Finding Yourself is a Privilege, but Being Permitted to Begin that Journey is a Right

It’s time we give adoptees what is rightfully theirs

Watching Disney’s Moana with my son the other day, I was struck by something the character Maui says, after he has admonished Moana for not understanding how to navigate the ocean. He says:

“It’s called wayfinding, princess. It’s seeing where you are going in your mind. Knowing where you are, by knowing where you’ve been.”

Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

The Internal Compass

Wayfinding seems to have originated with the Polynesians, who mastered it in ways that make our GPS-dependent culture seem simplistic and infantile. They used stars, wave patterns, currents, and winds to locate islands thousands of miles away and return to them time and time again, without the use of physical maps or computerized navigation. Today, wayfinding more generally refers to how organisms orient themselves in physical space and move from one location to another. Ants, for example, use wayfinding in ways not too dissimilar from the Polynesians, insofar as they have been shown to modify their movements based on landmarks and they get disoriented if those landmarks are altered or removed. In other words, as Maui says, they figure out where they are going by remembering where they have been.

But, if you make it impossible for a creature to remember where they have been, then that creature will not be able to navigate effectively.

This captures what being an adoptee has been like for me, as someone adopted during an era dominated by closed adoptions. With no knowledge of my biological heritage, no access to my original birth certificate, no knowledge of my real name, no story of my birth, no connection to my ancestors, and no faces to gaze at and see my own history reflected back to me, I have been lost. I spent most of my life like one of those ants in the studies where researchers purposely remove important navigational landmarks to see how well the ant can find their way back to the nest. Spoiler alert: ants do way better if you don’t screw with their familiar paths.

What is a familiar path when you are an adoptee? Familiar, sharing the same etymology as family, of course, simply means well-known from long-term association or acquaintance. Adoptees do learn to wear familiar paths. We learn to cope with the trauma of being separated from our original parents. Some of us fare better at this than others because we are provided better resources to do so. Many of us suffer mental health issues. A boatload of us turn to drugs or alcohol. We are far more likely to attempt suicide. Some of us, tragically, are successful at it.

All of us spend our lives trying to find our way. Trying to re-member ourselves. Attempting to locate our place, so we can know where we are going.

We are trying to get back home, to our authentic self.

It is difficult to know who you truly are when your origin story has been hidden from you. This difficulty is further complicated by the fact that what becomes familiar to you might turn out to be the farthest thing from your true self. In my case, I spent a good portion of my life allowing other people’s narratives about adoption to shape my own story.

Adoption is a beautiful thing.

It’s a win-win.

It’s the perfect solution for birth parents and hopeful parents alike.

I got ‘saved.’

I am grateful.

I am one of those adoptees who has had a really kickass life. Unlike so many adoptees who find themselves with adoptive parents who don’t genuinely love them, or worse, abuse and neglect them, I honestly believe my family loves me unconditionally. I’ve put them through a lot, so I’ve kind of tested this theory on multiple occasions. I yelled at my adoptive mom once, in a fit of teenage angst, that I wanted to find my ‘real’ mom. I ran away not infrequently. I did drugs. I dated unsavory people. I pronounced, to my very Christian family, that I was an atheist. I became a philosophy professor. They are still here and love me all the same.

And I love them, tremendously. But they have always been simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to me. Because they are family by association, but not by birth.

This is what all adoptees feel, if I may be permitted on this rare occasion to speak for a whole group. No, not all adoptees grow up the way I did. But all adoptees, whether in good adoptive families or not, feel the pull to know their origins and to return home to themselves. Some don’t feel this until later in life. Some claim they never do. I think the reason some adoptees are reluctant to admit this very basic need that drives them around like an ant trying to find its way amidst a vista of strange yet familiar surroundings is because they fear loss.

There has already been a huge loss of my original family, so I better not upset my adoptive family and lose them too.

A strange co-dependency often develops between adoptees and their adoptive parents whereby the adoptee engages in excessive praise and admiration for their ‘savior’ parents, and might even express great anger or disinterest in their natural family. This false consciousness is helped along by the cultural narrative surrounding adoption — the story that claims adoption is a wonderful thing, full stop, and adoptees should be so grateful they were adopted.

Adoptees internalize this narrative and it frames our entire lives. By being told we ought to be grateful, we often lose sight of what is truly in our hearts, our internal compass trying so desperately to navigate us home.

This was true in my case, absolutely. I feared so much upsetting my adoptive parents. To this day, I worry they are reading all I write about adoption and feeling bad. But I’ve also learned that I cannot deny myself this journey for the rest of my life. And it is possible to love two sets of parents. As I have been in reunion with my original father, though this process is tricky and often frustrating, it is also necessary for me. He is just as much a part of me as my own children are. But reunion has also meant more heartbreak — feeling like a stranger among my own family all over again. Wondering if I will ever truly feel like I belong.

Navigating Homeward

One of the main songs from Moana, “How Far I’ll Go,” really speaks to me regarding this process of returning home to self despite the nagging feeling that I might disappoint others by doing so. It especially fits me because most of my life I have had this very strong pull to the ocean. I am a marathon open-water swimmer. While I have always identified as an athlete, part of my navigating home to my true self has meant reckoning with the fact that I also have many process obsessions, which is likely an effect of my autonomic nervous system being disrupted at birth, when the usual maternal-infant bonding should be regulating and giving rhythm to my body. Despite my happy life, I have never really felt safe in my body. I use exercise to escape that feeling. Even admitting all of that to myself and to my family has taken time and courage. I felt the burden of knowing it would hurt them to hear, but I also know this is the rest of the world talking, not me. It is the truth and sometimes the truth hurts.

“I’ve been staring at the edge of the water
‘Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

Every turn I take, every trail I track
Every path I make, every road leads back
To the place I know, where I cannot go
Where I long to be”

These lyrics represent that constant tension so many adoptees feel, being pulled between loyalty to their adoptive families and longing for the truth of their origins. Likewise, many of us are afraid to speak these truths because so often, when we do, we are silenced by the much louder and adamant voices of adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents who willfully ignore the truth right in front of them. Ironically, the very children they hope to save through love are the ones they refuse to hear.

Later, the song goes on to say:

“I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song”

Listening to that voice inside and allowing — no, demanding — that it be heard has meant that finally, at nearly 40 years of age, I have begun to figure out who I am. Because I am finally learning where I’ve been.

Every adoptee deserves to know where they have been. This is why I end with some suggestions for those who might still be operating under the false narrative that adoption is always a magical wonderful thing and that adoptees should feel grateful. Instead, appreciate the complexities of adoption and give adoptees the tools to navigate their lives authentically. Give them what so many non-adoptees take for granted.

  1. Every adoptee should be permitted to obtain their original birth certificate.
  2. The trauma of adoption is just as significant as the beauty of it. In fact, it is the most basic fact of adoption because some adoptions are beautiful, but all involve trauma.
  3. Adoptees do not owe any person thanks and should not be told they ought to be grateful. They did not ask to be disoriented, cut down from their family tree and dragged out of their forest into unfamiliar territory. Asking them to be grateful is like asking someone who has been kidnapped to thank their kidnapper.
  4. LISTEN TO ADOPTEES. The adoption world is full of voices from prospective adoptive parents, lobbyists for the adoption industry, social workers, and psychologists. None of these people are adoptees. We are the only ones who can tell you what it’s like to be adopted, what it’s like to live your life not knowing how to find your way, and what it’s like when you finally get the tools to do so. To any adoptive parent or hopeful adoptive parent reading this: if you truly believe you are doing what is in your child’s best interest, at the very least, join some adoptee-centered forums, do the hard work of listening to uncomfortable truths that spill from our hearts, and prepare for the day when your child reckons with feelings of abandonment, loss, anger, and grief. Except in very rare cases, you are not rescuing a child. You are are removing that child from their family. No matter how screwed up family might be, it matters.

All adoptees need to feel empowered to find their way. One other thing I learned from Moana is that since I have been fortunate enough to have support from my adoptive family my whole life and that I have had a relatively smooth reunion with my original family so far, I should fight for others who aren’t finding their way so easily. If I had such a great life and still struggled so much with my identity, my mental health, and my capacity to just speak my true voice, imagine how hard it is for other adoptees in less ideal circumstances.

Funny how all of this wisdom can be found in a kid’s movie. Then again, it’s unsurprising, given that kids often ‘get it’ way more than adults.

My three-year-old said to me the other day:

“You have two daddies, but one mommy. Where is your other mommy?”

I told him I’m still looking for her, and then he said:

“I hope you find her. I want to meet my other Grandma.”

It really is that simple.

Constant collisions between the personal and political. Professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. I write about dogs a lot. michelemerritt.com

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