Coming To Terms With Adoption Loss: A Mother Reflects

I used to believe there wasn’t much difference between being a mother to my adopted children and the one I gave birth to. Because I’d given birth in 1981 to a daughter, then adopted my son in 1984 when he was a year old, and treasured my kids equally, in my mind, it was the same. And then, in 1987 when our third child, a ten-year-old daughter, joined our family through adoption, I thought all adoptions, even an older child adoption, offered the same opportunity for parenting. An older child adoption required gaining knowledge beyond having a sense of humor, a flexible lifestyle, and being able to handle negative feelings from kids. I would need these skills anyway when my kids became teenagers, so I was glad to get a jump on learning, and worked hard to let go of my expectations.

In my early adoptive parenting years I thought my daughter had more losses to endure than my son, because she was adopted at an older age, and came with so much baggage. Only now I know better. Long before my tiny one-year-old son arrived, my heart and mind was filled to the brim with how I wanted things to be, and I endowed him with my hopes and longings. Truth to tell, back then I was the one with all the baggage.

Being an adoptive mother turned out to be completely different than I had expected. Yet before I dig into the recesses of my mind where my losses are stored like clothes in the back of my closet that I’ve outgrown but haven’t tossed out, first I want to tell you about a wonderful weekend with my oldest daughter; the livewire pixie I adopted at age ten, and who is now well into adulthood. We were in Las Vegas, where she treated us to a night at the Bellagio, and I treated us with tickets to a show. I had the good fortune to become her mother. Except all the good fortune in the world cannot change the fact that I am her adoptive mother, and the only reason I was her mother at all is because her first mother, her birthmother, her flesh and blood mother—had to let go.

Given that she lost the opportunity to grow up with her birthmother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I lost my hopes and dreams to fill up her emptiness, to make up for her early wounds. What was taken from her can’t be replaced. Since I never glossed over the factor that two of my kids were first born to another, an open dialog has guided me on an alternating smooth and bumpy path of doing my best job of holding on tight enough so that my kids knew their life brought me great happiness, and slacking my grip enough so they could explore their all of their feelings, even dark ones.  

In our family adoption loss and grief is not now, nor has it ever been something the casual observer can witness. My kids did not dwell on it. We reap the benefits of a grand life, yet loss and grief is there. We are like ducks gliding on a pond. Under the smooth surface of the water we paddle to get ourselves to where we need to go.

No matter how wide I stretched to wholeheartedly provide that all-important sense of being truly wanted and loved, I will never be able to ease the pain my kids felt about loosing their first family. It is a sadness I cannot mend or make better. What I can do is allow it to exist, without feeling the need to fix it.

In quiet moments alone late at night sometimes I can admit to myself that not only is adoption a searing loss for my kids, it is also a loss for me. My oldest daughter took an instant dislike to her new younger sister on the very first day they met. Her feelings softened over the years, yet somewhere along the way we lost each other. In adulthood they felt obligated to make nice at family gatherings for my sake. It was my cross to bear. All right, I’ll admit plenty of biologically related sisters have no interest in friendship with each other. But since one of my daughters is adopted, the loss and grief I feel is without a doubt an adoption related sorrow. Or did I make too many non-adoption related mothering mistakes? I’ve wasted too much time wondering if I had given birth to both or neither, would they go out to dinner together, talk on the phone and give each other goodnight hugs?

I longed to be one of those mothers whose children were emotionally committed to each other and could provide a sense of identity, history and unconditional love. And I got my wish; both of my daughters adored their brother, and he cherished them. But I also wished for daughters who could be angry one week, and friends the next, with a relationship that would outlast me. Yet when the dust settled and my youngest daughter, the child I gave birth to, reached adulthood, she emerged with as many adoption-related fragile emotions as her sister and brother purely from growing up in an adoptive family. If her brother and sister’s first mother’s could disappear, then it could happen to her too. In some ways when her older sister joined our family she did loose me.        

Then my heart folded over like a candle melting in on itself when I first discovered that many in my son and daughter’s peer group of adopted adults, found me irksome not simply because I am an over the hill, half American Indian, half white mother, with a quirky personality. Instead so many found me irksome without even knowing me, because I have this tag title of AP, adoptive parent, shadowing me. And it saddened me and rocked my world when l discovered why. Too many adoptive parents deliver disrespect to adopted adults in the form of insensitive and rude dialogue, and I must reap what they sow, and my heart aches.    

It used to be easy to slip into my pain groove, and take inventory of all the ways I hoped adoptive family life would be, and isn’t. Then my friend Eyoungsoo said something that sent me on a far better journey. He said, "Our beliefs make up our reality." Every day since I've reshuffled my beliefs and found new ones. Now I’m allowing myself to be open to new ideas of family, and ways of thinking and being. My new reality is wider than the sky, filled with so much more possibility, and more friends. Today some of my closest friends are adopted adults who doing their best job of helping me continue to learn and grow and change. Learning doesn't stop when we become a parent. Actually, this is when the learning curve becomes steepest.

Giving up my silly notions of how I used to think things needed to be in order for me to feel fulfilled is having a glorious trickling down effect on my daughters. When their mother isn’t disappointed, and adores them just as they are in the moment, it sets them free.   

First published in Adoption Today. © 2007 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.
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