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There are a lot of misconceptions around adoption. What actually makes family, family? We have been conditioned to believe that blood relations and genetics are the only things that ensure family ties. But is blood always thicker than water? When it comes to adoption, there’s more than meets the eye. Listen in as Whitney Lauritsen and Wendy Hayes, self-published author of The Heart That Silence Built, talk about how adoption comes into play with child protection, family relations, and healing relational trauma.
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Finding Your Family: Adoption Myths And Misconceptions With Wendy Hayes
Our guest has knowledge, experience and expertise in a subject matter I don’t know if we’ve ever explored on the show before, which is adoption. Maybe it’s come up a little bit. Some of our guests were adopted themselves, but I don’t know if we’ve even had parents on the show that have delved into the adoption process or if they’ve gone through it themselves. Adoption is something that I feel very ignorant of but very curious about, so I’m looking forward to discussing this. It’s something that I’ve considered off and on throughout my life.
As I’ve talked about on the show, I don’t have a lot of clarity in terms of whether or not I’ll be a parent. I feel like it’s not a huge priority for me. If it happens, it happens. Adoption is something that crosses my mind because as a woman, there is this big biological consideration and pressure to have children when you “can,” whatever that means for our individual bodies or people having specific ideas around when you should have children in terms of your energy, age, health and all these factors. In my head, if biologically it doesn’t work out for me and I want to have children, adoption feels like an option for me.
Adoption also feels like something worth considering from an environmental and global caring perspective, but I’ve never looked into it. I have very minimal ideas about what it means. From my perception, it feels risky. Purely out of ignorance like, “What is this child going to be like that I adopt,” reminds me and not to minimize it, but what some people say about animal adoptions. One of the common misconceptions I hear over and over again is, “If you adopt an animal, you’re not going to know what its history was beforehand and you might get an animal that’s out of control.”
As if like we can ever control an animal, even if it’s purebred or you’ve had it since it was young. I feel like a lot of people say the same things about child adoption. It’s this fear that this child has a bad history and that’s why they’re being adopted or the parents didn’t want it, all of these heavy emotions around adoption. The other side of it is that it feels complex, expensive and a long process. There seems to be a lot of weight on the cons of adoption versus its pros.
Wendy, it’s harder for you because you’re so into this. You’re going to have a completely different perspective than me, but if you can, think about these misconceptions and how common they are with all this awareness you have. I imagine I’m not alone in these thoughts, but maybe I am. Let’s start with how many of these things that I mentioned are misconceptions and how common they are to have these misconceptions.
You have more knowledge of adoption than most people because adoption doesn’t happen that frequently. It’s so narrow. A lot of people don’t build their families that way. You mentioned several things that I tuned into, like adoption as a bit of a plan B to being able to have children biologically. That’s a very popular consideration of adoption because we put so much value on biological relations in our lives. People will say blood’s thicker than water. We have a lot of platitudes that, “Family is everything. Blood is thicker than water.”
We learn about communities that struggle with biological family, whether that would be people who come into child welfare or LGBTQ youth who get kicked out of their homes. What we do is we find a family for ourselves in other ways. Being in the space of adoption has broadened my internal sense of who my family is. My value is around the people I choose to continue to be in a relationship with. As I’ve grown, navigated and lived, I’ve realized that there are so many beautiful ways to build a family. I hope that one day, society sees that there are so many ways to build family and family comes into our life.We put so much value on biological relations. Click To Tweet
We marry into a family. We have biological or we adopt children. We find friends and friends who are as good as our siblings or we say, “They’re close to me as my sibling.” I know so many people who are like, “This is my sister.” It’s actually their “friend.” It’s that overall openness and complexity of there being so many ways to build that sense of permanency and security for oneself. Adoption is one of those many options. The other thing that caught my attention is that you thought about animal adoptions. I’m in Canada.
In Canada, we know that they modeled it after the animal welfare system when they started the child welfare system. It doesn’t surprise me to hear you like associated that way because some of its early origin story as it were and historically continues a lot of these early ways of doing things continue to impact adoption and child protection. It was interesting for me to hear you say that and then it puts that light bulb off in my brain.
Something that comes up for me as you’re describing it is that in a lot of different ways, many people have a desire to feel pure like this idea of I’m keeping it in the family or even the term purebred for an animal. There is a purity culture around that because it feels like that’s going to be a better dog in that case. To your point too, is that family maybe, if it feels more pure that you have a deeper connection with somebody. You can trust them more, but that’s not always true. It’s this bizarre mindset, at least in America, from my limited experience.
There are a lot of issues with race when it comes to these things too. All the judgments people have about only having children with someone of the same race, financial background, class or the same part of the world. We place a lot of judgments on mixing together. I imagine that that’s got to be a big issue with adoption as well. They are not purely part of our family. Are they from the same country? Will we understand each other? I feel sad about all these different factors because, to your point, you’re creating a family when you’re bringing someone into your life, even if they’re not someone you’re adopting.
People can use that term very loosely. I’ve heard that during the holidays like, “You don’t have family nearby. I’ll adopt you for Thanksgiving. You can come to my home and spend Thanksgiving with me or whatever holiday it is. You can feel like you’re part of the family or you are a part of the family in that sense.” That stuff brings me joy versus people feeling like they are alone because they don’t have that pure sense of family. I’m very curious on your perceptions around purity.
That’s an interesting observation to make. My mind turns in two directions. The first one is back to what you were saying about the pressures of being a parent, specifically as a woman or someone with a uterus. Women are clearly told by society our value largely lays in our sexual reproduction. When people cannot reproduce or biologically have children, there is a large amount of grief in that process. That is interesting because that is something to do with all of that social expectation, connection and ability to draw a clear line. I feel like there is something in our minds that my biological children are a clear line from me to them.
It’s an interesting perception because we also assume, “Our biological kids are going to be the same as us or more similar.” There is a lot of truth to that because we know that biology, when you share genetics, you have similarities. That’s part of science. There is this weird disconnect that this person who’s come through child welfare or from another country is struggling. It’s the savior complex that comes in. You come from something that I judge. Usually, that’s poverty, mental health and addiction. Many of these young people come from countries that are not doing too great or adopted domestically, so that’s within the same country, which happens most frequently.There are so many beautiful ways to build family. Click To Tweet
There are a lot of class differentiations specifically in this system that’s very challenging because when we look at the struggles of the families whose children come into child welfare like what gets us there? It’s those things. It’s poverty and mental health. It’s struggling with their own family dynamics and maybe they had challenges with violence in their own families growing up. That translates down to your children. We have well-off White people predominantly or middle-class probably own a house. There is such a power imbalance in that and that idea of you came from this impure place that is not of myself. I’ve never thought about it that way, but that’s something wrinkling my brain with this.
It’s fascinating to reflect on, especially from a very personal standpoint of thinking about all the things that led me to create what I believe adoption to be. The journey to something that I haven’t studied or focused on. Anything else where you have a limited idea of something based on conversations you’ve had with people, things that you were taught growing up or how many people in your life have been in that situation? I’m thinking about my direct experiences with adoption. I don’t think any of my friends have adopted off the top of my head. I could be wrong. I’m fairly certain that all my friends had biological children.
One of my closest friends, her older sister, was adopted. That was a huge part of my life when I think about how much that probably shaped my concept. From one standpoint, because I grew up with these people, I didn’t necessarily think anything about her that was different as a child. I remember the same things about people of different races and sexualities and how I had this pure child mentality until other people started to share and put things in my mind. When I think back to the purity of being a child and taking someone at face value like, “You’re this person in my life and I’m not thinking about where you came from,” type of mentality.
It was just my friend’s sister. I wasn’t thinking about her as being the adopted sister until other people started bringing it up. I step back and think, “What does it mean for this person to be adopted?” There was not a lot of deep discussion around these things because adults often think children can’t handle reality. I remember growing up and hearing more about my friend’s sister’s background and how hard it was and that shaped who she was. It’s a fascinating thing to witness that has certainly impacted my viewpoints on adoption.
Other people were infiltrating my mind because I was little and placing their judgments around adoption on me. It’s something I want to be more purposeful. I’m so grateful that you’re here, Wendy, to help me better understand it. Going back to this initial question, what are the big misconceptions that people have around adoption that you’ve been working to shift or want to shift?
This is so great that you’re so curious and it’s also so good for me. I’m so immersed in the world of adoption, so it’s nice to talk to a newbie. When people think about adoption, you might think about Brad and Angelina adopting twenty million children from some Rednecks country or you probably think of a private adoption like adopting from birth. One big misconception about adoption, specifically when you’re adopting domestically within your own country, is that often the children are a bit older.
You’re looking at young people who, for very good reasons, might not have come into child welfare’s protection for a few years. They might’ve lived with a biological or original family for several years. I didn’t come into child welfare, but I do have child welfare experience. I am adopted, which is why I’m talking about all this, I guess that did not directly come up, but there it is. I came into child welfare at thirteen. A lot of people who have the vision of adoption have the vision of a baby, not a troubled teenager, which I was. I was a bit troubled. I was going through a lot of hard things.
That’s the other big one when we think about, specifically young people who get involved with systems of violence like child protection and the criminal system, is they tend to get held very responsible for what’s happening to them. It’s a very normal way to react to those situations. We get frustrated when young people react in certain ways, but as we learn more about trauma, the impact of trauma and how it affects your brain, specifically in adoption, we look at developmental trauma. It happens in your youth and usually has some persistence.
When we think about these young people, it’s not like, “A bad thing happened to them. It affected them and they have to move on.” Young people that come into child protection have navigated a life where they’ve had to look for safety, where many other young people don’t have to do that. I’m not saying any other young people. There are a lot of people who grow up in biological homes that are very unsafe. I’m not saying that only these young people come into child protection or adoption, but we know that that’s the experience they have because that’s why child protection got involved.
Instead of looking at these trauma responses, which makes sense when you think about how much they’ve struggled, you start to think about it in a different way. You start to have a little bit more compassion for it because you realize there is something about the way their brains are wired. There is something about the way they live for so many years that’s changed the way they walk through the world, instead of that stereotypical high school drama, where there is the foster kid and they are the ones who are drinking and smoking, being troubled and getting into criminal stuff.
There are a lot of good reasons for that. I want people to understand the very good reasons for that rather than casting judgment and accountability. You have to have some accountability interactions and learn from your mistakes. I’m not saying run free. When we look at why young people feel that they’ve made that decision, even that is a compassionate step towards understanding how difficult life has changed their brains and how they behave in society.
It brings up this big question of nature versus nurture. In your and my friend’s sister’s case, I recall she might’ve been between 5 and 10 when she was adopted. There are these years of nurture that you receive prior to being adopted. The trauma, experiences, and mental development happen, but your brain is still developing up to 25. You have a lot of years to continue developing and depending on the family situation you go into. You may have the opportunity to do a lot of deep work on yourself or not.
It’s fascinating because going back to my personal experience, one thing that I recall is any time my friend’s sister would do something “bad or wrong,” it was often attributed to her being adopted. It was like, “She is adopted. Her biological family or mother maybe was this way or did this thing that’s why she is behaving this way.” It’s interesting to examine because A) That might not be true. It feels like an easy knee-jerk explanation for something. B) Does that give this person who has adopted an excuse for the rest of their life like, “I was adopted and I went through trauma and thus, I can always blame it on that or I’m used to other people blaming on that so I start to blame it on it.”
Do their parents have this “excuse” to always blame it on the biological family and not take responsibility themselves? That gets passed on to me, even as someone outside the family who is observing this, but hearing that message over and over again, “It’s because she was adopted,” I’m curious if you feel like that. I don’t want to judge even that experience because you don’t know this person. Is that very common? How do you feel about that being constantly pushed on someone? Did you experience that yourself or people making judgments on you because you were adopted? How did that make you feel if that happened?There are no guarantees with children. Click To Tweet
When I think about questions like this, I often think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She talks about stereotypes. One of the things she says about stereotypes is not that they are harmful because they are untrue but because they tell a simple story. Me hearing, “Because she was adopted,” I know there is truth in that. I know that there is a truth to some of the experiences she is having internally and the way that’s expressing and coming out is because of this profound and quite strange experience that children are not prepared for. Children’s brains are not ready to change caregivers under any circumstances. It’s weird for children’s brains to do this. We put these young people in this very unusual circumstance.
Another thing I heard from your example is that where it becomes problematic is, “It’s about everything that happened before the adoption.” That lets everything that happens after the adoption off the hook. Another person whose work is interesting to follow in this area is Gabor Maté because he talks a lot about relational trauma, which is what we’re looking at for young people on adoption because the trauma happens in a relationship. An example of that, that’s personal to me is, I was in a home where I received silent treatment a lot from my parents when they were upset. Not very helpful as a kid.
One of the things I’ve noticed in myself is that when people I’m in a relationship with now when they’re silent, I’m like, “Have I said something wrong? Am I boring you? Are you upset at me?” The presence of silence is something that alerts my experience. For years, I’ve experienced that when someone is being silent at me, they are upset at me and because I experienced that in a relationship. Now when it happens, I have to know, check and remind myself that just because this person is silent doesn’t mean they hate or are mad at me.
To come back to everything before adoption, that’s trauma from being in my adoptive home for fifteen years because that’s my adoptive parents that gave me the silent treatment. The answer to the question is if you’re looking to adopt, there is a unique way to parent that helps heal relational trauma. Getting into the details of that would be crazy, but one thing that is a good example is when a young person is having a temper tantrum. Usually, people say, “Go sit in the corner and calm down.” Young people who have lost their caregivers might feel like they get sent away forever and lose their caregivers.
Instead of saying, “Go over there and calm down. It’s time in.” That’s a simple example of the way you would maybe make adjustments in parenting for a young person. When you heal in that relational trauma, parents who adopt are accountable for knowing how to do that parenting to help that young person thrive, flourish and realize because it’s not fun being traumatized. It’s not fun that my brain has all these crazy responses to things that mean nothing.
It’s good for me to think about that and for me to be in a relationship where someone can be like, “You’re doing that thing again where I’m being silent and you think I’m mad, but I promise I’m not.” When the people around you can do that with you, that’s a beautiful growth space to be in. It means that not only the individual who has been traumatized is accountable, but their relations are, too. That’s a beautiful thing, not you’re responsible for fixing other people. That has to be a shared space.
It points out how complicated this is and perhaps why some people may feel intimidated or afraid to adopt because, depending on the circumstance, there may be some work involved in their perception or belief system that would be harder than raising a biological child. My limited experience goes back to what I hear about adopting animals. It’s like, “I don’t want to have to fix this dog because the previous owner was abusive and now I have to deal with their history of trauma.” I use this word cautiously. I want to say selfish, but that feels like such a strong word. I don’t know what else to use at this moment.It's such an honor to watch someone begin to see themselves. Click To Tweet
It takes a lot of self-awareness, knowledge, commitment and strength to work through trauma in general. Observing what my other friends go through with biological children, it’s still a lot of work to be a parent. There is no guarantee. Every single child that one of my friends has is so different. They’re all in different circumstances. It’s hard. I don’t know if it’s necessarily harder to adopt a child with trauma. I’m curious, do you think it is harder to work through trauma or do you think trauma is unavoidable? Is that something relatively everyone is going to go through? Might it be different levels or types of trauma?
This is getting into my high-level belief that maybe capitalism traumatizes us all and we’re all doomed until we fix it to some degree because of where we spend our time. Who has time to parent these days? Parenting is hard. Parenting biological children is difficult. Just because you don’t adopt doesn’t mean your child doesn’t grow up and hit their teens. Schizophrenia is triggered that can happen to your biological children. There are no guarantees with biological children either other than maybe the genes that you’re passing down to them, which also change as they live. Parenting is full of no guarantees and healing is a lot of hard work.
Capitalism tells us that the only thing worth our time is going to our job and getting paid money to spend to live, eat, and house ourselves. When I think broadly on this topic and zoom out, it feels like that. Who has time for the family anymore? This idea of the nuclear family feels like it’s the obvious thing, but it’s been introduced and created. It’s a colonial concept. When we look at other concepts of family, how to raise children and that idea of the village like mom, dad, child one, child two, two jobs, maybe one job. It’s not enough for anyone. Anyone who believes that they are doing okay in that bubble has been tricked a little from my perspective and could have much more from life.
I’ve had a lot of loss and I stopped talking to my adoptive parents. We’ve officially ended our relationship. It’s been very difficult because I know the loss will be triggering for me. I reached out and told my clients that I needed some time off work. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to go at my own pace and doing something I enjoy when I do it and going to work when I feel like I filled my cup. How can I pour my cup out for my job if I’m not spending time filling it first? I feel like we’ve gotten tricked into this doing it backward way of going work hard and then you deserve time off. I don’t know if our bodies work that way.
The more I learn about neuroscience, the less I feel like our bodies work that way. Harder or not harder, maybe there is a bit of a yes to that because it feels like a bit of swimming upstream in terms of everything society gives us about the nuclear family and how to parent, specifically punishment-based parenting models. I’m a big parenting geek, so I like to learn a lot about parenting. When I take a step back and look at it, I wish people could stay home and be parents.
More people should be thinking more intentionally about being parents rather than checking the box because it feels like what you’re supposed to do. All parents would be a little more present and available if they realized they’re on a journey where that’s what they want to do rather than going with the flow and going through life. Sorry if that’s judgmental.
Anything that we say could be taken as judgmental. It’s so important to speak your truth. On that note, I want to bring up something that I don’t think has ever been brought up on this show. It’s more likely because it hasn’t been sparked in a conversation from what I recall, but it’s certainly a very uncomfortable thing. If it’s uncomfortable for you to discuss, that’s okay. Reflecting on capitalism and also the reasons that people put up their children for adoption, there are numerous reasons.
In some discussions online that I’ve heard, we have some changes in the legal system about abortion. Abortion has been being spoken about a lot, although it feels like abortion is talked about a lot. It’s one of those hot topics that divide people. This is why it’s uncomfortable. I’m curious statistically if that’s one of the main reasons that someone chooses to give up their child for adoption because they either don’t believe in abortion or didn’t have the option to have an abortion and so they have a child that they didn’t want.
I’m curious statistically if that’s one of the more common reasons. It ties into capitalism because I’ve heard people discuss whether abortions are being controlled or restricted because of capitalism. If people choose not to have children, then we’ll have less people to do work and we need people around to do all this work, which to me is very frightening. If it’s not clear to people already, I’m a very open liberal person. I like the idea of freedom in general. In most cases, people should have the right to choose what they do to their bodies. That’s a very complicated statement in itself and it’s a very case-by-case thing. This idea of choice and freedom feels important to me.
I don’t like it when it feels like someone is being forced into doing something, especially if it’s not benefiting their life or the people around them in some greater good sense because it’s such a complicated thing. I’m going to stop and see what this is bringing up for you. A) If the subject matter makes you uncomfortable, but B) I’m very curious about statistically how abortion plays a role in adoption in general. What are some of the other reasons that people end up giving a child up for adoption?
Something about how you’re asking this question is standing out to me and it’s interesting for me. It’s the idea of relinquishment. The number of relinquishment that happens where a young person with a uterus or a young woman or however you want to refer to them or maybe they’re not young, maybe they’re older, but again, there is a stereotype. A young woman gets pregnant unintentionally and then has to make a decision because they have these options. There are a few places I want to start with that.
One of them is even in adoptions that happen from birth, the idea of choice is very interesting because, in the ‘60s, we know that unmarried young mothers were being forced to relinquish their babies to married people because it was thought that a single parent was very shameful. They would take these young girls and take them away from the family for months so no one would find out about the pregnancy, forcing them into this relinquishment situation and that was not a choice. The number of people who choose to place a child at birth is very low.
I’m not sure about statistics, but it happens less than 50 times a year in Canada, maybe even less than that. The more frequent adoption that occurs is from the child protection system. That is largely not people who have made an intentional choice to place their children for adoption. That’s people where a colonial capitalist system has interfered with the life of a family because, based on the system’s values, that family is not a safe caregiver.
That usually involves neglect, substance use, and domestic violence between parents. The severe child abuse cases that people hear about are not that frequent. Most of these families are at the end of the stick of capitalism. They have their own intergenerational trauma and mental health. I say addiction is not a choice. Addiction is a complex health issue. It’s that power imbalance of who the system is going after in taking children out of their homes. We know in both Canada and the states, there is a massive over-representation of Black and indigenous young people.
Racism is a part of the system. Coming back to that idea of interracially adopting, placing Black children with Black families or White children with White families or Black children with White families and all the interesting experiences that come out of that. It’s interesting to consider these systems are the systems that over police Black and indigenous people and then go back to them to adopt the children they are taking out of these homes. My question often is like, “Why isn’t more work being done with these families who want to be good parents and don’t know how or have to work five part-time jobs to put food on the table and can never be home to parent their kids?”
That’s the more common thing that happens is it is more at the intersection of poverty and mental health issues than it is a person deciding to relinquish and place their child for adoption. I’m very aware of the abortion adoption debate in the states happening. It was interesting because I saw someone post something that abortion and adoption are two different issues because abortion is a bodily autonomy thing or at least it is if you don’t think that it’s a human being from the point of inception and adoption is a human rights issue in that all of these impoverished, disenfranchised families have people coming in to take children out of their homes. The system says, “We’ll do something better for you.”The more we go around trying to apply our rules to other people, that's where things get messy. Click To Tweet
Most of the time, the outcomes of the system are very poor. Not all young people who are brought into the state care are adopted. Most of them are because most of them come in at that 6, 7, 8 and up year old age from this family of trauma and people don’t want them. I hate it, but that’s the attitude. As you said, I don’t want to deal with someone else’s baggage. That’s harsh. Here is the other thing I’ve learned: people out there want to deal with someone else’s baggage. They exist. They want to help young people who have been through trauma. They want to parent those people.
They feel they have the skills and want to work with young people. Not because they want to be saviors or rub their own I’m a good person genie bottle. The work enriches their life. That would be true of me, too, because even though I’m not an adoptive parent, I do work with a lot of young people who have experienced adoption and child protection. Being on a healing journey with someone to me, I have no words for it. It’s such an honor to watch someone begin to see themselves like a caterpillar to a butterfly.
There are moments in people’s lives where you see that happen and breakthrough. That’s so beautiful. I almost hate to say rewarding, but it has to be rewarding. It can’t be a nuisance to you as a parent. Your child’s trauma, unfortunately, can’t be a nuisance to you. It feels that way if you’re drained, you’re working, your work is demanding and you’re plugged in 24/7. You have to make everyone happy, your child does a nuisance.
It’s bringing up a few things. One of them is since we’ve been talking about how complicated it is to be a parent no matter what, on the show, it’s been brought up about how having children, in general, is about you and another person, not just about you. It seems like there is this cultural pressure or misconception like you’re going to be happy if you have a child. That’s my mom’s mindset. It’s like, “If you don’t have a child, maybe you won’t feel as fulfilled in life.” In my head, I’m thinking, but I do feel fulfilled. This part of why I haven’t felt this big pressure internally to have a child is because I don’t want to have a child because I think it’s going to make me happier.
That seems so selfish because it’s not about the child. It’s about me being happier, not the child. It should be about both of us feeling happy. My mother also was like, “You’re going to be lonely when you’re older. Who are you going to have when you’re older?” I’m not bringing another person into this world to benefit me. As I’m sure, it’s nice to have someone at the end of your life there for you, but there is not even a guarantee. Another guest on the show said this, but there is not even a guarantee that that child will be in your life. By you having a child doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s truly not about you.
This is where things start to get so complicated. Going back to this idea of abortion as well, which is such a complicated subject matter. Truly to me is not a Black and White thing at all. Part of that is because there is so much at play here, as you also touched upon. In my opinion, it’s an individual scenario because why did that person get pregnant in the first place? What is their situation? What would happen if they gave it up for adoption? All of these factors are part of the whole decision-making from the moment of conception or even the desire to have a child. Coming back to me where I’ve only ever had to think about it.
I’ve maybe had 1 or 2 pregnancy “scares” in my whole life. Maybe that’s a privilege. I’ve never had to worry about what I would do if I got accidentally pregnant, at least not for more than a few hours or a day. That in itself is a privilege because birth control is a complicated thing. This whole thing is incredibly complex. What frustrates me is when people try to make it very simple. That goes back to the very beginning of this conversation. Adoption is not simple.The more trauma informed we become as a society, the better we'll be. Click To Tweet
I probably have simplified it a lot for someone like me who has had a lot of ignorance around adoption. In my head, I’m like, “These are the pros and here are the cons.” It’s so much more complicated than that because you’re dealing with multiple human beings, not just one. You have the biological family, children and anyone else in your life who is involved with that child.
One thing that’s come up a lot that I hear adoptees talking about, especially in this debate, people will say like, “You’re here. Aren’t you glad you weren’t aborted?” It feels like such a weird thing to say to an adoptee, specifically because most of them come from child protection, to be clear. Most of them didn’t necessarily have an origin of that being a decision on the table. Many of these parents intend to parent their children because other people come and interfere. It’s interesting for me to think about that because, with that reasoning in my mind, I could walk up to anyone and be like, “Aren’t you glad you weren’t aborted? Aren’t you glad you didn’t get hit by a truck?”
It’s funny because I feel like these things feel because of how we’ve learned, “You ask that. These are connected issues,” when they feel disconnected to me because it seems to only apply in certain scenarios. No one who has a happy life has anyone marching up to them, being like, “Weren’t you glad you weren’t aborted?” No one is asking that. Also, how do you answer that question? It’s strange to me to think of this idea of having a child to fill a need for myself because when I think about what it means to be a parent, it’s about bringing some being into this world that their brain will not even be capable of not being selfish for so many years.
Kids need to get their needs met. That’s how their brains work and that’s what they do. To me, it feels like you have to be in a place of being ready to give so much when you want a parent, not necessarily needing something in return. I don’t think any kid, regardless of how they came to their family, likes having everything that mom and dad have done for them thrown in their face. The layer for adoptees specifically is we’re even less allowed to feel annoyed at that because we need to be grateful for this life we’ve been given by these wonderful people who are saints. All adoptive parents are different. There is not one of them that’s the same. Some of them shouldn’t even be parents, in my opinion, much less parents who adopt the kids.
You were talking about how everybody is so different here. Nothing is guaranteed. Your life is not guaranteed to be happy on either end as a parent or child.
When it comes to the choice if someone has become unexpectedly pregnant, everyone should choose what they want to do. That’s where I struggle with it. If you’re someone who thinks that abortion is not the right choice to make, then don’t make it. The more we go around trying to apply our rules to other people, that’s when things get messy. When I think about this idea, if you become unexpectedly pregnant, you should be able to have that choice. Another big part of adoption is the idea that adoption means replacing what has come before.
That makes me very sad because someone who has spent nine months growing a human inside them also should not have to choose between all or nothing. Either you can do all of the parenting and we have no idea what has led this person to make a different choice for this human being they’re growing inside them. You should be able to have a choice, but it shouldn’t mean that it’s an all-or-nothing choice and if I choose to take the route of adoption, it means that I never get to see this child again or be part of their life. The next big shift is we’re looking at adoption less as we’re replacing the parents you had before and more of a let’s bring this whole family together.
The biological parents staying involved helps the child know where they came from. That’s a big part of adoption, not knowing your roots. It helps the child and the parents know the medical history because that’s another big thing. If you don’t have a connection to biological people, there is so much medical stuff. It drives me insane there are so many medical forms like, “Do you have a history of this?” Many adoptees don’t know their history. That’s a big benefit. This idea of chosen and different ways of building family, why is the goal always to create some isolated nuclear family? That doesn’t make any sense to me. Bring everyone together. They can all love this child. A child can have too much love, in my opinion.
That’s such an important statement there. We all need and deserve so much love. In a lot of ways, it’s a privilege to receive love because of the different circumstances that people are in. Speaking of love, something that I saw on TikTok that resonated with me was a man talking about how his sister passed away and left behind her young daughter. He wasn’t alerted right away to the circumstances. I believe from the story that the daughter was there when the mother died from an overdose. This child is not only witnessing this traumatic death. This child is completely helpless. She has not even been able to alert anyone.
The Child Protective Services stepped in at some point. The brother of this woman and the uncle to this little girl wanted to take care of her and take her in, but he wasn’t allowed to. He was sharing how frustrating the system is because of all of these rules and regulations. It’s not only incredibly hard for him, but more importantly, so hard for this child who is going through the trauma of losing a parent, but also being put in the foster care system, even though she has a family member that’s ready to step in and take her in. It was such a heartbreaking story. I didn’t follow it closely enough to see what happened with it, but it left me thinking, “That’s messed up.”
Based on some of the things you’ve said, I imagine that there are a lot of issues with the system and it’s complex. There has to be a one-size-fits-all, even though there shouldn’t be, but maybe that’s the easiest way for an organization, the government, and a business to work. They can’t make an exception for this uncle. They have to take this child and put this child into foster care because what if this uncle was abusive? What if this uncle wasn’t the right person for this child? You can’t take his word for it.
At the same time, it’s so hard because I can’t imagine everything that young girl was going through while the government was trying to figure all this out. Here she has this uncle who all he wants her to know is that she is loved and cared for, but he can’t even get that across to her in a way that maybe she’ll understand because he has got to go through all these other people that aren’t part of the family.
When a young person comes into child protection or is adopted by a family member, they usually call it kinship. We tend to see kinship as generally like a good thing. It has its own unique challenges and ways of supporting, but it tends to be helpful to keep relationships with kin and not necessarily have to live with them, but make sure that that relationship is tended to. What you point out is perfect in terms of what the system is and how it looks at any given situation because the system has a checklist with good reasons. I’m not saying that they check and balance things don’t have good reasons.
They often create barriers for people who want to create relationships that can’t in a kinship. That’s a perfect example. Maybe a grandparent steps forward and wants to take care of the kiddo, but they are on retirement money and can’t pay for it. What the system will do is instead of saying, “Let’s help out this grandparent take care of this kid.” They say, “No, we only get money if we take the kid into child welfare. We can only give that money to approve foster parents and group homes.” There are all these systems of checks and balances.Don't tell an adoptee that they should be grateful. Click To Tweet
Again, I’m not saying good or bad because what I can tell you about a system of checks and balances is sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. It depends more on is the human doing the work? What they’re thinking about, how much they can check their own biases, and how much they can think of this child as a human being that is suffering rather than a thing I have to put somewhere, which sometimes it’s the attitude because it is a very intense situation? It’s a moment where you do have to find housing for a child that’s very stressful. There are also so many things to think about on that journey.
I’m a trainer for a program called Never Too Late. In child protection, you leave the system at some point. When you’re in child protection, the state is your legal guardian. At some point, they’re like, “Bye.” They terminate their legal guardianship of you and you get kicked out of foster care and it’s all this super great fun stuff. This program has realized that the young people who end up transitioning out of the system without families deserve families as much as the next person.
We train people on how to adopt these adults because, by the time they are aging out, they’re 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, even up to 25 and older. I’m part of the program. It was sad because there was a particular couple in this training who had a lot of amazing skills and things to offer a young person who the system said no to because their own background had been impacted by abuse. One of these two people wasn’t connected to their biological family. The system said, “If you don’t have a strong family network, you can’t adopt.” I’ve trained them for eight weeks. They’re going to do good.
I know these people. They’re great humans. We particularly are very intentional about building community at Never Too Late so that no one is out there floating and doesn’t have anyone to talk to about what they’re going through, which is important because the average person doesn’t know a lot about adoption. If I were to come to you and be like, “My adoptive kid, I’m having this issue.” You might not have the right knowledge base to help me figure out what’s going on in that situation just because maybe you’re not parenting or you’re parenting biologically.
We’re intentional to build that, but there are a lot of ways that the system has been set up in almost superficial ways. That is very harmful. It again brings me back to the idea that most young people are apprehended due to issues that there are many contributing factors to that I don’t think is any one individual’s responsibility. When the system fails you and you experience racism or homophobia, the world tells you you don’t belong and don’t deserve human rights. People who get beat down. We hate poor people as a society. It’s wild to me how much we hate poor people.
Money is a bunch of BS. We made this thing up. We decided it controls everything. It’s mostly numbered in the ether in bank accounts in various places. You’re telling me Jeff Bezos can go to the moon, but my mom can’t get a $100,000 stipend to help her quit smoking drugs because she can’t work because she’s mentally ill. Come on. The real issue is here, people. Instead, I was taken out of my home, put into the system, and ended up in a relationship with the adoptive parents I consider emotionally abusive. My biological mom struggled with mental health and addiction, but she was my emotional rock a lot. She is my human and person. I have a very good relationship with her and you put me in this other place thinking it would be better for me and ended up causing a lot of issues.
I’m so grateful for you sharing all of this, not just your personal experiences, but a lot of the common things that go on because if you haven’t been in it, you don’t know. Does that lead me to a very important question is what can we do to help improve the system? Instead of feeling angry, frustrated and powerless, there are things that we can do on an individual level, whether or not we have any connection to adoption. Although, perhaps we do in a lot of ways. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one person I know who was adopted and maybe there is something I can do in that person’s life.Everyone makes meaning out of their pain in different ways. Click To Tweet
Perhaps someone reading is thinking about adoption for themselves. Either they’re going through the process of wanting to put up a child for adoption or adopted child. Other people maybe feel like they have no connection to it, but they want to do something to make this better. We can break it up into different categories or maybe there is a good starting place for everyone. We can funnel into our own individual situations. Where do we go from here is the simplest way to ask this? How do we help?
I don’t say this tongue in cheek. We have a term called first voice advocates. That’s anyone with a living experience. Listening to adoptees, honoring and letting yourself feel challenged by certain ideas is important. That’s something everyone can do. Let yourself be challenged. Ask why you have a certain opinion of how you got there. Maybe look into reading a little bit more about trauma. The more trauma-informed we become as a society, the better we’ll be because, in one way or another, you probably interact with young people from child welfare or who have been adopted at work or education. You can’t necessarily do something for your barista at Starbucks.
When we can learn about these things, we can learn to attune to the humans, what they need and ask more curious questions, too. It’s interesting because we have this discussion in society about this idea of cancel culture. There is extreme polarization happening. There is some space in the middle where we can honestly ask questions and try and find answers and honestly let ourselves be challenged by that, but also give people space to mess it up sometimes because this is such an unusual and unique experience. It’s hard to understand from the outside looking in. That’s true of a lot of life experiences that anything that would define us is almost impossible to understand.
As you can learn to understand those things, if you take one thing away from this show, maybe don’t tell an adoptee that they should be grateful. If you’ve learned that you’re doing better than most of the population because I want adoptees to speak up about adoption is hard and challenging. They get backlash and you should be grateful that you got this life given to you. It’s like, “Does that mean I also have to be grateful for the intergenerational trauma that impacted my mom and her addiction and the time she always tried to kill herself? Do I have to be grateful for all the stuff that led to my adoption?” It feels that way. Even if you take that away from this show, that’s a blessing.
It can help make a bit of a fundamental shift in the way we think about it. It’s a number one contention for adoptees everywhere is that do not tell me to be grateful. “My life was messy and that’s how I got here. There are a lot of hard things that got me here.” Everyone makes meaning out of their pain in different ways. I don’t think we should force people to make meaning out of their pain in any one particular way or at all. Sometimes it’s nice to say, “This has been messy.” In terms of that, that’s a good baseline. If you’re interested in listening to adoptee voices, you can get my book called The Heart That Silence Built, which is a poetry anthology.
It’s a collection of things I’ve written between the ages of 12 and 30. It speaks to a lot of the nuances of my struggle for identity in an adoptive home that rejected everything that came from my past. That would be a good way to look at reading adoptee books. Another book I tell everyone about all the time is What Happened To You? by Oprah and Gabor Maté. I was shocked to learn that Oprah has been involved in studying adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma since the ‘80s. When I heard that this book came out, I was very confused, but apparently, she has been doing that work for a long time.
I find this stuff in child welfare, neuroscience and trauma, there are so much like clinical and brain. This particular novel does make it very accessible. The more we learn about trauma, all things about ourselves because we’ve all got a little bit, at least pepper in there. We all experience difficult things and all of us learn to adapt to our environment. The environment we’re in has such a significant impact on how we react to things in the future. Knowing that and if you’re having trouble being in a relationship with someone and you know they are an adoptee, that might be something that like, “I know adoptees struggle with the loss of relationships, so maybe this is a particular trigger.”
Adoptees will push people away and test relationships. One thing we’ve learned in our lives is that all the people who’ve cared for us before haven’t been able to handle us. We’ve been moved around. Many people experience multiple child welfare placements. I’ve known people who have moved twenty times before they turn nineteen. How do you learn to build meaningful long-term relationships if that’s your childhood experience? Sometimes we think people are doing things to drive us nuts. Sometimes we can remind ourselves that there are a lot of experiences in this person that led them here. How can I be compassionate about that? It benefits everyone, specifically those who have significant trauma.
That is so valuable and beautifully articulated. I’m so grateful for that. That was going to be my final question, how to have more compassion, and you answered it. That is so important. With many things in life, it starts with awareness and you have given me so much more awareness and then you’ve helped me learn how to be more compassionate and also given me resources for being less ignorant about this.
It’s something that maybe some people have the privilege of not paying attention to because they don’t see it affecting their lives very much. Perhaps this will open my eyes and help me realize that there might be people that I didn’t realize that was adopted. Maybe they don’t talk about it. Maybe we don’t know each other that well yet.
It’s funny because I’m also a queer. I always related this idea of coming out to both my queer identity and my adopted identity. People assume you’re heterosexual. They also assume you come from biological parents and that’s what your life has looked like. It is that coming out experience. I feel like people understand that in the queer community. It can be awkward for me to be like, “I have 4 moms and 3 dads because I have a bio dad and an adoptive dad, a father-in-law, a stepmom, foster mom, biological mom and mother-in-law.”
I have to figure it out based on how I know you. Am I going to tell you which mom I’m talking about? If this is a five-minute interaction, I’m not going to explain adoption to you. I’m going to say, “My mom.” I hesitate to necessarily talk about it a lot in a passing conversation because it gets complicated and weird. I have that moment where I’m like, “This is a permanent relationship. It’s time to spill the beans on this insane family life I have.”
I’m so glad that you said that. That’s incredibly important. It goes back to one of the most important social things to keep in mind is to not make assumptions about someone else and know that our experiences are likely, if not guaranteed, to be very different from theirs. For someone like me who grew up in a very White part of the state that I was in, it privileged financial area. It seems like where I grew up, the more and more I speak to other people through this show. I was like the plain White granola All-American bubble. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t grow up that way because I have to train myself to realize that not everybody grew up that way.
It goes back to something we brought up earlier as a kid, all you know is that world that you’re placed in with your parents, friends and whoever else is taking care of you and all these factors. You have to be very purposeful about looking outside of those blinders. I’m so grateful to you for educating me and reminding me not to make assumptions. Ultimately, it’s about asking more questions than trying to project a belief onto somebody and respecting someone’s boundaries, waiting for them to share and opening up to your point. I had this moment with a stranger and it was such a good teaching lesson for me.
This person said something that I misunderstood and I got so embarrassed because I was like, “Do they think I’m so ignorant and that I misunderstood them because we’re so different?” I felt so self-conscious because sometimes I’m afraid of offending someone because I misunderstand them somehow. It’s very humbling because it’s like, “I did misunderstand this person at that moment.” They don’t know me and they don’t probably don’t care about me and they go on with their life. Maybe they’re irritated that we had this misunderstanding. It was humbling in the sense that that’s going to happen.
Sometimes you’re going to upset someone, offend somebody or make a mistake. Whenever that happens, it’s an opportunity for me to step back and say, “How could I handle things differently next time and try not to make assumptions?” That, to me, has been an ongoing lesson. Wendy, thank you for that, too. My curiosity naturally opens up in conversations like this.
I feel like I’ll be reflecting on other people in my life and recognizing how much this has interwoven in my life without me realizing and how much more I have to learn. Thank you for sharing from the heart. Thank you for writing a book that allows people like myself to learn more. Wendy, I am so honored that you spent all this time and shared so much. I wish you nothing but the best with this book. I’m very touched by everything that you’re doing for the world, so thank you.
Thank you so much, Whitney, for providing a space like this. I feel like we would benefit a lot more from having these honest conversations.
If we all got to chip away at it and create a more open dialogue, even in the uncomfortable things and admitting our mistakes and ignorance of everything that we have to learn. It is the only way that we can learn by admitting what we don’t know and where we have room for improvement. Thanks for leaning into all of that with me, Wendy.
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- Wendy – Wendy Hayes
- Never Too Late
- The Heart That Silence Built
- What Happened To You?
About Wendy Hayes