10 Things Not To Say To An Adoptee
I thought today I would look at some of the things my adopted parents said to me that I struggled with, things I often disliked, or things that upset me or made me uncomfortable. Of course, everyone is different, so you may have not struggled with some of these examples, as I did, or there may be entirely different issues which presented problems for you. Adopted parents often do their best but like in any sphere of life, mistakes happen and as adopted children/adults, I think it’s important for us to be able to talk about these mistakes without feeling disloyal or unappreciative; we can love our parents but also bring light to bear on anything that made us unhappy, without sacrificing the relationship. Honesty is perfectly okay.
Let’s get started then.
Please Don’t Tell Me I Am Special:
My adopted parents, like many, thought I was special primarily because they had chosen me rather than choosing to adopt another child. To begin with, I quite liked the idea of being special, felt it somehow set me apart from everyone else: myself – the special, chosen one, words filled with quasi-religious significance. Unfortunately, with time and age, the nice warm feelings these words induced wore off as I came to understand their subtext, and so no longer wished to hear them.
The fact is my parents choices served to instil this theoretical importance upon me rather than being associated with anything I had done personally, and over time, it became more like an unattainable expectation I could never hope to reach. I didn’t feel special, I felt very non-special to be perfectly honest, which I hoped my parents would see and appreciate so these improbable assumptions could be cast aside.
Telling an adopted child they’re special because you chose them is a little tricky when adoptee could be thinking their birth parents thought them so unremarkable they gave them away. Often, I find adopted parents haven’t really thought through the messages they wish to convey to their children and therefore fail to see the confusion or bewilderment they may create in young minds, and/or the abject terror as the adoptee waits to be found out as a fraud and be considered as insignificant once more.
Please Don’t Tell Me My Mother Loved Me So Much She Gave Me Away:
I am sure adopted parents mean well, after all, many birth mothers do relinquish us in the hope we will have a better quality of life, often when they are tragically unable to provide for us themselves. So it’s natural, I suppose, that they want us to know the great sacrifice our mothers made especially when these sacrifices led to the beginning or enlargement of their own families. The problem is from a cognitive perspective children do not reason like adults – they do not understand the troubles that lead to adoption: how financially it may not be viable to raise a child if you have no home or no money for food or warmth, how relationships breakdown or how they never really begin, the stigma that followed women around like a bull’s-eye on their back in decades gone by – when you tell them their mother loved them so much she gave them away, what they hear is simply love = abandonment.
Rather than abstract ideas of what our birth mother may/or may not have done, it’s more important to be clear and honest with children so they can begin to make sense of what happened to them and to understand their own narrative, even if it’s painful and difficult. Adopted parents usually know some details about the situation leading up to their child’s adoption and a little about birth parents, and in many ways this is a chance to explore the child’s story with them, even if information is limited, and provide the emotional support the child so desperately needs.
3) Please Don’t Call My Birth Mother A Slut:
My birth mother, like so many, had to ‘hide her shame’– maybe not in one of the many ghastly mother and baby homes that once existed – a throwback to 19th century workhouses – but from her family and the wider community in which she lived. The stigma still existed, even in 1979, the year I was born, and although in just a few short years single parents would start popping up on censuses, it didn’t matter at the time.
It feels quite hideous to contemplate how women and young girls have been treated throughout history. I’ve only recently re read (and re watched) Philomena and was struck, once more, by the moral imperative of marriage to order a society and the reactionary condemnation towards those that fail to comply. My adopted mother, a lapsed catholic, saw my birth mother through this lens of sin and indecency and when I reached adolescence, thought it wise to not only make the integral distinction between herself and my birth mum clear but also to hold my mother up as a direct warming against following my own base sexual desires.
Scoring moral points via your adopted child’s biological parents, whilst perhaps (or at least hopefully) not common, isn’t going to engender warm feelings from your adoptee. It’s going to damage your relationship, maybe beyond repair, and make them unbelievably sad and angry when they see how little you really respect their mother, and by definition, yourself and them. If speaking about birth parents becomes so fraught emotionally you feel unable to be kind or impartial, it’s better to say nothing at all, as alienating one set of parents will only alienate, long term, your child from you and have consequences for the quality of your relationship.
4) Please Don’t Tell Me I Look Like You, Or How I’ve Inherited Your Personality Or Traits:
I think a lot of adopted parents come to adoption with a whole litany of hurts they’ve not worked through. Just like some think adoption will fix things when in reality it will probably rip things apart. My adopted mother had desperately wanted a daughter of her own and when this failed, adopting one seemed the next best thing. For most of my childhood, she, without any hint of awkwardness, pretended that in me, she had found a mini version of herself. This undoubtedly put an awful amount of pressure not only on our relationship, but also on me as I failed time and time again to be who or what she wanted me to be.
It became worse as I grew up, especially when I became a teenager trying to discover who she was. On the one hand, there appeared a list of perquisites thrown down by mother which would serve to cement our relationship and on the other hand, a sort of fledgling tentative version of myself desperate to find purchase in the world.
When we are removed from any semblance of shared familial self through adoption, when establishing a sense of identity is like sticking together strips of paper with tape and glue, it can be devastating to then feel forced (and disloyal) if we don’t master a false self to appease someone who sees us as an extension of themselves. We can’t as adoptees be responsible for our adopted parents unmet needs or to act as a sticking plaster over broken dreams. It’s imperative if there is emotional trauma that adopted parents at least start unpicking it – whether by themselves or through counselling – before they adopt rather than afterwards when everyone and everything becomes distorted by unresolved pain.
5) Please Don’t keep My Adoption A Secret:
As I have stated in previous posts, I always knew I was adopted, but this didn’t mean as a subject, it was open to discussion. My parents worked on the basis that as we all knew, we shouldn’t need to speak about it and more importantly, it constituted a family matter, so it went no farther than the front door. When my mother discovered I had inadvertently told my whole class of my ‘adopted situation’ I thought she might have a heart attack from the shock.
Not being able to have children must be devastating, if you want them of course, and for my mother, a person whose only goal in life involved marrying a good man and having lots of children, her infertility sat like a huge scar on her femininity. She had one job to do in life, to provide her husband with children and she failed. I don’t think she has ever came to terms with it or reconciled the imposition of having to adopt. So secrets became a common currency to protect her feelings, allowing her to ‘be mum’ whilst our own voices choked in our throats.
6) Please Don’t Tell Me I Should be Grateful:
I’ve been told to be grateful many times in my life, mostly by adopted parents and extended family, but also from non-adoptees who seem to think I should be grateful, too. If one has no say whether they are born or to the circumstances that follow, are they then to be beholden to the adults who orchestrated the fundamental aspects of their life? It feels a bit like saying to my biological daughter ‘hey, you should be grateful I gave birth to you’ and I can just imagine the choice response I would receive.
Of course, the texture of adoption is different and people think a certain level of gratitude is appropriate when one is saved from foster care or a children’s home. As much as am sure many adoptees are grateful for their families, this is different to being grateful for a set of circumstances we had no choice or control over and an adoption, of which to be fair, had little to do with us but more a set of drawn up requirements our prospective parents wanted delivered.
7) Please Don’t Wish Me Happy Birthday On The Day You Adopted Me:
It’s a wonderful day for adopted parents and they wish to celebrate it in some way with us. My mother liked to buy me clothes: a bright new dress, a cotton blouse, some shiny new shoes, not necessarily to wear on the day but gifts to be appreciated (this may sound controversial) as a mark of ownership. It sounds cynical to put it this way, I know, but at no point in the 16 long years of which I allowed them to celebrate this second birthday did they ever ask how I felt and whether I was happy.
For me, the day represented loss. It wasn’t their ‘gotcha day’ to coin a new term used a lot in the US, but a day that finalised the traumatic separation between my birth mother and myself and meant until I turned eighteen, I would have no chance of knowing her and even then, I may be unable to find her, she may have died or may not be able to accept me into her life.
Although, is it fair to not allow adopted parents to express their joy? It’s natural to want to celebrate something as phenomenal as a child but how and even if the day is given prominence in the calendar should be a choice made between parents and child and not simply assumed to be acceptable practice.
8) Please Answer My Questions:
Adoption creates questions, there is no way around this and the only way to deal with this is to answer these questions in a sensitive and age appropriate fashion. My parents, I think, would have been happier to avoid all questions, after all, if you have adopted children but are pretending they are your own biological offspring, questions can be difficult. As a child, I always felt disloyal when I became curious about my past and as my parents’ response could often be offhand, it would be easy to think I had done something wrong and feel shamed.
Answers may not be easy, rehashing old wounds you’d rather forget especially when you love the child/children as your own and want to forget their past, but we can love and be honest, we can love and be open, we can lovingly give them the gift of clarity and insight; after all, effective dialogue between people who love each other has never hurt anyone but doors stuck fast through fear, sadness and regret have led to a lot of pain.
Please Don’t Make Me Responsible For Your Feelings:
As children, we look to adults to help us navigate the messiness of feelings and emotions. It’s very hard to do by ourselves. When your parents fail to do this because their emotions have got the better of them, it can be utterly frightening. It’s like being a swirling leaf in the garden, buffeted by violent winds and each time there seems a moment of stillness or a quiet moment of respite, we are thrown up once more to swirl about in a deluge of twisting emotions.
It’s harder still when your parents somehow want you to make them feel better about not having their own biological children. How is an adopted child/adult supposed to feel aside from an consolation prize during this conversation? What we refuse to deal with will not conveniently disappear, just like the saying ‘what we resist, persists.’ Instead like running water, it will forge new pathways in and around our repressed emotional life and whether a soft trickle or a full blown aggressive flood, will, one day or maybe for many days/months/years, capsize us and sadly hurt the ones we love. It is so much better to let some air into our emotional wounds, rather than folding everything away, leaving them to fester and become stronger through lack of light.
Please Know I Might Want To Find My Birth Parents:
When I turned eighteen, I joined a group at the library who helped individuals find their birth parents. It didn’t go to plan, as when I saw my mother’s name on the electoral register, the emotional impact was so breathtakingly intense, I couldn’t deal with it, so I ran from the room and never went back. My adopted parents knew I had been searching. My father said little about it as he communicated through silence, but my mother, though seemingly okay with the possibility for the months prior – fell into an angry tirade when I arrived home that evening over how her mantel of ‘adopted mother’ should really be just ‘mother.’ As I didn’t call her ‘adopted mother’ generally, this seemed more about her own understanding of self and obviously a natural response of insecurity and fear when faced with possible rejection by me.
Whilst understanding her reactions, it wasn’t at all easy to make her feel less fearful. It seemed as if she wanted me to change the situation, obviously impossible, as the emotional consequences of being an adopted mother became all too much for her to bear in that precise moment.
I remember years later, when I did find my birth mum, she said to me one day ‘well you may have found her but you belong to us and she can never have all the years back no matter what she does.’ A rather mean thing to say no doubt but also a clear demonstration of the complexity of adoption and the severity of feelings involved.
Adoption is complex and often messy, and brimming with intense feelings, so I think it’s important for everyone to have a voice but especially adopted children (and adults) who often don’t speak up for a variety of reasons and I hope by exploring some of the things that troubled me, you may find the space to share what troubled you, too.
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, . (2017). 10 Things Not To Say To An Adoptee. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/adoption/2017/06/10-things-not-to-say-to-an-adoptee/