“I was so afraid of being seen as imperfect. What happens to imperfect things? They get sent back…”
The above words were my reference of thought for much of my childhood life: you better be perfect or you might get sent back to foster care. I can recall, as a little girl, the panic I felt each time my adoptive mother would leave the house. I was certain that my foster care giver, in England, would come to America to get me while mom was away. Mom would surely have learned what I already knew — that I wasn’t her perfect girl — and I’d be returned to the place from where I came.
As I grew into adulthood, perfection — or the quest for perfection — remained my top focus. In my mind, perfection equaled safety. To be seen as imperfect in career, relationships or friendships would have placed me in a vulnerable spot where I could be rejected. The risk was far too high for someone, like me, who greatly feared being abandoned…again. And so, I reached for the unreachable. I could not attain perfection, as it doesn’t exist. I beat myself up on a daily basis for all of my imperfections. Certain that it was because of me — because of something I must have done — that my first parents relinquished their rights to raise me. Life, both personal and professional, seemed all too fragile.
Adoptees often manage their emotions and feelings about adoption in very quiet and insulated ways. Perhaps, this is why we’ve been misunderstood for far too long. It’s difficult to open up and share our deepest fears and anxieties when life has taught us that people leave…even parents go away. Therefore, trust doesn’t come easy.
If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s this: silence hinders healing. For many years, I kept my feelings about my own adoption hidden. I never wanted to seem ungrateful. People all around me would say how lucky I was that someone took me in. They meant well. What they didn’t know is how confused I was inside. I was grateful for my family, yet I mourned the family I had lost. I lived between the two shores of grief and gain, and I felt as if I was drowning.
Adoption may seem like a simple equation: a child needs a family and a family longs for a child. The process of adoption serves as the cement that fills this gap between need and longing. Only, the cement that fills the gap in an adoptive parent’s life can be the very binder that leaves a gaping whole in the adoptee’s life. This contrast is difficult for many people to understand.
A child has moved from one world and into another. He or she has been removed from a first life and into a new one. No matter the joy, the expectation, or overflowing love that awaits them; there is trauma left within the gap that separates these two lives and it must be addressed, heard, and supported.
I’m not every adoptee and my thoughts don’t represent the whole. However, I do want to offer what I believe are ten important needs that many adoptees have in common and, therefore, would want you to know about. You see, adoptees hold a wealth of wisdom on family, love, relationship, identity, pain and healing. We’re just beginning to allow this wisdom the light it deserves.
- Adoptees need the space to mourn the family that has been lost. It’s so very important that adoptees know that their adoptive parents will allow them the time and space they need to mourn the family that they have lost. Please don’t be threatened by this, as our need to mourn our first families does not take away from the love we hold for our adoptive ones. If we seem distant or off in some other place in our minds, it may very well be that we’re feeling grief and we’re not sure how to handle it. If we feel safe to express this heartache with our adoptive parents — knowing that we’re not letting them down in the doing — then, we’ll move more steadily toward healing. Being heard and feeling seen within our grief is a powerful medicinal. I should add that, for adult adoptees, if this grief is not dealt with, it hinders relationships. If your partner is adopted, I would urge you to take the same care that I’m advising adoptive parents to do with their children. Be sensitive, be compassionate, and most of all be open to listening. No adoptee should feel guilty for grieving the loss of their first families.
- Adoptees need to know and honor their “first me.” Every adoptee has a “first me.” I refer to this as “the me I was prior to my adoption.” The girl I was had a different name and lived in a different country. She had different parents, for a time, and a different set of circumstances. When I was adopted, my name changed and my country changed. My family changed and my circumstances changed. Everything changed. Where do we, as adoptees, place the child that once was? I think this is a very important question and a critical part of the healing journey. It has been for me. Just as I have mourned my first family, I have needed to mourn the “first me.” I have needed to speak her name and to allow her to live within me. I have needed to resurrect her from the ashes of past. How we do this will be as individual as every adoptee, but it’s important for us to honor this part of who we are. And, to keep that child alive in whatever way we see fit and necessary in the journey toward wholeness. Adoptees don’t have to know the name of their “first me.” They just need to allow themselves moments to feel and to honor that first child. Please know that adoptees need to feel your respect in this chapter of their lives. It’s their first chapter and their “first me” lives there. Don’t make them live their lives from chapter two.
- Adoptees need to know that love does not = abandonment. As adoptees, many of us have been told that our birth parents loved us so much that they let us go to someone else who could take better care of us. It’s a well-meaning statement. It also holds truth, as there is great love within a birth parent’s decision to make an adoption plan for their child. From the adoptee’s perspective, however, this type of statement can trigger a sense of insecurity: when you are loved a lot, you risk being let go. As we grow into adulthood, this can lead to an inability to be vulnerable before others. Love seems scary. We hold others at an arm’s length. We may want to control relationships and always have a getaway plan. Adoptees need to know that loving openly, freely and fully does not mean that you’ll be left. Love is not perfect. It can be messy and frightening. It’s also wonderful and miraculous. We need to understand, as adoptees, that loving ourselves enough to be vulnerable, honest, real and raw is how we begin living. Truly living! Fearing love is how we remain trapped within our pain. Help us to love ourselves enough to see the miracle in love’s messiness. Help us to see that love is always worth taking a chance. Help us to be secure in our ability to trust in this thing called love.
- Adoptees need you to know that adoption is never over. Adoption is not a one-time legal process. It is an on-going experience, a life-long journey. Adoption does not end when our parents have signed a document, or finalized a legal course of action. While it is true that the legal part of adoption may be completed, the living part of adoption is only just beginning. This, I feel, is an important distinction. The process might seem cut and dry: papers have been signed and the adoption is done. Please understand that adoption is never “over” as it is a part of who we are as adoptees. I’m adopted, that’s a fact. To say that an adoption is over — to place it in the past — once the documents are signed and sealed denies the adoptee the continuation of discovery. How may the adoptee claim what has been closed? How may the adoptee explore the important landscape of self when others have, with all good intention, deemed it over? I’m an adoptee and I’m also adopted: these statements are not labels. They represent the truth.
- Adoptees need to be able to share their pain without guilt. This goes back to number one: no adoptee should feel guilty for grieving the loss of their first families. Adoptees should never feel guilty for grieving or expressing pain and hurt over their adoptions. We need you to know that we don’t want to hurt our adoptive families when we show grief for what we have lost. We don’t want to seem unappreciative for what we have. It’s just so important for you to know that adoption, for us, comes with loss: a loss that should not be swept under the rug. Let us share our pain with you. Let us grow closer as we trust in your willingness to allow us to be vulnerable in front of you. Remind us that this vulnerability will not end in you loving us any less.
- Adoptees need to claim their own identity. The topic of identity is of huge importance to me and to countless other adoptees. Answering the question, who am I, is a central theme along our journey to self-worth and well- It is my belief that anything left unresolved, in the adoptee’s life, can lead to physical, emotional, and spiritual heaviness. It’s a weight that can hinder a person in his/her own personal development. Adoptees need to reach their own sense of identity. All too often adoptees see of themselves what they have been told, not what they have been allowed to discover on their own. It is only normal that an adoptee would begin to question nature and nurture: DNA vs. upbringing, or environment. It is only normal that an adoptee would explore these questions as they grow. No matter how difficult these questions are they stand essential to healthy identity formation. What is not normal is disallowing the adoptee to ask, to explore, to journey his/her own history; it is not normal to silence the adoptee. Adoptees need you to know that it is not normal or healthy for them to bear the burden of an imposed identity over their true identity.
- Adoptees need to know that they did not cause the separation from their first family. I can remember feeling shame, as a young adoptee, that I must have done something to cause my first parents to go away. I combed every corner of my mind trying to figure out what I had done so wrong that would make them leave. When I could not find the answer, I began to think that I was innately bad. Why else would parents leave their child? As I grew, I began to understand that the circumstances surrounding my adoption were not caused by me, although they did impact me. This is a necessary distinction for adoptees to make. In other words, the circumstances of our adoptions happened around us and not because of us. Adoptees need to be given the gift of this truth so that they may be freed from the burden of shame and self-blame.
- Adoptees need to be given the space to forgive, in their own time and in their own way. Number eight goes hand-in-hand with number seven, above. Choices are made through a moment in time. Our first parents made choices. And, yes, perhaps these choices hurt us. Perhaps, the choices of our first parents left us with feelings of confusion, sadness, or aloneness. If we can see our first parents as innocent then we can see ourselves as innocent, as well. Within innocence we find forgiveness. And, forgiveness is the gateway to freedom. Adoptees need to feel this freedom. Freedom allows space where gratitude can take root. Gratitude erases fear and promotes abundance. Every adoptee needs to know that they deserve abundance, and that forgiveness is the key to an abundant life. Please allow the adoptee in your life the space and time needed to come to this place of forgiving, so that they may start truly living.
- Adoptees need to share their story. As adoptees, we need each other. We need to lean in and learn from one another. Every adoptee carries a unique perspective. Each adoption experience is worthy of being shared and heard. There is no wrong or right. Every perspective should be valued and considered, as this is how we grow stronger and better equipped to free ourselves. I know the pain of adoption and I walk with it still. I also understand the beauty of adoption. I honor both. Please know that adoptees need to share both the beauty and the pain of their own personal stories.
- Adoptees need to feel their first parents within them. I end with this final need because I feel so very strongly about an adoptee’s ability to feel their first parents within them. There is much talk about how we, as adoptees, have been severed from our first lives. While this may be true, from a physical perspective, I have gained a great source of strength from knowing that there lives a connection, or relationship, with my first parents that can never be severed or removed from me. I feel them within me every day of my life. In other words, I am in daily reunion with my first parents. It brings me joy. Even as an adult adoptee, this sense of presence with first parents brings me a source of great comfort. Please know that this is in no way a rejection of my adoptive parents. It is, however, an acceptance of truth: I have a first life and I honor that life by allowing myself to feel it. Adoptees need to feel their first parents within them, even if they are never given the opportunity to meet face to face. Reunion can happen within.
I have said this before, and I’ll say it until my very last breath: I used to think that adoption was my weakness, but I no longer think this is true. Adoption has become my strength and my wellspring of wisdom. I have learned so much from the experience of living this life as an adoptee. It is what has made me the resilient, strong and unbreakable woman I am today. I could not have arrived at this place of strength and knowing without stating out loud and putting into practice these ten needs. May these needs assist every adoptee along the journey of healing and understanding.
This article, Ten Needs Adoptees Want You to Know About, was originally published by Adopt A Love Story.
Michelle Madrid-Branch is the author of, Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heart, which was named a “Top 5 Inspirational Book” by Dolce Vita Magazine.
Real and raw, the book explores the many experiences and emotions of adoptees, adoptive parents, birthparents, foster youth, and foster parents. Learn More