My parents hid the fact I was adopted, but I instinctively knew
When I was six, I asked my mom whether I was adopted.
There was no event in particular that convinced me I wasn’t born to my family, I just knew.
Since the trauma of maternal separation is preverbal, my body remembered being ripped away from my birth mother, even if I didn’t yet have language for it.
However, when my mom somehow evaded my question, I decided not to press her for answers.
When I turned 10, I tried again. The intuitive feeling that I wasn’t related to my parents never went away. It only intensified. This time, my mom confirmed that my biological parents had given me up for adoption as a newborn, and they had adopted me to raise me as their own.
It was a closed adoption, so they didn’t have much more information than that. I was left to process this information, all the emotions, and what it all meant on my own as my parents didn’t engage in much further conversation related to my adoption.
Though I’d been expecting it, the news deeply affected me on multiple levels. I had to come to terms with the fact that, for years, my parents withheld information from me about who I was. While I believe they had good intentions at the time, this further compounded my issues with trust moving forward. I would often wonder why I was given up, imagining scenarios that would help explain it.
It’s my belief that every adopted person can identify with the feeling of trauma on some level. Regardless of circumstances surrounding an adoption, this profound experience inevitably comes with long-term ramifications in a myriad of ways into adulthood, despite how different all of our situations may be.
Many adoptees struggle with depression, addiction, mental health illness and suicide ideation, and there’s research to support the statistics. A US study found that adoptees are 43% more likely to experience substance abuse, and research from 2013 found that adoptees are four times as likely to try and take their own life as non-adopted people.
The first time I experienced suicidal ideation, I was 10. Although I couldn’t cognitively connect the dots at the time, I recognise now that my grief and trauma stemmed from being separated from my mother and placed into a different family where I also lacked genetic and ethnic/racial mirroring.
The adoption agency permitted me to retrieve my file at age 15, so I asked my mom if I could access it, and she agreed to help.
I discovered that my biological parents had been in love – I later learned that they even went on to get married – but my maternal grandfather decided I should be given up for adoption.
Growing up under the impression that I was Chinese, like my adoptive family (in my gut, I knew differently), I also learned that I was in fact Filipino. There were papers, a two-page letter, a poem from my mother, and black and white paper photos of my biological parents.
I kept this file in a drawer over the years, looking at it from time to time. I would often stare at the photos, trying to find my face. At school, my teachers frequently told my parents that my mind was elsewhere, as if I was daydreaming.
Fifth grade was an incredibly hard year. On top of finding out I was adopted, I was also bullied by classmates. I struggled academically, yet excelled in music, where I poured all of my emotions. That was my life saver.
Throughout high school, the grief continued. It was constant. It’s hard to describe ambiguous loss. It never goes away. I didn’t feel like I could put any of it into words that anyone would understand. I didn’t know anyone else who was adopted, either. When I was 25, I opened the folder again with an intent to search for my birth families.
In my biological mother’s letter, she expressed that they wanted to keep me. I wanted to find them, but I couldn’t afford the fees adoption agencies charge to help with this so I took matters into my own hands and went off the bits of information I had.
In the poem she wrote for me titled ‘Never Forgotten’, someone had forgotten to white-out the first three letters of her last name. Those letters would ultimately lead me to my birth parents’ marriage record online. In 2008, I was reunited with both families. When I met my paternal grandfather, he pointed at me and cried.
I was warmly welcomed and they said they had never stopped thinking about me or wondering where I was.
While many assume that reunion holds the key to undoing family separation trauma, it does not heal the wound. It can hold just as much pain as it does answers, introducing a journey that oftentimes rips mother and child apart once again.
Having no guide on how to reconcile our loss, my birth mother and I lost each other for a second time.
Still, I don’t regret reunion. There was pain, but there was also validation, healing, and love in that experience. I hadn’t been forgotten.
It took another six years to make my way ‘out of the fog’, which is a common expression in the adoption community. It’s essentially waking up to the realities of adoption and coming to terms with how family separation has impacted us in our own lives. A lot of unlearning, relearning, and healing.
In my own experience, attempting to build authentic relationships with your adoptive parents on a foundation of secrecy is nearly impossible. I believe it’s critical that they be honest with their children at the outset.
In general, it’s unethical to withhold information from anyone about their own identity. All adoptees should be informed about their adoption. Parents must make their own difficult choices about when and how to reveal that information. Secrecy has become so normalised that in many states, it’s a common practice for birth certificates to be falsified when an adoption happens, so that the birth parents’ names and any information that could identify them is replaced with the adoptive parents’ information.
It’s meant that many adoptees in some states in the US are fighting for the right to have unrestricted access to their own birth records — something that every human should be able to obtain freely. Having access to things like medical history can be a matter of life or death.
While many adoptive parents believe they’re protecting their child by not being forthright, secrecy will not only have an impact on that child’s mental and emotional well-being, I believe it will also negatively affect that relationship.
Likewise, secrecy in biological families (i.e. a mother wanting to keep her child a secret) has just as devastating of an impact on the adoptee.
On a similar note, I don’t believe that there’s any reason to change the last names of children to match the adoptive parents’, as this only serves the adopters. Some adoptees may want to share the same name as their adoptive family, but, ultimately, it should be their decision.
Beyond names, so much is taken from us without our say – our families, our biology, our ethnic culture. The loss is insurmountable.
In the US, so much of the adoption policy and narrative are driven by the needs of the industry and adoptive parents. People also often assume that children given up for adoption were unwanted, unloved, or orphans—and that’s simply not true. It certainly wasn’t in my case.
Additionally, I learned that many mothers give up their children due to a lack of financial resources, which is devastating.
There’s no doubt that raising a child is expensive and not feasible for some parents, but taking a child away from their family should not be the first port of call. Adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry here in the US – imagine if that money went to supporting mothers and families instead.
When all efforts for family reunification have been exhausted and a legal guardianship or adoption happens, I believe children should have access to trauma-informed and adoption-informed therapy.
I started therapy at age 14, but it wasn’t until age 31 that I saw a therapist who connected the dots to my maternal separation, relinquishment, and adoption. It opened up a whole new world of healing for me.
Adoptive parents should also engage in more open conversation with their children. It would have been so helpful if I was told, ‘It’s okay to be sad or angry. It’s okay to miss your mother.’ Normalising these conversations helps to encourage empathy and less shame.
I hold compassion for what my parents didn’t know at the time, but looking back, as a child, I was scared to open up for fear of hurting their feelings or making them think I was unappreciative. It was a tremendous weight that I carried, affecting multiple aspects of my life.
One of the biggest criticisms levied at adoptees who speak openly about these issues is that we’re accused of being ungrateful. While many of us are grateful, we are also grieving. It’s significant to understand that grief has never been about gratitude – that it’s not about having to choose one or the other. We can hold both simultaneously, and it’s in their integration where I believe healing is possible.
I’m only one of many adoptees who are educating the public about family separation and adoption trauma, advocating for adoptee rights and more ethical practices. There’s a long way to go, but our voices are being heard.
If this industry claims to serve adoptees, then it needs to listen and learn from those who are most affected. We are the adult voices of the children adoption claims to advocate for.
You can find out more about Ferera here, and hear the single she wrote for her birth mother here. This piece was originally published in October 2020.
18-24 October marks National Adoption Week, a campaign which aims to highlight and champion all aspects of adoption.
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