kids

'It's equal parts beautiful and tragic.' The profound loneliness of being adopted.

Growing up, the story of my adoption was always told in such a happy way. I was born to young parents who were unable to provide for me. They loved me so much that they made the ultimate sacrifice to allow another set of parents — a couple who desperately wanted a child — to raise me. That couple was blessed beyond measure the day they brought me home. I was the best gift they could have ever hoped to receive.

But this is not my story. Because I am not in it.

I am not a gift. I am a human being with her own story. I am a complicated web of beliefs, commitments, love, anger, trauma, loss, hope, and resiliency. It has taken me nearly 40 years to reclaim my narrative and put myself front and centre in the story of my own life. And the theme that permeates the entirety of my existence: loneliness. I’ve fought against that idea for so long. 

Listen: When Andrew Met Anne: A Son's Story of adoption. Post continues below.

It sounds so dismal to say I’m lonely and that’s just who I am. But the truth is that once I learned to accept this fundamental part of my identity, I finally began to feel whole. Once I stopped trying to fix me and allowed my story as an adoptee to be what it is — equal parts beautiful and tragic — I found meaning. It’s not so much about healing myself, but about understanding my complexity, and loving that person, not just despite it, but because of it.

Trash or Treasure?

It’s a weird thing, growing up being told that you were an answered prayer. That you were chosen. That unlike so many other babies out there, you were wanted, immeasurably. 

It’s weird to hear all those things while another voice — one that is not allowed to speak, so she whispers from the darkest corners of your mind — reminds you that you were inherently unwanted. You were abandoned. The people who should have held you closest and wanted you the most gave you away to strangers.

That’s what adoptive parents are to a newborn baby who has been prematurely separated from her mother. They are aliens. 

My parents eventually became familiar to me, of course, but they will forever be genetic strangers. I did not spend my very important first years of life looking at faces that were biologically connected to me. In fact, the first time I ever got to stare into a face that was biologically related to me was when my first child was born. 

Imagine not seeing yourself reflected back in another until your 35th year.

Unlike many adoptees, who, by sheer bad luck, end up in terrible homes, I had an amazing upbringing. I was granted every conceivable opportunity, expensive summer camps, ballet classes, and a swimming pool in our backyard. 

My parents spent time with me, we played together, and I looked up to them. I still do. My dad instilled in me a love for geography, and my mum taught me the value of punctuality. They loved me as best as any parents could.

But love cannot heal all wounds. All the love in the world cannot repair the severed bonds between me and my biological family.

The complex reality of adoption is that it is a staggering loss — for the relinquishing family and for the adoptee. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Even if it turns out to be in the best interest of them to be placed in another home, the child has suffered one of the most profound tragedies of life. 

Losing one’s parents is never easy. Being forcibly removed from them before you can even make sense of the world — indeed, when the only thing that makes sense is the comfort of your mother’s touch and the sound of your dad’s voice — is a preverbal trauma that I honestly believe you do not recover from.

So, like many adoptees, I spent a great deal of my life searching for that thing that was missing. Always feeling a little broken, I thought, maybe if I find my biological relatives THAT will fix me.

Spoiler alert: it did not.

The Loneliness of Reunion.

After my second child was born, I began seriously searching for my biological family. 

I had met my biological mum once, but the meeting was brief, and I didn’t really recall it. She had been impossible to track down ever since. 

But I finally found my dad. I won’t go into the details of our reunion here. It is still pretty new to me, and reunion, like adoption, is not a singular event.

I’m an adoptee for life, despite how adoptive parents might think of adoption as a moment that punctuates their lives — the moment they became parents — to me, it is my fundamental nature.

It is the reason I feel conflicting things about my origins all the time. It is why I interrogate the narratives that have been foisted onto me by society. 

Did my biological parents really love me so much that they decided to put me up for adoption? How can loving someone so much be reconciled with abandoning them?

The only way to answer these questions, I thought, was to go to the source.

It turns out that my adoption story is far more complicated than it was told to me growing up. 

This is in part because the story, as it was written on my adoption papers by the agency, is far more complex than my adoptive parents were led to believe. 

The classic narrative of unequipped parents who refused to have an abortion and loved their baby, so decided to selflessly allow others to parent her does not add up after talking to my biological relatives. 

My mum did have an abortion, just before I was born. I don’t know why she didn’t abort me too. My dad’s mum wanted to parent me, but my mum refused this. She then went on to have more children with other men. 

I’ve talked to one of them. He says they are estranged. She never really wanted to be a mum, he tells me. My dad claims he held me when I was born and that he’s thought about me constantly since. So much for the trope of the unconcerned father that society loves to perpetuate.

I try to imagine him thinking about me every year on my birthday. The day I was born was not a celebration. It was a funeral. I would go on to mourn my lost family for the rest of my life. At least some of them mourned me too.

In place of my birthday, my adoptive parents celebrated my "adopted birthday," the day I 'came home.' I grew up believing this was a happy day. I got presents, after all. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The reality of course is not so simple. It was happy for my adopted parents. Imagine what that day was like for my biological family. It was the finalisation of their permanent loss. A dismembering of their identity. I might as well have been aborted.

For me, the ‘celebration’ of adoption I grew up taking part in has given way to a much more nuanced understanding of it. 

This change was gradual over my lifetime, but there was a drastic shift when my biological son and I exchanged glances for the first time. 

The embodied memories of my birth are still alive in my nervous system, even if I cannot recall them. 

The trauma of my separation, also embedded in my nervous system, had lay dormant until then. It resurfaced with a vengeance and that’s when I knew I needed to find my biological family.

The first time I saw my dad’s face, I just knew. I knew him. He was familiar. And in the rest of my biological family, I finally see all my genetic familiars. I see whom I look like. 

People always told me growing up that I looked like my adoptive parents. I think it was more to make them feel good than anything else. I do resemble my adoptive mum quite a bit. It is nothing compared to seeing a whole branch of your family tree gathered together, and recognising yourself in every single one of them.

But, they don’t know me like my adoptive family does. I didn’t grow up alongside them. They didn’t calm me when I was upset. They didn’t stand by me when I was sick. They didn’t celebrate with me when I finished grad school, won a ballet competition, or married my best friend.

My adopted mum, not my biological mum, was there by my side as I labored with my first child. She knows his birth story as intimately as I do, but neither of us knows my birth story.

When my biological uncle suggested I come stay with him and his wife on our next visit down to see everyone, I was reluctant to say yes. I knew I would feel uncomfortable. 

When I go stay with my adoptive uncle, on the other hand, I feel anything but uncomfortable. Nevertheless, when my adoptive uncle recounts stories of Great Aunt Jessie and how similar I am to her or how I absolutely got my looks from my Aunt Sallie May, I do a mental eye-roll because I know better. I got my looks from Lee, my biological mum, and Faye, my biological grandma, both of whom I will never know. I can only look at pictures.

Why is it so hard to go home to my original family? They might be my origins, but they are not the people who know me. I feel more at home with my adoptive family. But my adoptive parents will never know me the way I know my biological children.

Reunion has made me realise just how lonely I am. 

Never entirely familiar, never 100 per cent comfortable, never really home. Perhaps it is because I have never really come home to myself, because that place has always been too scary. I’ve always run away from her. 

ADVERTISEMENT

She is the abandoned child. She is the child who is a gift. She is the child who is afraid she will be abandoned again, so she must be the best little gift she can be. She is a traumatised child.

And everyone is a stranger. As Bessel van der Kolk says, in The Body Keeps the Score, "trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens."

Finding Home.

Being in isolation the last few weeks has been comforting to me. 

For one, I didn’t have to take that trip down to stay with my uncle. It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I knew it would be challenging and weird and uncomfortable. 

Every time I talk to anyone in my biological family, that’s the feeling — bizarre, uncanny, unheimlichkeit (fancy German word for not-at-home-feeling). I’ll go visit one day. But for now, I have an excuse to put it off.

Isolation has also given me time to reflect on my relationship with my adoptive family. Adoption was a single act for them, just like relinquishment was a single act for my biological parents. 

But my adopted parents took on the role of my parents for life, and I recognise that, especially now that I am a parent. All the same, I have been transformed by my adoption and reunion and continue to be so daily.

I’ve also learned that my home — the place where I am most ‘me’ — is with my partner and children. I did not choose to be relinquished and I did not choose to be adopted. But I chose to marry my best friend and to have my two children. They are where my most authentic self resides.

Being an adoptee is a life sentence and as such, loneliness is a life sentence.

But it’s not all negative. I have found my voice in the midst of this loneliness and I am using it to change adoption practices and to shed light on how harmful adoption can be. 

Loneliness has also meant that I value the connections I make with others that are genuine. They are hard to come by, but when they happen, I recognise them. 

Meeting fellow adoptees has been a huge source of genuine connection for me. Adoptees get it. They get me. Many of them are lonely like me. We are lonely, together.

Maybe I’m not so lonely, after all. Or maybe all of us are lonely, but some of us have admitted it to ourselves and are ok with it. Maybe that’s the beauty encased within the trauma of my adoption: learning to love my loneliness. Learning to love the outsider within.

Feature Image: Getty. The feature image used is a stock image.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. 

Michele is an associate professor of philosophy at Arkansas State University. Her book, "Minding Dogs: Humans, Canines, and a New Philosophy of Cognitive Science," will be out in early 2021. Besides researching animal cognition, Michele works on feminist philosophy. In particular, lately, she has focused ondoption ethics and reform. As an adoptee, Michele hopes to change adoption practices for the better and raise awareness about the unique challenges adoptees face.

00:00 / ???