Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Random Babbling: Adoption's Dark Side

Adoption is such an incredible gift, isn't it? The process is long and tedious with many ups and downs, but the end result? Finally having that long-awaited, precious little blessing in your arms and looking into the face of this new little person who, by some miracle, you now get to call your own... There's very little in life that compares to that! And the first bonding moment is one you will never forget- that first moment when some little thing happens... maybe it's a certain look, a first smile or shared laugh, that sweet little head laying itself on your shoulder, or the first time you're called "Mommy" or "Daddy," but it's the moment when you feel for the first time that you are being accepted into the heart and life of this precious person. You're In. During those moments, you feel as if every thing's going to be OK. You're child is attaching, seems happy, life is great, and you love that kid enough that you cannot possibly imagine her ever experiencing any adoption "issues." She knows she's loved and wanted, right? You've made sure of that. During those moments, adoption doesn't have a dark side.

But, the reality is that there is a dark side to adoption, isn't there? In addition to everything positive and wonderful about it, adoption can also mean loss, grief and pain. The simple fact is that we wouldn't be blessed with parenting these children if they had not first lost something, correct? It's not something we like to dwell on or talk about, and if we haven't experienced the problems it can bring, we hope they won't happen to us. It's something that some soon-to-be adoptive parents are sometimes not even aware of, and well-meaning friends and family sometimes just don't "get." Adoption is not all sunshine, roses, and fairytales. It can be dark. For some families, it can be a nightmare.

As an adult adoptee, it has taken me many years to acknowledge that adoption-related pain or other "adoption issues" even exist. I couldn't fathom how an event I don't remember could have an impact on the shaping of my personality, my relationships, and my views of myself. I didn't want to accept that I could possibly have attachment issues, abandonment issues, trust issues, or any other issues. I am the way I am because of someone else's choices before I was born? Absolutely NOT! I'm a fairly intelligent, rational person. I control how I think and feel. I thought any similarities between me and other "typical" adult adoptees were merely coincidental. I do not have to let one event that happened in the first days of my life, an event beyond my control, dictate how I behave or who I become... And I most definitely do not feel any pain because of it. That would be silly! What is there to feel pain over? I was much too young to be aware of "losing" anything. I don't feel loss. I don't feel hurt. I don't feel mad. I don't feel anything negative. I don't. I DON'T. It's just something that happened and had absolutely no effect on me at all... Right? Ummm... Not so much.

As the parent of an adoptee, I have been forced not only to acknowledge the existence of adoption "issues," but also to accept that some of those issues are alive and kickin' in my own home. In my daughter... And in her mama.

I am somewhere in the vacinity of 40 years old. That means I grew up during a time when open discussion about one's adoption simply wasn't done. There was no acknowledgement of pain, no answers to questions (not even an understanding that asking questions was allowed), no reassurances that "feelings" were OK. "Proper adoption terminology," didn't exist. Radical or Reactive Attachment Disorders (RAD)??? Whaat? When I was in my early teens, "RAD" meant something else entirely. Your birth mom didn't make a "birth plan" for you, you were just plain "given up” and that was that. Never mind that "given up" sounds very similar to "given away." Don't ask about it. Don't say anything. And the topic of birth parents was not to be discussed. Why, that's just not healthy. Besides, to ask too much about birth parents would be to reject the parents you have now. Do you know what an enormous burden that is to place upon a child- not to say anything that will make her parents feel rejected? Never mind that you may already be struggling with vague feelings of rejection yourself. You should be grateful and shut up. After all, you were "chosen." That one word was supposed to cover and fix whatever ailed you. Chosen... Feeling unloved, unwanted, rejected? Why? You were a CHOSEN child. There. Feel better? (But, wait. For one person to "choose" me, doesn't that mean that another person... didn't?) Back then, there were no lifebooks to chronicle and celebrate a child's life before their adoption. Your life began at your adoption, Silly- not on the day of your birth. Whatever happened before that was insignificant and just none of your business. Adoption Day was not a holiday. I don't even know what date my adoption was. A child was told of her adoption when she was "old enough to handle it," or sometimes not at all.

This is not to say that my parents did a horrible job. They did the exact same thing we're all doing today. They trusted and followed the popular parenting advice of the day and did the best they could do. So... Did all of this make me a better person? A stronger, healthier, happier, well-adjusted person? Did sweeping the truth under the rug make me grow up protected from pain? I'm gonna give ya two guesses on this one...

Have you ever heard of parents replacing a child's lost or deceased pet with a new one to help the child "get over" their loss? I have. In fact, I've done it myself... twice. Wound up with a dog I never much cared for that way. A replacement pet. I think most of us would claim we have enough sense to recognize that what may work with an animal will probably not work with a human being. Yet, in the past, that was the prevailing mentality toward an adopted child. There was no thought given to the child's loss; no clue that grief or pain could creep in anyway. New parents just swooped in and replaced the old ("And let's just hope the kid doesn't notice, and never asks...").

Times have definitely changed and adoption has changed. We've learned a lot more about raising our children to be emotionally whole and happy, healthy people. Today, there's no shortage of experts cranking out their theories and opinions for all of us to follow. Unfortunately though, I think parents today still fall back on the "replacement parenting" mentality, at times. We hope to be such good replacements for what's been lost that the child will never feel any difference. We want our love for that child to be enough, don't we? Enough to make up for anything they've lost. And maybe, if we never mention words like loss and grief in the first place, they'll never feel it. (Shhh. Don't talk about it. Don't plant that idea in their little heads, and maybe it will never be an issue. Not in our family, not after the love I've poured out on him... Besides, he seems to be fine. Look at that smiling face!). If we’re being very, very honest, we should also acknowledge the fact that the topic of birth parents and how to “handle” them is still pretty threatening and scary to many of us. We don’t want the competition, do we? We've come a long way in adoption parenting, but maybe not so far that we've left our own selfish insecurities behind. Truthfully, do we really want to share our place in our kids' hearts with them? Our precious babies have filled such a huge hole in our lives, and we expect our love to do the same in them. But some holes are not so easy to fill.

People are always commenting on Brianna's smiling, happy demeanor. "Is she always this happy?" “...She's always smiling," they say. "Yes, she's a very happy little girl... The joy of our home," we say.
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And she is. Honestly. But occasionally, Brianna has experienced little "adoption meltdowns" when she cries so hard and looks so sad my heart aches as I sob right along with her. Her meltdowns seem to be triggered by nothing in particular. It happened most recently a couple weeks ago in the middle of a church service. I'll spare you the details, because I believe they are personal and should belong to her. It's her story and her place to decide how it's told someday, and to whom. I'll just say that during these times, her little heart hurts and she can't understand why or how to explain it. She's confused. I try to use all the right words that the "experts" say to use, but at 6 years old, she can only grasp so much. We have to keep it simple, yet the feelings she's having aren't simple at all.

This has only happened a handful of times in five years, mind you, but each time it does, it's an exhausting and heart-wrenching experience for both of us. But still, I feel blessed to be trusted with the valuable opportunity to glimpse into the heart of my daughter and share her hurts. The bonding that happens as we sit and rock and wipe our tears is something I wouldn't trade for anything. I wish I could snap my fingers and make her pain go away, but I can't. Instead I try to use that pain to our advantage, as an opportunity to build trust, strengthen our attachment, and teach her that my love for her really and truly is unconditional. I cannot imagine passing up such an opportunity or trying to quickly sweep it under the rug.

So, what's my point in all of this? What's the big answer from someone who has experienced adoption from two sides? Hey, didn't you read the title? I said I was babbling, here- maybe there is no point. I definitely don't have one quick and easy answer to fix all adoption woes.
All I really know is this: I've discovered the hard way, that choosing to deny the existence of pain does not make it stop. Quite the opposite is true, actually. So I'm learning instead to embrace it. Welcome it into the family and give it its rightful place. Deal with it. I'm thankful my children are growing up in a different time with different attitudes than "back in my day." Hopefully, they will never struggle alone with their feelings the way their mama did. I'm trying to make sure of that. I want them to know that when they feel pain, I will feel it with them, and hopefully we will learn together how to make it easier to bear.


Rebecca said...

What a WONDERFUL post!! Thank you for that insight~

S. said...

Wow, great post, every PAP should read it.