are you my mother adoption

#flipthescript 8: Adoptees Are In Reunion Whether They’re Searching or Not

Lesli Johnson, author of the helpful and repeatedly viral post, 10 Things Adoptess WantYou to Know, is flipping the script today. Adopted people are taking over the microphone in this space during November for National Adoption Awareness Month.

adoptees flipthescriptImage: Tracy Hammond

What Adoptees Do

are you my mother adoptionDuring a recent presentation at an adoption conference, I had attendees participate in a quick exercise.  I asked them to walk around the room and find the person they thought they most closely looked like.  The room instantly filled with nervous laughter as the participants met each others’ gaze, searching for facial similarities.  After a few minutes I had them take their seats and we talked about what that experience was like. 

I explained that this is what adoptees often do. They walk through the world, searching for their lost “twin” or someone they resemble.  Like the little bird in the popular children’s book, adoptees look at others and wonder: Are you my mother?

As an adopted child grows older he wants to know if he resembles someone. This is especially true during the adolescent years when the quest for identity emerges. “Who am I?” 

Individuals who were not adopted are able to see themselves in the features and mannerisms of biological parents and family. This is more difficult for an adoptee. He looks around a packed stadium wondering if a biological connection is among those cheering on the football team or if a sibling might be sitting next to him in geometry class.  One teen client explains, “I spend a lot of time scanning crowds, wherever I am, imagining a brother or sister. I make up stories in my head about what it will be like when we finally meet.”

Adoptees Wonder

The author Betty Jean Lifton, an adoptee and trailblazer in the field of adoption calls this living in the “Ghost Kingdom.”  It’s the place where adoptees can go and hang out with their birth relatives and imagine life if they hadn’t been adopted.  One of my young clients, “Ben,” was adopted at birth. At 8, he was struggling with separation anxiety and sleep problems when his parents contacted me.

Ben’s parents doubted his issues had anything to do with adoption. “He never talks about it. He’s fine with it,” said Ben’s dad.

Soon after we began working together it became clear that adoption was on Ben’s mind often. “Well, I think about her when I wake up in the morning,” he said, referring to his first mother.  “I wonder what she looks like and if she would even recognize me. I feel sad that she might not.” I asked Ben how often he thought about this and he answered, “Every day, more than just in the morning. Maybe about 5 or 6 times.”

Ben’s anxiety was linked to the worry that his birth mother might not recognize him and also the fantasy that he might be seeing her each day and not recognizing her.

Years ago, I worked with “Kate,” a 12-year-old girl, who like Ben, was adopted at birth.  Kate’s parents described her as “angry, oppositional, and living in her own world.”  They explained to me that they had met her birth mom and knew she did have biological siblings but they hadn’t shared that information with Kate. They were waiting for the right time.  They explained how they answered Kate’s questions related to adoption when asked but added they never initiated conversations.  “She’s just not that interested,” they said.

I quickly learned Kate was very interested in who she was, who she looked like and where she came from. She was indeed living in her own world —  she was living in the Ghost Kingdom! Kate explained she likely shared her hair and eye color with her birth mom. “She must like to dance because I do,” Kate said. She planned to live with her birth mom for a year when she turned 18. Kate “knew” she had brothers and sisters and suspected she saw a sister recently at a farmer’s market in her town. “She looked exactly like me and we had on the same jeans!” she exclaimed. Kate had much to tell and I suspected she was angry because no one else seemed interested in her internal world. 

Kids Kate’s age may not start talking about adoption but they would like their parents to be curious and begin the conversations.

Adoptees Fantasize

Professionally, my work with the adoption and foster care community has shown me most adoptees spend a lot of time thinking about adoption, reunion and genetic relatives – far more time than their adoptive parents might think. Personally, I knew this all along!

I first “met” my birth mother in elementary school. “Mrs. Jensen” was a classmate’s mom who volunteered during the lunch hour a few times a week. Her platinum blonde hair, frosted lips and mini-dress completed her Charlie’s Angels look. My 8 year-old self was convinced that we shared the same hair color and same eyes: we must be related. I imagined how surprised Mrs. Jensen would be when she discovered that her child, me, was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right next to her!

Adoptive parents can rest assured that this “searching” and wondering is completely normal. While it doesn’t mean their child is unhappy or longing to be somewhere else, the amount of time spent fantasizing may interfere with day-to day activities and concentration. It may be the root of anxiety and sadness. Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. This isn’t a “given” for many adoptees whose ancestry is a mystery to them. Living in the Ghost Kingdom can be distracting for a child who is trying to study for a math test.

What Parents Can Do

Parents are their child’s best advocates and there are many ways parents can help their child integrate their biology with their biography.  Parents can obtain as much information as possible about their child’s history before they came to be a family, including information about both birth families. This makes it easier to answer questions and provide valuable information to their children. Parents can lead conversations and bring up the topic of adoption often. In doing so, the child gets the clear message that mom and dad are okay talking about everything related to adoption.

Once Ben’s parents began talking about his birth mom “Cindy” and allowing him to verbalize his worries, his anxiety began to dissipate. Ben’s parents also created a Lifebook for Ben.  Lifebooks include pictures of birth relatives, and other visuals incorporating pre-birth and birth history.  As the child gets older, he can become his own historian, adding information to the Lifebook.

Parents may also consider open adoption, a choice that is becoming increasingly popular. Lori Holden’s book explains how adoption creates an unnatural split between a child’s biology and biography., and openness in adoption allows that split to be healed.

Integrating = Healing

Although they first thought she was too young, Kate’s parents agreed that maybe connecting with her biological siblings would be helpful. In our subsequent meetings they began to share pictures of Kate’s birth mom and also told her she did indeed have siblings. Over time and with much guidance, we worked together and decided the circumstances were appropriate for Kate’s parents to contact her birth mother to set up a meeting. This was healing for Kate and the families continue to have a relationship.

Support groups are a way for parents to connect with others in the adoption community. I co-facilitate a monthly group for all adult members of the adoption and foster care communities, that is: adult adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents and birth parents. It’s a powerful experience for everyone to hear the varying perspectives.  There are numerous books and online resources relating to all aspects of adoption.

Finally parents may wish to contact a professional to help them. In seeking a therapist, it is wise to find one who has special expertise in working with the adoption population.

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Lesli Johnson, an adult adoptee, works as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles, specializing in adoption and related issues. Her clients include all members of the adoption and foster care community: adoptees, adoptive parents, waiting parents, birth/first parents, foster parents and families. 
 
In addition to her private practice, Lesli provides Adoptive Parent Coaching both in office and virtually to adoptive parents worldwide. (feel free to schedule your appointment). She facilitates adoption support groups and conducts workshops in schools, universities and mental health settings to help professionals better understand adoption issues. Lesli is an invited speaker at adoption related conferences and events throughout the US.  Find Lesli at MindfulAdoption.com..

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Other Posts in the #flipthescript Series:

 

 

15 thoughts on “#flipthescript 8: Adoptees Are In Reunion Whether They’re Searching or Not”

  1. I love this. The line: “He never talks about it. He’s fine with it,” said Ben’s dad, is the line that I hear a version of over and over and it shows such a pivotal misunderstanding of the adoptee and his/her experience in the world. Thank you so much. I really look forward to meeting you.

  2. Kids often “never talk about it” because they’ve received non-verbal messages that it is off limits–like parents getting upset or distant, or trying to quickly change the subject. Sometimes they interpret parental silence on adoption, as a clear signal that silence is required. In the absence of sincere and consistent reassurance that discussions about the “Ghosts” and shadows of adoption are welcome, kids will decide it is forbidden. Thus, they will flounder–and suffer-without the support of the people from whom he needs it the most: his parents.

    1. Excellent point Gayle. Parents often tell me , “She never brings it up” or “We let our son know that he can come to us with any questions he has.”
      It’s helpful when parents lead conversations to let their child know they are comfortable with all things adoption related. Parents are their child’s best advocate. Parents can bring up the topic of adoption often, even in little ways to let their child know it’s on their mind.

  3. This is very meaningful and opened up all sorts of memories I kept stored somewhere all these years. Your post is such an important one for families in adoption to read and take to heart. Necessary conversations can begin with sharing this piece. Thank you.

  4. As a birth mother I often found myself looking at the faces of boys my son’s age everywhere I went. I too was looking for my features. Thank you for this helpful and insight full post.

    1. Thank you Candace. I’ve heard from many first mothers that they, like you scan crowds and look into the eyes of others searching….searching. Betty Jean Lifton’s “Ghost Kingdom” is relevant for first families too.

  5. Very well written. Searching “doesn’t always mean the adoptee is unhappy or wants to be somewhere else”…but sometimes it does, and we don’t want to admit it to anybody, including ourselves. The feelings may be more prevalent among children adopted past newborn/infancy, who have memories of “somewhere else.” Dissociation/DID seems to be a common diagnosis among adoptees and I honestly believe “dissociation” is actually a visit to the Ghost Kingdom. I spent more time there than anywhere else in my younger years.

    1. Excellent point Jodi. I believe many adoptees are given diagnoses that don’t “fit” if one were to look at the symptoms through the lens of adoption. Instead of pathologizing adaptations to trauma, grief and loss, adoptees need parents, teachers and professionals to be curious about their inner worlds. While we’ve come far in working with and understanding the adoptee experience we still have a ways to go!

    2. Thank you for saying that. I was adopted at birth and DID want to be somewhere else. My Amom and I were so different and never bonded. I developed a dependence on her out of survival, but there was no loving bond. She didn’t like who I was and wanted me to be like her nieces. She knew who and where my mother was and lied to me despite my repeatedly begging for information. Connection with my mother was like oxygen to me and my Amom ignored my pleas. Of course I wanted to be somewhere else! I wanted to be with people that could help me feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe instead of doing all this research and counseling on helping kids “deal with it”, we should focus our resources on helping mothers in crisis keep their children. The exploitation of mothers in crisis by the baby takers and money makers is a crime against humanity. I think it’s time for PAPs to show the “brave, selfless” love by helping mothers and children stay together.

  6. If the adoption had never taken place, then these children would not have to live in any “ghost world”. Even though my daughter and I have been reunited 22+ years, issues from her adoptive experience still cloud her life and shape how she looks at the world. Being with me and her maternal family of birth is so good for her, but that can never erase all the pain and loss she had to deal with as she was growing up. I feel so deeply that children born to mothers in very difficult circumstances, need to be kept with their mothers and society must help these mothers and children to move beyond whatever is promoting thoughts of relinquishment to strangers. Yes, it’s important that adoptive parents become educated to help their adopted children, but the best situation is not to have the adoption take place at all. It brings so much pain, even though children may be raised in loving homes. I admit that there are some situations where it is best for a child to live elsewhere, but the ties to the mother and family of birth need to be maintained. It breaks my heart to see so many mothers and babies separated, often times for no reason beyond financial. It’s a travesty.

    1. ^ truth. I couldn’t agree more. My mother wanted to keep me, but was deprived of the support and resources to do so, and of course that wasn’t part of the adoption story I grew up hearing. My dad’s sister forced the adoption and I grew up thousands of miles away from any other family. Even though I knew that, I still searched every face in every crowd in case they were looking for me.

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