Tragedy, Triumph, or Tapestry?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LADAC

     In the past, I’ve written a lot about trauma and healing. Recently, I have begun reading and thinking about how people handle adversity, and how that reinforces or diminishes trauma for them. Some adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents seem to survive and even thrive, not in spite of, but even in light of, their adoption connections. Others appear to have multiple problems, and feel that they are victims of their adoption, relinquishment, or adoptive parent situation. Still others seem to weave their history into the tapestry of their lives and do not view adoption issues as the most significant part of their lives, although acknowledging that it is an important part of their identity. What could be some reasons for such dramatic differences?
     As I began contemplating these ideas, I read several books which are not adoption-related, and which might appear to be completely separate from adoption issues, but they are not. I found them significant for me as a birth mother, but also found many clues in them about adoptees, adoptive parents, and even other family members affected by someone’s adoption. The books are: Deep Survival and Everyday Survival, both by Laurence Gonzales, and The Survivor Personality, by Al Siebert. I will quote from these books in this paper. In The Survivor Personality, author Siebert says, “Reports of survivor stories rarely include the person’s self-talk during the ordeal, seldom include step by step descriptions of how they problem-solved situations, and may not report any actions that would upset the public. ... It isn’t what a person is like, it is how a person interacts with situations that determines survival.” Peter Levine, in Waking the Tiger, a book I’ve frequently referred to, states, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. Not only can it be healed, but with appropriate guidance and support, it can be transformative. ... The healing of trauma depends upon the recognition of its symptoms.”
     Siebert states that stress will either break people altogether if they are too weak already to stand distress, or, if they are already strong, the stress will strengthen them and temper them, like turning iron into steel. What makes the difference? Some attack and blame others, while some feel victims, ruined for life. Others feel overwhelmed and go numb. Most eventually cope but never fully recover, while people who thrive will get upset but then expect things to turn out well. Trauma brings out the victim or the survivor in each of us.
     I started on this particular reading journey when I heard Gonzales interviewed on public radio about his books and what he had observed about people who survived situations that were incredible, and others who did not survive. As I listened, I thought about the fact that some birth parents survive and even find great meaning in their lives because of their history. I thought of others, from all parts of the adoption triad, who seem to see themselves as victims, and while surviving in a physical sense, do not thrive, do not seem to be able to put their adoption stories into the overall picture of their lives, and do not seem able to incorporate their relinquishment or their adoption into a positive view of themselves and their lives.
     In another book that I often use, Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman, she says “Janet spoke of the person’s need to ‘assimilate1 and ‘liquidate1 traumatic experience, which, when accomplished, produces a feelings of ‘triumph’ ... Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships... Traumatic events destroy the victim’s fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world, the positive value of the self, and the meaningful order of creation.” Gonzales says the first rule in survival is FACE REALITY. He states that survivors aren’t immune to fear, but are open to the changing nature of their environment. He says, “Foxhole humor is well known among soldiers and is an essential ingredient for survival anywhere, from being adrift at sea to finding yourself in the middle of a divorce or enduring a loved one’s death.” I would assert that unplanned pregnancies, relinquishment, search and reunion, and being adopted, also qualify as survivor situations. He says survival is an ability to have a different point of view, an ability to find logic to the misery we bring upon ourselves and our triumph over it or our failure in the face of it.
     Some adoptees, not relinquished at birth, but removed from their birth homes due to neglect, abuse, war, or extreme poverty, almost certainly have trauma. Children who have spent long periods of time in orphanages or foster care may have similar trauma issues. These were not single incidents of trauma, but on-going, process trauma. It is not surprising that many of these individuals have difficulty overcoming their trauma and developing positive self-concepts, and might require long-term therapy, which might or might not really help them. This was not well understood when people began adopting children from Eastern European orphanages several years ago, and is not always understood by agencies or adoptive parents who adopt children from foster care. It is also not always understood by therapists who are not adoptees or birth parents. Yet, many persons, even with backgrounds of incredible abuse, loss, and deprivation not only survive mentally and emotionally intact, but live rewarding lives and help others. An example of this was featured on the news recently. This child had witnessed her father killing her mother and sister, for which he went to prison. The surviving child was placed with an experienced foster family, who despaired for some time of her ever being able to live any kind of meaningful life.
     She screamed night and day, fought everyone around her, could not sleep, and could not accept love or attention. The foster mother said she would think “I’ll just keep her until noon, and if I can’t take it another day, I’ll have to take her back.” But every day she persisted. Then the child asked to visit the baby sister’s grave. They took hart She talked to this baby sister for some time, saying, “You died, and I got to live. I’ll live for you.” From that time on, she began to improve. The foster family adopted her. She grew up to be a loving, happy, generous young woman, graduated from high school and is now in college with the goal of helping others. There are many factors here, including the persistent foster parents, but this girl had some sort of strong survivor instinct that enabled her to take care of herself, first by fighting off anyone she thought she couldn’t trust, and later by learning to trust herself and appropriate others. She ceased being a victim, became a true survivor, and then was able to turn her trauma into part of the tapestry of her life. Perhaps, in visiting her sister’s grave, even at eight years old, she could envision a future, not just a past.
     There are other adoptees who appear on the surface to have experienced only love, acceptance, and the best of opportunities, but who cannot seem to get beyond their initial loss or the fact of their relinquishment and adoption. Some of them find reunion with birth family to be a great help, but some do not. Some have “successful” reunions and develop healthy relationships, while others become even more unhappy, because they don’t find birth family, what they found wasn’t what they had hoped, or the relationship didn’t develop the way they had fantasized. They may cut off the relationship or sabotage it. Some may say, “I had no expectations,” and yet are disappointed in their birth family, so they must have actually had rather specific expectations. Others refuse to search at all, saying, “If she (they) loved me, she (they) would search for me,” or they search half-heartedly, wishing the reunion could just come to them with little or no effort or cost on their part. They have a lot of anger, a lot of grief, and a lot of pain, which leads to self-defeating behavior and self-sabotage. Some seem to seek a kind of magic by going to psychics or looking at pictures of well-known people, with fantasies that those people might be their birth parents, instead of searching through legitimate avenues. It may be that such people have incomplete self-concepts; in other words, they literally don’t know who they are, and have not formed a definite internal sense of self, so they are looking outward to try to find that sense of self. Siebert’s definitions of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept are helpful here. Self-esteem is one’s emotional opinion of self. External sources of approval are not the real source of anyone’s self-esteem. Self-confidence refers to how well one expects to do in a new activity. It is an action predictor. People with strong self-confidence know they can count on themselves even more than they can count on anyone else. Self-concept refers to one’s idea about who and what one is. Gonzales says, “Experience makes the person.”
     For persons with an incomplete self-concept, because they don’t quite feel real, nothing else seems more real than anything else. Some refuse to spend money for a search, even if they can afford it, stating they shouldn’t have to pay for what is rightfully theirs. While that may be true, the possible results of finding information would seem to be more important than the righteousness of insisting that it’s unfair that they can’t get that information easily and for free. Perhaps some feel they don’t deserve to spend money, time, or effort. For some, the fantasy family they may have constructed seems surer, more comforting and familiar, and more under their control, than the risk of reality and accepting whoever and whatever real family they might find. Although some will claim never to have had fantasies of birth family, the truth is everyone has fantasies of another family, of a future spouse (when one is a child or adolescent), of a desired career or identity. It may be that if one has only a fuzzy concept of self, those fantasies are also fuzzy, but at some level, they do exist.
     Siebert says, “A few people are born survivors. ... The rest of us need to work consciously to develop our abilities ... people seldom tap into their deepest strengths and abilities until forced to do so by a major adversity.” In Everyday Survival, Gonzales says, “Although it’s easy to pass through life as if in a waking dream, we can enrich our lives, make ourselves more effective, and sometimes even cast a protective web around ourselves and our children, by a habit of knowing—a craving to know—our world and ourselves and by the simple act of consciously paying attention.”
     Other adoptees decide to search on their own without benefit of an intermediary, registry, or network. This is perhaps becoming more common with the existence of the Internet, as searching on one’s own seems like it ought to be easy. Some, again, say they want to take charge and do it themselves. Some are successful, but others are not, or spend much more time and even more money, than if they had utilized systems already in place. Private detectives, for instance, are usually more expensive and less successful than court-appointed intermediaries. Some persons ask for support, clues and guidance from adoptive family in their efforts, while others keep it a secret, at least until they find birth family, and some even after that. Some have been reunited for years and are still trying to keep it a secret from adoptive family, or pressuring some family members to keep it a secret from other family members. Some wait until adoptive parents are dead to search, and, of course, there are those who only learn of their adoption after the adoptive parents’ deaths. For those who knew they were adopted but did not search until after their parents’ deaths, they frequently say didn’t want to hurt them, assuming without asking that adoptive parents would be hurt, angry, rejecting, or fearful. In many cases, this means they have lost the chance to learn information the adoptive parents may have had, and also lost the chance for adoptive parents and birth parents to meet and know each other. Others have, indeed, been told by adoptive parents or siblings not to search. Still others did not allow themselves to consciously desire to search, even if encouraged by adoptive parents. Some are given information by adoptive parents when the parents are literally on their death beds, or by one parent after the other one dies. In some cases, the second parent reveals the adoption only after the first parent dies, stating that the first parent insisted upon never telling the adoptee. Or the adoptee has found out through other means, but doesn’t tell the adoptive parents they know. In a case I knew of in my childhood, the young woman was going to school and church with a full sibling, enough older to remember when they were removed from the birth home, and the two girls knew they were sisters, but the younger one had never been told she was adopted. After her adoptive mother died, she told her father she had known for some time. Eventually, these two sisters found several more siblings and kept in touch.
     Yet, there are many adoptees who admit they always wanted to search, or at least have more information, and some make it a definite goal, such as, “When I’m 18, I will find my birth parents.” Some are strongly encouraged in this by adoptive parents, some not. Some then hesitate when they do reach adulthood, until something triggers a desire strong enough to overcome the costs and the risks. Sometimes that’s a marriage, birth of a child, an illness, meeting other adoptees who’ve searched and found, or even meeting someone who might be a relative. In rare but well-documented cases, adoptees grew up attending school with siblings or cousins, or even dated a sibling or cousin with no conscious knowledge of the connections. In one case, a man who did not know he was adopted, was contacted by a sister whom he had previously dated. He learned that his best friend was also a full sibling, as well as his workout partner, who had grown up in the same household as the sister. She had begun searching when the brother with whom she grew up had a serious illness. She learned that there were 13 siblings in all, some of whom knew they were adopted, some who didn’t know, and some who were raised by the birth parents. There are also those who have discovered birth parents at work or in their own town, and neither knew until one of them searched. Some have discovered they were actually raised by birth relatives, such as aunts or uncles, or that their parents were actually their grandparents and “sister” was actually their birth mother. Sometimes, even without secrets, this pattern of inter-generational intra-family adoption goes on for several generations. I went to college with a woman who had been adopted by her step-grandmother and who referred to her birth mother as her “natal” mother. There was a lot of jealousy and triangulation in this family. Then she married a guy who, looking back, had some sexual identity or orientation issues. They had one child, with whom they had an odd “ownership” type of relationship. Then this daughter had a daughter, was subsequently disowned by them and then they legally adopted this granddaughter and are raising her, albeit with more resentment than joy, to judge from the Christmas letters my former college roommate still sends.
     For many adoptees, no doubt the majority, their adoptive status is an important part of their identity, their self-concept, but not their only or even major focus. They may search, or are found by birth family, and it becomes more important than before, but may not change the course of their lives or identities. For others, finding this new knowledge, and new people in their lives, is exciting, comforting, troubling, or confusing, and sometimes all of the above. It may mean juggling another family, or even two, at holidays and events like weddings and births. In families where loyalty is a big issue, in the sense of control, holidays, vacations, grandchildren and inheritance becomes extremely important. Other families have a more inclusive outlook that welcomes more extended family, and they try not to pressure adopted or birth members to take care of everyone else’s feelings, or control others. They tend to have few secrets, flexible boundaries, and respect for each others’ privacy and decisions. They have more complete and more positive self-concepts. As our culture has more and more full-disclosed adoptions, it will be interesting to see how adoptive and birth family dynamics play out. Will most families tend to say “We’re all one big family” or will some adopted persons feel they have to parcel out their time, attention, and love equally to several families, or that one part of the family must get more love, loyalty, time, etc.? Will they be able to form this large tapestry of their lives, or will they feel they have many separate parts? Kids growing up with parents and stepparents deal with these issues, most of them successfully, so it’s not a matter of whether children (and later, adults) of open adoption can navigate through complicated families, but how they do that.
     Sally File, the co-founder of Operation Identity, is an example of someone who is a survivor. Adopted as an infant, she grew up knowing she was adopted, says she felt positive about that, that she was somehow especially loved. She developed a positive self-concept. When she searched, she found a birth mother who loved her, and then she used her new-found search skills to help others. She incorporated her adoptive and reunited status into her life and identity, building a whole life around that. She also welcomed children, stepchildren, and other family into her life. When illness came, she dealt with that. She says she made a very conscious decision at one point not to live in fear any longer. She became what Gonzales calls a deep survivor. Then when cancer threatened her life this past year, she quickly calculated the risks and developed a plan for treatment and for coping with it, and for continuing her life, or dealing with possible death. As I was reading Deep Survival. I thought of Sally.
     Gonzales says, “Psychologists who study survival say that people who are rule followers don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit. When a patient is told he has six months to live, he has two choices: to accept the news and die, or to rebel and live. People who survive cancer in the face cf such a diagnosis are notorious. The medical staff observes that they are ‘bad patients,’ unruly, troublesome. They don’t follow directions. They question everything. They’re annoying. They’re survivors.... We must plan. But we must be able to let go of the plan, too.” Sally followed the doctors’ plans, but she added her own plan, which included living life to the fullest. She has been a role model for many people over the years, and will continue to be.
     Birth parents may see themselves as victims, as survivors, or may see their status as part of the tapestry of their lives. Some have kept their secrets for years, while others, even though they were told “Never tell anyone,” told their friends, spouses, children, and other trusted people. Interestingly, there are many who were near-misses to being birth parents, who may or may not have similar issues of secrecy. Oprah Winfrey, in her magazine O, wrote in February 2007 of her own teenage pregnancy, which resulted in a child that, unfortunately, died soon after birth. She had kept this sad secret for years until a half-sister revealed it, for money, to the National Enquirer. Aside from the feelings of betrayal that she experienced, she found a relief in having the secret out. She says she had finally been able to talk about her sexual abuse, but not the pregnancy and baby’s death. When the secret came out, she dreaded everyone’s reaction, expecting to be shamed all over again. Instead, she found support. She says, “For 20 years, I had been expecting a reaction that never came. And I soon realized that having the secret out was liberating. Not until then could I begin the repair work on my spirit for the sexual abuse and damage done to me as a young girl. ... I realized that all those years, I had been blaming myself. That, even more than the betrayal, is what had kept me in bed from Friday (when the secret came out) until Monday. ... What I learned from that first betrayal is that when you have nothing to be ashamed of, when you know who you are and what you stand for, you stand in wisdom. Insight. Strength and protection. You stand in peace.” In other words, she was at last able to incorporate it into her self-concept and into the tapestry of her life. She ceased being a victim.
     Many other young women, and young men, missed being birth parents because they got married when someone got pregnant. One of my former college roommates happened to get pregnant the same week I did, right before graduation. She married, I didn’t. She got to raise her daughter, I relinquished my son. One of the most helpful things during that time for both of us was writing to each other, sharing our mutual situations, supporting each other. I married the next year, and we both had bad marriages. Years later, I re-met a woman I’d known briefly in college, who had also become pregnant that week, married, had a great marriage, and was open about all of it. What was the difference? If everyone who had sex in May 1965 could talk about it in appropriate settings, we might have a healthier society, because plenty were having sex, married or not, in May 1965. Plenty of children were conceived then. But only some parents, and some offspring, have secrets about that.
     Some birth parents, including birth fathers, never get beyond relinquishing. They do see themselves at some level as victims, even though they may be blaming themselves for the pregnancy, the relinquishment, and their inability to have raised this child. Some who did marry when pregnant also continue to blame themselves and feel great shame, even though they have these children they love very much. I met a woman still feeling guilt and shame after thirty years, blaming herself for her children’s cystic fibrosis, saying it was God’s punishment because she and her husband had sex before they were married. In addition to her terrible grief (one of her children died from the disease), she was still carrying unnecessary guilt and shame.
     However, just because a woman does not have subsequent children or does not marry, does not necessarily mean she is still stuck, confused, crazy, wracked with guilt and shame, or that she is physically infertile. Many women have one child and do not have more. They may or may not be physically infertile. We need to distinguish between fecund (having offspring) and fertile (physically able to get pregnant). There are numerous instances of doctors tying tubes, giving unnecessary hysterectomies, and inserting poorly designed lUDs, which have resulted in actual infertility. Many birth mothers have been promiscuous after the grief of relinquishment and the label of “damaged goods,” and have STDs as a result. Some women, indeed, have decided they cannot bear to have another child. Some have raised stepchildren. Some have chosen not to marry to have a partner. Some were told, “No one will ever marry you because you’ve had a child,” and they believed it, so they consciously or unconsciously avoided relationships that might lead to love or marriage. Parents and religious institutions or leaders were particularly apt to have told young women these things, although some doctors also conveyed this message. The “rule followers” tended to believe it, but other young women, not always the most assertive in other ways, did not. They insisted upon seeing their babies, they promised themselves they would find their child later, they told friends and prospective spouses, and recognized their sadness was about not being able to raise their child, not shame and guilt for having had sex. Some “unwed mothers’ homes” instilled the idea that they must never mention the father’s name, let alone contact him, that, in fact, they must use an assumed name or only their first name while in this “home” and wear a fake wedding ring if they were allowed outside (as if several 15-year-old pregnant married females just happened to always emerge from that house) and must not even discuss their boyfriends or pregnancies with the other residents, or keep in touch with them after leaving. Again, some actually followed these rules, but others did not. They made phone calls to birth fathers, they disclosed their real full names to the other girls, they kept in touch later, and some deliberately wrote letters back to friends or acquaintances in their home towns, saying, “I’m not visiting my aunt. I’m stuck in an unwed mother’s home. Please spread the word. I don’t want to be here.” These so-called homes could have been places of bonding and healing, even in that fairly repressed era, if they had encouraged sharing of stories, making the best decisions about relinquishment, and had some good therapists on staff. The truth is, of course, there was no professional training for therapists on how to help birth parents. There still isn’t, except for conferences and the writings of birth parents. Those women who actually report having had positive experiences at one of these “homes” are usually the deep survivors, who have the skills to take a situation, assess reality, make a plan, and follow it, adapting the plan to fit the situation.
     Some birth mothers were able, at lease at some point in their pregnancies, to see themselves as more like surrogate mothers, now called gestational carriers —in other words, since they could not keep and raise the child, they would do their best to ensure the health and well-being of the baby and then relinquish him/her to loving adoptive parents. They could see themselves as having the power to provide someone with a child, and reframe their situation as “This is what I still have control of, even under these circumstances.” Perhaps more could have done this with the right help and support. They did not see this as the end of their lives, the end of their right to have relationships and children. This does not mean they had not trauma, no grief, no regrets about relinquishing a child. It does mean they were more apt to see themselves as responsible for their lives, not as victims or evil-doers. This was perhaps easier for adult birth mothers than teens.
     The other stereotype of birth parents, or producing numerous children, in or out of marriage, of being either overprotective of subsequent children or not caring much at all, is also not accurate. There was a myth for a long time that birth mothers were “oversexed” and that this was perhaps genetic, so adoptive parents should keep their adopted daughters (not so much sons) from any opportunity for sex in adolescence. Sometimes this was the viewpoint even of adoptive parents who had sex themselves before and outside of marriage. Apparently, it didn’t count if one did not actually produce a child who was relinquished! One must also consider birth parents who married each other later and had more children, or who were married at the time but relinquished a child under pressure to continue their education or because they were poor. There are also untold numbers of birth fathers who never had any knowledge they were fathers, or who were told not to see the girl anymore or acknowledge that she was pregnant. Many of these men have carried guilt and shame themselves for years, felt worthless, never fathered another child, or fathered many trying to make up for losing one. As a therapist, I have encountered several of these men. They were not callous louts. They had tried to shove down their feelings for years.
     There are many birth parents who do “move on” with their lives, but it does not mean they forget. They do not forget the pregnancy, they way they were treated, the way they felt about the child, their own state of mind at the time, and unless they were heavily medicated or extremely traumatized, they do not forget the birth and the early days afterward. Many women who thought they had repressed their memories out of grief, guilt, or whatever, have since learned that they were given large doses of sedatives, tranquillizers, antidepressants, and/or amnesiac drugs during labor and delivery or even during the entire pregnancy. Many times, this was done with good intentions, to combat nausea, depression, anxiety, or pain, but also to “help” her forget she ever had this child. In addition, she may have been completely anesthetized during labor and delivery so that she would not see the child nor learn the sex, even. This also made it easy for a doctor to surreptitiously tie her fallopian tubes, or perform some other procedure to make it impossible or less probable that she would become pregnant again. Birth mothers, with extremely few exceptions, made the best decisions they could make at that time, given their circumstances, society’s attitudes, the financial reality for single women, their family’s support or lack thereof, their age, educational level, and hope for the future of the child and themselves. Some allowed others to take charge of the decisions, particularly their parents and adoption agencies, while others insisted upon retaining as much control of their lives as was possible. Those who did, overall, fared better in their lives, particularly if they did not keep the secret from everyone, but told those they trusted.
     There are also, of course, many birth parents who did not relinquish their children at birth nor voluntarily. Sometimes papers were forged by a girl’s parents, or even by someone else, but in many cases, children were removed from the birth home at a later date, by relatives or by the state. Sometimes there were charges of neglect or abuse; sometimes these charges were appropriate, but many times they were not. Single mothers are much more apt to lose their children than married ones, given the same problems. In generations past, when there was no daycare, no aid for dependent children, and not even a foster system, mothers might resort to placing their children in orphanages, with the hope of returning later for them, only to find they had been adopted by someone, their parental rights terminated without their consent. We have had people come to O.I. who were those children. Nancy Parkhill, whose book we have, was such a child. Now, it’s more likely that a child gets placed in foster care. The parent(s) may or may not regain custody, and a child adopted from that system may or may not be able to continue contact with at least some birth family. It is important to remember that, no matter the circumstances, the child has a bond with that parent, and well-meaning agencies or adoptive parents cannot break that bond, particularly when the child is old enough to have solid memories. This is not to say there are never valid reasons for removing a child from a home, or even restricting contact, but everyone is entitled to their truth and their information. Even parents who were not doing a good job deserve help, support and a chance to improve. Many times, poverty is the real cause of neglect and abuse.
     Birth parents who do not search for their offspring in adulthood have generally been told it was illegal, unethical, impossible, selfish, or dangerous, or they were told they were supposed to forget, and they feel that they must be even more defective because they never forgot. Again, some are rule followers, and others see those rules as wrong and are determined to find their children. Most have fantasies of being reunited with their children, either through their own efforts, the child’s, or through “fate.” Some are afraid, particularly if they’ve kept the secret from spouse or subsequent children. Some decide to search on their own, while others find an intermediary system somehow affirms their right to search, and provides a buffer for them if the offspring does not want contact. Just as with adoptees who search, birth parents have to face their various fantasies, hopes, and fears, develop a plan, and accept the reality of whatever they find. Survivor types are able to do this more easily than those who see themselves as victims. Again, others cannot tell from the outside what a woman or man thinks and feels on the inside. One’s self-concept and self-image are more important than outer appearance or accomplishments.
     Where do adoptive parents fit into this? It might seem that their issues are entirely different, or that they would not see themselves as victims, at least not after they are able to adopt. Some have not resolved infertility issues and therefore feel they are victims of fate in that way, or that the medical system did not help them enough. Others feel victimized by adoption agencies, by long waits and invasive home studies. Some are resentful that a spouse is infertile, or that they waited too long to attempt to have a child. Others, who may not have fertility issues, may have attitudes toward birth parents who have voluntarily relinquished a child, or toward birth parents whose children have been removed from them. It is difficult not to convey these attitudes toward any child they adopt. They may be afraid of losing the child to “stalking” birth parents. Television programs, movies, books, and other stories reinforce these fears. Recently, a television drama featured birth parents who went to the adoptive home, stabbed the adoptive father, and kidnaped the baby. I turned it off at that point. The continued practice of even “semi-open” adoptions, where birth parents and adoptive parents do not really know each other and where all contact is still through the agency, help instill the attitude of fear in adoptive parents and in adoptees. After all, if a birth parent cannot be trusted with adoptive parents’ names, addresses, telephone numbers, they must be seen as defective or even dangerous. If they are dangerous, what of their offspring? Are they also defective or dangerous? Sometimes, adoptive parents believe that if their children are to bond with them, it will be easier if the birth parents are unavailable or deemed unworthy of their children’s love. However, that is not the way bonding and attachment work. The child internalizes negative messages about birth parents as being negative messages about self, and has a negative self-concept. Many of the ideas about being rejected by birth parents stem from what a person was told about birth parents. When someone is searching for birth parents, or is unsure about searching, they may say they’re “afraid of being rejected again,” when, in fact, birth parents never rejected them in the first place. This is not to deny or minimize the loss that an infant feels at being born and not hearing his mother’s voice again, or having her there, or having that visual mirroring of birth parents while growing up. People who believe they were rejected tend to believe there was something about them that caused the rejection, and knowing they were only infants at the time, they tend to conclude that they were victims of this rejection. Adoptive parents sometimes unknowingly plant these ideas because they also feel like victims.
     Other adoptive parents, married or single, have assessed the situation, decided they want a child and set about making a plan for adoption, for sperm or egg donation, for surrogacy, for being a foster parent, or whatever they decide makes sense given their particular situation. These are the survivor personality types. Again, they tend to see having a child as very important, but have other parts of their self-image, such as career, talents, relationships, and their place in the universe. They may come to their survivor philosophy early on, or only through a long series of experiences and internal changes. Gradually, they figure out who they are and what is most important to them.
     In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales says, “In daily life, people operate on the necessary illusion that they know where they are. Most of the time, they don’t. The only time most people are not lost to some degree is when they are at home. It’s quite possible to know the route from one place to another without knowing precisely where you are. That’s why streets have signs. Nevertheless, most people normally have enough route knowledge to get them where they’re going. If they don’t ... they get lost.” Some people may have always felt a bit lost, and when situations come about that are not familiar to them, they feel disoriented and out of control. Unplanned pregnancies, severe illness, finding out one is adopted, or knowing it but knot knowing what to do about it, having a grown son or daughter contact you when you’d been told he/she was dead—these are all very disorienting things that cause one to feel lost. Some people seem to stay lost, while others look around at their world, assess their situation, and begin to plan and adapt. Not only is this important for physical survival in emergency situations, but is just as important to surviving mentally and emotionally in life. Sharon Fieker writes in I Choose This Day, “My blackest time was placing my baby daughter for adoption at her birth in 1969 without ever seeing her. My brightest time was when she found me in 1995.”
     Sharon had spent a long time finding herself and becoming a deep survivor. Gonzales goes on to say, “Psychologists have observed that one of the most basic human needs, beginning at birth, is to be gazed upon by another. Mothers throughout the world have been observed spending long periods staring into the eyes of their babies with a characteristic tilt of the head. To be seen is to be real, and without another to gaze upon us, we are nothing.” Adoptive parents as well as birth parents may spend those long hours staring into their babies’ eyes. This may be part of what’s missing in orphanages and in foster homes where there are many children.
     For all of us, we can make a decision today to become deep survivors, even if we have not thought of ourselves in that way previously. It will not be easy, but it can be done. You can learn to weave all of your life experiences into the tapestry of your life. In The Survivor Personality, author Al Siebert says, “Your past experiences will always be a part of you. You can’t eradicate them, but even the most horrible experiences can be dealt with so they do not ruin your life. It is possible, also, that by working to overcome your emotional trauma, you go beyond recovery. You may develop a stronger, better version of yourself than you suspected could exist.”
     May you be a deep survivor and continue weaving a beautiful tapestry of your life, no matter what comes along!


Fieker, Sharon, I Choose This Day, Tate Publishing, 2006.
Gonzales, Laurence, Deep Survival, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.
Gonzales, Laurence, Everyday Survival, W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Groopman, Jerome, The Anatomy of Hope, Random House, 2004.
Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery, Basic Books, 1992, 1997.
Levine, Peter, Waking the Tiger, North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Siebert, Al, The Survivor Personality, Perigree, 1993.
Winfrey, Oprah, O Magazine, February 2007, “What I Know for Sure”

Excerpted from the July and October 2009 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2009 Operation Identity