This week, I had the privilege of discussing adoption, adoptees, adoptive parents, and foster care with Marchita Masters, PsyD, who not only has worked with foster care children in several settings, but who has also adopted a child. Our conversation can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. I hope it is helpful as we seek healthier ways to engage with and support one another.
When I first received a packet of information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services outlining the events that led to my adoption, I called my then best friend to read her the contents. At first, her sniffles were low, but eventually they began to drown out my words.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“It’s just…so sad,” she began.
“Don’t cry,” I insisted. “Don’t cry for me.”
By this time, I was 32 years old and had mastered muffling and numbing my own sorrows. I wasn’t going to sob about my own life, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mourn for me.
I suppressed the pain of discovering I was an abandoned five-month-old baby with the other emotional trauma I’d endured. The only thing about stuffing emotions into an abyss is that they’re never really gone. Pain. Sadness. Anger. Whatever emotion you’ve attempted to ignore stays with you. I learned this nine years later when I was 41.
I’d decided to do a relationship meditation hosted by Oprah and Deepak. I thought the meditation would help me have a better relationship with my husband, father, cousins, and in-laws. What was surprising is the meditation really focused on the relationship I had with myself. This was achieved through chanting mantras and answering journal prompts. One of the questions asked this: What, if anything, are you afraid of finding out about yourself? Or something like that.
At first, I didn’t want to write the truth. But, after realizing I’d be the only one reading it, I decided to be as honest as possible. I scribbled these words: There must be something wrong with me for me not to have any parents.
And then, I cried.
I cried for the five-month-old version of myself, who must’ve been terrified being left in an apartment for days. I wept for a baby who was separated from her mother. In that moment, I realized I didn’t need permission to empathize for myself. So, I also cried for being adopted and not told to feel anything about the finding years ago. I grieved losing my adoptive mother. My final tears were for my adoptive father, who, no matter how much he uttered, “I love you,” had shown otherwise.
That day was pivotal. I’d waited my entire life for someone to green-light my emotions when really, I held the power all along.
Afterwards, I stopped stifling tears and emotions. I began using honest communication in most situations. I refused to follow family and society’s made-up rules of engagement. From that day forward, I knew it was better for me to share emotions than it was to harbor resentment and damage myself further. This ranged from answering simple questions, like “How do you like working here?” to harder ones, like, “Why haven’t you invited me to your parties?” with truth. With many people, I ceased hiding my emotions, and subsequently, protecting theirs. I don’t mean to say that I trample on others’ feelings; that would be insensitive, but rather, I don’t hold back for fear of what others will think. I don’t owe anyone a lie or a watered-down answer because they’re ill-equipped to deal with how I feel or because they’re not used to hearing a different opinion.
Since that day, I’ve also learned how to move through emotions and determine why I’m experiencing a specific response. I have a phrase: I feel (fill-in-the-blank emotion) because of (fill-in-the-blank reason). It might look like this: I feel resentful because my family doesn’t consider how I feel around holidays. Sometimes I share these sentiments; other times, I don’t. The important part is to know how I feel and move through it.
Sometimes tears arise because I’m triggered by past life events, like the time I was watching TV and a woman and her mother were shopping for wedding dresses. I remembered how I shopped for dresses by myself and it made me sad. Being able to acknowledge that emotion and then pause for a second has been more supportive for me than pretending feelings don’t exist.
Finally, because I’m now more inclined to feel my feels and process emotions, I’m less likely to use unhealthy coping strategies. I no longer rely on people, relationships, or sex as a means to improve my mood or self-esteem. As a result, my relationships have improved because I’m interacting from an authentic space, not from a place of suppressed hurt and anger.
For me, an ability to feel has been liberating.
My cousin and his wife adopted a baby last year. As soon as they brought her home from the hospital, he had a list of all the things she’d be and do. She would like cooking; he’d ensure she would because he props her up in the kitchen as he prepares meals; he’s a retired military chef. She would like fishing; he’d already taken her out on her first boat excursion. I feigned a smile as he described how fractions of her life and her identity were being shaped by his likes and dislikes.
I suppose raising children in this way is natural. My mother was a skilled pianist. On Saturday mornings, she drove my six-year-old self to the north side, where I took Suzuki piano lessons. A brown piano sat in the corner of the dining room, where I remember practicing and learning one song, Cuckoo. It wasn’t until I advanced to reading sheet music that she looked over at me and asked one question.
“You don’t want to do this anymore?”
My answer was, “No,” so I was allowed to stop.
There was little else I remembered doing at that age. I devoured books, and eventually I wrote. By the time I was ten, I’d written and created a book about a boy, who had to assume responsibility of his home due to his father’s death. It was called On the Farm and was nominated for an award sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. But were these enjoyable to me, or were these just hobbies my mother had introduced to me? After all, she did have a bachelors in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also had boxes of unpublished essays stashed away in our basement.
It seemed imperative that I learn who I was independent of others. Psychologists agree; they suggest adoptees learn what they like/dislike apart from their adoptive families.
While writing is something my mother and I shared, it really is something I like to do. I was reminded of this six years ago. I’d written a piece about going natural, and on a whim, submitted it to For Harriet. My ego was overwhelmed with the thousand or so responses that essay garnered but writing for public consumption as a way to discuss a new thought was also something I felt I’d been missing. Connecting with others is necessary for my being. The following year, I began this blog and have loved every minute of not only writing, but also engaging with others about our daily lives. And if I use the what could you do for hours rule, then writing would definitely be it.
So, yes to writing. But what about other things I’d picked up throughout life?
Dwight and I have been married twenty-four years. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s also important to discover what you like separate from your spouse. Superhero movies is that thing for me. Once I realized that Marvel was creating a seemingly endless timeline of films, I had to bow out. A few years ago, I expressed to him that I would only be watching one per year…with him…at the movies. I’m not sure how he feels about this, but such a small decision made a huge difference for me. I’d rather write, blog, or read a book than watch the same trope play itself out under water, in a fictional African land, or in a parallel universe.
I’ve also recognized that I like to entertain company in creative ways. For example, I’ve created something called a Christmas tree decorating party. I thought it’d be cool for each person in our family to have their own five-foot tree, and subsequently, invite a few people over to eat, drink, and decorate them. I’ve also thrown a Christmas brunch with all women. Sons weren’t even welcome. My youngest daughter and I made breakfast food and served about fourteen women.
Some of you may have also noticed I like photographing homeless and transient people. Many have asked me why? Others have judged it as rude. I think this hobby is the best example of stepping into one’s identity. I have my reasons. Sometimes I explain myself; other times, I don’t, because what I’ve found on this journey toward understanding self is it doesn’t matter what others think. It doesn’t matter if I can articulate why I enjoy something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s aligned with what my family or society values.
All that matters is that I know what I like and how I feel when I engage in it. This has been my greatest lesson of all about developing a sense of identity and of being myself. As a result, my sense of self no longer relies on the approval of anyone else.
I once read an adoptee’s article I’d found on social media. In it she asked, “Can you imagine being the only person in the world you know who you’re related to?” (Pine, 2015). This woman’s question summarized the moment my adoption was revealed. I felt alone, as if I was the only one of me around. Where did I belong?
Scholars call this a sense of belonging, which is also a common adoptee issue*.
Belonging begins with family. I looked nothing like anyone around me, which is a physical way of belonging. In addition, my family homed in on parts of my physical difference, such as my butt. My parents used to say I had a “bubble butt.” When E.U.’s Da’ Butt came out, my father would replace one of the names with mine, “Kathy got a big ole butt!” When my elementary class was featured in the Chicago Suntimes, family proclaimed they knew it was me because of the way my butt protruded in the picture. Comments about my derriere continued well into Christmas 2013 when my great aunt mentioned something about my oldest daughter and I sharing this feature. I was 40 years old.
There was nothing my family could do about my posterior, but my mother and grandmother did their best to correct other perceived flaws. My mother noticed I didn’t move my arms when I walked, so she showed me how “normal” people rhythmically did this. To this day, I sometimes remind myself to move my arms so as not to look robotic. That was just the beginning of the list. The two ensured I turned my feet in so that I wouldn’t walk slew footed; straightened my back so that I didn’t walk like a duck; and raised my voice so that I spoke from my diaphragm. My insecurities grew with each lesson, especially because I didn’t see these “flaws” in anyone else.
There were also familial detachments. My mother retold times of her great-grandmother laying ties on the railroad as an example of where she drew her strength. It’s a great narrative, but there was little connection, because I knew she wasn’t my great-great grandmother.
My paternal grandmother lived about three blocks from us, and eventually, right upstairs, but the distance between us was great. I called her, “Grandma Emma,” like her other grandchildren, but it was obvious she was closer to my father’s sister and her children, who lived 800 miles away. I recognized the warmness in the way she embraced them when they visited and the attention she provided. Maybe this had little to do with being adopted; maybe it did. Either way, I didn’t feel a part of her.
I carried this general lack of belonging into my marital family. How could I feel at ease in an additional family, when I couldn’t even find comfort with the one in which I was raised?
I sensed the awkwardness of my own interactions.
My father-in-law would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me about how he fixed a refrigerator that morning. I’d stare past his words, not knowing what to say or how to relate.
“Seems like she’s not interested in what I’m saying,” he once told his son.
I wasn’t. But more importantly, I just didn’t know how to be around someone else’s family.
His mother once told me she was glad she didn’t have girls.
“They seem difficult,” she admitted.
I internalized her comments and assumed as her daughter-in-law I must also be too difficult for her. We rarely spoke more than five sentences between us. Not understanding her quiet, unassuming personality, I deemed their nuclear family as another group I probably wouldn’t fit into.
Like other parts of me, this pattern of behavior remained and affected many adult relationships. I developed detached connections since I figured I wouldn’t fit in anyway. It’s a stressful existence for sure. But one that I eventually learned to let go of.
Eventually, I’ll explain how. Until then, let me know if you can relate to anything here. I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be an adoptee to feel as if you don’t fit in.
*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.
I never heard of the word “adoptee” until a few years ago. This is for two reasons. One, that’s when I began researching specific mental health topics, and two, most conversations about adoption are centered on the benevolence of adoptive parents. For the most part, adoptees are left out of this discussion. Like mental health, I’m on a mission to also de-marginalize adoptee’s voices*, which sometimes go hand-in-hand.
As I’ve explained before, after I discovered I was adopted, my parents never mentioned it again. It was just a blip in that day. After my mother died, my grandmother would frequently mention my adoption. Sometimes she’d reminisce about them searching for my receiving blanket and then remembering that they didn’t receive me in a traditional way. Other times, she’d marvel at how much she and other family members thought I looked like my mother, even though I did not.
In retrospect, I believe my grandmother’s comments and others’ interactions were unconscious ways to ensure I was perceived as a part of and not different than them. However, after reading several bits of information on adoption, I’ve learned that adoptees, no matter how loving and accepting their adoptive families were, have similar issues.
Identity is one. It is common for adoptees to not know who they are, literally and figuratively. According to Erikson (1968), identity begins in childhood and develops over adolescence, right around the time I’d found out about my adoption. For me, identity formation included accepting I wasn’t biologically a part of a family, being told this was my “family,” and being asked to accept someone else’s definition of who I was and where I belonged.
I never verbally expressed my identity confusion, but I definitely showed it.
I switched identities with everyone and everywhere. I used to wait and observe those around me to understand not only how to speak, but also how to act, how to be. And if it was behavior with which I was unfamiliar, then I simply remained quiet for fear of not fitting in. This continued through adulthood. For years, I showed very little of myself around my husband’s immediate family. He and his golden-brown mother, father, and brother seemed to be paper-doll perfect, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to fit into their picture.
This behavior continued in other ways. At our wedding reception, the DJ played a popular Detroit house music song. I’d been living there for a year and had grown used to their brand of house. I began dancing and Tima, my friend from high school scrunched up her face and said, “Kathy, what is this shit?”
Dwight said something about this being my song. He was right. But I remember almost freezing in place because two worlds had collided; two of my identities faced one another. Do I say, yeah girl. This is my song? Or, do I stop dancing and return to my Chicago House music roots? I think I stopped dancing.
These examples may seem slight, but when you don’t know who you are or what you like, or how to be yourself in every situation, small things can turn into frenetic anxiety-induced happenings. And, they can add up.
At the beginning of our relationship, Dwight introduced me to comic books and cartoons about superheroes. I began watching Batman just because he did. I stopped wearing red lipstick because he re-told a story about his father’s experiences overseas with women and red lipstick. I thought he didn’t like it. I grew my hair past my neck and to my shoulders because he’d once admitted his preference for long hair. He and his family watched movies a lot; subsequently, he and I could be found at the movies almost every weekend.
I did very little that I liked to do, not because my husband forced me to do things he liked, but simply because I hadn’t explored who I was or what was enjoyable to me.
These are just a few instances of how a lack of clear identity affected me throughout the years. Trust me. I could write a novel of examples woven well into the 2000s.
Instead, I’ll end here. But I invite you to comment. Can you relate to this issue? Are you a person who lived with identity issues even though you’re not adopted?
*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.
For most aspects of my life, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I recognized a specific trait, but I’m unclear as to when I learned the idea that I should be perfect. After much research, it seems it could have come from four areas.
#1: It is common for adoptees to develop perfectionism out of insecurity and fear that they will be rejected from their adoptive family (Brodzinsky). This seems reasonable. I discovered I was an adoptee when I was around ten years old, and the story I remember was one of happenstance. Our home included several bookcases filled with books. On one of these bookcases was a book called Why Was I Adopted? I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading the book in its entirety. When I reached the end, tears dropped one by one.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.
“I feel sorry for these people,” I said. “They don’t know who their family is.”
She replied matter-of-factly, “You shouldn’t feel sad. You’re adopted.”
She and I never discussed the shock that this new information carried. We never discussed “adoption,” why she and my father adopted me, or what it meant to be an adoptee ever again. I’m not sure why, and as an adult and parent, I can only guess it’s because they didn’t know how or because of shame. Adoption carries its own stigma for all parties involved. Sometimes it can be embarrassing for the adoptive parents who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive their own biological children. Oftentimes, adoptees are ashamed and feel as if they were not good enough to have remained with their biological families, thus creating a sense that they need to achieve perfection, lest they be removed from this family, too.
This is something to which the child version of me could relate. As a child with no explanation, there was this idea that I must’ve caused my own adoption. If I were just good enough, then I wouldn’t have been given away.
#2: Perfectionism can also be developed when there’s a “frequent fear of insecurity or inadequacy” (Good Therapy); apparently, it’s something parents can unwittingly teach. I’ve written before about how my mother required me to sit for long periods of time to focus on a task until it was right. In a time of typewriters and correction fluid, this meant beginning my fifth-grade report on Ethiopia over and over, until it was error-free because “it was a reflection of me.” That’s just one example. Several other instances reveal compounded experiences where I learned that flawlessness was a preferred behavior, not just from my mother, from other family members as well.
#3: “Excessive praise for your achievements” and “believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements” (Martin, 2018) can also lead to perfectionism. I was raised as an only child and was my maternal grandmother’s only grandchild for over twenty years. I was my paternal grandmother’s youngest grandchild. Being the only and the youngest means I was doted on quite a bit. Everything I did was not only praised, but it was always perfect. According to my family, everything I did was “the best.” You know what this breeds? An adult who frequently desires to achieve all the things all the time at peak perfection. It’s no wonder that, after receiving a terminal degree, my sense of ego was slowly deflated. I’d reached a pinnacle of success and there was nothing more to do to externally prove my worth. I had to determine how I’d live the remainder of life without doing something.
#4: A final idea is that mental health issues, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are associated with perfectionism (Good Therapy). I can’t say with confidence that I don’t have OCD. I mean making stringent lists that make me feel as if my world will crumble should I stray from them may qualify, but I don’t know. However, for me, anxiety definitely does align with perfectionism. But, it seems to be a chicken/egg scenario. Does a predisposition towards anxiety and OCD cause one to seek perfectionism or does perfectionism cause anxiety and OCD? For me, not fully feeling a sense of belonging in my adoptive family, feeling insecure about my origin story, and receiving excessive praise seemed to have fed anxiety.
Luckily, I’ve been reflecting on perfectionism in varied ways over the past six years. Next week, I’ll delve into how I’ve unlearned (and continue to unlearn) perfectionism. Until then, feel free to add to this discussion. Are you a perfectionist? Are you a recovering perfectionist? Do you know any perfectionists? We need to undo this harmful and unrealistic standard. None of us are perfect and none of us ever will be.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to begin this post.
Humorous? Those ancestry.com commercials are cute, right? White people finding out their brown, African roots; black people finding out their white, European roots. It’s all fun and games, until you click on that other link and find out who your biological father is.
Somber and Poetic? Aunt Catherine said she asked my pregnant mother one question, who’s the father? Joyce looked at her, lifted a finger, and pointed at the janitor, a lanky, white man. DCFS had reported a janitor found me as a baby. Not thinking there could be more than one, the storyteller in me put two and two together and made myself biracial. Turns out, I’m not. My father is an African American male. I know because of an ancestry DNA kit.
Straightforward, yet Cheeky? Like 4 million other people, I thought I’d spit into a tube, mail it off through UPS and find out from what part of Africa I hailed. Cameroon/Congo, Benin/Togo, and England/Wales are the top three. But ethnicity isn’t all you can learn there. When I clicked on the little green icon called, View DNA Matches, the full name of my biological father appeared. This is how I found him.
My feelings about finding my biological father, who we’ll call CB, are just as varied as these introductions. I’ve been trying to pin them down, but they range anywhere from a #KanyeShrug to elation. Those of you who’ve followed my blog for the past four years might understand clearly.
Much of my time has been spent healing and talking about my adopted father, who passed in 2015. His death brought pure peace to my being. An integral connection ended for good. Although a different person, CB is still my father, and finding him had the potential to open another relation called, father. Was I ready for this? Did I need this? These questions swarmed in my brain.
It is my belief that no matter what your head says, your heart and soul always know better. I’d released the idea of knowing my biological father, not because I didn’t want to know, but rather because I thought it an impossible feat. I’d forgotten my own 2018 mantra: Anything is possible, especially finding your father via 21st century methods.
So, I am ready for this. Relating to my deceased father and processing hurtful emotions has prepared me to connect with whoever CB is. I’ve learned not to judge as harshly as I used to. This has been useful. When CB described the circumstances surrounding my conception, a one-night stand, I felt liberated, not judgmental. Who am I to judge a one-night stand, or a baby born out of wedlock to two unprepared people?
I also needed this. It might seem shallow, but I finally have a complete picture of who I am. This is something I’ve noticed biological families take for granted. Growing up, I always felt physically out of place. No one’s skin color was like mine. No one shared my body type. No one walked like me. No one held their head like mine. In fact, the size of my butt was often the topic of conversation; I now know that comes from my mother’s shapely frame. I was also often told to stop walking slew-footed and to stop walking like a turtle. It might not be healthy, but now I see why these things were challenging for me to “correct.” CB and one of my sisters have similar characteristics.
I’m prepared for this. Learning to love myself has had one major impact. I no longer seek relationships to fill a void. This means I now enter situations as a whole person, with clear boundaries. Therefore, I am good no matter what may come from this new connection. And if I’m not, I’ll add it to the memoir 😉
After delivering my first baby, I knew it was time. I had to find my biological mother. It was unfathomable to me that a woman could nurture a baby in her womb for months, deliver a child, and hold it in those first few proverbial moments, and then give her up for adoption. Something heavy had to hang in the balance to make such a decision.
So, in 1999, I contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
The woman who answered the phone told me that their department was not in the business of reconnecting families; they existed to find loving homes for children.
Her apathy left me little choice but to wait.
Months later, I placed another call. A different woman revealed the name of a group that was in the business of re-connecting families: The Midwest Adoption Agency. The social worker rattled off a list of information they needed to conduct a search: birthdate, (adopted) parents’ names, year of adoption, official birth certificate, and birth name.
It had never dawned on me that I had a different name. My father, unlike Grannie, was ecstatic to know that I was conducting this search.
“She had named you Petula,” he said. “Your mom and I always thought that was strange. Maybe she liked the singer, Petula Clark, we thought.”
I had never heard of Petula Clark, but I had heard of the song, Downtown, for which she is known.
The following year, the counselor had found my birth records and sent a detailed report. My mother, Joyce Belcher had considered abortion several times before giving up the idea entirely. This was noted by her social worker.
Joyce had been diagnosed with acute schizophrenia: undifferentiated type. Up until my birth on May 23, 1973, she was seen walking up and down the sidewalk talking to herself. After giving birth, she would lay on the sofa doing nothing most of the day, laughing hysterically.
By the time I was five-months-old, Joyce had left me in our apartment building. According to the report, a janitor found me and contacted the police. I’d been there several days. Joyce named this same janitor as the father; he denied it. Shortly after, she surrendered her parental rights.
Two more letters followed the report. Joyce Belcher had died when she was twenty-eight years old, about five years after I’d been adopted. Her cause of death: drowning.
She was survived by her father, her four sisters, and my older sister.
In 2001, I birthed another child. This time, I understood the circumstances surrounding my adoption. But another question lingered. How could four sisters allow the State to take their sister’s child?
Midwest Adoption Agency allowed me to ask for a Request for Non-Identifying Information. You can only ask for this information one time, from one person. I chose my birth grandfather. As the family’s patriarch, it seemed he would have the most information.
Not only had each of his seven children been a part of the Illinois foster care system (he had two sons), but also only one of his five adult daughters kept in contact with him. Her name was Catherine. I would later find out that she was the only one that he didn’t molest, thus their continued connection.
Aunt Catherine and I spoke for the first time on February 6, 2005. It was Super Bowl Sunday. She was excited to hear my voice and wanted to hear all about who raised me and who I’d become.
“I always thought you were raised by some rich black people,” she confided.
I assured her I was not.
“I tried to get you, but the State wouldn’t let me. They told me to leave you alone and not ask about it anymore,” her voice trailed off.
Later, her daughter would tell me that each weekend, Aunt Catherine would get drunk and cry about finding Petula.
Aunt Catherine and I met once and marveled at our similar wide smiles and pointy noses. We talked weekly, until she suffered a heart attack and died in June 2006.
That’s when I decided not to seek out my biological father. There was little reason to endure more emotional pain.