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 WillowsSuperior 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
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
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
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
You picked us, even before you were
We have given you what she (they) could
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 experiencinggrief, 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 waythe 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