What advice, on identity, would I give my 13-year old adopted self? This was a question recently posed to me by a valued member of my Instagram community. I’ve taken time to feel my way through to an answer as I revisited the earliest parts of my teenaged life. As it turns out, this sharing also offers advice to adoptive parents on the importance of giving your child space to live their most authentic identity.
When I was 13-years old I danced in a ballet company, spent a ton of time with my dog named Misty, and sat for hours alone in my bedroom asking myself, “Who am I?”
As an international adoptee, it felt like so much had been removed from my life. There were so many pieces missing and so many holes existing. I didn’t have access to my first parents and family, my history/nationality, my culture and identity. The “me” I had known innately seemed to have disappeared. She’d vanished! I didn’t know how to get back to that “first me.” It was a confusing and lonely time.
My adoptive mother didn’t want to talk about these things. She told me that, “I was one of ‘them’ now.” In other words, she was defining me as “white” and “southern.” The racial identity and culture my mother desperately wanted to wrap me up in was not of my own. It was ill-fitting. Uncomfortable.
In her mind, she was embracing me as her own. In my mind, I wasn’t being allowed to be my own authentic self: my own person with a story and ethnicity that was crying out to be heard. I couldn’t explore this part of me. When you don’t have a sense of intact identity, you become more susceptible to the labels others give you even if those labels are filled with fiction.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: forcing adoptees to assimilate to an identity that is not natural for them is a trauma that’s not spoken about enough within the adoption community. An adoptee’s identity should never be cancelled/ignored/reassigned. It’s a painful existence when their identity is made void. You see, adoptees cannot thrive in truth when they are deprived of truth.
What my adoptive mother didn’t realize was that she was cancelling out her daughter’s truth. She was moving me away from what felt natural within myself and reassigning my identity to something that felt comfortable for her. I never felt like I was enough in her eyes. Never.
I grew more and more isolated. I was part of an adoptive family, but I could also feel the pulse of my first family beating within me. It was like an itch that you just can’t scratch away. A gnawing reminder of my original people and place. The memory of my soul’s identity was not one that my voice felt safe to speak. And, so my teenage years were spent in a state of silent shame.
Adoption felt more like adopt-shun. Keep avoiding, ignoring, and rejecting what needs to be spoken and seen.
I didn’t begin to acknowledge my truest identity until I graduated from high school and moved to New York for college. I was studying the writings of Black American Female authors within my literature major. Maya Angelou fast became my favorite writer. Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, mothered me with its words. Perhaps, the most impactful line from the book was this: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
I read this line, over and over again, on one particular afternoon as the snow was falling outside of my teacher’s office. “Professor Worby,” I said, “I think I’m in agony. I have so much stored up inside of me and I don’t know how to get it out.”
“Is it that you don’t know, or that you do know and are afraid to let it out?” She asked.
I looked up at my teacher with tears rolling down my cheeks. “I think I’m afraid and the fear is stronger than my know-how.”
“What do you risk losing if you free your story?” Professor Worby sipped on her cup of tea and gazed out of her window, as the snow grew heavier.
“So much of my identity has been assigned to me, as an adoptee. To express what feels real means I risk losing everyone and everything attached to what is unreal. All I’ve ever known is the facade.”
My professor quietly responded, “Maya Angelou says that you should develop enough courage to stand up for yourself so that you can stand up for someone else. If you want to live a life where you stand up for others—and I believe that you do—then you have to, first, learn to stand up for yourself.”
So, dear 13-year old adopted self, if I could go back in time—hold your hands and look into your eyes—this is how I would stand up for you. These are the words I would say:
- Stand up for the voice inside of yourself that wants to speak truth. Know that you do have a voice and that your voice is valid and worthy. In fact, your voice is an essential part of your identity. It speaks from the wisdom of generations that have come before you. Trust in that wisdom. It’s the whisper you may hear at night, alone in your room, that wants to be heard. Stay open to hearing!
- Be curious, not ashamed, about the sights/tastes/smells/sounds that make your senses come alive. They just may be your heritage—the origins of you—reaching out to guide you closer to your truest identity. Don’t shut these sensations off. Let them be your guide!
- Understand that the terms “foster child and adopted child” may be part of your story, but they are not the sum of who you are. They do not represent your identity. You are so much more than these titles. Don’t let them define you or confine you. Don’t let these titles restrict your movement forward to all the potential that you hold.
- Please, don’t be so hard on yourself. You are not identified by the choices that others made. Don’t spend another second blaming yourself for the things you couldn’t control. Don’t allow shame/blame to seed itself within your identity. You are shine and brilliance—connect with this truth!
- Never feel that you have to say “yes” when what you really want is to say “no.” You don’t have to make someone else happy if it makes you feel unhappy. You’re worthy of living a life that is in full alignment with your values. What you stand for is an essential part of your identity. Take time to define your values and never sacrifice them.
- Celebrate every inch of you, every curve of you—the tone and texture of who you are. Don’t spend time wishing you were someone else. If you do, you waste precious moments of self-discovery.
- Trust your instinct. Don’t push for answers. Let the answers come to you and find you in their time. Realize that so much of what you desire to know is found within you. Sit in stillness and listen. Never sit in silence. There’s a difference! Use your voice. Speak your choice.
- Finally, contemplate that the most important reunion you will ever have is the one where you come home to yourself. No one outside of yourself holds the power to give you that which you already possess: your authentic identity.
I believe that authentic, intact identity is so much more than what the world sees. It’s deeper than that. Let’s stop assigning adoptees with a false identity. Instead, let’s help them align with their truest one. Let’s support them to express what feels real for them, and not to play a role that may feel more comfortable for us as their family and community.
We can help adoptees shatter the facade so that they can become whole, authentic people. Let the adoptee you love know that they’ll never lose you because they desire to live their truth. Remind them—today—of this: with truth and in truth they’ll never risk losing themselves. Never. Ever. Again.
Adoption doesn’t have to feel like adopt-shun.