Feel the Burn

I’m strangely relieved. Listening to the stories and experiences of adult transracial adoptees, I frequently feel a jolt that inevitably gives way to a strange relief. I’ve come to recognize that burning jab: the flash of fear, of pain – that’s my defenses kicking in. Like an autoimmune response, fight or flight: “Must get away … must argue … must rationalize …” My feeble mind tries to control reality because I’m scared.

I’m scorched by their fire, but I’m learning to let it burn.

Some (there I go again – no – a lot) of what adult adoptees have shared through writing, through conversation and so on, is painful. Yet in striving to open my gut and mind to their truths, I feel grounded, calmer and more connected to my own kids. More specifically and strangely, I feel more connected to my future adult children.

Every adoptive parent of a transracial child will learn, has to learn, that his or her delightfully chubby Korean infant or smiling, luminous Ethiopian toddler is not an exotic pet. If you are a new adoptive parent reading this, believe me, that is how your family will be cheerfully treated by most civilians, aka non-adoptive parents.

The reality, of course, is much richer and infinitely more complicated. Paradoxes abound. I’m indescribably grateful for my kids, and yearn for them to feel safe, secure, confident, at home. Yet my gain is another’s loss, and in some devastating ways, my kids’ losses. It blisters to think about their losses – of their first families, birth culture, normalcy. Children prefer not to stand out. Children prefer not to be stared at. (Pythons and ferrets may feel the same way, but that’s not my concern here.)

When those hurts and losses are laid before us (or thrust in our faces) by adult adoptees (“angry” or otherwise), the sharp ache feels like the jab of a flaming spear.

Feel the burn, feel it anyway.

Because the adaptable adoptee, as well as the “angry” adoptee (who can’t or won’t adapt), speaks for our children. In addition to the experiences that land and catch in our kids’ memories, their personal stories will eventually rise to consciousness too. That story, in all its detail or nebulous mystery, is a significant piece of identity – be it a shard, an irritating pebble or a rock-solid handhold.

I’ll confess that once I became an adoptive parent, I immediately began to stereotype biological parents as self-replicating narcissists. Clearly, that’s an outrageous, broad, not to mention self-serving, generalization! Still, I think there’s an essential point embedded there: my kids aren’t me. True, as the children grow up in our home (and prior to anticipated teenage rebellion kicking in) we will become more alike. We will share innumerable interests and experiences. We will do push-ups together and develop the same muscle groups; we are pals, allies, war buddies and yes, family. However, we are different persons. Although my children’s complexions and features don’t signal differences to me as they did initially, it’s important to remember what differentiates us. Speaking professionally, a similar challenge exists in marriage and in psychotherapy: do I think I know you completely, that we are one mind? And consequently, have I stopped listening, really listening?

The fire grabs your attention. If you don’t rush to snuff it out, fire transforms and allows for new growth.

Recently, a client of mine, who is an adoptive parent, received disturbing news about his child’s birth family. My client was scorched; I watched the blisters forming. His pain and fear were palpable. But he was also relieved to discuss his concerns in the privacy of therapy, still protecting his child’s own story, and with a fellow adoptive parent no less. “Who else can I tell?” he exclaimed.

At the same time, my response surprised me. At first, I flashed upon Gazillion Voices’ own John Sanvidge, whose wonderful film, Finding Seoul, depicts him searching for birth family and, at one point, receiving gut-wrenching news about his parents. “Well, John seems to have turned out pretty well,” I lamely thought. The film is intensely personal and complex; still, I spontaneously snatched at John’s story like an oven mitt to protect from the intense heat.

(I kept all that to myself. I am a trained psychotherapist.)

As I listened to my client, my thoughts shifted, pausing in the flame, and I heard myself talking to him about community. “This is your child’s personal, private story, of course. But in a sense this is our collective story.” (My God, who or what was I channeling? That didn’t sound like me!) I went on, going all Old Testament: “It’s the story of our people, the transracial adoptive families. There is always, always some pain, some loss, some terrible circumstances.” My client and I spent some more time in and around the fire, and then he went home. We were changed and drawn closer because of it.

And, finally, to speak utterly personally, not as a professional, and without the safe distance (please note the defense employed: intellectualization, my personal favorite): in what instances have I been most alarmed and disturbed? In fact, the fire metaphor is imperfect. At its most acute, the sensation is not pain. It’s fear: scalding, blistering fear. What will become of my child? Will he descend irrevocably into pain and confusion? If I reach out, can she grab my hand? Two years ago, when my young daughter slammed her precious skull into a tree while sledding, I was right there and didn’t reach her in time to stop it. I didn’t save her. In the aftermath, things turned out ok, but that fear (what would her pupils look like when she opened her eyes?) is branded in my memory. What happened that chilly afternoon? I grabbed her and held her. I watched her. I kept her awake.

When confronted with adoptees’ stories of pain and loss, of struggle, the undeniable fear etches a tattoo onto my consciousness: my people are hurting, my kids are hurt. Of course, I wish them to be ok, but I can’t will it so. Instead, I listen. With my children, I need to watch the eyes, help to keep them awake, and, when they allow, hold them very close.

David and I have talked about this quite a lot. It’s advice we’ve given out to newer and prospective adoptive parents and parents new to thinking about the real complexities surrounding adoption. We discuss it on email lists, Facebook pages, adoptive family conferences, post-adoption support organizations, and when adoptive parents (or prospective ones) reach out or come to our psychotherapy offices for a consultation to examine their very own “adoption issues” rather than to fix their children’s “adoption problems.”

Most often the discussion is propelled by an encounter with an adult adoptee or something they have read online or in print that has challenged the dominant white, adoptive parent perspective or agency narrative for the first time. They are panicked, reeling, angry, sick and terrified out of their minds for their future happiness as parents, for the well-being of their children.

My advice is always the same. Some listen. Some don’t.

“Let it burn.” I tell them. “Let it fill you, flood you, overwhelm and shake you to your core. It’s okay. It’s important. It should. If you can tolerate it and keep breathing, I promise it will make you a better parent, a better resource and source of support for your child. This may feel terrible, but tolerating it will help you to have more empathy for your child’s experience.”

Sometimes when I am in a more confrontational mood, I share one of my favorite, if somewhat morbid, quotes from some now-unremembered Henrik Ibsen play:

“Let the worm gnaw! There can be no rebirth until the skull is picked clean!”

For non-adopted adoptive parents, it triggers a small existential crisis – these hot, painful moments when everything they thought they knew about themselves, about racism, about adoption and about their own motives and families are called into question. And it is but the smallest taste of the discomfort that adoptees must negotiate – in some form or another, in varying intensities – every day of their lives.

I remember vividly when I first stuck a finger in the flame. Our son was home less than a month; I was on parental leave, and I began lurking on adoptee-centric online message boards and email lists, following the posted links to articles, books and blogs.

Why? What led me there? Some mounting awareness and responsibility toward the familial and cultural amputation that had been performed on the infant I adored. I’d seen his terror at being handed over to us, listened as his happy Korean-sounding baby babble (“ah-ja, ah-ja–eommm”) fell into complete silence for several weeks before his vocalizing re-emerged in flat American vowel sounds (“gagas” and “goo-goos”).

Online I heard distressed and powerful adult adoptees’ voices speak of their wounds, unedited and unfiltered: they spoke of kidnapping and trafficking, adoption markets, excruciating search and reunion processes, and the complex and often disturbing new realities that emerged from the occasional successful search. They spoke of falsified and inaccurate records, rage, racism in their community, their immediate families and extended families, genetic attractions, disenfranchised grief, and cumulative emotional trauma and micro-abandonments from otherwise well-intentioned, loving, adoptive parents. Some spoke of abuse and disrupted adoptions and of severed relationships with adoptive parents. These are part of the shadow of the institution of adoption as well.

These voices filled out the spectrum of partial, personal truths – the too simple, happy narratives that our culture celebrates and accepts – with the stories that have been repressed, denied, ignored and minimized.

As a new parent, these readings on- and offline were excruciating and petrifying. Panic and adrenaline shot through my nervous system: I wanted to fight, to take flight. Instead, I froze, my heart pounding, unable to look away or stop reading. I sneaked on the computer while David worked and the baby napped. There were a few dark evenings, so undone and flooded by the shadowy side of adoption, so terrified for the future of the baby in my lap, so culpable as a beneficiary of his and his first family’s losses, that I felt nearly incapable of parenting. I would vow not to look or log in again, to forget what I had heard and retreat back into the illusion that adoption was a simple win-win-win scenario for all involved. I would take breaks from reading for weeks, months at a time, pacing myself so I could live up to the promises and responsibilities I had taken on.

But my personal history and my work had taught me a thing or two about gnawing worms, rebirth and purification by the refiner’s fire. And I noticed something each time I logged in again: I was less afraid each time — less shocked, less stung, less defensive and less ashamed, less fearful of what the baby sleeping in the crib might feel one day. I felt more grateful, more equipped, more armed with a wider range of truths, more braced for whatever may lie ahead, more prepared for the complexities of adoption that each adoptee must contend with in his or her own way.

The love that many adoptees have for their adoptive families is easily shared and publicly sanctioned and offers comfort at times. However, when adoptees let me into their secret story and share their suppressed narrative, when I read a challenging and disturbing essay, when I hear the pain in a friend’s voice as they tell of a retraumatizing rejection or a racist attack, when my children whisper to me in the dark about their private thoughts of the losses that are built into the foundations of our family, I am especially grateful for all the adult adoptees who have held my feet to the fire.

I’ve seen many adoptive parents experience the heat for the first time. I urge them: Don’t retreat, don’t minimize, don’t attack, don’t ignore, don’t defend and don’t interject when you have not been invited. Just listen, listen and keep listening. Don’t worry about whether you like or don’t like what you hear. It’s too easy and reflexive to recoil or react. Practice hearing it. For your child’s sake, for your own.

If (when) this were your child’s voice, how would you want to respond? As your child grows into adulthood and tries to tell you one of his or her darker truths, one that you may be complicit in and cannot repair, will you be ready to listen?

There are sacred promises that call us across the hot coals. And facing a more complete reality ultimately strengthens us.

So let the worm gnaw and the fire burn. And hope that it transforms us into the parents, friends and allies that all the adoptees in our lives need and deserve.