Saturday, June 30, 2012

Adoptee Emotions: Don’t Be Frightened by my Anger, my Grief, or Even my Love -- It Only Means I’m Awake

If you are an adoptee who has spoken or written about the institution of adoption or about your experience of being adopted in a way that is at all critical, you have probably been labeled an “angry adoptee.” You may have been told that you should “get over it” or “seek help.” In fact, the experience is so common that some adoptees recently teamed up to form the facebook group “I’m an Angry Adoptee,” which aims to take back the angry adoptee stereotype by focusing on social justice issues that make adoptees legitimately angry.

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My sense is that adoptees often come across in the online world as angrier than we are in real life. If someone has a blog that focus on adoption issues, he or she may often be addressing matters that stir up anger, but that doesn’t mean that the person walks around angry all the time in real life.

Another issue is that for some of us, anger is something that we came to later in life. I know that in my case it took me a long time to get to the point of being able to step beyond what I viewed as acceptable feelings for me to have about adoption … to find the courage to say, “You know what, there is a part of me that is really pissed off that this thing happened to me.” I may not be angry all the time, but I am angry some of the time. I call it the “baby rage,” and it is old and powerful. It may not have risen to the surface until relatively recently in my life, but it was there all along.

If you knew me in my early 20s, I might have seemed to be a lot more at peace with my adoptive situation then than I am now. But really, I was just numb. When I look back on that part of my life, that’s how I perceive myself. I was half-asleep, barely there. I went through the motions of relationships, but I didn’t really connect. A few months ago, I was driving on a long stretch of highway, my kids asleep in the backseat, and my mind began to wander through different events of my life. Eventually I landed on thoughts of someone I had known in my teens and early twenties. I liked him mainly because he didn’t expect too much of me, and seemed as emotionally distant as I was, but the last time I saw him he tried to push our relationship into a new place. He wanted to talk about feelings (gasp!) and, even worse, “the future.” I froze like a deer in the headlights. I couldn’t even begin to go to the place he was asking me to go. I couldn’t even have the conversation.

Now I know adoptees aren’t the only ones to have commitment issues, and I also know there are plenty of adoptees who don’t experience anything like what I’ve just described. But for me, my difficulty with emotional connection does seem to have been connected to the particular way that I processed my adoption experience. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel grief or rage or any emotions connected to adoption other than “officially approved” emotions such as gratitude. And in suppressing the “negative” emotions, I also suppressed others. 

My awakening was a both sudden and gradual. "Sudden" in that the first blast of intense emotion – adoption grief – came at me out of the blue one day and knocked me flat. That was the day I suddenly found myself on the floor in my apartment sobbing uncontrollably. But “gradual” also applies because the process is one that continues to this day, and it’s always been a two steps forward one step back kind of thing. It might be nice if I could in fact “just get over it,” but for me the process is an ongoing one, rather than a onetime event.

And it wasn’t just the negative emotions that I suppressed. I also suppressed feeling of love and affection toward my biological family members, as well as curiosity about my origins, because I interpreted such feelings as an indication of disloyalty toward my adoptive family. I didn’t understand back then that love is not a pie. I thought I had to choose. I remember the first time I allowed myself to fully experience my love for my biological mother. I was sitting quietly by myself with my eyes closed, and I just allowed myself to feel, to really feel without holding back. And strange thing happened. At that same moment, I suddenly experienced a swelling of love for my adoptive mother, stronger than anything I could remember feeling towards her before. Surprised? I’m not. In suppressing my love for one mother, I had unintentionally suppressed my love for both of them.

Now I allow myself to feel it all: the whole crazy mixture. I don’t know any other way to be at peace with what happened to me other than to walk through the emotions – all of the emotions. And sometimes I write about these feelings. My emotional awakening is an ongoing process, and it isn’t always pretty. This newest part of my adoption journey, reuniting with my biological father, is bringing up a whole new layer of emotional stuff. It’s wonderful, it’s confusing, it’s scary … and it’s all good. Really, it is.


  1. I completely get this. As another member of the adoption triad, we don't expect certain feelings to come up, and certain others (like anger) aren't "accepted." Birthmothers are supposed to feel grateful that we're "allowed" to have relationships with our children and their families, but ultimately "they" expect that gratefulness to translate into joy and walking away from the whole situation (something I advocate against). As my own blog has increased in popularity it's not only inspired emotions in other people, but in ME. That's the most important of all. It IS good to feel! :)

  2. excellent post. thanks so much for sharing all your feelings!

  3. As a fellow adoptee, your experience of "waking up" very much resonated with me. Thanks so much for writing!

  4. Agreeing with Monika, I too completely get this from my perspective as a firstmother. It took me years to realize that I can be angry at what I now know is the "adoption industry." My support friend, the social worker, really wasn't my "friend" at all. As a firstmother from the BSE, I was subjected to the social mores of the times and then later subjected to the anger from my surrendered child which ultimately destroyed the hope of a good relationship. Perhaps you could share how you managed the anger emotions. From your writing, it doesn't appear that they were directed toward any family members (natural or adoptive. Do you think your adoptive daughter will have anger as well, or will an open adoption mitigate some or all of the negative emotions?

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. Ann, good questions. You're right -- my anger isn't directed toward any of my parents, but I'm not really sure why that is. I'm more angry _for_ my biological parents than at them ... angry that they were told they'd be able to move on with their lives without any negative repercussions for them or for me. I'm not angry with my adoptive parents because I honestly believe they handled my adoption situations as well as they could given the information that was available to them at the time. I'm not even angry at the adoption workers because I don't think they got out of bed in the morning thinking "how can I tear a family apart." I suspect most thought they were doing a good thing. There was a problem (rising rates of unplanned pregnancy) and adoption must have seemed on the surface like a pretty kind solution for all involved. I'm angry about the sitution of having been separated from my biological family, but I'm not necessarily angry _at_ anyone. I do get angry in the present, though, when adoptees and first parents speak up to say, "hey, that whole adoption thing, however well meaning, didn't actually work out so well for us," and our voices are dismissed. It frustrates me to no end that some of the same mistakes are still being made even though we have more information now. Baby-scoop-era style adoption was a failed experiment. The results are in, but lots of people are ignoring them.

    As for my daughter, I don't know. I suspect she'll still have anger about some parts of her experience, because there was a disruption to her life, but she hasn't been separated from her biological family completely and I'm hoping that will help. Like my a-parents, all I can really do is the best I can with the information and resources available to me at this time. I do try to let her express whatever emotions come up for her whenever they come up, and that's something I also hope will help, but only time will tell for sure.

    Anyway, I'm sorry to hear that your child's anger got directed at you. Do you have any hope that it could ever shift?

  6. NEVERSAIDGOODBYEJuly 1, 2012 at 6:32 PM

    I also suppress not just the bad feelings but the good and live in a state of numbness most of the time. Constantly trying to protect myself from pain- I miss out on the joy.

    I hope I can get to a place in daily life where I experience the good and the bad.

  7. NEVERSAIDGOODBYEJuly 1, 2012 at 6:38 PM

    I wanted to chime in here on this one- I was an adoptee who put a lot of my anger on my birthmom- a few years into reunion- I just let it all out and would scream and rage at her. she took it all in stride and said- it's okay to be mad at me. I am your mother and I love you anyway- and we got through it.
    She also reversely had times of anger at me- and our hurt bubbled over into arguments and each of us pulling back not wanting to feel the emotions we were both feeling- it was to strong- to intense.
    It was however worth it to us both to work thru it... and we now do not yell at each other- we discuss things- but we have got a lot of the feelings out on the table and it was healing for both of us.
    Neither of us are big on being PC- and we both say what we think and feel... I am so glad that when my feelings bubbled over and I could not put my finger on why my mother said- I am your mother and I love you- it's okay to be angry. Instead of telling me I should be grateful or any other nonsense.
    Maybe- that would be a good idea for the first mom's who have had anger directed at them- to say- I am your mother and it is okay for you to be angry at me- I love you.
    That was a big turning point in our relationship- she loved me unconditionally as I love her.

  8. "I am your mother and I love you- it's okay to be angry." Wow, so powerful!

  9. such a wonderful and eloquent post. I always appreciate your perspective.