An Adult Adoptee Writes About The “Fragile Scaffold of Self:” How She Found Her Way Out of Darkness

In my recent post about an upcoming webinar about adoption and suicide, I said that I would welcome any thoughts from adoptees on the subject. Among the responses I have received is this one. The writer and I are close in age: so often the adoption community wants to think of adoptees as only babies or young children. The impact of adoption goes on far longer.

The writer’s experience as an adoptee is very different from mine as an adoptive parent. I have learned so much from adoptees, and am grateful whenever they are willing to speak out.

The writer gave me permission to post her essay, and asked to remain anonymous. Thanks so much for writing this:

I am a 63-year-old adoptee who is a product of the Baby Scoop Era. I have always known that I was adopted. I began to actively explore my own feelings about adoption when I was in my mid-50’s. I had repressed my feelings for so long because I had no recourse. My adoption records were sealed, and the truth of my heritage would not be revealed to me in this life, or so I believed. There was no support for adoptees, and no alternate narrative to the happily-ever-after tropes created by the adoption agencies and adoptive parents. As a dutiful adoptee, it was my job to parrot that narrative. It was my job to accept the sense of self that had been created for me by others.

As a result, my deepest feelings of loss, grief, and rootlessness were not acknowledged by society and could not be publicly acknowledged by me. Can you imagine what it is like to not be connected to your very self? To have to deny its existence? To have your deepest feelings of longing for your original mother and knowledge of who you are and where you come from negated, belittled and subsequently stuffed away? Of course it is easy for adoptees to consider self-harm: our genuine selves have been denied from the beginning. Do you see it?

If you have been raised by your biological family, can you remember a time when your physical, behavioral, and mental attributes were mapped to others within your family? You are a writer like your father, you have perfect vision like your mom, etc. Your grandparents were pioneers, and you have a pioneering spirit too! Is there anyone besides an adoptee who isn’t molded by the facts of heritage, the facts that non-adopted people don’t need to even think about?  

Adoptees have to create themselves from scratch. We get no help. And when we finally create a fragile scaffold of self, we are highly protective of it. Any criticism can feel like a death blow – and create opportunities for self-harm. Harm to self is the first lesson we learned as abandoned newborns when cut off from the life force of our mother. Do you see it?

Maureen, I am so glad that you are taking up this topic. You and those you are working with are courageous. Adoptees who are willing to do the hard work of pushing back at the social and legal barriers that deny us our origins are courageous too. So are the therapists who help adoptees come out of the fog and take the healing journey toward selfhood. 

I am only able to articulate my experience because I sought and received excellent help from excellent therapists and fellow adoptees who helped me find my words. From the outside I appeared capable and competent. On the inside, I was scared shitless most of the time. Thankfully I have come through it with the love of my spouse and children, and I am a better partner and parent for it. It was not easy to puncture the fragile self that society and I had dictated for me. I hired a lawyer, I went to court, and got my records unsealed. My parents were dead, but I found siblings and many other relatives. I built out my family tree on Ancestry. I know where I come from and I no longer consider self-harm, even though that dark place is one that I know well. 

Do you see how someone confined to the darkness of secrecy and shame can come to feel safe in those dark places?

man standing on tree branch during sunset
Photo by Lukas Rodriguez on Pexels.com

Thank you again for writing.

If anyone else would like to write something, please do! You can reach me via “Contact.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Baby Scoop Era, here are a few books worth looking into: “American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption,” by Gabrielle Glasser, “The Girls Who Went Away:The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children For Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade,” by Ann Fessler, and “The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption, and Forced Surrender,” by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh. Between the end of World War II (1945) and the early 1970’s, more than a million women in the U.S. were separated from their babies in the name of adoption. Those babies are now somewhere between 50 and 80 years old.

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