Updated: Mar 22, 2022
A Letter from Your Adult-Adoptee About Adoption Related Complex Truama
You can't protect yourself or me from the pain, grief, and loss my adoption has inflicted. I know that's not what you want to hear. I wish I could tell you that if you say all the right things, read all the right books, took all the right adoption training on being aware of the harm caused, turned around in a circle three times, and clapped your hands four times, then poof! Nothing would hurt me; all the wounds from the past would magically be absolved; you won't have to be aware of your stuff anymore or respect my abundant amount of boundaries. We won't ever have to struggle again because we can skip off into the la-la-land adoption agencies' promise in the US. Alas, I can't, so I won't. Honestly, I am happy you can't get rid of this ache in my chest. It's part of my story; it's part of me, part of the reason I can write like my emotions come from my fingertips.
As I sit here writing this letter, I want you to know I see you. You have pain around my adoption, which is good because you have self-awareness. If you didn't, it would make me curious about what pain you have not yet processed that does not allow you to see me and my mountain of losses and grief. My pain is etched in my bones, in my joints, in my muscles, and in each breath I take. It rounds my shoulders and back and keeps my breathing shallow. It forces me into inaction and frozenness. It chips away at the joints in my fingers when my immune system responds to my experience of relational stress by becoming more active than a bag of popcorn in the microwave on a movie night. The frozenness feels more like fire than ice, a stuckness that is searing—branded into my spiritual being. Growing up, you taught me to try to dip, juke, and outrun all of my discomfiting emotions. I could do it for a time. I thought I could, but I never could, nor could you. The pain always caught us both taking our breaths away as we clung to destructive intergenerational ways of dealing with complex trauma.
This pain, this searing white-hot pain, is not meant to be outrun, just like all pain; this pain must be reckoned with, sat with, witnessed, held with care, and love. It hurts because it is intrinsically connected to love; words can't qualify that. For to sit and honor the pain is to sit and honor what happened to me, the love that I lost access to, the love that was gained, the histories that were scrubbed clean of any grittiness, the story I will never actually have, as well as honoring the Mother and Grandmother I lost before you came to be mine.
It's about honoring your humanity as well. The losses you experienced, the lack of information on how to hold space for a tiny being writhing in emotional pain at the slightest of perceived and actual rejections. No one said "Adoption-related complex trauma." when I was born and then delivered to your arms at the adoption agency. It was just about making sure I knew I was "Adopted and wanted." That is what the social workers told you. "Love is enough, and try not to keep secrets." No one said:
"Hold space for her to cry and push you away while you hold fast and steady to your own emotional wellness the best you can. Being an adoptive parent is going to be so hard. You are going to have to try and be aware of your stuff that will come up as she goes at you like the heavyweight champ of emotional boxing, asking you to turn the other cheek while you, correct her, assert your dignity, and try to teach her to hold other people's dignity in her heart, but still show up in the ring time and time again. She feels like she has to be a fighter because the world has been so overwhelming. The truama that she has because of her adoption and how she responds to it will rock you to your core. If you have any unprocessed trauma, this "Pathway" to parenthood will activate your trauma with a capital T. Work on your fears of being abandoned and rejected. For the love of all things holy, don't take anything she does or says personally. Oh, and by the way, since you are human, you will take everything she says and does personally at first. You will respond in ways that would shock your rational adult brain. The key is to be as proactive as you can while also holding yourself accountable for all the shit that is going to come up and out of your mouth because you are again human. Apologize, listen to her pain, really hear why she is in pain and its complex origins. Even if you didn't think you hurt her, understand her feelings are valid, and she is hurt. Try. Because every apology, every moment you take accountability for your actions, every time you find empathy for her, you teach her how to do all the same for herself and others. "
Mom, I want you to know even though none of the last paragraphs was said to you by the social workers at the adoption agency, we somehow have stumbled onward. The moment you said: "I'm so sorry I did all the things you identified, I see how what I did hurt you, and my intent does not negate the impact of my actions." I turned back towards you. Your assertion that you would work on the things I identified and move towards changing was when I no longer felt the need to flee, push at you, needle you, try to get you to leave, or run from you. It also let me look at myself and how I hurt you—owning up to my struggles with communicating my true feelings. I no longer felt the need to cut you off because we both had enough connection to self-energy to find a way forward.
Watching you work at changing harmful and entrenched coping methods is breathtaking. Your willingness to try new things now as we move closer to your twilight years is something I am grateful I get to witness, Not because I am a grateful adoptee, but rather it has to do with seeing myself in you. Our stories will forever be interconnected. Your growth is my growth. I will one day be in your shoes, and you are creating a blueprint for me on how to do this dance. Even when I asked if it was okay if I wrote about our journey through this very late individuation of mine, and you permitted me, there was a slight hesitation, and then I watched you lean into the trust and love you have for me. Your courage and intense faith in me have not gone unnoticed.
There is something profoundly healing around having you look at me and acknowledge the autonomy of the parts of me that are still two, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty. To hear you say "I was wrong." and to own the ways you made mistakes was and still is powerful. It also helped me see my accountability in my healing process that I can make painful mistakes and find forgiveness. That there is redemption even in challenging places. I was grateful for your apology, accountability, and acknowledgment. In the end, I had to forgive both you and myself. An apology was just part of this, and even still, it is not the end all be all. Forgiveness is not a greeting card kind of process; it's emotionally tumultuous, volcanic, and in no way light or airy. It involves a fierce sort of processing and surrendering to acceptance that is not uncluttered. No simple, I forgive you, and now forget, and we move on as though nothing happened. I had to admit how much pain I had suffered in our relationship. I had to own up to the process of letting my anger shift into all the emotions I have been running from. Only to find that allowing the grief to swallow me whole was the path forward in the end.
Mom, I had realized no matter what, you can't fix this for me, that your apology was welcome and not required for me to work on forgiving. I got what I wanted from you and still had to do the work. I have had to acknowledge that my anger at you has been part of a mechanism for protection because I see my limitations in you. My chance to cause harm and the absolute devastating reality that I already have. Because relationships, no matter how much we communicate, will cause emotional scuffs and bumps. Without those scuffs and blemishes, we don't get to stretch and grow emotionally. It is the willingness to push one another that determines how far we'll be able to go. No matter what I do, my adoption trauma is going to hurt. No matter what you do, my adoption truama is going to hurt. As I have sat with the pain, cried my eyes out, shook my fists towards the pitch-black sky, and let the anguish wash over me, I started to see new dimensions to the pain. I began to know that I thought if I shook my fists hard enough at the sky, somehow the past would change. As I release from this layer of trauma, I see the new round of diamonds and pearls from the pressure and irritation; they now stud our relationship. I see you standing out here too. Yet you aren't shaking your fists at the sky in hopes of changing the past; no, you are standing here wringing your hands as you watch me struggle to find my footing. I stand on the path you helped clear for me, as I have taken some of the same steps and some very different ones from yours. You could not be more proud of some of my steps, and there are others that you have been side-eyeing from the jump but are now starting to understand.
As an adult child, you have performed this same dance with your parents before, but now you are the parent. It's your turn. Your dance did not include adoption truama. However, you also know how high the stakes are because you know what it means to leave things unsaid. I can hear echos of the times you stood out here shaking your fists at the sky, hoping you could change the past only to reach the same conclusion I have come to now: shaking our fists at the sky only makes our arms tired, while the past stays the same. As humans, we can change by speaking up, saying our peace, and letting our loved ones decide whether to stay or leave while holding ourselves and others accountable and having loving boundaries that support our interconnectedness. All the while recognizing no matter how hard we try, we can't control for abandonment; there is no way to hypothesize our way out of this. It's part of the grief process. A type of death has to occur, the death of the idealized parent and the idealized self. As I continue to forgive and move forward, I see you more clearly—your hope, love, dreams, shame, fear, joy, hilarity, and tenderness. Your emotional defenses come up now, and I see you are trying hard to learn how to acknowledge them, take accountability, and move with the trust of self and me. I see all of this in you because I can see all of this in me.
Being part of the adoption constellation is made of having to face very visceral human emotions that our society does not discuss in public with much depth. There is a historical adoption shame that lingers and goes unnamed at times, which can contribute to the comparative suffering that can be isolating for everyone involved. The truth is that power dynamics make it hard to hold space for each other to be fully human. There are no perfect guides on how to do the emotional thrashing during adoption truama and grief processing. We can engage with art that portrays the snapshots of our very human experiences; however, we might forget that someone is choosing to show us the parts they think are most important. We don't get to see every second of life in art; we only see what the narrator wants us to see; this means we must choose to find and make meaning of our own lives, the seconds, minutes, hours, and days.
The emotions that come up with such a painful and relationally destructive process, such as adoption, are hard to own. Emotions like jealousy, fear, disappointment, anguish, and wanting to be wanted, feelings of worthlessness due to othering—then having to face up to behaviors that fly out the side of our faces because we are trying to hold everything together perfectly while keeping our fallibility at bay. In reality, fallibility is what draws us closer to our people because it means we are not alone in our awkward, untenable, odd, semi-controlled, flopping and thrashing about that seems to be labeled as being an adult. I see your fear, and I see you facing it with me. I see your love of yourself growing, and I see your love of the true me growing. I see your humanity because you have held space for mine. Our flaws are like neon signs on the darkest of nights, and I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and look at them, sort through them as we embrace and fall into each other. We are repairing the intergenerational lack that has been part of our stories.
The reality for me is as we repair the intergenerational truama together and sit with discomfort, you may not know this, but you honor my beginnings in which I felt unwanted and abandoned. The pain and stuckness etched and echoed in every question I asked about my origins from the very beginning. With those first cries of mine echoing through the halls of our house, a baby, not realizing she was home, begging to go back home. Begging you to find her mommy, for you to "please go find her?" A baby not understanding you were her mommy, with time I figured it out, you showed up the best you could even when the doctors labeled me as having colic and digestive issues. During this time, you were not my mom; I got to know you and grew to love you with such deepness, love didn't even feel like it held the depth of my feelings for you. You rocked, hushed, caressed, kissed, sang to me, and loved me through so many bumps, ups, and downs while also struggling with your self-worth, body image, fear of racism harming me, and worrying if you were failing me by being a working mother.
You missed that I was in cultural and adoptee isolation. You worried and fretted and didn't know how to sit with the absolute anguish I felt at losing my First-mother, the bone-deep pain that made breathing hard. You took my pain as a rejection of your mothering when in reality, my pain had nothing to do with you until it did when I was not allowed to grieve for her because it hurt you, not because you were a bad mom but because you were a scared person—a mom who was terrified of being rejected and abandoned. The reality is that my cries were an indictment of a system that brought upheaval into my new little life and with no way of explaining what was happening or that I was safe. You had to prove to me I was safe, and you still do now. I still don't fully trust that I am safe, even at 37. These scares and wounds run deep. You could not sit with me in my anguish because no one had sat with you in yours. I want you to know I see we have been offering each other our hands and hearts as we try to figure our way forward. Together as we make our way out of this hole that neither of us initially dug, we must remember not everything is personal. Your behavior around not being able to sit with me in my pain was not about me, just like my grief around my First-Mother had absolutely nothing to do with you. As we hug, paint, laugh, dance, communicate, sing, compromise, and apologize through intergenerational trauma and adoption-related complex trauma, please know I am rooting for us and always will be.
With Genuine Care,