It has come up in discussion among fellow adoptees that adoptive parents sometimes come to the conclusion that adoption is NOT the trauma, but rather the sole trauma is the loss that occurs before the adoption ever happens. This assumption asserts that the event of adoption itself does not come with any additional trauma or loss, but rather presumes that adoption is only about healing, attachment, and the 'new, better life' that starts at adoption.
I know not all adoptive parents share this perspective, but I believe it is a common misconception that needs to be addressed. I personally have encountered this perspective over the years. Furthermore, after having recently viewed the film by Barb Lee, "Adopted," that in part documented a couple adopting from China, I am even more compelled to discuss the misconception that the only trauma and loss that takes place is before the adoption. (I highly recommend viewing this film, if you have not already. It is available through Netflix.)
In the film, the couple seems to acknowledge the grief of their adopted daughter but only superficially and short-term. They literally say in the movie that they believe she did most of her grieving in China. They acknowledge that perhaps one day further issues may arise, but they treat such a possibility as an improbability. It becomes clear, in my small opinion, that they become comfortable and complacent, convinced that their daughter (at the age of two) has fully adjusted and completed her grieving process.
As an adult adoptee, I honestly balk at any such notion. I don't mean that disrespectfully, just honestly. How in the world can we think that a two-year old, or a fifty year old for that matter, has fully processed the loss of everything she knows in a matter of days?! Regardless of age, the grieving process isn't something humans wrap up in a few days or even a few months, particularly when such deep, chasmic losses and trauma occur.
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So, for the record, adoption IS part of the trauma. Although the initial loss of one's biological mother that takes place before the adoption is of course traumatic for the infant or child involved, after that initial loss also come the losses and trauma of being adopted.
How does the act or practice of adoption bring trauma and loss?
Let me begin with a comparison first. For instance, say a newborn infant's mother dies in a car accident. This is traumatic and tragic, no doubt. For the sake of comparison, let's say that in this case the father remains living and the infant remains in the care of her biological father and family. She is not adopted out, but is able to remain not only with her biological family but also within her country and people of origin, able to retain all that comes with that--language, culture, food, etc. As she grows up she is able to maintain connection with her biological relatives, and hence can indirectly maintain a connection to her biological mother through these relatives and their memories of her mother.
Understand that I am not saying that the trauma of losing one's mother is any less because the child is able to remain with her biological family and country and people of origin. That would be ludicrous. The loss of the child's mother will have profound effects on her life. The fact that the child is able to remain with her family and country does not somehow nullify the loss of her biological mother. It simply ensures, all other factors stable, that she will maintain relationships with her biological origins and grow up in a community to which she can (generally) relate. But as stated, I emphasize this factor simply for the sake of comparison.
Now, imagine that same child, but instead of being able to remain with her biological family and origins, the father and family decide that they are unable to care for her and relinquish her to be adopted. After several months or years pass in either a foster home or orphanage, the child is then adopted out, but not within that same country, rather to a foreign country. Not only does she lose her biological parents and family, but by being adopted out to a foreign country, she loses her origins, her language, her people, her culture, the person she would have been had she been able to remain--basically, she loses everything.
Upon arrival in the foreign country among a new and foreign family, she must adapt and adjust to foreign people, sounds, smells, foods, and ways (for further reading I recommend the adult adoptee memoirs, "A Single Square Picture" and "Trail of Crumbs"). Furthermore, as the child ages, she also faces prejudice, discrimination, teasing, bullying, isolation, alienation, and so forth as a result of her differing physical appearance from those that inhabit the community within which she is now expected to assimilate seamlessly.
These are stresses, traumas, losses--whatever you choose to label them--that occur as a direct resultof being adopted, or as I often refer to as direct result of being transplanted or displaced. According to my experience, these words more accurately identify and characterize what practically and realistically happens to a person who is adopted internationally.*
As the couple featured in "Adopted" demonstrated, it's very easy to grow complacent and comfortable. It's easy to look at one's adopted daughter or son smiling and laughing, and think that they're done grieving. It's more comforting to believe that now that they're in your home, a part of your family, they're safe now. They're protected. The loss and trauma are in the past, and now they're on their way to a "new, better life."
But the truth is that I wasn't safe once I arrived in America. I wasn't protected once I arrived in America. And I certainly was not done grieving once I arrived with my new family. And although I fully acknowledge that I have lived an incredible life full of love and hope, I am still dealing with the loss and trauma that I endured not only before I was adopted but that which I endured and continue to endure after I was adopted.
I don't point a bitter finger at any single individual. It's more complicated than that, and that's also not the point of this blog--to place blame.
When I say I wasn't safe or protected once I arrived in America, it's not to say that I did not have a loving family that wanted to provide a safe, protective environment for me (unfortunately, there are adoptees who cannot say the same). It means that even though I had a loving family, even though I had a family that wanted to protect me, that love could not fully protect me or keep me safe from the racism and bigotry or the sense of isolation and alienation I would soon begin to face.
As a little girl, I was affectionate, happy, and compliant (generally-speaking, of course...*smilewink*). But once I had to venture beyond the walls of home and family to school and the often cruel, unfiltered world, there were realities I had to face for which my parents and family had not prepared me, because they had no awareness of the consequences that would ensue as a result of being adopted.
Parents must be willing to acknowledge and accept that there are traumas and losses that occur post-adoption. They have to be willing to anticipate that such things are going to happen--and that when they do happen, they are traumatic to the adopted person's sense of family, sense of community, and sense of self.
Furthermore, adoptees face not only losing our origins, but in addition we face losing that "new, better life" that adoption is presumed to bring, without adulteration. Losing one's origins and then subsequently facing rejection and alienation among those who are now supposed to be "our new people" is nothing to brush away or ignore. It's not that the new life we have cannot be good, but it certainly is not free from consequence and further pain and suffering.
What I mean is this: Not only had I already faced the rejection of my own biological family and people of origin, I now faced the rejection of those among whom I was expected to assimilate and embrace--and consequently, a sense of complete and utter displacement. More often than not, though, it is a silent suffering, because we are expected to move on and heal. We are expected to be done with any grief or sorrow, because of the "new, better life" we have been given. We are expected to somehow ignore the sense of isolation and displacement we feel because the "new, better life" we have received is expected to cancel out or undo these "negative" albeit valid emotions and experiences.
And yet another loss--we lose even the ability to grieve, not only the loss of our biological origins but also the pain of being rejected, ridiculed, marginalized, treated as though we do not belong, as though we are somehow less than those around us. So, we adapt. We adjust--so that we can survive.*
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Please, don't place yet another burden on your children by teaching them with your assumptions that you know their grief better than they do. Don't trap them even more deeply within isolation and displacement by presuming that the only trauma, the only consequences they will suffer are those that occurred before they ever knew you.
Don't try to write their stories for them before they've had the chance to live them. I know parents want to protect their children from pain and grief, but in doing so, we often end up hurting them more than protecting them, because in doing so we fail to see the grief and pain that is already there and that which will inevitably come.
Fear often results in that which it attempts to avoid. You want to be close to your adopted children. You want them to feel connected to you, but how can they if you deny such crucial and valid parts of their life experience and who they are? As a parent so insightfully stated, "I think I'm more likely to 'lose her' if I don't accept her feelings about her Chinese family" (Thank you, Sharie).
In wanting my American family to acknowledge and embrace my Korean origins as well as the truth that being adopted has come with profound pain and hurt, I am not trying to place blame or pull away--rather it is quite the opposite. I am trying to heal. I am trying to draw near. I am trying to be a whole and active part of my entire family, of all those I love and to whom I am connected. In reaching out, asking for my pain and hurt to be acknowledged, I am not trying to withhold my heart, I am actually wanting to give all of my heart, all of myself to all of my family. This is nothing to fear.
Listen to us--the adult adoptees--who are here, who only wish to help. Adoption is a trauma in and of itself. The pain and suffering we experience as a result of being adopted are just as valid as the losses we experience before we are adopted.* Ignoring this truth will only further hurt an adopted person and strain the pertaining relationship, especially between child and parent.
We share these things not to threaten or attack. As a fellow adoptee has said before, we hope by sharing our pain that we can therefore help to ease the pain of those after us, and if not ease the pain, then at least help fellow adoptees and those in their lives to validate and understand it.
*Note: I would like to acknowledge that previously, similarities have been drawn between immigrants and adoptees regarding the experience of being transplanted or displaced. I have had several friends over the years who originally immigrated with their families to the States from countries including Korea, Iran, and Swaziland. In many ways, we have been able to relate to one another regarding the experiences of racism or prejudice and the lack of knowledge of our original cultures, languages, foods, etc.
I will mention, however, that the primary difference I have observed between my friends and myself is that in general when families immigrate together the children can remain part of a unit that validates who they are. For instance, they may receive ridicule at school for their accent or different appearance, but they are able to return home to a family who is able to counteract such teasing and validate their self-image, not simply with words, but in a very real, tangible way--they can observe their family members and recognize people who literally look and behave just like them. Of course, there are always exceptions as with anything, but that is not the point of this post. I simply wanted to acknowledge the similarities again for comparison and perhaps as an example to which others may be able to relate.
*Note: Now, of course, people face rejection in all kinds of ways. I'm not playing the violin here. It's simply that this blog focuses on discussing adoption and in particular adoption from an adult adoptee's experience. Although I am aware of the myriad of social injustices and causes out there that many would deem much more significant and tragic, I am not trying to win a competition, just hoping to educate and serve those connected to adoption. Why do I constantly feel the need to add disclaimers and justifications for why it's acceptable for me to address adoption issues? Alas, that's a whole other blog post...
*Note: Let it also be noted that this blog entry does not even begin to address all the unethical events and malpractices that surround the practice of adoption. I write specifically about the individual adoptee experience more than I address the flaws and defects of the system as a whole. But if you really want to get into the actual practice of adoption--all the trauma, pain, and suffering that occur collectively--one cannot deny that the practice of adoption can and does result in the hurt, abuse, and neglect of more children and families than most like to admit. For as much good as adoption may do, there is also much harm unfortunately, that accompanies it. While there are people and groups addressing these atrocities and malpractices, there is a side to adoption that is often ignored and swept under the rug...
(I recommend reading this if you wrestle with the assumption that all adoptees who examine their adoption experiences beyond "the happy, grateful" expectation or exterior are automatically ungrateful and unloving toward their adoptive families, or if you tend to think that adoption is a "good lesson" for all the world to embrace.)