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Field Notes #2: The Cost of Secrets

Brad Ewell on Parents Keeping Secrets

Lori suggested I address the topic of secrets and the age-appropriate sharing of sensitive and complex information, considering the secrets that were kept from me. As I’ve worked on this topic, I concluded that the best way to share my thoughts on this would be to first invite you into what life was like when the truth is kept locked away, followed by the changes I’ve made as a parent to have this cycle of secrets stop with me.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote, “The truth will set you free. But not until it’s finished with you.” As a late discovery adoptee, this quote hits close to home. Over the past 4 years, the truth has been reshaping me, and I’m not sure when it will be finished with me. While this time hasn’t been easy, I’m thankful to finally know the truth about me.

Feelings of Self-Loathing

Field Notes with LDA Brad Ewell

For 48 years, my parents kept my adoption secret from me. Looking back, I had what I believe was a normal childhood. Now knowing the truth, I can make sense of the struggles I had in childhood and as an adult because of the secrets kept by my parents. For decades, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t good at and didn’t enjoy most of the things my parents did.

My dad had been a great athlete, playing both baseball and football in high school, which led to a college scholarship. Growing up, I played soccer, football, and was on the swim team. I wasn’t pushed into any of these by my parents; I chose these activities, trying to fit into the family I saw around me. What I never told my parents was that there was not a single one of these that I enjoyed. I just kept pushing myself because, in my head, that’s what we did. If I just kept trying, I thought I’d eventually find the joy in them that my dad did.

Ultimately, this never happened and was a source of self-loathing because I looked up to my dad and wanted to be like him.

My interests were in writing, art, and music. I kept these to myself as well because I was introverted and private. My parents were highly extroverted and enjoyed a life where accomplishments were on display. At that point, I couldn’t conceive a worse fate than having the private workings of my mind exposed for all to see. I still struggle with this today, and I can clearly hear my dad telling me I’m “being silly.”

Am I Mad at My Parents?

At this point, you may be wondering if I carry bitterness toward my parents. Honestly, I do struggle with their decision to keep the truth of my biological beginnings from me. And at the same time, I subscribe to Dr. Brené Brown’s idea that my parents were “doing the best they could with what they had.”

No matter the outcome, it was never their goal or desire to damage me. Somebody handed them a “blank slate” baby who would never need to know anything from the past. We know better now, but I can’t put that on them.

Like with most secrets, it just got harder to acknowledge the truth the longer the secret was kept because of what it would force them to admit.

F*cking Opportunity

On March 17, 2019, the world as I knew it crumbled around me, and I have spent the last 4 years slowly rebuilding myself. Recently I was listening to the Rich Roll podcast (ep #550). He said, “If you’re stuck, if your struggling, if you’re being dismantled, if you feel like your life is being pulled out from underneath you, I say congratulations, Like what a f*cking opportunity that is, You are being given an opportunity to look at yourself and reconstruct yourself from the ground up.”

During the early part of my discovery, I was nowhere near ready to hear this. As time went on, I found myself leaning into the opportunity to rebuild myself. And more importantly, to honor the parts of myself I had ignored for decades.

The hard part of this has been finding time to delve into these interests on top of all that didn’t change in my life. I still have a wife, 3 kids, a mother with Alzheimer’s, and a full-time job. The discovery added things to my list rather than taking anything away. I now also have 3 half-siblings, a biological father, and another extended bio family I want to keep in touch with. It’s a balancing act.

In the next Field Note, I will cover what age-appropriate telling could have looked like for me as a child, how I have used this concept in disclosing tough things with my own children, how I still have to work at breaking the old family habit of secret-keeping, and how Lori’s idea of openness in adoption could have positively played into my life.

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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.

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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7 Responses

  1. Brad
    Thanks for sharing this. There are many like us, and it is difficult to speak about it, particularly in a way that others are willing to hear.

  2. Adopted person here.
    They had 48 years to tell him, and ressources are available since years! At some point it’s just willful ignorance, selfishness, and the inability to put themselves into the shoes of the adoptee. So they clearly DID NOT the best they could! The irony: a lot of adopters feel superior to our fist parents. Newslash: they usually aren’t better equipped to be parents. But if you throw some money at a vulnerable mother in crisis and her child, and pretend that this child is yours, it’s all good. 🙃
    It’s a lame excuse by these perpetrators who wanna hold onto their delusional fantasy of being “real parents”. The “they did the best they could”-nonsense is sadly still around due to societal conditioning, silencing of adoptees, the personal denial of the adoptee, and lack of responsibility of adopters.
    I can’t count how many adoptees have been gaslighted or gaslighted themselves with that nonsense. These adopters are social predators and I can’t wait for adoptees finally standing up against this by dragging their perpetrators, local governments, CPS, and adoption agencies to court. Hiding one’s origins is cruel, selfish, inhumane, lacks respect, and violates some UN Children’s Rights.
    These kind of adopters are NOT good people and they didn’t deserve raising someone else’s child, let alone an already traumatized child. Cause they caused huge trauma in top of our existing trauma.
    And who’s going to pay for all these therapy bills of their messed up adult adoptee? I bet most adopters don’t.

    What kind of parent-child relationship is that anyway, if it’s based on lies, and inauthenticity???

    Btw.: Did you know that there’s a study about the prevalence of narcissism in infertile women (e.g. adoptive mothers)? The lived experience of some adoptees corroborates that.

  3. Hi, Susan. Thank you for your passionate reply, and for the link to the Indian study. Brad may be checking in to reply to your assessment of his parents, but I also wanted to respond.

    First, I agree with you that willful ignorance, selfishness, and the inability to put themselves into the shoes of the child are seeds of dysfunction and causes for concern in all parents.

    And also that inauthenticity is not helpful in any relationship.

    I will add, though, that the line between infertility and personality disorder is not clear cut. One thing that the study you cite did not address is the effect of a culture’s pronatalism on people enduring infertility. We (my coauthors Sara Easterly, an adoptee, and Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, a birth parent) get into that in the upcoming book Adoption Unfiltered.

    I also agree with the study that a “therapeutic programme” would be beneficial to those entering adoptive parenting. And I agree with you that adoptive parents should set aside funds for their child to feel their way through their adoptedness with a therapeutic professional.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts here.

  4. Brad, I love what you said about the chance to reconstruct our lives. Not that those secrets should have been kept from you, or that you should feel grateful for the damage this caused, but that you made the conscious choice to not let it define you. Thank you and Lori for sharing this with your readers.

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