I have to apologize if I’ve given off the impression of having a meltdown this week – not true at all. Slightly agitated, but to be honest, the adoption-in-your-face is nothing new: I just seized the randomness of this week’s slap as an opportunity to pass along what it’s like.
It’s actually been a relatively calm week in the life of adoptee school teacher in the Korean countryside…
Just yesterday I was sending photos of old hairstyles to newer friends, and I came across this photo:
This is me, thirty pounds overweight and pregnant with my son. (Yes, the glasses are huge – it was the eighties!) And behind me is my mom. See? She had her moments. She really liked babies, and here she is on a rare (only?) occasion with two grandchildren.
I’ve been wanting to write about her for a long time now, but was feeling too fragile. But feeling strangely strong right now, I’m thinking about her and want to explore some of the complexity of what it is to hate adoption and love your mom and hate abuse and love your mom and to leave the mom you love yet continue loving her and to never reconcile and lose two moms.
That would describe a lot of adoptees, you know. A lot of adoptees have to put distance between themselves and the people who acquired them, controlled them; molded them. And in so doing, they lose a big part of who they are. Again. And for those who bonded with their foster moms, that’s three moms they lost. And some lose even more…
For us adoptees, there is always that duality of nature vs. nurture to contend with. My family was all musical, and despite years of piano lessons and band, I struggled with it. My family were literal yet educated people who spoke proper English, in a plain manner, but never in a socially common manner. And I: I spoke in metaphor or precise multi-syllabic words and, from as long as I could hold a pencil, preferred to communicate in images. And we looked different. So that was the nature half of the equation.
On the nurture half of the equation, I am very much my mother. And this is because we spent sooooo many hours alone in each others’ presence, though we rarely interacted. She, too, was a feral cat and I learned all my spooky ways from her. And because half of me is her, I of course liked many things about her. I liked how she hated PTA moms, Tupperware parties, bridge games, cocktail parties, social gatherings, dressing up / being uncomfortable, family gatherings, etc. Her critic of any obligations made perfect sense to me. Her wanting to retreat and lose herself in fantasy made perfect sense to me. Her not wanting to discuss feelings, her recoil at physical demonstration, her mistrust of others, her cynicism and unearthly composure also made sense to me. She’d had a rough childhood she did not want to discuss or deal with. She was contemptuous and repressed. I got that. On an essential level. She was my role model.
And so, I just knew better that I was not going to get whatever the heck it was I needed from her. It’s just the way it was, and I accepted that. And in a strange way, our relationship had a lot more mutual respect to it than her relationship with my other siblings, her biological children, had, as they were deeply offended by her emotional absence. She just wasn’t nurturing, and they all went a little out of their minds seeking that.
She did what she could. She sang nursery rhymes to me because she once loved to sing. She fed my insatiable appetite for preschool activity books. Later, she taught me how to sew and knit. She purchased art supplies. She scrimped and saved and purchased me things I wanted. And in return, I was to be quiet, not bug her and leave her in peace to escape and read about other people’s lives, fictional lives, lives of satisfaction unlike hers. In return for her sacrifices, out of gratitude, I was to give her no grief and heaven forbid, have emotional needs. My life of quiet desperation mirrored her life of quiet desperation, so how much weight did my private complaints have?
People hear about my abuse and they imagine all kinds of horrible things, or that my parents were monsters. But life is not that black and white. My parents did not look or sound or act like monsters. In their minds they loved me, as much as they were capable. In many ways, they loved me too much. They did the best they could, with their lame and broken tools.
I think that in many ways my parents were just like almost every other adoptee family that exists: there was a deficit in their lives and the hope was that I would fill it with joy. They were unfulfilled, not fully formed or evolving people. And again, an awful lot of adopting couples are just that. They are seeking something they think a child will provide. I get a lot of grief from adoptive parents claiming they are not filling a need by adopting. What are they adopting for then? Charity? And why are they expending energy on trying to convince others?
We have a big job to do, us adoptees. Filling such big holes is not easy. And some, heaven help them, have to fill the shoes of another child, the child that never lived.
It turns you into a tiny parent, because you recognize the insecurity and fragility of your parents, and it is your reason for being to care for them. This is the reality: this is the realm in which you must call home. You just have to be pragmatic when you’re an adoptee because you learn from the cradle that you have no choices. It’s a poverty stricken love, but it’s the only love you’ve known. And you can’t discount that. Well. You can. But I can’t.
Incest survivors will take to task the survivor who holds onto an idealized version of their hostile mother, hostile in the sense that the child’s needs become secondary to their own and they refute their child’s victimization and view the child’s crisis as a threat to their own life, when what the child needs is protection. I don’t believe I idealize my adoptive mother at all. Nor do I disagree that her lack of protecting me was wrong. But I/we can still love the only mother we’ve known. We being me and the child I monitored at CPS, for whom I winced in sympathy when witnessing the attitudes of social workers towards her mom who was labeled hostile, which was required in order to protect children from further harm…that little girl loved her mom, in spite of it all, and so did I. This is the burden of a child of incest. Now, compound that with the burden of a child who’s been adopted.
So how culpable was my mom, anyway? Did she know what was going on? Did she contribute to it in any way? To which I ask – does it even matter? Hadn’t the harm already been done? Would her life having been further destroyed have improved my own at all? Probably not. Did she mother me when she found out too late? No. Would she have protected me had she found out in time? Probably not. Does that make her a monster? Not at all. It makes her a failure at nurture. Her choice was denial, which was nothing new. Her entire life was spent in denial. Hell, I just spent forty years in denial. No. She was just human, and had to live with her failure. So I don’t see the value in blame. I wouldn’t want to be her. That would be hell on earth.
Did she know? Probably. But without my verbal acknowledgment and confirmation, that could forever remain a suspicion, which meant she could continue to cope with her already unhappy life. There were plenty of clues: literally dirty laundry, times she caught me pleasuring(?) myself, increased friction between my father and myself, the conversation I’d overheard them have about pornography whose female subjects appeared under-age. These did not go unnoticed by her, and they all went unaddressed and were buried.
I remember the day she did confront me about my change in attitude towards my father. She demanded to know “Why are you so mean to your father?” I think I was about eight at the time. I knew this was code for: the imbalance of your attitude is really damning, and I want you to stop making it apparent so I can keep on living my life. What is a child supposed to say when confronted with a question/demand like that? I knew nothing would come of it but all hell breaking loose. And so I took care of it (and her) and told her I didn’t know what my problem was and would try to be better. But I also knew that wasn’t sustainable, and the thought that crossed my mind at that moment was, “Damnit. Did you have to go do that? Now I’ll have to be nasty to you too. (to maintain balance in this ruse of a life you require.)” I didn’t want to be mean to her, too. But that’s what I had to do if I was to be able to have any emotional outlet for my own survival – and hers. It was on that day that I lost my second mother, and not nine years later when I left home for good.
I think it is often the adoptee’s role to tend their parent’s mental health. It is our role to fulfill their needs, and tend their emotions. While the physical needs we have require our parents’ oversight, our emotional needs we must always tend ourselves, because it’s not possible for our parents to comfort us, as they have no capital in that kind of trauma, and they are also our loving captors. So we grow up really fast. And we become nurturers at an early age.
So in a strange way, I was forced to be the parent. And I see this a lot in other adoptees too. It has nothing to do with being abused and everything to do with going to emotionally starving people, it just means our relationship went further off track than most. I gave up hope of being her child, but continued to be her parent. And I continued to care long after I was gone, despite being too paralyzed to pick up the phone.
I couldn’t verbalize it then, but I think I had stumbled upon the limitations of adoption that day.