Adoption Issues: The Identity Crisis Years

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Adoption Issues: The Identity Crisis Years

Identity Crisis Years


Names of families have been changed to protect identities. Professionals' names have not been changed.

Joe remembers bursting into tears when he was about 4 years old because he was worried about his birth mother. He had his adoptive parents to take care of him, he reasoned. But who was going to take care of her?

Sally Jean recalls when her 4-year-old son said, out of the blue, "What was wrong with me? Maybe she [his birth mother] got tired of paying for a babysitter."

And Anna, now 9, says when she was about 5 years old, she wondered, "Why was I adopted? Why did it happen to me?"

Although these three children may have been precocious, psychologists say most adopted people sometime in their lives must face the issue that they were given up by their birth parents.

"At some point, there's going to be a real core issue about self-esteem and worth," said Lansing Wood, chairperson of Families Adopting in Response or FAIR, a Bay Area pro-adoption group. "Moms are supposed to love their babies and keep them. I'm different. Somebody gave me away. Is there something wrong with me?"

Usually children are 8 to 10 years old, researchers say, before they can grasp the concept.

Joe, 24, says he remembers downplaying the fact he was adopted when he was in elementary school because he wanted to fit in.

Anna says she gets tired of answering questions from her friends, who often ask specific questions about her birth mother that she is unable to answer.

"They ask me how I feel about getting adopted," she said. "I don't know how I feel about getting adopted. Most of the kids I know aren't adopted. Should I tell them or not? If someone is adopted, then I can speak out."

And schools often add to the pressure elementary school children face by requiring students to do their family trees. Most children use their adoptive families, but sometimes they are asked to trace physical characteristics.

Sally Jean's two children "didn't have anything to say," she said. "They came home with big blanks in the family tree."

Adopted children also may face the cruel comments that children who are different for any reason often endure.

Lanny recalls the time she brought her daughter Sarah, who was 4, to the kindergarten class Lanny was teaching. She noticed one of her students talking to Sarah. After the conversation, Sarah went to a corner and sat down, obviously upset. Lanny asked the kindergartener what she had said. "I just told her she was adopted," the kindergartener replied. "That means your mom and dad can give you back."

Anna, who was adopted when she was 11 months old, has had dreams that her birth mother returns and takes her back. "If she came here [Anna's house], I'd run upstairs and hide," Anna said. "I feel she'd want to take me if she saw me." Anna, who has a twin brother also adopted by her parents, says she and her brother have said they would stick together if their parents divorced or decided to give them back. She quickly adds that she knows her parents would never do that. But the worry persists.

"I'm afraid it's going to happen again," Anna said. "It would scare me more if it happened again." Anna's mother says her verbal and articulate daughter is expressing fears all adopted children face. There's a sense, she says, that if it happens once, it could happen again.

Besides the fear of losing their adoptive parents, children also have to face the fact they were rejected. One mother remembers when she was driving her 9-year-old son and a friend home from school. The subject of adoption came up, and her son's friend confidently said, "Oh, my mother would never have given me up. I was too beautiful a baby." Flabbergasted, the adoptive mother responded that it is always difficult for a mother to give up her child. After his friend got out, she says, her son expressed concern that his birth mother might be sad.

"It's a difficult issue," she said. "I want him to realize she is sad, but that she also has been able to move on with her life."

Peter, 26, who was adopted when he was 6 in Germany by his parents, remembers not wanting to deal with his friends' questions. He so much wanted to be the same that he refused to use his German name Klaus, preferring the more American Peter.

As a teen-ager, however, he enjoyed the special status, because it made him unique.

Joe felt the same way when he became a teen-ager. "I thought of it as kind of a neat thing that set me apart," he said.

Nell, 19, reacted differently. Adopted as a newborn, Nell "kind of liked telling people I was adopted. It really hit me when I was a freshman in college." In a religious studies course, her professor asked the class to focus on a stage in their lives. She chose to focus on adoption. When she did so, she realized the rest of her classmates had grown up with their birth mothers. Only her birth mother had given up a baby. "A real strange feeling came over my body," she said. "I don't know what it was." She was afraid to talk to her parents about it because it might hurt their feelings. She turned to her older sister, who is also adopted.

"She said that it was OK. She gave me support," Nell said. "She said the little things that I needed to hear."

Statistics show that not all teen-agers who are adopted are able to easily work it out. In fact, a disproportionate number of teen-agers in drug and alcohol treatment programs are adopted.

But the extra identity issues adopted children face may not be the only cause for the high percentages. The statistics do not separate those adopted as babies from those adopted as older children, who may have been abused or neglected by birth or foster parents. And, recent studies show a hereditary factor in substance abuse.

One reason some birth parents may have chosen not to keep their children is because they were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Researchers also say that families who adopt children through social workers get plugged into the counseling and therapy community. In addition, they typically are middle class and can afford such counseling. The theory is such people seek professional help sooner. The good news is the preponderance of adopted children in such programs disappears once they become adults, said Mary Beth Seader, vice president of the National Committee for Adoption, based in Washington, D.C., adding that an overwhelming majority of children and teen-agers who are adopted are well adjusted. Some go on to fame and fortune, such as former President Gerald Ford, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles, and Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's Restaurants.

"All go through the lonely period," Seader said. "They don't recognize those feelings are part of growing up."

Some adoptive parents keep in touch with the birth families to help their children develop their identities.

Sandra Lenington (real name), webmaster of an adoption site on the internet, searched and found her son James' birth mother when James was 4. James is 14 now and enjoys continued relationships with all his birth family members.

"When he goes through the identity thing as a teen-ager, I don't want him to have fantasies either positive or negative-that his birth mother was either a princess or a bag lady," she said. "He'll be able to see somebody who looks like him. He's not looking for a mom or another family. It's a developmental thing. It's hard to go through life missing half of your story."

But many say the fact that they are adopted has never been a big issue. They don't feel half their story is missing.

John, 20, sees his birth parents as "just two people. I see my [adoptive] parents as my parents. They raised me. I owe everything I am right now to them."

Beth, 22, who was adopted as a baby and is Nell's older sister, agreed.

"I felt like I always knew what it meant [to be adopted]," she said. "I never hit a crisis point. You get your identity from who you are and the people around you. Being adopted was a kind of neat thing more than anything. You'd get freaked-out reactions from other kids. I'd say, 'Yes, get a grip. It's OK. I wasn't left in a basket on the doorstep."'

Besides, Nell said, "The way families are today, there are no more set standards. Everybody has a funny family now."

Others feel some sadness, but say the adoption issue plays a small role in their lives.

Jan, Joe's sister, says she never felt upset about being adopted.

"It's like I always knew I was Catholic. I always knew I was adopted," she said. "It was no big deal. My parents handled it well."

But, she says, she does light a candle for her birth mother on her own birthday, the day she believes her birth mother is most likely to be thinking of her.

"I hope she remembers Feb. 18," Jan said. "I hope at some point she's thinking of me."

Barbara, 19, daughter of Sally Jean, says her adoptive mother "is the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt very loved by my parents, very secure."

But, she says, she may attempt to locate her birth mother, understanding she may get a door slammed in her face.

"That doesn't scare me," she said. "It would be incredibly rude to intrude into her life."

Nell has no interest in meeting her birth mother. "I wouldn't want my birth mother to come knocking on my door," she said. "She gave me up for a reason. I wouldn't want to have to deal with it."

Peter says searching for his birth mother is "on the back burner. Even if I find her, I just kind of want to see her. My adoptive parents, it's their words and values I've learned. That's what I consider a parent. It's these parents I'll call mom and dad no matter what."

At some level, Joe enjoys not knowing. "It's like you're playing solitaire and you have a couple of cards down. I've got a couple of cards down there I get to turn over. Part of me wants to turn the cards over. Part of me wants those mysteries."

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