Brad Ewell on Breaking the Cycle of Secrets
Columnist Brad Ewell tackles a tough feat: if you’re raised with secret-keeping as the norm, how do you go about doing things differently?
Below, Brad explains what things were like within his family-of-origin (who never told him he was adopted), what the expectations were for him as an adult in his own family, and how he handled his own very difficult-to-deliver news about his birth father to his three children — in an age-appropriate way.
The way adoptive parents are often called on to do.
The Paradox of Adoption Secrets
In my last Field Note, I summarized what it was like to grow up with the truth of my biological roots hidden from me. In Field Note #3, I will talk about changes I’ve made as I’ve raised my own children to break this secretive cycle and how I still don’t always get it right. I also want to give you some suggestions based on Lori’s ideas of openness in adoption and how I’ve seen others manage the role of being an adoptive parent.
I want to begin with the concept of the sorties paradox that I learned from Lori after I recorded a podcast with her. Using the example of sand, as Lori did, is a great explanation. A typical example involves a heap of sand from which grains are removed individually. Removing a single grain does not cause a heap to become a non-heap. The paradox is to consider what happens when removing a single grain of sand is repeated until only one grain remains. It can’t be considered a heap anymore, but when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?
I bet the same thing happened to my parents in reverse. They chose not to tell me I was adopted. I doubt they planned for it to be a lifetime secret, but as each day came and went, the deception grew deeper, and eventually, it became an overwhelming task for them to sit down with me and tell me I was adopted. The question is: when does this shift occur?
I’m sure for each person it’s different. But the longer a secret like this is kept, the harder it becomes to tell.
How to Have Tough Conversations? It's Simple.
What’s the best way to avoid the sorites paradox, the compounding of adoption secrets?
It couldn’t be less complicated! The secret to not having to deal with the problems of secrets is……drumroll……
Making the reality of adoption a part of the typical family conversation reduces the stigma of being adopted. It allows the adopted person to understand why they may differ from their parents. Let me share an example of what I mean.
I have a cousin for whom I developed a deep admiration for in a single phone call. She is the adoptive mom to several kids, and I was on my way to spend the night at her house. She called to say she wanted to prepare me for something before I arrived. One of her children asked her if I was the adopted one and if he (me) “f*cking hated being adopted as much as I do.”
As she said this to me, my stomach sank. My brain began scrambling for alternate plans for the night because I could picture the tension that would have resulted from me saying this in the home I grew up in. Before I could spiral too far into fight or flight, my cousin said, “I told them to ask you because I wasn’t sure how you felt about it.”
My mind spun. Was it really ok to tell your parents about how being adopted was hard? To me, this was a radical concept and not at all how I grew up.
When I got to their house, there was no tension over what had been said. In this house, it was ok to have feelings, even if they weren’t positive ones.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I found Lori’s podcast, Adoption: The Long View, and her concept around openness in adoption. I began listening to the podcast expecting it to be about “open adoption.”
Instead, I was introduced to a world where being open about both the happy and complex parts of adoption was not only OK, but healthy! With “openness in adoption,” there can be of genuine relationships with biological family, but the goal is to have a home where your adoptive children and you can talk about hard things and feel safe during those conversations.
Secrets as a Way of Life
Growing up with secrets was my way of life. My parents would tell me things and follow it up with, ” Don’t tell your mom/dad” (depending on which one was talking to me). This continued into adulthood with a constant expectation to keep things my parents said to me from my wife. I knew that this was not how I wanted to live. Each time I was told something ending in “and don’t tell Pam,” I would shake my head and say, “That’s not the kind of relationship we have. I am not keeping secrets from my wife for you.”
When I learned I was adopted, the secret keeping came back up. Two days after my dad admitted I was adopted, I met with my parents to discuss. At the end of our conversation, my dad said, “Now, one thing we want to talk about is that we don’t think you should tell the kids any of this.” My children were then 21, 14, and 11.
I shook my head and said, “This was your secret. I’m not taking on the burden to keep it.” When I got home that afternoon, my wife and I sat the kids down and explained that I had found out I was adopted. We opened up the space to talk about what that meant for their lives, which boiled down to not much would change. Learning about being adopted became another challenging topic to cover with my kids.
Some Hard-to-Deliver News of My Own
My biological father was still alive, but he had been in prison since 1972 for murder. This required for me to figure out age-appropriate telling for my own offspring. For my 21-year-old, I told her everything. For my younger two, it was a much briefer story that was basically this: he’s in prison.
But then I opened up the conversation for them to ask further questions and explained that they can ask me anything. If such a question turned out to be something I don’t want to discuss, I’d tell them so. Shortly after this, my middle daughter returned to the room, asking questions about why he was in prison. I told her he had killed someone. This led to questions about the motivations behind the killing. I explained it in basic terms without getting into the deep end of things.
Secrets: A Hard Habit to Break
Growing up in a family of secret keepers has left its mark on me. While it’s never my goal to keep secrets, I do it more often than I’d like. A typical example of my secret keeping revolves around tattoos. If you ever meet me in person, I’m pretty much covered. My wife likes and has tattoos of her own. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve headed off to get another tattoo, and I don’t tell my wife. It’s not my plan, but it’s deeply ingrained to keep things to myself. In one of my favorite examples, I got a couple of sparrows tattooed on my chest.
That night I was lying in bed, and Pam playfully punched me in the arm and said, “did you forget to tell me something?” I was lost and couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. Then she said, looks like you got a couple of new tattoos. A sheepish grin crept across my face as I realized I had managed to plan and get a new tattoo without ever saying a word to my best friend and wife.
So I’m still growing. None of us are going to get it perfect. All we can do is try to remain open with the ones we love each day.
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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.
- Her first book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.
- Her second book, Standing Room Only: How to Be THAT Yoga Teacher is now available in paperback.
- Her third book, Adoption Unfiltered, will be published in late 2023.