I don’t give advice to adoptive parents. I don’t tell them what I know or even what I suspect. I keep my mouth shut. It used to be that I figured their experiences would be different and, indeed, everyone’s experiences are different. Easy or difficult, traumatic or seamless. All of those adjectives described my experience as an adoptive mother at various times. It was an odyssey, raising my adopted kids. It is not a little thing or an inconsequential detail to have children living in one’s home who started life with other parents. Adoptive parents who wave that away, saying their adopted child is “born of their heart, if not of their womb,” give me a headache.
Go ahead and decide there is no difference, adoptive parents. Fool yourself. Your kids can watch you; that’s how they can learn to keep their grief and yearning to themselves.
The truth is, and it is an ugly, sickening truth, in order for adoptive parents to be overjoyed at their luck and grateful beyond comprehension, a child has to lose his parents. Permanently.
Over the years, and I’ve now been an adoptive parent for thirty years, this fundamental tragic fact has become increasingly clear to me. At first, it was, oh dear, such a sad thing, and then it was, I’m sure there was a good reason, and then it was, I wonder if you think about your mother, and then it was, of course, you think about your mother, and now it’s I see you missing your mother. I see it as a feeling beyond words, beyond explanation, a thin vapor wafting from your pores, the slightest, imperceptible holding back. You are mine except for the part that isn’t.
So when I watched Lion a few days ago, my heart just pretty much stopped. I felt like I was watching my life or, more accurately, the lives of my children. This is a story of a man named Saroo who becomes lost as a child in India and is then adopted by a couple in Australia where he grows up, loved by them, nurtured into a wonderful man who then becomes obsessed with finding his way home. Saroo is afraid to tell his adoptive mother that he is searching but when he finally tells her, she puts her hands on his face and says, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”
It took me a while but I eventually realized that adoption has consequences. Many of the consequences are glorious. Those are the ones everyone sees. The family dinners, the graduation photos, the rallying together in hard times. And then there are the unseen consequences, the aches that have no names. One ache was realizing that while my children loved me, they loved me for what I did, not for who I was. They know they were up the creek without us, orphans living in an orphanage in a very poor country with no options. We were it. We always said they rescued us rather than the other way around so as to conform with the norms of adoption nation but we all knew the truth. They would have perished or lived very difficult lives without us. Still, gratitude is one thing. Cellular memory is another.
But the aches that count are theirs. One of my three adopted children remembers her first family and she has found them, with our blessing. So her aches are confused and we wait for them to play out. My sons have no memory that they can describe. They just have a nameless thing that they probably wouldn’t even label an ache. Just a thing. A space. A “hunger of memory” said in the beautiful words of Richard Rodriguez. My sons, they have a hunger of memory.
I have no cure for that. No food to assuage their hunger. I just know their hunger exists. I see it. I feel it. And, if I could, I would take their faces in my hands and say this, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”
That’s what I would tell adoptive parents if I was the type to give advice. That if they’re smart, they’ll realize sooner rather than later that adoption comes out of a tragedy. And the tragedy isn’t history; it doesn’t get smaller as time passes. Maybe it even grows as the child grows.
That’s all, that’s all the advice. Just know that one thing. And learn to be okay with it. Really okay. In your heart. Tell your child to “find her” and mean it.