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what adoptees wish adoptive parents knew

Adoptee Emma Stevens: What I Wish You’d Known While Raising Me

It’s Adoptee Month at In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, spend November reading a variety of adoptee voices here. All essayists have responded to this prompt: what I wish adoptive parents knew about parenting an adoptee.

what adoptees wish adoptive parents knew

Today’s voice belongs to adoptee Emma Stevens.

Dear Adoptive Parents:

Here’s what I wish you had known while raising me:

Primal Wound

adoptee emma stevens

I wish you had known that when I was relinquished at birth by my first mom and separated from my first family, I felt pain. I received a wound. This is a primal wound that happens when infants are separated from the only thing they have ever known – their first moms at birth. Adoptees will always have this wound – consciously or unconsciously – for the rest of their lives. This pain cannot be healed through love.

You could have helped guide and support me, given me understanding and patience, but you could never mend this wound that has been mine alone to reckon with and find healing from. Each adoptee experience is different, and each will process the trauma in different ways. But the trauma is a complex and baffling condition for most. Adoptive parents can’t save their adoptee. But there are so many things that can be done to help an adopted child on their journey to create a positive identity congruent with who they are.

Not Your Ghost Child

I wish you had known that by asking and expecting me to play a role rather than to be celebrated for who I was – and was becoming – was to ask me to kill off beautiful parts of myself. This created more trauma, grief, and existential pain. It was also an unachievable goal to place on me. I suffered from knowing I would never be enough for you. Even with all the adaptations I acquired to feel loved by you – I felt I was still not enough. Through messages both implicit and explicit, I felt an extra “otherness” on top of being left by my first mom. It was a loss suffered by us both.

I wish you had known that as an adopted child, I needed to feel seen and accepted, not owned. That my thoughts, feelings, and emotions mattered. That I had a right to my own identity and that I did not come into this world as a spirit void of any texture or fabric. I needed you to see me as your child, not as the phantom child you couldn’t have biologically. And when I asked about my birth parents and birth story, I wish you had seen my curiosity as normal. I wish you didn’t send messages that who I came from was inferior. Wanting to know my birth story, have my original birth certificate, and meet my first family is normal. It’s natural. And I deserve it. I wish you had been supportive instead of threatened by my questions regarding my beginnings. It speaks to the universal, age-old existential question Who am I? I wish that you and others would see that this is an unquestionable human right for everyone – and that should include adoptees, especially adoptees.

Grieving Ambiguous Loss

I wish could have held space for me and helped me regulate and understand my complex emotions – especially surrounding being cut off from my biological lineage. This severing created an ambiguous loss, a loss that I should have been granted both the grace and expectancy to grieve and to explore. I wish you would have modeled emotional maturity and encouraged my honest thoughts and expressions with no price tag, judgment, ridicule, or punishment. This would have nurtured me. I wish you had believed that what happened to me was important and needed tending. You would have been offering me a safe place to land.

I wish you’d known that getting counseling sooner rather than later for our entire family was crucial. Establishing open communications from the beginning would have helped our family flourish. I wish you’d seen and dealt with not only your own unresolved traumas and addictions, but my brother’s and mine, too. Adoptees are overrepresented in alcohol and addictions, mental health, the justice system, and are four times more likely to attempt death by suicide. Awareness and having an open heart and mind to promote early prevention is key to loving not only your adoptee well, but yourself, too. If we had had early counseling, I feel many things in our family life would have had far different outcomes.

Freedom & Knowing

By contemplating and putting these selfless intentions into motion, you would have been modeling for me how to learn to see and experience my world as a loving place. To allow me to experience an environment that would have promoted healthy, nurturing love. The kind of love that demands freedom. Freedom to love myself and have a healthy sense of identity, freedom to love you as my parents, love my first family, and freedom to be fully informed of my birth story – regardless of what that story was. Even though my birth story was a rather sad one, I still am happy that I found out what it is – rather than living with the pain of not knowing. I get the chance to decide what that means to me for myself. If only you had known that allowing me these freedoms would have been helping me to thrive.

I wish you had known to first love yourselves well. We’ve all been children once. I wish you would have honored who you were as children. To have gone deep inside by looking inward and being reflective. If you had done that, you would have loved not only yourselves better, but those around you, too. This would have helped create a safe and welcoming environment in my childhood home. Adoptive parents who are clued into the reality of intergenerational trauma understand the importance of doing the work necessary toward deconstructing issues of unresolved trauma prior to having children. This would have shown me that there was no interior work that was too difficult, too uncomfortable, or too unimportant for you, as my parents, to work on – wholeheartedly. My overall health and ability to thrive depended upon it. And ultimately, my love for you would have deepened and become a true reflection of healthy gratitude and devotion.

Courage to Deal with Awkward & Uncomfortable

I’m writing this letter of “wishes” to all who will listen in hopes of bringing about awareness and change. It helps me define what I’ve found to be my purpose in life: shining light on the complexities and adversities of what my adoptee experience has been like. Through difficult times and multiple traumas, I’ve been able to use my experiences to dismantle and deconstruct the Self I had to become to be accepted by my adoptive parents. Through this adversity, I’ve been able to begin to reconcile my adoption angst and see that who I was or wasn’t had very little to do with my adoptive parents’ behaviors. While it still saddens me to not have been accepted by them or kept by my birth mother, I now delight in the fact that I’ve discovered the Me I was always intended to be. I celebrate all those parts who are me and tell them they are cherished and loved.

And that, in part, was only made possible through finding and discovering my complete and cohesive narrative of my beginnings. My wish for adoptees and adoptive parents is to find the courage to deal with the awkward and the uncomfortable. I wish my adoptive parents had asked me questions and listened to me. It just may have changed everything and everyone for the better.

About Adoptee Emma Stevens

Gathering Place by Adoptee Emma Stevens

Emma Stevens is a U.S. domestic adoptee from birth and has survived layers of trauma that have put her on multiple journeys. She developed the inner strength and courage to surmount the many struggles she faced. Her traumas were born from being an adoptee who struggled with being forced to wear an impossible mask of playing the part of the “good adopted child.”

The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story is Emma Stevens’ first book. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism and has completed master’s level course work in psychology, specializing in Marriage, Family, and Child counseling. She has two adult children and two cat children who she adores.

Adoptees on Adoption 2022

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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3 Responses

  1. I have all of the same wishes. I guess they thought if I didn’t say anything, I wasn’t feeling anything. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was suffering, but knew how to hide it. I had no choice. I had to suppress my feelings in order to survive. Literally, these were the people who fed me and kept me alive.

  2. What a wrenching letter – I think everyone thinks they can fix every problem with love. But if love isn’t paired with honesty…it can’t work. Both are needed.

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