“Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse” Nigerian Proverb
So, I think that I realize part of why I get such strong reactions when I express my anger, hurt, pain, frustration, confusion, etc. regarding my experience as an adoptee.
When I express such “negative” or “dark” albeit natural emotions, I think my family and loved ones take it personally. Although it has nothing to do with them, it feels as though it has everything to do with them. And I can understand that, and I want to be considerate and thoughtful, in the same way that I would hope they would be considerate and thoughtful toward me.
It’s not that my family didn’t love me enough. It’s not that I don’t love my family. When I express anger or hurt, it’s not because of what they have done or haven’t done, it’s because of the loss and grief that I feel over what happened beyond anyone’s control.
But when I say something like “Whatever punk decided that being adopted is a happy story with happy endings makes me want to vomit and kick a hole in the sky” it offends my family because they think I’m saying something about them.
For the record, then, I’m not saying anything about my family. I am grateful for them, and I love them.
The thing is that some wounds run so deeply and so pervasively, that they may never quite heal. And I need to feel safe enough and have freedom enough to feel the pain and the emotion that comes from feeling that pain.
If someone breaks an arm or gets a big gash in the head or has to undergo bypass surgery, you don’t condemn them for feeling a mixture of emotion. The person will feel everything from fear to anger to hope to gratitude. One emotion is neither wrong nor right. It just IS.
I often feel condemned or judged when I express the “darker” emotions that come with being adopted.
People only want to focus on the “happy” side. They feel offended and perturbed when I take the liberty to talk about the sadness and confusion, the anger and the hurt, the misunderstandings and presumptions.
When I say adoption is COMPLEX, this means it includes ALL of the range of emotions from happiness and gratitude to sadness and anger. And hence, I should be allowed to experience and work through each and every one. I don’t enjoy feeling hurt or sad or angry, but being shut down or shut out for feeling such emotions makes me feel condemned, trapped, judged, rejected. It perpetuates the notion that I’m only allowed to be happy and full of gratitude.
I can be happy and full of gratitude while also feeling deep grief and a sense of confusion. That’s exactly what makes the adoptee experience COMPLEX and hard for others to understand. It’s not a one-dimensional or even two-dimensional emotional journey. It’s multi-dimensional.
It’s hard for people to understand that an adoptee can feel a vortex of mixed emotions all in the same moment or over a period of time.
Well, I’m here to explain, that yes, we can feel more than one thing at the same time. I can feel deep love and gratitude for my family here while simultaneously feeling a deep sense of grief and sadness over having lost all connection with my biological family.
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When a wife loses her husband, it is understood that the grief and loss will always be a part of her life. She may go on to remarry and live very happily and fully with another man, but the fact that she married again does not erase the loss and grief from losing her first husband. The loss is always there. And an unwillingness to acknowledge such seems cruel and uncompassionate.
The same emotion and thinking applies to losing a parent. When the parent is lost, the suffering and pain is intense and deep. No one ever expects the child to “get over” the loss. It remains. The child learns to live and learns to carry on the memory of the lost parent in productive ways but nothing ever “cures” the child of the loss and nor should anyone expect such. Again, to place such expectations on someone who has lost a parent seems cruel and heartless.
I’ve witnessed my own Mom get teary-eyed over her mother. Certain memories or instances trigger deep emotions in my Mom even today, although it has been over three decades since she lost her mother. Do people tell her she should just be grateful that she had a mom and that she should pull it together? NO, they understand the emotional process that comes with losing a parent. They have compassion, because they understand that a loss like that is deep and lasting.
Or in the horrific instance of a parent who has lost a child—again, the world seems to understand how to show compassion and patience with such tragic circumstances.
But when it comes to the loss and grief experienced by an adoptee, the world glazes over, and becomes hard and cold. It tells the adoptee to be grateful and to be quiet.
This seems unkind and narrow-minded.
Not only have adoptees experienced an incredible loss akin to losing a spouse or child or parent, but they also often have no way to heal or find any amount of resolution because all the pieces are missing. (Take for example, a wife whose husband is reported as MIA. Imagine the confusion and all the emotion she would face—trying to figure out how to move on but never really knowing what had happened or whether he is still alive. The lack of resolution, the unknown and the stress of not knowing…But then say, she remarries and tries to live on, until one day, all of a sudden, he is found and returns…What to do then?). Some might feel frustrated with me using such an analogy, but it’s the closest thing I can find to try to help others understand the EMOTION of what an adoptee like myself experiences.
Why is this so hard to grasp? Why does the world resist accepting this? And why am I condemned for wanting to know what happened and then experiencing a range of emotions as I find out the truth. Am I a bad, ungrateful person for wanting to know the truth? For wanting answers? No one would say that to the wife whose husband is MIA.
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It seems that perhaps a part of the resistance to acknowledging the “difficult” side to adoption are the implications that some may assume, even if inaccurately.
Basically, what it comes down to is that the adoptee’s receiving of a new family does not magically sweep away all the wounds and hurt and loss. It doesn’t fix what has been broken.
My brother seemed bothered that I stated that being adopted is not a happy story with a happy ending. He said that it has a happy ending for him because “you’re my sister.” And this is true. It makes me HAPPY that I’m his sister. It makes me HAPPY that he’s my brother. I cannot imagine my life without him. He has remained one of my best friends throughout life.
But as I explained earlier, I can feel many things at once. And feeling hurt and angry does not diminish from the love and gratitude I feel for my brother. It’s simply and complexly that I feel it ALL.It is as though I am pulled in several directions all at once. And it's maddening.
But this is hard for others to understand. How can I feel both angry and grateful at the same time? That’s the COMPLEX nature of being adopted. I have both lost and gained. I feel seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time because I am going through seemingly contradictory circumstances simultaneously.
It’s comparable to what I felt after our recent car accident. As we sat there in the car waiting for the ambulances, I felt a host of emotions all at once. I felt afraid but grateful. I felt angry yet compassionate. I wanted to cry and laugh all in one breath. That makes perfect sense to most people.
So, why can’t it be that I feel a host of emotions all at once when it comes to the LIFETIME experience and journey of being adopted?
* * *
And that leads me to another point I’d like to make. There is another assumption or misconception that I’d like to address briefly: the journey of an adoptee has an end. That’s another reason I said what I said at the end of the post previous to this. Although there are happy experiences that occur, being adopted is a lifetime journey filled with ups and downs. The only point at which it comes to an end is death. But until that time, an adoptee’s story doesn’t come to an ending at a certain point or age. It continues on until the grave is met.
A good book to read, if this is hard for you to understand is “Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self.” (There is a direct link to it on my blog under “More Blogs & Resources”). Although I don’t necessarily agree with every word in the book, the overall theme of the book recognizes that the adoptee experience stretches through a lifetime, and does not end in adulthood.
It is very difficult for me when people assume that now that my biological family has emerged, I then, also have arrived. That all is well that has ended well.
But that’s the thing. It hasn’t ended. It has just begun, AGAIN. A new phase, a new chapter, whatever you want to call it. This is just a different phase in the journey that is a lifetime one.
And again, there are HAPPY things that have happened, and again, it makes me very HAPPY to have the family that I have—my Mom, Dad, and my three brothers. They ARE my FAMILY. And I’m not looking to change that.
But just as much as there are happy times, there are equally sad times and confusing times. Is that so bizarre? Is that so wrong?
The emotions that I experience in response to this convoluted and intertwining process must be allowed to emerge. They’re natural and normal for such circumstances. And they’re not a personal attack on anyone in my family. They’re just the natural outpouring of emotion that comes with the journey that I’m on.
It’s not anger toward my family that I feel. It’s anger regarding the circumstances and all the confusion and lack of understanding, all the hurt and pain, all the loss and lost time. It’s so many things.
And I get the feeling it will never really make sense to anyone, other than the few who choose to want to know.
I love this post.
My family have never acted as if they take it personally when I feel "negative", but I have always felt like "how could they not?".
In all my years before I started untangleling myself it never occured to me that "negatives" wasn't personal against my adoptive family - yes, I was far out, I know ;)
Now, I feel just like you do. The two have very little if anything to with each other. It's not that we haven't loved each other enough. It's between me and my circumstances.
I found your analogies very poignant. I'll be using them when I talk to people who need a little more relatable reference points.
Keep on truckin' - trekkin' - tryin'. (blah, I know! but you get the point)
You've written eloquently about your life experience and I hope more adoptive parents read what you have to say and understand your wisdom. We ALL have a right to all of our feelings, complex, multi-dimensional as they are. As a therapist, I try to help people understand that emotions and feelings are just part of who we are, good, bad, painful, whatever. Those who take someone else's feelings personally need to look at their own insecurities to understand why they can't allow someone they love to have negative feelings.
As an adoptive mom, I fully expect my daughter to have a lot of life long feelings about her adoption. There's nothing I can or want to do to take those feelings away from her. It's part of her life that is not at all about me. All I can do is love her and guide her and hope that she knows that she can share all of her feelings with me. Thanks for sharing your feelings with us.
I apologize for posting this question here, but I was unable to find a way to contact you by email. I may have just missed it. I'm an international adoptee who is going to visit my birthfamily soon. I don't think I will have as long a trip as I would like, but I was wondering what length of time you were able to spend with your birthfamily and in your birthcountry and how you felt about it. Did you feel like it was too much/too little? I know there's no perfect answer for right length of time for a first visit to birthfamily, but I'm just hoping to get some persectives. Thank you!! (and please let me know where I can contact you by email, sorry I missed it)
Thanks, Mia, for always being there and for all your encouragement. You're so thoughtful.
And thanks, Monica, for your support and understanding. Very much appreciate it. It's refreshing to encounter an adoptive parent who recognizes the lifelong, long-term nature of being adopted.
D, sorry you had trouble finding my email. It is available through my blog if you click on my profile, but it's not obvious.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to answer your questions, but it would be nice to do it in an email rather than right here, just for space's sake (and for privacy's sake, too).
Melissa, I think I get what you're saying here.
The best situation for any child is with their birth parents. Any other situation, even if necessary as in the case of extreme child abuse, is traumatic for the child. Even when those children come to wonderful, loving families, it doesn't eliminate the pain felt by leaving the birth family. And traumatic experiences create emotions that must be worked through eventually.
Anyone who thinks that adoptees don't have to work through that pain because it's all been "solved" by the adoption, is naive about how adoption works.
Is that pretty much it?
Melissa, I really appreciate your blog. If JM and I ever end up adopting - and we very well might - I want to walk into it with eyes wide open, and you've been very helpful in getting me to see the other side of things.
Yes, Harmony. That is the case in general for many adoptees.
You wrote, "And traumatic experiences create emotions that must be worked through eventually."
One thing I would add to this is that for adoptees, "the traumatic experiences" must not be worked through only eventually, but for a lifetime. There is no point at which an adoptee "arrives."
Also, several of the posts ("Both," "Hole in the Sky I & II," "flood," etc.) I have written recently specifically deal with this issue even as I go through "post-reunion." It is not only the loss of the birth family that is traumatic, but even once the birth family is found, the trauma is re-engaged.
I think this is very difficult, because often I think it's easy for people to assume, "Oh good, now the adoptee will be all better. She/He found his/her birth family! All questions answered, all holes filled."
I am discovering that this is nowhere near the truth of the experience. And in some ways, it's quite the opposite. Finding my biological family has in many ways re-opened or even deepened wounds. Yet, that does not take away from the hope of the situation. It's just simply much more complex, and basically, there is nothing that ever "fixes" those initial wounds...
Every stage of life triggers or resurfaces the emotions...whether getting married, trying to have/raising a child, death of parents, etc. A good book that addresses the LIFETIME journey of adoptees is "Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self."
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