happy sad about adoption

The Happy/Sad of Adoption

Last week I witnessed a private interaction that needs to be seen by a wider audience, for it addresses the fallacy that if adoptees are happy and connected to their (adoptive) parents, it follows that they will not have any adoption issues. Can there be a “Happy/Sad” of adoption?

At the request of the question asker and with the permission of the question answerer, I share their exchange here.

Question (from an adoptee): Can you see the distinction between how an adoptee feels about their own adoption and how adoption is practiced now? Can you explain in words others can hear that an adopted person who had a “good experience” can actually have serious concerns about adoption today and speak out about it?

happy sad adoption

Response (from an adoptive mom): Of course the personal adoption experiences of the hundreds of adoptees I’ve come to know vary greatly. Yet a constant theme I hear is a feeling of wanting to belong, to be loved and cherished. (Sidebar: how is that different from any of us?)

Their future trajectory can be greatly impacted with how their individual sense of self is nurtured during childhood. A vast majority of the adoptees I know love their parents tremendously and deeply, but that has really nothing to do with also wanting their own truth. I know countless adoptees who struggle with wanting to bring their adoptive parents IN to their inner turmoil, but are extremely concerned that  their efforts will be misconstrued, feelings will be hurt — or worse.

I know for me as an adoptive parent that we love our kids SO much, we want that love to be ALL they need. But it’s not, and in most cases, never can be. Parenting is for the long haul and it’s good to remember and recognize that little hiccups along the way are normal for any family.

Love and Sadness

Yet we adoptive parents have additional layers that we have to accept. When we as a society (and as parents) began to LISTEN to the adoptee voices out there, we could understand that even with a huge and unending amount of love, there can still be a deep, unexplained sadness within our children.

We’re often unprepared for this sadness, whether our kids know their birth families or not, because when many of us adopted our children, our training came from agencies that were grounded in the closed- adoption model, even if they had begun to stress open adoption.  It was so easy for everyone to focus on that magical outcome — bringing home our baby.

Needs: Theirs and Ours

I am ashamed to admit that before adopting, I was focused on my own desire to “feel whole” by being a mom. I knew how I would love, cherish, nurture, and provide a great life to a child (and we did) but inside I wanted to own all that. (Others couples who become pregnant are allowed those feelings of desperately wanting to experience parenthood, but we as adoptive parents can be made to feel very guilty for having these same feelings. That’s where some hurt can begin to creep in.)

Despite all  the love we have for our son, sadness and hard talks still came. We ventured down an openness path unprepared. I swallowed up books by James Gritter and others to get some sense of the walk we were on. I sought out resources and LISTENED and LEARNED, mostly from other adoptees.

Having an open adoption solved a lot but didn’t solve everything. My son is now 24, still means the world to me, and we’re closer than ever. Still an inner sadness remains. That’s a heartbreak for a mom who loves her son so much. And so I get the denial and the hurt from the parents’ side of things. By and large, our hearts HAVE been in the right place. Yet we are not always able to give them everything they need. They NEED sometimes to search and see the faces that may look like their own. They NEED to hear their chapter one from the people who know it from the actual beginning. They NEED more than us, and we NEED to be okay with that.

At the Heart of the Need

A few years ago, a middle-aged adoptee and I were having a cup of coffee. She had long been reunited with her birth family and had told her story publicly. She looked me in the eye and said, “Can I ask you something that I’ve always wanted to know from my adoptive parents?” I said, “Of course.” Her words hung over our table.

“Are we enough?”

I looked deeply back at her and replied, “Yes. A resounding Yes. YOU. YOU. Exactly YOU are the ones your parents wanted to raise and be their daughter. You were not second best. Or their second choice. YOU. YOU were THE ONE.”

From that day forward, I made this point clear to my son YOU. I am grateful to be YOUR mom.

When an adoptee’s voice is squashed as being ungrateful and unappreciative — and diminished as too sensitive or overreacting — their loss is magnified. We as parents should spend our time learning about and supporting those very common feelings. It can’t be about our feelings anymore.  Once we filled our crib, many of us were sent us on our merry way, often ill-prepared for adoptive parenting. We must give the microphone to the adoptees and let them speak to us and teach us.

If you’re lucky enough (as I was) find a nonprofit organization whose dedication is about the lifelong journey and where all voices are appreciated, GO. Be in the room. Be kind. Listen to the voices who can teach. Advocate to make adoption better by recognizing that love and loss can coexist side by side.

Linda is an adoptive mom who was among those who embraced open adoption early in the movement — in the 1990s. Reach Linda directly via openadoptmom@gmail.com.

Image by Greg Sain – Created with MS Paint, Public Domain

19 thoughts on “The Happy/Sad of Adoption”

  1. Wonderful thoughts on a complicated situation. I was thinking about it outside the adoption triad in terms of any relationship, too. Not just this idea that our love is enough, but that WE are enough. How many people talk about needing something more outside of a partnership? It’s not a statement about how they feel about their partner, but more an awareness that relationships are complicated and some of our needs may only be met by another person. For an adoptee, that might be needing a relationship with an adoptive parent AND a birthparent.

  2. This was so beautifully written and so true. If only all adoptive parents and adoptees could have open discussions about feelings it would help so much!

  3. Very well written and on point. I must share! I’ll also add, that it is imperative that our children know that we validate their losses and respect their ambivalent feelings We must ensure that they know that we not only understand their pain & grief, we want to be the ones that support them through it. We recognize that a “painfree” adoption is a fantasy AND it is our deepest desire that we be the safe harbor where they can can find the reassurance and acceptance they need. #AAQ

  4. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Linda! I especially appreciate this:

    “We as parents should spend our time learning about and supporting those very common feelings. It can’t be about our feelings anymore.”

    It’s been a few years since I [finally] started to grow up enough to realize parenting can’t be about my feelings. However, I think acknowledging my children’s feelings as “common,” is something I could do more of. Their history isn’t common. Their response to their experience IS common and it’s my job to be a good parent and respond appropriately.

    Thanks so much!

  5. “there can still be a deep, unexplained sadness within our children.”

    A question for paps and aps to help prepare them for that possible sadness is, “how would you feel if you lost your parent/s?” Which absolutely does require embracing the both/and mindset.

    My dad had a list written out in response to his mother-in-law’s suggestion of writing about his life. The list was titled, “A Life of Pain”. It was in chronological order. Near the very top of the list was, -loss of parents-. My dad was adopted. He never got over it.

    I think the sadness is easily explained when one realizes that the child does actually have a mother and father who created them and in the ideal situation they would have stayed a family unit. Losing our parents is hard when they reach the end of their life and it’s time to say, “see you after a little bit”, it’s earth shaking to lose a parent or parents when it does not follow the normal course of life. Especially when the son or daughter is still very young.

  6. Although I was pleasantly surprised to read what I just read from an adoptive parent, I must disagree with not being a second choice. Unless my adoptive parents went and found my mom and dad and insisted they sleep together so my adoptive parents could adopt and raise me, I was a second choice. Most of our adoptive parents were not able to have their family on their own so they had to resort to plan b.

    1. Leslie – I have children through donor eggs. I thought the same thing when I read that part of the essay. Of course our children are second choice. We tried ‘the old fashioned way’ and when that didn’t work, we tried IVF and when that didn’t work we tried IVF with donor eggs. If I really wanted a baby between my husband and Belinda (our donor) I could have started there. I didn’t and there will always be a loss I feel for that life not lived. My kids know their story so they know – or someday will put together – that they were not the children we initially imagined raising.
      I don’t know what the answer is here. We love our children with all our heart and very much want them to know they are enough – just the way they are – even if it wasn’t our first choice. I want them to know that we have embraced the life we didn’t initially imagine and we are more than happy – thrilled really – with the life we actually have. I want them to know that you can mourn the outcome you didn’t get and still be very happy with the outcome you did get.
      I hope we can do that even if we don’t exactly know what that looks like yet. We have chosen a path of being open and honest and often telling how kids that we love them for who they are and that we are lucky to have them in our lives (and we are!) Time will tell how successful we are.
      Perhaps I am just too cerebral or cold-hearted, but it seems to me that by exclaiming “You are not second choice!” dismisses the valid perception of the child (and the mourning the parents went through as if it was no big deal). I like, “Just because you weren’t our first choice, doesn’t mean we love you any less than if you were. I would never go back and have it work out any differently, because then I wouldn’t have you. Life is good and I am so lucky.”

  7. Leslie,
    I can sadly see how an adoptee would feel that would have to be the case. However, I guess, perhaps, you may have to BE an adoptive parent to know our heart. “Second best” comes no where in the equation when it comes to our feelings and love for our children. This is true to me and to hundreds of parents I know, both in person and online.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post, particularly with Leslie’s comment. First off, this is filled with wisdom and a must read for anyone considering adoption as a way to expand their family or parenting after adoption. This is such a complex issue and the idea of happy/sad is something our society really struggles with.

    What continues breaks my heart is this common belief that the adoptee is second best. Linda does a beautiful job of addressing this head on, but often this message is refuted. I guess my question is how can this belief be changed? I truly don’t know the answer because I think it’s a multi-party issue requiring both the parents (adoptive and birth) as well as the adoptee. Maybe the answer is the model some nonprofit agencies are taking with the lifelong intervention and support. But I am curious as no one should feel like they are less. And I think that’s a big message the open adoption movement is trying to address.

  9. Thanks Lori,

    I think that one of the reasons adoptees take part in discussions, even hard discussions, is so that this generation of adoptees will be parented by parents who’ve had the benefit of hearing adoptees speak about what was good, what hurt.

    I’m hoping more adoptive parents will listen, encourage other’s to listen, to engage in honest heartfelt conversations with adoptees – and that won’t happen if we can’t temper our words, or paint all with the same brush – both sides are guilty of this.

    We can do that while speaking about what needs to be better, because, adoption will always be needed for some in the foreseeable future.

    1. There are alternatives to adoption, such as Permanent Foster Care and Long-Term Guardianship Orders, where the best interests of the child are the priority – they retain the name they were given at birth, they retain their legal links to their family of origin and genetic heritage; and they also have the security of being placed in a permanent, stable, loving home with a caring family. The best interest of the child is paramount, and their identity and heritage is transparent. This is the way of the future for children needing out of home care – not adoption which strips the child of their identity and heritage.

  10. “Yet we are not always able to give them everything they need. They NEED sometimes to search and see the faces that may look like their own. They NEED to hear their chapter one from the people who know it from the actual beginning. They NEED more than us, and we NEED to be okay with that.”

    I needed more than to just search and see familiar faces. I needed more than to hear about my beginnings. Those were important, but I also needed to have an ongoing relationship with my first family. Not everyone does need that. I did.

  11. I love this post so much. There is so much wisdom here. I try to explain this to my family, who sometimes can (without meaning harm) say things like, “But do you have to talk about adoption ALL THE TIME? Aren’t YOU the parent?” and the truth is, in adoption, you share that role. You are the parent, but there are other parents too and you can’t negate that. That happy/sad dichotomy can’t be ignored. I speak from hope and not experience, but I feel like it’s so important to listen to the adoptee experience. In some ways, I feel like adoptees are treated like the black community — so often TOLD what their experience is instead of just being LISTENED to. I so want to listen. Pieces like this help me so much — thank you, Linda!

  12. “They NEED to hear their chapter one from the people who know it from the actual beginning. “. How many of us know, and love, the story our parents tell us about “the day you were born?” I absolutely loved hearing about my mom playing bridge and waiting out her labor at home with my dad and grandparents as things progressed. I asked to hear my birth story quite often. I never once have wondered what it would feel like to not know that story until now. Thank you for this.

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