How do you deal with the taboos of adoption?

Hello TRE Readers. I am Morgan Pearson and am a new contributor here.

I believe the things that hurt the most are the things that need to be talked about the most. For me what hurts the most is my adoption. When we make a subject taboo all we’re really doing is making it hard to talk about it. Which means everyone involved can’t be accepted for who they are or ask for outside help when they need it.

For most adoptees adoption was the most taboo subject growing up. It still is in my family, but everyday I work and speak up to change that. Other than talking about it, I use writing and art to let out my trapped feelings.

As adoptees, How do you deal with the taboos of adoption in your family? Who do you talk to? What do you use as an outlet for these “taboo” feelings?

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8 thoughts on “How do you deal with the taboos of adoption?

  1. If I could add to this question, I would ask: What makes such a “taboo” a taboo?

    Most of the things I felt were taboo had to do with the general mythology of adoption, meaning, accepting the idea that I was “chosen” or “saved”, and avoiding anything that tarnished this image.

    I note that as time has passed, these taboos move from the very general to the very specific; having to do with the particular aspects of my story as gleaned from my adoptive parents. Things that seem rather inconsequential to them take on great import for me, and I am, to this day, often loathe to ask about them.

    My adoptive father has passed away, and I did not ever ask him whether he specified a desire for a male child when he met the nuns from my orphanage at the airport a week before my mother returned to find that I was the only child healthy enough to leave.

    A fact like this would be such a defining derivation that I sometimes think that it would become hard not to assign blame, or point accusatory fingers, or open up a lot of wounds that are still in the healing stage; and here the taboo is purely defined by me.

    So perhaps the taboo is on both sides. On one side, forbidding the speaking about something in order to hide the truth; on the other the repression of questions in order to protect oneself from the truth.

  2. I’m not sure if I entirely agree with “I believe the things that hurt the most are the things that need to be talked about the most” (I almost do), but I disagree that a familial prohibition on speaking about one’s adoption should be called a “taboo”. I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish why, but the part that comes to mind first is the fact that i don’t think the prohibition has ever gone in the direction of the adoptee demanding that their parents shut up about it or not speak about it. And since this makes it a question of adults exercising power over non-adults, and parents exercising power over children, I don’t see any imposition of non-speaking as something less than abuse itself. And taboos are not abuse, but this isn’t the important hair to split.

    My mother, who was adopted/not-adopted (it’s still unclear) has never said a word to me about my being adopted that I remember. I remember only ever my father bringing it up. I once asked my mother’s (biological) brother what went on in their family growing up, and he immediately told me, “Ask your mother.” It was instantaneously clear I’d tried to cross a line and my uncle didn’t enter into a conspiracy with me. I have never asked him since. I remember a time when, in response from my father to something I asked about my mother, he said, “You have no right to pick your mother’s brain.” (That’s a verbatim quote from more than 25 years ago.) Much as I despised my father then, I took his statement as absolutely factual, and I haven’t picked her brain since. Even now, the thought of opening the can of worms brings on a heaviness of my limbs that resembles heavy depression.

    I hate that it might seem I’m waxing merely autobiographical about this; this is raw shit for me but that’s of no moment of value for the public domain and anyone listening. It of course means nothing to me whether my mother was adopted or not–maybe she thinks it’s shameful or whatever, but it means nothing to me. Rather, it is the overwhelming sense of exposure I sense if I should even dare to broach the subject. It is the astronomical degree of dereliction on her part that she’s never said a word to me about it. i can say with absolute assurance I’ve never felt the least love from her; I’ve always had to give her the benefit of the doubt that she’s not just empty inside or only loves my father, if even that. Dad’s obviously gaga for her, but I’m not so sure about her. But I can at least give her the benefit of the doubt (that she loves me or anyone), partly because–this may sound cold–it makes no difference. she’s not going to show it; she hasn’t shown it; I’ve learned to live without it, for better or for worse; and it may be she’s that way because she was damaged by her own experiences as a step-daughter or adoptee.

    But what I find I can’t cut her slack for is the ongoing dereliction of her responsibilities as a mother. I have more than one story, but in this context, it is not only her never-present commentary on my own status as an adoptee (whatever Rockwellian advice column she might have run for me as a kid), but the continuing imposition of prohibition on broaching the subject. It’s not a “past sin” that I fault her for, but for an ongoing one–the same one that allowed her to let herself remain silent in the first place; the same one that made my dad say, “You have no right to pick your mother’s brain.”

    I don’t care she doesn’t love me. Why would she? I’m not her child. But I’m still her ward. i was still placed in her care. And for all my dad fucked up, it’s not possible under any analysis to pretend that he didn’t care, didn’t try, however misguidedly. and still is trying. Can’t say that for my mother.

    And the fact that that’s undiscussable is the essence of the adoptive wound? I don’t experience this as a taboo at all–it’s a prohibition, imposed unilaterally, by a colonizing force upon an indigene at a time when it (the indigene) is incapable of self-defense, no matter how resistant. In other families, maybe this is the father who commits this colonization and imposes the censorship.

    And this is what brings me back to: I’m not sure if I entirely agree with “I believe the things that hurt the most are the things that need to be talked about the most” (I almost do),

    Consider the cse where it is impossible to speak with the one who needs to be spoken to. I know one can role play with others, with ded people, with a therapist–it’s not simply what I have to say; it’s her letting go of the prohibition. I can’t force her to talk, so what’s the good of trying with her?

    In my mind,a taboo is something that can be secretly broken on the sly. one can engage in elicit or interdicted behavior. but in this case, the unbreakable silence of the closed-adoption case-file or the unbudging refusal to speak on the part of an adoptive parent (or parents) isn’t something you can to a behavioral end-around on. i can ask the remaining relatives, “What’s up with my Mom?” but that’s not her actually speaking to me. The fact that she’s an adoptee herself and won’t is just … beyond the beyond.

    Can anyone think of excuses for her for me? It’s not that I don’t want to fault her for this? it’s that I don’t want the negativity of it affecting me if I think about it. The alternative is not thinking about it.

  3. I was going to post this as a separate post, but then Snow Leopard’s comment made me decide to post it here.

    What color is your elephant?

    How big is it?

    Back when I was growing up, we never discussed race, culture, or adoption. My different race was a huge burden/challenge, and adoption was only a glaring issue upon meeting strangers for the first time. Fortunately (cough) for me, I was too preoccupied with on-going inappropriate attention to focus on adoption much. Of course the elephant was in the room, but he slept and grew and waited for me to acknowledge him. I had to give him a name on my own, however, as my parents were already deceased by the time his presence began to disturb me.

    Contrast that denial with what I see today, where the adoption elephant is sitting visibly and prominently on the family room coffee table and the parents are examining it with a magnifying glass.

    In between then and now are most adult adoptees with living parents. I’m wondering how most adoptees tend their elephant, how they tend their parents, and if their elephant has any resemblance to the one their parents think they are examining?

    Like Snow Leopard, I think you can lead the horse to water, but not force him to drink. I think Snow Leopard and I had the same mother, actually…but these days I am really cherishing the small concessions she made to me, as I realize that in relative terms, they were quite a stretch for her and therefore meaningful.

    I recall maybe one instance where my parents brought up my adoption, and it was I who did not want to drink of the water, not them. It was I who made the topic off limits because the pain of it was something I could not articulate and only I could know. So my parents, relieved, dropped it. We were co-conspirators in the incarceration of our family elephant.

    Like Snow Leopard, I now wonder the value of confronting every issue with people who can not handle it. Likewise, are we ourselves prepared to handle it? I think in some ways elephant-shaped clouds can block the sun if we focus on them too much. As I get closer to accepting that I can’t change the past I and my elephant are on the road to becoming friends. Yet at the same time, I get angry that new children are being forced to lead such complicated lives as forever aliens.

  4. I was adopted in 1957 and was one of the “early” transracial adoptees in the modern sense; my adoptive brother was adopted in 1950 (as transracial as me). Parents were taught to ignore differences, affirm the fact of adoption…and simulate a “normal” family. The result for me was that adoption was disconnected from any causation. Adoption was a neutral, harmless event. In my mind I was always casting around for any sort of cause that would make sense of the unending chaos I experienced on all levels. The taboo was not adoption…it was insight.

    Looking back I see that adoption, relinquishment, being fostered had profound effect. Now I integrate my adoption history, experiences and thoughts more with my wife, grown children, grandchild…and my parish work (I’m an Episcopal priest). I will talk explicitly about adoption and themes of loyalty to parents, the challenge of having more than one set of parents and the loss of historical connection and knowledge. My a-parents are deceased…and died years before I began to accept the reality of adoption and its consequences. I struggled with my parents talking about it. That may be the substance of another post.

  5. This generational shift is telling I think. Many of our adoptive parents’ generation not only are culturally impeded from “opening up”, they often viscerally don’t know how. I mean that literally; they have no ability to express emotion; it isn’t done; they physically/cognitively can’t do it. So we give them an agentive quality—that of having something to express and not expressing it—when in fact, I feel, they have learned to simply suppress the entire act of expression, such that there is no ability to do so.

  6. For me what’s really interesting in these comments is that I’ve never thought about my adoptive parents passing in relation to my adoption. I realize now if they did pass early I would be dealing with the adoption taboos placed in me by my family on my own vs working with them. Over the past year I’ve been pushing my adoptive parents to talk about my unspoken feelings, and to learn how they feel. I’ve never viewed them being alive as an advantage in bettering my mental health regarding my adoption. I viewed them being in my life as something I needed to deal with, as an obstacle, and as something incredibly painful.

    I will never get them to understand how traumatized by adoption I am, and I will never get them to care how poorly they’ve handled me being adopted and not Caucasian growing up. But I think now viewing them in my life as a chance for me to get better vs a last ditch effort for their love and respect helps immensely.

    • Suki: it’s very touching or encouraging your guess that we might have had the same mother. Many times in my life, in attempting to describe my mother to other people, I say, “Have you ever seen the movie Ordinary People,” because Mary Tyler Moore in that film is the closest thing to a cultural depiction of my mother I have ever found, and almost no one (certainly not anymore) has seen that movie. I identified with the son in it as well. One time, when I was in college, a really great friend of mine (not a boyfriend) came over and had dinner with my family. Nothing necessarily notable happened at dinner, but afterward my friend looked at me very seriously and said, “I NEVER want to have dinner with your family ever again,” and it was so wonderful to hear him say that, because I felt “he’d seen them.” So it’s also interesting you mention the time when you didn’t let your parents talk about adoption. I do remember one time that my dad brought it up, and I told him, maybe a little gruffly, “I only ever think about being adopted when you bring it up, Dad.” So he dropped it. That may have been case of me being properly assimilated to what’s expected of me as an adoptee (i.e., not to make a big del out of it), but your description might fit too: I didn’t want to talk about it. At the time, I was preeminently interested in keeping my father at arm’s length–not for the same specific reason you had, but he’d beaten me, and I hated him, so getting into how HE felt about adoption or how HE felt about anything would have been off the table for me. Unless of course, as an adult, he forced it.

      I also appreciate, and maybe have parallels, with the “little things” my mother gave to me, because there’s the sense that they cost her a lot to do–like Daniel mentions, there may not have even been the the capacity. Between bearing a grudge, liking my mother, or feeling nothing, liking her is abstractly the most desirable in terms of a relationship. (I have to say, the possibility of “loving” her just isn’t there for me, if anyone was wondering why I left that out. And it doesn’t grieve me to say that, even if I think it should. As I think I said before, I feel sympathy for her when I think about her helplessness, her inability and lack of preparedness to be a mother). Ultimately, anyway, I’m more interested in respect between people than love, in understanding as the prerequisite for affection. So, even if “liking” her is in terms of a relationship the most desirable thing, is it the most desirable as a model for how I am in the world. Should I too be “doling out” little things only sparingly, sporadically? I say no, and in that respect would be better off not “looking” that part of her behavior at all. I definitely see in myself how her “emotional repression” gets read as “admirable indomitability” by me, and thus a “positive” role model. but the nomads who lived on the plains of the earth, surrounded by their tribe, as their “defense” against whatever the world had to offer, rather than the impregnable and handsome architectural creations of castes, as a guard against the “events” and invasions of the world, is a more desirable model than the castle.
      The kind of parallel I especially see: when my mother ends her phone calls reflexively with “I love you,” I give her the benefit of the doubt that that means something. It doesn’t feel that way, so I myself have no affective reaction to it. I’m not withholding my responses; I just don’t have one. I’m not saying her phrase is one of her small things; I’m making the parallel with (our adoptee) acts that cherish or appreciate, not in a groveling way, those things that strike us as hardly offered.

    • “Working with them” has a few levels. My adoptive mother “gets” a lot of what I want to say without saying it, and for this I am thankful. My adoptive father on the other hand could never fathom that it might be possible for me to experience my adoption outside of how he framed it. So nothing has ever really been “worked out” with them; sometimes I’ll voice something to my mother and she’ll respond within the limits of her ability to do so. With my father it was more of a constant sledgehammering on my part that my siblings told me repeatedly was a “waste of time”. I think it became less a desire to “work it out with them” than to just be heard, a little bit. My returning to Lebanon was probably the defining “statement” along these lines, and now that I’ve done that, there’s not much in the ways of taboos anymore, meaning, what I won’t tell (now just my mom) about. But I’m able to do that much more “matter-of-fact-ly” now; it has become a kind of historic relating as opposed to a personal statement. That remove is probably what makes the discussion (albeit one-sided) now possible.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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