This is the one time of year where I’m reminded I don’t have that childhood family with amazing memories and closeness. I’ve always yearned, as only some other adoptees can know, for that sense of family where I feel wanted, cherished, loved deeply. I know my family, like many others, are never perfect, but the older I get, the more I see my childhood in my adoptive family and can only remember the pain it created for me. Adoption is supposed to be happy isn’t it? It’s what gets portrayed. But I know I had spurts of moments of happiness in mine — it’s so hard to recall because as I grow older and relive it all again via children of my own, I realise the level of neglect and trauma my adoptive family caused, that could have been avoided.
How do I get past it? Should I? Or do I accept it will just always be … yes it hurts beneath the surface, oozing with pain every time I have to think about “adoptive family”. I’m old enough now to understand this pain is part of who I am. It’s not going away but I can hold and honour what I’ve had to do, to come past it —to be functional, stable, loving.
Healing doesn’t mean the pain stops and goes away. Healing means I’ve come to accept the truth. I no longer sit in it drowning or reacting. I’ve learned better ways to manage my emotions. I’ve learned how to have boundaries and not give past what I’m willing to. I’ve learned it’s ok to remain true to my own needs. I’ve learned to accept what can’t be changed but to change what I can. I can accept them as they are and know they’re not capable, even if they wanted. I have to give it to me, myself. Love, connection, acceptance, nurturing.
Xmas, like Thanksgiving for Americans, is a time where as an adoptee, I feel those sad feelings for what I might have had but didn’t. I know the reality of reunions is that even bio family, if I ever find them, will most likely never be able to meet my emotional need for “family” either. So, this Xmas, I will bring my children and husband close and treasure every moment I have with them for they are the only true family I will ever have! I am thankful I was able to heal enough to have a loving relationship and become a mother myself and give to my children what I never got. This has been my life’s blessing and will be my focus this Xmas!
This is the last picture of my intact family – soon my brother was sent away and eventually I ended up in an orphanage. I was adopted from Korea at age 9 to a white Lutheran family in Spring Grove, Minnesota – the biggest Norwegian community in the USA at that time. My adoptive family moved quite a bit making it even more difficult for me to find connections. I was a sad, angry, lonely, scared, fear-filled child and then woman and mother. I found my biological mother and brother in 2008 thinking that would heal me – it was a terrible reunion and my pain deepened. As I entered my 40s, I was exhausted, overwhelmed and my desire to live was close to 0 – like so many stories from adoptees, I thought about suicide all. the. time.
Simultaneously and definitely hypocritically, I was working in social services specifically with high risk youth talking them through the same difficult feelings I could not manage within me. I had several moments of reckoning which led me to seek out true healing and inner peace. It is no coincidence that I moved to Hawaii where the “Aloha Spirit” Law went into effect in 1986. Through that law and my focused seeking, I am now funded by the State to provide training to discuss trauma and reduce suffering through mindfulness, forgiveness and attitudinal healing. I have worked with folks in all sectors of life and these trainings have been helpful for many people including me.
Nothing really changed in my life except now I am able to feel more connected with myself and my community, I feel more ease and love in a way I never understood before – it’s definitely not a cure all but having concrete skills to manage my pain changed everything for me.
One of the biggest issue for me growing up was feeling like I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t have a right to feel anger or sadness about my situation – always having to be thankful with a plastered smile no matter how awful my adoptive family was. Sharing my story, working through the difficult process and fully feeling is what works for me and many people and this is what I provide for others.
If you would like to have a space to talk about your story, learn new skills to manage yourself better, grow in connection with yourself and others in order to heal, then reach out to me if you have questions please.
Many adoptees like me are out here fighting with our last drops of energy for change – we need to remember to take a moment to recharge, rest, re-energize so we don’t implode. I hope to serve you in this way.
by Abby Hilty, born in Colombia adopted to the USA, currently living in Canada. She wrote and shared this on her Facebook wall for National Adoption Awareness Month.
Adoptees are constantly grappling with a life full of complex dualities.
I am an only child, but I have at least 4 siblings.
I have a birth certificate from 2 different countries.
I had to lose my family so that another family could be created.
I grew up in a middle class family, but I lost my original family because I was born into poverty.
I am very attached to the name Abby, but I know I was named after someone else’s ancestor.
I am occasionally told I look like my mom, but we don’t share the same genetics, racial group, or ethnicity.
I love my adoptive family, but I needed to search for my original family.
I am reunited with mi mamá, but we are no longer legally related to each other.
I am my mother’s daughter, but I am mi mamá’s daughter too.
I loved and lost my dad, but I don’t know who my father is.
I am short in my receiving country, but I am tall in my sending country.
I am brown, but I grew up with internalized whiteness.
I am an immigrant in my receiving country, but I am a gringa in my homeland.
I have lived in the northern hemisphere since I was 3 months old, but my body still struggles in the cold.
I speak English fluently, but my body responds to Spanish viscerally.
I have always celebrated my birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but those have never been easy days for me.
I know how important it is for (transracial, intercountry) adoptees to share their lived experiences, but the emotional cost is high for every NAAM post, every panel, every podcast interview, and especially for every discussion in which my fellow adoptees or I personally get pushback from non-adopted people who want to challenge our lived experiences.
And, believe me, this happens DAILY in various adoption groups. So, if an adopted person that you know and love is slow to reply to your texts or emails or if they seem to sometimes be lost in a day dream or not paying attention, it may just be because so many of our daily decisions have to be run through multiple – and often competing – thoughts and even family systems.
On 13 Nov 2020, the US Department of State (the Central Authority for intercountry adoption in America) ran a first of it’s kind event – openly inviting intercountry adoptees in America to share what they would like policy makers to know about the lived experience of intercountry adoption. It is awesome that Dept of State actively consulted widely with the adult intercountry adoptee community!! I hope we will see more of this happening, despite their “jurisdictional” restrictions.
Pamela Kim, born in South Korea and adopted to America gave her impressions of this historic event.
Just left the Department of State adoptee Town Hall event. One of the more moving adoptee experiences I’ve had, surprisingly. I had no idea the government even cared about adoptees especially international ones. The facilitators were great. Each adoptee had two minutes to speak as there were almost one hundred adoptees on the call. Two minutes to say how adoption has impacted us and our lives, what we want them to know.
There were adoptees from Russia, Korea, China, India, Paraguay, Ethiopia, Peru, Iran and more. Domestic adoptees too. The stories were hard to hear. Everyone expressed trauma – around race and identity, loss of culture, abusive adoptive parents, abandonment, trafficking, mental health needs, school environments and bullying, failed birth searches, deportation risks.
The lifelong impact of adoption is clear whether one is adopted as a baby or a teen. I heard many stories of good loving adoptive parent families. I also heard those same people say, “I cannot support transracial intercountry adoption.”
Some people cried.
I shared that my adoption should have been successful because I was an infant, part of the model minority, adopted into a family with resources, went to “good” schools etc. I shared that I’ve struggled my whole life from trauma … with life threatening eating disorders, suicide attempts, relationship issues, fibromyalgia. That my family cut me off many times. That even now there are triggers that bring me back to a place of deep grief and fear.
This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.
‘Doubt yourself and you doubt everything you see. Judge ourselves and we see judges everywhere. But if you listen to the sound of your own voice you can see forever’ – Nancy Lopez
Your voice matters. Our voices as adoptees matter. When you’re a person of colour, an international adoptee, queer person or a woman we all experience unique aspects of oppression from society. Our experiences are valid, our trauma, our abuse are valid and real.
Quite often there are people who try to tear us down, discount marginalised groups and gas-light us into believing that our pains and hardships were just a figment of our imagination; that we’re overly sensitive, that we’re ‘snowflakes’, but we must not let them have power over us, and over our minds. We know deep down when something isn’t right, when we have experienced something we shouldn’t have.
You have a voice, don’t let anyone make you doubt yourself. Don’t let anyone repress your intuition. Stand up for yourself, call people out, speak from your heart because your voice matters, and you’ll be surprised just how many people will feel the same as you, who will resonate with you. You will always find someone trying to bring another person down but we cannot let that dictate our lives in any way.
For me, it’s a day of wondering is she even alive, does she remember me, is she struggling, how old is she, has she lived since then, alone, or did she have other children, before me, or after?
Will I ever find her, is she in Vietnam or somewhere else around the world, does she even want to be found, was I a part of some deep shame, or a result of love, what happened to her that I was relinquished, was it her choice?
Mother – a concept that evokes such a mix of feelings, it’s not logical to some why I want to know who she is, it’s just an innate drive, no other can make up for her, I am forever a part of her, her DNA is imprinted in me, it’s false to think a substitute is all I need, I didn’t even know her name until 3 years ago!
If I could wish upon a magic cloud I’d ask to meet my mother, see her face, hear her voice, be held in her arms, given answers to my questions, learn I was missed and not forgotten. But reality is not quite this, and these are the bittersweet feelings I have on Mother’s Day.
For all my fellow adoptees around the world, here with you in solidarity, sharing the mixed bag of emotions that Mother’s Day can evoke!
In this new 3-part series, Leigh Matthews at the DoGooder Podcast (also the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages), discusses with me the why and how of whether intercountry adoption does good and can it ever be ethical.
Personally I found this interview to be the most in-depth I’ve ever done on this topic. I had no pre-empting of the questions and by the end, I was a little shaken and rattled as I realised some of the content I’d spoken about wasn’t as cohesive as I’d would have liked because nobody had ever asked such intensive questions before. After all these years in speaking, I have usually refined the way I describe and answer questions because in repeatedly speaking on the topic, I get more succinct over time. This time however, my thinking/speaking is raw for a good portion of it and Leigh did a fantastic job of rattling me! She has a natural way of understanding this topic given orphanage tourism is so closely connected.
I can’t wait to hear the next two ladies in this series: Jessica Davis, American adoptive mother who returned her adopted child to her family in Uganda after discovering she had not been a true orphan nor relinquished with a clear understanding of our western legal concept of adoption. Jessica has gone on to found an organisation Kugatta to assist other adoptive families who find themselves in situations like hers. Then Laura Martinez-Mora, a lawyer and Secretary in the Hague Permanent Bureau team, responsible for the intercountry adoption portfolio who provides her professional perspective.
Our views together on this topic will help develop some much needed in-depth conversation about how intercountry adoption occurs today, whether it does more harm than good, and whether it can be ethical.
#1 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
One of the first things people will ask me is how old I was when I was adopted. When I reply that I was 2 months old, I can see them discount my loss. They may even say, “So you don’t remember” but it’s a misconception, not only because things don’t have to be recalled to be subconsciously remembered, but also because I don’t have to remember having something to know what I’m missing.
Imagine if you were bitten by a dog as a baby. You might have no conscious recollection of it, but your subconscious will have it stored somehow and you will likely be terrified of dogs for the rest of your life, without understanding it. Adoptees experience a loss which is pre-verbal but there is no such thing as pre-feeling; implicit memory is body held. Childhood relinquishment creates life-long fear of rejection and loss and either a distrust of others or of self. Our resulting attachment styles can make it difficult to connect with others and maintain healthy relationships.
The smell of our biological families is not remembered, but is palpably different to our adoptive family, even in adulthood I notice this every time and it jars me.
The absence of someone or something can be important not just in the moment of losing it, but in everyday life. For example, the loss of sight or hearing, or use of a limb, or the ability to empathise or navigate. Having no memory of those things doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a longing for them — their importance and meaning isn’t lost on us because we don’t have it. Those who’ve grown up poor have no memory or experience of being rich — but likely they still would like to have money, just as those of us without our bio families, genetic mirrors, belonging or culture, to name just a few, know there is something missing — but not just missing, taken.
When I was a young-under-20 year old adoptee, I would have agreed with the statement, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. As an over 40 year old now, having fully shed my adoptee oblivion and so fully aware that adoption and relinquishment actually have many impacts on me, I can attest that the body does remember the separation from mother, even if we are infants at the time of separation and adoption.
I remember going through years of therapy, mostly cognitive, until I found an amazing therapist who helped me reconnect with my body. The work I did, helped me to heal the dissonance between my mind (influenced largely by my white adoptive life) and body (influenced largely by my genetics and biological).
My mind always tricked me, telling me everything my adoptive life imbued, for example, that I was lucky to be saved by adoption and living in this amazing country, Australia. But my body told me differently. It was where my deep sadness sat, feeling that I didn’t know who I really belonged with (who was my tribe?), where I came from and feelings of isolation. I spent most of my life in my adoptive family pushing away those body feelings and living the persona of my adoptive life … looking very together, high achieving, and seemingly happy. But it all became too much in my mid 20s and I experienced deep depression and attempted suicide multiple times trying to escape and push away those deep body feelings. The therapy literally saved my life. It was the only space I had been given that allowed me permission and validation to grieve and allow my body to express what I’d spent most of my life until then, trying to suppress. Finally, I was able to grieve for my mother who I actually had no cognitive memory of, but in allowing myself to grieve, I learned that my body did in fact remember.
So, I know today why that therapy was so powerful because despite the myths of adoption like this statement, we DO remember everything about our mother who we are symbiotically connected to for 9 months. That separation from her was imprinted in the cells of my body. I might not have had the words to describe the sadness, grief, pain and confusion of why I never heard, felt, or smelt heard her again, but it took an amazing therapist and certain type of therapy to help me unlock the body memory so that I could do what I needed — to reconnect with that memory of her and honour it. To give it a place in my life and no longer deny she didn’t matter, because she totally did.
In every cell of my body, there was the undeniable truth. So for me, that statement that we do not remember as infants, is so not true. I was just a 5 month old baby when I arrived in my adoptive family but I did remember. She was deeply imprinted in me and I spent years trying to ignore that truth which only made the trauma of separation worse.
I only began to heal once I recognised and embraced the truth of that body memory, which doesn’t lie.
This statement itself is true for me. I don’t remember. I’ve always thought that I’d be more damaged if I came here at an older age. More damaged in the sense that I would be harder to love and easier to disregard if I got into major trouble with either mental health or society at large. It’s as if this is an entry ticket for people to want to get near me, an assurance that I will be just like them.
Even after telling people that I was three months old when I came here, they still continue to ask me if I know the Persian language. That always puzzled me. What baby speaks a language at three months? Is this evidence of how little these people have spent energy putting themselves in my situation? Probably.
When it comes to someone who loses a parent when they are too young to remember, people show a lot of compassion. Nobody would say to them, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. Instead they are showered with helpful words about the tragedy. Their trauma is affirmed. The only time our trauma is affirmed is when an adoptee gets into trouble or has depression. Then these same people say that there is nothing to be done about it, that we were already damaged.
I was adopted at 10 months old. Prior to this I lived for six months with a French Vietnamese family with the lawyer who facilitated my adoption. I lived in their house with them. Before this, I was in an orphanage being cared for but not loved nor given all the attention a mother normally gives a new-born. Even in-utero my mother probably knew that she could not keep me.
“As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the placenta. A new study finds that this includes signals about the mother’s mental state” (Science Daily, 2011)
The first year of a baby’s life and during pregnancy is so important. A mother’s physical and emotional availability is vital for the babies emotional and psychological development. It can also impact on our future ability to learn and retain knowledge, amongst other things.
My body remembers. I had my first major panic attack when my now ex-partner found out she was pregnant. I was happy and excited but my body responded differently. It went into complete panic around the threat of being rejected and abandoned all over again. The physical attack on my body as a result of the trauma experienced in my first year of life was so great that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost 7 kilos in two weeks through stress and physical fear that I would be left and replaced by our new baby.
Any loss of significant intimate relationship I have formed in my adult life has triggered varying degrees of anxiety. I’ve done copious amounts of counselling, Craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, dance therapy, art therapy, massage, regular exercise to manage my body’s response to old stress and trauma stored in every single cell. I’ve done a lot of work to change the narrative that I am enough and I am able to care and look after myself in times of adversity such as a relationship break up.
I know that I will not die now and that I have enough resilience and self-love to care for myself and truly believe I’m worth it.
My son had a recent health scare. Thankfully he’s fine, but at an appointment with his new paediatrician, the subject of family history came up, especially as I’d been diagnosed with a hereditary syndrome only a few months earlier. I said I could only provide limited family history, having been adopted and thus far only able to find my mother and some half-siblings. The doctor asked how my syndrome manifested itself because my son’s symptoms were possibly related. We discussed my physical symptoms and then she asked if I also experienced “brain fog” (moments of forgetfulness and/or being unable to process information). I replied that I do sometimes experience it but I’d always considered it to be “trauma brain.” This, of course, prompted her to ask what trauma I had suffered.
I answered, “I’m an intercountry adoptee. I lost my mother, my everything — and was adopted by a family of a different race on a different continent.” “How old were you when you were adopted?” she asked, a look of sympathy in her eyes. “Around 2 months,” I answered. All sympathy vanished, replaced by a slightly exasperated look, “Oh, but you were just a little baby at the time. You couldn’t possibly remember.”
Her comment implied: (a) babies cannot form emotional/cognitive/somatic memories; (b) babies cannot experience trauma; (c) losing your mother immediately or shortly after birth has no effect on a baby; (c) any combination of the above.
Though I have heard this comment countless times before, I was shocked to hear it coming from a paediatrician. Had she not learned about the numerous studies that have been done on various animal species, as well as humans, showing the detrimental effects of early baby/mother separation?
What if I had told her that the trauma I’d experienced at the age of 2 months hadn’t been the loss of my mother but physical abuse instead? Or sexual abuse? Or severe neglect? Do you think she would have immediately poo-pooed THOSE causes as legitimate causes of pain and trauma – even to a baby – as she did for adoption? No way! She probably would have been outraged and rightfully so!
Programs like Kangaroo intensive care therapy for premature babies are in place in hospitals across the globe because it is widely recognised that babies need skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. Books about early infancy remind us that a baby and its mother are one organism until the umbilical cord is cut, and that newborns do not realise they are separate individuals from their mother. Science seems to grasp the fact that the mother-child bond is critical to preserve, especially very early on in life and throughout much of childhood. Yet society has been conditioned to think that babies who are separated from their mother due to adoption don’t/can’t remember (either cognitively or somatically) and/or aren’t traumatised by this early loss. You can’t have it both ways. Pain is pain. Trauma is trauma. All babies need their mothers – not just the ones that aren’t adopted. Every cell of an adopted person’s body knows empirically that she/he has lost her/his biological mother.
We remember. One woman is not just any woman. One baby is not just any baby. People are not interchangeable. Except when it comes to adoption.
My origins have not left me, my history still lingers in archives and attics, my blood relatives may still be circulating somewhere in the region from where I was scooped up and transported out of South Vietnam and into the United States in 1974.
Sure, as an eight-month-old infant, I had no idea what was going on around me and there was no way I was given any choice in whether I stayed or not.
Being uprooted and re-settled, and re-named and re-homed, all within my first year of life, made not a dent on my infant memory.
The failure of recall of all the micro and macro events and faces behind them who coordinated and shaped my early beginnings was expected and encouraged.
I was trained to not look back at the person I was prior to my transformation into a naturalised U.S. citizen.
My infanthood as an orphaned foreigner was seen as illegitimate; my “real life” was only recognised when I became an American citizen.
But what I cannot remember is still what I cannot forget.
What I do remember are the many times when I withdrew from my community because it became readily apparent to me that I was never going to truly settle quietly and comfortably into the life crafted for me.
What I cannot forget is my adoption was meant to ostensibly wipe the slate clean for me while at the same time wipe my mother and my father and their child off the face of the earth.
Guest artwork by Xiaolan Molly Thornton, adopted at 3 years of age to Australia from China.
Xiaolan says: This artwork depicts how I feel being divided by two cultures. One of Australian and the other, Chinese. The background is supposed to represent the landscape of China and I have blended in aspects of Australian culture which I now embrace as part of my identity.
This artwork may not be reproduced, shared or copied without the consent of Xiaolan.
Leave room for joy Leave room for pain Leave room for sadness It’s not all the same
are a lot of people who are only joyful or only angry at adoption. While there
is a time for both of these feelings, there has to also be a time to evaluate
the why behind your
adoption always the best? No.
joy or sadness the only options? No.
As adoptees, adoption is part of our reality. It is what unifies us. We have to find and explore what our own personal adoptions mean for each of us! Adoptees do not have to look a certain way, but it is challenging when other people tell society what adoption is like.
I wanted to share my story about how adoption has shaped my life and how I view adoption. Instead of people assuming I want to meet my “real” parents or assume I’m sad or happy – I wanted to share what is really going on in my head. As an adoptee from Russia, now in America, I know very little about my beginnings. While I do not know why I was eligible for adoptive placement, I do know that my worth and value are not determined by missing time or pieces. I love to learn about my birth heritage. I dislike when people assume all adoptees are a certain way… or sometimes people ask bad questions.
I wanted to speak up and have others voice their stories with mine. What is a better way to get the word out about ideas then on social media? I posted a status about wanting to get all of this together to share our perspective! I didn’t know if anyone would reply about sharing their story. I came up with a set of questions for each participant and I waited eagerly for adoptees to reply.
the waiting I also spent many hours journaling and writing about all things
adoption relating to my perspective and story to help educate readers on how
this adoptee sees things.
It was incredible to hear back from so many adoptees – and while we don’t see eye to eye in every perspective, it was important to get a variety of voices. This way readers can really interact and find an adoptee that they may relate to, or learn best from.
I was so excited when the book Through Adopted Eyeswas released! I’ve gotten the pleasure to hear back from people telling me how they felt after reading the book. Some had learned about adoption, others wanted to adopt, others didn’t, and fellow adoptees felt included and heard.
I think it is really important for people to write down their thoughts about their adoption so that they can read it back to themselves and see what this means – some adoptees barely acknowledge their statuses and adapted well, whereas others focus on it a lot! I do not think one way is better than another. I think what is more important is making sure we all find out from our own stories what it is that makes us motivated to share.
What are you most excited to share about? What do you want to keep private? What is the main perspective you want others to take away from your adoptee experience?
Start writing – but also leave room on the paper. Leave room for more thoughts, shared experiences, and joy and pain.
Elena S Hall’s passion for adoption advocacy stems from her faith and family. She loves to write, dance, sing, and tell stories. Her goal is to aid those in the adoption triad to promote healing and growth within the adoption community and empower readers to share their own stories. Her book, Through Adopted Eyes: A Collection of Memoirs From Adoptees, shares 50 adoptee perspective and guides readers though adoption from the viewpoint of adoptees.