The journey of adoption – lost and found, part one
If you do it right, children know they’re adopted from their earliest memory. Since I remember being 16 months old, I quite clearly remember the moment I was told I was adopted. It was before things got bad with my adoptive family. I was still cute, still little and still gentle in temperament – I hadn’t yet been hurt and when I am hurt, then as now, it shows itself as anger, rage even.
We were in our 1950s station wagon. I couldn’t tell you make or model, although I can honestly tell you I still want one. It was heavy enough to glide along the roads and the seats were firm enough for long drives but soft enough for comfort. We even had seat belts, thanks to Rob (who like my mother, Veva, never allowed us to call him by a parent name).
A friend of my parents was pregnant and I was so intrigued. Does every child ask if they grew in their mother’s belly or do they just assume it? Perhaps I had overheard all the discussion about being adopted – kids hear and absorb everything, whether they’re truly cognizant of it or not. So I asked and was told matter-of-factly that I’d had a mother before this one who “couldn’t take care of you, so she gave you to us.”
Children will take things as calmly as their parents do. My mother seemed fine with it, so clearly, it was fine.
It wasn’t until I got older and more problematic that I discovered the enormous hole that adoption had left in heart and soul. While I was cherished and treated well, it was filled, but the minute they decided that I was irredeemably defective, imperfect, inadequate – Not Like Them – that I found the enormous, gaping, agonizing chasm that adoption had left in me.
Studies have shown that adopted babies come to you grieving. They’re more aware than they’re given credit for and all during the late part of the pregnancy, they’re absorbing their mother’s essense, listening to her voice – and their father’s, too, if he’s there, as he talks to the belly, feeling his energy. The baby cannot wait to meet his or her parents. Particularly in the 1950s, babies were ripped from their unconscious mothers and whisked off. They assumed this would make the process less painful if the birth parents and the baby never bonded.
Instead, you got devastated birth parents – usually only mothers in those days – and grieving babies.
If they had known that the babies were grieving, the adoptive parents could have taken steps to deal with it. Instead, the assumption at the time was that babies were little grubs, blank slates, who felt nothing. Just put them with new parents and they would never know the difference.
But they do.
I have pictures of myself at six weeks of age, looking worried and sad. I have known many babies in my years as a mother and grandmother. No baby should ever look that way and it takes a lot to put that look there.
I have known people who think adoption is the most godawful thing on earth and that all babies belong with their biological families. That’s categorically untrue. There are biological families so ghastly that the children should be whisked to safety the minute they take their first breaths. It’s also the right choice for birth parents who are not prepared to be parents but who don’t believe in abortion. There are other people who feel that the child is particularly the mother’s deepest shame – evidence that she was a “bad woman” by some heinous, outdated, sexist moral light. In this world, that’s particularly ridiculous. I’ve known adoptions that were glowingly successful, others merely ordinary and others the stuff of nightmares.
Back in the day – 1955 – they didn’t really know the questions to ask. The right questions were things like “how were you parented?” “What would you do when the baby won’t stop crying?” “How do you plan to discipline?” “What is your philosophy about affection and closeness?” Questions like that. Instead, I suspect they looked at social and physical appearances, financial and educational background, things that I have found – also in my history as a mother and grandmother – mean far, far less than the first set. Some of the best parents I’ve ever been privileged to know didn’t have two cents to rub together and barely a pot to piss in. Some of the worst I ever met – highly educated academics and professionals. Of course, you can’t say this of all of them, but in my own experience with my parents’ parents and my own set, education and social standing aren’t the best gauge of who will be a good parent.
My adoptive parents had a horrible upbringing. I know my adoptive father’s story, less about my adoptive mother’s, but the proof is in the pudding. They drove me to a yearning for suicide by age six. I can only wonder at the hell of their own childhoods if that’s what they made of mine.
Still, I stumbled through childhood – crawled under the barbed wire, got cut up, but healed, with scars – and staggered into adulthood, haunted by this agonizing void, this hunger that came from the very deepest roots of my soul. Hunger and stark terror. I yearned for the biological parents whose identities were a complete mystery even as I was in absolute terror that, should I find them, they would despise me as deeply as my adoptive family had from childhood into middle age. It only improved after my adoptive brother and mother passed away and I was free to pursue my adoptive father, whose emotions, while raw and angry, were at least honest enough to tell me he could be reached.
Several years of unremitting, unrelenting, unconditional love brought me to a sweet, if imperfect place with Rob. He died on November 19, 2014, at last knowing that I loved him with all my heart.
Were they my real family? Yes, they were. That was my real brother, my real mother and my real father, with all the complexities of any real family. Keep in mind, people adopt children for the same reasons they produce them – because they want children, because other people want them to, because it’s the done thing (particularly in 1955). They didn’t choose me – we were matched. Nor did they take pity on the little bastard and rescue her (and my equally illegitimate brother) from a fate worse than death. They wanted children. Her body couldn’t produce them. They adopted. We were a family.
But now, I was the last of my original family. Although I am deeply blessed by a stepmother I truly love, there is only me to remember that house, the smells of lentils and smoked sausages cooking as we came home on a snowy day, the sound of the Lionel train hooting as it circled the Christmas tree, the icy lower level where my brother Steve and I grew up, the feeling of packing an apple, a thermos of water, a peanut butter sandwich, a sketch book, a pencil and a kid novel into my father’s old Army backpack and diving into the long green belt behind the house. I am the last who remembers the terrain of my childhood, but I am also now free.
Free to search without making anyone feel supplanted or hurt. Free to risk the terror of rejection all over again – or to embrace a claiming that would forever fill this bleeding, weeping hole I’ve carried since I was five years old.
In fear and trembling, I contacted the Juvenile Court of Jackson County, Missouri and asked for the names of searchers who would get my information and begin looking for the parents who had given me life and, perhaps, more family I could love and by whom I could be loved…