Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What others expect of adoptees: The desired illusion of "all is well"


"All is well."

Over time, I've realized that friends and family seem to assume an expectation of me regarding my experiences and perspectives of my own adoption that is common and yet misinformed.

I think there is often a well-meaning although misguided "goal," or perhaps more accurately, an expectation or pressure that adoptive parents, and others who are connected to adoptees, tend to unintentionally apply to adoptees. It is the idea that at some point an adoptee will and should arrive at a place in life in which the adoptee will breathe a sigh of relief, leaving all behind, to say, "All is well."

I am not demeaning or lambasting any parent or individual or adoptee, for that matter, who holds to such expectations. I can understand the hope and longing that a parent or loved one or adoptee would have for an adoptee to be able to live life with a sense of "all is right in the world." It's natural to want for ourselves and for those we love to feel at peace.

However (yes, I always have a "however" or a "but" or a "yet"...), although well-intentioned, such a notion conveys to me a basic lack of understanding of what it means to be an adoptee, of the inherent complexities of being adopted and the lack of resolution available to adoptees. This is not to say that we cannot experience peace or have times in our lives during which we feel well and content, but to expect that we, as adoptees, will one day "arrive" at a place in which we will say, "all is well," or will cease once and for all to experience and question the pains and doubts inherent to our adoptions demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the long-term, lifelong consequences that characterize an adoptee's journey.

And it's not simply that we experience the same pains and doubts repeatedly, but also that new phases and new events in life bring forth new pain and new doubt.

For instance, I'm pregnant. Assuming all goes as hoped, my husband and I are having a child early next year. This anticipated event is ushering in a new phase of life that carries along with it a complexity of emotion that I would not otherwise experience if I were not an adoptee.Obviously, I face the normal fears and anxieties that the average person experiences, along with the normal joys and hopes. Yet in addition to those "normal, average" fears and joys, I face added layers of fears and joys that are specific and normal for someone who is adopted.

(Now, I do acknowledge that there are adoptees who perhaps do not contemplate or delve as deeply as I do into their adoption experiences, but their choice to do so does not therefore nullify my perspective or qualify it as anomalous or easily dismissed. I think at times there is an unspoken, subconscious rationalization that adoptive parents and others assume when encountering adoptees like myself. AP's and the like conclude that we're the "exception" or that we uniquely have "issues" that most other adoptees do not or will not have, and therefore, our perspective, although superficially acknowledged by some, is not taken seriously. Rather it is ultimately assumed to be irrelevant and nothing but a call for pity. I don't want your pity, and I don't want your superficial consolations. Read "It's not for pity's sake" for more understanding. In the same way, my experience and view does not therefore disqualify those of adoptees who think or feel differently than I do. It's ALL a valid part of the collective adoptee experience. That's in part what makes adoption so complicated. So, let's not oversimplify. We can hold onto one without letting go of the other.)

Furthermore, a misassumption often made, due to the fact that I have found and reunited with my Korean mother and father is that I will some day be able to have relationships with each of them characterized by a sense of "all is well." As much as I would hope for such a state, I have come to realize that such an expectation is most likely unrealistic.

Understand that I began my search for them with high expectations. But as time goes on, and I experience the realities of reunion with my Omma and Appa, I have had to readjust my expectations--not because I'm a cynical, negative person, but because I have had to face the truth about my adoption and reunion. I have had to let go of the romanticized and idealized fantasies in order to learn to manage and deal with the unadulterated and unabashed truth of my situation. Some would say that I'm being a pessimist or that I'm losing hope. But you'd be wrong.

A pessimist would not have searched for her Korean parents in the first place. A pessimist would not have persevered for almost seven years despite repeated setbacks and discouragements. A pessimist would not continue to pursue and cultivate ongoing relationships with her Korean parents despite the overwhelming language, cultural, and emotional barriers.

Nonetheless, I am simply forced to deal with reality, because now that I have found my Omma and Appa, entertaining fantasy could be hurtful and defeating to our present relationships. My relationships with and knowledge of my Korean parents are no longer based on speculation, but rather now on tangible interaction, and I must behave and act according to that reality. I cannot will or force my relationships with them to be something they are not--to try to do so would not only be unfair to all of us but also dangerous and detrimental. (Please watch the documentary film "First Person Plural" for further understanding, which is available for free on PBS online for a limited time.)

This is not me giving up. This is not me yielding to despair or hopelessness. Rather, this is me persevering, clinging to hope, overcoming despair. I have to acknowledge that in order for these relationships to survive, as fragile and as delicate as they are, it requires that I be willing to be honest and truthful about what is available and possible at this point--even if that differs from what I originally hoped for or wanted, because ultimately, this isn't only about me. (I also think that many adoptive parents would benefit from applying this same thinking and realization to their own situations with their adopted children...)

We all--my Omma and me, my Appa and me--must meet one another in the middle and work from there. I'm not saying that my relationships with them can not improve over time. I'm not saying that we can't grow closer over time. But in order to achieve growth, I have to be willing to acknowledge where we're at currently, that although hopeful, it is far from "all is well," and most likely will never truly fit the traditional description of "all is well." Again, such an acknowledgment is not an admission to cynicism or pessimism but rather an acknowledgment of the inherent complexities and realities of being an adoptee. Failure to do so can lead to further and unnecessary frustration and pain.

Basically, I am having to face the reality that I will never have the relationships with my Omma and Appa of which I first dreamt and hoped. This is not succumbing to disillusionment, but rather an acknowledgment of reality. And even as I anticipate the birth of our son and the life that we will have with him, this reality becomes all the more salient and tangible, and with that, once again the ongoing complexities of being adopted emerge--the experience of simultaneous pain and healing, grief and joy...the realization that what was lost cannot be retrieved. But rather, that we must start from here--where I am a 35-year old adult and my Omma and Appa are in their fifties with their own families and their own lives and their own wounds and fears and issues.

No matter what I can ask or know of my Appa and Omma now will never be able to compensate or substitute for what I could never ask or know of them for the first three decades of my life...

Even my Appa, the very first time we met, without my prompting, expressed an understanding that what had transpired over the past thirty plus years certainly had resulted in wounds for us all that would never fully heal "100%." Yet, he simultaneously expressed hope that he would do all that he could to perhaps help the wounds to heal "99%."

I know you may want to believe that I, we can "have it all." But it would behoove not only you, but also your adopted children and/or adopted loved ones, to let go of fantasy and to embrace reality. You may have certain hopes or expectations for your adopted children or loved ones, and specifically for how you want them to view and experience their adoptions. You have your own picture, your own "goals" for how you want your relationship to develop and how you want them to feel about being an adoptee. Yet you must remember, though, that this is not about you alone, and that ultimately, you, if you are not yourself an adoptee, are not the one who has to live the life of an adoptee and suffer the lifelong consequences.

(Adoptive parents despite how you may feel at times, you are not the self-sacrificing martyrs, and adoption does not affect you in the way that it affects the adoptees...in other words, no matter how much you may think you understand, you will never truly know what is it to be an adoptee...I don't mean this in a fatalistic way, just in an honest way. You can always learn more, and you, also, will never "arrive" at being the "perfect" adoptive parent.)

You (we) have to realize that at times the hopes onto which we hold hurt those we love more than they help them. We have to be willing to discern this. It is never wrong to hope--it simply requires that at times we must adjust those hopes so that they are truly hope rather than overwhelming demands or crushing expectations.

With time, I am realizing that my Appa is right. There are some wounds that never heal. I am grateful that both he and I can realize this. I just wish that the rest of the world truly grasped and accepted this. This truth need not destroy my life. It is not despairing and hopeless or weak and short-sighted for me to acknowledge this, but rather it is healing and freeing, empowering and longsuffering. I can therefore live accordingly and stop feeling like I'm crazy for the lack of resolution, the lack of wholeness that I still feel, even after reuniting with my biological origins.

And for those of you, who will never have to walk in an adoptee's shoes, to assume that you are somehow more enlightened and know better what I should feel or think or hope? I cannot expect to affect your views or broaden your thinking. I can only be honest by saying your assumptions hurt me and drive me from you...and will potentially drive your children from you once they are old enough to discern the realities for themselves. And I would find that sad for both you and your children--in particular, because, it need not be that way.




13 comments:

Yoli said...

Very well stated and you are absolutely right, it need not be that way.

Jessica said...

Great post, as usual Melissa. I am all about honesty in this relationship we will have with our child. Do you think then that by accepting reality and being open/honest about whatever may come through time, helps you get closer (approaching 99%) to being "all is well", as close as you possibly can?

Melissa said...

Jessica, you asked, "Do you think then that by accepting reality and being open/honest about whatever may come through time, helps you get closer (approaching 99%) to being "all is well", as close as you possibly can?"

In short, it certainly has the potential to help an adoptee manage and cope with the lifelong complexities and wounds of our situations in a more whole and constructive way. But I also think we have to leave room to accept the variations.

I guess what I mean is this: (I don't really even like the percentage analogy, but for illustration purposes, I'll refer to it.) Some may get to 99%, some may get to 5%, and in reality, 99% or 5% can mean, be, look different for different people. What's 99% to me may seem like 30% to others and vice versa, and so forth.

With that said, though, I was just trying to explain to one of my brothers how the ability to be honest about my adoption experience actually enables me to feel closer to my family (both American & Korean). I think this can be counterintuitive to some--they fear that by acknowledging the hurtful and painful realities it will result in me pulling away or becoming angry.

However, it's quite the opposite. Feeling validated and accepted in spite of and/or because of what I feel and think no matter how difficult, painful, "negative," contradictory, etc. it may seem to others is what ultimately cultivates the closeness that adoptive parents and/or those who are connected to adoptees seek.

On the other hand, denial, resistance, and rejection of an adoptees' perspectives, thoughts, and emotions accomplishes exactly what adoptive parents & others fear--distance and erosion in the relationship and love they so long to have.

Of course, I also have to make certain decisions in order to "get there." For example, I have to recognize that there are going to be people in my life who simply won't ever understand or accept the validity of my experiences and point of view. I can either be bitter and resentful about this, or be patient and tolerant.

But ultimately, I have had to come to accept that for my situation, "all is well" will never really be "all is well" in the traditional sense. I have to consistently redefine my expectations and definition of what "all is well," as well as what 99%, means in my situation.

"All is well" has come to mean that I will never have the relationship with my Omma and Appa that I once dreamt of. "All is well" has come to mean that most likely some of my closest loved ones will never accept or embrace my adoption experience from my perspective. "99%" must be redefined to mean that there are wounds that will never heal and resolution that I will never find. "

All is well" means that there will always be a hole, an emptiness that cannot be filled. It means that there will be aspects of my life as an adoptee that cannot be undone, that cannot be fixed, that cannot be forgotten...no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many tears I cry or how many words I speak...getting "as close as you possibly can" also often means getting "okay" with having to remain as far away as your situation demands, because there is only so much one can humanly do to put back together that which was ripped into a million pieces...some pieces are simply irretrievable...

Melissa said...

Oh, and just for clarity, I appreciate your question, Jessica. It's a fair question. And I realize that I originally referred to the percentage analogy made by my Appa. I was just expressing that it's an imperfect analogy and inherently puts a numerical, tangible value to something that cannot ultimately be measured as such...I just don't want folks to get the wrong impression that I think that we can somehow finitely "measure" such emotional and personal matters...okay...that is all for now... ;)

Jessica said...

Yes, I too don't think that you can put a number on how "all is well" you are. Just not possible. I too was just using it try to express this balance of accepting what has happened and learning to react to it. But just as you say, it's all relative depending on where you are, at that time and place. Others might be somewhere else under the same circumstances.

I like your idea of "accepting the variations". This makes a lot of sense to me.

Thanks!!

Liv said...

"I can therefore live accordingly and stop feeling like I'm crazy for the lack of resolution, the lack of wholeness that I still feel, even after reuniting with my biological origins."

I wish every adoptee could have a chance to read these words, especially those who have reunited.

It's little over a year now that I've found my first family. Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. Not a day goes by where I'm not processing and planning for the next trip or thinking about my relationships with them.

Just tonight, walking outside, alone, longing for my first mother, for my first country, I was thinking and thanking God that the long, intolerable wait of "not knowing" was over, that I had finally, thank God, found her, and found so much more than I expected. That I would never have to go through that particular hell again.

But...

It's not a resolution. There are ongoing questions. And it's an ongoing building and sorting and processing and it's an ongoing grieving as much as it is an ongoing joy.

It's all of these. As happy as I am to have found her and to have this opportunity... it's just really hard to write this... as happy as I am, I also now see the immensity of the love I have lost, the years, that break down into millions of lost moments that we all take for granted with those we love.

Thank you for writing about this, Melissa.

Melissa said...

Liv wrote, "It's not a resolution. There are ongoing questions. And it's an ongoing building and sorting and processing and it's an ongoing grieving as much as it is an ongoing joy."

Exactly, Liv. Couldn't have expressed it any better myself.

Sona said...

this "all is well" statement you hear sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "get over it."

Melissa said...

Sona - yeh, well, basically...you said it. Furthermore, "all is well" & "get over it" can be translated more specifically as, "You've had your time to 'grieve & wallow,' for cryin' out loud, so sheesh, can't you just be happy and grateful by now...?"

Er, being "grateful and happy" does not automatically mean that I will not also feel sad and hurt, frustrated and upset and so forth...it ain't so neat and tidy, folks.

Mei Ling said...

[It's little over a year now that I've found my first family. Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. Not a day goes by where I'm not processing and planning for the next trip or thinking about my relationships with them.]

Oh my god. It's not just me...

I'm not sure if you do this as well, but 3-4 times a week I constantly dream about them too.

I'd wake up feeling as if I'd have cried, except there were no tears.

It used to be about me stepping back into their household; and now, in my dreams, I can't even find their residence!

[Just tonight, walking outside, alone, longing for my first mother, for my first country, I was thinking and thanking God that the long, intolerable wait of "not knowing" was over, that I had finally, thank God, found her, and found so much more than I expected. That I would never have to go through that particular hell again.

But...

It's not a resolution.]

No, it really isn't.

And that many people wish it could be just makes it feel worse.

Claudia said...

Thanks for posting this, Melissa. Lots of food for thought here.

Melissa said...

Mei-Ling wrote: "It's not a resolution. No, it really isn't. And that many people wish it could be just makes it feel worse."

So true.

Daria said...

I truly think that the "adoption machine's" mantra is "all is well" because every where you look adoption is portrayed as "happily ever after"! UGH!

To clarify, I am an adoptive mom. My middle son was adopted through a private, domestic adoption. I was just as ignorant as the rest of society about what adoption entailed for the adoptee.

Not that I was an expert on what it entailed for the mother...but I at least understood that it involved pain. Having never encountered much about adoption before, I had never stopped to analyze the pain for the adoptee.

Fortunately for us and our family, I stumbled upon a website that contained varied adoption support groups. From there I grew very close to moms who had relinquished, moms in reunion with their children, adoptees in reunion, etc.

I mention all this because I want you to know how important your writings are. You are potentially affecting the lives of scores of children you will never meet. Because of people like yourself sharing your insights, we have been able to be better parents to our son.

My son is only five and a half but already I can see that in certain areas all is most definitely "not well". He sees his firstmom every couple of months as well as his birthdad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. He even gets to see his great-grandparents which I think is super cool. Not too many people (adopted or not) get that chance.

At any rate, we have tried our best to have our two families be one family and I think in many ways we have succeeeded. (And when I say "we" I mean both families, not just my husband and I.)

So I'm rambling - sorry. We have been as honest and forthright as you can be for a five year old and yet he gives us glimpses that there are things that bother him.

And that makes me sad but at the same time I am thankful that because of reading about experiences such as yours, I recognize these things in him and don't just chalk them off to everyday childhood behavior.

Way too many adoptive parents want to live with their heads in the sand. Some I think are just truly "clueless" but others know full well that they should open their eyes but they refuse to. And they do their children a phenomenal disservice.

On a discussion board recently I actually had an adoptive mom cite some study that showed "adopted children were just as well adjusted IF NOT MORE SO than non-adopted children".

WHAT?

I'm not saying that adoptees aren't well adjusted - of course they are, but to say that they might be MORE well adjusted? Someone who loses their family is better adjusted than someone who hasn't?

WOW. Talk about denial...I tried to tell the woman that it would be very interesting to see who funded that so called study but she didn't seem to see the relevance in that point. I don't think you can get through to some people...

I hope what I wrote wasn't too all over the place. Just really bottom line wanted to say thank you for sharing. People like me are the better for it. :)