Or: Adoption isn’t black and white (except when it is)
So it seems like I’ve gone a while without posting again! It’s not for not being active, it’s more that I’ve become more active outside of the blogging world. For one thing, I was introduced to a new forum for transracial adoptees by one of my blogging buddies here (thank you!). It has been an eye opener! It is a hugely active forum that has over 8000 members and it is a no holds barred introduction to the “adoptee voice”. For the first week after joining, you’re only allowed to read and not comment, but then you’re allowed to comment so I kind of got stuck in this week. It has been very interesting and stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions for me. For one thing, there are some very strong adoptee voices in there, which can come off a bit intimidating to people, not least to WAPs (White Adoptive Parents). I mean, as an adopted person and a so-called privileged voice in there, I’ve found that the tone takes quite some getting used to. (Adoptee voices and birth family voices are considered “privileged” which means that there is sometimes some very forceful “education” of WAPs and a definite pushback against any pro-adoption stuff.) It is the culture of the forum, I guess, but those of you who know me through this blog and IRL know that it’s not really my way of processing things. I’m a big proponent of my dad’s saying “There’s no point worrying about things you can’t change” and I kind of live my life by it. So I don’t think I’ve ever spent a long time thinking what might have been. I’m sure my relationship with adoption will change over time, especially if I ever had a child – time will tell if I remain on that forum.
Off the back of this, I also ended up joining a forum specifically for adoptees from [my area where I was adopted from]. So that’s also been hugely informative and is a lot different in tone – more so people with similar experiences can connect. I suppose the difference is it’s for adoptees only so it’s a safe place and there isn’t that hectoring of WAPs that happens on the other forum. I actually felt a bit like for the first time I could speak with people with whom I have experiences and feelings in common. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but I think that there really is something kind of visceral about feeling a kinship when you’ve always felt different, or an outsider.
I am very at home in the white world, and I love my family. I haven’t had any mirrors growing up though, and I don’t know (m)any people of [my race] in everyday life… I have my also adopted sibling but that means we have a similar outsider experience. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t felt it, that no matter how at home you feel in the white world, that you’ll always be different. Of course I’ve generally thought that difference is a good thing, and that we should treasure uniqueness, but similarly to my relationship with my partner (with whom I have a lot in common including being adopted) I think you almost get that “coming home” nurturing feeling when you speak with people who are more similar. I suppose I just haven’t ever met many people who are similar to me!
Adoptee voice – infertility
I think I started the posts on here about adoption more from an “AP centric” (adoptive parent) point of view, which is to say, as a means of being a voice of an adult person who was adopted, and in response to many of the questions and thoughts on adoption and prospective adoption in the infertility community. And I think the point to note is that there is a prevailing narrative around adoption, which is from the AP point of view and that’s why adopted voices have become more and more active as they struggle to make themselves heard. There is so much of the narrative that is very focused on the adopted child fulfilling an AP’s desire to parent… the child as a “gift” or commodity, and the AP as “saviour”.
Now, I know most people I know who are in the process of adoption do not feel like that – but it is something that’s out there and very real. Adopted voices are now being heard, as adults, and we’re saying: We are not things and we want to acknowledge our loss. Of course many of us have gained through adoption, but there is often a dismissal or whitewashing of the loss that adopted people have suffered. And for transracial adoptees, that is a bit of a double whammy – we’ve lost our home culture and language and the ability to be surrounded by people who share our skin colour. We are destined to grow up in a white world that considers us negatively even as people “save” orphans.
No matter how idealistic APs are about loving us “just the same”, we will always be seen as different. You won’t experience the microaggressions and the big aggressions that we suffer. (For example: Someone on the forum told me that “racism is much easier in the UK”… having never lived in the UK.) Whatever you suffer by proxy by being our parent will be the tip of the iceberg… So you can be offended on our behalf, but you don’t have that deep understanding of living in another skin that we do. You shouldn’t feel threatened by that or justify it. It is what it is and you can learn from it.
In the context of infertility, we often hear of adoption as a last resort, or as an answer to people’s prayers / wishes (usually the AP’s, not the child’s… though it is often assumed that the child “needs” saving, which is problematic to adoptees, FYI). We don’t often hear of what it’s like to be adopted, or whether being someone’s Answer or Gift is a positive experience. I gotta tell you, if anyone told me I was a gift or an answer to their prayers, I’d cringe. Fortunately my family members are very no-nonsense. (Even though my mum is religious, she never once told me it was God’s will! Handy hint: You’ll likely get short shrift if you ever talk about that with adoptees. Like: It was God’s will for me to lose my first family? Oh-kay then!) We were pretty much adopted, in the family, job done. Nobody spent time treating us any differently.
Of course now the prevailing views is that the “colo(u)rblind”, treating them “just like real children” is A Bad Thing. As a recipient of such treatment (though never referred to as such; that would be bad!) I have to say my experience was not a negative one. It did a lot for our sense of security in the family – for example, I never thought I was in danger of getting sent back. I never said “You’re not my real…” – not even in the midst of adolescent angst. I had levels of self-esteem problems (especially relating to race) and I’m sure those are exacerbated by being a different race, and in particular in your parents not understanding your experience [of racism], but I also feel like many non-adopted adolescents have problems. I was just more problematic than most! 😉
And against this background: I am sort of an outlier in the adoptee community (at least on that forum and other blogs that I’ve read) because I am perceived as generally positive about adoption. By which I mean: I’m generally positive about my life, and I happened to have been adopted. Subtle difference. Don’t conflate the two. (In scientific/mathematical terms: covariance rather than causality.)
In the community, positivity is known as “unicorns and rainbows”, and “the happy adoptee” and “the grateful adoptee” tropes. There is historical problematic narrative about white people saving orphans of course, but I think this dismisses the real and equally valid experience of adopted people who are generally happy and don’t have major issues about having been adopted.
As I’ve posted before, I would identify as one of the “happy” ones (as would my partner and many other adopted people I’ve met in real life). This is not at all to say that I go around with a big cheesy grin on my face. I’m not a dimwit. (I’m British, and I live and breathe sarcasm, so never come across as happy… Plus I have a b*tchy resting face, an unfortunate affliction which suggests I’m permanently dissatisfied with the world!) But for me, for all the bad times I’ve been through [some of which is described in my Back Story post] I’m of the philosophy that I’m stronger having gotten through it. I’m happy and grateful for my life, not because I was adopted but because I think all people who have enough should feel happy and grateful. I’ve suffered loss, but I’ve also been fortunate to have huge happinesses. (I’m also a fairly lazy person and it just strikes me as too much emotional energy to go around feeling bad about myself.)
The word “adoptee”
I’ve never liked the word adoptee, and it strikes me now that I’m suddenly immersed in this online world that I like it even less. I don’t really refer to myself as an adoptee other than for brevity or because those forums are described as for adoptees. I’ve spoken to a few other “adoptees” who aren’t keen on using it either. But it is the prevailing term so I guess, harumph!
For me it sounds like amputee, and suggests that I go around with a bit of me missing. Maybe some adoptees feel like that, but I’m not really inclined to define myself by virtue of my adoptedness, and I don’t walk around feeling like a part of me is missing (though of course, my first family and culture and language is missing… the life I might have had is missing). And I think sometimes that’s what separates the “happy” ones from the “angry” or sad ones. (The adoptees get very angry when referred to as angry, as I learned this week! Don’t do it!) The ones who are generally happy are the ones who don’t (in my experience) think about being adopted all the time, or see their adoption story as a positive/pragmatic one. I think that’s largely my attitude towards it – I’m pragmatic. I don’t go off searching because I think it would be difficult, so I’ve never expended a large amount of time looking into it. (I reserve the right to do so in future, but I also reserve the right to claim “happy” and “well-adjusted” without doing so. I don’t think self-actualisation necessitates going to the exact geographical location you popped into the world and finding your ancestors, but that’s just me.)
One of the people on the forum said that they identified firstly as an adoptee, then as a [race], then as a [man/woman]. For me it’s sort of flipped because I don’t find that people can tell I’m adopted just by looking. They assume I have [my race] parents. And I guess, working in a male dominated industry, the most salient point about me is that I’m female. That’s immediately obvious, as is my race… but what defines me is me. (Slightly outspoken, “too direct”, blethery, thinks-too-much, loves-too-quick, gets over-excited and verges on ADHD Me.)
I feel like by qualifying ourselves by using “adoptee” it’s like saying there’s only one facet to our identity and it’s defined by loss (and/or APs’ gain). I don’t go around saying “blind Sam” or “paraplegic Mike”. I am pretty sure that people with autism or Down Syndrome aren’t gratified to be referred to as “autistic Kelly” or “Down Syndrome Chrissie”. And not to mention gender or orientation: “gay Chris” or “transsexual Shelly”. That’s just weird, so my preference is not to use those qualifiers. I do occasionally slip into it which I think is a function of the media often describing people in those terms. For sure it’s useful to have that information for context, but I think there’s such a way to do it without slapping a label on someone’s identity. I was adopted. I don’t keep being adopted. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing, to me. It just is.
Anyway, that’s how I feel about it. I might say “adoptee” once in a while for brevity or in relation to a self-defined community/forum, but it is definitely not how I define myself. Other adoptees may feel differently of course… I can only speak for myself.
Dismissing the happy adoptee: “In the fog”
One of the discussions that is bound to generate heated debate in the adoptee community is the idea that there are adopted people who don’t feel quite negatively about adoption (often known as “happy adoptees”) and they are “in the fog”. This is the idea that suggests that a happy adoptee fully subscribes to the traditional adoptive parent driven narrative, that they have blindly accepted the story about something being done to them.
And the inference is that they’re stupid for feeling this way, and that they haven’t processed their feelings or they’re in denial. I didn’t realise until I started reading more about adoption that I was “supposed” to feel sad, grief-stricken, wounded and have difficulty trusting the permanence of relationships. (You know what: the last one probably does apply, but it helps I’m in a happy relationship now and I’m of the age where I’ve processed that stuff, and I’m sure it’s not a feeling that’s unique to those who have been adopted.)
I find this fog idea kind of insulting. In the same way that many adoptees’ voices have been dismissed in the past and they are only now being heard, I feel like forcing this idea of “You are happy therefore you must be in the fog” or “You don’t want to search therefore you must be in the fog” to be dismissive of so-called happy adoptees.
Here’s where I’m at.
I don’t think there is one adoptee voice, or two (happy and angry). I think we all have our own stories and they’re all equally as valid.
Adoptive parents (APs) and prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) can learn from adults who were adopted. From forums like these and engaging in active discussion with adopted adults, they can understand that there are some things that can’t be easily articulated by a child who has been transplanted from where s/he was originally born to a new place and culture and family and identity. They can understand that there are some issues that are probably unique to adoption. And some unique to transracial adoption. That adults who were adopted are reclaiming their voices and speaking out about their deep feelings, and that emotions are more nuanced than a happy / sad dichotomy. So there is validity in sharing our stories, in understanding that we are not a homogenous mass but there are themes and experiences that are common to many of us. I don’t reject that.
I do reject the notion that I am “in the fog”. I am not in denial about my feelings. (Yes, they will say: You don’t know your own feelings because you’re in the fog. If you did, you’d be grief-stricken, angry, and shouting about being adopted and go off and find your “real” parents. Reductio ad absurdum.) I read a lot. Even before finding forums I read all the adoption literature I could lay my hands on. Before I started blogging, I read plenty about adoption online (and was slightly alarmed by some of it).
The thing is, my life has not been all been “rainbows and unicorns” (another dismissive adoptee voice term to describe the tone often used by adoptive parents, and also applied to adopted people like me who refuse to condemn anyone for our having been adopted). I’ve had plenty of crappy experiences. I think the difference is that I don’t “blame” adoption for those. Of course a lot of bad things were the result of having been adopted, because had I remained in my original life, I wouldn’t have experienced them. But often as a geeky adolescent, as an outsider who didn’t fit in, I ascribed those difficulties to being of a different race rather than having been adopted (though of course I’m a different race to the mainstream because I was transracially adopted). I don’t think I’ve experienced a lot of things that differ from the norm (other than having a loving adoptive family that didn’t constantly remind me of being adopted) – I think I look at things in a certain way and that makes it easier for me not to be all torn up by adoption. That doesn’t mean I’m completely stupidly happy all the time. I just choose not to focus on the bad bits if I can help it. (I have a wallow with the best of them, of course.)
Whatever it is, it was an interplay of a lot of things: of my family and my upbringing and the narrative my parents told me about my adoption and my biology and my predispositions and my personality and my experiences. (It’s no coincidence I ended up studying Psychology when I had so much richness of experience there to explore!) More and more when I read the adoptee forums (I’ve been a member of the big group for around two weeks and you’re not allowed to post for the first week!) I come to the feeling that I lucked out with my family. We have had our ups and downs (and I think adolescence is rubbish for all people, adopted or not) but I am very happy they’re mine and thankful that I haven’t had anything like some of the negative adoptive family experiences that some adoptees report.
My thought for the day
I only speak for myself, and I am a product of my experience. There are many other people who were adopted as children who are now sharing their testimonies online. If you are a WAP or a PAP then I suggest that you don’t shy away from these, no matter how difficult some of them are to hear. Of course, you will do what you want to do (within what the law allows you to do… which is a lot!). And you can get through adoption without thinking too much about it… with more luck than judgement.
You can do this unthinkingly and you can do it optimistically and you might be okay. Or you can go into this with your eyes open, with your self open to the testimonies and experiences of people who have lived adoption. And when it comes down to it: Your child is your child. As a parent of whatever provenance, you owe it to your child to be the best, most open and learning parent you can be. If you can understand that there are things that affect even happy adoptees, and that love is not a panacea for everything, and that children aren’t commodities to fulfil your desires but actual living people who will grow up to be real thinking and feeling adult humans: well, you’ll be halfway there.