As November draws to a close, my hope is that the stories and lives of orphans in the US and elsewhere were illuminated in some way. It’s easy to sink into the comfortable couch of my life and turn a blind eye to those in less fortunate circumstances: orphans, foster children, the homeless, victims of human trafficking, etc. Similarly, with adoption, it’s easy to dust off our hands and see it as the happily-ever-after solution to orphan-dom. For so long, the story and struggle of adoptees was swept under the rug. It was only very recently that their unique challenges and pain have been heard.
The world likes to paint adoption a rosy hue, ignoring the hurt and loss that are part an adoptee’s story. The loss of a child’s birth family is very painful, no matter the child’s age at separation. For children separated from their mother at or near birth, their story as an adoptee used to be ignored because scientists believed these memories couldn’t possibly be retained. The psychological impact and sense of loss were thought to have minimal lasting impacts. For many years, individuals with this early separation story weren’t treated differently than any other child. One adoptee said that although she attended therapy in her twenties, it took two years of consistent sessions before she even thought to mention that she was adopted. She says she was conditioned to believe that it was irrelevant since she was adopted as an infant. Now psychologists know what a disproportionate and lasting impact events from early life have on brain and psychological development. In fact, one of the only parts of the brain that is fully developed at birth is the part that regulates the sympathetic nervous system which triggers a fight or flight response.
Adoptees desire a sense of belonging. Adoptees have spent years overhearing people say to their parents how lucky their adopted child is or what good people they must be for adopting. Many children resent the fact that our vernacular uses the same terminology for bringing a new pet home as adopting a child. Especially since, these pets are considered “rescues.” Adoptive parents will tell you that you can only save a child once, and after that it’s called good-old fashioned parenting. Nonetheless, these types of comments and analogies make adopted children feel guilty and a sense of indebtedness for their adoptive parents’ “good deed.” According to one adoptee, Lesli Johnson, she believes that adoptees deal with “shame, self-worth, control, and identify.” In response to this struggle, Lesli says that many adoptees develop a protective “false self” to cope.
Adoptees have complex and intricately beautiful stories. However, they also need a safe space to feel welcome to make sense of these stories. For many, counseling can help, and for others, they want a friend to lend an ear. As non-adoptees, we can’t pretend to understand what adoptees are feeling. Counseling and friends may help, but the most important ear that adoptees need is that of their adoptive families. Historically, many adoptive parents are offended or fearful of these conversations, and adoptees have picked up on the tension these conversations cause. As a result many adoptees chose to stay silent, so as not to hurt their parents. Adoptees want their parents to know that it doesn’t mean that they don’t love and need them. The unanimous feeling from almost all adoptees is that they desire open and supportive communication from their adoptive family on adoption struggles, possible re-union with birth family, etc. None of these desires diminish the importance of their adoptive family to the adoptee.
The voices of adoptees are finally being heard via the internet, talented speakers, and books. Blogs and social media groups give a voice to adoptees and provide online community support for adoptees to share their story and support one another.
Want to hear from adoptees? Their voices are the most important ones out there on this topic! There are a number of resources online and in print that help adoptive families and I believe, the friends of adoptees understand some of their struggles and challenges. Even if you have involvement with any ministry or organization that works with orphans (here or abroad), foster kids, or adoptees, I would highly recommend giving some of these a look!
Shameless plug for an upcoming memoir from an adoptee and adoptive mother: Jillian Lauren’s Everything you Ever Wanted: A Memoir will be coming out late this year or early next year. She is honest, funny, and incredibly gifted. She wrote about her thoughts on adoption for the Huffington Post Parents this month as well.