It is easy to get lost in all the chaos and unfairness we are currently experiencing in our nation and across the globe. However, there are times when it does one well to look a little more inward and spend some time focused on things maybe a bit more personal and internal in nature. I was struck this morning listening to an interview with Padma Lakshmi, most well known for her time on Top Chef. What rang true for me in listening to her today was her conversation about the sexual abuse events in her youth and how life altering they were, the main point being no matter what, that experience and the associated feelings are never too far away. At some level it is not something that is a surprise or something that took me to “wow, never thought about it that way”. There is an obvious understanding that bad, traumatic events in our life can, and most often will, lead to lifelong impacts. People deal with these events in many ways, some good, some destructive and some just in a way that fucks up a part of your life, whether it be in relationships with others, how you view yourself, where you take your life, etc. etc.
My connection to this is not a result of something bad or some obvious trauma or injury. My connection is something that most would view as a good event, something positive – and to a great extent it is good and it is positive in the bigger picture. However, as with most everything in our lives, there is rarely something that is entirely good. I think the issue is that when something happens that is good, and particularly that the alternative seems not so good, there is little effort or thought as to the darker side. That “good” thing is being adopted. And in most cases it is a very good thing but it does not come without cost or extra weight one must carry – and it is never ever really too far from your daily walk through life. As I’ve used this blog as an internal sounding board since it started, I thought this might be another opportunity to share on a different level, especially in the unlikely case where someone else with life experience in the world of adoption might see something in a new light.
“I was adopted. I wasn’t chosen. I was abandoned. At times I feel angry. At times I feel sad. At times I feel blessed. At times I feel thankful. I am adopted. And it’s complicated.”
My adoption was, in most ways, one of those great adoption stories. I was adopted within weeks of my birth, of course to a loving and warm set of parents unable to have children themselves – the beginning of the great adoption lie. Not sure how you measure it but my adopted parents weren’t really the warm and loving type. Open adoptions were pretty rare in 1953 and given efforts to protect the birth mother/parents, most all information was sealed and unavailable to the adoptee. Today, 68 years later, adoption records remain legally sealed in 19 states. Records are accessible but with restrictions in 21 other states. In most cases, at least in my mind, this is there to protect the adults in the process but at what cost to the child. I knew essentially nothing about my adoption details until much later in my life when I was in my early 40’s and even then, despite more detail on ethnic and family background, the information read more like a made up story than anything else. Might be my snarky view of most things but I always read most of it as putting the best spin on the details – and at the time why not? No one could validate. The only information with any real “detail” was on my unmarried birth mother side as my birth was one out of wedlock with no intent by my father of considering a family. So my birth mother was put in a special home for girls in her situation until the baby was born and the adoption processed. Up until this point in my life, I had little or no interest in finding my birth parent(s) but now with kids, a bit more background was more important so when the various ancestry services (like 23andMe) came on the scene I shared my DNA and got my initial glimpse into some additional background data. Still not like having a sit down with a parent or relative to get the real details of your family history but at least a bit more “health” background. In 2017, when adoptee birth records opened up in NJ, I requested my original birth certificate and for the first time was able to get the “real” adoption information. That opened up another story but that is not the point of this day’s blog.
“Will this feeling of being unwanted ever diminish? Is it possible for the positives in my life to outweigh the sadness that I feel?”
—Confessions of An Adoptee
So, what’s my point on all this? I think we believe that once something is seen as a “good” thing, we tend to ignore other aspects of the situation or event. In the case of adoption there is another side. I recognize it in me and I see the thread of impact in other adopted individuals as they grow older. For myself, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life feeling that I never fit anywhere. I had no real footprint anywhere. I was told I was adopted as soon as my parents probably felt I should know. Not entirely clear but I know that by the age of 5 or 6, I had the first knowledge I was different. I heard the adoption fairy tale right from the beginning of “you were chosen”, “you were special” and “you were really wanted”. It was assumed (and probably rightly so) that the adopted child was better off. But the psyche of the adopted is not assuaged with that possible reality. There is no foothold. There is no looking around and seeing where you fit. There is no sense of belonging. There is a missing connection that becomes very obvious as one goes thru school and you do reports on your heritage or your family tree. I heard the nasty remarks from other children I played with that made it clear I was different and unlike them. The response I got when I told my parents was that usual adoption fairy tale. I don’t remember ever meeting or being aware of another person that was adopted until I was much older – another reason to feel pretty much different. I expect they were out there but it wasn’t something people really talked about in casual conversation. All I know is that I spent much of my first three decades of life (at least until I was married) with the idea that I was an outsider and didn’t fit anywhere. I had no roots. I had no history. I was “special” – I wasn’t like everyone else. I didn’t have the “connection” that most everyone else took for granted. Over most of my lifetime, this feeling permeated almost everything in my life. Even through my career which had me interacting with many, many people over the years, I managed to not really ever connect. I did very well in most things I did but no one ever really got close to knowing me. I most always got along well with others but never too deep. Was it all due to being adopted? Can’t put it all there but when you spend most of your formative years feeling like you are different and less than others, it impacts trust and confidence. I’ve probably spent too much time over my life being defensive of things trying to protect me from those feelings (and still do to this day at times). It has had dramatic effect on my personality and my ways of dealing with things and people around me. It took more energy than it deserved but self-preservation is a strong force and we all have things that we need to overcome – or not.
“Being adopted is like having blank pages in the first chapter of your book of life.”
Even today, that feeling of alone often persists, despite a wife who over 40 years has made it clear how special I am to her. Our relationship, a successful career, kids who have made their way in the world, my life in general helps me realize I did okay. I’ve been able to get close (most of the time) with my immediate family and my connections over the years with them – despite the occasional ups and downs – have been pretty strong. I was extremely lucky to find someone as a partner who not only helped me progress and grow over our time together but also has accepted all my shortcomings. She has had to tolerate quite a bit as I’m far from the easiest person to live with. I’ve had relationships and deep conversations with my children that were never experienced with my parents. Unfortunately I had to retire to probably make the most progress. I finally had time and distance from the stress of all those years of work and raising a family to see things a little clearer. Are all those feelings of being alone and different gone? Never will be but I can now talk and feel more secure and less focused on that hole that has accompanied me throughout my life. I remember to this day seeing my daughter being born and for the first time in my life seeing another living thing that was part of me. Not a big deal to most but one of the biggest events in my life up to that point – one that I still get emotional about when I replay that morning. I’ve come a long way. I can joke now about how Jon Snow and I have the commonality of both being bastards – and I can say it without any real emotional tinge. The fact that I never really saw myself with that label before tells me I wasn’t ready. That hole also got a little smaller after the NJ adoption records were opened. Through that data and the DNA data from 23andMe, I was provided with some unexpected connections to my birth mother’s family. Those connections have not really progressed too far, mostly because at this point it makes very little difference in my life and will change nothing and partly because that “family” I missed ends up not really fitting into where I am and who I am as a person. As my son quickly realized, despite the shortcomings of my adopted parents, they probably saved me from a much less fulfilling life with my birth mother, who managed to give me another half-brother put up for adoption and four more half-siblings who, aside from genetic material, live in entirely different worlds than I do. Is there an intellectual curiosity about those half-siblings? Without a doubt but my life as it has happened and as it exists at this point is more than I could have ever imagined.
So my point in all this? Highly doubtful that anyone following or reading my blog deals in the adoption world but if they do, let’s not continue the adoption fairy tale. While not always so, adoptions are just another form of trauma that should be out there and discussed from the beginning. Americans adopt approximately 140,000 children a year and overall there are around 7 million adopted people in the US. Adoption is no longer entirely a private, closed process as today, almost 60%-70% of domestic adoptions are now open adoptions, which means there is a degree of openness and disclosure of information between adoptive and birth parents regarding the adopted child. This alone should help with that “hole” that was there in years back. For the sake of all the adopted children out there, there is also a case to be made to push reticent states to open access to adoption records. It is important that no-one assume because a child is adopted, that all is good. More information is good. It is a topic that should be approached as a necessity of the child’s growth and development. Adopted kids are still special but not really due to them being adopted. They are special because they are individuals with unlimited potential – like any other child. We are special, not due to where we started where we had no influence. We are special given what we reach for and what we achieve.
It has gotten easier but I’ll remain working on it forever. I still have my moments but I’ve never been better.