I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague over lunch about the complicated dynamics of family, which shifted to my adoption and relationship with my biological mother, and then explored adoption/orphan cliches in literature or film, etc. I’m not a scholar on orphan narratives, but it’s easy to see that many of the famous ones by Dickens or Rowling or a Bronte are somewhat reductive and two-dimensional. Child is orphaned and does not belong, is unwanted by the new family even, is a burden, but is able to rise above and beat all odds and become super-human; or, has a secret benefactor and will become rich in ways no one could imagine; or, must be rescued and re-parented by an older spouse or love interest, is morally good, and remains an exemplar for all her suffering. This, of course brought about the many problems with only a few, oversimplified narratives, and the significance of more nuanced representation regarding all aspects of adoption. This topic is not new to many of us whose business is words, or making up stories, or thinking about the way we choose to tell stories: our own or others on their behalf. Implicit in this process is something very revealing about perspective and, therefore, power. Who gets to tell whose story in what way, and why?
Before this devolves into a well-worn rant about all that, let me return to my purpose: to share a few resources on the subject. Lost Daughters is a collection of intelligent women writing their own adoption stories, recommending other readings, and more. Click here for a short NY Times Blog by one of their authors. They are responsible for a series entitled “Flip the Script,” which does not merely settle only for the well-known, eternally grateful adoptee narrative, but rather explores the confusion, anger, shame, fear, sadness, rejection, loss, etc. surrounding the act of adoption.
My own story is mainly one of gratitude, but also one of struggling with rejection and abandonment in my relationships. You an read a bit about that on this blog and specifically about my adoption in a piece called “Chosen.” I was given a better chance at having a supportive family, an education, and more because my mother placed me for adoption. But my story is also one of the challenging transition into an adulthood relationship with my adopted mother, and the uncharted path of forging a relationship with my biological mother since we first confirmed our genetic connection several years ago.
There really are few to no models for adoptees that portray the process of getting to know their birth-relatives. It’s surreal, messy, and leaves a connection, a burgeoning friendship hanging in the balance between obligation and fear, love and being left behind. Suddenly, there are exciting or awkward or revealing conversations with this all-too similar stranger whose loss you can never repair or repay; a guilt that may gnaw at you; a joy of finally feeling understood, or whole, or like you belong to someone, somewhere but then again, do you? Can an adoptee suddenly belong to the woman and womb from which she was exiled? And what does this mean for the home, the familiar people and places that were already provided for the adoptee? Must the adoptee make a choice between the two worlds/bodies of nature and nurture, and even if she did would she still float in a sort of limbo, with cautious toes in the water of those muddy wombs? Each protects and provides, and post-reconciliation with the birth family sometimes leads to the sets of parents feeling the pangs of rejection for the first time.
Adoption is labor, and it is love, but at the core of both is loss. Something born must gain independence, and something loved must leave. Is the loss worth what is gained? I hope for many, yes, but how can we know until we listen to their stories for ourselves?
I hope you’ll check out the Lost Daughters and alternative adoption narratives. Acknowledging the complicated emotions and experiences of others is the most compassionate thing we can do. The scared child inside all of us, I think, might agree on at least that, no?