I’m not generally given to bragging but when it comes to the what-if game, I might be one of the best.
As an adoptee, it’s an easy game to play. We’re born knowing its rules and we grow up with its questions. What if she hadn’t given me up? What if I’d been closer with my adoptive parents? What if I’d been less fearful of rejection? Adoptee daydreams and fantasies are made of this.
I rarely live in the moment because I’m too busy worrying, wondering, planning, being two steps ahead. So when my brother Miles and I moved my mum into a care home 8 years ago, the decision was based on what-if logic. I was living in Austin. My brother lived in London but he often traveled. My mum had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years earlier and the disease was progressing. What if she had another fall and her home help wasn’t there? What if she couldn’t reach us, or forgot how to? It was time to make the move.
The first few weeks in the care home were nerve-wracking. Miles and I repeated the same lies over and over - ‘you’re just here for a few days until you get better’. Friends from her village came to visit and encouraged her to remember names and places while I frantically signalled them to stop. Our biggest fear was that she would have a moment of clarity and realize what had happened. That we had sold the house that she’d lived in for 45 years so that we could afford the fees to move her into a care home. Even at its best, the care home was not a comforting place to be. Alarms going off, residents upset, staff bustling in and out. Every time I flew over to visit I would steel myself with the same thought: What if this is the last time that you see her? It helped temper my irritation and frustration. At least for the first few days.
When mum fell and broke her hip a second time we were faced with a whole new set of uncertainties. What if the care home wouldn’t take her back because she was no longer sufficiently mobile? What if we used up all of her private funding and had to find a council place? Both scenarios came true, simultaneously. And so almost two years ago, at the age of 93 we moved my mum again.
Happily, it turned out to be the best move we could have made. She now lives in a nursing home with a high level of care and an environment that feels calm, happy and loving. The only outbursts come from the resident green parrot, Alfie, who enjoys a good swear now and again to everyone’s amusement. The staff post daily photos of residents enjoying activities.
I was about to fly to England when COVID-19 struck and the care homes closed to outside visitors. Of course I still worry over the what-ifs, especially seeing headlines that care home residents will be the hardest hit by the virus. If she takes a turn for the worse while they are in lockdown then I won’t be able to visit. But this time there is little I can control and have to make peace with that. If I don’t see her again I’ll at least know that she spent her days with people who genuinely care for her. And I’m learning to forgive myself too, because although neither my adoptive parents nor I could truly be what the other most wanted, I also know that I tried my best. And so did they.
British-born writer and performer Maggie Gallant has lived in Austin with her husband, Erik, since 2000. Her solo show 'Hot Dogs at the Eiffel Tower' chronicles Maggie's life-long search for her birth father, 'French Papa'. Maggie was honored to perform the show at the AKA Conference in 2015. After many further twists and turns in the story, an updated version of Hot Dogs played at the Winnipeg Fringe in 2019 followed by a five-week run at the Hyde Park Theatre in Austin, Texas. Maggie continues to write for the stage on all aspects of the adoptee experience.
On an otherwise ordinary shelter in place Friday night, as my daughter and I cuddled on the couch with our two dogs, one giant, hairy heap of furry love and fuzzy blankets, she requested to look at old videos on my phone. I am a relentless sentimentalist, so my device is full of mini vignettes of our life, especially of her since the age of three, when I finally upgraded from a dumb phone to a smart phone for dummies! It is an indulgence and an addiction, I readily admit. My iCloud storage contains my heart and soul!
This is one of Ava’s favorite pastimes, being nostalgic as she is at the ripe old age of thirteen going on fourteen in less than sixty days. Instant access to imagery of oneself at an earlier stage is definitely mesmerizing, and I muse at whether her persistent retrospection is more a product of growing up in the age of the selfie, or of her burgeoning exploration of self and identity as an adopted child. Likely it is a hybrid. I believe that tendency is innate, as we all yearn to know ourselves more deeply, to excavate from our own personal history some magical clues that may help us to evolve, to find meaning as we struggle through our mutual growing pains. Yes, we are all in this together! We are all in need of our origins. Reminders are right at hand, just scroll back when the mood strikes!
It is under this lens that what we stumbled upon next was, for me, made more profound. Amidst the silly bath bomb explosions, hair grooming vlogs she had surreptitiously created, between a series of slow motion dance maneuvers that reveal her ample grace and physical prowess, and many ridiculous doggie antics, we are suddenly transported to a special moment beside the fire on one rainy afternoon several years ago.
This particular impromptu video I had taken when she had brought out her keepsake birth family scrapbook, and had been reading aloud to me from it. Commenting about how cool it is that she resembles her birth brother as a baby (only she’s clearly cuter!) and her surprise at how young Mama Christy looks in her wedding photos, Ava literally connects to herself. This is manna from Heaven!
I so vividly remember when she first received the tome, and how both Christy and I wept as she handed over this work of heart. It had taken her nearly nine years to produce and to release it. Another relinquishment, her letting go of that compilation was an echo of their original parting, and thus, incomprehensibly difficult. As much as anyone can, I know and grieve it with her. Meanwhile, our emergent flamingo-like former ballerina beckons us onward.
The story of baby Ava, born as Laura Michelle L----, is filled with images that bring her very DNA to life. It is more than a relic; it is transcendental currency. This scrapbook is the treasure of all treasures. I am again humbled by the strength and manifest resilience inherent in this painstaking gesture of creation, and realize more than Ava possibly can at her tender age what she possesses. It is transformative. It is pure gold. It is everything. It is her.
The video we are watching together is of Ava reciting the inscription her birth mother, Christy has pasted onto the final page, having saved the best for last. In her letter, Christy declares her endless love, and describes her feelings at Ava’s birth as the singular greatest, most unforgettable combination of joy and pain she has ever experienced. “No one will ever understand or take that away,” she reveals. It is also signed by her birth father, as well as her siblings and young nephews. It is about and from all of them, on behalf of her entire array of biological kin. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are denoted, a lineage adeptly defined.
I recall watching Ava share these words with me that night, after immersing in the details and dates and photos so lovingly assembled for her by her other mother, each annotation written by hand. It is an anchoring gift of ancestry, a kind of mooring between hearts. The pages are wings to her roots, gathered and gilt with lace and love. The conclusive letter is beyond poignant and it’s message brings me to tears every time. I remembered thinking in that moment I recorded Ava how much Christy would appreciate hearing our daughter speak those written words, and feeling compelled to capture the preciousness of Ava absorbing their meaning. In witness, I remain in awe. I don’t mean to rob Ava of her own experience, rather to memorialize and preserve it for her. Like so much in adoption, the duality is, however undeniable. It is tenuous. We are united by this division.
As we listened to the recording of her younger self, Ava mentioned that she didn’t realize at the time I had actually filmed her. I feel a bit sheepish, like an emotional thief, but also like my own inner Robin Hood, drawing from an overflowing fountain of blessings to return this bounty to its source. I wanted Christy to see and to feel the depth of her own brilliant gift of nurture. She was and is always in the room with us, spiritually. The interconnection between the three of us is indescribably powerful. We are Ava’s mothers in succession, and we are both in reverence at who she is becoming. Our dreams and wishes for her are separate, yet inseparable. They intersect in miracles we share and shape. Openness commands inclusiveness. It is metaphorically, a togetherness in separation.
Ava inquired of me why I had taped her. She was curious and also critical of her own imperfect reading abilities, which I assured her was less an absence of aptitude and more an immaturity of skills. I answered that I wanted Mama Christy to know and to see that we treasure and honor her heart and respect her important words. In her letter she says that she never has to wonder if Ava is well cared for, loved and safe, because she knows that she is and always will be. We trust in each other. This message is critical. Reassuring Ava that she is always there for her if she is ever needed, the testimonial from her birth mom is an eloquent reminder of her existential and essential presence. As she did the first time we read that passage together, Ava mocks my rampant weeping. She amusedly observes that both her moms are uncontrollable, “criers.” True! Epitome of adolescence, she rolls her eyes, the veneer of bravado intact, as she scrolls on to the next visual memory while I drift into the salty sea of those hopeful words and pray I am living up to her dreams.The bitter-sweetness of my quarantine is real. In a few days, Ava returns to me from a week with her dad. As I greet her with my morning text, replete with twinkling and pulsating celebration features, a virtual heart balloon inflates onscreen then explodes from excess hollowness. Today, I feel the anguish of temporary isolation, and am deeply inspired by Christy’s capacity to carry on into unending uncertainty.
As a divorced, single mom in these challenging days of physical distancing, I am feeling attuned to that perpetual pain in not being able to connect, to hold my daughter’s hand, to hear her giggles waft down from her empty teenage sanctuary. I miss her nonchalant hugs after just five days away. But I can revisit these videos and share them with my counterpart, and for today, perhaps that will be enough to get us through until the next FaceTime call. We’ve got this!
It’s hard to multiply fractions when you’re wondering if your first mom remembers you.
Ruminating thoughts of “Do I have biological siblings?” may make it challenging to focus while studying World History.
Believing one family didn’t want you and being terrified to disappoint your current family might make it near impossible to complete or even begin a science project.
Identifying with the perception of your birth-culture’s reputation for braininess while struggling to maintain a C average, may lead to feelings of defeat and inadequacy, culminating in a
“why bother” attitude.
Adopted kids and teens are thinking about their biological families, even if they aren’t talking about it. They spend time wondering if they have genetic brothers and sisters they might look like, where their biological family lives and whether their birth parents are alive. These are just a few discoveries I’ve uncovered in my collaborative work with adoptive parents and adopted kids. During our work together I help parents act as non-judgmental, curious detectives as we uncover reasons that explain behaviors. Once parents have a better understanding of the adoptive experience and the language to talk about grief, loss, separation, trauma and identity, they become their child’s best advocates.
Adoptees experience trauma – even when they are adopted at birth or shortly after. Older children adopted after multiple placements may experience further trauma. If separation from one’s biological family occurs before language develops, the memory is stored in the brain as an “implicit memory” and a child can’t explain why they are feeling a certain way. This is where attuned parents can help put words to an otherwise word-less memory.
As Bessel van der Kolk, noted trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score, wisely explains, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
We also know that our brains change throughout the lifespan and much of that change can happen in the context of relationships. Adoptive parents can help their children by being open to their questions, feelings and struggles. They can lead conversations about the adoption even when their kids aren’t talking. By doing so they let their children know it’s ok to ask questions and it’s ok to experience whatever feelings they have. When adoptive parents have done their own work around adoption related issues, educated themselves about the grief and loss inherent in separation, and seek support from an adoption-informed therapist when necessary, they are best prepared to help their kids thrive.
1. Find community.
Finding a place where you “feel felt” is so important. Our feelings
need to be validated and our experiences shared. When we are able
to do that in the context of community, inviting others to witness our
stories, transformation happens and healing occurs. I certainly see
this transpire among the members of a group I co-facilitate for teens
who were adopted. Teen AdoptCONNECT is a safe place for kids to
express their feelings and in return get the validation from others
who “get them.” Find a group or create one if there isn’t one in your
city or town. Attend an adoption related conference or talk to others
who are walking a similar path. While in person meetups are great,
there are also wonderful opportunities to connect online. Check out
the podcasts AdopteesON and Born in June Raised in April, and the
Facebook pages Ask Adoption and Hello I’m Adopted.
2. Move your body!
Walk, run, hop, dance, skip, swim, ride your bicycle! As people who
were adopted, we experienced a profound loss that many of us can’t
recall consciously because it happened before we had language to
describe the event. The memory instead is held in our midbrain and
our nervous systems are often sensitive and can easily become
dysregulated. Others who do recall separations and transitions and
can put words to the events may still experience a heighted state of
vigilance leading to anxiety or depression.
Exercise and movement are great regulators. Exercise activates the
body’s natural healing process by boosting the levels of serotonin
and endorphins in the brain. These are the “feel good” chemicals.
Yoga, tennis, bike riding are my go-tos.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is moment to moment intentional awareness…of
thoughts, emotions, and sensations, without judgment. It’s a way of
focusing your attention. It’s being awake. Mindfulness is a way to
recognize thoughts, feelings and sensations and relate to them more
skillfully. It’s the opposite of being on automatic pilot where many of
us spend a lot of time. Mindfulness allows us to feel more in control
of our thoughts and feelings rather than being controlled by them.
Over time, with regular practice, mindfulness changes the way our
brains are wired – it prunes away the least used connections and
strengthens the ones we use the most. Mindfulness makes our
default a more resilient state. Attention becomes more focused and
we cultivate compassion for ourselves and others which leads to
feeling more connected. Mindfulness lowers our blood pressure and
stress level and strengthens our immune system. In short, we feel
better! I enjoy the wisdom of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tara Brach and Sharon
Salzberg (to name a few) and I LOVE the apps Calm and Insight Timer.
As Sharon Salzberg reminds us, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult; we just
need to remember to do it.”
4. Explore nature. Get dirty.
I put these two together because there’s something fantastic and oh
so healing about being in nature and if you get dirty while you’re out
there, good! Take a walk, go to a park, find a green space, even if it’s
just a patch. Find a river or stream…a pond or the ocean and count
seagulls or ladybugs. Pull out your bicycle and ride like you did when
you were nine…ring that bell. Consider camping and if you go, build a
campfire and roast some marshmallows under the stars. Do you have
space to plant a garden? If not, get a pot and plant a flower or two in
the morning sunshine. It all adds up.
Do something fun. Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National
Institute for Play says “If adults can begin to reminisce about their
happiest and most memorable moments, they can capture the
emotion and visual memories of those moments and begin to
connect again to what truly excites them in life.” Take some time to
recall how you played as a child. What did you love to do? Now
recreate that, no matter how silly it seems and see what happens?
6. Work with an adoption-competent therapist.
Neuroplasticity is brilliant. Our brains change throughout our
lifespan. It’s never too late to work through adoption related issues
(or any issues for that matter). I wouldn’t wake up each day excited
about my work if I didn’t believe this to be true!
In my work with clients I combine talk therapy with two other
therapies that are especially effective with trauma and/or events
that occur pre-verbally, that is before we have the language to
describe what happened. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and
Reprocessing) and Brainspotting are helpful therapies that work with
the body-mind and allow access to the subcortical areas of the brain
where traumatic memories are stored. I guide clients to address
memories and work through blocking beliefs so they can live their
best lives in the present, knowing all that has happened but feeling in
charge of their lives today.
Lesli Johnson, MFT uses a collaborative approach in her work with clients and is certified in EMDR, She has presented at AKA conferences several times over the past decade. Lesli is also an adoptee.
Instagram is @askadoption
With the advent of DNA testing, the rising prevalence of open adoptions, and the challenges we face in our current foster care system, Adoption Knowledge Affiliates is more relevant than ever. As we approach our 25th year serving Central Texas, we’d like to take a moment to say thank you for your dedicated support. AKA is a grassroots, member funded organization, advocating for change and providing community support. Without you, we could not offer our individual services, innovative monthly programing, and our annual conference. Impacting the Austin community and beyond with our message of truth and honesty in adoption practices since 1992 is indeed an accomplishment. It is an accomplishment you can take pride in, not possible without your generous support, year after year.
Guest Blogger with an AKA Art Fundraiser, Artist Sharon Frech! Raffle tickets available through March 30th!
Click here to learn more about Sharon’s art, her story, and how she is donating the proceeds from a few of her pieces to Adoption Knowledge Affiliates in Austin, Texas.
If you donate $20 you get 10 tickets, $30 you get 20 tickets, or select your own donation amount. Drawing will be after the close of the exhibit, which is March 30, 2016. Winner will be notified by email. All proceeds go to fund Adoption Knowledge Affiliates Annual Conference in November. Click here for AKA’s Donation PayPal Link.