Adopted: looking the part and living the part of adopted person or adopted family, is something most of us had no idea we'd be doing. How can we best prepare?
Develop a High AQ* (Adoption-attunement quotient.) Release pre-conceived notions about adoption and listen deeply to the voices of those who know it best: adult adoptees. In this post, GIFT is pleased to interview Anne Heffron, author of You Don’t Look Adopted a riveting, unflinching personal memoir of her life-journey as an adoptee.
Growing up, Anne often heard those words: "You don't look adopted." True, on the surface adoptees look no different from other human beings. Some, of course, don’t “match” the families into which they’ve been adopted. But still, there’s no external “branding,” no visible “Scarlet letter A” that announces to the world that a person was adopted. Unless an adoptee volunteers the information, their adoptee status remains undisclosed.
And yet, adoptees tell us, they experience an uncanny radar that attracts adoptees to one another. An intuitive recognition calls out to one another and recognizes those who are part of their adoptee community. Some say this connection arises from their struggle to braid their dual heritage (biology and adoption) into a single healthy identity. Others attribute it to a hyper-vigilant fear of additional abandonment.
Anne was adopted during the Baby Scoop Era when secrecy, sealed files, and silence was the approach to an adoptee’s pre-adoption history and birth family. Parents expected a blank slate and telegraphed the message that curiosity about birth family equaled a betrayal.
In the Baby Scoop Era, an adopted family came at a price: absolute loyalty to the one and amnesia about the other. Too often this is still true.
These beliefs were not only unfair, they were unhealthy and worsened the grief, loss and identity issues for adoptees.
Instead of turning to their parents for reassurance, security, and guidance, kids like Anne wrestled with confusion, fears of abandonment and not being good enough. (They confronted these dark feelings alone, unspoken except through the language of behavior.)
Anne reveals, “As the child prays for an open door of free speech and total acceptance of self, the parent prays for the conversation to end. Everyone stiffens … it’s the stories we don’t tell that keep us in various states of paralysis."
Fortunately, adoption has evolved since the Baby Scoop Era. Much of the changes have been propelled by adults like Anne, who are now speaking up, publishing their stories, creating films, and sharing their side of adoption life. This is why their voices, books, and films are profoundly important; they guide us to a kinder, healthier way of handling adoptions. Their direct experience teaches us what did/didn’t and does/ doesn’t work in adoptive parenting. Still, we have so much to learn and improve.
As adoptees personally understand, adoption is not painless, is not an event but rather a lifetime journey. The biggest "forever" in adoption is how it permanently reshapes everyone--child, birth parent and adoptive parent and to some extent the extended members of both birth and adoptive families.
The biggest "forever" in adoption is how it permanently reshapes everyone--child, birth parent and adoptive parent
This realization convinces us that the entire family needs to understand how adoption affects each of them individually and the family collectively. All must become adoption-attuned for self-preservation; parents must commit to AAQ* to become the adoption-educated parents their adopted children need.
It takes courage for Anne and other adult adoptees to share intimate details and personal struggles and brave the tide of cultural resistance to acknowledging the reality of adoption as a lived experiences. Adoption is complex, imperfect. Grief coexists with joy, loss with gain. One does not neutralize the other. Adoption separates a child from his birth family and engrafts him to his adoptive family. This process is not painless.
Current practice recognizes the importance of both the child’s biological and his adoptive families. Certainly, this has not always been the case. Even today, some adoptive families fear openness and yearn for their child to need only them and to “forget” about his ancestral roots.
A “loyalty oath” has no place in an adoptive family. Kids need to be able to learn about, cherish and acknowledge all of their relationship links whether through birth or adoption.
In You Don’t Look Adopted Anne writes about many struggles within her family. One that will ring familiar to most adoptive moms is how she projected birth-mother anger and fear of abandonment onto her adoptive mother. Anne says she had a compelling yet unspoken need for her mother to reassure her that she “was going to hold on no matter how ugly or disagreeable I got. She wasn’t leaving." These thoughts offer precious insight to those currently in the parenting trenches.
We parents often lament that children do not come with a handbook. That’s why You Don’t Look Adopted is the next best thing. Please read Anne's responses; she has a great deal of insight to share with us. (Underlining for emphasis is mine.)
This question makes me cry. It’s hard to even admit how much of a struggle it is to grow up with adoption being a topic that isn’t a topic. I didn’t even know it at the time, and as a child, I would have told you I was 100 percent fine with being adopted. All the therapists I went to as a young adult and up until a year ago TOLD ME I was lucky I nice people adopted me and that I had a good home. NO ONE used language that is taught in something like the adoption-attunement. I think I would have felt like we were all on dry land together, instead of feeling however subconsciously, that I was under water while my parents were on dry land. I would have felt seen. Safe.
2. You wrote: "As the child prays for an open door of free speech and total acceptance of self, the parent prays for the conversation to end. Everyone stiffens …it’s the stories we don’t tell that keep us in various states of paralysis." How can parents foster this level of honesty and openness?
Be interested in what the child says about adoption. Let the child talk about the birth mother and father. Even encourage the child, perhaps, to write a story about his birth mother or birth father. When I was fifty years old I felt I was breaking all the rules when one morning I got out paper and a pen and sketched out a children’s book about a little girl who was adopted—-I felt like I was committing a crime by writing it. I even read it out loud and put it on Youtube because I was trying to bust out of my fear shell I had around me about talking about my feelings when it came to my adoption.
That’s when everything shifted for me—with the story I wrote about Baby Momo. If my parents had encouraged that kind of behavior, I might have felt less split—less like it was my false self that was running the show, living my life.
3. GIFT encourages parents to live a both/and approach. Both birth and adoptive parents. Both nature and nurture. Each has positives to offer. Each is a permanent and core part of the child. Both/And releases our children from the lose/lose expectation that they must be loyal only to us. Can you address this “divided loyalty” issue?
A friend introduced me to my now-screenwriting partner, Antonia Bogdanovich, eight years ago. Antonia and I told each other about ourselves during our first lunch, and she said I should write about adoption, but I told her I couldn’t, that it would kill my mother. We ended up writing a screenplay about a birth mother who goes in search of the baby she had given up twenty years earlier, and before we finished, my mom died. I have to tell you, there is a piece of my brain that believes I did it. That I broke the most important rule: do not admit you have another mother. My mom, my mom who raised me, was fiercely my mother. She would have not been able to tolerate meeting my birth mother as she was not able to even talk about her with me. What that meant was that part of me was not acceptable, the part that was adopted. That meant that I was split: there was the good Anne and the not good Anne. That meant that I was always in conflict with myself. I first thought about killing myself when I was in about fourth grade. That thought has been background music all of my adult life. Part of me is unacceptable. Get rid of it. And the only way to do that is to die. I wish I had felt fully accepted by my mom.
4. What do you suggest adoptive parents know/do/avoid that would improve their parent/child relationship?
When I was a little girl, I once told my mother after she asked me to sweep the kitchen floor that my real mother would be very angry when she came back to get me and saw how I had been treated. My mother started to cry and ran from the room. That was a terrible moment for me. I felt so awful that I had hurt my mother, but I also felt betrayed by both mothers. They had both run from me. I wish my mother had been able to stay in the room, to tell me that my birth mother wasn’t coming back for me. I wish my mother had known that I needed to grieve this loss. I didn’t KNOW I needed to grieve it. I NEVER said to ANYONE, I miss my birth mother. I didn’t know that was even allowable. I think my stomach might have hurt less all my life if I’d been able to grieve the fact of my adoption with my mother. When my mother died, I realized the one thing I wished we had done was that she had held me as a little girl and that we’d both cried over the fact that she wasn’t my birth mother and that we also both cried that a piece of me was missing because I was adopted. I wish we’d been able to live with the fact that my mother was both my mother and not my mother in a way that didn’t make my mom cry. I wish we’d been able to talk about it. About loss and grief and love.
5. You wrote that you needed your mother to reassure you that she “was going to hold on no matter how ugly or disagreeable I got. She wasn’t leaving." This push/pull is a frequent dance between parent/adoptee. What additional insight can you offer to help adoptive families?
I was a good girl growing up, and then I started to do not great things. I stole a lot of money from my mother in my early twenties, and I remember thinking, finally, she is going to tell me that she can’t do it anymore, that she isn’t my mother, but what she did was she wrote me a letter and told me that while she didn’t like my behavior, she still loved me. That was a game changer. I ended up going back home and finishing college. She hadn’t let me go. She’d held on. Even though I wasn’t even really aware of this thought, somewhere in my mind I was waiting for my mother to decide that I wasn’t good enough to keep.
I have to note that for some reason, all of my issues have pretty much centered around the mother figure. It didn’t even occur to me until I was in my twenties that I also had a birth father.
6. What obstacles in adoption have changed you the most?
Wanting to please my parents by being like them, but being different in ways that I couldn’t articulate or even prove (by saying, for example: well, my birth father was a scholar-athlete in college, so maybe any physical prowess I have is worth investing in, or, well, my birth mother loved bodywork and so that is perhaps why I am obsessed with massage therapy). My mother loved that I was like her, so I grew up, like many kids who want to please their parents, trying to be like her so she would love me.
I wonder sometimes what it would have been like if my parents had sat me down at some point and had said, We have no idea what genetic talents or gifts you have, but we would love to help you explore and find out what most suits you.
A strange obstacle is the feeling that maybe I wasn’t even real. Since I didn’t know who my birth parents were or where I was the first ten weeks of my life, I didn’t feel entirely grounded. I could just as easily have come from another planet. When I found the names and identities of both my birth mother and father I became present in the world in a way I had never been before.
Not feeling real can be dangerous. It’s easier to try to throw yourself away if you don’t feel solid in the world.
7. Tell us about your other projects. Are connected to adoption?
The very first screenplay that my writing partner and I finished over five years ago, The Rabbit Will Die, where a birth mother goes in search of a daughter she had relinquished twenty years earlier, is now in development.
I am, in a few months, going to start a second memoir about what happens AFTER and adopted person, me, finally DOES tell her story and DOES meet her birth father. So far, the experience has been nothing I could have predicted.
8. What was your primary purpose for writing You Don’t Look Adopted?
This sounds dramatic, but really it was to save my life. In five years, my birth mother had died before I ever met her; my mother died; I got fired for throwing a pen at a student, crying and saying the f word; I got divorced for the second time, I moved yet again—three times—my daughter left for college, and the man I was dating broke up with me, saying I talked about adoption too much.
I had met Kitty Stockett, the author of The Help, at a writer’s retreat, and she’d offered me her Manhattan apartment for the month of February if I wanted to write. First I said yes and then I chickened out and said no. I didn’t think I could just step away from my life. I had bills to pay, that kind of stuff. But then I got into Noepe Center on Martha’s Vineyard for two weeks in April, and something just clicked in me. I felt that I had gotten as far as I could get in my life without telling my story, without even knowing how to tell it, and so I decided to corner myself into finally writing it
My mother had died of cancer before she’d finished her first book, and she didn’t get to see it published by Yale Press, didn’t get to see it on the cover of The New York Times Book Review or in the pages of The New Yorker. I didn’t want to follow in her footsteps; I wanted to live to see my book finished, so I called my trip Write or Die and I wasn’t going to come home until I was finished.
Kitty said I could have her place for the second two weeks in March, so I gave up my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, went to Berkeley to say goodbye to my daughter (that was the hardest—yes she was in college, but I’d still been just over an hour away from her—now I was going to be a long plane ride), and went to New York.
I ended up staying 93 days and not only did I finish the manuscript, but I found out, miracles of miracles, who my birth father was. That’s another story. I still can’t believe it. I got his picture on Day 93, when I got off the airplane to my connecting flight in Chicago.
I went deep in debt to write this book. I acted like a crazy person, putting my story and my voice ahead of everything else. It was the best 93 days of my life. I wrote my story and I found my roots. Everything shifted. I am myself. I found me.
Now I want to spend the rest of my life helping people, adopted and not, doing their own form of Write or Die, only on the cheap, without having to fly across the country and going into debt.
Kitty Stockett is my hero, by the way. Her generosity to a near stranger radically changed my life.
9. What else would you like to share with our subscribers?
Please, please, please, communicate fearlessly and lovingly about just about everything. I can’t tell you how many people write to me after reading my book, telling me that they thought they were alone in their feelings. And it’s not just adopted people who write to me. It’s almost everyone. We’ve all felt abandoned. We’ve pretty much all have had our hearts broken. We suffer when we stay quiet. What I found when I went to New York and Martha’s Vineyard was the more open I was, the more love that poured into my life. The more real I was, the more people wanted to be with me. I saw the world as a spider web of people, and I was now part of that spider web instead of feeling like an alien that was somehow cut off from everyone because I didn’t know who I was or where I had come from—now I know, I am the birth daughter of X and Y (Yes, it’s true: I can’t tell you my birth parents’ names because, get this: it’s secret information. There are family members on both sides who don’t know about me and so, yes, I am a shameful secret and must remain hidden. So, no, the shame-game hasn’t completely ended for me.) and the daughter of Margery and Frank Heffron. I know the names of grandparents of all four parents. This means something. It means I’m real. It means that my actions have consequences and that I am worthy of feeling, giving, and receiving love. It means the world.