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