The yen for authenticity is a universal quest. To paraphrase Meister Eckhardt Tolle, “We long to know who we REALLY are.” This knowledge comes from within but also from our environment and the people immediately around us, our families.
Families: a loaded word.
It’s been said that the road to adoption recovery is a search for authenticity. Adoptees must choose from two family trees, one biological and another through adoption. In writing my memoir, The Goodbye Baby-A Diary about Adoption, I realized that neither family tree was the answer. My feeling of being “at home in the world” had to come from a source within, a gradual unveiling, a stripping away of masks I’d assumed for a lifetime.
There are as many different adoption stories as there are adoptees. Here, in brief, is mine. As a young child, I was shuffled around in foster care until my birthmother, a woman never meant to be a parent, left me with a college professor and his wife. Though the couple, Richard and Reva, officially adopted me, I mistakenly thought this was another temporary home. I believed that my birthmother was coming back for me. As it turned out, I waited 38 years. No doubt at the time, I was told that this was my new “forever home,” but at age five, it was too much of a leap for me to comprehend.
Outwardly, I had a happy, privileged childhood. My adoptive parents placed a high value on education, so they made sure I loved reading and learning. My Dad encouraged my writing and at age ten I was given a five-year diary for Christmas. Thus began a life-long habit of daily journaling. This was the 1950s, an era where people didn’t talk publicly about “adoption” (or many other topics, for that matter). There was something shameful about not being able to have ones own children, something slightly embarrassing about not being the “real” daughter. I was burning with curiosity but afraid to ask questions. Probably I was afraid of being sent back to foster care. I wanted to please my new parents, so when my new mom Reva teared up at the mention of that “other” mom, I realized that the subject was taboo. It was as though the first five years of my life didn’t count for anything, as though I’d been “born again.”
I did have meetings with my birthmother and father, but they were not good reunions. Instead, I ended up feeling rejected all over again. Thirty years ago, I suffered from a series of losses: my adoptive mom and dad passed away, my birthparents died. My husband, who was twenty years my senior, died. I felt newly alone in the world. Loss and loneliness, however, gave me an opportunity. At last I could present the story of what it was like to grow up during an era where adoptions, for the most part, were closed. I’d landed in a wonderful, loving home, and for that I will be eternally grateful. My new mom and dad gave me strong love and support, but what they either couldn’t or wouldn’t give me was an explanation of why I could no longer be with my original mother. I assumed that I’d done something wrong and that it was my fault that Mommy gave me away. I feared that I wasn’t good enough, that everything was my fault. Basically, the circumstances of my adoption were shrouded in mystery. Re-reading years of my daily diaries gave me a clue about that “secret self” I’d always felt compelled to hide. Excerpts from those diaries ended up as a memoir, The Goodbye Baby-Adoptee Diaries. It was my way of “coming out of the closet.”
However, it took a recent hiking accident to make me dig even deeper. Landing on boulders during a steep climb, I’d badly injured my lower back and was in a great deal of pain. Moving was difficult, walking nearly impossible. I was, to put it mildly, out of commission. Because of the long and painful recovery time, there was now time to reflect and contemplate. My life before the fall was hectic, over-programmed, full of too many activities. Suddenly I had to slow way, way down. I spent a lot of time online. A friend directed me to You Tubes videos and Ted talks by Karen Neff, a self-compassion guru. During one of her meditation sessions, Dr. Neff asked her audiences, real and virtual, to imagine nurturing ourselves at specific times in our lives. When she mentioned “age five,” and I thought of myself at that age. I found myself in tears, flooded with sad memories. This, I thought, must be how I felt when my mother left me. I realized that I hadn’t gotten over that primal wound, that deep sense of abandonment.
We adopted ones work on these adoption-related issues, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the issues never really go away. The “dark night of the soul,” to use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase can return at any time. In The Goodbye Baby, I refer to this emotional state as EDGAR. I can best explain with a brief passage from the book itself:
Whenever I think I have finally healed from the wounds of adoption, life serves up a reminder that I am not. It is the opposite of “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.” When one looks through the glasses of being adopted, events can be reminders of loss, betrayal, or abandonment…Like burning flames, Edgar is fueled by his own energy. Like fire, he feeds on everything, which he transforms into negative thoughts about my past, present, future. Edgar is a demonic artist who paints the world in stark tones of black and gray. Like a disease, Edgar undermines my physical well-being. Edgar lurks…he is poised for the kill.
Back to my hiking accident. After being injured, I’ve had to be patient with a long, slow recovery. Like a nurturing, thoughtful parent, I’ve had to accept the reality that for now I can’t walk very far. I’ve had to forgive myself for overestimating my ability to handle difficult terrain. As I re-calibrate my reactions to “the fall,” I’ve adopted a kinder, more tolerant attitude toward myself. You might even call it being my own best friend. This attitude is still a work in progress, but the more I practice taking a kindly, parental role toward ME, the easier it becomes, the more natural it feels.
After an accident, one longs to know why it happened. In the case of my hiking disaster, I’ve decided it happened because I needed a reminder. A responsible parent does not let a child run across the street without looking, to jump into a pool without knowing how to swim, to drink something toxic. I was not keeping myself out of harm’s way and I paid for it dearly. But as I heal, I have adopted a resolution. I am turning my wounds into wisdom. I’ve learned from the experience. I’m healing not only from my current physical wounds but from the emotional debts of the past.
Elaine Pinkerton is a long-time resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to writing a bi-weekly blog, she is the author of several popular non-fiction and fiction books. In her memoir, The Goodbye Baby: A Diary about Adoption, she tells her story through essays and diary entries that span four decades—from the 1950s through the 1980s. She is currently writing a novel titled The Hand of Ganesha, a sequel to All the Wrong places. The two protagonists are adopted and searching for their roots. Her award-winning website is ElainePinkerton.wordpress.com.