ADOPTED AS AN INFANT
I was adopted as an infant in 1975. More specifically, I was relinquished by my Korean mother no more than a week after I was born and lived with a foster family until the age of six months old, at which point I officially became the legal child of my Mom and Dad.
A commonly held viewpoint purports that because I was adopted as an infant, I will not, do not, should not experience the same level of loss and grief as compared to that of a child adopted at an older age.
A recent blog post, "The Well-adjusted, Model Adoptee" spurred on somewhat of a discussion regarding this commonly held belief. (I suggest reading the post and comments for context.) One of the pertaining comments states, "I do have a problem seeing the infant adopted at birth as having the kind of loss that an older child would have on separation from a biological parent."
I think this is such an important topic to address and clarify because the consequences of such an assumption can be potentially detrimental and repressive to the adopted person.
For the comment in its entirety, you can click on the link above. But in an excerpt from my response to the above reader's comment I stated:
"Regardless of what you may think of adoptees who are adopted as infants, the FACT IS that I (and many others) am an ADULT now, and as an ADULT, I have found it necessary to grieve and process my losses...I...still find myself experiencing the pain and emotional consequences of losing my origins...
My main point is that parents and society in general need to cease attempting to qualify the differing and individual responses of the myriad of adoptees as "right" or "wrong, as "valid" or "invalid" and simply accept them as 'it just is.' I'm so weary of other people qualifying what I am allowed or not allowed to feel or grieve (and to what degree) regarding my own adoption & losses, based on the fact that I was adopted as an infant.
The truth is that I am an ADULT NOW, not an infant, who must deal with the very real and indisputable repercussions and consequences of a life that resulted from being cut off from my familial & Korean origins and subsequently transplanted into a White American society.
The fact that I was an infant when I was adopted in no way invalidates or nullifies the very honest, sincere, and real consequences that I experience on a daily basis as a result of being relinquished and subsequently adopted. Whether adopted as an infant or as an older child, the fact remains that in both cases, the child has LOST COMPLETELY his or her family and origins. The age at which these losses occur does not somehow nullify the consequences of the losses.
There may be varying degrees and varying responses, but the loss remains loss all the same. What varies is NOT the loss, but the age, personalities, and circumstances under which the loss takes place. Loss is loss, any way you slice it..."
In addition, I would like to give practical examples of how and why being adopted, even as an infant, has affected my life and continues to affect daily life as an adult, and therefore, why the losses and accompanying grief are not so easily appeased (in no particular order):
EXAMPLE 1: When I was approximately 2 years old, my family was eating out at a restaurant. My Mom had to excuse herself to change my infant brother's diaper. At one point, she requested my Dad's assistance, so he also removed himself from the table, leaving my two older brothers and me sitting at the table.
The minute both parents were out of sight, I proceeded to begin wailing and screaming. One of my older brothers attempted to console me, but when I appeared inconsolable, he tried to put his hand over my mouth, at which point I tried to bite his hand.
Now, of course, it would be simpler and more comfortable to interpret this situation as anomalous and nothing more than me being a little girl, but repeated such instances occurred frequently, and were specifically connected to the perceived absence of or separation from my parents.
(I have already shared the story of what happened when my parents first brought me home from Korea to their home in Japan in this post.)
EXAMPLE 2: The loss of a genetic connection is profound, and has only increased as I've gotten older. I have spent my entire life wondering why I am the way I am both physically and psychologically. Every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded that I am nothing like my Caucasian family. My personality diverges so blatantly from my parents and brothers. My rebellious, artsy, introverted personality alongside the more conventional, extraverted socialites of my parents and brothers provides an alarming contrast that functions consistently as a reminder of how different we are, how "genetically unrelated" we will always be.
(Just for clarity--I always feel it necessary to attach some kind of disclaimer because not everyone who reads this blog knows me personally or knows that this blog does not represent me as a whole--I love my family and I know they love me, despite our genetic differences.)
EXAMPLE 3: When I was in my twenties as I was boarding a flight, myself and another Asian woman (who appeared to me to be Japanese, and I later discovered that indeed she was Japanese) happened to be standing in close proximity as we both placed our carry-on luggage in the overhead bins.
The flight attendant looked at us both and assumed we were together. The Japanese woman didn't speak much English and looked mortified and confused as the flight attendant addressed both of us at the same time. I looked at the flight attendant and smiled weakly, informing him that we were not together and that we were in fact strangers. The flight attendant looked surprised, a little embarrassed, and then simply walked away.
EXAMPLE 4: Every time someone asks me, "Where are you from?" I have to decide whether I am going to give them the more honest, long answer, that goes something like, "Well, I'm originally from Korea but I was adopted by an American family when I was 6 months old, but we moved around a lot because my Dad was a naval officer, so we never really lived any place longer than two years, so I'm basically from everywhere and nowhere...," after which I inevitably face a line of questioning and commentary that goes something like this:
"Oh, you're adopted, you must feel lucky, yes? Did you live in an orphanage before you were adopted? Have you been back to Korea? Are you interested in finding your biological parents? Do you speak the language? What, you don't speak the language? Why not? You should learn. You really must have amazing parents if they were willing to adopt you? You're glad to be adopted right, because that probably means you were saved from a terrible life? Do you ever think about adopting? You should, you know, return the favor. Besides since you're an adoptee, you'd be great at adopting, don't you think? (and so on...)
Often, I opt for the short answer, "I'm Korean," which in reality, most likely results in the following:
"Oh, you're Korean!" Then the person proceeds to say something in Korean or begins to tell me all about how much he or she loves kimchi or the time he or she was stationed in Korea or visited Korea on business, etc. to which I usually just try to nod and move on.
Yet inevitably, the person usually pries a bit more, saying things like, "So, do you still have family there?" or "How do you say _______ in Korean?" or "Can you make bulgogi?" and I eventually find it necessary to explain myself.
Now if the person is actually Korean, well, then, I either get drilled or I get an awkward, surprised silence that communicates both a slight disdain and displeasure coupled with an uncertain pity and shame.
EXAMPLE 5: The classic "family medical history." This one is obvious, or at least, it should be. Every time I have a doctor's visit that requires me to fill out a medical history, it's a sharp reminder of the reality of the losses experienced when one is adopted.
(And ironically enough, even though I have reunited with my biological family, the language barrier and geographical distance complicate the ability to uncover pertinent information more than you might anticipate. Imagine the strange and awkward responses when I try to explain to the nurse or doctor why the knowledge I have of my own family medical history is spotty at best. Not fun.)
EXAMPLE 6: I have lived in the South for 15 years now. Currently, I live in a relatively small deep Southern town where racial diversity is generally absent and exposure to other cultures is relatively limited. I say this to give context to the following instance.
One day at work, a random older Asian couple happened to walk in. Immediately one of my co-workers asked me, "Oh! Are those your parents?" She wasn't kidding. And then she laughed and said, "Oh shoot. Sorry, I forgot, you're adopted. You've told me before that your parents are White." (Meaning that this was not the first time she had blurted out a similar assumption...)
Now, I actually do find this somewhat comical. But again, the point of these examples is not whether you think they're offensive or comical or both, but to demonstrate the ways in which adoptees can be affected by being adopted, regardless of being adopted as an infant.
EXAMPLE 7: Growing up (and even today), I constantly had to deal with what I refer to as "doubters." No one ever believed that my parents and my brothers were my parents and my brothers.
I recall specifically in high school (my youngest brother and I are only two years apart) being "tested" by schoolmates to prove that my younger brother and I were actually brother and sister. They would whisper a question to my brother (to which only a family member would know the answer), and he would whisper back the answer.
Then they would turn to me to see if I would respond with the correct answer. If I responded correctly after a series of questions, most would by that point stop accusing me of lying and be at least preliminarily convinced that we were brother and sister.
EXAMPLE 8: As a teen and young adult (and again, in present day), when my Mom and I would go out together to run errands or shop, I would find myself dealing with the "doubters" yet again.
For instance, I would be standing more closely to my Mom than strangers would normally stand (like shoulder to shoulder or having a conversation with my Mom). Yet so often, the sales associate or clerk would address her first, and then look at me perfunctorily before saying, "Can I help you?" And then my Mom would proceed to clarify, "Oh she's with me, she's my daughter," after which of course, I would receive a puzzled and confused look.
EXAMPLE 9: At one point, one of my older brothers and I were on the same flight. The airline associate announced that military personnel could pre-board. My brother being in the military nudged me, "C'mon, since you're family, they'll let you board with me." Immediately, I got a lump in my throat, and said, "Yea right. They're not going to believe I'm your sister. And because I'm married now, my ID no longer has the same last name to prove it..." Fortunately, the attendant let me board, but not without a pause and a look.
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Now I want to interject that in the above examples of the "doubters," I admit, in part, that, hey, how can you blame folks? I don't look anything like my Caucasian parents and brothers. But that's exactly the point. The point of these examples is to show how being an adoptee, even one who was adopted as an infant and is a "mature, well-adjusted" adult now, still affects my everyday life. In so many ways, I am reminded daily of what I have lost, and what I have lost naturally causes me grief.
(Now, of course, as always, plenty of folks make sure to tell me that I should not focus on what I have lost to the neglect of what I have gained. True. But the reverse is also true--I should not be expected to focus ONLY what I have gained to the neglect of being able to grieve and process what I have lost. It is not one or the other. Adoption emotion is complex and multi-faceted. Again, the whole point is not whether I should be allowed to feel loss, but that I DO FEEL LOSS, because I am adopted. No age qualifier is necessary.)
Even though in some ways it is natural for people to initially assume that I am not related to my parents and brothers, because of the fact that I'm Korean and they're Caucasian, it demonstrates even more precisely and powerfully, the inherent discomforts and issues that transracial adoptees face as a result of being adopted, regardless of the age at which we were adopted.
Furthermore, these daily experiences that begin in childhood and continue throughout life function in part as consistent reminders of what was lost and the difficulties that result from those losses. That is why, regardless of being adopted as an infant, I as an adult adoptee still have to deal with loss and grief and a whole host of other experiences and emotions that result directly from being adopted.
Telling me that I should not experience the same level of loss as a child who was adopted at an older age completely neglects and discounts the realities that I face on a daily basis as an adult.
Of course, some of the examples I give refer specifically to my experiences as a transracial adoptee, while other examples are more general. But I could anticipate some readers drawing the false conclusion that adoptees who have not been adopted across race experience less difficulty. Again, this would be a misassumption that persists in ignoring the whole point of this post:
Adoption loss is not optional, whether adopted at 6 months or 6 years old, whether adopted internationally or domestically, whether adopted from an orphanage or through foster care. Adoption loss is not something "up for grabs," like choosing a prize at the fair, nor is it for a parent to choose or not to choose for his or her adopted child.
Rather, as stated above, "There may be varying degrees and varying responses [to such loss], but the loss remains loss all the same. What varies is NOT the loss, but the age, personalities, and circumstances under which the loss takes place. Loss is loss, any way you slice it..."
There are a myriad more examples I could give to exemplify the point. (And I just may do so in a later post.)
But for now, I hope this helps to elucidate further that being adopted as an infant does not preclude adoptees from experiencing the emotional and social consequences of losing one's familial origins and being subsequently transplanted (it may be helpful to also read this post on why biological family cannot be replaced.)
In addition, children (and I mean infants also) are incredibly perceptive, resilient, and adaptive, while simultaneously fragile, needy, and dependent. From the moment of birth, infants require touch and emotional nurturing. Without it, they die--literally.
I find it anachronistic that people today still view infants as mindless blobs. Infants experience emotional consequences and pain just like any of us. They simply lack the ability to verbalize it with words. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the first three years of life are the most crucial regarding human development. If infants are mindless blobs, the first 3 years of life would not be so consequential. (For a pertinent tangent, please read this post at the blog, Harlow's Monkey.)
Despite what you may think, that six-month old baby is perceiving cues from you, and whether you realize it, you are teaching that infant very early on whether you will be someone he or she can trust, and more specifically whether you will be a parent who will acknowledge and understand the losses that he or she has already brought with him or her.
With this said, I would also like to emphasize that just because your child, whether a toddler or a teenager, doesn't seem to be exhibiting any "outward signs" of adoption loss or other issues, does not necessarily indicate that the repercussions of adoption loss will not surface.
And even more so, if you have not consistently made efforts to cultivate an open dialogue with your adopted children regarding their original families and subsequent adoption, chances are they're going to keep quiet.
I used to be one of those adoptees, who kept quiet. I grew up in a household and an era in which the predominant philosophy on adoption taught families to ignore and assimilate (before emerging research began to reveal otherwise). Basically, don't talk about it, and it will resolve itself.
It was not until my late twenties, early thirties that I finally began to open up about what was really going on internally (after finding resources that had previously been nonexistent). For most of my life I had buried and hidden away my thoughts and emotions so deeply that when asked by friends or strangers, "How do you feel about being adopted?," I would simply shrug my shoulders with a perplexed smile, saying "Uh, nothing. I mean, what's there to feel. I'm adopted. Big whoopee." (And in the meantime, I was in and out of counseling, in and out of the hospital, in and out of my family, in and out of life...)
If only I had known then what I know now. But in that case, to be cliche, better late than never.
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Please read the pertinent blog post, "Learning from Artyom's plight" at John Raible Online, that discusses the inherent insecurities of adoptees, among other issues...