As adoptees we face many struggles, but one obvious problem emerges around identity and our own understanding of self. Who are we if all markers to explain who we are have been removed? What if the people we are raised by don’t look like us: don’t have our mannerisms, don’t share our personalities or traits, are not interested in our hobbies and interests? The complexity of the adoptee experience is already challenging but when a healthy identity cannot be formed, it has repercussions for how secure we feel in our everyday lives and in establishing a stable sense of self.
Being raised in your own family is commonplace and natural. From an evolutionary perspective, the parent/child relationship is paramount to survival. When born, a relationship already exists between mother and baby, so the child has a sensory atlas of all mum represents: her scent, her voice, her heartbeat. When you add the bonding via oestrogen to this mix and an understanding of how a mother is primed to respond to her own baby’s needs, you have this beautiful dance unfolding between mother and infant; a dance that occurs below conscious awareness, and is all the more magical because of its instinctive impulse.
Adoption then disrupts this process. The adopted child knows, even in the pre-verbal stage, that their mother has left, and his/her new mother is a stranger. Regardless of how attuned to the child’s needs the new mother tries to be, the required sensory information has been removed. In time, and with age, when the child looks for a reflection of themselves, that, if they had remained with mum, would clearly be seen/heard/felt, they will find nothing substantial, if anything at all. It will feel disorienting and unnatural. It’s always reminded me of the distorting mirrors used in circuses; you see yourself in the silvered glass, but everything is inaccurate and not representative of the whole.
I myself felt quite lost as a child. My parents didn’t believe I needed an identity other than the one they created for me. A mold I was supposed to acquiesce to if I didn’t wish to be abandoned again. I never realised you could be abandoned emotionally but still have your breakfast and be bought books and felt-tips. They went so far as to ascribe traits to me, so I was ‘quiet like my father’ or ‘clever like my brother,’ my brother was my non-bio adopted brother, so this was confusing. It felt a little like a costume change during a play, slipping on whatever outfit people needed me to wear to carry out their roles with ease. It became exhausting. I permanently felt like a shattered piece of glass. I was Humpty Dumpty but broken from the start. The important point here is my identity was subsumed by my adoptive family, not to offer me something I didn’t have, in a rare display of altruism, but to force me to relinquish any sense of ‘me’ that existed before their arrival.
Genetic confusion is a normal aspect of being adopted, often resulting in feelings of alienation. It gets worse I believe as we grow up, especially during the teenage years. Adolescence is synonymous with establishing a sense of identity, fathoming out who we are. For adoptees, this process can be extraordinarily difficult. We have no idea who we are because by consequence of being adopted, our pasts have been wiped out, deemed legally none of our business. I personally think the lack of information is to placate adoptive parents and maybe birth parents, it’s certainly not beneficial for adoptees who are left in a no-man’s land of confusion whilst other people decide upon the crucial elements of their life.
My teenager years are marked by my inability to cope with being adopted, trying to forge a fragile sense of self – which felt a bit like trying to erect a life from ashes of a burning building and being subjected to abuse for having the audacity to think I was separate person. My parents, especially my mother, became incensed as I grew up and dared like a fledgling bird to find my wings, almost as if some sort of betrayal had occurred. She needed me to be her, a sort of symbiotic relationship marked by narcissism, me simply an extension of herself, but I craved to be an individual and to find some semblance, regardless of how tenuous, of who I was or even who I could be.
Unable to find this sense of identity, it felt like a rupture occurred, a tear in the membrane of self, always wearing different identities according to others’ expectations and all the while losing more of ‘me’ in the process. It took me years to find a way to be in the world, without feeling like I had to perform, without feeling any identity I tried to stitch together was invalid, without feeling like a fraud. Identity, often, didn’t feel like something tangible or solid and when I saw others with a real self-assured understanding of themselves, it felt like some sort of alchemy taking place. Finding me could be likened to extracting a grain of sand.
One of the things I have become aware of over the years is how some non-adoptees take all the knowledge they have for granted. They look mostly like their mum, have their dad’s nose, are quick tempered like their grandmother. They know histories and life stories, have a teddy that belonged to a great-great aunt, and know they are susceptible to high cholesterol. Adoptees often know zilch. Nadar. The day of adoption they gained a new family, but lost their original one, gained a new fabricated identity but lost all information that would tell them who they were. It’s like walking through life with our eyes shut but as adoption is such a wonderful thing, the great Orphan Annie and Mr Warbucks fairytale, we supposed to be happy to reside in the dark.
In my twenties, I did learn, after much turmoil, that a sense of identity wasn’t necessarily something outside of myself and that all my questions could be answered in the precise way I chose. It wasn’t a fleeting thought. I had spent time working out how I could find a version of me to live with; what I had to do, what I needed to leave behind. Pretty much sticking a pin in a map and saying, ‘we are beginning here.’
I also thought for a long while that once I met my birth family, I would know who I was, but this wasn’t true for me either. I am not like my adoptive parents, but neither am I like my birth family. This was upsetting, discovering you ultimately belong nowhere makes you wonder why you are even here during the worst times. How do you make an identify out of nothing? What did you do to deserve this? But I think having nothing eventually became a positive for me, because out of nothing, I began to build something. A something no one could ever take away, again. A something that is now my life and my identity. A something that involves one husband, one daughter, and two dogs, the Scottish Countryside, lots of humour, too much thinking, a pen always at the ready, thousands of books, hours of bird watching, tending to flowers, plenty of vegetables and the knowledge that life can get better. Does get better. The knowledge of hope. The knowledge that love doesn’t always equal pain.