I have always loved to dance. As an adult adoptee, a bio mom, and an adoptive mom, I dance between love and loss regularly. I dance with joy over small victories and small signs of acceptance. I dance to escape pain and to avoid obvious rejection from my family(ies). Let me continue to dance with the pain, the understanding, the surrender, His plan, and not faint.

 Moonlighting in Neuroscience

            What happens in a child’s brain during institutionalized care that affects his/her ability to think abstractly? General Semantics offered a way to define what I notice in my daughter; she struggles with abstraction. From the outside looking in, it seems to me that she thinks concretely, observes concretely, and does not do well with abstracts thoughts in school or with talking about abstract concepts and feelings at home. Her bias serves her (and us) well in some areas: if we cannot find something in the house, we just ask her because she almost always can recall where she last saw the item; she rarely loses anything; and she rarely misses important dates or deadlines. Her bias does not serve her well, though, in the areas of prime numbers, the periodic table, understanding evaporation, calculating travel time, and understanding the difference between states and towns. And, my concern for her concrete thinking bias extends to my concern for her heart, her feelings; she does not speak of her feelings and only rarely expresses emotion. Also, when asked about her day in school, about church, about her time with friends, she says very little in response; usually, she responds with “good,” and at the most shares something funny that happened. If she does try to share what a teacher explained, often she does not make sense; I think she understood what the teacher said, but she cannot then transfer the content in conversation. And there we stand in the kitchen in some sort of quagmire. I want to understand what she comprehended or experienced that day, and she wants to tell me. But . . .

In my beginning research on this idea that the ability/inability to think abstractly connects to a certain area in the brain, I found a few articles on the effects of institutionalization through search terms like “institutionalization” and “Charles A. Nelson” and “neuroscience.” I found names of others researchers in this similar field. But, I pressed “pause” on my research with search terms, and I attended the adoption conference. I felt confident I would get answers directly from the mouth of Thomas Rector who teaches BioSocial Cognition workshops at these conferences. We met, and he almost undid my question in an hour. When I presented my I-search question and described my daughter (much like I did in my first paragraph here), he responded with a much different answer than I expected. He began to talk to me about genetics and that she simply might be more genetically disposed to think concretely than abstractly. I expressed my observations of her as “deficiencies” and he asked me to consider them as not only her genetic expression of herself, but also to consider that my interpretations carry my own genetic bents. He described a “typical” family as two adults who come together and do not share the same gene pool; who then, we presume, have children, and then the “whole” family share the same gene pool. When we add someone from the outside of this gene pool to the family, the “whole” family interprets this entirely different genetic pool’s behavior through their own “whole” family common gene pool lens. He went on to describe her as a little person with her own genetic makeup, placed in adverse circumstances in an orphanage. Like anyone who tries to survive in adversity, her brain kept leading her to what “worked” for her, and perhaps her genetic disposition allows her to function as a more concrete thinker. Mr. Rector asked me to consider abstract thinking as a learned skill that some people do better than others, based on their talent for it. He noted my enjoyment of “charged” conversation and he predicted that she does not share that enjoyment with me; he predicted correctly, and then we imagined that perhaps she does not need that kind of engagement. He pointed out that I “tolerate” genetic difference each day with friends and acquaintances and strangers; and he admitted the difficulty of parenting a genetic stranger–stating that families do not “normally” have to “tolerate” differentness within their families because they “normally” share the same genetics.

Mr. Rector gave me a new lens with which to see Naika, and we began to discuss parenting her with the mission of helping her develop into an adult with self-esteem and with confidence in her skills and abilities to develop her best future. We talked about looking for opportunities for her to feel successful, to experience internal validation, to experience growth and success patterns. I shared with Mr. Rector that a few weeks before I left for the conference, I had talked to Naika about enrolling her in dance; she has strong muscles, and she moves with quickness, but not fluidity. I envisioned putting her in “modern” dance to increase her fluidity. A few days before I left for the conference, however, she mentioned that she would like to take tap. While I did not speak to that issue in the moment, I thought to myself—no way! That would only reinforce what she already knows how to do—jerky measured moves. As I explained my thought process to Mr. Rector, we both laughed. Tap, we agreed, will serve her well; tap involves patterns, a level of control and predictability, and encourages developing the skill of coordinating with other people (useful for the future). Mr. Rector asked me to consider embracing her self-directedness.

My conversation with Mr. Rector about my I-search question did send me in a different direction when I returned; I began to search for knowledge about parenting a person with a different gene pool. Because my daughter has dark skin, others might assume that my research interest lied in parenting someone with different skin, different hair, and different body composition. Actually, my interest lies more in something that never occurred to me prior to my conversation with Mr. Rector: genetic difference presents itself from the inside out in how a person thinks, responds, reacts, analyzes, expresses, relates, etc. And, as Mr. Rector acknowledged, “unease” can exist when families add a person with a different gene pool in the family; this relationship does not feel “normal” and does not come “naturally” to me or to Naika.

The “Variation in neural development” article introduced me to gray matter and white matter in the brain. In this study, the investigators wanted to find out if the neural structure of children from institutionalized care could benefit from an improved environment (foster care placement). The investigators utilized data/children from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. This study reports finding “smaller whole brain, white, and gray matter volumes” in previously institutionalized children compared with never-institutionalized children. In fact, the gray matter measures “significantly smaller in children who had ever [italics mine] been institutionalized regardless of placement in foster care” (12930). I used wiki to understand the function of gray and white matter. Gray matter “is associated with processing and cognition” and exists “in the prefrontal cortex” (wiki). Gray matter also functions as a major component of the Central Nervous System and deals with muscle control, sensory perception, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control. Gray matter grows and develops during childhood and adolescence. White matter serves as a connector; it “transmits signals from one region of the cerebrum to another,” and it “modulates the distribution of action potentials—acting as a relay” (wiki). White matter “actively affects how the brain learns and functions” (wiki). Wiki suggests we think of gray matter as the actual computers, and white matter as the network of cables that connect computers together; and Wiki suggests that the brain, in general “can adapt to white-matter damage by finding alternate routes.” From this research article, I learned that gray matter suffers in volume in previously institutionalized children and does not “catch up” once the children live in foster care; white matter, however, can catch up (12930).

As I think about Naika, I can hypothesize that I see evidence of this. After living with us for eight years, her white matter probably has increased. She has made more connections related to living here over the last eight years, and all things around her no longer seem foreign and out of context. Wiki says that white matter continues to develop and peaks in a person’s middle age; she still has quite a bit of time to keep growing her white matter. Her gray matter, however, according to current research will not catch up (Sheridan et al. 12930).

Also, this study states that previously institutionalized children had “smaller . . . volume of the left hippocampus and larger volume in the right amygdala” (Sheridan et al 12927). I used wiki to better understand these structural changes. The left hippocampus plays a central role in memory, functions as part of the limbic system, facilities the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory, aids in spatial navigation, connects to parts of the brain involved with emotional behavior. When the left hippocampus undergoes long-lasting trauma or stress, it suffers from atrophy–which can then lead to PTSD, schizophrenia and/or severe depression. I appreciated the note that blueberries can increase the volume of the hippocampus. I found evidence that the amygdala overdevelops in “Prolonged institutional rearing is associated with atypically large amygdala volume and difficulties in emotion regulation” by Nim Tottenham et al. They sought to understand the long-term effects on the “neurobiological development associated with socio-emotional behaviors” in children who “experienced orphanage care (46). They employed MRI “to measure volumes of whole brain and limbic structures; they measured “emotion regulation” with an “emotional go-nogo paradigm”; they assessed “anxiety and internalizing behaviors” by using the “Screen for Schild Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED), “the Child Behavior Checklist, and a structured clinical interview” (46). Through their study, they found that “[l]ate adoption was associated with larger corrected amygdala volumes, poorer emotion regulation, and increased anxiety” (46). According to Olive James in “Fosters a Sense of Self-Esteem,” Naika’s experience in an orphanage for 24 months over-qualifies her to have an enlarged amygdala and “abnormal levels of cortisol”; James notes that “[i]n one study, children aged six to 12 who had spent more than eight months in an orphanage” had abnormal cortisol levels; cortisol prepares us to fight, flight, or freeze “when we are threatened” (28).

According to wiki, the amygdalae resemble two almonds in the deep center and toward the base of the brain. Research shows the amygdalae (also part of the limbic system) process memory, and they play a primary role in decision-making and emotional reactions. The reported larger volume in the right amygdala from the Sheridan et al study connects to the following in wiki: “stimulations of the right amygdala induced negative emotions, especially fear and sadness.” Wiki connects the amygdala to sense of smell and also emotional learning (memories associated with emotional events which then can elicit fear behavior when stimulated). The amygdala generates our “Fight, Flight or Freeze” responses, autonomic nervous system responses (such as in heart rate), and can alter our stress-hormone release. In general, the research shows the amygdala connected to: PTSD, anxiety disorders, fear and aggression, sexual orientation, and alcoholism.

As I think about Naika, I think of her acute attention to smell. When we brought her into our home, this little one with a different gene pool, she (apart from everyone else) would regularly notice smells in rooms, houses, new places, clothes, the kitchen, etc. The therapists who worked with us in those early years told us that she might even have cell-level memories stimulated by smells. Also, we learned about “Fight, Flight or Freeze” in those early years and about her most likely over-developed amygdala. I found it rewarding, now then, to actually find studies that validated what we learned from social workers and therapists in the early days. Just recently, Naika came out of her room at a late hour; she stopped when she came close to the kitchen where I typed away on my paper, and she turned to go back in her room. She had almost gone back in to her bedroom when I asked her, “Naika, what are you doing?” She replied, “I was going to get a melatonin.” I said, “Well, that’s fine. Why did you stop?” She answered with a shrug of her shoulders and an “I don’t know.” I just smiled. Based on my understanding of the amygdala, her behavior exemplifies a decision-made in a perceived threatening situation. She thought for some reason that I would not let her have a melatonin or that I might get angry that she still roams the house at this late hour, and she abandoned her mission—suppressed her perceived need. My other children do not behave that way. They would simply ask, and I do not think her behavior comes from personality. Genetic development altered by experience seems plausible; but an overdeveloped amygdala seems likely based on research.

My reading of research thus far validated my belief that some of what I see as “difference” in Naika reflects brain development—not “just” genetic difference. So, I pressed on. Wang et al.’s study “Neural Representation of Abstract and Concrete Concepts: A Meta-Analysis of Neuroimaging Studies” answered my original I-search question most clearly. Before I could decode the study, however, I had to look up the word meta-analysis. I learned that meta-analysis focuses on “contrasting and combining results from different studies in the hope of identifying patterns;” it aims to offer a “thorough summary of several studies” (wiki). In this meta-analysis, the investigators set out to make sense of studies done on “neural correlates of abstract and concrete concepts” that disagree with one another. Through meta-analysis and multilevel kernel density analysis (MKDA)[1], the investigators settled on the following:

Abstract concepts elicit greater activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus . . . while concrete concepts elicit greater activity in the posterior cingulate, precuneus, fusiform gyrus, and parahippocampal gyrus . . . These results suggest greater engagement of the verbal system for processing of abstract concepts and greater engagement of the perceptual system for processing of concrete concepts. (Wang et al 1459)

Further, mental imagery seems to align itself closely with a perceptual experience even when a physical stimuli does not exist (1460). And, I learned about two theories and a hypothesis that try to speak to a fundamental inquiry: “whether concepts of represented by words or by nonlanguage factors, such as perceptual and motor experiences.

As I think of Naika, I recognize the battle she had on her hands when she first arrived to us—the battle of context. Even though she perhaps heard the words we said, she had only Haitian context to draw from to make sense of the word; and without context clues, where does a person store a new word or concept? Now, eight years later, she does undeniably have more context with which to make connections.

And, the study goes on to illuminate exactly which parts of the brain show activity in correlation to concrete and abstract concept stimuli. In general, the left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus and left precentral gyrus show stronger activation for abstract concepts (1462-1463). These parts of the brain control the following: cognitive function such as the go/no go response, language production and verb comprehension, phonological processing during working memory tasks, contemplation of distance, recognition of faces, and access to word meaning while reading (1463). And, damage to this area can produce non-fluent aphasis (high content but not fluid speech), alexia (inability to read) and agraphia (inability to copy), and “deficits in phonological and syntactic processes” (wiki and Wang et al. 1463).

As I reflect on Naika’s conversations with me, I can identify a lack of fluidity. I would not expect to find lesions necessarily on her brain, but I can at least attest to the difficulty she has in telling a story or even retelling a moment with clarity and her desired effect. Typically, she gets hung up on the meaning of a word, or forgets exactly what the person said that she tried to describe, etc.

Then, in general, the parahippocampal gyrus, left precuneus, posterior cingulate, left fusiform gyrus (“found to be more active in the learning of new concrete words than abstract words [Mestres-Misse et al., 2008]”, angular gyrus, and culmen show stronger activation for concrete concepts (Wang et al 1464). These parts of the brain relate to the following: memory encoding and retrieving, encoding and recognizing environmental scenes (not faces), mental imagery concerning the self, episodic memory, verbally describing scenes, noticing pain, responding to emotion (both positive and negative), processing color, faces, and bodies, perceptions of emotions in faces, mentally generating visual features of objects” (wiki and Wang et al 1463). Damage to these areas can lead to the Gerstmann syndrome (which carries effects like finger agnosia (cannot distinguish between fingers), alexia, acalcula (inability to use arithmetic operations), agraphia, and left-right confusion (wiki).

At the end of this meta-analysis, the investigators state: “These results suggest greater engagement of the verbal system for processing of abstract concepts and greater engagement of the perceptual system for processing of concrete concepts, likely via mental imagery” (Wang et al 1466). As I read and reread the study and their findings, I found myself making sense in my own brain of what I witness at home; perhaps one explanation for Naika’s struggle with abstract thoughts and feelings comes from that gap in her verbal development. She lived with her birth mom for six months; she lived in an orphanage in Haiti for two years where they spoke Creole; and then she came to us. She did not utter a word for six weeks. Then, when she did speak, she spoke only to Natalie (her new sister) in the bathtub. Her verbal foundational wall surely has holes in it, and if abstract processing calls for engagement of verbal systems, it makes sense that she would struggle.

Whether Naika had started to speak in Creole in the orphanage or not apparently matters in terms of her future, also. In “Early adolescent outcomes of institutionally-deprived and non-deprived adoptees. II: Language as a protective factor and a vulnerable outcome,” Croft et al say, “For the children over 18 months on arrival . . . [Naika came to us at 30 months], the presence of even very minimal language skills (imitation of speech sounds) at the time of arrival was a strong beneficial prognostic factor for language and cognitive outcomes, but not for social/emotional/behavioural outcomes” (31). Croft et al conclude that “[m]inimal language probably indexes some form of cognitive reserve that, in turn, indexes the degree of institutional deprivation” (31).

The orphanage workers told us she rarely spoke. When my husband visited her at the orphanage, she said nothing for two-and-a-half days.

In sum, my neuroscience reading led me to overwhelmingly conclusive findings. Research shows that “previously institutionalized children have lower IQ, deficits in language use, and executive function;” and, “these children exhibit impairments and delays in a variety of social-emotional domains and a very high prevalence of mental health problems” and “deficits in cognitive function,” “language production and comprehension,” “ADHD and other forms of psychopathology,” “language delays,” and “reduced academic achievement” (Sheridan et al. 12930). In fact, evidence of neural structural difference in pre-institutionalized children seems overwhelmingly convincing. I shall add Robin Harwood’s et al meta-analysis found in their “Preadoption Adversities and Postadoption Mediators of Mental health and School Outcomes Among International, Foster, and Private Adoptees in the United States to the mix; in the paragraph in which they cover prevalent research over the last 20 years, they report findings that children who have spent time in an institution for care: “lag in physical growth”; have “sensory processing difficulties”; internalize, externalize, and suffer from attention problems; show “delays in social skills”; have “speech, language, and learning deficits”; experience “lower cognitive scores” and suffer “general developmental impairment” (Harwood et al 409). Also, Beckett et al, in “VI. Institutional Deprivation, Specific Cognitive Functions, and Scholastic Achievement: English and Romanian Adoptee (ERA) Study Findings,” state the following: “institutional deprivation tends to have a lasting deleterious effect on all aspects of cognition and not just on a few highly specific functions (138). Kumsta et al conducted studies that “clearly support the concept of a coherent syndrome” defined by four patterns found in children with institutional deprivation: quasi-autism (QA), disinhibited attachment (DA), cognitive impairment (CI), and Inattention/Overactivity (IA/OA).

As I read about research of institutionalized children and the effects it has on their brain, I began to wonder what determines the formation of a person’s brain? Could a child’s DNA experience compromise? I began to notice sentences in the neuroscience studies that suggested “long-term changes in neural systems” (Tottenham et al 47). In the Sheridan et al study, they state: “the deprived environment of an institution does not provide adequate experience onto which to scaffold normal brain development;” and if that proves true, then we should see “differences in neural structure and function” (12927). Oliver James in “Fostering a Sense of Self-Esteem,” published in Brain & Behavior writes: “The likeliest explanation is that early deprivation changes brain chemistry and brainwave patterns, like a thermostat establishing a default position” (28). I began to notice a thread of belief in the conclusions of these studies—a belief in their “enduring biological effect,” a belief that these children undergo “biological programming during a critical period of early development, early sustained neurobiological insult, or dysregulation associated with the damaging effects of exposure to stress-related hormones” (Harwood 410). I began to revisit my search terms.

I thank Ann Wilson again for suggesting Charles A. Nelson as a starting place. I found a book review of The Great Brain Debate: Nature or Nurture; in the review, Nelson and Irving I. Gottesman use the words “epigenetic programming” and applaud the author (John E. Dowling) for “solid examples of what elements of brain development and brain function are under genetic control and which are largely guided by experience” (1204). In Nelson’s words, Dowling “begins a consideration of how genes and experience can influence the course of brain and behavioral development” (1204). With this “tip,” I began to use “epigenetics” and “adoption” and “institutionalized care” and “brain development.” These search terms led me to “Epigenetics of early child development,” and “Epigenetic Influence of the Social Environment” and “Attachment-Focused Psychotherapy & Epigenetics: What your grandparents past [sic] on.” Similar to my experience with reading neuroscience studies, I needed some translation help as I started to read epigenetic studies. “Genetics and the Brain” in my Google Search bar led me to dana.org. There, I learned the following:

  • The brain consists mostly of proteins that serve as the framework for “neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, and other chemicals.”
  • A gene backs up each protein, and a gene contains a “spiral of DNA.”
  • The gene’s DNA functions as the “template” for transcription into the protein.
  • Gene expression = Epigenetics
  • The types of genes active at any given time in any given type of tissue changes; and, not all DNA/genes express the same proteins.
  • “A gene may also be switched on or off temporarily or permanently by drugs, lifestyle, environmental forces, or stress.”

I also learned that researchers have narrowed their research to “two chemical processes:” Methylation—which “attaches a small chemical tag, or group of atoms, to the DNA of a gene which blocks the transcription process”; and a “process [that] involves histones, proteins that provide a core for DNA to wrap around.” “Modification of histones” can ease or complicate the ability for the “DNA to unwind,” which will either ease or complicate the transcription process.” I learned that animal studies, twin studies, and adoption studies all play a part in studying epigenetic effects. The time I spent on dana.org informed my reading of the epigenetic studies I found.

In the interest of time, energy, and paper, I will not write as in depth about this final stretch of my research; instead, I will highlight intriguing concepts I found in these studies. In “Epigenetic Influence of the Social Environment,” Champagne and Curley explore the epidemiological studies done to discover the effects of early neglect and abuse on the brain. Some studies they review involve children, some involve rhesus macaques, some studies involve mice; to conclude this section, they state: “plasticity in maternal behavior in response to environmental conditions is one route through which the quality of the environment can shape offspring physiology, brain, and behavior” (189). In the next section, with attention to similar types of studies, they assert that “neural circuits involved in emotionality are susceptible to modulation in response to early life experiences;” and “neural systems that regulate anxiety, social behavior, and cognition” can experience alteration (potentially long-term) as a result of early life adversity (190 and 193). This section refers to methylation and histones and the connection of these chemical processes to early childhood and maternal abuse, daily and prolonged maternal separation, and prenatal stress. Then, a section in this chapter refers to chemical change that can occur in adulthood in response to “chronic social defeat.” All of these described circumstances lead to changes in gene expression. Further, the chapter explores “Transgenerational Epigenetic Effects.” I learned of research that suggests “two distinct pathways via which epigenetic modifcations are currently believed to be involved in the transmission of traits across generations” (198): 1) “epigenetic inheritance—an epigenetic mark gets incorporated into the DNA and then passed on to the next generations “through the germline” and 2) “experience-dependent epigenetic modification”—early life experience impacts transgenerationally as “natural variations in postnatal maternal care have been associated with altered gene expression and receptor levels” (198). Finally, continued study of epigenetics may suggest to us (if current study already does not) that “environmental conditions and social experiences of previous generations” influence us—at the genetic level (198).

The article I found, titled “Attachment-Focused Psychotherapy & Epigenetics” helped me better understand the above-mentioned chapter; the source comes from a “.com”—a website promoting a certain type of therapy. Still, the following paragraph proves helpful as a summary of the transgenerational implications:

This suggests that Jews whose great-grandparents were in concentration camps . . . young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived brutal civil wars . . . and adults who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents, all carry with them more than just memories. Our experiences and those of our forebears are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular reside on our genetic scaffolding . . . You might have inherited not just your grandparent’s [sic] eye color and freckles, but also their predisposition toward depression . . . On the other hand, if your parent or grandparent, who was born to a maltreating family, was adopted at an early age by a nurturing, supportive, and loving family, then they and you will be privy to an epigenetic boost. (Becker-Weidman)

At this point in my narrative, I admit my shameless quoting from this Becker-Weidman source; however, my jaw dropped when I finally landed here:

Elena Grigorenko at Yale . . . stated, ‘Our study shows that the early stress of separation from a biological parent impacts long-term programming of genome function. This might explain why adopted children may be particularly vulnerable to harsh parenting in terms of their physical and menthal [sic] health. Parenting adopted children might require much more nurturing care to reverse these changes in genome regulation. (Becker-Weidman)

In our early days with Naika, therapists taught us this kind of parenting that Becker-Weidman advocates, but never did they connect the parenting style with the opportunity to “’reverse these changes in genome regulation’” [Elena Grigorenkoa qtd in Becker-Weidman]. I witnessed the improvements in the climate of our home as a result of the parenting-training, but this I-search project has taken my understanding of the parenting-model to a new level.

Finally, with a nod to my original question again regarding abstract thinking, I did find (and insert as Appendix D) “Strategies” to implement to help my daughter in this area—to reverse (?) alterations in her genome regulation due to adverse early life experience. I will keep a copy of Appendix D for my own reference and guidance. Thank you, truly.

 

[1] (MKDA represents—1) a literature review, 2) creation of a compound table based on the literature reviews, 3) a test of the coordinates in the table against a random set of coordinates which prevents bias, and 4) creation of an interpretation of the results.

Practicing Ekphrasis

 Practicing Ekphrasis

Reading My Birth Mom

For thirty-seven years of my life, I could only read who my birth mom was from a piece of paper with “Non-Identifying Information” on it.

Birthmom

Hair:  Light Brown

Eyes:  Blue

Height:  5’3”

Weight: 120

Nationality:  Polish

Hobby:  Dancing

I’ve been trying to define her, describe her, to find her essence, her form, to bring her to life.  My whole life.  As an adoptee from the era of closed records, I practiced ekphrasis (way before I knew what “ekphrasis” was) from this 8 ½ x 11 yellowed sheet of paper.  A representation of her.  In print.  Its edges and creases worn with years of wonder.  Memorized.

I hold on to her hobby.  I carry it on, still.  “My birthmom’s hobby was dancing,” I tell everyone.  Ballet (my favorite), tap, jazz, modern.  I earned toned and defined legs over my years of dance instruction.  Tendues, pirouettes, and pliés.  Pink ballet tights, pointe shoes.  My daughter dances too.  She carries it on.  “Dancing is in your blood,” I tell her.  Ballet, tap (her favorite) and modern.  She too, at age eleven has toned shapely legs.  She dances on stage, eyebrows lifted and engaged.  Easy grace.  Beautiful placement.  A natural turn out.

Dear birth mom, did you take dance lessons?  Did you walk to dance class or did your mom take you?  I’ve always felt connected to you because as a young girl I believed that my love for dance came from you.  I mean, that’s what the sheet of paper told me.  That’s pretty much all I had to go on until I found a yearbook picture of you when I was thirty-eight.

Reading This Print

http://www.londonartsgroup.com/images/040310_6468.JPG

This woman.  This print.  This representation.  She is not you.  She is Joanne Seltzer—daughter of Leo M. Seltzer, M.D.  She did take dance lessons and piano lessons in 1954.  I can follow the paper trail.

Check #1582 on 2/20/1954 for $90 to Mr. John Hiersoux for piano lessons.

Check #1846  on 10/26/1954 for $24 to the American Academy of Ballet for shoes.

Check #1914 on 12/14/1954 for $32 to the American Academy of Ballet.

Joanne Seltzer.  Pink parfait tutu—probably a poodle skirt.  Loose long and feminine hair.  But no sign of ballet in this print, no grande battements, arabesques, or pas de chats.  Instead, Joanne’s ghostly girly figure reaches see-through arms up, towards a partner’s neck, as if to hold on.  Did she learn ballroom instead of ballet?  Did she practice with her dad, Dr. Leo Seltzer, M.D.?

Dear birth mom, did you sometimes practice with your dad?  Did you dance with my birth dad?  I don’t like ballroom much, do you?

Reading the Backdrop

Dance lessons in 1954.  I imagine money for dance lessons was hard to come by in 1954.  But Joanne’s daddy was a doctor, and I (perhaps naively) assume the Seltzer family could afford dance and piano for their sweet daughter.  Still, in Joanne’s print—I read the backdrop of sacrifice in the backdrop of the checks her daddy wrote.

You sacrificed for me, didn’t you, birth mom?

In fact, that’s kind of the standard definition of adoption, isn’t it—the birth mom sacrifices raising her child to give the child a better opportunity in life.  My adoption story tells me my birth parents didn’t feel financially prepared to get married and raise a family.  They were both seniors in college at the University of Illinois—my birth mom in accounting and my birth dad in geography (going on to be a pilot).  They got pregnant in October 1969 of their senior year, and my birth mom dropped out of college. Her parents were befuddled and dismayed, I’ve learned; they never knew why and they took the mystery to their graves.  My birth parents never told anyone—not their parents, their siblings, no one in their family that I know of.   I can read the sacrifices.  My birth mom sacrificed finishing her college degree. She sacrificed her body for nine months and then more.  She sacrificed the joy of keeping and nurturing and nursing her first born child.  She sacrificed living in freedom and truth.

I know this print is about Joanne, but I can’t stop thinking about you.

I would read every letter of every paper trail of yours 1000 times.

  

Reading Natalie

The Doner auditorium goes dark, and I light up the paper program with my iPhone.  My daughter’s ballet routine is next.  Budding 5th grade girls, budding ballerinas in light pink leotards and tights under soft blue light, light blue sashes made of see-through taffeta float from the girls’ wrists.  On stage, her hair pulled up in a bun, held in by bobby pins, my daughter wears a little blue eye shadow, a little blush, mascara, and a little red lipstick—just to keep her from getting washed out by the stage lights.  I read Natalie as a leader on the stage.  She tells me she is nervous, but she knows what she is doing.  And without trying or forcing or faking, she expresses the message of the composition to the audience.  I can tell and I know—she feels a fullness in her heart when she dances. Gentle grace in her eyes, her legs–curves of muscle that match mine and match the dancing training she has taken so far, her arms and fingers extended . . . soft billowy poise. She communicates with her eyes to the other dancers on stage, her friends, and she shares herself as she dances.

Natalie and I read each other well.  She sometimes says exactly what I’m thinking, and vice versa.  I wonder about my mom.  When she saw me on stage at dance recitals, what did she see?  My biological daughter gives me moments of self-recognition and self-awareness I never knew I was missing.  I recognize my hands when I see Natalie’s hands.  I recognize the shape of my legs and arms when I see Natalie’s figure.  I recognize the hugs I give and like to receive when I hug Natalie.  And I recognize the many personality traits of hers that are also mine.  She writes.  She talks.  (My dad always called me “windy” growing up.)  She likes to learn.  She likes to read.  She likes to dance.  She likes music.  I recognize what I see.

Dear birth mom, do you give good long hugs?  Do you like to learn?  What else do my daughter and I have that is also yours?

 

Reading my Birth Mom’s Picture

I found a picture of her in my thirty-eighth year of life.  It wasn’t easy.  I chased a paper trail which began with my adoption file:  her upside-down, written in cursive, complicated long Polish name on the folder of a file (which I am not supposed to see), to a computer that tracks births and deaths in the state of Illinois, to a Polish obituary that lists my birth mom as a survivor, to searching on the internet for recent addresses and such, to digs into the archives of libraries for yearbooks, to finally a friend’s mom who still had her yearbook from the University of Illinois and found your picture in a sorority composite photo from 1968.

Dear birth mom, you were beautiful.  Simple stylish dark hair.  Petite young woman.  A beautiful smile.

I tried to see myself in you.  Everyone who knew me tried.  We compared smiles and hair color and eyes and cheekbones and ears and eyebrows and noses and chins and expression.  We poured over your photo.  The joy of seeing you in print.  The joy of imagining you as a sweet, full of aspiration sophomore at the University of Illinois recently pledged to a sorority.  When I look at your picture, I see the hope of your future and the terror of an unplanned pregnancy around your corner.  I feel like I want to say sorry, but I don’t want to apologize for my life, really.  I love my life.  Could I say thank you?

Dear birth mom, did shame make you a pink ghost?  Were you vibrant and visible before you gave me up?  Did your dancing attract my birth dad’s attention in college?  Your dancer’s figure? And now, do you regret it?  Because now, you hide.  You hide from me.  I found you.  I wanted to know you.  But you say you don’t want to know me.  And so I research who you are, I find images of who you are, but I can really only imagine who you are.  I found you, but I still can’t make you surface. 

Stuck in ekphrasis.

Wiki on Ekphrasis:

“Socrates and Phaedrus:

The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.”

Your majestic silence breaks my heart.

 

Our Bodies Remember

In our split-level home around our kitchen table that seats our family of six, we pray for Naika; bringing Naika to us from her orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti will make us “seven.”  We labor to send Three Angel’s Orphanage support money each month, gather paperwork to prove our financial stability, our mental stability, the healthy tone of our home and family, that we have no criminal records attached to our fingerprints.  We are pregnant with the anticipation of bringing Naika to our home, and after ten months, she arrives on U.S. pavement at the Miami airport.  We wait, our unblinking eyes and our cameras fixated on double-doors with double-paned glass windows—limiting our vision.  In a slow moment, we see our little two-and-a-half year old daughter delivered out of customs; she rides in a cart toting her “luggage”—a candy apple red backpack with one change of clothes in it, and the name “Rosaline” written in black marker across the top.  We smile and speak softly to her, and she (with no smile written on her face) lifts her arms up to me—a request to be lifted out of the cart.  I place her on my hip, the hip accustomed to carrying our other four children.

Photos of our daughter this first night together in the airport hotel in Miami prove Dr. Bryan Post’s theories on attachment.  No matter my soothing tones and gentle rubbing of anti-fungal lotion on her skin.  No matter the first warm bath for her and her little Haitian friend who came over on the airplane too.  No matter the My Little Pony new jammies and the Pooh Bear sticker book.  No matter our concern she must be hungry and the ice cream cone she hesitatingly accepts.  Our expressions of joy in the pictures clearly miss her expressions of fear in the moment.  Little do we know, she falls asleep quickly and easily that night in the Miami airport hotel not because we love her and she feels safe, but because her two-and-a-half year old brain is shut down and fear chemicals race through her bloodstream.   

We awake the next morning in Miami, and the three of us get on a plane.  We put Finding Nemo in my husband’s computer to entertain her, and a couple hours later, we land in Minneapolis.  Naika on my hip, we maneuver ourselves and our luggage to our big black Yukon XL with one car seat in it—for her.  My ignorance haunts me still.  In my eyes, it’s our family vehicle with the car seat we have used for years.  Through her eyes?  A strange tangle of belts and buckles, bright colored fabric, in the back of a hollow black vehicle she has never seen.  I would like to think she trusts us enough to get in the car and allow me to buckle her into this car seat apparatus.  But most likely, she simply senses she has no power and no choice but to follow our lead.  Stripped of everything familiar in one night, survival now requires compliance with us—her parent strangers.  I buckle her in lovingly, but still–I buckle her in.  Eight years later, Naika does not remember this trip—only the story we tell her. 

As the years go on, well-meaning friends and acquaintances ask me, “How is Naika doing?”  They smile expectantly and wait for a good report.  I walk down a narrow path to answer them honestly, sharing Naika’s early days of living in an orphanage, of abandonment, of brain development that occurred apart from us, of experiences Naika had that we missed for two-and-a-half years.

“Well, she was so young.  She doesn’t remember any of that, does she?”  No, she cannot verbalize her memories.  But her experiences and memories shape her–just like they do you, I want to say.  And, they surface, like a beach ball pressed under water.

In the orphanage, she experiences hunger in a country where food is life-threateningly scarce.  Our videos and pictures of Naika eating at the orphanage table teach the memory of eating with one hand and protecting her food with the other—her arm circled around her plate.  By the time Naika arrives in our home, she experiences abandonment.  Her birth mom, Mama Marie, visits Naika in the orphanage—each visit surely ending with a newly pricked wound of separation between mom and daughter.  Naika does not remember the visits, but pictures teach the memory of Naika on her birth mom’s lap, Naika’s dark brown eyes—darkened by wondering and vacancy.  Naika learns competition and scarcity in the orphanage.  Visitors and relief workers bring gifts (sunglasses, fruit treats, and such).  Naika and the other children clamor to get theirs—shoving toward the front, afraid they might not get any.  By age two-and-a-half, my daughter’s experiences and memory train her to protect her food, to fear being left by her mother, to push to the front.  Two plane flights (Port au Prince to Miami, Miami to Minneapolis) and one car ride to our home in Brookings, SD does not erase who Naika became before she came to us.

Bedtime in our home her first night, and my new daughter screams terror in my right ear while I press my body over hers and sing loud lullabies into her right ear.  She cannot tell me this, but her orphanage director explains to me over the phone what bedtime looks like there.  I imagine Naika missing all things familiar at bedtime each night—her friends, where she slept, a favorite spot in the room, maybe a favorite set of sheets or blanket.  She gains us—her new family—and loses absolutely everything else.  I try comforting Naika as I have my other children and get nowhere.  She cannot tell me anything.  She is two-and-a-half years old and doesn’t speak English.  And so, screams and hot terrified tears on my cheek pressed up against hers with my singing lips in her ear, until she finally exhausts herself and sleeps.  Night after night we go through this process, until she finally copes better with going to sleep.  We create new memories about bedtime at our house; and eventually, I can simply sit on the floor in her line of sight until she feels secure enough to fall asleep.

Naika’s sadness, her fear, her trauma, her loss, and her confusion show up in her behavior.  I walk down the narrow hall between the bedrooms of our home behind my new brown daughter.  She bounces, jumps, and tiptoes oddly, pounding her feet into our carpet—all in the short hallway walk to my bedroom on the end right.  I am losing it and I don’t know why.  Why does she bother me?  She is adorable.  Everyone says so.  She bounces and moves with jerks and abruptness unfamiliar to me.  I sense disorder, imbalance.  I sense her anger.  Subconsciously, my observations of Naika’s terror in her new home awaken the adoptee in me, and I begin to unravel. 

My twenty-two year old birth mom and birth dad were both in the delivery room (unusual for 1970, I’ve been told).  My birth mom held me–my mom told me as part of my adoption story.  But then what?  Who did she hand me to when she let me go?  Who fed me?  Did I scream terror and cry hot tears while a stranger tried to comfort me?  I recognize Naika’s grief and fear more than I realize at the time, and my grief, my loss, and my memories begin to surface. 

I know the story well because my parents have told it to me since the beginning—every day since they brought me home.  I am chosen.  I am special.  I am adopted.  And I never remember not knowing.  A few months before my birth, my mom and dad receive a phone call from the adoption agency.  My mom rushes in with an outfit she picked for this very occasion—the day they will take me home as their daughter—a one week old little baby girl.  She dresses me anew.  I am their baby now.  They hold me, cuddle me, breathe in my smell, as I breathe in theirs.  They smell differently than the foster mom who cared for me from day three to day seven.  Who was she?  And, she smells differently from the nurses who held me in the nursery at the hospital.  Who were they?  And they smell and sound differently (each one of them) than my birth mom who carried me in her tummy for forty weeks.  Where did she go?  I would ask these questions, but I am seven days old.  And so my parents hold me, their baby, as I wonder and adjust to yet another change.  Do they look into my baby face and see the “blank slate” the social worker tells them I am, or do they see the grief, loss, confusion I cannot express?  Why does writing about this make me tired and make my head float?  I want gum, ice to chomp, coffee, chocolate, ibuprofen, a drink, chips, something.

Early on (for the first few years), Naika hoards trash, wrappers, remainders of candy bars she discovers she doesn’t like after one bite, a hard-boiled egg yolk because she only likes the whites, broken crayons, Barbies with jagged cut hair she must now hide, crumpled paper with scribbles, chewed gum (something we told her she could not have without asking), and more.  Here, under her bed and tucked in corners of her bedroom, lies my daughter’s pre-verbal memories of loss, of chaos—and evidence of how she feels about it.  Angry.  Ashamed.  Frightened.

About six years since coming to us from Haiti, on a sun-filled spring Friday for her first track meet, Naika sprints at the sound of the track gun.  She runs to win.  She must win.  It is scary to be slow and last in an orphanage.  In our kitchen, Naika says things to me like, “I am almost taller than you,” “I am the oldest in our family,” and “Someday I’ll be the tallest.”  It is scary to be small and weak in an orphanage.  At home, Naika’s eyes follow her favorites—sour cream and cheddar cheese chips, watermelon, knock-off Uggs, gum, refried beans to make bean burritos.  She trusts herself to find and get what she needs most.  I fix her favorites, and she eats heartily–to the point of being too full and uncomfortable, just in case.  We stand in the grocery aisle at Hy-Vee checking out groceries; the clerk offers her a choice of maybe eight different flavors of suckers.  It takes her an abnormally long time to pick because when choosing one flavor, she then loses all the others forever.  She does not like the feeling of losing—even if she cannot narrate a memory to explain why.

Naika is a fourth grader now, and she has been in our family for eight years. This day, I drive to pick her up from school.  She sees both me and my car, but I have to go around the block and come back to get her in that same spot.  She watches my car begin to leave—without her.  She panics.  I see it in her face. Mostly, I don’t like that the adoptee in me recognizes that feeling—the panic of not being noticed, not being seen, and being left behind.  On a Sunday morning flurry of our family getting ready for church, I (the 40 year old adoptee, married into this family for 20 years) experience the same.  My husband’s detests being late for anything—especially for church.  I rush around the house, offering breakfast to the children, tidying up everywhere, showering and trying to meet the expectation of all of us going together on time.  My husband gets himself ready, expresses frustration that we are already late, and leaves our bathroom.  I rush to pull myself together, grab mascara that I can put on in the car, run down the stairs to the door leading to the garage, and find my husband and children gone.  He took them all. Deep in my gut, I ache. 

Bringing Naika into our home stirs the adoptee in me.  I see her brown little body running around our house and realize:  I am her.  She is my memory. Strange awakenings begin happening in me, and inconvenient awakenings:  a panic attack in Sam’s Club while pushing my cart, three trips into the emergency room for fear I have a brain tumor and want to be checked over, sleeplessness, anxiety driving me, and an awakening to know whose genes I carry.  One middle of the night, I startle out of sleep with a “ping” released deep in the middle of my brain.  I grab my husband.  I am frightened, I feel lost and abandoned, panicked, and I am being separated from my birth mother in that moment.  This night, a memory buried deep under, now surfaces.  I seek help for this new me by visiting my doctor.  He listens carefully, and suggests I am experiencing the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  “Isn’t that for soldiers who deal with bombs going off?”  He replies, “You had a bomb go off in your house.” 

Naika and I carry memory in our bodies, not always our words.  We carry early memories in our behaviors, not our narrative.  Naika carries some of my memory for me.  I do not remember my experiences as a little baby growing in my birth mom’s womb, separated from her shortly after delivery, held by nurses, sent to a foster home, and then arriving to my parents’ gentle loving care; but, I get a glimpse of the effects of such disruptions as I watch my daughter.  Each of us shaped by memories we cannot recall, but nonetheless. 

 

 

From where and how did adoption language originate, develop, change, expand, increase, and become loan words and metaphors used in other domains?  Further, what connotations do adoption words carry and how do the connotations affect perceptions of adoption?    As an adoptee and an adoptive mom in Dr. Taylor’s Linguistic class, I found myself wondering why the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear or read “adopt the legislation,” “adopt-a-lot,” “orphan article,” and other such items.  Do the words themselves possess definitive power in their origin?  Or, does my personal experience with adoption cause me to hover and sometimes wince?  Where did the words surrounding adoption originate?

Following Dr. Taylor’s caveat to reach out to an expert, I sent Adam Pertman (Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the preeminent research, policy and education organization in its field) an email with “Adoption Language Research Inquiry.”  I heard back quickly from Mr. Pertman via email, and we scheduled a phone conversation for an upcoming date.  I knew about Pertman and his Adoption Institute (its focus on research) through my experience with the “American Adoption Congress” and having attended two of their conferences.  Further, throughout recent years, the institute’s name populates several bibliographies and research documents I encountered. 

While waiting for my phone interview with Mr. Pertman, I started academic research towards answers to my questions.  My initial probes into adoption language returned next to nothing; this led me to suspect my lack of research skills as the culprit.  I made an appointment with a librarian at Briggs Library on campus.  Miss Elizabeth Fox led me through some basics in “graduate level” research for scholarly articles; and, she took me to the Oxford English Dictionary.  I recognized then I would spend time there, in the Reference Section.

Soon, I spent thirty minutes on the phone with Adam Pertman.  I shared with him my trouble in finding research on this topic of the language of adoption.  I asked him, “Is that because I have just not found it yet, or . . .?”  He enthusiastically jumped in and shared with me that very little research currently exists on the matter.  Further, he informed me of his interest to write a book about such.  Following, please note the wide-range of concepts and topics we discussed that morning over the phone in a 30 minutes phone conversation:

  • The term “put up for adoption” came from children coming off the Orphan Train and stepping up onto platforms waiting for a family to choose them. 
  • Mormon’s and families in other countries still adopt to “grow the flock”—increase their numbers (genius genes, for labor); it probably sounds more crass than it is, as many of them probably do love their children.
  • But, people develop biological families for strange reasons also—even for selfish reasons, too.
  • We cannot develop a good language around secrets and cultural shame.  We haven’t done it well yet.  The language is convoluted. (Pertman)  Pertman quote:  “We pay a very steep price for our history.”

 

  • “Positive Adoption Language” (PAL) aims admirably at “Let’s be positive about this.”  However, why can’t the language be “commonplace adoption language” or “normal adoption language?”  And, Pertman mentioned “was adopted” as part of PAL recommendations; however, current consensus shows that “adoption is a life long process,” so how can we use past-tense terminology?  Shouldn’t PAL be “is adopted?”
  • We discussed those “touched by adoption” (as opposed to “affected by adoption”) might be likened to minorities in our culture.  American Indians, African Americans, and several other minority groups have achieved space for public conversation.  Adoption does not share similar public space or public awareness.    Minority groups often face the problem of recovering from past discrimination or an overall regretful history, and adoption’s history carries regrets.   Pertman says about the struggle to find acceptable adoption words:  “we are trying to clean up the mess from the past.”
  • Because adoption has not made its way into a public conversation yet, many people a) do not think the language has consequences, and b) do not comprehend a problem with rhetoric exists.  Pertman echoes our Crystal textbook in his belief that culture affects language, and language affects culture. 
  • Many people in our culture view adoption as a second-class decision, “Oh, they couldn’t have kids, so they adopted.”  Also, programs like “adopt-a-highway,” “adopt-a-school,” “adopt-a-parking lot” suggest an insensitivity to the word “adopt.”  Do we mean to parallel adopting a highway with adopting a human being with our language?  Pertman wisely drew a picture of a continuum for me—that some uses of the verb “adopt” seem reasonable:  such as “adopting legislation,” some uses might seem marginally reasonable:  “adopt a pet” as most of the time people love and care for their pets—with the exception of choosing to “put one’s dog down” and such.  However, the nonsensical use of the word, such as “adopt-a-star” and “adopt-a-highway” should change, according to Pertman. 
  • What can we do?  Move forward to educate, inform, make public the discussion, change the culture, and change the language.  “Language affects the culture affects the language.” (Pertman)
  • According to Pertman, the culture is changing.  “Many women today are not opposed to the language and not tied to shame and secrecy.” (Pertman)

            After speaking with Mr. Pertman, I recognized the valuable experience of speaking with a real person “in the field.”  I sent emails to department heads on the SDSU campus in the Psychology and Sociology Department with clear descriptions in my subject line, hoping to find another expert—or at least someone interested in this topic.  Instead, my requests all returned as politely declined due to lack of knowledge.  However, one brave psychology professor (who must remain unnamed) responded, assuring me her lack of expertise in the area of adoption; still, she expressed willingness to meet.  That meeting, while very different from what I expected and very different from my interview with Mr. Pertman, helped me progress also.  Apparently, she teaches about adoption in her undergraduate “Child Development” class.  The professor showed me a textbook published in 2009 and one published in 2012.  Please find the following quotes from the textbooks:

Studies of transracial adoptions, in which parents of one racial group adopt a child of a different race, have found no differences between transracial adoptees and children adopted by same-race parents in terms of their racial self-identity, general adjustment, or self-esteem (Baden, 2022; Feigelman, 2000; Silverman & Feigelman, 1990; Vroegh, 1997).  As with children of divorced or single parents, it seems that the majority children adjust well and function normally (Psychology Textbook 472).

Common sense and life experience could argue against these two sentences.  This textbook section also uses the TIME IS MONEY metaphor:  “Adolescents who spend a lot of time wondering about their birth parents may have strained relations with their adoptive parents (Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2002, italics mine).”  As an adoptee, I read this as a warning:  I best not “spend a lot” of my time that way if I want a good relationship with the parents I have; further, I would not want my daughter to believe this statement.  The textbook section (barely one page out of at least 472 pages) does a terrible job, really, of introducing anything true about adoptees.  The other textbook presents a section called, “Adoptive Families.”  This section (in total barely one page out of at least 589 pages) summarizes, “Despite these risks, most adopted children fare well;” and “Clearly, adoption is a satisfying family alternative for most parents and children who experience it.  Good outcomes can be promoted by careful pairing of children with parents and provision of guidance to adoptive families by well-trained social service professionals” (588-589, italics mine).  Both of these seem to come from a place of “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy, seemingly, based on the general “everyone turns out fine eventually, regardless of who parents them” tone of these textbook sections. 

            And, both textbooks, when introducing any deviation from these comforting phrases and passages point to the biology and original background of the child as the first culprit.  When this professor paraphrased to me what the textbooks said, she used the words, “and then of course, there’s bad genes” and giggled.  I raised my eyebrows, leaned forward, widened my eyes beyond their true capability, and asked incredulously, “Does it say that in there?”  When she realized via my reaction that she had perhaps chosen offensive words, she put her nose in one of the books to read one of the following passages “word-for-word:”

Many children are put up for adoption because their biological parents were too young, lived in poverty, were addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffered from a mental illness or serious health problem.  Other children were abused or neglected before being adopted.  (472)

Similarly in the other textbook:  “The biological mother may have been unable to care for the child because of problems believed to be partly genetic, such as alcoholism or severe depression, and may have passed this tendency to her offspring” (588).  After about a half hour, we clearly recognized ourselves as on different playing fields regarding adoption.  We amicably agreed to part ways, I thanked her, and she made copies of her textbook.  Afterwards, I e-mailed her some scholarly research articles from Psychology journals with research pointing to different conclusions than those we discussed.

 

Next, I received an appreciated offer from Dr. Taylor to share links to the Oxford Online dictionary for a set of words, if I could provide for him such a list.  I reviewed my brainstorm of words  and submitted to him my top words in terms of relevance to my project.  As a subscriber to the Oxford Online dictionary, Dr. Taylor possesses the advantage to browse the dictionary from his own personal space rather than drag out the heavy brown leather-bound volumes in Briggs Library.  I simply printed each of the words on paper to begin increasing my awareness of the origins of these words and how to further study them.  I will reference the effect learning the origin of these words surrounding adoption influenced me shortly.

Once I compiled my group of Oxford dictionary definitions, I became curious about how the American Heritage Dictionary online (AHD online) might emit different results.  Looking for adoption words there led me to several revelations, as noted in my portfolio.  For the purpose of this narrative, I will mention only a few discoveries.  First, when I typed in “adoption,” “adopt” arrived on my screen.  The second definition brings up the matter of a pet:

  1.  To take on the legal responsibilities as parent of (a child that is not one’s biological child). 
  2. To become the owner or caretaker of (a pet, especially one from a shelter).  (AHD online, italics mine)

My entry of “birthmom” returned “birth mother and birthmother” and the definition stands alone as “One’s biological mother”  Lack of reference here to adoption seems odd to me, as I do not refer to myself as the birthmother of my biological children—only on rare occasions when people ask if we adopted all of our children.  I typed in “adoptee rights” and found no entries.  I did notice “American Indian” commands a much lengthier definition along with a “Usage Note” compared to the “African American” entry which merely states:  “A black American of African ancestry.”  The second definition of “stepchild” bothered me; “2.  Something that does not receive appropriate care, respect, or attention:  “For the longest time, children’s books … were considered the stepchild of publishing” (Robert Sabuda)” (AHD online).  I checked on this word for two reasons:  1) Adam Pertman mentioned the “accepted language” of stepfamilies, and 2) Kyle referred to his research obsession as the “forgotten stepchild” of Larson’s.  If I were a stepchild, I would not want to find this second entry as part of the definition or hear it used.  To my dismay and shock, when I began to type “orphan” into the AHD online, the search engine recommended “orphan disease” in the white box underneath.  I checked into it and found:   “A disease that is relatively rare, for which the development of drugs is considered to be commercially nonviable.”  “Orphan,” then, took me to a definition holding true two a child for only the first two entries, and then the definitions switched to “animal, “one,” a “technology or product,” and  “a very short line of type.”  I do shake my head at the freedom of the use of a word that originally and most popularly defines a child without parents to care for him or her.

            Speaking of shaking my head, my next research event—searching for journal articles through the Briggs library online site, I typed in “adoptee” and found articles the following titles (to name a few):  “Juvenile Delinquency and psychiatric contact among adoptees compared to non-adoptees,” “Counseling Adult Adoptees,” “ADHD in international adoptees,” “ Our Adoptee, Our Alien,” “Pre-Adoption Adversity and Self-Reported Behavior Problems in 7 Year-Old International Adoptees,” “Risk for schizophrenia in intercountry adoptees,” and “Suicidal behavior in national and international adult adoptees.”

At this point, I turned to Crystal’s book, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, to find answers.  Crystal speaks to my musings in his “Lexical Dimensions” chapter:

Some of the most loaded words in the language are those associated with the way society talks about itself, and especially about groups of people whom it perceive to be disadvantaged or oppressed.  The most sensitive domains are to do with race, gender, sexual affinity, ecology, and (physical or mental) personal development.  (177)

Crystal also refers to a period through which I lived—“the early 1990s . . . [when] people reacted strongly to what they saw as a trend towards terminological absurdity” (177).  My hopes to coin “new words” diminished as I considered even my own eyes rolling with seemingly “absurd” politically correct new words—all the way to “height-challenged” instead of “short.”  But Crystal’s text took me a step further:  “Critics of PC believe that the search for a ‘caring’ lexicon is pointless, as long as the inequalities which the language reflects do not change” (177).  Of course, proponents of PC language believe using incorrect terms can only “perpetuate these inequalities” (Crystal 177).  The following words in Crystal’s text makes me weary of setting out to make adoption language more politically correct:  “Dissatisfaction over one term tends to spread to its replacement, as has been seen with such sequences as negro to black to Afro-American to African-American” (177).  Additionally, “Those who adopt a PC line typically do so with an aggressiveness which creates antagonism” (Crystal 177).  This controversy over “language” shows up in the “Positive Adoption Language” movement and its predecessor:  “Respectful Adoption Language” (RAL) invented by the adoption industry in the mid70s, and not to remain unmentioned—“Honest Adoption Language” (HAL) and Inclusive Language.”  Reading this section in Crystal’s book deters me from forging on as “one of those” who creates a new list.  For now, I stand more on the side of Mr. Pertman and PC critics—that the words and usage of the words will not change until our culture understands adoption.

For a moment, I will present what I found on Wikipedia as a beginning to my research—not as an end.  The quotes I use here come directly from Wikipedia, and most of them relate to the history of adoption and view adoption through a social lens.  Thus, while not directly connected to my linguistic search, much of what I read spurred my further research.  I found phrases like “The Code of Hammurabi . . . details the rights of adopters and the responsibilities of adopted individuals at length;” and, “political and economic interest of the adopter  . . . a legal tool to strengthen political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs.”  I learned from Wiki that “many or Rome’s emperors were adopted sons.”  I read words like “slave supply,” “children as commodity,” “to ensure continuity of cultural and religious practices,” and “adoption of males to perform the duties of ancestor worship.” 

I pressed on further through Ancient times, to the Middle Ages to the Modern Era on Wikipedia and found the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic nobility “denounced adoption” as “bloodlines were paramount” because “a ruling dynasty lacking a natural-born-heir was replaced.”  Napoleonic code “made adoption difficult” and soon after monasteries began raising children who needed parents.  Wikipedia notes this as the “beginning of institutionalization.”  Then, then moving into modern times, I find “the first modern adoption law occurred in 1851.”  I found stories of Sister Irene, the first “foundling asylum” located at 17th East 12th St in NYC.  The details of the address fascinate me as my own search details, addresses, phone number, license plate numbers of my birth family did.  Had I discovered that I spent part of my life in the “foundling asylum,” I would have wanted to know the exact address; and, I would have visited that space.

Finally, I discovered “Charles Loring Brace” and essay entitled The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859).  Charles Loring Brace carries the notoriety as the author of the “Orphan Train” movement, and the “father of foster care.”  Along with Brace’s rough-edged title, I found Henry H. Goddard’s book (1911) titled, Wanted:  A Child to Adopt, and the following excerpt: 

How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates. 

Then, in 1945-974, I see the term “baby scoop era” defining a term of rapid increase in the number of adoption.  Eventually, science began to emphasize nurture over genetics, and the “eugenic stigma” of Brace and Goddard’s movement lessened.  By 1945, the trend of sealing adoption records began; Charles Loring Brace “introduced it to prevent children from the Orphan Trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents.”

            In sum of my Wikipedia findings, I made some discoveries regarding why the hairs raise on the back of my neck when I google “adoptee grief” and find articles and pictures of animals.  Built into the eugenics movement, I found Goddard’s use of the word “pedigree.”  And, built into the history of adoption, I find “slave supply,” “economic interest of the adopter,” and “children as commodity.”  Mr. Pertman spoke directly to this during our interview on the phone:  “We pay a very steep price for our history.”  Words carry both denotations and connotations, and the connotations steeped in this type of history bother me at a gut level. 

            Crystal speaks of “The Loaded Lexicon” in CEEL, stating that “connotation refers the personal aspect of lexical meaning—often, the emotional associations which a lexeme incidentally brings to mind.”  And, “connotations vary according to the experience of individuals, and . . . are to some degree unpredictable” (171).  I find the excerpt from S.I. Hayakawa in which he distinguishes between “snarl words” and “purr words” an interesting concept; I applied these concepts to an “Adoption Glossary” I found on a widely accessed site—Adoption.com.  I included this glossary with an “S” for “snarl” and a “p” for “purr” next to it, based on my own experience and the connotations the words carry for me.  I offer this as an attempt to not create a completely new glossary of terms, but to begin a discussion (even if with myself) of positive, negative, and neutral adoption language words. 

At this point of my research, I find my engagement with the OED quite helpful; it even brought to a place of more peace. 

            On the other side of this I-Search project, mostly I feel “not done.”  I cracked open the door, but I want to learn more.  Personally, my research awakened a new awareness in me regarding adoption language.  So often, I find myself accepting life and its issues as complicated.  The longer I live, the more sides to every story.  

 

. . . don’t tell secrets

I was conceived in secret, born in secret, and kept a secret.  Shhhh . . .  

We teach our children, “don’t tell secrets.” 

What do we mean when we say that?  What I mean with my own children is don’t tell secrets about other people.  Don’t hurt other people by telling secrets about them.  Don’t make up secrets about others.  Don’t put your hands up over your mouth, around someone else’s ear, and whisper something about someone else–something that might be hurtful.  Don’t tell secrets.

Why?  Well, would you like it if someone were whispering behind your back about something you said, something you did, something you wore to school, something about your hair or your shoes?  No.  We don’t like discovering others have been telling secrets about us–whether the stories are true or untrue.

You know what else, children?  Don’t keep secrets.  Why? 

Most people have said or done things they regret and wish they could hide or undo–myself included.  But keeping secrets can hurt you; they hurt and change you–inside and out.  This little nugget is maybe more for your own benefit little ones.  The very important secrets you try to keep–the ones you think No One can handle (a bad grade, a lost ipod, a misplaced phone, money thrown away, property you stole, a chore you didn’t complete)–turn into imaginary monsters that control your life.  Before you even realize it, you are spending an exorbitant amount of energy, thoughts, and concentration on keeping your secrets in the dark.  You might bury your secret successfully for a while, and then “Ahhh!”–something happens in your day that reminds you of what you must vigilantly hide.   Secrets keep you in fear of anyone ever finding out about . . . ?.

While I was in the womb, a decision was made–a decision to keep me a secret.  I can only imagine the feelings my birth parents experienced as they watched my birth mom’s tummy growing, struggled to keep life at status quo, explained why my birth mom was dropping out of college in her senior year, talked of returning to “normal” plans to marry once I was born and placed for adoption, tried to hide my presence in her body.  The stress of it.  I cannot imagine.  And then, once I was born and gone from their lives (so to speak), they were the only two (supposedly) who knew what had just happened.

I had happened.  The baby in me wants to say, “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry for the trouble and pain I caused.”  The adult in me knows . . . I have no ownership in my conception, my birth, nor the effect my birth had on my birth parents.

Today, like them, I make my own decisions regarding my life.  I make some good ones, and I make some bad ones.
I make some decisions that seem like good ones at the time, . . . and then sadly hurt others around me.

One decision I have made is to not be a secret.  My adoption search and reunion journey kind of goes like this:  being a secret, choosing not to be a secret, being asked/threatened to retreat again as a secret (like a monster–no less).  This has damaged my heart and my soul.

As a child, my parents didn’t keep my story as a secret from me.  Thank God–they told me my story every day, whispering it into my ear; therefore, there was never a big scary secret monster revealed to me.  I simply assimilated the truth day by day.

My life and existence is well-known by my Creator, my extended family, and my friends.  My story, which began with my conception–not my adoption–is not a secret I keep, nor does anyone else in my family (including birth relatives who share their lives with me as just that–a birth/biological relative).

I am not a secret.  I am me–alive and well.  I went on  . . . to live . . . my life.

 

 

 

 

I drove.  I drove and I drove and I drove.  I drove laboriously from SD to IL, thru IN, to TN, to MS, back to IL, and then back to SD–all in about 6 days.  Part of the time, I labored alone.  Other parts of the trip, my oldest son joined me in the journey.

We headed together to orientation at Ole Miss.  For an incoming freshman, orientation is mandatory, and it proved to be well worth the trip/cost/investment of time.  Part of the experience, I expected–the feelings of newness, excitement, the energy on a college campus, some frustration at not knowing our way.  Upon arriving, we struggled to find our exact destination due to construction and renovations happening at Ole Miss.  However, once we found the Welcoming area, we received smiles and welcomes from the orientation leaders, Ole Miss gear, handbooks to guide us further through the next 36ish hours, and we settled into our hotel room.

My son soon headed out for the evening to meet up with some other Ole Miss orientation attendees.  “Good for him,” I thought.  Facebook rocks, really.  Through Facebok/Twitter and probably other stuff I don’t even know about, he has already met several incoming freshman.  He went out in Oxford/on campus while I stayed back in the room.  Hmmm . . .

I am not an overly hovering mom.  I don’t think it’s my nature.  God gave me 5 kids to keep me from micro-managing them.  Partly because of the sheer numbers, our kids have to be pretty responsible for themselves and their belongings.  I just can’t keep track of it all.  So, aside from an emotional high school graduation week a little less than a month ago, I really have been doing just fine.  I am excited for my oldest son.  He has made a great choice, and I trust him as a young man.

“Have fun!” I’m sure I said as he headed out for the evening.

The next morning, as we waited for orientation to start, I felt something overwhelm me I’ve never before experienced.

I wanted to stop time.

I can still feel it.  I can close my eyes and feel that deep need to make it all stop.  I had a moment of dread, of panic, of fear.  I experienced the reality of my inability to control these moments–to control the progression of time.

“Nick,” I said.  “What if I want to opt out right now?  What if I just don’t want to go through with this . . . this whole you going to college thing?  I have this feeling of wanting to go backwards somehow, and we can’t.  You are going.  It’s time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  He smiled.  Exhale.

Once I said it, I was OK.  But my thoughts turned immediately to my birth mom for a few moments.  How must she have felt as my due date was approaching?  The time was nearing . . . .  I would be born and we would part.  She would leave me somewhere.  She would not be there to care for me anymore.  I would not be in her tummy.  I would be gone.

Did she want it all to stop?  Did she want to opt out of the moment . . . find a way to detour around it?

As labor began, I don’t know, but I have to believe an overwhelming feeling similar to my feelings about Nick must have come up in her.  The end of “us” was approaching, and there was nothing she could do.  We would have to part. Sadness must have come over her; we had been as one for almost 9 months.

In the moment, I allowed myself to feel the feeling about Nick, share it, breathe, and re-engage in what I know is best for him.  It is best for him to go to college.  OK.  I won’t try to keep him.  :)  And for that, I know he is glad.

All went “as expected” again for quite a while.  In fact, in one of the parent sessions I won a gas card for having driven the furthest miles for orientation!  Wahoo!  Then later, another scheduled separation occurred.  I found myself walking down the hallway back into my room without my son.  That’s how it was supposed to go.  The orientation leaders had a fun evening planned for the students, and the parents could “take a break.”  So, I walked back to my room, alone.

The words of one of the speakers rang in my ears, “We understand here, at Ole Miss, that trusting your son or daughter with another family is not an easy thing to do.”  Yes, sir, you are right.  I am trusting my son with the Ole Miss family and the Ole Miss experience.  My thoughts turned unexpectedly again to my birth mother as I walked and turned the corner into my room.  She carried me, felt me grow stretch and hiccup in her tummy, labored to deliver me, and then  . . . left me “as scheduled,” and walked back to her life, without me.  Anymore.

I wonder if she could even allow her brain to think about who would raise me and care for me.  It might have been too scary.  Because I know my son, and have known him for 18 years and more, I have some trust not only in the Ole Miss family he has chosen, but also in Nick.  He has proven to be a good decision maker–a fun kid with a good head on his shoulders.

But my birth mom . . . she was trusting her newborn baby, first to a foster mom/home (I don’t know anything about this home still today.  The information and details about my 3 days there are sealed and hidden from me.), and then to a set of parents about whom she knew so little–who would raise me from day 7 through this very moment.  As a mom, thinking of my newborn babies, I picture that infant (me) as completely helpless.

How?  How do you turn over a little one who knows nothing at all about life, . . . ?  So much could happen and will happen in life.  I have had the privilege of parenting my son Nick for 18 years and putting my own fingerprints all over his heart, soul, and mind (the good, the bad, and the ugly ones–ish).  But my birth mom . . . that was it.  She would offer me no parenting, no life skills, no “be careful of . . . ” from her own life experiences and beliefs.

I recognized as I was separating from my son, a little at a time, worries of “did I teach him enough about . . . ,” and “should I remind him of . . . ” crept into my heart and mind.  I wonder what my birth mom was thinking as we were separated.  She would have no opportunity to teach me anything of her own.

I know from some of her words spoken only through a confidential intermediary she believed God was with her during that time.  My birth dad allegedly was with her during labor.  Surely she leaned on those sources as she handed me over . . . and I thank God for the family and life He planned for me before I was even in her womb and for the Scriptures assuring me of this truth and of His hand.

Psalm 139: 13,16

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. . . .

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

I’m growing older (mom of a college student . . . !).  Am I growing wiser?

Interview for Graduate Assistantship within the University Studies College, 1 p.m., check.

I’m on time!  It’s a miracle prompted by my best friend sharing with me that my interviewer happens to be military breed.

Interview going well, check.  We discuss my journey to this point in life (ha!), what his department seeks in a graduate assistant, and more.

Interviewer mentions, “actually, you are sitting in the delivery room of the once upon a time Brookings Hospital right now.  Do you know how many people, I wish I had kept track, have come into my office because they want to see–as adults–the room in which they were born.”

Unexpected reaction.  The floor moves under my feet.  My eyes dart around the room and the walls, and I sense birthing.  I sense delivering moms, nurses, babies, . . . .  He can’t know what’s going through my mind.  I don’t even know what’s going through my mind, but this is part of it:

I was in a delivery room once.  Oh how I want to visit my actual delivery room.  Does it still exist?  Would they (who is “they?”) let me in to see?  Would I be restricted yet again from access to my own history?  What would I feel if I went there?  Would I feel her presence?  Did my parents know I was being born, or did they find about me a few days after delivery?  When did my birth parents leave the hospital?  Where did I go after I was delivered?  Can I seeeeeeeeeeeeeee?

They were all there in the delivery room, I’m told:  the mom, the dad, the nurses, the doctor, and then me.  And then,  . . . I was alone.  I am thinking and feeling that alone feeling while sitting 12 hours away from my actual delivery room of 1970.

Can he tell?  I know he can’t, but my insecure piece inside of me surfaces shame–shame that my delivery room experience wasn’t “normal,” and isn’t exactly the story he might expect from one of his many visitors.  For example, the prestigious and wealthy community man/bank owner of our town was delivered in this room and came to visit.  His birth parents kept him.

Thankfully, I am far enough in my emotional, intellectual, spiritual journey now, that I know God’s plan for my life is perfect and good.  Still, my story is so different.  I was given away–two sides to every story, right?  The delivery room was an end of family ties for me with one family, and a beginning of finding new family ties by day 7 of my little life.  Does that blow anyone’s mind?  It does mine.

I don’t necessarily feel good in this office, this delivery room.  It doesn’t give me warm fuzzies, sir.

Happy news–I got the job/assistantship . . .  :)

 

Tag Cloud

From Instant to Forever

They came to me in an instant. That instant began our forever.

Daniel Ibn Zayd

(Yet another) angry transracial adoptee.

Flesh & bone

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again

The Roads Taken

...making all the difference. Journeys in fits and starts, dead ends, u-turns, common sense, and love.

Racing The States...

Attaining the runner's high

CORRE Y VIVE

Mi pasion por correr y la tarea diaria de llevar una vida saludable de cuerpo y alma

Running with Science

A young scientist that runs...a lot

antheaschronicles

Travel, Love, God, Life....

Bucket List Publications

Indulge- Travel, Adventure, & New Experiences

Moolta

The official Moolta Blog

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,496 other followers

%d bloggers like this: