WHAT WE LOST: UNDOING THE FAIRY TALE NARRATIVE OF ADOPTION

BY

 

January 3 is my Special Day. It is the anniversary of the day I was adopted. The day my parents bundled me up and brought me home to live in our red brick ranch house on West Chicago St. in a sprawling suburb just outside Detroit. As I grew up, I would hear the tale of this auspicious day time and time again. Sometimes even now, in my thirties, my parents like to retell it. Their eyes still shine with something expectant, something new.

We drove through the snow that morning to pick you up at the adoption agency. We were so excited. We’d been waiting so long for you; had prayed so hard. We held you in our arms. Your new brother made silly faces at you and you smiled and laughed at him. We took you home with us and our family was finally complete.

Although the Michigan court proceedings that legalized my adoption wouldn’t happen for another year and a half, my parents decided the January day they brought me home would be the symbolic day we celebrated our family making itself again each year.

I was told versions of the tale of my homecoming so many times over the years, it became somewhat like a myth. Perhaps the same way one’s birth story might feel mythical. And since this was the closest to a birth story anyone had to give me, it became part of the fabric of our family culture, like the storybook romance of my parents’ courtship that began with a canceled blind date in south St. Louis in 1963 and unfolded into their long prayed-for children arriving safely in their arms.

My brother had his own Special Day, having been adopted three years before me from a different family of origin. Our Special Day celebrations always included the retelling of the sweet tale of our arrivals, a small gift, and a special meal or dessert in our honor. I remember lovingly wrapped presents of longed-for books and shiny lip glosses, new CDs and all-you-can-eat dinners at the local Olive Garden. I liked feeling as though I had something akin to a second birthday. It made me feel different in a good way—like I got more than other kids to make up for the feeling that I somehow had less, or was missing something everyone else just naturally had.

At the same time, I felt acutely aware of how happy my mom and dad were on my Special Day, and how sometimes my feelings didn’t quite match up. Sometimes I would feel disconnected from the party, as if some other ghost girl were being celebrated as I watched. A girl who had one family that loved her, one family she belonged to, one name, one home, one story that began on that cozy January day and stretched on into happiness forever after. I would watch this girl celebrate with her family, watch them celebrate together, and I would feel hollow, empty in comparison. Eventually, as I grew into my teen years and my identity began shaping itself in part around this absence, I would come to an understanding that for my parents, my Special Day holds within its memory unbridled joy and relief—finally. But that for me, it holds something far more complicated.

*

Most mornings I sift through news stories from around the globe in search of content for an adoption news website I curate. As a result, I can safely tell you the majority of adoption-related news that doesn’t have to do with a celebrity adoption rarely makes it past small, local, or adoption-specific media platforms, or into the average person’s newsfeed on a regular basis. Yet this summer, when a five-year-old girl named Danielle had her adoption finalized in a Michigan courtroom, nine Disney princesses showed up to celebrate her, and a video of the joyous occasion went viral. Media outlets the likes of BuzzFeed, NBC, Refinery29, and Today.com ran the piece with headlines such as, “This Little Girl’s Adoption Hearing is a Real-Life Fairy Tale,” “Girl, 5, Gets Happily Ever After When Disney Princesses Surprise Her at Adoption Court Hearing,” and “Fairy-tale Ending as Disney Princesses Show Up for Adoption Hearing.”

I hesitated to watch the video. The all-too-familiar storyline linking adoption and fairy tales registered in my body as a flash of anxiety and exhaustion: Here we go again, I thought. But I clicked on it anyway and watched as a representative from the foster agency told us of Danielle’s obsession with Cinderella and everything Disney princess. My heart melted a little as I learned about the foster care workers who had arranged the elaborate surprise in an effort to make Danielle’s adoption day special. At the front of the courtroom next to Danielle sat her elated foster family of two years, for whom everything had lead up to this day in which they officially adopted Danielle, and another foster child, one-year-old Neveah, into their family. The anticipation in the room was electric as the judge offered Danielle the job of banging the gavel, symbolically sealing her own adoption, and the entire courtroom called out in unison, “It is so ordered!”

As the gavel crashed into its sounding block and a smiling, sweet-faced Danielle wobbled almost imperceptibly with the weight and force of it, I realized I’d been crying. The overwhelming sense of joy in the video, the love, the celebration of a family making itself, was beautiful. And, at the same time, I felt a familiar dull ache that often arrives as I watch adoptees at the center of someone else’s narrative.

I think what Danielle’s foster care workers and family did to make her day extra special was an incredibly loving gesture. And even though I can’t help but wonder what Danielle’s story is, what else she might have been feeling that day, or how she will come to think of that day in the future, what’s really troubling to me is why this video went viral when most adoption news goes quietly or not at all. What’s troubling to me is the particular brand of magic that Danielle’s story conjures for the rest of us.

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There is no denying this video tugs at the heartstrings, but I believe it went viral for a very specific reason. With its fairy tale imagery and language, this video, and other sentimental representations of adoption, offer us the opportunity to further cement a narrative that we, in American society, have constructed over the last century and seem to need to believe in our individual and collective conscience: Adoption is a happy ending. Adoption is a win-win. Adoption is happily ever after. Unfortunately, this heartwarming narrative is a dangerous tale to tell and has far-reaching consequences.

The singular, unavoidable truth about adoption is that it requires the undoing of one family so that another one can come into being. And because of this, it is a practice, an institution, and a mode of family-making that is born of and begets trauma, loss, and grief. The fairy tale narrative of adoption denies adoptees the acknowledgement and support necessary to process their experiences across a lifetime. It delegitimizes the trauma of adoption loss and directly and indirectly influences the overwhelming statistics that show us adoptees are far more likely than the general population to struggle with trauma-related mental illness, suicide, and addiction.

By ignoring the complex reality of adoption, we are also corroborating a sentimental narrative that drives a billion-dollar, for-profit adoption industry whose sole purpose has been successfully shifted in modern American history from finding homes for children who legitimately need them, to supplying hopeful prospective parents with kids to call their own. The fairy tale narrative of adoption uncomplicates these truths and it lets us off the hook. It makes us feel good about each other and ourselves without having to face difficult complexities and integrate them into our understanding of not only what it means to be adopted, but also what it means to be human.

Inside the fairy tale, we don’t have to think about the darkness, the underbelly, or the unspeakable grief lying just below the surface of a child who has been severed from their home and family of origin. We don’t have to think about the countless pregnant people in the United States and across the globe who have been tricked, bribed, forced, and coerced into relinquishing their children or whose children are kidnapped and sold to agencies or intermediaries who stand to profit from their adoptions. Inside the fairy tale, we don’t have to think about all the first mothers and first families who would choose to keep their children or whose children might not have been unnecessarily or unjustly taken from them if they had access to the right kinds of support. The kinds of support that could be provided countless times over, both in the US and abroad, with the money currently invested in keeping the for-profit adoption industry and the child welfare industry in business.

So why do we love the adoption fairy tale so much? Most of us agree that modern day fairy tales have set us up for failure when it comes to beauty standards and romantic relationship expectations, but what about family-making?

*

I have the date of my Special Day tattooed on my left forearm along with the initials of the three first names I have been given—my birth name from my mother, a variation on her own mother’s name; my foster name from the people who cared for me in the interim; and my adoptive name from my parents, after the first American saint. Because people change children’s names, for a better fit, for a different life.

In my experience, most people that don’t know me well assume I inked my Special Day on my arm as a tribute to my adoption. A tribute to my forever family. To my happily ever after. Oh, how wonderful!, they exclaim smiling wide, knowing smiles. Except this is not at all why I wear the date on my arm. I wear it as a tribute to and an insistence on complexity. The complexity of a day that marks a beginning and an end, all at once. The beginning of my life with my adoptive family and the end of any possibility of returning to my family of origin. A family whose absence I felt as though my small body housed a haunting.

As a child, I never let on that I didn’t feel as excited as my parents did to celebrate my Special Day. This is a complicated hallmark of an adopted childhood. Adoptees often take on the emotional labor of holding our difficult feelings in places where no one can see them because we want to protect those around us from feeling hurt. There also often exists a very real and primal fear of further rejection. We understand we are loved and we understand love is tenuous, so we hide our feelings away because what if we didn’t? How will you feel? Will you be mad at me? Will you be hurt? Will you love me less? Will you send me back? I don’t want you to feel sad or think that I don’t love you, so I hold this hard truth. I hold it for you. I celebrate this day, in this way, for you.

In pictures of the day my parents brought me home from the adoption agency, I look like a baby. Utterly remarkable and yet not at all. In some pictures I look solemn, expressionless. In some I look happy, rosy-cheeked and smiling. There is no and every inference to be drawn as I sift through them, turn them over to see my mom’s handwriting, hold them up to the light. I can insert my adult feelings about this day into these pictures or not. I can choose how to narrate this story. I can tell a true story about a loving family that came to be. How long my parents had waited, had prayed. How they held me, finally. How I laughed at my brother because he made silly faces at me. How we went home together, forever. A family.

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Twenty years later, although my parents (and consequently I) were told differently through agency records, I would find out that my eighteen-year-old mother had not wanted to give me up for adoption, but, like most original mothers, did not have the means to support me on her own and lived in a country unwilling to invest in helping single people, poor and working class people, people of color, queer people, immigrants, and young people keep their families sustainably intact. Though they were in love, my mother was not married to my seventeen-year-old father, and her family was Catholic. The answer was clear.

I was told her father made the decision that I would go away. A decision the family held against him for years afterward. A decision I believe I could see behind his eyes when he would try to look at me across a room or expanse of yard two decades later, after I found them.

I kept your newborn picture in my wallet for ten years or more, my mother’s younger sister tells me in a hotel bar. We always thought of you as The One That Got Away.

There is no record of the first five days of my life. I do not know if I was taken from my mother immediately or if we spent those last days together in the hospital. She was never able to speak of it during the time I knew her as an adult, before our reunion unraveled. Her sisters indicated to me they believed she no longer had access to these memories. That they had been too painful and she’d found somewhere to put them. I imagine a shoebox buried in the backyard of her parents’ home, the banks of the Detroit River eventually eroding, giving way, washing the memory of our time together into the tributaries and lakes that were the landscape of my childhood carrying on mere miles away.

The adoption agency placed me in a foster home on the fifth day, but my mother, not wanting to let me go, would come visit me. She asked her parents to take her there and they obliged. Once, she came alone. For two months, I lived in a stranger’s home without the person I’d come to know as intimately as one can. Except that sometimes she would come back for me. And then she would leave. And then she would come back. And then she would leave. As my body began to learn: this is what love is. Right up until that snowy January morning when I was taken to the adoption agency to meet my new parents and my new brother who made silly faces at me and I smiled. I laughed.

*

The late adoption scholar and activist, Reverend Keith C. Griffith, once said, “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.” I come across this quote time and time again, more than any other, in the online adoptee and first mother communities. It is so often quoted I think, because it succinctly points to the glaring misconception, misrepresentation, and misalignment that exist between society’s narrative of adoption and our actual lived experiences as adopted people and first families. There is such a gulf, such a divide, and one that is valiantly defended by society’s deep need to believe a singular, uncomplicated truth about adoption, that those of us who have experienced the interior of an adopted life often feel completely erased and utterly silenced.

Society’s narrative of adoption tells adoptees, in no uncertain terms, if we were given to a loving home, we shouldn’t feel this pain, this chasm, this rip, this tear. We were saved, after all. We’re so much better off. We’re the lucky ones. Our parents must be such wonderful people. We must feel so grateful. How lucky. How special. We were meant to be together. Everything worked out just the way it was supposed to in the end.

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It is here—in everyday encounters, in saccharine and reductive media representations, and even in our adoptive families—where adoptees are expected to embody the fairy tale narrative of adoption. A hopeful, well-intentioned narrative, but one that is historically steeped in white saviorhood and colonialism. One in which people with more financial resources, social capital, and most often racial privilege, feel entitled to the children of those with less privilege, opportunity, and support. And we have accepted this not only as an unquestionable good, but also as the best possible outcome.

But what exactly is being measured when weighing this out? Are we certain a child will be “better off” living with the irreparable wound of parental separation and more financial resources than with a low-income or working class parent in their family of origin? Certainly socioeconomic status is often a clear indicator of one’s opportunities in life, but what’s the trade off? I have often wondered what our lives would have looked like had my mother and father made the decision to strike out on their own and raise me. And I wonder too how much of our future might have been determined by the biases that are alive in these very same assumptions. Am I better off? Am I lucky? The truth is, we will never know. And this, too, is a loss.

*

I found my original family in my early twenties and for the last fifteen years, I have experienced wild anxiety, deep joy, profound grief, complex gratitude, rage, fear, alienation, belonging, contentment. I have made primal noises and shapes alone on the floor of a studio apartment when my mother stopped answering my letters after two and a half years of knowing her. I have gotten to watch new siblings grow into stunningly kind, caring, creative, bold, and generous young adults. And I recently reconnected again with my original father for the first time in nearly ten years. Perhaps it will be different this time. Perhaps it will stick. I hope so.

Three years ago I met my original grandmother and three aunts on my father’s side for the first time. I stood barefoot on a cold, tiled kitchen floor during a sweltering Southeastern Michigan heat wave, surrounded by four brazen women who looked and laughed and cursed just like me. I stood there in that kitchen as my grandmother tearfully handed me a jewelry box containing a pair of delicate earrings, tiny gold hoops with sparkling lavender gems—a family heirloom. I stood there as they apologized for not knowing about me. Apologized that I’d been a secret. Apologized for whom?

We didn’t know, they said to me. If we’d known, we would have kept you. We would have raised you ourselves.

In that moment, I felt wanted, I felt important, I felt loved beyond measure, and at the exact same time, another ghost girl was born. A girl who was raised by four strong, independent, take-no-shit, hilarious, hardworking women in a working-class town. She had one family and one name and one home and she knew where she belonged. I watched the ghost girl’s whole life unfold in that moment. I fell in love with her. And then I began the task of grieving her. I’m still grieving her. I’m not sure how to let her go.

*

Adoption loss is an ambiguous loss. While it changes shape over time, it is often life-long. It is without end. I have lost my entire family and yet, there are no bodies to bury, no socially acceptable ritual or process meant for me to understand this loss and how to live with it. My mother went on living, became someone else’s mother, while I lived my young life with only the presence of her absence and the fracturing unknown. Maybe she’s alive; maybe she’s dead. Maybe she loves me; maybe she has forgotten me. Maybe anything.

Even after reunion, if it is possible or desired, there are new losses, new lives, and new selves to grieve. Loss of this magnitude and with this kind of ambiguity most often does not simply resolve itself. Adoptees must learn how to live with it over time, yet we must do so in the face of society insisting we exude joy, gratitude, and luck. An insistence that often means the kind of support we need to manage our grief is either nonexistent or unavailable to us. Imagine for a moment, if we treated other losses this way. Imagine losing a loved one—tragically, unexpectedly—and then being expected to behave as though it was the best thing that ever happened to you.

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We need a new adoption narrative. We need to ask ourselves why we have historically needed to perpetuate the sentimental fairy tale narrative of adoption that only serves to hurt those at the center of it and to support an industry in dire need of reconstruction. We need a narrative that can celebrate love and family-making, but which does not insist that adoption is always the best option. That in fact, it is often unnecessary and the most generous, altruistic thing we can possibly do is to help prevent another child and first family from having to live with a lifetime of loss and grief. We need a narrative that centers the voices of adopted people and can hold the complexity of our multiple and fractured truths. That can hold all of it. Because I think this is the reality of being adopted—holding these seemingly contradictory, disparate, complicated truths, in the same body, always. Holding deep grief and profound joy in the same breath. Holding love for one mother that does not negate the love for another mother. Belonging partly to one family or country or culture, partly to another, but maybe never feeling as though we belong to either. Feeling both wanted and unwanted, both chosen and abandoned. Wanting to belong here and wanting to go back there.

What if we, as a society, chose to hold all these truths at the same time, at the same pitch, without the need to push one out in favor of the other? How might our questions or actions or beliefs about adoption change? How might our ideas about loss change? About healing? About family?

*

Though we live on opposite sides of the country now, sometimes my parents and I are in the same place on January 3 and we celebrate my Special Day together. We still eat, we talk, we laugh, we remember. And at some point, later that day or the next, I mark it in my own way, privately, for me. I meditate, I cry, I go to nature—the ocean especially. The ocean rebalances me, stirs a kind of biological rhythm in my body, a point of origin. And the ocean is always bigger and stronger than whatever you bring to its shore. There is comfort in the humbling, in one’s own smallness.

This past January, after thirty-six Januaries, I finally told my parents that my Special Day means something very different for me than it does for them. Fear and shame and guilt licked at my heart as I opened my mouth to say the words. I still wanted to protect them. I wanted to protect them from me. But because the impulse to protect others from their own feelings about my adoption ignites resentment in me, a desire to be the one protected instead, I was cold and forceful in my telling. It’s the day I lost my family. Why would I want to celebrate that? This wasn’t the plan. I didn’t mean to, but this is what happened. I wasn’t prepared for the force with which a truth, held inside a body for thirty-six years, would emerge. I can still see the sadness in their eyes as they listened carefully and nodded, Yes, ok, we hear you.

I left their house later that day, the day before my Special Day, without saying much. I went to a friend’s place a few hours away, in a town I used to call home and didn’t return for a week. I felt guilty about how I handled it and I wasn’t ready yet to try again. The truth is, my parents and I haven’t always had an easy relationship. My unresolved childhood grief made for an angry, rebellious adolescence that left my parents at the end of their rope. When I came out of the closet at eighteen, it proved irreconcilable with their devout Catholicism and there were years of deep distance before we were able to find common ground again. When I found my original family, my parents acted threatened and scared and were unable to figure out a way to support me around it for many years. This is not a laundry list of anyone’s failings. This is complexity. This is a family.

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*

Watching Danielle’s adoption hearing reminded me of how much I adore adoptees. How fierce, independent, resourceful, hard-loving, loyal, brilliant, and creative we are. Not in spite of, but alongside this grief we carry. How the first time I was ever in a room full of adoptees, I felt an atmospheric shift. I mean this in the planetary sense. I was never the same again. I had been given permission to be myself for the first time without having to navigate someone else’s need for my story to reflect a fairy tale ending.

This was when I began to dream in earnest about what it would be like for adoptees to exist in a world that understands the paradoxical experiences that we live. A world that does not insist on reducing us to cheerful assumptions and sentimental media representations. A world that accepts adoption not as an unquestionable, benevolent good, not as a fairy tale ending, but as an event that forever changes and complicates the lives of everyone involved. That when the gavel crashes into the sounding block, literally or symbolically, it is both a fracturing and a coming together, a severing and a multiplication, a derailment and a hope for the uncertain path ahead.

***

Image credits: feature image, image 2. All photographs provided courtesy of author.


Liz Latty writes regularly about adoption at www.anopenrecord.com and is the founder of Open Record Consulting, where she works with adoptive families and adoption professionals. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, is a Lambda Literary Fellow, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Jackson, Phelan, and Tanenbaum Literary Awards from the San Francisco Foundation. Liz currently lives in Brooklyn and is working on a memoir. This article was originally published in "The Establishment." You can find Liz on Twitter: @LizLatty.