“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby
After a series of dreams that plunged into the depths my subconscious, I awoke with a deep sense of gratitude for all of the factors in my life that have shaped who and where I am today. The good, the bad, the terrible…all of these experiences have come full circle and have ultimately led me “home.”
And for that I am immeasurably grateful.
I’m at the 1-year anniversary of my trip to South Korea. Being the big milestone, nostalgic person that I am, I’ve spent a lot of energy reflecting on what this means. What have I learned? How have I grown? Have I healed?
I’ve attempted to answered all of those big questions that I’ve struggled with, largely through conversations with people that I love and by reading. The academic side of me required that I read as much I could find about adoption, ranging from reunion stories to memoirs to lengthy, dry peer-reviewed articles.
What I found helped me validate my feelings and finally make sense of my experience. As a result, I have finally begun to accept myself just as I am.
There’s a wide breadth of research about the trauma that babies separated from their mothers experience. Perhaps the most famous is Harry F. Harlow’s experiments with monkeys and surrogate mothers, in which he found that those with surrogate mothers from birth had stronger bonds, which weakened in proportion to the duration of the delay. This is corroborated by research by Dr. John Bolby which found that the mental health of children who have been separated from their mothers is severely damaged, influenced by “the quality of the substitute mothering experience, and the length of delay in providing an adequate substitute, and the number of such substitutes during the first three years of life.”
We have to wonder how the baby’s subjective self was reacting to these multiple dislocations and whether it was able to consolidate a cohesive core self by six months, like other babies.
Looking at my own experience, I went from my mother to an orphanage to an adoptive family (in a completely new cultural context), all within a 5-month period. It’s a series of attachment, separation and adjustment that is true for all adopted children, however how children respond to this trauma and stress varies. For those who are met with loving families and healthy relationships, the effects of this unstable period are reversible, while those who do not experience these healthy environments are often plagued with issues of abandonment, attachment and identity.
I recently read through an old notebook filled with my schoolwork from grade school and found a story that I had typed when I was ten. It was titled “My Life” and was primarily the origin story I had been told: “I thank my brother. He’s mostly the reason I’m here today. Why? He wanted a baby sister to play with so he kept on begging my parents to get one. Finally they decided that they were going to get one. My mom wanted a girl. So they decided to adopt one from South Korea. They picked me up [at the airport].”
Reading this 16 years later, I was surprised that my adoptive parents never tried to alter this narrative that is analogous to a child begging for a toy at the toy store.
Growing up with no origin story, many adoptees are forced to disavow reality and often carry around fantasies about their heroic mother or father coming to their rescue. Nightmares are also common, as this mythic fantasy merges with reality (having to choose between two sets of parents). Subsequently, they struggle with existential questions about who they are and how to define “reality,” perhaps more deeply than those who have a reflection of themselves mirrored back to them everyday.
Those who know their mothers cannot imagine what it is like not to know the woman who brought you into the world. What it is like to be forbidden by law to see her face, hear her voice, know her name. No one can imagine it because it is unimaginable.
Additionally, many adoptees feel unlovable deep down in the core of their being. This can easily happen when your first sense of self is as someone who has been abandoned and unwanted by your own flesh and blood. Relationships with family members and friends can seem tenuous because you are constantly afraid of being deserted and abandoned again. This silent fear can manifest in a variety of ways.
As attachment problems, trust issues and difficulties with intimate relationships. As low self-esteem. As shame. As depression. As loneliness. As a quest for an authentic identity. As a perfectionist, afraid of making any mistake or error. It is manifested in the way many adoptees carefully suppress all emotions except for gratitude and the way in which large chunks of childhood are repressed and lost.
Adopted children, who get the message that not only were they chosen, but they were chosen to be the light of their parents’ lives, often do not feel entitled to express any negative feelings, such as grief or anger at being cut off from their origins. Some become so successful at splitting off their feelings and keeping up a cheerful facade that they do not even know when they are angry.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme among adoptees is the search for “home.”
From the moment they are separated from their birth mothers, all adoptees are consciously or unconsciously in search of some place, perched somewhere between conception and birth, that could be called Home.
This has certainly been true in my own life, as evidenced by the strong desire I had last year to find my birth parents. When I reflect on my search, and the ensuing disappointment, what I was really searching for was “home”– unconditional love, acceptance and a sense of belonging. So much so, that life without these things didn’t make sense or seem worth it.
The word home is virtually impossible to translate into other tongues, we are told by the classicist Bartlett Giamatti. It is not a concept, not a place, but a state of mind where self-definition starts. It is origins. We can see the search for Home as a universal quest, but for the adopted person it is also a literal one. It is a quest for the beginning of one’s narrative; for the lost mother; for unconditional love; for meaning; for the recovery of lost time; for a coherent sense of self; for security; for form and structure; for grounding and centering.
A few months ago I was reading a blog about a friend who was able to reunite with her birth parents. As I scanned through the pictures of her and her biological family, I felt happy for her, while at the same time having no emotional desire for that. I recognized that the people in the photos were still mere strangers, disconnected by language and culture.
They don’t know each other’s past, what the other struggles with, or their likes or dislikes.
They can’t decipher what various facial expressions mean or communicate with gestures.
They haven’t been with each other throughout the good times or the bad times.
They haven’t experienced life together.
As I recognized all of these things, I felt an overwhelming contentedness and joy for the family I have found, neither biological nor adoptive, but the family I chose. These are the people who I feel an unexplainable connectedness to, people who I “get” and am “gotten” by, who I love and am loved by. So, a year later, I have finally found home and it is largely due to the search for my biological parents and willingness to finally explore my adoption.
Each time an adopted child wonders whose tummy she was in, what her mother looked like, why she was given up; each time he has a fantasy or a dream, looks on the street for someone who looks like him, the adoptee has taken a small step on the journey toward Home.