Letting Go, Moving On, Going Back

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     In the previous issue of this newsletter (July 2013), O.I. President Cathy Haight wrote in her column that, after taking wonderful photos of scenery, family, and her new puppy, she accidentally erased all those pictures from her camera, and had to just enjoy the memories and move on. For this writer, it has been a year or more of looking at old pictures, newspaper clippings, furniture, books, dishes, and memories associated with them, or discovering things I never knew before: about people now deceased, with whom I cannot discuss those happenings and objects. It has been a process of letting go, moving on, and sometimes going back. In conversations with others, including some in the adoption community, I found that many people have difficulty with these processes of letting go, reconnecting, and moving on. It is difficult to accept that life is not the way we have wanted, and will not become as we wish it to be, no matter how hard we try to control life.
     Certainly everyone has regrets about various decisions they have made in the past, or events that have happened. The relinquishment of a child, no matter what the circumstances, is a process that involves regrets of all sorts. Even when the decision to relinquish is voluntary, rational, and well-thought out, there is regret that such a decision should be necessary. It is never a joyous decision. There is loss and grief for everyone involved. For the child, there is unarticulated grief, even for a newborn, even though his life from then on may be quite joyous and satisfying. For adoptive parents, there may be grief at not having a birth child, but even when adoption is their first choice, there must be an admission that their gain is someone else’s loss, someone else’s regret. We do no one a favor by denying these various regrets, and associated grief. Grief for birth parents is too often mislabeled guilt and shame, and hung on to, rather than being accepted and processed.
     Some relinquishments do, in fact, involve some guilt and shame over the circumstances that led to the relinquishment, particularly in involuntary relinquishments. Unfortunately, if the birth parents continue to focus on the guilt and shame, and do not allow themselves legitimate grief, they may stay stuck, unable to let go or move on. They may avoid searching or avoid a reunion later in life in an attempt to deny their feelings to themselves, or out of fear of the consequences of contact. Even birth parents who voluntarily relinquished may not allow themselves to grieve and may believe they have done something so unforgivable that they must feel only guilt and shame, and believe that neither the relinquished offspring, nor anyone else, will forgive them. These are not rational beliefs, but they are often real to the birth parent. Such thoughts and feelings have become part of their self-image.
     Many birth parents, when a reunion does happen, find themselves wanting sane kind of forgiveness from the relinquished son or daughter, some absolute acceptance. The son or daughter, however, may either feel that there is nothing to forgive, or may have their own grief, fear, regrets, and anger. They may have been led to believe that to accept a birth parent is to reject an adoptive parent.
     Forgiveness, even when appropriate, is in the control of the offended, not the offender. It takes place in the offended one’s time, not the offender’s. To beg or demand forgiveness of someone is to offend again, as it is an attempt, however disguised, to control the offended’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Forgiveness must be freely given, not coerced. If one makes amends, one lets go of control of the outcome. Asking for forgiveness in the hope of reciprocation is a set-up for resentment when one does not receive total forgiveness and acceptance from the other. Asking for forgiveness only works is one has, in reality, already been forgiven, or if the other, in fact, was not offended anyway.
     Letting go does not mean forgetting. Obsessing on regret, guilt, shame, or grief does not enhance anyone, in this case, neither birth parent nor offspring, nor their relationship, and it usually poisons any possible healthy relationship that could be developed. Relationships do not just occur full-blown all at once, but are in a constant state of development and change. This is true of all relationships, not just parent and child.
     In a book called Finding Yourself, Finding Others, by Clark E. Moustakas (Prentice Hall, 1974), Dr. Moustakas says, “A sense of relatedness to another person is an essential requirement of individual growth. The relationship must be one in which each person is regarded as an individual with resources for his own self-development. Self-growth sometimes involves an internal struggle between dependency needs and strivings for autonomy, but the individual eventually feels free to face himself if he is in a relationship where his human capacity is recognized and cherished and where he is accepted and loved. Then he is able to develop his own quantum in life, to become more and more individualized, self-determining, and spontaneous.”
     This description of healthy relationships would be helpful for any parent, any adult child to bear in mind. Dr. Moustakas states elsewhere in the same book, “The life of any person or thing is the person’s own. Others can and do affect the environment in which potentialities can be fulfilled, but in real growth the individual alone determines the direction and what is true in his world ... ultimately, the person alone is responsible for who he chooses to be and how he actualizes potentialities.” These are words that all parents, all adults, might use as guidelines in their relationships with others.
     In the August 5, 2013, issue of Time, there is a lengthy article about a professional football player named Colin Kaepernick, who happens to be adopted, a young man who has achieved considerable financial success, and who is tattooed with various scripture quotations, including Psalms 18:39, “You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet.” To this writer, that sounds rather arrogant, not unusual for someone 25 years old, perhaps, but it may be a permanent expression of a temporary feeling.
     At any rate, his life story as presented in the article is that his adoptive parents, the Kaepernicks, had lost two sons shortly after birth to a congenital heart condition, and so decided to adopt a son rather that risk having another doomed child. He was, then, admittedly, a replacement for those sons. His birth mother was white, his birth father was black, or bi-racial. Young Colin appears quite light-skinned, although darker than his white adoptive parents.
     He is also much bigger than they are, and was not interested in entering their family cheese-making business. He states that he was only interested in finding birth parents because of his athletic ability. “I was just kind of curious about, O.K., I feel like I’m kind of tall, I can play sports pretty good, what did my parents do? ... Am I going to fit that mold where I might be able to play? That was about the extent of it.” Aside from his somewhat limited mastery of speaking, this does seem a deliberate attempt to trivialize the significance of birth parents and the importance of finding them. He apparently regards his birth mother as on of the “adversaries” who should “bow at my feet.”
     The article states that she is now a nurse living outside of Denver, and is over six feet tall, and that the identity of his birth father is not publicly known, although one assumes Colin knows it. According to the article, “At the time of Colin’s birth, she was a 19-year-old single mother who didn’t feel ready to raise a child.” This choice of wording would imply that she just blithely “didn’t feel ready,” which nearly any birth mother would say denies the agony of a decision to relinquish, in 1940, 1960, or the 1990s.
     At any rate, he found her, “exchanged messages a few times while he was in college, but he cut it off.” In most cases, it is the adoptee who stops contact, not the birth parent. They had not met. No reason is given for his withdrawal from the relationship. The article goes on to say that she did an “emotional interview with ESPN in which she described the day she gave Colin up. He wasn’t happy about it.” Apparently, he thought she was sworn to secrecy for life, and somehow took offense on behalf of his adoptive parents, which makes no sense to this writer, who is a reunited birth mother.
     He called his adoptive mother to reassure her, and interpreted her tears as her being hurt by the birth mother’s interview, and said, “To me, that was the point where I felt like my mother was attacked.” This again does not seem to make sense, although the interview itself was not quoted in the article. Now he says he is never going to meet her, because “you hurt my family, you hurt my mother.”
     The birth mother, Heidi Russo, says, “I’m sorry that’s the way he feels. I’m certainly not out here to hurt him or his family. But I am out here trying to change the stigmas and stereotypes associated with birth mothers.”
     He says he’s “clocked out” on her. “I don’t feel like you have any right to say you have any say in how things go. Because you weren’t the one working those night shifts, you weren’t the one driving me an hour and a half, two hours on the weekends to go work with a quarterback coach for an hour or two, and driving me back. My mom has gone above and beyond for so long, and I don’t feel she gets the credit she deserves for what she’s done.”
     Again, the young man is not very articulate, but he is very angry on behalf of his adoptive mother. We have no clue as to the adoptive mother’s own feelings, but the article presents no evidence that the birth mother has threatened any harm or disrespect to anyone.
     It is tempting to dismiss the young man’s remarks as those of a confused kid who thinks he has to choose between birth mother and adoptive mother, but when printed in a national magazine read by people who know nothing of reunion dynamics, it is bound to promote attitudes of how terrible birth mothers are. Apparently, by disclosing her identity and sharing her feelings, she did not “bow” at his feet!
     It would seem that a better understanding of grief might be helpful to both birth and adoptive family here, not to mention Colin Kaepernick himself. Grief can be likened to a closed fist or an open fist. Years ago, a friend’s husband died suddenly of a heart attack. A few months later, she said, “I can either hang on to my grief like a closed fist, owning it, shutting myself off, or I can have it like an open palm, being open to my feelings, and to what might lie ahead. Hanging on tightly to grief can eventually strangle good memories.” A few years later, she remarried, not because she had forgotten her first husband, nor even because she no longer grieved, but because she let herself to open to letting go and moving on.
     All parents, whether relinquishing at birth or sending them out into the world when they are grown, must eventually give those children to the universe, and let go of trying to control the outcomes of their lives. Whether adopted or related by birth, they are not our clones.
     Birth daughters/sons cannot fully know the birth parents’ grief, nor should they always be reminded. Birth parents cannot fully know their offsprings’ losses, nor should they constantly be told. Again, it cuts off the chance of a healthy relationship in the here and now in exchange for an indulgence in self-pity. It does not mean one should never express true feelings of regret and loss, but dwelling on them limits possible joy and peace. Sometimes the reason adoptees withdraw from relationships with birth parents is due to the above-described dynamics, sometimes due to a misguided idea that to have a healthy relationship with birth parents means cutting off adopted parents in some way. Adoptive parents may share this perception due to their own fears, or they may not feel this way at all, but the adoptee assumes they do, picking up on society’s attitude that birth parents are evil, grasping, inadequate persons, or at the very least, mentally or emotionally deficient, in that they were unable (perceived as unwilling) to raise their child. Their only hope of redemption of any sort, according to this view, is that they remain forever hidden in the background, or if found by the adoptee, be forever humble and grateful for any bit of private recognition, but never publicly acknowledge their parenthood in any way, because they don’t “deserve” to, having not been “the ones staying up at night with a sick child,” etc.
     Relationships of all sorts do change over time, particularly those between parents and children. Children grow up, for one thing. Their ideas, opinions, and decisions will not always mesh with parents, whether birth or adoptive. Parents also change, and I mature, or not. Some would seek to maintain their same level of maturity, and same level of relationship, with sons and daughters that they had with them when they were children. When a birth parents meets a relinquished son or daughter, they are not meeting the infant or child they relinquished—both parent and child have had life experiences that did not include each other. This is true, to a lesser degree, even in open adoptions. Adoptive parents also need to realize that their son or daughter, now an adult or probably at least an adolescent is no longer a vulnerable infant or child in need of protection, and will not be kidnapped by the birth parent. Their own fears, just like the birth parents’ or adoptees’, can sabotage the possibility of healthy relationships among all the parents and offspring. Adoptive and birth siblings are part of dynamics as well.
     Moving on does not mean forgetting either events or feelings, but it does mean looking forward rather than backward. It means being open to new possibilities. This is true of all relationships, all parent-child relationships, with those we raised as well as those we did not, or even those children we hoped for and did not have. It’s also true from the adult child’s perspective. Most of us did not have the parents of our fondest fantasies, even if we had adequate parents, and some did not have adequate parents. Moving on may mean letting go of those fantasies of the perfect parents. Going back, in most cases, is not so much a literal action, though it might involve reunions, grave visits, photos or letters, but it is more of a mental and emotional journey, to come to terms with what was and what is, to facilitate moving on to embrace reality and possibilities. For those who have experienced international adoptions, going back may involve a literal, physical trip back to the birth country, back to an orphanage or “finding place,” and may also be important in the process of moving on, while embracing all the aspects of one’s self. Again, to quote Dr. Moustakas, “The relational world is individual, yet it is universal. These two elements of selfhood—uniqueness and universality—grow together, until at last the most unique becomes the most universal.”

Excerpted from the October 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity