Dear Adoptive Parents who leave comments

I am not

your open textbook

your case study

your living soap opera in which you can indulge your love for a gripping story

I am not your cautionary tale

to reassure you that you are doing a better job raising your adoptive children

than my parents did with me

I am not a mirror in which you can reassure yourself that you are better

superior

better adjusted

Don’t thank me for sharing my story

Don’t pat me on the head

Don’t tell me all of the intimate details of how you adopted children but their lives will be so much better than mine

It’s not about you

It’s not about you

it’s not about you

Now do you understand?

The greatest violence

…is to transfer one’s issues, one’s unmet needs, and one’s desperation for validation as a human being (a mother, a woman, a productive member of society)…

and to suck away the lifeblood, literally, of another woman in order to make this happen

to relegate an innocent child as a permanent second-class citizen who must be grateful for said second-class citizenship

and to convince one’s self:

I am the victim

I am the marginalized

My loss is greater than anyone else’s loss

My loss (infertility or other biological inability to conceive) entitles me to take from others

My body’s inability to produce the child I wanted gives me the right to place my needs first

and the world will laud me as a rescuer, savior, hero

I can choose to be blind

I have the option to ignore

and decades from now when innocent child becomes an adult demanding answers I cannot give

I have the privilege of claiming ignorance

love conquers all, they told me

and I choose to ignore

no one thinks about adoption but you, I say

as I enjoy the privilege of my biological family and connections to my genetic heritage

and as I visit the known graves of people connected to me by blood

The greatest violence

is when the victimizer convinces herself she is the victim.

The annual Mother’s Day depression: ways to get through the fog

I can’t say that I go through this every year, because every year it’s different.

Some years, I dread Mother’s Day. I count the days until it’s over, and I go into hiding until it is.

Other years, I sail along pretending (and believing) nothing is wrong. I believe it, until something happens and I struggle to get back on my feet.

My adoptive mother likes to believe she has the corner on the suffering market, and so Mother’s Day has been all about her for as long as I have known her. Everything I say, don’t say, do, don’t do, think, and don’t think serves to ruin this day for her.

Maybe it’s just bitterness and envy talking, but I only wish I had a biological mother who raised me and a daughter I raised to “ruin” Mother’s Day for me.

One year, I called her to wish a happy Mother’s Day even though to my mind she deserved nothing of the kind. Family, after all. She ignored my calls (about twenty of them) and then sent me a scathing email saying I had ruined the entire day for her. That email sent me into a spiral that took weeks to recover from.

Since then, I have never called her for any holiday.

This year, I bought her a card. Over a month ago when I wasn’t thinking about the day, an innocuous cheap card from the dollar store. I could do my token duty without setting myself up for attack.

After a few days of feeling awful about everything, yesterday things clicked when I saw an ad for Mother’s Day.

Oh.

Damn it.

Because this day has never been a day when I get to feel sad at losing my mother. Nope, this is the day when I feel like crap because my adoptive mother tells me I have failed her. Any attempt to talk to her, to smooth things over, to reconcile, only leads to more attacks and more hurt.

She’s old. She could die any time. How horrible will I feel when she dies and we have not yet made peace?

I wish I could escape into a Mother’s Day vacuum.

How to get through the fog?

I’m not saying these are good ideas, but they’re what I’m doing.

Junk food.

Isolation.

TV.

Accepting that I won’t get any work done.

How will you get through Mother’s Day?

A moment to grieve

Today, I hope that those touched by adoption will be given a moment to grieve.

To understand, yes we have to make the best of it and no we can’t weep for the rest of our life and yes we do need to keep surviving…

But to be given permission, in privacy or in the company of trusted others, to grieve.

To honor our loss, and the losses of those connected to us.

Today, I grieve for the part of me that will forever remain a mystery, that will never be recognized as a loss, and that will always be felt in its absence.

I long for the impossible information that will never come, the proof that I am indeed real.

Unless we know from whence we came, how can we know who we are?

Today, I take a moment to grieve.

Dear adoptive parent, I am saddened for your child

Dear friend, or perhaps I need to more accurately say former friend,

When you said to me, years ago, that you were going to adopt a child internationally and I either needed to support you or no longer be part of the conversations…

I dreaded this day when friendship might no longer be possible.

I recognize that you have researched adoption agencies, flown to another country and back, and participated in umpteen online groups that seem to qualify you as the expert in all adoption everywhere.

I acknowledge that you have poured time, money, and the better part of a decade into your quest to become a parent. I validate your love for this little girl, and I honor the genuine bond you have formed with her.

You love her. Your husband loves her. And yet, you are not happy.

You are a parent many years past the time you had hoped to become one, after a lengthy adoption quest preceded by a failed attempt to adopt a foster child.

I will never forget how you told me that you were glad the foster child realized her mistake in not allowing herself to be adopted by you, that you expressed not one iota of compassion for a young girl caught in a system that failed her yet again.

Instead, your only commentary to me was vindication that this child admitted you were right.

In all our years of friendship, I have never heard you speak this girl’s name again.

Instead, you have a foreign-born model, younger and newer. Pliable. One who will call you “Mommy” and coo ecstatically at your every movement. You and your husband delight in molding her in your images.

You love her, more deeply than a rational human being could deem possible.

And yet, she will always wait for the other shoe to drop.

When she asks about her real mother

When she says that she wants to go back to the country where she was born

When she hides herself under the quilt, sobbing because classmates call her “Chinese eyes”  because people like Rosie O’Donnell mock “ching chong” on national television

When she watches your disgust and refusal to eat “Asian food,” the food she would have grown up eating had she not been removed from her family

She will realize your love comes at a price.

Shut up.

Pretend.

Be grateful.

Love only you.

You may think post-adoption will be easier without pesky foster child social workers and inspections and those interfering first parents, but you’re wrong.

For your daughter, love will always come with a price and a choice.

You’ve been an adoptive parent for a relatively short time, so perhaps with time you will expand your thinking. After knowing you for a decade, however, my instinct says not. You are defensive, insecure, possessive, and threatened. You have something to prove and exacting standards for the people in your family.

It is no longer any of my business because we have likely parted ways, and I may never get to see your child again.

But I still cry, thinking of her.

Love is not enough.

Providing for material needs is not enough.

Teaching her to love what you love is not enough.

You can never change her skin, her race, her genetics, or her history. Part of her will never belong to you, and you will come to hate her for it.

I beg of you, across the distance and in this letter you will never see

Sending love born of years of experience and research

Blame me, resent me, shut me out of your life

(Ten years of friendship, and you throw it away overnight)

But please

if you consider this child to be your daughter

never make her choose

between who she was born to be

and the girl who needs you as a mother

I beg of you

Please prove me wrong.

Love and loss, adoptee style

Deanna Doss Shrodes of Adoptee Restoration posted about the dismissal of adoptees’ stories, and what struck me most was this snippet:

There are adoptees who were raised in dysfunctional adoptive homes. When sharing their story publicly, or calling for adoption reform, others will often attempt to dismiss, challenge or correct their story — especially people in the family.

Please read the entire article at her blog because it is well worth your time. What I’d like to talk about today is twofold: the extra layers adoptees experience when it comes to loss, and ways family members make it more difficult to come to terms with this loss. 

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Deanna describes how one person’s experience of a family holiday can be quite different from another person who was raped in a secluded room while the rest of the family chattered and laughed while washing dishes after the Thanksgiving meal. One person might remember unbridled bliss at enjoying company; another may undergo years of therapy trying to overcome nightmares that no one else knew about.

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When you are the youngest in the family, your story often get discounted. “She’s spoiled,” they say. “You had wonderful parents,” they continue. And because they grew up in the same family, they think they know what it was like. They think that their experience of the people in the family is what you experienced.

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Let me tell you something. When you are the only person of color in your family, no one else can ever know what you experience. Developmental psychologists have studied the effect of infant trauma, and there is a theory that events in the first few years of life can equal similar events happening in the next decades of life. For example, the death of a parent has lifelong effects for adult children, but generally by adulthood people have friends, jobs, families, hobbies, and lives of their own. Still, the loss of a parent is devastating.

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Imagine losing a parent in infancy when you literally have nothing and no one else. Then imagine being transferred to temporary care, where you again have nothing and no one else. Picture losing your temporary caregivers at a time when your infant brain can’t comprehend, “Do not get attached because you will lose these people, too.” Then you lose your world again, except this time you lose your language, your culture, your identity, and any sense of belonging. Never again in your entire life will you be surrounded by people who look like you and speak the same language as you. You will be acculturated as white, but your body and genetic material will not. Never again will you fit in.

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You are told that your mother loved you enough to give you up, that love means leaving, and that the ultimate act of love is to let you go. You will hear stories from your adoptive parents about how poor your country was, how backward and patriarchal it was, and how you are better off living in material wealth. With enough time, you will absorb this attitude of superiority and feel relieved that you didn’t have to grow up in a dirty country. Or maybe you will hear that your country is beautiful and its people are beautiful, but that it has many problems. You’ll look around your adoptive country, see its flaws, and wonder what makes one country better than another. Because your skin does not match that of your family, strangers will feel entitled to ask how much you cost, why your real mother didn’t want you, and why your parents weren’t satisfied with children of their own. But when you are the youngest in the family, and when you are the only person of color in your extended family on both sides, your experience is disparaged.

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“Spoiled,” they say again.

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“Needs to grow up,” they agree with each other.

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I am sure that there are spoiled youngest children who need to grow up. I am also sure there are oldest children in families who need to recognize that they were raised by different parents in different situations. Youngest children, whether adopted or biological, do tend to benefit from laxer rules and greater indulgence…but is that parenting? When the family contains a mixture of adopted and biological, and especially when the only person of color is the last child and the adopted child, “good” parenting is less about indulgence and more about attention, care, and respect. The youngest too often remains the youngest in everyone’s eyes, unqualified and incapable of forming an adult opinion on adult matters.

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In another example that may be easier to understand, consider this: women experience more hormonal changes than men, and that means their bodies are put under more stress. Does that mean we should disparage women as over-emotional? No. Is that a reason to disqualify women from professional life? No. But it does mean we should recognize that women face more challenges than men when it comes to life changes such as menopause.

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In a similar way, adoptees experience more disruption and challenges than those who remain with their biological family. We should not pathologize all adoptees as emotionally disturbed, but we should recognize that adoptees walk this life carrying more filters than the un-adopted. When adoptees lose someone, when you have a fight with an adoptee, and when conflicts arise with an adoptee, there are more layers to the interaction. The average person reacts by thinkng, “This is awful.” Someone who has lost family, identity, and country reacts (perhaps in the silent subconscious where we learn to suppress our feelings) by thinking:

This is another sign of what’s wrong with me. This is one more person who left, who promised something she couldn’t give. This is one more proof that I am too much for people to handle.

Adoptees learn socially appropriate ways to express these feelings. Perhaps we hyper-focus on pleasing. We are so attuned to the people around us that we anticipate every need, every displeasure, and every possibility of interpersonal failure. We strive to be the perfect, most pleasing version of ourselves to ensure that no one else will leave us. Perhaps we resent those who don’t have to struggle as hard to please. Or maybe we react the opposite way, by giving up on pleasing. We withdraw from the situation, and we remove ourselves from relationships before we can be left again. We retreat behind a wall of silence, allowing others to think badly of us in order to prevent them from learning our secret vulnerabilities. As long as people think badly of us, they will never get close enough to see our true fears.

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What does this mean? We don’t know other people’s lives, even if we lived in the same family. When we have different backgrounds and perspectives, we have different filters for how people treat us. In fact, it’s typical for dysfunctional families to designate one child to be the “bad” child while other the child(ren) are designated as the “good” ones. The imbalance perpetuates the inequality. If all children are treated badly, then parents have to face their bad treatment. Instead, the subtle inequalities enable the children to carry on the original wrongs.

You’re deluding yourself. We all had a happy childhood, so you must be the problem. How dare you treat Mom and Dad that way? They’ve bent over backward, killing themselves to make things right. You don’t deserve to have them as parents.

Many people are told that they don’t “deserve” something, but as the youngest adopted child, the words have a very different meaning. A biological child thinks, “I do too deserve it!” An adopted child thinks, “That’s right. That’s why I was thrown away in the first place.” If I could implore you to make one change today, it would be this: Listen to those in your family, even if you disagree. Especially if you were not adopted, don’t be so quick to dismiss the stories of your family members who were adopted. We have lost so much already. Please don’t take away even more.

You don’t understand, but that’s okay: Advice for friends and family of those touched by adoption loss

You don’t understand, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have the answers, and you won’t win a prize by being right. You won’t be listed in the Friend and Family Hall of Shame for not recognizing, diagnosing, and correcting whatever feelings and experiences we are going through.

Your best friend’s mother’s great-aunt’s roommate may have done X or responded to Y or gone through Z, and everything may have been all right. Or have seemed all right or been narrated as being all right to outsiders. You’ve most likely heard a story for a story told by someone on the outside, rather than experienced it first-hand. Most people have a unique response to their situation, and common patterns are only that–patterns. For every common assumption, there is an exception.

“But Jenny’s sister adopted a little girl, and she can’t imagine being without her. It’s a wonderful thing for everyone,” you say. You urge your loved one to agree: Adoption is a beautiful thing.

Maybe you don’t realize that adoption is lifelong rather than the brief few years of infancy and childhood. What will happen eighty years from now, when that little girl is a resident in a nursing home and can’t get the appropriate medical treatment because she has no medical history from her family? What will happen twenty years from now when she wants to start a family of her own but doesn’t have the family history to know she should get tested for inheritable diseases?

“Think how awful it would have been for you to languish in an orphanage, get abused in foster care, starve on the streets, never get an education, and grow up to be a prostitute,” you say, truly believing with all of your heart that you are saying something kind. “Focus on the good,” you want to tell your loved one. “Your life could have been so much worse.”

It could have. So could have yours. Do you wake up every morning grateful not to be a prostitute, dead on the street, or without an education? Or are you thankful for your blessings without stopping to think that you may not deserve these “privileges” any more than your loved one? Gratitude is a wonderful emotion that helps us to overcome envy, unhappiness, and self-centeredness, but it should not be ordered to change behavior. Stop and think, please. When was the last time you gave thanks to your mother for not aborting you? When was the last time you gave thanks to the deity of your choice that you didn’t have to grow up in foster care? When was the last time you told your biological child, “You should be grateful we didn’t send you away for adoption?”

We don’t think this way. We see adoptees as “different,” not deserving. We see adoptees as “less than,” and they are not “us.” Adoptees should be grateful to have an adoptive family because otherwise they would have starved to death. Right?

(Anyone who has tried to adopt can tell you about the astronomical fees and waiting times to process an adoption. If an adoptee had not been adopted to that particular family, they would have gone to another.)

“But I don’t think any of these horrible things,” you say. “I love her!” (or him). “I’m the lucky one to have her in my life. If she hadn’t been adopted, I never could have known her.” 

It’s a logical fallacy to argue from might-have-beens. If she hadn’t been adopted, perhaps she would have been raised by extended family or an adoptive family who lived close to her first family. Maybe she would have been raised by her first family. Or possibly she could have gone to emergency respite care and been returned to her family at a later date. Maybe it would have been great; maybe it would have been awful. Human nature compels us to tell stories to create meaning out of our life’s occurrences. I was meant to meet my wife because I stayed late after the concert even though I don’t usually do that. God meant for me to choose this job because I saw an advertisement on the metro. We create stories for ourselves to make meaning of our lives, which is a normal human tendency. It enriches our lives and brings us closer to one another.

The problem is when we create stories that exclude all other possibilities. As painful as the thought may be, a life could have occurred in which you did not meet each other. The practice of adoption disrupts families and lives.

“None of the other adoptees say things like this,” you protest. “Aren’t you getting melodramatic? Shouldn’t you stop wallowing, grow up, and get over this already?”

What is the appropriate amount of time to grieve the loss of family? Who decides who should receive permission to grieve, and for how long? When has it been “long enough?”

“But I hate seeing you unhappy,” you say. “Can’t we move on? I hate feeling helpless as I watch you in a place I can’t understand.”

I know. Part of loving someone is wanting to make everything better. It’s a good intention and a good impulse. When things can’t “get better” or be resolved, however, it leaves your loved one feeling confused, isolated, and perhaps even ashamed. “Why can’t I be grateful and happy?” he or she might think. Then, instead of sharing with you, the feelings get hidden away.

“I didn’t like my own parents, either. I might not have been adopted, but I didn’t have a perfect childhood. My parents weren’t great to me. I had things happen to me, too. So I know what you’re going through.”

With all due respect, you don’t. And that’s okay. I don’t understand what it’s like to experience any number of things. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me one human being in the company of many human beings. Instead of trying to fix and take over, I sit back and listen.

“What was it like?” I ask. “What would you like to talk about?”

Sometimes, people want to talk about recipes for bacon-wrapped appetizers. Other times, they want to talk about the painful experiences associated with adoption loss.

As a friend, family member, and loved one, all I can do is listen.

“I’m here,” I say. “I care about you, and it’s okay to be who you are.”

The Right to Remember, for Veronica Brown (May We Be Wrong)

Veronica Rose, child born to Christina Maldonado and Dusten Brown and

shuttled back and forth between families more often than Christmas fruitcake

People say we don’t have the right to care about you

that our tears are

silly

self-indulgent

ignorant

that we are wrong for our emotions and responses

people say to us

“Shame on you!”

not understanding

fourteen or twenty-four or forty-four years later, you will be us

and our shame will be yours

People “know” what adoption means, until they are the ones faced with loss

not the ghost child of their infertile dreams

but the flesh and blood of those who bore them

you will reach for what was lost to you

People say your life will be wonderful and that you should be grateful

that you are a very lucky little girl to be cherished by adoptive parents who want you more than anything in the world

Please, God in heaven, may they be right

May our tears be useless, senseless fancies of a saddened generation

whose sorrows will never be visited on others

May your life be joy

May you be a shining light

May we all be wrong

for your sake

we pray

Matt and Melanie Capobianco, please prove us wrong.

To Veronica Capobianco on her 18th birthday

Dear Veronica,

Whatever your adoptive parents have told you for the past fourteen years, I hope they have told you this:

You were loved, cherished, and wanted by your father. I don’t mean Matt Capobianco, even though you have grown up calling him “Daddy” and “Dad.” I mean Dusten Brown, the man who turned himself in for jail time rather than relinquish custody of you.

When you were four years old, the nation alternately cheered and wept, congratulating the Capobiancos or consoling the Browns. There were a lot of politics involved surrounding the people who decided what should happen to you, all the way to the Supreme Court.

I’m sure you know this already. You looked yourself up on the internet, or heard it from friends, or fended off unwelcome interviews from media representatives.

Maybe Melanie sat you down, when you were five and ten and fifteen, to tell you the story of “you.” “A mom and a dad wanted a baby very much but couldn’t have one, so God sent a baby angel to the wrong mommy’s tummy. She was too young and not married, so God fixed the mistake by sending you to your real mom and dad. And we love you just as much as we gave birth to you. You are our beloved daughter.”

“What about my other parents?” you might have asked. “Didn’t my bio mom and dad want me?”

“They loved you very much,” Melanie probably told you. “But your mom was very brave and selfless, so she sacrificed everything to give you a better life. She knew we would be the perfect parents for you, and she knew you would be the perfect daughter for us. And haven’t we given you the best of everything?”

“Of course,” you reassured Melanie, because you knew the unspoken code of adoptees. You had to protect the feelings of those closest to you because you were once given away. You could be given away again. “I love you. But what about my dad?”

“Not your dad,” Melanie would chide you. “Dad is your dad.” Matt, she meant. “He made some very big mistakes, and he went around saying bad things about us. He even had to go to jail because he broke laws.”

“He did?” you asked. You were a bit scared, thinking someone with your genetic material could be bad enough to get sent to jail. “Is he dangerous?”

“Not anymore,” Melanie would reassure you. “Mom and Dad got together all of our friends, and we told everyone that you belonged with us, your real parents, and we would fight all the way to the Supreme Court to make sure you got to stay with us.”

“You loved me that much?” you asked, not sure how to respond. It made you feel guilty, in some strange way, to know you had been in the middle of a tug-of-war between families who both said they loved you, but only one could win.

“Of course,” Melanie answered. “We did go to the Supreme Court, and those nice justices agreed with us. They saw we loved you very much and you were right for us, so they made your birthfather go away. We’re your real parents now, Ronnie. You wouldn’t want to hurt us by talking about him, would you?”

You didn’t. So at five, or ten, or fifteen, you learned to stop asking questions. You were grateful, happy, and obedient. When you were told to smile, you grinned wide for the camera. You said “thank you” for the nice gifts and practiced piano every day after school.

And when a boy first touched you and told you that you were beautiful, you tried to shut down the twinges in your stomach.

Is this what my dad said to my mom? Is this how she got pregnant with me? 

You watched Melanie, feeling guilty as you awoke to your sexuality, because your body could give you what Melanie never could have–a child created from your flesh and blood. You lived your childhood hearing you were chosen and wanted, and your shoulders sank–just a tiny bit–under the pressure of fulfilling an infertile couple’s dreams. When Melanie had “the talk,” warning you away from boys or perhaps even shouting at you to never, ever let a boy do “that” to you, part of you wondered.

Does she think it’s sinful to get pregnant before marriage? Did she think my mom was sinful? Am I a product of sin?

Yet you loved them, with all of your heart, because you were a child and children need to survive. After the first few days of “I don’t want to go!” and the screams of inconsolable grief dissipated, you learned to smile on demand.

I hope the Capobiancos had answers for you, once you learned more about your case. I hope they were able to explain why they needed to cut your father out of your life and then sue him for everything he owned.

A lot of people were angry and saddened at your loss, Veronica. We watched you torn away from your father, stricken with grief because we also have lost family. We prayed we were wrong, that it was for the best, and that you would grow up to be healthy and happy. We mourned as you lost your identity, your right to your original birth certificate, and your connection to your Cherokee heritage.

But most of all, Veronica, I thought of you on this day. The day you are of legal age, old enough to start looking for answers on your own. Maybe you are starting your final year of high school, or maybe you are on a fast-track to a prestigious college. Maybe life was hard for you in the wealthy family after all, so you had to take care of family members. Maybe the psychological stress of your repeated traumatic separations became too much for you, and you are in treatment for addiction or abuse or self-harm. Maybe, God forbid, you didn’t make it. Not all adoptees do.

If I could tell you one thing today, it would be this:

You don’t owe anyone anything.

The Capobiancos adopted you because they wanted a child. Not to “rescue” you. The Browns wanted to raise you because you were their own. You have two families with competing claims on you, and if you connect with the Browns again you will become the focus of a subtle or dramatic tug-of-war, constantly shifting layers of loyalty that always result in hurting at least one person you love.

You didn’t ask for this, Veronica. If you made it this far, you are a survivor. People will criticize you for being nice or too nice to the Capobiancos, being nice or too nice to the Browns, and being good or not good enough in your various endeavors. Your life will be under a microscope when some journalist gets your contact information and entreats you to do a follow-up interview.

“I’m just fine,” you’ll say. “I’m very happy, and I love my family.”

But at the day’s end that smile will slip sideways, where no one can see. You’ll ask yourself if something is wrong with you, and you’ll dismiss it as foolish when you have so much to be thankful for. You’ll reassure Melanie that she did the right thing and that you love her and she is your real mother, because that’s what she needs.

What I hope for you, Veronica, is that you will love yourself. That you will take care of your own needs.

There are others who have walked this path before you, and we will wait with open arms.

We love you, Veronica, and we have prayed for you these past fourteen years.

Please take care of yourself. What you need is important, too.