A Michigan Adoptee Reflects on the Concept of Choice

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Ten years ago this month, the phone rang at 7 a.m. That was my first indication that it was bad news—nobody ever calls that early with good news.

“Are you sitting down? You better sit down,” said Jenifer, my sister-in-law. “There’s been an accident. Cristi is dead.”

My predominant reaction to the news was confusion. Cristi was my 36-year-old full biological sister, 14 months younger than me, and a sister I’d only known for 15 years.

I was adopted in 1966 as an infant, in a closed adoption. I met Cristi when I reunited with my birth family in 1988. A year-and-a-half after we had met, we were both surprised to learn that we were full sisters.

Apparently, my birth mother met my birth father secretly six months after my birth, and as a result of that encounter, Cristi was born. Our birth mother went on to marry another man, one her family approved of, and he raised Cristi as his own. She grew up believing he was her father, that is, until I came into the picture.

I should be really sad about losing Cristi, I thought when the news of her passing settled in. I pretended that I was. Don’t get me wrong, on one level I was sad. Christi was young, she had two small children, and this was a tragedy. I had had little history in common with her—no shared memories of growing up together—only our genes. We were not close.

Like many adoptees, I spent my life denying, repressing, and stuffing my feelings, and even medicating them when all else failed. Expressing my feelings, I thought, might destroy me.

I had received society’s message to be grateful because I was special and chosen. I was supposed to feel lucky that my parents had adopted me. Other children, in an attempt to be sympathetic, would remark that their parents were “stuck” with them. Being adopted made me special and chosen? Who wouldn’t be grateful for that?

But in my heart and in my gut, I knew that something terrible had happened to me, even though no one spoke of it. No one ever said: “I am sorry you couldn’t stay with your mother.”

If I had allowed myself to grieve that loss, it would have overwhelmed me. I believed that had I protested or expressed my feelings openly, then my adoptive parents might’ve rejected me and left too. That would have destroyed me.

In time, however, my denial mechanism became a hindrance. From the beginning, the setup was for me to fit what others needed, not for me to discover what fit me.

Therefore, I had developed no internal radar, and very little clarity on who I was or how I truly felt. When I was younger, I accepted jobs that I didn’t care for only because they were offered, and I ended up in too many relationships with men that were not right for me, simply because they had expressed an interest in me.

So there I was with a dead biological sister and great uncertainty about how to grieve.

I went to the funeral home, along with my birth family and pretended to be devastated. I cried. I hugged my family as they grieved my sister’s death. I tried to be one of them just like I had since my reunion.

I sat around a table at the funeral home with my birth mother, my brother, and Cristi’s husband, and helped with the obituary wording.

What the hell am I doing here? Why did they include me? I dont belongI hardly even knew her.

I kept those thoughts inside, ignored my feelings and tried, as always, to fit in. And part of me felt grateful to be included. I felt privileged to finally be in this family that I had been banished from decades earlier.

Three days later, after I had returned home from Cristi’s funeral, my then-husband met me at the door. “You better sit down. Your brother just called. Your father died.”

My adoptive father, whom I had been to Arizona to visit two weeks prior, had dropped dead from a stroke at the age of 79.

The feelings came fast and hard. I felt clear—no ambiguity this time, and it tore right through me. I dropped to the floor and sobbed.

The truth is though; I was not close to my adoptive father, either. He was a good person, well liked, but not a very good father. He was aloof, distant, unengaged, and often, he didn’t seem to care much about me, yet the pain I felt was real and genuine.

Ironically, one of the things I remember most about his funeral was when my adoptive mother told me not to cry.

I was about to board a plane back to Michigan and I was worried about leaving her alone, without my father. My tears would not stop. She patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh now, don’t cry.”

I thought Jesus Christ, if Im not even allowed to cry now, when my father has died, will there ever be a time when it is okay for me to cry? But, good little adoptee that I was—I denied my feelings and I stopped crying.

That was a pivotal time in my life, and a very complicated one. Many things were changing, most of all me. I had two young daughters, my marriage was falling apart, and I was transitioning from an agency job to begin a private practice as a clinical social worker. It was a time I learned about choices.

A year later, I ended contact with my birth family. I was tired of pretending. I had already spent a lifetime doing that with my adoptive family, and that added stress had become too much to bear. The realization that I could never be privy to the memories that they shared was excruciating.

I had always felt sad after being with them for holidays and birthdays. After one visit in particular, my husband asked, “If you were not biologically related to these people, would you have anything to do with them?”

“Absolutely not,” I replied with certainty.

“Then don’t,” he said.

“That’s really an option?”  I asked.

“Of course it is.”

In my mind, choosing my family relationships was never an option. Being adopted had meant that others decide whom I call family.

I had an epiphany last year when I read someone’s post in an online adoptee support group that I participate in. It said: “I did not ask to be adopted, nor did I want to be adopted. The whole thing did not work out very well for me at all. I do not owe anybody anything.”

Wow.

It was as though my blinders had been removed. I realized that I no longer had to try to navigate my very complicated relationship with my adoptive mother. I have always felt like I owed her something because she had taken me in and raised me.

All of my life, I had desperately struggled to fit with her, despite her callousness and emotional abuse, and I beat the hell out of myself when I did not. I would’ve never chosen to have a casual friendship with a person like my adoptive mother— much less have chosen her as a parent. Given the choice, I would have remained with my birth family—my clan.

I once read a quote by the Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE that said: “Adoption is the only trauma in the world where the victim is expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”

Today, after years of grappling with that trauma, I carefully choose who is part of my family—they are a select and exclusive few. The requirements for membership are simple: you must truly love, appreciate and unconditionally accept me for exactly who I am— and not who you need me to be; authenticity and genuineness are required; and trust is a must.

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.

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About the author

Karen Goldner

Karen Goldner

Website

Karen is an independent mental health practitioner with over twenty years of experience. She uses a strength-based, positive psychology approach. Karen believes in looking at what is already working in someone's life, and learning how to develop those strengths as a path to happiness. She is the mother of two teenagers and recently remarried. Perhaps ironically, her favorite quote today is: "Choose to see the world with eyes of gratitude. It will never look the same again.” - Doe Zantamata Connect with Karen on Facebook: Karen Goldner, MSW

16 Responses

  1. Lisa von Braun

    Dear Karen,

    you’ve hit the nail on the head here in regards to feeling like an imposter-in both families. My adoptive family looked so good on the surface, but was very dysfunctional; it was disabling to feel that sense of being beholden to people I didn’t have much in common with and didn’t agree with on many things. I had the courage to say that phrase’ well excuse me for living’ or somesuch to my adoptive mother ONE time growing up, but not until reading this (and your quote) did I understand what I was really saying to her (despite having read lots of good stuff, including The Adopted Self). Both my adoptive brothers still struggle and have also been disabled by family issues replicating in their lives. Unfortunately they have not had successful searches…I would rather know than not know, it has been very grounding for me.

    After several rifts, I have had to separate once and for all from my adoptive mother, who has become incredibly manipulative and back-stabbing as I have gotten older (or was she always this way, and I could not see it). It did finally come down to..would I treat someone this way? -No, never- well then, it is not ok. And no, she would never have been my friend. My sense of being out of step was heightened because so many in her large social circle (still, today, in her 80’s) buy my adoptive mother’s act- she has them all fooled- it led me to doubt my own perceptions and sense of what was right and wrong. Like you, it took me many years to understand that I had any rights in relationships, and that I had choices. Trust in any relationship continues to be a work in progress for me. I have been very blessed to have a positive relationship with my birthmother, who has also been an involved grandmother…through my own natural connection to my children and my birthmom’s visceral love, I learned better what it could have been like, and witnessed how connected her family is. Yet I still feel that dissonance ( especially at the big family reunions) because I am of them, but not with them, we do not share the memories. At one point an aunt reprimanded me for swearing, saying, ‘ we don’t talk that way in our family’…this floored me, since I’d grown up hearing my adoptive father often brutally swearing at my adoptive mother, it felt normal.
    Also like you, I have chosen to work in mental health… I am impressed by your honesty, find many LSWs or counselors often equivocate or try to play all sides of the fence; I appreciate you being true to yourself.

    Lisa

    Reply
  2. Karen Goldner

    Hi Lynn! Thank you for your comment. I agree, coming to the decision to no longer have contact with either of my mothers was very freeing. But I also struggle with the guilt every day. I don’t know what the future may hold, but for now it feels like the right decision for me. It’s about finally taking control of my life and empowering myself.

    Best wishes to you,
    Karen

    Reply
  3. Lynn

    Thank you for this blog post. It was exactly what I needed to read before the dread Mother’s Day triggers begin. I have similar dynamics with both of my mothers and have recently decided to not have contact with either of them. It’s been a guilt-laden path but also very freeing. I am so much happier!! Thank you for your voice and for sharing your story. I have come to similar conclusions that you have with the help of my husband and some really great books.

    Thank you again!!

    Lynn

    Reply
  4. Annie

    I, too, am adopted. I have had the opposite reaction as you. I got to deal with an emotionally abusive adoptive mother. I cut ties with her several years back. I came to the realization that I would never have befriended her and was just dealing with her because she was related to me. Mercifully, she passed in 2012.

    I think that there is no right or wrong answer. You know who is family to you and who isn’t. You have to do what preserves your mental health. I will have to remember that quote by Rev. Griffith. It is SO TRUE!

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      I agree completely, you have to do what preserves your mental health! I find that connecting with other adoptees and sharing our experiences in places like this is one of the best ways for me to do that.
      I am sorry to hear your adoptive mother was abusive. It take a lot of courage to set healthy limits and boundaries with people who mistreat you. Especially if you’re conditioned to believe you owe them something, which happens to many of us adoptees.

      Good luck and thank you for your comments, Annie!

      Reply
  5. Paige Adams Strickland

    Karen, I am sorry for the losses in your birth family. You wrote this beautifully. You’ve brought up a very poignant question by asking if your birth family members are the kind of people you would select as friends outside of adoption / family. For me, it’s a very easy yes answer, but I understand that isn’t the case for all adoptees who know their birth family. It’s also true that there are some questions we will never have answers to.

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      Thank you, Paige. One of the reasons I chose to not have contact with my birth mother was because I continued to learn of secrets she had kept and lies she continued to tell even years after I met her. While I do understand about the shame and secrecy of the era, it was very painful and I did not feel like I could trust her at all. As adoptees, I think one of the things we struggle with most is trust, in others, in ourselves, in the universe. As I grow spiritually, this becomes easier for me, and I am grateful for that.
      I am so glad you feel safe enough to keep your birth family in your life. It’s kind of funny, I actually wrote a very long letter to my birth mother that I mailed a few days ago after not talking to her for close to 10 years. I had many things I needed to get off my chest in order to continue on my healing journey. I don’t know what will happen, but I feel better!

      I am really looking forward to reading your book sometime soon! I have thought about reaching out to you before. I think I would like to try and write a book myself, and I would love any advice or guidance you have for me!

      Warmly,
      Karen

      Reply
  6. Kelly Rose

    Your words resonated with me. I shared this on my facebook page, my birth mother and her cousin were offended that I said, “I could have written this.” I said it’s not about you, it’s about me! The disconnect I have with both families. I feel like I just don’t belong. I’m sorry her choices hurt her but they were her choices, not mine. But as you said, you have no shared memories, only a biological link. I grew up in a family with 2 other children, they were not adopted, only me, the middle child and an adopted one at that. Im sorry, I am rambling but I wanted to thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      Hi Kelly! Thank you for your comments. I am really sorry to hear your birth mother reacted that way. Sorry, but not all that surprised. I know this isn’t true for all adoptees, but I often felt like none of this was really about me. It was about what my birth family needed and what my adoptive family wanted. I was sort of like an object to be manipulated. Not a real human being with feelings and needs. So to hear your birth mother was offended that you had negative feelings about this crazy situation, feelings that upset her, kind of makes sense to me. You are just supposed to smile and act happy about the whole thing, right?? You are absolutely right, it’s not about her anymore, it’s about you. And you have been through a lot more than most people experience in a lifetime.

      Take good care of yourself,

      Karen

      Reply
  7. Debi Lattimer

    I’m wondering how different it is for adoptees than children raised in their bio families, though. Would having shared memories and history, rather than simply genetics, made all the difference in how you felt about your bio family, if they were not people you’d have necessarily chosen to befriend? Is our experience that much different than kids raised in their bio families, since they didn’t get to choose what family to be born into?

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      That’s a really good question, Debi. I guess we can never know for sure. Sometimes I imagine that if I had stayed with my bio family, I would have felt close and connected to them, I would have felt like I belonged. The experience of being removed during my formative years and coming back as an adult gave me a very different perspective on them. My life with my adoptive family was entirely different than the life I would have had in my bio family. And honestly, there was a lot of anger and resentment that made it hard for me to trust or accept them after I met them. Because I never really felt like I fit with my adoptive family, I fantasized that I would have fit with my bio family. Again, we will never know for sure. Thank you so much for your comments!

      Reply
  8. Lesley Earl

    while I’ve never articulated this I think you’ve hit the nail on the head…I fortunately left my home town when I married and from that point on I was unconsciously building families of intention every place we lived…I found them way more satisfying than my family of Origin or my Adopted family

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      Thank you, Lesley! As adoptees I think we are often left with a sense of not having much control over our lives. A big part of the healing process for me has been taking some of that control back. Especially when it come to who gets my time, my energy, and my love. It sounds like you are already doing that in terms of who you call family. I find the hardest part to shake is the guilt, though. I always had a feeling that I had to be a dutiful daughter, even when my adoptive parents were not very good to me. I love that expression you use, “families of intention.” What an empowering phrase! Thank you!

      Reply
  9. Kris

    Beautifully expressed, Karen. These emotions, reactions (and lack of), the confusion, the uncertainty and numbness…what so many adoptees go through — Thank you for sharing your amazing story. You have been through so much and now choose to share your experience, knowledge, and training with others in need. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Karen Goldner

      Thank you so much for your comments, Kris! It is a pleasure to have found a site like this where adoptees voices can be heard without fear.

      Reply

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