This Is Not An Adoption Blog, and I Am Not an Adoption Specialist

When I was in elementary school my father introduced me to an older girl who I was told was my new sister. I instantly began spending as much time as she would permit hanging out in her room, drinking in her older-girl-ness. I wanted jeans like hers, earth shoes like hers, button-down men’s shirts like hers and a puffy down jacket like hers. Her biological family was known to us in our small suburb and she had some form of arranged visitation. She had put herself in foster care, calling child protective services herself, the oldest of many siblings, asking to be removed from her chaotic and alcoholic home. She alone left the family – the younger ones all remained at her “old” home. I could feel the unspoken guilt, a terrible dilemma she carried in her chest and behind her eyes: had she abandoned her younger siblings in an attempt to save herself?

I had my own childhood fantasies and fears about this “other” family, that was – and was not – connected to our household. We regularly drove past her old house running errands, near our favorite pizza place. I would peer up the driveway, searching for something. Were they the dark, scary, shadow family to our real one? Or were we the flimsy, replacement family, the consolation prize, the fake ones? One Christmas season, I searched through her drawers and closets peeking in all of the unwrapped packages to see how the hidden butterfly necklace with my initials clearly penciled on the box compared to the gifts she had purchased for her real siblings.

I found hats, mittens, clothes, shoes in specific favorite colors and correct sizes, school supplies and pencil cases, gifts of essentials, things that were needed, personal use items that for the first time made her other family real to me. So fundamentally different from the pretty shiny bauble designated for me that I snuck out of her room with a corrected perspective: she was carrying burdens that I couldn’t fathom. It didn’t matter if I was real to her or not. That just wasn’t important. She had larger fish to fry than to worry about me. Any kindness she had to offer me was gravy. My wish to be reassured about my place in her life was totally beside the point.

Years later, when I set out on my own psychotherapy practice, I became a clinical consultant with a large NYC child welfare agency, an independent contractor paid per client to see kids in my office that were identified by the institution as being “most in need” of therapeutic services: young children and teens, separated since infancy or early childhood from severely abusive, neglectful, addicted, mentally ill, or abandoning mothers and fathers. I was the designated support system to kids enraged, victimized, despairing, ripped off, unmoored, unseen, unheard kids with multiple foster family placements (one child had more than 20), and living institutionally in group homes. No parent, group home worker, or foster parent ever came in to consult with me despite my repeated invitations. I mailed off occasional, unrequested progress reports to some remote office and was never contacted or informed about any external occurrences in the child’s life unless the kid told me themselves. I was never asked to confer or to participate in any family or institutional decision. Children would be hospitalized, placed in adoptive families, teens incarcerated, run off, or returned to live with their parents and I would never be notified, except by other kids. Case closed.

They all struggled to understand why, although their parents would not or could not waive parental rights, they also could or would not take the steps necessary to regain custody. All of the kids I saw wanted either to be home with their parents no matter the conditions, or they wanted to be adopted. None of them wanted to be where they were. None of them felt that anyone belonged to them, there was no trusted grown-up invested in their specific well-being.

My sample was, of course, inherently skewed. I was not employed as a foster care social worker, I was not managing a range of cases – I was not seeing happy-enough children in stabilizing, committed, foster families.

Nor was I seeing the kids with families who were successful in satisfying the powers-that-be, that their children could be safely returned their care.

Many of the girls came to therapy already pregnant, or became pregnant during the therapy – some accidentally, some through abuse or assault, some by choice – seeking partners, and/or babies who would love them forever.

A few young women I worked with chose adoption for their children. Keening, grieving, terrified, cornered in an impossible position – attempting to simultaneously save themselves and a child from unbearable, insurmountable obstacles, traumatized by the loss and the thought that they were abandoning their child as they had been abandoned. One unmothered-mother, profoundly abused, severely attachment- and conduct-disordered (a year or so away from a significant prison term for a shockingly violent offense), claimed calmly and indifferently to feel nothing for or about the unwanted pregnancy she carried, or the baby she delivered and waived her parental rights to.

A small handful of family-less young mothers, hoping to raise their child on their own – with no external emotional support and no experience of a loving, nurturing parent of their own – at first brought their infants home to special supportive housing. After the mothers reached 21, aging out of the system and its financial support, several babies became second generation foster-care children.

One resourceful, amazing kid, attached to a warm, supportive church that gave her a home when she aged out, and a community of defacto grandparents, aunts, uncles and babysitters. She kept in touch with me for years, sending photos of her beautiful child as he grew and thrived in her loving care. A miracle, against unbelievable odds.

I do not claim that what I have borne witness to is representative of anything generalizable. It is only what I saw. Nothing more, nothing less.

Simultaneously, and in no way directly connected to my consultancy, I began getting referrals for my private practice. Randomly, many of my early clients were adult adoptees or adoptive families. I watched adopted teens negotiating separation and individuation with the additional twists and turns, losses and uncertainties, anxieties not unique to, but enhanced by adoption. I heard some adoptees identify their beloved adoptive families as their only “real “family, and others identify their first, biological parents as the “real” ones. I listened to decision processes to search and to those who thought searching was entirely unnecessary to them. I heard of adoptive parents actively undermining, co-opting, threatened – or deeply supportive of their adult childrens’ journeys. I watched complex, confusing, overwhelming, search and reunion processes unfold, some instantaneous, some protracted, some fulfilling and joyous, some tragic, some both at once: answers at long last to life-long questions, and a wave of new, previously unanticipated questions taking flight, many never to be answered.

And in the midst of it all I became an adoptive parent.

I receive calls sometimes, asking if I have an expertise in adoption.

I am not an “adoption expert” and I do not aspire to be.
I do not know what it is to be adopted.

Truthfully, I understand less and less about adoption every single day.

I have come to believe that every simple, clear statement made about the adoption experience, from any perspective, is at worst wrong and at best incomplete.

Including this one.

My experience in adoption is merely vicarious. I have stood near, peering into that swirling vortex of archetypal energy, putting a toe or a hand in when I am implicated or needed, watching people I care about, dear friends, clients I treat, family members, my children, construct and deconstruct their very identities in the face of a tidal wave of paradoxical answers to impossible questions:

What is motherhood, fatherhood? What are parents? What is birth? What is blood? What is natural? What is inevitable? What is choice? What is fate? What is bravery? What is abandonment? What is rejection? What is selflessness? What is selfishness? What is history? What is justice? What is privilege? What is poverty? What is coercion? What is generosity? What is belonging? What is kinship? What is money? What is ownership? What is commerce? What is love? What is family? What is nurture? What is genetics? What is race? What is racism? What is culture? What is loss? What is grief? What is gratitude? What is anger? What is health? What is normal? What is identity? What is memory? What is truth? What is bias? What is real? What is wholeness? Who are any of us to each other? Who am I?

The adoption community itself fractures under the weight of these paradoxical energies splintering into opposing factions, communities organizing around their chosen set of answers. Some advocate for all adoption to be halted as unethical, coercive, destructive abductions. Some think smuggling children across borders without papers is justifiable to “save” a child’s soul and “provide a better life”. Birth mothers, first mothers, natural mothers, adoptees, adopted persons, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, forever families, adopters – every word becomes an injury, a wounding – language itself becomes impossible and insufficient to describe all of the light and darkness, joys and sorrows, connections and disconnections, contradictions, ambivalence and dissonance.

I’ve learned to think of all of the voices in the adoption community, as dissonant as they are, as part of some whole, that I can never grasp.

Like when people talk about God.

And I have never known any two people to forge answers to more than a few of these questions in the same way.

Any fantasy, myth, generalization, romanticization, stereotype, unconscious bias or assumption that I have ever made – in any direction – about adoption, adoptees, original parents, has been soundly turned on its head, repeatedly.

And perhaps that is the point: these are not experiences for me as a non-adopted therapist, a non-adopted adoptive parent, to identify with, co-opt or fully comprehend.

Perhaps the call is to behave with consistent respect for what I can never understand.

copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford all rights reserved

32 responses

  1. thanks Kevin – that means a lot coming from my homeland of Gazillion Adoptees!
    I just occured to me that LGA is not yet on my blogroll, and it SHOULD be! Will correct that oversight!
    and thanks for your kind comments.

    Martha

  2. One of my first efforts to help as a professional was with a young mother deciding to place her child for adoption. This was in 1959. She was from England, the baby inter-racial. She was heart broken, but felt she had no choice. I often wonder how her son fared and pray with all my heart he thrived.

    As a foster parent, a significant number of those placed with us in our short term home were failed adoptions. And yes I know many adoptees who are healthy and happy. Such a complicated issue. Have saved this for a possible posting in my won Shrinks Think blog category. Will let you know when I use it.

    Thank you for a lovely article.

  3. A note about comments on this piece:

    Because I count among my friends and followers, Adult adoptees, adoptive parents, and first parents – I won’t be publishing comments that are (intentionally or unintentionally)disrepectful of the multiplicity of divergent experiences in the adoption community.

    The clearest way to have your comment published is to speak from your subjective experience, and to try to avoid making general, categorical statements about others. We are all, likely to be holding some particular piece of the truth, the truth of our own experiences, and as I said in the posting, these truths are, in my view, at best incomplete.

    If discussions get too unweildy, it will be easiest to close out the comment section on this piece.

    If you would rather have your comment deleted/unpublished rather than have me edit it to keep it with in the parameters, please let me know.

    Whether your comment is published or not, I thank you for reading, and for taking the time and energy to think about, and respond to this post.

    With respect and gratitude,

    Martha

  4. Great post, it really speaks to the complexities and nuances of adoption. I really appreciate this sensitive and thoughtful post. Great to have your personal and professional insights as well.

  5. You said, “I have come to believe that every simple, clear statement made about the adoption experience, from any perspective, is at worst wrong and at best incomplete.”

    If there is one truth I have come to understand as I have awoken from the adoption anesthesia and come to myself again, it is precisely this observation. Thank you for the insightful and thought provoking post.

  6. Very interesting piece. I am a former social services professional and am currently back in school as a Social Work major. I suppose my ultimate aspiration is to be a family therapist. When dealing with clients who have adoption-related losses, I would have a unique perspective, someone who had felt the loss and who has been through any number of phases of processing adoption throughout my lifespan. That would be one advantage I would have over a non-adopted therapist. On the other hand, that same advantage gives me a bias.

    What I am trying to say that, although someone may not be adopted, it is certainly possible for people to be capable of providing informed counseling services to adult adoptees. I appreciate that you acknowledge the lack of direct knowing because you aren’t adopted. However, a therapist who seems to understand the deeper issues that you do probably shouldn’t sell themselves short

    “I watched adopted teens negotiating separation and individuation with the additional twists and turns, losses and uncertainties, anxieties not unique to, but enhanced by adoption.”

    This is an entirely rare statement, in my humble opinion. The average person, even therapists, do not understand how what you’ve said in that quote is true. It’s beyond quite a lot of people to understand that adoption very validly both is and is not a source or magnifier of loss and issues in the lives of adoptees. Some adoptees have had the experience of feeling their losses written off by therapists–and I understand what that therapist is trying to do. They likely are attempting to challenge the thought the adoptee has to encourage the adoptee to replace it with a positive. The therapist may not understand how deep and valid the loss is and that it needs to be discussed and worked through, not simply replaced with a more positive statement–because too few people realize that the losses and grief in adoption are real and run deep.

  7. Thanks so much Melynda and Amanda,

    And Amanda, I think that you are right when you point out that whenever a therapist shares a core-conflict with a client that there is a danger of bias and over-identification.

    But I think that the lack of adoption training, and the lack of adoptee/first family voices in those trainings – in graduate and post-graduate programs, leave many non-adopted therapists operating on the accepted “common knowledge”/dominant narrative about adoption- which also carries many dangers and biases

    I still won’t feel comfortable claiming “expertise” but perhaps I’ll admit to being adoption-competent at times, although the experience is rarely one of comfortable mastery…..

    I would like to see adult adoptees and first family mental health educators and advocates be represented at every adoption conference or professional training that gives a podium to adoptive parents & non-adopted adoption worker’s/therapist’s perspectives.

    Thank you both for you thoughtful comments.

  8. Thanks Robin,

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that folks outside the adoption world assume that the adoption community is unified in the belief that adoption is always “for the best” of everyone involved. I think that is is part because many adoptive parents do find parenthood deeply personally fulfilling -as I do. Many adoptees and adoptive parents experience adoption as a sucessful social institution.

    That is the dominant narrative presented in the media etc in part because original families voices have been stigmatized and hidden, and adoptees were viewed perpetually as children who could not speak for themselves.

    Many adult adoptees and original parents and adoptive parents organizations ask for everyone to also take a wider view of the issues of power, privilege, social control, race, ethics and loss as they effect the re-definition/re-organziation of families and severance of parental rights and biological continuity.

    As a therapist with a Junginan streak, I believe that we are called to integrate the shadow, the disavowed aspects of ourselves and our institutions, in order to move toward wholeness. But facing down our shadows can be truly terrifying, painful, and summon up our darkest, most primal defenses as well…

    Thanks for reading,

    Martha

  9. I have to say you seem to get it, and understand you still don’t truly get it, and yet still have an open mind to understanding what the individual feels, and how those feelings ebb and flow over a lifetime.

    Thank you for the hope your post brings to me.

  10. Thanks a lot – And thanks for letting me know it gives you some hope.

    I foolishly stumble over my own ignorance and privilege into others raw spots plenty – and am sorrowful for the wounds I’ve bumped into and reinjured. And I am deeply grateful for the hard lessons and the occasional forgiveness I have been offered along the way.

    Thanks for reading and for your feedback.

    M.

  11. M is completely right, it is the truth I as a mother have to as well. I learn every day, and with that learning comes truth and pain and joy, and sorrow, and honesty. It is so very hard to be a mother who has lost her child. It has impacted my life every single day for the last 27 years. Even with reunion it’s stil painful and raw some days. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this piece. I have shared it with my friends.

  12. I feel like I was reading my own experiences here, albeit much more eloquently written, first working with NYC foster teens and then on to work as a family therapist with “sytem-involved” youth and their families. And then I became an adoptive mom as well. I so appreciate the humility and honesty in this post. Sharing…

  13. Thanks very much. Don’t know how old your kids are, but in the past several years we have organized a small diverse adoptee-centric peer/play group for adoptive families in NYC: All Together Now. Younger kids meet with teen and young adult adoptee mentors while parents meet separately. Feel free to spread the word among your cohort and/or email me at whatashrinkthinks@yahoo.com for more info.

  14. Thanks for the great post. Every year I go to a Christmas party hosted by a friend who is a psycho-therapist. One of her PT friends does adoption mediation. I have had discussions with her that concern me. She has tried to get me to admit that my own loss of my son was “for the best.” Although I have never specifically said it, because we are, after all, at a Christmas party, I always thought she was prejudiced. I like your phrase better…

    “operating on the accepted “common knowledge”/dominant narrative about adoption- which also carries many dangers and biases”

  15. It is exactly these kinds of “normal” biases that re-wound and re-injure adoptees and original family members. A-families also experience these kinds of intrusive biased assumptions directed towards children who cannot protect themselves. The little land-mines, scattered around in the guise of small talk and idle curiosity “Where are you from?” “How many people in your family?” are complicated enough to negotiate, so much harder when unexamined biases drive others to reject anything but a superficially “happy” answer.

    Thanks very much for reading and for your comments.

    Martha

  16. “One resourceful, amazing kid, attached to a warm, supportive church that gave her a home when she aged out, and a community of defacto grandparents, aunts, uncles and babysitters. She kept in touch with me for years, sending photos of her beautiful child as he grew and thrived in her loving care. A miracle, against unbelievable odds.”

    The miracle was the warm, caring community of people involved in her life. Many children would flourish with those circumstances, no miracle required.

  17. Once again, I love your posts! As one who was “adopted” into a family, inter-racial & inter-cultural, as a teen, I have asked so many of those questions as I was negotiating my identity. In the end, you said it best: ” And perhaps that is the point: these are not experiences for me as a non-adopted therapist, a non-adopted adoptive parent, to identify with, co-opt or fully comprehend.
    Perhaps the call is to behave with consistent respect for what I can never understand.” Even as an “adopted” non-adoptive parent, my understanding & experience is just that, my own …

  18. “No parent, group home worker, or foster parent ever came in to consult with me despite my repeated invitations”

    Very powerful. People wonder why therapy is not successful with foster kids or why they aren’t healed when they age-out. “People” –foster parents, workers, bio-parents if appropriate — need to be involved in the healing process, not just on the outside and not just passing the kid around to people who half-ass care.

    Can I quote some of this on my blog sometime? – “I was a foster kid”?

  19. I like your blog. You are telling the truth there. Keep writing please. In your last post I felt that I heard the voice of every foster kid I ever sat with.

    If something from this post feels useful to you feel free to quote it.

    Best,

    Martha

  20. Pingback: why some foster kids are still fucked up « I Was A Foster Kid

  21. This is so beautifully written. In a way I feel so fortunate to NOT understand, and at the same time, hopeless about things getting better. I completely agree with your words, and I think getting there – knowing that WE DON’T KNOW, won’t ever really know – is a big first step.

  22. Thanks so much for your thoughtful writing on this tricky subject. Even in the best of adoptions, there is an undercurrent of such deep, profound loss. It is only in reunion with my birthfather that I have come to experience this early, foundational grief, learning now at 40 what I lost as an infant: my family, my country, my heritage, my culture, my history.

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