Christmas Box: Unlocking the Pain of Separation

Three years ago, my friend Linda Schellentrager released her son into the care of someone else. She wrote this post about how this experience gave her a new sense of empathy for another mother who also experienced such a pain of separation.

My Own Christmas Box

I am an adoptive mom. An oh-so-proud adoptive mom … I feel like a mom in every way to my only child Eric, who is almost 20 years old. My love for him spills over and oozes sometimes so much that I am regularly teased about it from co-workers at Adoption Network Cleveland — and my family, too. And, Eric just smiles when I get mushy with him. He knows his mom. He knows my appreciation that I am his mom.

This holiday season has been a challenging one and it has brought forward feelings that I’ve never had before … and has brought to the surface some feelings that have been long locked in a box.

christmas box

On November 14th, Eric left for 13 weeks of Marine boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. We’ll have no phone or email conversations until we see him in Parris Island for graduation in February. We’ve shared amazing letters back and forth, but we’re only halfway through this first extended time apart.

This separation from him has been enlightening to me. It’s brought his birth mother to my heart in a new and deeper way. We’ve all known her these 20 years with our open adoption, and I’ve known and felt her sadness, yet I didn’t feel the magnitude of it until now. This separation is hard stuff. It rips at the soul. It doesn’t feel right. Something is wrong with the universe. Families should at least be together at the holidays.

Yet, I’ve been doing a good job keeping these feelings shoved down and locked into a box. To have them out in the open is too hard. Tears might come. Or worse. I often have wondered all these years why his birth mom hadn’t joined a group of other birth moms to talk about her feelings. Now, I know. That involves going to that box and opening it.

On Christmas Eve, something surprising happened. I was with a relative who is experiencing infertility and when I started to talk to her about knowing the feeling of facing another holiday without a baby, the tears came. It’s the first time since November 14th that I have allowed myself to do that. I was catapulted back to 1990 when I was in depths of infertility sadness. Then immediately, I snapped back to the present day, thinking, “My God, it’s Christmas and I can’t see or talk to or hug my baby.” What the heck? I am healed from infertility! And, I thought I’d been doing so well with Eric away. (Writing him daily has helped keep me sane.) So where are these tears coming from?

Then it dawned on me: I’ve been healed from infertility but I am not healed from knowing how to deal with separation. And, here I was in front of an open box. At least, while I was with that relative, I felt safe. Together, we shared tears. I cried for her facing another holiday without a baby and she for me, facing my first holiday in 20 years without my boy.

When Eric’s birth mom and I have talked about him joining the Marines and being away from both of us, I shared with her how her years of separation from him is affecting me in a whole new way. I said that I have a new appreciation for how hard it’s been on her. Her response surprised me. She said, “You’re not used to being separated from him. It’ll be harder on you.” Whew.

Then I imagined how hard it will be when we both see him in February for just a few short days and again, will have to say goodbye for a while. These next four years of his Marine commitment will have many hellos and goodbyes – much like the countless hellos and goodbyes his birth mom has endured with him over these 20 years in our open adoption.

This revelation has brought big emotions to me this holiday season. Sure, I expected for it to be hard for these first 13 weeks of separation, but I didn’t expect the feelings to go so far and deep –- and to have any connection to my adoption journey. I didn’t expect to approach those feelings long locked away.

Opening the box is good for healing, but for now, back inside you go.

~~~~~

adoption separation guest postLinda Schellentrager is an adoptive mom who was among those who embraced open adoption early in the movement, in the 1990s. Her son, Eric, is now 23. Reach Linda directly via openadoptmom@gmail.com.

Linda is also Communications Manager for Adoption Network Cleveland. This post was first published on Adoption Network Cleveland (c), with permission to reprint.

Box image courtesy artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image of Linda courtesy Adoption Network Cleveland.

Adoption Therapy: On Blank Slate Babies & Being Open

There’s a new book out and I think it’s so valuable for adoptive parents, adoption professionals, and adoption therapists that I’m going to share with you here an excerpt from it.

Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues

When Editor Laura Dennis asked me to read the manuscript for Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues, I jumped at the chance. And was blown away with new ideas and insights that might be helpful in my parenting journey.

When Laura asked me to write the foreword to Adoption Therapy, I aspired to do it justice. Below is my attempt, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

~~~~~

Foreword

It’s with both trepidation and humility that I compose the foreword to Adoption Therapy. You hold in your hand an extraordinary and incisive collection of writings about adoption and therapy, composed by many who have walked the long walk of facing trauma and healing from it. A majority of these contributors—and the editor herself—are adult adoptees.

Now if there’s one thing adoptive parents are known for in adoption circles, it is for doing more than their share of the talking. Accurately or not, adoptive parents are seen by some as the moneyed ones in the adoption “triad.” Accurately or not, adoptive parents are seen by some as the “winners” in adoption scenarios — they end up with their dreams answered while birth parents and adoptees suffer wounds that society doesn’t recognize. Accurately or not, adoptive parents are seen by some as the ones with the voice, with influence to mold adoption law and policy to their benefit.

And adoptive parents have been accused of speaking about adoption issues when perhaps they should be listening [case in point].

Hence my trepidation.

This notion of listening is why I encourage adoptive parents like me—and others curious about the possible effects of adoption—to pick up this book and read it thoroughly. We should be listening. We should give a temporary rest to our own thoughts and feelings and suppositions about adoption and create within us an open space to simply listen.

The Importance of Being Open

Being open to hearing a new point of view—maybe even a scary point of view—is an expansive state. Being open works best if one has healthy boundaries and appropriate permeability between self and not-self. It requires a healthy ego, one that doesn’t need to “win” to survive, one that recognizes its inherent value and accords others the same recognition. Being open means you have less of a need to defend your truth than you have curiosity to hear another’s.

openness in adoption

Being open, however, does not mean there is no discernment. After creating space to hear others’ truths, and after listening and trying to understand a different perspective, it’s still all right to discern whether another person’s truth fits into your own—or not. And even if you decide “not,” it may be prudent to tuck away that perspective for a later time when your own evolving circumstances may cause you to look at the perspective again and anew.

As you turn these pages, I invite you to be open to the gifts and insights within, and to allow the possibility that not all chapters will look like gifts. Anything that strikes you strongly (and dare I say that could be every single powerful chapter?) is resonating for you, either positively or negatively charged, and indicates there is something there for you to look at—within you and from your own experiences.

Understanding Neonatal Trauma

As you read and understand, you’ll find gems like these quotes that will help you better understand the experience of having been adopted:

  • “To be conceived without being intended, to be carried in the womb of a stressed mother facing a crisis pregnancy, leave lifelong traces that persist without an understanding of their origins.” — From Chapter 5: Heeding the Body’s Messages: Physiological Implications of Prenatal Trauma
  • “Adoptive families tend to seek help from a counselor three times more frequently than other families.” — From Chapter 2: Red Flags that a Potential Therapist Could Do More Harm than Good
  • “I felt like I was living under the terms and conditions of a contract I never signed.” — From Chapter 7: Perspective of an Adoptee Conceived by Rape
  • “Start early teaching kids that feelings are like clouds moving through. No feeling is your last feeling. Feelings are not permanent.” — From Chapter 3: Approaches for Repairing the Wounds of Separation
  • “Our lives are a dance between knowing who we are as separate beings and knowing ourselves as parts of the whole.” — From Chapter 3: Approaches for Repairing the Wounds of Separation
  • On connecting with Nature: “Ida Rolf said that if you can’t get it from your mother, get it from the Mother—the earth.” — From Chapter 5: Heeding the Body’s Messages: Physiological Implications of Prenatal Trauma
  • “But moving on is much different from healing.” — From Chapter 7: Perspective of an Adoptee Conceived by Rape
  • “One classic example of ‘parentification’ would be an adoptive parent who constantly implores reassurance from the child that he/she is the ‘real’ parent.” — From Chapter 12: Co-Dependency in Adoptees
  • On adoptee resilience: “We succeed not so much because of that original loss but in spite of it.” — From Chapter 3: Approaches for Repairing the Wounds of Separation
  • “What these therapy modalities have in common is the goal of resolving past trauma at the level of the body/mind connection.” — From Chapter 12: Co-Dependency in Adoptees

Parents who adopted internationally may have been under the impression that a child would be nothing but grateful to the people who rescued him or her from abandonment or life in an orphanage. Surely it wouldn’t be traumatic for these “lucky” ones to land in a loving home. It would be a good thing!

As a mom via domestic adoption, that last quoted passage struck me because once upon a time, people adopting newborns thought we’d bring into our homes a Blank Slate Baby. Because they were infants, these brand new humans would come to us with no problem that our love couldn’t resolve. The babies didn’t have words yet, so clearly they wouldn’t have memories of their placement (which first involved a separation in order to make a new connection). Surely it wouldn’t be traumatic for these little babies to go from a chaotic and unstable place into a family that longed for them. As with international adoption, it would be a good thing!

But I’ve come to know by listening to adoptees that infants DO know. Young children DO know. They may not know in their brains, because it’s unclear how we encode events that happen before we can do the encoding through words and thoughts.

But their bodies know. Their body/minds know. The body/minds of infants and young children who were placed for adoption experienced chemical and hormonal changes, responding with unique and complex emotions that got encoded and stored. Evidence shows that the body/mind houses every experience we’ve ever had, even those that are preverbal. What we are hearing from brain scientists, therapists and adoptees themselves is that the memories of the trauma of a chaotic pregnancy and/or separation from source resides in the body/minds of adopted people.

What About Resilience?

So why might one adoptee turn out even-keeled and unflappable while another is deemed a hot mess? If the “primal wound” is real, why isn’t every single adoptee in therapy all the time?

We find the answer in the wisdom of Forrest Gump: Humans — like life itself — are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Because of the infinite number of influences that go into making a person into who she is, because of the complexity of the interactions among those infinite influences from pre-birth on—because of the enormity of it all we can’t identify any one thing that causes someone to be unflappable or a hot mess or anywhere in between.

Will your child be resilient? Who knows? It takes a lifetime to fully unwrap this metaphorical chocolate. Resilience and all other traits will emerge on their own timetables, being coaxed out or pruned based on life experiences and other factors. As your loved one’s nature reveals itself to you, you can best respond by being open to who she is and attuning to her moment by moment.

Attunement and the Adoptee

The longer I do this parenting gig, the more I hear from parenting experts about incorporating attunement. Attuned relationships mean we are in harmony with the other. Being attuned means we are willing and able to go into discord with our loved one, even when doing so is unpleasant and frightening. To be able to do this, it’s helpful to understand how others have handled such inner discord and come out on the other side.

I desire to be an attuned parent, yet I’m finding though the journey is even more difficult than any other I’ve experienced. I bet anyone who loves an adopted person would like to be able to walk alongside her loved one and help bear the load of whatever he or she is going through. To do this we hold the intention to continually tune in with him, with her.

And to do this we must first hold the intention to tune in with ourselves.

As You Turn the Pages

I ask you to open yourself to information and perspectives that may strike you as helpful, as scary, as possible solutions, as clues to a puzzle you’re trying to figure out. I ask that you begin by preparing within you an open space to really listen to people who have walked this path—before you begin the process of discernment. I suggest that you monitor your own reactions to each chapter, and ask yourself probing questions at any time you notice a strong reaction (why did that trigger me?). I recommend that even if you discard the gist of a chapter today, that you remain open to reevaluating it another day.

May we all strive to open, to listen and to attune when it comes to adoption issues and the people who are faced with them.

~~~~~

cover for Adoption Therapy anthologyAdoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues is available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon and other booksellers. Like the other contributors, I donated my work and have no financial stake in the success of this anthology.

Contributors to Adoption Therapy: Marcy Axness, PhD, Karen Belanger, Karen Caffrey, LPC, JD, Laura Dennis, Lisa Floyd, Rebecca Hawkes, Jody Haywood*, Lori Holden, MA, Mila C Knonomos, Krist Lado, Lesli Maul, LCSW, Brooke Randolph, LMHC, Suzanne Brita Schecker, EdD, LMHC, Raja Selvam, PhD, Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen*, Deanna Doss Shrodes, Corie Skolnick, MS, LMFT

* Guest posters to my recent #flipthescript series.

 

#flipthescript — What’s an Adoptive Parent to Do?

I am drawn to the writings of articulate, gentle-yet-incisive people. Barbara Freedgood guest posts today about the impact the #flipthescript movement had on her as an adoptive mom and therapist. She addresses the question that many readers may have had last month as they read the not-so-secret thoughts of adult adoptees:

So now that I KNOW, what do I DO?

Please welcome Barbara Freedgood into this space.

~~~~~

barbara freedgoodNovember was National Adoption Awareness Month. The blog posts flowed in on my email. I found myself overwhelmed with input from all the voices being raised during this time in which adoption draws more of the spotlight.

Among the many things that came across my desk were generous offers from authors of greatly reduced prices on their books written about adoption to share their experience and hopefully help others. There were workshops offered on attachment and trauma. Adoptive Parents Committee held its annual conference, as it always does in this month of adoption awareness. And here in this space, Lori hosted “flipthescript” in which adoptees took the floor to offer their views.

Many adoptees raised their voices, claiming more space for their stories, not just those of adoptive parents and professionals. And many of their stories were tough to hear, especially as an adoptive parent. They expressed hurt and anger at the foreclosure on their grief in adoptions where their parents could not or did not know to discuss and understand their losses. They vented outrage at the expectation that they be grateful for being adopted. After all, they did not choose it and it would seem that adoption causes as much hurt as healing.  Adoptees mourned deep feelings of loss of birth family and birth countries and cultures.

It struck me that as adoptive parents, it is our job to hear and understand these feelings while at the same time feeling our own sad losses. How sad to have a child who suffers so. Unfortunately, in this outpouring of voices, adoptive parents as a faceless whole are sometimes painted as selfish people who just wanted a baby at any cost to others involved. No doubt there are people who fit this description. There are many, though, who simply followed advice that was given to everyone who adopted at that time, did the best that they could, and did not know a thing about what they were getting into. “On the job” learning is tough — one makes mistakes.

Fast forward to adoption in the 21st century. As a result of the great efforts of reform-minded adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents to define better practices in adoption, things are changing. Thanks to this, openness is the order of the day and newly adopting parents are being counseled far differently than parents of the past who adopted under a system that encouraged closed adoption, closed records, closed connections, closed expression.

New adopting parents are now encouraged to do open adoptions so that adoptees do not lose their identities and biological connection. They are encouraged to talk about adoption with their children, not keep it in the closet as a secret, or brush over the differences that evoke questions and cause intrusions both external and internal from the outside world.

This is all good and important change. It is my hope that this will allow us all to have more nuanced stories about our adoption experiences. In the past adoption has traumatized all involved. Birth parents lost children forever. Adoptees lost birth families forever. And adoptive parents entered parenthood completely
uncomprehending of the damage this would do to all, unwittingly putting themselves on the front lines with trauma they had no understanding of or preparation for managing.

There will always be good parents and not so good parents, whether
adoptive or biological. There will always be issues of fit and compatibility. Adoption will always be fertile ground for fantasies of lives not lived, of grief for and idealization of parents or children that did not happen. However, if it is practiced with greater consciousness and room for everyone’s feelings we stand to have a lot less trauma in this way of making families, a great thing for all involved!

~~~~~

Barbara Freedgood, LCSW is the mother of two children adopted at birth in the United States and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is the author of the article: “Loss and Resiliency Form a Family: A Relational Story of Adoption” available through her website. She runs post adoption support groups for adoptive parents of children of all ages.

Open adoption parenting & mindful living