By Damon L. Davis
Edited by Malini Sekhar
If you’re not adopted, you probably have no clue how drastically different every adoptee’s life journey can be. While no two are the same, there are often common themes in each personal life story. I can speak on the adoption journey because I’ve lived two of the three parts of what is commonly thought of as the “adoption triad” – adopted person, a parent who adopts, and birth parent. I was adopted as an infant, then my wife Michele and I adopted two children ourselves. But I have never relinquished a child for adoption.
Until a year ago I only knew the depths of my own story. I was raised in a wonderful loving family, and I was fortunate to have a storybook reunification with my birth mother, Ann, and later with my birth father, Bill. With that extremely brief reprise of my story, I have dramatically understated the emotional roller coaster I endured over the years. I launched the “Who Am I Really?” podcast in March 2017 to allow adoptees like me, who have deep emotional sagas to tell, a place to share their entire journey. A year later I’ve interviewed over 50 people about their experiences in adoption and attempts at reunification. Their stories are tragic, inspiring, gut-wrenching, and heartwarming. My guests bravely share their inner thoughts and emotions hoping that telling their full story will help other adoptees feel they’re not alone. In addition, there’s an undercurrent that sharing these stories will help broader audiences better understand and empathize with the adoptee community.
Understanding Different Adoption Experiences
I think a lot about the stories I’ve heard, and I often regale people with the tales of others. Reflecting on their journeys I’ve come to visualize the elements of each person’s path, separating the things that influence their lives into individual elements. Each element has varying degrees of impact on a person’s life in adoption and reunion. Think of it like one of those huge studio music soundboards with sliders that control the volume of each sound within the music. Slide one up and the vocals are louder, slide others down to hear less percussion or horns. Using that analogy, the control board represents the adoption experience and the sliders represent how intensely each element of the experience affects the person. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think you get the idea that the slider settings offer countless nuanced combinations that make each person’s journey unique. For adoptees, the soundboard might look like this:
I was happy and comfortable with adoption. <—> My adoption was a horrible experience.
My identity and self-worth are solid. <—> I always questioned who I am and felt rejected and unworthy of love.
Legislation in my state allows access to Original Birth Certificates (OBC). <—> My state’s laws keep OBC’s closed.
I found my relatives easily within hours of deciding to search. <—> The search was arduous, scouring pre-internet records for many years.
I was completely accepted by my birth family. <—> I’ve had secondary rejection and my birth family wants nothing to do with me.
My adopted family totally understands my need to search. <—> My adopted family feels betrayed that I wanted to find my biological family.
Reunion has answered so many questions for me. <—> Reunion did nothing and I wish I never found them.
Of course, those are only a few examples of the possible elements on the gigantic adoption experience board. Now change the level of intensity of any slider, then add in more complicating factors such as transracial adoption (parents of race adopting a person of another), mixture of religions (being raised Christian, then learning you’re Jewish), socioeconomic factors (I was adopted into wealth, my birth family is poor) or international adoptions (family from one country adopting a child from another) and the stories can be mind-bogglingly complex.
Check out these stories to understand a little of what I mean:
- Ep 031: Finding Hope – Jamie was lucky to learn that her birth was not a secret from her biological families. In reunion, she shared a special father-daughter dance and an incredible celestial event with her birth father.
- Ep 010: How Can I Meet Her Without Telling Her Who I Am? – Steve was raised in a Jewish community, but he always questioned if Judaism was part of him. He scammed an invitation into his birth mother’s home, but she had no idea she was chatting with her long-lost son.
- Ep 050: Dem Smell De Blood, They Know Who You Are – Kennon, a black man who grew up in a mostly white Canadian lumber town finally found his roots and family acceptance in Jamaica.
- 053: Seeing The Life That Could Have Been – Meredith grew up comfortable with adoption, but in reunion, she found her birth parents married to one another with children, her full blood siblings.
You can probably see how the heavy emotions associated with each of these stories aren’t the kind of topic that arises in casual conversation with non-adoptees. When they do, sometimes the other person has a hard time fully empathizing with the adopted person. Honestly, adoption is a challenging life story to fathom unless you’ve lived it. People who grew up with their birth parents find it nearly impossible to imagine life in a different family. Therefore, many of us have hidden our emotions for a long time casting a shadow over how adoption has impacted us. However, an increasing volume of people are coming out of the darkness into the light (or coming out of the fog as it’s sometimes called) exploring their true feelings openly with others.
We sometimes call one another “crib mates”, recognizing our common bond and shared experiences as adoptees from as early as infancy. We support one another emotionally on Twitter or Facebook in groups like I Am Adoption, Adoption Search & Reunion, Adoptees Only: Found/Reunion The Next Chapter, or Bastard Nation. There are podcasts such as Who Am I Really? or Adoptees On and video interviews available from Conversations about Adoption or The Adopted Life. They’re all wonderful places to find support and hear adoptee perspectives.
Exploring the concept of empathy a little more, I think many adoptees would like birth parents to empathize with us, recognizing that we did not have any voice in the decisions that placed us in another home. When we come looking for you, we are most often interested in the story of how our lives began, and that’s a story best told by you. We hope that you’ll consider our perspectives and grant us the courtesy of sharing chapter one of our own life’s tale. We only picked up the story in chapter 2.
Similarly, I would like my fellow adoptees to empathize with birth parents to understand their position. Many of the adoptions that we were a part of, but not all, were plans formulated at a time when a woman’s right to choose her own path was almost nonexistent. The culture in this country was different. A person’s parental influences were immense and consequences for insubordination were high. Many times profit-driven or coercive tactics were employed to draw babies away from mothers in droves. There are some adoptees in the community who need to take a step back and recognize that our re-emergence into a birth parent’s life might bring back memories of trauma and sorrow from a birth relative’s past. We also have to acknowledge that our presence can have a disruptive impact on people who had no clue that we existed. We have to acknowledge and respect that there can be cascading impacts to our return.
I also want to say very clearly that an adoptee’s desire to have legalized access to our original birth certificates is valid and should be honored. Nine states across the country have already made tremendous strides to grant unrestricted access to OBCs demonstrating their empathy in the form of policy change. Unfortunately, 17 states offer only restricted OBC access laws, and the remaining 25 states and the District of Columbia do not allow adoptee access to OBCs. Thankfully there are throngs of adoptee advocates who have taken up the mantle to drive states nationwide toward open OBC access.
Some Of What I’ve Learned So Far
After so many adoption conversations I’ve come to feel that we all, adoptees, adopted families, and birth parents, need to listen more to one another’s stories in the adoption triad. However, we also need to expand the consideration of others feelings beyond the triad’s three sides to include the whole ecosystem: foster caregivers, social workers, legislators, and many more. The language we use when we speak to one another matters deeply. But equally important – we have to listen to one another. In the image I’ve selected for this blog, the headphones on the soundboard represent listening.
At this moment in human history we’re all, adoptees and non-adoptees alike, learning so much about ourselves, our families, and our heritage more so than ever before. As you endeavor to explore the intricacies of the human experience, I hope you’ll take time to explore an adoptee’s journey. In it I’m confident, you’ll find something that inspires you, validates your feelings or changes your mind about the institution of adoption, or gives you the strength along your own life’s journey to learn, “Who am I Really?”.
Damon L. Davis, Host, Who Am I Really? podcast