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.¬†


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“Spoiled,” they say again.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

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