Yesterday I opened a comment from a reader, Mei-Ling (who if memory serves is an adult adoptee, can’t remember from which country), who writes:
Since you didn’t allow commentary on the other post, and I’m just too lazy to e-mail you, here goes: “Should we adoptive parents just go away quietly to lick our wounds, and wait for our child to make up his mind about who is “real” parents are?” Why can’t both sets be real in their own ways, -beyond- the birth roles (for biological parents)?”
“Why can’t …” Like so many questions where families are concerned, there is always the dreaming, and the coming true (what the rest of us refer to as “reality.”) In the world adoption, it is indeed possible for the Normal Rockwell scenario to work out (Patricia Dischler describes it very well in her book).
It’s also likely that it won’t. That the child will grow up and be unable to contact his or her parents — or, upon meeting them, discover that the reunification creates more questions and hardships than it resolves. Either way, as one social worker (who was herself both an adoptee and birthmother) explained it to me, “Knowing doesn’t resolve anything. It just changes the landscape.” Sooner or later, those dreams have to be exchanged for reality, as part of the maturing process. And how much, or how well, each side of the triad interacts as the years go on varies so much from one family to the next that there needs to be some safeguards in place to protect the needs and rights of all concerned.
“Why can’t …?” Today in the paper I noticed that one of my favorite children’s book authors, Laura Numeroff (of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” fame) is coming out with two new books, one of which is called, “Would I Trade My Parents?” This question is not the sole property of adopted children, incidentally.
We all have the Rockwellian dream where everyone gathers around the Thanksgiving spread, sweet-smelling and full of scintilating conversation and not the teensiest hint of negativity. No secrets, no confrontations, no irritations, only total happiness. (This quest for Norman Rockwellville for many years caused some of us to avoid family get-togethers entirely.) In the ideal world, everyone gets along. In the ideal world, there are no issues of anxiety or regret or bitterness. Everyone acts like a grown-up, without unreasonable expectations or extraordinary neediness.
Sadly, all too often this is not the world we live in. The world we live in is fully of damaged souls, who see things through their own expectations, needs, wishes, and experiences. I came across an example of this as I was opening Mei-Ling’s e-mail. A shadow fell across my computer screen, and I turned to find a neighborhood girl standing behind me, red-eyed and dressed far more provocatively than her thirteen-year-old self could quite carry off. She had brought her little brother to visit my son for the last time — it turns out her parents are finally calling it quits.
For as long as we’ve known this family, they have been “on the edge” — the kids have turned up here, clearly looking for a safe place to hang out. The things they say and do fall in that uncomfortable area: not quite bad enough that I need to call social services, but bad enough that I can’t allow my kids play with them unsupervised. Bad enough that in my selfish moments, I wish with all my heart that the whole family would just go away. Now I was getting my wish, and I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty that it had worked out the way I’d wanted.
Sadly, as I looked into that young girl’s eyes, I realized that her nightmare was just beginning. “It’s just for a while,” she tells me, sticking her chin out a bit. “Mom needs to find a place to feel safe, and think things through.” I’ve seen that look of defiance before — on my niece, as she told me about what it was like to find out her birth father had been most unequivocal about not wanting to see her. “I still have my real dad,” she said.
And so we’re back to that word again. “Real.” Not what we wish the past was, or what the future might be. What is, right now. Basing our life, our choices, and our energies on what we know, what we have — rather than what we wish could be. Some wishes and dreams, if we give them too much power but don’t ourselves have the power to make them come true, can be our undoing.
We all go through it, though the details vary widely. When I got married, I wished with all my heart that my in-laws, who lived 20 minutes away, would welcome me into the circle and make a place for me there. I wished my new mother would invite me to tea, or invite the kids on play dates, or offer to take them overnight so Craig and I could sleep in one Saturday morning without getting our eyeballs poked. The reality, God bless them, is very different. And so I had to choose: accept the reality, or waste a great deal of emotional energy on what I clearly could never have.
“Why can’t …?” It’s a wistful question, full of yearning. It’s a good one, and sometimes the answer to that question is “It can.” But not always. And when the answer is, “It just can’t,” well . . . part of growing up is learning to accept that reality as well. To accept that, as much as we love them, our family is going to disappoint us. And to recognize that sometimes the best revenge we can possibly have on the painful aspects of our past, is to live in such a way that this pain ends with us, and will not be passed on to our own children.
Make no mistake, they will feel pain. I know this, and have done what I can to give them tools to express it and release it, so the toxic anger doesn’t poison their little hearts. I pray a lot, asking their angels to safeguard their dreams. Only time will tell if that’s enough.