Adoption is trauma. I don’t fully understand it, but I’m beginning to appreciate the ways in which those (very) early experiences have shaped the way I live my life. There’s no reason to enumerate the sudden, dramatic changes adoptees experience – I will only say that even as someone abandoned and fostered under the “best” possible circumstances, I know that I was traumatized.
I’ve been aware of my adoption since I was fairly young, maybe around four years old. In fact, I brought it up myself – pointing out that I didn’t look like my siblings because “I didn’t come from Mommy’s tummy”. Little kids, they know what’s up. And so my parents, in that moment, were forced to talk to me about adoption. They did a very good job of painting a happy picture: a mother who loved me and a family who wanted me.
They always used the language that I was “given up” – so I grew up thinking of myself as separate from the kids who were “abandoned”. It came as something of a shock then, when during my senior year of high school I was forced to do a genealogy project and took my papers out of the safety deposit box. It was the first time I’d really read them, and there, in big bold caps were the words “ABANDONED” and “ORPHAN”. Yes, it took me until I was eighteen to realize that I was an orphan.
I think that in some ways, being sheltered from the idea of abandonment was harmful to me. It prevented me from growing in a lot of ways because it robbed me of my whole history. I was in my twenties before I could even begin to think about the ways in which adoption has negatively impacted me – and I’ve been in therapy since I was fifteen.
At first glance it probably doesn’t make any sense – why not shield your child from things that are potentially hurtful?
The problem is, those feelings of hurt are always going to be there. Those moments where I was just too clingy, too sensitive, too afraid were still there. And because I couldn’t trace it back to the source, I placed the flaw in myself. I internalized it. I saw my emotionality as something pathological, excessive and burdensome to others. Something to be squelched, stifled, silenced. In other aspects of my life I worked so hard to be the best, to be without fault. I had to be the perfect child: I intensely feared abandonment, but never called it that.
Now that I am conscious of these issues, I can manage them. When something triggering happens, I can (usually) stop myself from going down the path to crisis and instead think about the situation and why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. Knowing that I was abandoned, that I was traumatized, legitimizes my emotions. It gives me permission to feel bad, but it also gives me the tools I need to feel better.
I can’t give you much advice about when and how to approach the topic. Probably not at three, but also not at eighteen. Somewhere in between. I’m glad to hear that you are open to the idea of counseling – but do your research, the right fit really matters. Someone who has experience with adoptees would be a plus, but there are plenty of other factors that count, too. I also suggest not underestimating the importance of other adoptees. I feel like a lot of growth can only come from interactions and sharing with other adoptees. Although when I was young I had very little access to other adoptees in that context, as an adult it has been something of a homecoming, and probably the first space where I could talk about my abandonment fears in a productive way.
Adoption agencies always talk about all the things your child is “gaining” in being adopted. They rarely mention what they’re losing. I think it’s important to support your child as he mourns those losses. Adoption is painful, both in the physical sense and emotionally – there needs to be space allowed for that pain.