Tell Me Your Story: Of Finding Identity

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Jessie grew up an only child, but one of her earliest memories is of babysitting a little boy. She would entertain him while both their mothers chatted, their conversation just out of Jessie’s earshot. The visits were sporadic, and Jessie thought nothing of it at the time. Later, she would find out that the visitor was actually her birthmother.

If this is surprising, consider that many adopted children are never told they are adopted. Some are told when they turn 18, and others find out in ways that leave them wounded for years. Jessie found out she was adopted when she was in the 4th grade. She remembers spending an afternoon roller skating with one of her cousins. What probably started as an innocent argument between two young family members ended with her cousin yelling,“You’re not my real cousin anyway.” Jessie felt the angry words slap her face, and spent the night summoning up the nerve to ask her mother for the truth.

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Jessie with her adoptive father.

When asked about it, her mother admitted that Jessie was, in fact, adopted. Tears ran down her face as her world suddenly shifted out of focus. To Jessie’s bewilderment, her mother, upset at her daughter’s tears, recanted the story, saying she was only joking and laughed it off. Jessie was confused, but part of her didn’t want to believe she was adopted. But at 15, she learned the truth. If there was any doubt in her mind, it was erased the moment Jessie found a picture of herself with her birthmother. The picture was accompanied by adoption papers and a letter from her birthmother.

Jessie’s adoption was never openly discussed in her home, and her adoptive mother asked Jessie not to discuss her adoption with her father or grandfather because it made them uncomfortable. Jessie tried to have a relationship with her birthmother, even attending her college graduation, but their relationship was uneven and she felt like an outsider around her birthmother’s two other children. She was essentially stuck between two worlds and two families, but never felt acceptance from either one. Understandably, Jessie felt a sense of connection with few people. Her experience of family was limited to two mothers unsure of how to navigate the delicate birth mother/adoptive mother/adopted child relationship.

The search for identity is not uncommon among teens, but for adopted teens it sometimes takes on a life of its own. Jessie spent her entire life ashamed of her adoption, but two years ago, at the age of 25, she decided to take what she calls her “adoption situation” into her own hands. She started a blog and started following adoption groups through social media. At first, she felt like the “adoption circle” was an exclusive club. She didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know how to adequately express her opinions. She felt there was always a “right” answer, and that others had more of a right to share their adoption stories than she did. Even with all these doubts, she was determined to keep learning and keep searching.

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About a year into her journey, Jessie suffered several setbacks. She was reeling from ongoing panic attacks, debilitating anxiety, and “a self-hate so strong and suffocating” words could not give it meaning. She felt like she didn’t have anyone to turn to which seemed to compound the pain. Jessie knew she was on the verge of a turning point, but she didn’t know where the turn was going to take her. It started with an invitation to both her adoptive mother and her birthmother to celebrate Adoption Month at dinner with Jessie and her friends. Her birthmother didn’t return her emails and text messages. When she asked her adoptive mother, the silence was louder than words.  The experience with both her mothers left Jessie embarrassed and ashamed, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating. She continued with the dinner and took her first step in liberating herself from their inability to support her.

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Jessie and her friends celebrating Adoption Month.

After the celebration dinner with her friends, Jessie was determined to do something with her life that had meaning. She came across FLACK, a magazine catering to the homeless in the UK. Wanting to escape her life in small town Ohio, she blindly emailed the founder asking for an opportunity to work for the publication. To her, what she received was better than a job offer. The founder emailed her back, thanking her for sharing her story, and gave Jessie one line of advice that would serve as her mission and her motivation:  “Find something close to you that inspires you. If you cannot find that inspiration – then you BE that inspiration.”

Soon after, she decided to start a documentary project called Voices of Adoption to bring together adoptees, birth families, agencies, and supporters and inspire other young adoptees to speak about their experiences. The documentary will cover everything from adoptee rights, rehoming, and the adoption process. Jessie’s hope is that one day she will be able to use the success of the documentary to put together a book of short stories, poems, artwork, music playlists, and even a national directory of numbers and links to help people with adoption. In her words, she wants her book to be “The Holy Grail of all things Adoption.”

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Jessie would love to someday turn Voices of Adoption into a center serving the needs of her community.  Her vision is that anyone will be able to walk through the doors and receive counseling, attend weekly support groups, or relax in the recreation room. Right now Jessie is in school studying Human Services and working on becoming a counselor. She would like to eventually earn a Masters and Doctorate degree. Last March, Jessie symbolized her journey with a tattoo, and she didn’t do it alone. It was a huge step for her as she went from being ashamed and embarrassed about her adoption to proudly sharing her story with the world.

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From top left: Jessie’s tattoo on her forearm, her adoptive cousin Kimmy’s tattoo on her shoulder, her friend Tiffany’s  tattoo on her forearm, & her adoptive cousin Beanie’s tattoo on her foot.

If Jessie could impart one piece of advice to current or prospective adoptive parents, she says it comes down to one word: love. Through emails she has received from different adoptees, she says the happier more adjusted adoptees attribute their success to their adoptive parents being unconditionally loving. These parents don’t guilt trip, shame, or demand gratitude from their children. They tell their children that they will never stop wanting them or loving them.

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So for Jessie, finding her identity meant helping others do the same. She stopped looking for something to inspire her or for someone to fill the void and instead looked at how she could inspire others. She may never have the relationship with her birthmother or her adoptive mother that she needs, but she is realizing that the definition of a family is different for each person. For Jessie, it’s the friends who surround her and love her unconditionally.

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Tell Me Your Story: Of a Broken Home

For every positive adoption story, there is an equally tragic one. It’s true. We can’t hide from it; we can’t push it under the rug. There are hurt feelings, broken hearts, and painful memories. Whether we are adopted or not, children all need roots. We all need something to anchor us in an unsure, scary world. What happens when the very people who are meant to love and protect you, turn on you? Where do you go, and who do you run to?

We can’t pretend that every adoption is a fairytale, because it is not. Adopted children are not spared from dysfunction or abuse, but they are expected to feel gratitude towards the very people who are abusing them. By listening to the stories of others, we start important discussions. We validate the experiences of others in hopes that it raises awareness and puts an end to abusive parenting, no matter the situation. I invited Renee to read my blog to see if she was interested in contributing, and the following is her response to my story to the About section. In her own words, Renee explains to me her adoption experience:

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The underlying assumptions (myths) that adoption is inherently positive and that adoptees’ lives are improved by adoption are my biggest problem with the whole adoption and gratitude trope.

Perhaps your life did improve via adoption. Perhaps you were “rescued.” I have no idea whether that’s true or not, and neither do you, of course, because you’ll never know who you would have become if you’d grown up with your kin–or a different adoptive family, for that matter. But even if adoption was beautiful for you, it was not for me and many, MANY other adoptees I know.

I was a pretty, healthy, active infant. When my mother relinquished me, there were lists and lists and more lists of hopeful adopters waiting to score a baby. My adoptive parents ended up with me because of timing. No other reason. They just happened to be at the top of a list of married couples willing to write a fat check for a newborn. If they hadn’t adopted me, another couple would have. They were lined up around the block. That’s reality.

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Also reality: I was never in any danger from my natural mom. She was never unfit or incapable. She was (and is) a bright, charming, especially successful woman who probably would have made a wonderful mom if she’d been given the chance. She was not an incubator, cooking up a child for my poor, infertile adoptive parents. I didn’t grow in the wrong woman. No child does. And I think that’s an awful thing to tell a person. Bottom line: If God does intend all children as gifts, He clearly has indicated by nature where He wants each child to be.

And for the record, not every child ends up with a life that warrants gratitude. Neither my older brother (also adopted) nor I deserved the life of physical and emotional abuse we endured at the hands of our adoptive parents. We didn’t deserve to be neglected, we didn’t deserve to be terrorized, and we didn’t deserve to be beaten within an inch of our lives on an almost daily basis. No child deserves that. But loads of adoptees live it. I know just as many adoptees who were abused by their adopters as adoptees who weren’t. And we’re not grateful. Nor should we be.

Tell Me Your Story: Of Adoption & Service

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When children are adopted from developing countries, they often grow up feeling they have an obligation to give back to their countries or at least help those who are less fortunate.  There is often a feeling of being “saved” from poverty or another equally dire situation and having an obligation to pay back a debt. For many adult adoptees this is seen as an unfair obligation, but for others like Magalie it is seen as a privilege.

Magalie didn’t have to look very far to find examples of service. She comes from a family who loves to serve others. She is one of eight children, including five children adopted from Haiti. She was introduced to the organization Invisible Children through her older sister who came home from college, passionate to share the message of rescuing child soldiers in Uganda abducted by Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). After having watched one of Invisible Children’s first documentaries, Rough Cut, Magalie could not continue to be comfortable in her little bubble. She knew there was more to life, and she had to go out and find it.

After an intense interview process, Magalie landed her dream job of being a Roadie or a Regional Representative for Invisible Children. Over the next few months, she joined a group of three other girls on the road, and for ten weeks they traveled to Alaska, Montana and all over Western Canada to spread the message of bringing an end to the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA. In six months, four girls organized 55 educational presentations. Four girls spoke to nearly ten thousand people. Four girls raised over $18,000 to bring awareness to the cause of Invisible Children. One of Magalie’s teammates was directly impacted by the LRA, and spoke to audiences about how her family had been destroyed. Audiences were moved by the girls’ candor and passion for a worthy cause.

Magalie’s internship concluded with an international summit in D.C. For weeks the team wrote letters, made phone calls, and petitioned global leaders from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union to come together and strategize with the leaders of the African countries affected by Kony and the LRA. During the summit, thousands of people peacefully marched to show their support of Invisible Children and their Zero LRA campaign. That same weekend a bill to end the LRA was presented to President Obama who would later go on to sign it. To try and summarize Magalie’s six months with Invisible Children is nearly impossible. Each person on her team and each person the girls met had a different story as to why they felt led to join the fight against the LRA.

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Not surprising to many, Magalie would like to become a social worker. She’s not sure what area of social work she would like to concentrate on. At first, she wanted to become an adoption coordinator. The idea of bringing people together and creating families was appealing to her, but she has realized that she wants to broaden her options.Today, she is focused on going back to school to complete her social work degree.

We all define success differently. To many it is a luxury car parked in the garage of a four bedroom house in a gated community. To most it means a family of stick figures plastered on the back of a minivan. But to few it means living a life of service. Magalie recognizes that at 21, she is far from having it all figured out, but she wants a rewarding career that pushes the boundaries and takes her out of her comfort zone.

Does she credit her adoption for her sense of compassion and empathy? Absolutely. And she sees nothing wrong with that. In fact, with pride she states she has an obligation to help others. She believes that the reason she was adopted was to help others. It is also her relationship with Christ that compels her to serve. It is a choice she gladly makes: to help others regardless of where they are from.

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The question of adoptees born in developing countries feeling they must give back is sometimes complicated. But what if we reframed the question. Instead of “Why me?”, let’s ask “Why not me?” When Magalie’s adoptive parents made a decision to adopt her from Haiti 18 years ago, they probably had little clue that her words would reach over ten thousand people for the cause of Invisible Children. When you adopt, you are changing the course of one person’s life that could change a thousand more. For those adopted from a developing country, the charge of giving back to your country or anyone in need is not something to hide from, but a special mission to embrace. Indeed, if you ever doubt that you can make a difference, look what four young girls accomplished in six months.

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