I am going to try to talk about this despair as openly as possible without intruding on my children’s privacy. Their lives are their own. So please excuse me if there are patches of vagueness.
Many have written about the struggle adoptive families face as a child reaches adolescence. The search for identity is even more fierce than that of other adolescents. The anger at the perceived rejection by birth family sometimes turns against the self and against adoptive parents.
In adolescence the desire to search for birth family often comes more front and center. In the age of the internet it can be accomplished often with great ease. However, the fantasy of what this contact will bring and the reality of what it begets are often, if not usually, two different things.
The story we tell adopted children, that their birth family could not take care of them and wanted them to have a family that could is poor consolation to an adolescent who is asking, “Who am I?”
When I speak of my despair I refer to the feeling of impotence created by the fact that all the love I have to offer as an adoptive parent does not replace the unknown family or prevent or stop the hurt of unknown losses. As adoptive parents we can only hold our children through their feelings about it all, re-mourn our own losses in the process and stand steady as the winds of adopted adolescence whip around us. Adoptive parents find themselves heartbroken over the often self-destructive behaviors of their children. How can their love have not healed such pain?
When an adoption has been closed, as in the case of my children, all members of the adoption story- children, birthparents and adoptive parents- replace unknowns with what they imagine. Children imagine birth parents. Adoptive parents piece together shreds of information from the time of placement to give their children some information about themselves and the circumstances of their adoption. Birth parents are left to imagine and wonder about the children they have relinquished with little or no information about their whereabouts or well-being.
All parties carry narratives that contain small bits of truth from the moments leading up to and through the adoption. Layered upon this truth is the embellishment created by wishes, fantasies, longing, anger, hurt and fear. By the time the child has reached adolescence these stories have developed a life of their own in each person’s psyche.
Imagine then the mind-blowing experience of matching each of these narratives to reality. The unknown that it has taken years to process becomes the known that will take more years to process.
It was my children’s struggles with how to make sense of these narratives, and of their differences from us, their adoptive parents, that prompted the decision to search for their birth families. This was supported by the profound changes that have occurred in the discourse surrounding adoption.
Openness is now understood as serving the best interests of the child, a different view than when we adopted. An adopted colleague suggested that to search while children are still at home and can be supported in the process would be much better for all, rather than letting them do it on their own after the age of eighteen, which was also the advice we received back in the ‘90’s.
The searches yielded quick results. We found both families and initiated contact with two distinctly different outcomes, one joyful reunion and one painful rejection. Each child has a new journey to navigate, for better or for worse. What they have now is more truth that challenges them to re-write their stories with this new information.
As an adoptive parent one hopes that the truth that emerges, whatever it is, will help. However, after having one’s mind blown open, one has to put it back together. The romantic notion that finding and having contact with one’s birth family will address the loss is a bit simplistic. Everyone has still lost something and perhaps gained something through adoption. Reconciling this takes time to integrate. As I walk this road with my children I am reminded once again that there are no easy answers in life and certainly not in adoption.