Do you remember being thirteen years old? Maybe you do, or maybe you don’t want to. It’s the age of flushed pimpled faces, school bullies and desperately trying to keep a wardrobe in synch with a body that’s blooming into adulthood. It’s the age of overflowing extracurriculars, Snapchat messages, and attitude. At thirteen the world is swirling at breathtaking speed. Now, imagine that thirteen year old, the same one that always forgets their homework at home, that’s preoccupied with their Math homework, the family rules, their sibling, qualifying to be on the sports team, getting the role in the school play, making straight As. Imagine that same thirteen year old trying to wrestle with, define and navigate the complexity of adoption. Imagine the difficulty of finding the right words to express the intricate, confusing unknowns of adoption in the middle of existing as a thirteen-year-old.
When I talk with parents of adoptees, I hear a couple of questions returning again and again. What if my child isn’t talking to me about adoption? How do I know what they need? As parents, you have probably witnessed the silences, the moodiness, the indecisiveness, the sense that your child is experiencing the world but they’re just not talking to you about it. And if you haven’t yet, there is a good chance you will. Inevitably, there will be moments where you feel the sting of doubt, and ask yourself, “Am I doing enough? How do I know if it’s enough?” You’ll grapple with the urge to ask your child a slew of questions while wondering if your eager desire to support is pushing them further away. Any dedicated parent that wants to love, guide and protect would juggle these concerns, but as an adoptive parent, you carry an added layer of complexity.
My parents imbued our home with black and brown figurines, paintings and children’s books to validate my transracial identity. We went on annual tomato picking trips to can our own sauce, hiked the state parks in Ohio, and had family movie nights on Fridays where my sister lamented my constant choice of Homeward Bound. I was mostly a carefree kid. I was active in extracurriculars, always laughing, and never needed a curfew or was grounded. Even though I had friends, I remember feeling like a fall leaf floating on the wind, looking for a place to settle, longing for racial mirrors and itching at a nameless emotion that would ebb and flow. Our house was a constant open door for conversations about adoption; I never felt stifled, guilty or unheard when it came to adoption-related conversations but also didn’t frequently initiate them. Sometimes, I would sit at the edge of my bed while my mom lathered my ashy brown knees with lotion and I’d sigh, “Sometimes adoption makes me sad, but I don’t know why.” That deep unreachable itch would flare up and fade. I felt something, but that something didn’t have a name.
I had an open and positive relationship with my birth mother my whole life; however, when I met my birthfather, things shifted. I had questions and fears. I’d stare at his photo album and trace his features. I’d wonder about my grandmother. I’d think about the 11 years I spent not knowing his voice and wondering if in that time he’d thought of me. Why didn’t he look for me? Yet, the rumbling in my stomach couldn’t find its way into speech. So, my father installed a professional punching bag in our basement. If I couldn’t or didn’t want to talk, day or night, that punching bag would be there. I remember many twilight mornings spent punching down lies of self-worth, my mom dutifully holding the bag as one by one I struck the voices and lies that rang in my head. During these years my parents emphasized three essential things:
1) We love you unconditionally.
2) Whatever you feel, even if it seems irrational, is valid and welcome.
3) If you don’t want to talk, that’s okay, but we’re always here.
After I graduated from college, I was in a serious relationship with someone I intended to marry, and after five years together the relationship ended. I was devastated. Weeks of mourning turned into months and I remember feeling such shame at the impossibility of moving on. Everyone goes through a breakup, why was this such a big deal? Why was the pain so visceral, the ache in my body so profound?
I vividly remember a conversation on the phone with my mom. “I think it’s time you see a counselor,” she said. “This is about more than the breakup, it’s about adoption.” I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Come on, Mom. I’m fine. Adoption is rough, but that’s not an excuse. And of course, Mom knows best. I began counseling, and with counseling came an incredible deluge of repressed emotions—a whiplash so intense I could feel it in my bones. Suddenly, I realized the intense sense of loss and rejection I felt in that relationship marked by feeling unwanted and not enough, activated and crystalized emotions of feeling unwanted and not enough as an adoptee. The pain of that relationship ending struck a chord and the emotional floodgates were opened. The combined and magnified sense of rejection from both the past and present coincided and the emotions that were silent for so many years burst forth to find their voice.
As you stand by your adoptee, waiting for them to find their voice or helping them to cultivate that voice, keep a few things in mind:
Children don’t experience adoption in the same way. Especially if you have adopted multiple children, remember that each child has a unique experience; allow each child the space to navigate that journey as an individual.
Young children are not always emotionally or cognitively developed enough to fully understand and clearly express their own experiences as growing individuals, let alone as adoptees.
Children may not engage their adoption story until later in life, sometimes after a particular event (death of a parent, divorce, a breakup, etc.) has catalyzed and brought forth once dormant emotions about self-worth, abandonment, or loss.
Recognize that adoption is a life-long process. Adult adoptees may still experience difficulty navigating adoption-related emotions that accompany significant milestones like birthing a child or getting married. Create space for adult adoptees to continue to seek support.
A significant amount of adoption-related research coming from the field of psychology and social work focuses on how infants and adolescents navigate adoption. However, the more research I conduct and the more I talk with adult adoptees the more I realize that a great number of adult adoptees are still in the process at 22, 35, and 56 of defining and expressing their adoption-related emotions. I know for myself, and many others, it wasn’t until I was older and had endured experiences that required introspection and counseling, that I finally gained the vocabulary to articulate what adoption meant to me and how it had impacted me.
As an adult, I knew EXACTLY who to go to when I finally found my footing and was willing and eager to talk through my loss, grief, and confusion. My parents had diligently, tolerantly, lovingly laid a foundation of openness that allowed me as an adult to return to them in confidence and open up my heart. They were there, patiently waiting to receive me.
Torie Demartile is a doctoral student in Sociocultural Anthropology at Indiana University studying domestic transracial adoptions. She’s a spoken word poet and an aspiring artist. She is a transracial adoptee on a lifelong journey towards an integrated and celebrated racial identity. To learn more about Torie, visit her website: wreckageandwonder.com.