(The Introduction to this series can be read here.)
My thoughts on adoption, my adoption, were, at least outwardly, always cut and dry: I’m adopted; it’s okay to be adopted; adoption is a good thing.
After forty-seven years, I still feel that adoption is ok.
What I no longer feel is that adoption should be treated as blissful and glorious. What I no longer believe is that being adopted has had no impact on who I am, and who I’ve become. Adoption has shaped me much more than I realized. (Before I go further, let me clarify: when I speak of my changes in thought, my changes in attitude towards adoption, I’m not speaking in a “Oh, I’ve recovered repressed memories” sort of way. I’m speaking as someone who’s spent a lifetime reading and listening to other people’s stories, and as someone who has spent a goodly number of years thinking about my own story.)
The issues with adoption start from the beginning. I mentioned in the Introduction that I’d recently read Jeanette Winterson’s book, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?“. When I read some of her thoughts on adoption, my initial reaction was “No, that’s not true for me.” I was, at times, angry that she could think such things. I’d planned to write an indignant rebuttal, but, the more I tried to argue against what she was saying, the more the truth of what I really felt began to emerge, and I began to agree with her. The first quote that struck me, which happens to also be the longest, was this:
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
I don’t entirely agree with her — still, even after much thought – that it’s a violent sundering. But, I realize that the Big Empty at the beginning of my life is a much more significant factor in my life than I’d let on. I’d always thought of that part of my story, the part filled by my birth-mother, and the part played by The Life That Might Have Been, as a non-issue. What’s Not To Be isn’t of significant value.
Or so I thought — or, denied.
There’s a guilt that happens when you, as a child, imagine what life would have been like with this mythical creature who gave birth to you, with this woman who seems so saintly because she felt that giving you away to a better home than the one she could give you was the best choice she could make. When I was younger, and, usually when I was mad at my parents for something — those things that children get mad at their parents for: not letting them get that toy they saw at the store, or having to eat the icky peas, or not being able to go outside because your homework wasn’t done–when I was mad, I can remember thinking: my real mother would have gotten me that toy, or, she would have given me something other than peas. When you’re adopted, you know that Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is out there, and at the end of the rainbow is a place called Your Real Mother’s House.
As a child, you don’t fully understand the difference between Real Mother and Birth Mother. The language of those two words, while both describe the woman who carried you in her womb, aren’t really interchangeable. It’s not until you’re older that you begin to understand that your Real Mother is the mother who cleans your scraped knee, who let’s you sleep in her bed because you had a nightmare, who yells at you for dashing out into the middle of the street and then suddenly grasps you to her chest in a big hug, and won’t explain why she’s got tears in her eyes. However, as a kid, that understanding isn’t there, and when you’re angry and hurt, Your Real Mother’s House seems like it has to be nothing less than Disneyland. And you want to run there, because that mythical woman will make it all better. In a way, it causes a split — a dividing of your love, between the parents who are there, everyday, and the Somewhere Out There parents who have to still love you, because they’re your parents, right?
The older I got, the less the appeal of My Real Mother was, yet, at the same time, she became more mythical. One morning, when I was in my mid-30s, I was showering, and, for some reason, in that odd way the mind does, connections pinged around, and suddenly I thought of my birth mother, and, in the next instant, it occurred to me that she wasn’t this young, twenty-one year old girl I’d always imagined her to be. In my mind, she’d been frozen in time, the mythical young damsel, distressed at giving up her child. In an instant, I suddenly realized that she was closing in on 60 at the same rate of speed that I was closing in on 40. It was a very strange realization.
The beginning of my story was missing — and, as a child, you do fill in the blanks, because that’s what kids do. Virtually every child, at some point in their developmental years, continually asks the question “why?” With adoption, for those of us who know from the beginning that we’re adopted, we want to know “why?” My parents had a bit more information about the “why” than many adoptive parents, but, it was still not enough of a “why” to make it a complete answer. So, for me, the blanks were filled in with this Place That Was Better, where I didn’t have to do chores, or eat peas, or do homework. It was a place where I’d be loved.
More importantly — it became the place I felt guilty about thinking of. How could I think of this other place when I was somewhere where, when I wasn’t pouting, I felt loved. Thinking of going to this fantasy place seemed like a betrayal, and my guilt for thinking such thoughts grew and grew. I began to feel as if there were something wrong with me for not being able to appreciate what I had. I felt guilty for doubting the love my parents had for me, the love that should have been obvious to me. I began to think that maybe I was one of those people you hear about, the ones who don’t know how to feel love.
Having the knowledge that there is a Somewhere Else that you Might Have Been is always a part of you. And, perhaps that is part of why many parents chose not to tell their child about the adoption. As long as you assume you belong, as long as there is no doubt that you belong with them, then everything is ok. I think the argument carries on with the belief that if you know you came from somewhere else, you might try to seek that place out, and leave behind the one’s who’ve raised you. And, for many, the desire to seek out birth parents becomes an overwhelming desire.
(Part Two of this series can be read here.)