Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Our belief in the myth of adoption-as-fairy-tale had long ago exploded.
By Gayle Swift
For a few weeks, I watched my abdomen swell. I was fifteen-years-old, a straight-A student, proverbial good girl, rule follower, high achiever, and people pleaser. Overwhelming fatigue turned my bones to lead weights.
As summer drew to a close, I had little interest in anything and I turned down my friends’ invitations, opting for another nap instead. At first, my mother chalked up my out-of-character behavior to boredom.
Then she noticed my changing shape and made an emergency appointment with a doctor. Turned out he was a gynecologist. My first. I never considered she suspected I was pregnant. It shocked me when the doctor asked me if I thought I might be. In fact, I was a virgin. What little dating I had experienced was quite chaste.
His examination yielded startling results: a sizeable and mushrooming cyst accounted for my swelling belly. Emergency surgery eventually revealed that the cyst weighed eighteen pounds. They also found a malignant tumor on one of my ovaries.
That certainly wasn’t the way I expected to start my sophomore year of high school! Instead of focusing on Algebra, Latin, French, etc., I locked my energy on surviving. At the time –1965– the survival rate for ovarian cancer was disheartening: only 27% of patients remained alive for five years after diagnosis. A chemotherapy protocol had not yet been developed.
Patients like myself depended on surgery, good luck, and prayer. I proved to be very lucky indeed; in September of this year, I celebrated fifty-four years of survival.
After two surgeries, I convalesced for a few weeks and then returned to school part-time. Eventually, I resumed a full class load. With the exception of intrusive and annoyingly regular medical follow-ups, my life returned to “normal.” A teenage sense of invincibility served me well. I completed high school with the verve of a typical student and earned a scholarship to Boston University.
Like other girls my age, I dreamed about a future that included not only a career but also a spouse and children. Except I knew I would build my family through adoption.
I didn’t view it as a choice; It simply was The Choice.
Cock-eyed optimism had served me well in my confrontation with cancer; my attitude to my sterility was similarly “rose-colored.” I blindly accepted the prevailing cultural mythology about adoption as a win/win, an event from which all the involved parties proceeded forward relatively unscathed and journeyed into the world of “Happily-Ever-After.”
We adopted our children in the 1980’s, back when everyone considered kids to be blank slates and society believed adoption was a once-and-done event. Now we know better. Adoption is significantly more complex, far less black-and-white.
It is a journey, not an event that is best firmly locked in the past, unmentioned, and unmourned. A large part of the world still believes in the fairytale and views adoption like a virus from which one heals quickly and completely. This leaves many adoptees, adoptive parents and first parents struggling against the myths, finding their challenges dismissed, minimized, and ignored.
We must shift the conversation; concentrate on education, empathy, and validation; and labor to eliminate the causes that lead to family fracture in the first place. Adoption matters; we must talk about it—with our kids—and with the world at large.
The discussion must not center solely on any benefits that occur, but also on the hard parts: grief, loss, anger, rejection, rootlessness, self-doubt, high rates of adoptee suicide, depression, control issues, relationship difficulties— all these and more. They also must be acknowledged and addressed.
How do we initiate such emotional and awkward conversations? Certainly not with those words that people often say to adoptees, “Don’t you feel lucky and grateful that you were adopted?” Or, “Why are you interested in your real parents? After all, they gave you away.” Imagine yourself as an adoptee hearing these tone-deaf remarks. Sigh… We must do much better!
As an adoption coach, a co-founder of GIFT Family Services, and an adoptive parent, I know this is possible. We strive to educate families, schools, faith congregations, and civic communities and teach an approach called Adoption-attunement. We find and develop support materials for adoptees and the people who love them.
Since we are not adoptees, we are NOT the vital voice for such conversations — adult adoptees are. When creating resources, we look to them; we listen and learn.
I spend a fair amount of time discussing adoption with my own now-adult children. My daughter shares my interest in distilling the hard-won insights of our family’s adoption journey into tools that help reduce the suffering of other adoptive families. This approach infuses our experiences with meaning. Putting her thoughts in writing gives her a much-needed semblance of control and gives me a way of framing our family journey.
We wrote the award-winning book “ABC, Adoption & Me: A Multicultural Picture book” together. (Recently we released a revised and re-illustrated version that is updated to reflect the latest in professional and adult-adoptee-informed understanding of adoption.) We hope—and believe—that this book is the tool we wished we had available to us when she and my son were young. It provides the language, context and opportunity to begin essential adoption-related conversations with our kids when they are little. These discussions build a foundation of truth, honesty, and openness about adoption complexity.
It is tempting to think that such discussions can wait until “later.” Too often, later never comes or it comes too late. Research proves that children wrestle with these complicated concepts and unsettling emotions.
In the absence of parental conversations and guidance, kids tend to blame themselves for their adoption. Frequently they form odd and unhealthy belief systems to explain the stew of questions and feelings that emerge relative to their adoption.
It is also tempting to allow ourselves to believe that our children have no issues around adoption, and we see no need to rock the proverbial boat. Why dredge up any negativity? Surely, such conversations will distress them.
The opposite is true. If we don’t clearly and regularly talk about adoption, kids assume the topic is off-limits. Our reluctance denies our children the comforting support of our love and reassurance. Regardless of how we decide to begin such conversations, it is absolutely essential that they occur.
As book lovers and authors, my daughter and I believe books are an essential component of an adoptive family’s toolbox. We have amassed an extensive family adoption library with books for both children and adults.
We adoptive parents must not allow the benefits and joys which adoption brought to our lives to blind us to the challenges adoption also imposes. Adoption gratified our wish for a child. Part of us wants— needs—our adoptive family to be all that our child needs. We yearn to be enough.
But there lies the rub. We can never completely supplant birth families. They are a permanent and valuable part of our children. Adoption grafts a child to a new family but it cannot change DNA or the biologically driven desire to know and understand one’s own story, origins, and history. This is true whether one is adopted or not. An adoption decree does not erase that hunger for information from which one can build a sturdy and well-integrated sense of self.
Another factor that might tempt us to skip these “difficult conversations”: we want our children to be happy and attached to us. But we are human; often a powerful niggling fear hides in the back of our minds that WE will not be enough, that they won’t bond with us and that this will then prove that adoption was not successful.
Addressing these issues is neither simple nor painless. Isolating ourselves further complicates the situation. When we feel like no one else understands or faces circumstances like our own, we flounder and internalize the pain, often faulting ourselves for the mess. However, once we discover a tribe— a group of people who share similar experiences— we find solace and hope.
This sense of community benefits both parents and children. Ensuring that our children know and have relationships with other adoptees is both kind and therapeutic. Thus, begins the journey toward wholeness.
Because we recognized our children’s need for this shared community, my husband and I helped start and run an adoptive family support group. Our children enjoyed friendships with many other adoptees. They could see that other kids had also been placed for adoption. Reassured by this shared experience of family fracture, they still struggled to understand why adoption happened to them. They wanted to understand it beyond the facts. To feel and know the specific reasons.
At eight, my daughter asked, “If she loved me enough to choose adoption for me, why didn’t she love me enough to keep me?” Her question took away my breath. Her words stung and peeled away another layer of cock-eyed optimism and wishful thinking.
My heart ached for her and the rejection and trauma she felt. Loving enough…competing sets of emotions swirled: empathy for her distress and fear of my own shortcomings and inadequacies.
My heart ached for her.
Our desire for children had exacted such a high emotional cost on them. Our belief in the myth of adoption-as-fairy-tale had long ago exploded. We could see their grief and losses. They were genuine, palpable, and intense.
Their pain revealed itself in difficult, often self-destructive behaviors. We sought counselors. My husband used to quip, “My friends’ kids play sports every week. Our kids go to therapy.” Their roller-coaster emotions were real and it broke our hearts. Even with the therapy, they struggled and we struggled to be the parents they needed us to be.
Traditional parenting methods proved ineffective and sometimes quite counterproductive. We sensed that our kids wrestled with something HUGE, something important, but neither the therapists nor our kids could articulate what was needed from us.
They had love, security, stability, and material comforts but an emotional black hole still dogged them. We had naively thought love would be enough. While it was essential, it was not enough.
Considering that adoption was such a significant life event in our kids’ lives, it still shocks me that not once did a therapist suggest that adoption might be a factor.
Whenever we mentioned adoption, it was dismissed out of hand because we had adopted our children as weeks-old newborns. Adoption, they insisted, could not be at fault, not even a contributing factor. We were simply failing as parents. So, we continued to reach out for help to seek the skills and knowledge necessary to meet our children’s needs.
Therapists taught us that behavior was the language of trauma. We had to learn how to understand it. Oblivious of their obvious contradictions, therapists advised us to be: more consistent, more flexible, believe in their capabilities, lower expectations, encourage their interests, not allow them to quit, avoid enabling and rescuing, set boundaries, hold boundaries, flex boundaries, be patient… We tried every “brand” of parenting classes. Still, our kids floundered, and we all struggled to defeat the chaos and find family harmony.
As our kids hit middle school, the challenges worsened, the risks increased, and the consequences elevated. The sad and messy details are irrelevant. We endured and ultimately triumphed after some very painful life lessons and consequences.
The journey challenged us. In fact, it nearly defeated us. Mindful of the daunting odds I’d overcome in defeating cancer, we decided failure here was not an option either. It was neither easy nor straightforward for our children or us.
Long after our friends had watched their non-adopted children fledge their family nests with relative ease, we continued to encounter stormy seas. We also continued to offer a steady ship of love, security, acceptance, and commitment.
We managed to power through and forge enduring bonds and today we savor the joy of being a family. We hope that the books and articles that we write will help other families and ease their challenges a bit.
The “inconvenient truth” of adoption is that it is not a fairy tale; however, where it is necessary, adoption can succeed. It takes commitment, honesty, love, effort, and the courage to hold many, many difficult conversations. They mark your stake in the ground that announces, “I’m not giving up.”
Gayle Swift is an adoptive parent, a co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an award-winning author, and an adoptee-rights advocate who is committed to supporting adoptees and the families who love them. She strives to educate people on adoption, Adoption-attunement and adoption complexity and is committed to addressing and reducing the factors that lead to a family fracture in the first place. She and her daughter, Casey Swift, have written a new book for teens called We’re Adopted, So What?: Teens Tell It like It Is . Their first book, ABC, Adoption and Me: A Multicultural Picture Book, was released in an updated and revised version in 2019.