Adoption: Until Something Better Comes Along

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Thank you to “Is Adoption Trauma?” on Facebook for quoting me.

I have written before on feeling I was a substitute. On a trial basis. Apparently, a lot of adoptees feel this way.

I should insert the usual disclaimer here: I had wonderful parents. They never deliberately made me feel “less than” because I was adopted. They didn’t have to, since Society did a stellar job for them. So new readers, please spare me the “I’m sorry you had a bad experience, but my child/grandchild/friend/coworker-I-barely-know is just fine with being adopted,” line.

Author Betty Jean Lifton wrote of a “ghost child” that existed in the imagination of both adoptee and adoptive parent. They imagine the biological child of the parents, the same gender and age of the adoptee, real instead of  “as if born to.” I strived to measure up to this perfect fantasy. I tried to be everything I thought their own daughter would have been, even when it went against my nature. Why? Because that was the role. That was the deal. And a silent panic would overtake me any time I felt the façade slipping away.

As I wrote in my book, the most terrifying dream of my childhood happened when I was ten years old. I was at camp. I hated camp the same way I hated school – I felt we were being warehoused, kept from real life and real society, like a prison or a zoo. But we were not allowed to voice our opinion, because we were children. The adults knew what was best for us, and would smile serenely and pat us on the head if we dared complain.

In the dream, I suddenly found myself in a camp with many other children, both older and younger, but I did not know anyone. Scanning the crowds, I saw my parents walking arm in arm past a line of girls who beamed at them, as if they were auditioning for something. I thought with relief, “Oh, they’re looking for me! They’ve come to take me home!” and stepped forward. I was going to run to them, saying, “I’m here!” but a tough-looking camp counselor stopped me.

“You need to wait here to be adopted.”
“I’m already adopted. Those are my parents over there,” I said, pointing.
“They wanted new children, so you’ll have to wait here to see if someone takes you.”
“You can’t do that! It’s forever! Adoption is forever!” 

But no one heard me screaming. The couple who were no longer my parents continued to serenely shop for a daughter. One who looked like them. One who acted like them. One who would really fit in, as if born to them. Complete terror overwhelmed me. I was being abandoned. I was nothing.

And it wasn’t just sometimes that I felt this way. It was all the time. An underlying current, the thought that I could be so easily replaced, and not just replaced, but with someone better. If you are chosen, you can be unchosen. If a simple piece of paper could make me someone’s daughter, another paper could obliterate it. And so I was always on guard, knowing I had to prove myself worthy, because no matter how many times someone said, “adoption is just like having your own,” I knew it wasn’t true. I had to be better than the ghost child, better than what they could have had and should have had.

I still feel this way. I’m in my fifties with grown children of my own, and I still have have to quell the fear that my dad will replace me. This is nothing he did or did not do. This is adoption.

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and contributor of The Adoptee Survival Guide.

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