Sugar and Diamonds

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Some years ago, at an AAC conference, an adult adoptee showed me the letter written about her to her prospective adoptive parents in 1944. The letter was from The Willows, a well-known maternity “home” in Kansas City. It said, in part, “The baby has a well-shaped head and appears normal. Although she has red hair, we have enclosed a sample of her hair, so that you can see it is not too bright a shade of red.” I met this woman several years ago, and her hair is still red! Apparently, her adoptive grandfather had said he didn't want a red-headed grandchild, and the agency was trying to overcome his reluctance. They also said “We can keep this baby until the fifteenth of March if you can come for her then. Bring six bottles of formula and two blankets for the trip home.” They might have added, “bring your money.” The agency's letterhead said “The Willows—Superior Babies for Adoption.” Along with the letter was included the following little poem, written in fine script with a decorative border.

As bends the sapling, so grows the giant oak.
'Tis not the reversal of species, but the development of species the forester seeks and attains.
Pride not yourself that you are better than your humble neighbor, the untutored lout, or the depraved Apache. Rather thank the fates that fortune favored you in your education and training during the formative years.
If the royal offspring falls into the hands of the depraved at birth and the child of the gutter occupies the royal cradle, then the royal one is educated a “gutter snipe” and the humble blood grows a prince.

When money changes hands in adoption, which is necessary to some degree, although not the extravagant amounts we sometimes hear about, it all too often and too easily leads to a “bought and paid for” mind-set.
     From an adult's point of view, I can tell you there is grief and loss in every adoption, even in open adoptions, for each triad member, and also joy for the adoptive parents, and possible joy for the adoptee. For birth parents, there is possible relief, but not joy over their decision to relinquish. There is loss no matter what. Adoption is almost always about poverty, either established or threatened. More affluent people adopt, less affluent people relinquish. This is true in adoptions through the foster system, in international adoptions, in private adoptions and agency adoptions, and even in intra-family adoptions.
     For adoptees, there is a deep underlying feeling they “don't fit, no matter what.” This is not about the adoptive parents, who are trying their best. Adoptees do not really have their heritage, in either family. Heritage is deeper than information, deeper than someone knowing their racial background, how to fix their hair, deeper than folk dancing, deeper than language, and far more subtle.
     Adoptees also receive negative messages about who they are, no matter how careful adoptive parents are. Society, schools, churches, doctors' offices, all carry negative messages about the very fact of adoption and lack of information, an assumption that something was wrong with the birth parents, or their culture, or with the adoptee, something so bad we don't want to talk about it.
     Adoptive parents also have great losses. They may feel like imposters, pretending to be the “real” parents and then wondering why they sometimes feel unreal. Adoption does not “remedy” infertility, however connected they feel to the child. Closed adoptions have not made parents feel closer or more secure, but quite the opposite, because the unknown is feared. Very few people start out wanting to adopt, so there is a loss of those fantasy children. It is hard not to feel they have “earned,” “bought,” or “won” the child, even into his/her adulthood. “We were blessed with these children” can also mean “we worked hard to get these children and we own them.”
     All adoptions are cross-cultural to some degree, as alluded to in the opening quote. All marriages are also cross-cultural to some degree. The classic example is whether one's family put a star or an angel on top of the Christmas tree, but it is also whether to have a tree, whether to have a dog or cat or lots of both and rabbits, too, whether to drive a Chevy or Ford or Toyota. I was so relieved to learn my son's adoptive family drove GM cars! Just because a child is adopted at birth does not mean they come as a blank slate. Some characteristics are deeper than environment, and probably different from DNA.
     The following statements are important for therapists as well as adoptive parents, for all adults who are searching, and for society at large.
     Withholding information is disrespectful to all concerned and serves mainly to protect the power of agencies, attorneys, or other brokers, and keeps the truth in shadow. There is a difference between secrets and privacy: privacy protects one's integrity, while secrets destroy integrity, trust, honesty, and promote fear.
     In recent years, laws have been passed that distinguish between privacy and secrets, such as HIPAA, to protect one's medical privacy but also allow one access to their own records, and a Public Law that states one has the right to access to one's medical information. This public law should be used by birth parents and adoptees trying to get their hospital birth records. ICWA, the Indian Child Welfare Act, is intended to protect Native American children from losing their heritage, by mandating that if adoption is necessary, the first choice is the child's own family; the next option is the child's own tribe or nation; the next option is another Native American tribe; only if none of that is possible is adoption by non-Natives to be considered. This law was passed in response to generations of Native children being removed from their families, their homes, and their heritage, for adoption by Anglos, sometimes for the benefit of the child, but all too often for the benefit of Anglo parents who wanted a “project” or “something different” or for some religious benefit.
     There was almost always a great deal of sorrow, grief, and brokenness for adoptees, birth parents, and even for adoptive parents, too often disappointed in these hapless children. We look back and see how foolish it was, but most people meant well.
     Many persons, not just those affected by adoption, have what we call carried trauma, carried loss. A man I knew who was adopting two children from Siberia said he was told by a taxi driver there, “You must know that everyone in Siberia has a heritage of sadness. No one asked to come here. Most people were sent here, like a prison. Their children and grandchildren carry that sadness to this day.” What a wise man! Many families have carried trauma, either culturally (slavery, The Long Walk, Trail of Tears, Scottish and Irish Clearances, etc.) or as a family, in terms of abuse, poverty, prison, disabilities, or just plain lack of love and acceptance. I believe that brokenness can be repaired, but I also believe that carried trauma results in scars, a kind of cirrhosis of the soul. Scars can be a source of shame, or just part of the tapestry of one's identity.
     When you insult birth parents, you insult the adoptee, by extension. The adoptee, especially as a child, will take the message, “If they were bad, I am bad.” Do Not assume birth parents are or were poor, incapable, too young, not smart enough, not responsible, not caring, not loving, on drugs, promiscuous, criminals, rapists, untrustworthy, or that they have “forgotten and moved on.” Also do not assume that they have spent every minute regretting their decision to relinquish and have accomplished nothing, or that they have never had healthy relationships before or since. Do not assume they are guilty and should be forgiven (or not). A subsequent spouse or partner did not rescue the birth parent and the birth parent does not need to be forgiven nor emotionally blackmailed.
     Adoptive parents should not portray themselves as better parents or better persons than the birth parents, even when they think that, because the adoptee always will internalize that they are like the birth parents. There are certain statements I have heard from adoptive parents, including Barbara Walters and Rosie O'Donnell, but also from ordinary, well-meaning but misguided adoptive parents, such as:
     “You grew in my heart, not under it” as a way of evading answering where they did grow.
     “You were grown in the wrong uterus; God made a mistake.”
     “You were born to the wrong woman.”
     “She was just the vessel God used so that I could have you. I am your only real parent.”
     “You were meant for us.” (Were they not meant for the birth parents?)
     “God wanted us to have you, not those people.”
     “You picked us, even before you were born.”
     “We have given you what she (they) could not.”
     “We are married and Christian; your birth parents were not, and they were sinful.”
     Do Not subject an adoptee, or adoptive parents, to such treatment strategies as “re-birthing” in an effort to get the adoptee to attach to the adoptive family and disown the birth family. Difficulty attaching is probably more about the adults than the child, and a reluctance to attach is certainly a survival mechanism for a child who has been ripped apart and hurt by adults, whether birth parents, social workers, foster parents, or adoptive parents.
     There is a difference between grief, loss, sadness, shame, guilt, and depression. Often these get lumped together or confused, with the result that therapists try to treat the wrong things, and quite often try to medicate all of it out of awareness. Grief, loss, and sadness are legitimate responses to situations one cannot control. Shame, guilt, and depression may be labels we put on losses. It is important to reframe shame, guilt, and depression in all those affected by adoption as what the person may truly be experiencing—grief, loss, and sadness.
     Finally, here is an analogy for different perceptions of adoption. When one mixes sugar with water and vinegar, it forms a solution that stays that way—the three ingredients are no longer distinguishable from each other. If one mixes sugar and salt, both white crystals, they appear just about indistinguishable from each other, and are very difficult to separate again. If one mixes sugar with diamonds, both crystals, it is still very apparent which crystals are sugar and which are diamonds. They each have their own characteristics and will retain them. Adoption, like other healthy relationships, is like sugar and diamonds.

Excerpted from the October 2011 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2011 Operation Identity