanging something of great value for nothing. I believe that the system could be implemented to place children into loving homes without corruption. However, adopters, orphanages and third-party agencies focus primarily on the emotional aspects of placement instead of addressing the real issues of corruption. If governments could implement a system where money would not be exchanged to place children – I would be in favor to support such placements immediately. Why would anyone not support such a system? I think one of the biggest issues is adopters themselves!
The issue I see is that not all adopters have altruistic reasons to adopt. Few adopters will ever admit to this. Adopters have preferences in children that they want to adopt and usually prefer lighter skinned babies (on average) over dark-skinned babies. If individuals were purely altruistic, then the race of a child would not matter and there would be no price elasticity based on race. However, we do see higher prices for more desirable children. David Smolin in his article “International Adoption: Saving Orphans or Child Trafficking” clearly pointed out this by stating:
“The perception that children are being implicitly bought and sold within the domestic adoption system is furthered by the common practice of private agencies charging vastly different sums based on the race of the child. Thus, it might cost thirty-thousand dollars to adopt a white infant but only ten-thousand dollars to adopt an African-American infant.”
The current practice may save a few children and nobody can deny this. However, on the flip side, we can all agree that a large number of adoptees are injured along the process. The online site called http://poundpuplegacy.org/ has catalogued over 638 cases of abuse, rape and death of adoptees. This is only a mere fraction of the abuse that occurs to adoptees and it’s the money that drives the demand side of the curve and ultimately the abuse. This lucrative business model, for the most part, continues to separate families and causes suffering and loss for the child that gets adopted. The positive adoptee and several adopters drown out the outspoken voices from the not-so-perfect adoptions. They want to highlight that positive adoptions are possible and largely ignore the issues that are addressed by the opposition. They fail to address that the overwhelming majority of children to be adopted are not children from war torn countries, true orphans or have disabilities. The main drivers for taking children away from families via intercountry adoption, is poverty.
The pro-adoption side fail to address these negative externalities. They never explore what is best for the entire cohort group. In the medical world, this idea is seen through the use of “triage”. This term describes how medical professionals need to behave in situations where they are overwhelmed by large numbers of casualties. Providers are taught to sort patients to do the greatest good for the greatest number. We too, should look at adoption in the same lens. Not only via the lens of adoptees but often the second point in the adoption triad – the original families. They too are often suffering and overlooked in the equation. David Smolin stated this corruption against the original families as:
“The international rules apparently allow aid to be offered only to those birth parents who relinquish their children, rather than requiring aid to birth parents to be unconditional. Thus, the international rules permit patterns of aid that create incentives to relinquish.”
In closing, saving the few who are marginalized, overlooked and forgotten does nothing for the overwhelming majority that are left behind. The system continues to corrupt and it does nothing to pressure the countries to change. Real change comes from external forces that demand change of these countries that are violating the rights of the child by allowing adoption to occur. I know many people disagree with me but to make lasting change we cannot be doing the same things of the past to expect a different result.
Can a famous example of conservation teach us anything about adoption? Most people can’t see a correlation but I do! Less than a hundred years ago, there were just 16 whooping cranes left in North America. These beautiful majestic birds were near the brink of extinction. Men who over hunted and destroyed the bird’s habitat also became its savior. People dressed in bird costumes attended to the young chicks.
In nature, it is not uncommon for cranes to lay two eggs. When this happens, the parents would ignore the weakest of the chicks and let it perish. However, at the conservatory, the scientists would raise the chicks in groups. The whooping cranes are carefully incubated and then hatched inside a plexiglass to observe a real whooping crane. This is done to imprint the chicks with what a real mother would look like.
Individuals meticulously ensure that the whooping crane chicks are attended to, using puppets that teach the young chicks how to find food and drink water. The puppet would mimic drinking water and then raise its head back as the crane does in nature. The attendants would teach the young cranes how to fly. They used an ultra-light plane to lead the cranes on a short flying lesson and eventually lead the cranes from Canada and fly them down to southern Florida. The scientists spared no expense and the average cost to raise a chick to adulthood cost around US$100,000.
The program was hailed as a huge success because the sixteen original whooping cranes that had four breeding females grew to a flock of more than 500 whooping cranes in the wild. Numerous documentaries were made about the success of this 11-year-long endeavor. The picture of the ultra-light plane leading a group of whooping cranes was popularized and shown in newspapers across the globe. The birds were then flown into their mating territory and the birds paired together and laid eggs. However, the overwhelming majority of birds would abandon their eggs after laying them. Of the 500 birds, only two or three mating pairs successfully hatched their chicks. This puzzled the scientists and after much consideration, they deduced the likely causation for this problem stemmed from the bird’s unorthodox upbringing. The scientists said it best by stating:
“They have so much baggage from a screwed-up and not normal childhood”!
Does this story sound familiar to you? Because it looks eerily familiar to some of the adoptees I’ve met and their lives. No matter how well the adoptive parents treated their adoptive child – they may have grown up as a disappointment to the adoptive parents or had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Other times, the adoptees look to be successful: they have degrees from reputable schools, they drive high-end cars and attain high levels of success. But after closer examination, you might find their personal life to be a total disaster.
Like these cranes, some adoptees look like they achieve success but a small flaw prevents them from achieving full potential. I have met numerous adoptees incapable of keeping a relationship or keeping a partner. They might behave over clingy and suffocate anyone they come across, they might privately deal with overwhelming guilt or anxiety, or perhaps prone to performing some other social faux pas.
Like the whooping chicks, the interactions before or during our upbringing may have made an indelible mark on our lives. It may stem from the lack of empathy or touch when we were young. The traumatic experience of being separated from our mother at a certain age, or being left alone in dark bedrooms, or forced to lie still for hours in our cribs, changed the course of our personalities and lives. No matter how wonderful our lives are afterward, we are faced to confront issues that we cannot fathom or explain.
I think these birds explain in some part why adoptees are four times more likely to commit suicide, or why they are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and incarceration. The reason for both the birds and adoptees is that we all had to deal with living without our natural mothers.
I had no idea that I had a deep need to see my children feeling happy. I realise now how negatively I viewed anger and frustration. I hadn’t realised that when I set out to adopt a child, part of it was about fixing a broken child. I had so much love to give, and I thought I could love a baby until he was whole again. p94
LIONHEART: The Real Life Guide for Adoptive Families is a book written by what I would term awesomely switched on adoptive parents. If all adoptive parents were as embracing of our traumatic beginnings as these 3 couples, with the efforts they’ve clearly gone to to deal with the complexities involved, my guesstimate is – we would see far less tragic and negative outcomes from intercountry adoption worldwide.
This book needs to be read by prospective adoptive parents in every receiving country! In America alone, this book would make a HUGE impact to the necessary and truthful education that should be provided to prospective parents about the reality of the task they are taking on via intercountry adoption.
This book is the best hands-on manual I’ve read that comprehensively gives prospective and adoptive parents a relevant guide to handle the challenges we inevitably bring as adopted people. From the go-start, the authors make it clear this is not a book for the faint hearted, hence the title Lionheart. The authors outline the reality which I’ve also experienced as an intercountry adoptee, raised in the same type of family as represented in their book i.e., of being an intercountry adopted child amongst adoptive parent’s biological children.
I related to this book on a few levels. Firstly as an adult intercountry adoptee I saw myself through the journey’s of their adopted children – struggling to feel secure, behaving in many of the same ways in childhood, wanting to develop trust but afraid, confronting many of the same challenges, etc.
” … parenting a baby who was both desperately ill and emotionally scarred is different in a lot of ways. I am a biological and adoptive parent, and I can tell you from first hand experience, they are not the same.” p90
Secondly, as a parent to my own biological child with additional needs, this book was a reflection of my own parenting across the past 11 years! I could totally relate to the sensory issues, the challenging behaviours, the search for answers and therapies, the exhaustion of trying desperately to find something that works, and the differences in parenting a child with no additional needs versus one with many, etc. The authors correctly make the connection, that adopting a child is literally the same as having a child with additional needs.
Much of the standard advice for parenting children with a mental illness applies to adoptive families. p102
Thirdly, these 3 families came together to form their own support network because they realised they were in a unique situation and that support was crucial to their survival in adoption. This book came about as a result of their friendship, from supporting each other and realising the lessons learnt could be valuable to others. So too, I have built a support network with my fellow adult intercountry adoptees, and we have produced many great papers, books and resources that are of value to others.
The one area this book doesn’t cover at all, which I would recommend any prospective and adoptive parents investigate, are the big picture ethical, political, social, and human rights questions and dilemmas within intercountry adoption. My personal adoption journey is a lifelong one and what I’ve noticed particularly after having children of my own, is I’ve slowly opened my eyes to the bigger picture of intercountry adoption. This stage includes asking questions my adoptive parents never asked but which sit deep within and eventually rise to the surface.
Questions such as: was my relinquishment and hence adoption legitimate, was money exchanged and was it equivalent to what it would cost to process the adoption or was money made from the transaction, who gained from that money, how many children are sent from my birth country each year and why, what happens for the birth families and how do they cope after losing their child, what if they didn’t have to loose their child and how can we empower that option?
Human rights questions like: what did my birth country do to try and help keep me with my family, my extended family, my community, my country, before I was intercountry adopted out? How did my adoptive parents participate in this trade/business? Was it willingly or blindly? Does it make any difference? Is intercountry adoption as black and white as generally portrayed in media? Were there other outcomes I as an adoptee might have lived, if I had not been adopted in an adoption industry fuelled by money?
Maturing in my understanding of adoption, I’ve realised it is not what it first appears and we need to prepare adopted children at age appropriate stages for the big picture questions. The book had a couple of intersections where this could have been explored but was not. For example, the death of a child allocated to one adoptive family and later because of the grief and feelings of loss, the parents changed country and agency to adopt from. Then in a different chapter, one adopted child asks (what is termed a “strange” question), “can you buy a child?” I pondered how can it be that we adoptees clearly see the connection but not adoptive parents. In our simple view, if you choose and select a child from whatever country you wish, or change because it doesn’t suit any longer, pay some money to process the transaction, how is this not akin to shopping i.e., buying a child? Is the question really that strange? It’s a powerful reality we adoptees eventually come to question and reflects just one aspect of the social-political-economic-gender complexities which all adoptive parents would be wise to consider and discuss openly as adopted children grow up.
Within ICAV, I can vouch we DO think and discuss these higher level complex issues. We also write extensively about how intercountry adoption is facilitated, by whom, whether the cycle is perpetuated by demand (prospective parents), and why we have no legal rights – clearly apparent when our adoptions break down, we are trafficked or have falsified documents, or suffer abuse or deportation.
Perhaps the authors of the book have yet to reach this stage with their children and that could possibly explain why it is absent. If so, I would love to see them write in years to come, a longitudinal book covering the later stages of adoptive parenting as their children grow to my age and beyond.
Regardless of the omission of big picture questions, I’d highly recommend this book to all prospective parents because it’s certainly a massive head start from the help adoptive parents from my generation received.
This book provides a no-punches spared, honest account of what REALLY happens when you adopt a child from a foreign country. The premise of the parenting advice comes from a trauma informed and attached parenting perspective. In my opinion as an intercountry adoptee, this is a true account of the emotional baggage we come with regardless of whether we are adopted as infants or not. I have written before we are not blank slates. If prospective parents are NOT prepared to take on the realities as presented in this amazing resource written by experienced adoptive parents, then I suggest intercountry adopting a child may not be for you. But if they are willing to embrace what this book has to offer, plus be open to discuss the bigger picture of intercountry adoption, I believe this will enable your family, the best chance of better outcomes.
I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger. I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.
I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.
I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.
As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.
The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.
I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.
Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.
Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.
As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.
The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.
The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.
My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.
Someone recently asked if I could provide a short statement on these questions:
What does it mean to be adopted?
How does it feel?
And what is it like not knowing who your mother (parents) is?
I struggled to contain my answer in one paragraph but did … and then I decided I’d share the long version because at its essence, this is what we adoptees struggle with and wish others could understand better.
For me, being adopted has meant that I was once abandoned for whatever reason. Mine was in the context of the Vietnam War so I can almost cognitively accept there was a valid reason – perhaps my mother died in the war during childbirth or perhaps my whole family got blown up in a bomb. I still vividly remember watching Heaven and Earth – a film about a Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War and I had a strong empathy for the atrocities many Vietnamese women went through, especially the ones whose babies were cut out of their mothers stomachs and the women raped by soldiers. My heart ached for whether that might have been my mother’s situation and I overcame my sadness of why I might have been given up with the reality that – perhaps my mother went through more trauma and loss than I did.
The possibilities of why I was given up are endless and almost comforting to know she probably didn’t give me up because of being pregnant out of wedlock as in Korea or because of a 1-child-policy as in China. Perhaps it was poverty as is the case in many other sending countries like Ethiopia. But at the end of the day, I can rationally see children do get abandoned and some are legitimate orphans … and in a war torn situation like mine, domestic adoption, foster care or other alternatives were just not possible at the time due to everything being in chaos with no stable government to ensure the citizens of that country get looked after.
I do believe when we are old enough to understand the political and economic situations surrounding our adoptions – it impacts how we adoptees view intercountry adoption. For me, I’ve never seen myself as against all forms of adoption because of my situation where in a war torn country there’s almost a legitimate reason for why intercountry adoption was perceived to be needed. I do question aspects of the Operation Babylift concept which occurred after I was adopted – in particular the speed at which it happened, the lack of clarification of the children who were sent abroad as to their real status, how they were selected, and the politics involved – I dare say if Operation Babylift were done today it would be seen as mass Child Trafficking and receive huge criticism by Child’s Rights activists around the world! Indeed Operation Babylift was controversial in an era were intercountry adoption was in its infancy.
For the Korean adoptees today from a Western mindset, seeing generations of babies being sent abroad because of stigma against single unwed women, one can understand why as a Korean adoptee you would become fiercely critical of adoption! The same will apply for the generations of Chinese adoptees being sent abroad to solve their country’s population problem via intercountry adoption. Adult adoptees from these sending countries will inevitably grow up to ask the question – what did the Government do to assist these babies to be kept in their birth country rather than being conveniently shipped off via intercountry adoption where millions of dollars are saved from having to find a solution in-house? What about the Rights of The Child? In countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, and Ethiopia families have been ripped apart from the corruption and greed of baby sellers under the guise of intercountry adoption – of course these adopted children will grow up to have an opinion of what happened on a massive scale and question why the governments of their own birth country and receiving country did little, early enough, to stop more adoptions when there were plenty of indicators that children were being adopted out without any proper oversight or ensuring they were legitimate orphans.
So the question of what does it mean to be adopted starts with the abandonment concept but then depending on which sending country we come from, gets layered with other social, political and economic issues about why our birth countries allow us to be adopted, layered yet again with how our adoption into another family and culture really turns out, and in the minority of cases, layered again if we can be reunited. Complications arise naturally from the actual adoption in whether we are lucky enough to be placed in an appropriate family with support, empathy and help to navigate the complexities of our life at different stages of development – e.g. were we raised in a multicultural setting to allow us to assimilate and not feel racially isolated; was adoption openly talked about; was it acceptable to express our feelings of grief and not knowing about our first families; were we allowed to be ourselves or were we subconsciously having to live the life our adoptive parents wanted and meeting their subconscious needs; were we supported in returning to our country of origin and wanting to search for information?
Some of us are not so lucky in obtaining the “awesome adoptive parent” lottery ticket and so our being adopted takes centre stage in trying to understand why we deserved mistreatment and hurt (intentional or not) from our adoptive families and only serves to add to our vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness from being abandoned. For those of us who have fantastic adoptive families, I dare say we can move quicker through the minefield of trying to understand what being adopted means because we received the love and nurturing that is necessary to flourish and develop healthy self esteem and racial identity – but it’s still not an easy journey even with the best of parents.
So essentially how does it feel to be adopted? The best analogy I could come up with as an adult adoptee now in my 40s, is it’s like peeling away layers of an onion.
You move thru’ life wonderfully for a while and then hit a new layer that stings the eyes and heart.
It takes time to absorb the meaning of one’s abandonment and loss at each new layer and level, and our identity evolves slowly over time.
As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away and escape them. Once we get to understand this, we are able to move through these layers with less disruption to the whole of our lives. For me, adoption has become less of an issue the older I get because I’ve slowly been able to integrate all these facets and complications into my sense of who I am and why I am.
It’s such a complicated thing to try and explain what it is like to not ever know one’s first mother and father. There’s the not knowing in terms of facts – their names, histories, race, and language. Then there’s the gut feelings of sadness and grief and the why’s of “why we aren’t with them?” Then there’s the “well – who am I then” without being able to answer any factual questions.
When I was younger and before I learnt to stop running from the feelings of grief and loss, I would long for my mother. I recall looking into the starry sky at night and wonder if my mother ever thought of me or missed me as much as I did her. I would dream of her leaving me on a dusty road and me crying out, “wait!” I realise now I was full of grief in my years under 10.
I missed a mother I couldn’t put a face to, but one to whom I felt innately severed from.
There is no doubt in my mind and after reading The Primal Woundand watching documentaries likeIn Utero, that it is true – we do bond in utero with our mothers and we feel disconnected if we never hear her voice or feel her around us again. I couldn’t really come to allow myself to trust my new mother (my adoptive mum) and I see now as an adult how hard this must have been for her. In my child mind, if mother can disappear than I’d better learn to be self reliant and not trust any other mother. I know my adoptive mum tried to show me she loved me but it’s just I couldn’t psychologically let her in. When did it change? I think it wasn’t until in my mid 20s when I did some therapy with an amazing woman (yes, I knew I had to find a female therapist to assist me in my unhealed “mother” work)! I finally learnt to trust a woman and allow my buried grief to surface – to share that very real and deep pain of being separated from one’s mother – with another “mother figure”. It was really only then I could totally embrace my adoptive mother, allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid I’d lose myself or somehow be disloyal to my first mother, and understand the three of us were connected.
The not knowing is just my reality. I haven’t known any different. Its like everyone else gets given a cup that’s full of water but my cup is empty and I need to have a drink. Its a basic biological fundamental that our bodies need water! But how do I fill the empty cup and even if I figure it out, will it be enough to satiate the thirst? Normally water quenches the thirst just like having knowledge of our parents and our family heritage gives us the basis/starting point for our identity.
For adoptees like myself who have no facts to go by, the not knowing is like starting to write a book or film without doing any research to ascertain the history in order to create the setting/scene. It just begins with us and it can feel like we are adrift in a huge ocean. There is nothing to shelter against and no other life lines we can connect to to stop us drifting and getting washed around. I had many moments during my life where I felt like I might get toppled over and disappear forever beneath the huge waves. I honestly don’t know what I hung onto to survive – maybe sheer will power, maybe some resoluteness within me to find the answers and make sense of it all. Maybe it’s what still drives me today – to find meaning to my solitary existence. But the reality today is, I realise I’m not alone at all. There are many of us, thousands, sitting alone on our ocean amongst the waves … by connecting each individual together with the bigger picture, it helps make collective sense to our meaning and purpose and what we can achieve.