My Blog
Saturday, 12 August 2006
Happy Adoptees
Mood:  celebratory

This article was written by one of the first people i encountered in my quest to find understanding. She still remains a special part of my life through her work, even though she'll never know it. She is Julie. She is an artist. A writer. She is one of us. She is an adoptee.


Happy Adoptees
by Julie A. Rist 
I am not the happy and grateful adoptee that you want me to be.  Don't get me wrong.  I was happy and grateful for almost 45 years -- or so I believed.  Had you asked me then how I felt about being adopted, you might have heard something like, "Great!  I am so grateful to my (adoptive) parents for all they did and, no, I am not interested in finding my 'real' family.  My adoptive family is my 'real' family, thankyouverymuch, and they are a wonderful family.  I've had a wonderful life.  Of course, I am grateful to my natural mother for giving me life.  Oh, you're adopting?  How wonderful!"

I enthusiastically expressed that view all those years because I needed to convince myself that my life was normal and right and that I was okay.  I did it because everyone else wanted me to feel that way, too.  And I thought I would die if I ever looked deeper.

Happy children

You've seen adopted children who seem to be perfectly happy, too.  They smile and have fun just like those whose families are intact.  They act happy and, occasionally, they are.

Yes, adopted children smile and laugh.  Did you stop smiling after you lost a loved one?  Didn't you still laugh when someone said something funny?  Weren't you still capable of having some fun? 

Did you ever smile and act happy to hide your grief? 

Of course you did.  But even when you smiled, those close to you knew it didn't mean you were happy.  Those close to you accepted and expected your pain and sadness.  They did not expect you to be happy about your loss.  They gave you something most adoptees do not get: acknowledgement of, empathy for, and permission to express your grief. 

What grief?

In the early '50s when I was adopted, little was known about the power of the bond between mother and child.  Society still accepted Locke's theory of tabula rasa -- that we are born as blank slates.  John Locke died in 1704, yet his theory survived until the mid- 50s.  Now, however, we know that even before birth babies are intelligent, remembering and aware beings with their own personalities.   

We know that much of who we are today was created in the womb. We know that mother and child are a single entity, profoundly connected physiologically, emotionally and spiritually -- even through early infancy.  A baby does not understand that he or she is an individual until at least 9 months after birth. 

Through their research, authorities have determined that, when the mother/child entity is split, it causes an acute and lasting trauma in both mother and child.  The repercussions are ominous and tenacious.  Though they become buried deep inside, the repercussions follow both mother and child throughout the remainder of their lives.

It is difficult, emotionally, to imagine a tiny baby's very real feelings about the loss of his or her mother -- the terror of losing all that is familiar, all that is comfort -- the unique heartbeat, scent, taste, voice, rhythms and vibrations.  Babies are born needing and expecting these familiar things which only their natural mothers can provide. 

Even with this knowledge which has accumulated over the past 20 years, there remain those in our society who sever the mother/child entity as casually as they would cut a common earthworm in two.

Ignored trauma is another trauma

A child's first experience in the adoptive family is usually joining in everyone else's happiness over his or her tragedy.  The child's first trauma is ignored or dismissed, perhaps in the belief that enough love will make it disappear.  It will not.  In essence, the adoptee is expected to dance along with everyone else on his or her own mother's virtual grave.  Most experts in the fields of adoption psychology and trauma consider this dismissal to be the adoptee's second trauma.

The first and second traumas are the root causes for a number of issues and for additional traumas, which accumulate one upon another (what Betty Jean Lifton calls "Cumulative Trauma").

We may not want to imagine these things because it is uncomfortable to do so but, to act in a child's best interest including protecting his or her emotional health, we need to suffer through such discomfort.


Over 14 years ago, I began 9 years in therapy, struggling with a boatload of issues that are utterly classic in adoptees.  I didn't accomplish much.  The problem was that I did not connect them with my adoption experience.  In all fairness, my therapist encouraged me to recognize the connection, but I was so deep in "De Nile" that I could not see it -- indeed would not see it.  I needed too desperately (like most of society) to believe that my adoption experience was the positive part of my life -- not the source of my problems.

Denial is powerful and, in many ways, a gift.  It is a state we create in order to avoid feeling the pain of seeing the truth.  When a baby's world is gone, he or she does whatever it takes to survive.  If the child does not get empathy and permission to grieve, he or she has no choice but to psychologically deny the trauma.  And that includes smiling to hide the grief.  The child begins to believe that his or her feelings are unimportant -- even wrong.  The child learns how not to feel.

I do not use the word "denial" in a damning or judgmental way.  It is a normal and natural human survival tool.  I not only acknowledge it but, knowing intimately the pain that comes with shedding that denial, I am reticent to nudge others out of it.  Denial can be a trauma victim's most effective tool for survival, because revisiting the event that caused the trauma can feel literally life threatening.

The downside of denial unfortunately outweighs the upside.  Denial prevents us from understanding and effectively managing all the issues that stem from the disintegration of the mother/child entity.  What are the most common issues?


Issues of the adoptee are barely acknowledged by society and then only in those who are of a different race than the adoptive family -- as if physical differences are the only ones that matter.  But there are reasons why we see repetitive generations of lawyers, healers, scholars, actors, artists, etc. in natural families.  It is not just a matter of continuing a family business or tribal tradition.  It is a matter of like characteristics being perpetuated, generation after generation, being nurtured by genetic mirroring.

Even if we are not transracial or biracial adoptees, we still do not get the genetic mirroring that we so desperately need.  We don't know how tall we'll get, or whether our hair will get darker or lighter, our skin clearer, our bodies thinner or thicker.  We don't know who we'll look like when we're older.  Our own natural characteristics are unfamiliar, so we don't know what we should or should not choose to develop.

Although such things may seem inconsequential to those around us, they are monumental to us, and serve to make us feel even more alienated, more lost.

When an adoptee's characteristics do not fit those of the adoptive family (or the extended adoptive family), there can be trouble.  In my case art, writing and psychology were all frowned upon by my adoptive family.  Yet those characteristics run happily in my natural family.  Though my adoptive parents meant well, I grew up feeling like a bad seed.  Out of desperation for approval, I pursued career paths that I thought would please them but even those successes were never enough to overcome their disappointment.

Carrying the surname of someone else's family also contributes to identity problems.  The child is expected to embrace the adoptive family's ancestry, as if his or her own is immaterial -- as if living in the dark is no big deal.

Low self-esteem

Identity issues can explain some low self-esteem, a classic adoptee problem.  Another cause is some adoptive parents' -- and society's -- (unmistakable yet unspoken) low opinion of the stereotypical "birthmother."  Not only is this an unfair and incorrect judgment about our mothers, but adopted children incorporate these attitudes into their own self-image. 

Along with this message, adopted children are often told that, essentially, their mothers loved them so much that they gave them away.  This makes no sense.  If my mother really loved me that much, she would have kept me -- therefore there must be something wrong with me.  This creates low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem leads to people-pleasing.  Adoptees are exemplary people-pleasers.  That is why we so often appear to be happy and are pleasant to be around.  Lots of smiling!  Our original purpose as adoptees was to fulfill the desires of others, to make them happy.  Early on, our authentic selves are sacrificed to fill those needs.

Powerlessness and control

For many adoptees, it is easy to fall into despair and feel powerless over circumstances that emotionally healthy people can overcome with relative ease.  This is rooted in our separation experience, when we felt powerless, helpless and hopeless.  Paradoxically, we can become obsessed with controlling other parts of our lives, those things and events that we can control.  This is conflict waiting to happen.


Often, depression can come from the sheer exhaustion of maintaining pretense (being in denial).  No matter how much love and care we are given, the truth is that we are (and will always be) someone else's children.  Yet we exhaust ourselves emotionally, pretending otherwise because we believe it will ensure our survival and prevent another abandonment. 

We also expend a lot of energy fantasizing about our natural mothers, and a lot of energy burying our authentic selves in favor of people-pleasing.  All these things take a great deal of energy yet offer little reward  -- fertile ground for depression.


One of our most common problems is that of trust.  The original disintegration of the mother/child entity can literally destroy a baby's nascent sense of trust.  Once lost, it can never be recovered.  Only a tentative sense of trust can be painstakingly built by the adoptive family, yet it will always be difficult and sometimes impossible.  Again paradoxically, we tend to casually trust anyone and everyone.  It is when deep trust is required, as in intimacy, we tend to fall short.


Abandonment is the most common issue of the adoptee.  Despite the true circumstances of the separation from our natural mothers, we experienced this emotionally as abandonment.  Even with later knowledge of those circumstances, the early emotional experience of abandonment never leaves us.  Relationship troubles abound.  Other issues such as trust, identity, low self-esteem and control compound these troubles.

Many people have abandonment issues.  For adoptees, however, abandonment is not just painful.  It can feel like annihilation.

"Only eyes washed by tears can see clearly." -- Louis Mann

Staying in denial, while it may be a refuge, hurts everyone involved.  Although seeing the truth also hurts, don't parentless children deserve what they truly need?  How can society continue pretending that the smiles are genuine simply because it is easier than acknowledging the underlying problems?

For those who genuinely care about these children and want to take that first step toward seeing clearly, start with one of Betty Jean Lifton's books, such as Journey of the Adopted Self or Nancy Verrier's The Primal Wound.  They offer insight into the issues of adoptees, adoptive parents, and of mothers who have lost children to adoption.  Such knowledge and understanding can open our minds and hearts to alternatives that are better than adoption.

Smiles as masks

Despite all these traumas and issues, adoptees smile.  We smile to hide a world of hurt that neither we nor the rest of the world want to face.  We smile because the world needs us to smile.  They need to believe they are doing the right thing for us, to forget those silly "issues," and call us "happy."  By smiling, we help them do that. 

Next time you encounter a "happy" and "grateful" adoptee who had "wonderful" adoptive parents and a "wonderful" life, look a little closer. 

Ms. Rist is an artist, writer, and adoption alternatives activist living in Phoenix. 

Copyright © J. A. Rist 2002.  All rights reserved.


Posted by sonofasurrogate at 11:57 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 12 August 2006 12:15 PM EDT

Tuesday, 15 August 2006 - 1:36 PM EDT

Name: "Raedella"

I have read what you posted about 50 times and each time I rack my brains out trying to identify and find something that I am not grateful for.  I search for the remotest morsel of denial I might have and never can find any.  I have asked myself if this is normal and why I don't feel ungrateful or angry or sad or any of the  other feelings some adoptees have and still alays come up feeling even more happy grateful and content that ever.  Maybe part of my gratitude comes from not being in the miserable state that some adoptees are in.  I wish all adoptees felt as I do.  I do find though in all honesty some adoptees use adoption as an excuse for their adult action. which brings me to my next question.  When is it time to grow up , accept and move on?  Thank God I never had thios problem but all to many times as I said before adoption is uded as an excuse.  Now don't get me wrong, there are times when some people need to find their roots for medical reasons (as I did) or to find some type of resolution but you wouldthink living as an adoptee one would know no other way.  There are many non adoptees that are pissed of at their natural parents and blame them for their problems again using them as an excuse for past behavior. I am not an alcoholic but this seems to be a popular theme at 12 step meeting from talking t to people that attend them.


OK I am off that soap boxI read these blogs to hear how other fellow adotees/Donor babies/TS babies feel about thinks even though I really do not identify.  Truth be told my cousin is seeking a TS so that also comes into play.  I also think that because my siblings and I (all adoptees) are not dysfuntional  and are all happy well balanced and grateful that she feels this will hold true with a TS baby.

Now one more thing, I am still curious to know how you Brian as a gay man would  ever become a parent if your partner and you ever wanted to have a family.  Why don't you answer that insted of posting something  that has been posted on every anti adoption and anti surrogacy board Ihave gone to.  I am 48 yrs old and still no denial or shred of discontentment so maybe you could search a little harder if you are trying  to help me find some kind of discontentment or ungratefulness.  I wish you peace.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006 - 12:22 PM EDT

Name: "Brian"

Ok, Raedella, I'll play.

If i ever wanted a child, i would find a woman to co-parent with. I would NEVER take a baby from his or her mother for my own selfish needs. You do NOT have to take a baby from their mother to be a father.

I'm really glad that you are grateful and happy.

As far as wishing me peace, well....let me direct you here cuz Joy said it better than I could have. LOL


Wednesday, 16 August 2006 - 12:29 PM EDT

Name: "Brian"

Raedella, why would you think i was trying to convince you of anything? You come into MY blog and make comments saying i am trying to convince YOU? Wait a minute. YOU are the one that came here. If you don't like what i am saying, well then don't read it and know that you are secure in your grateful and happy state without trying to come into my blog and convince me of it. Simple as that. Sounds more like you are trying to convince yourself of something rather than me. 



Wednesday, 16 August 2006 - 3:38 PM EDT

Name: "Raedella"

First of all I hardly consider discussing ones feelings "playing".  The only reason why I replied the way I did was because I though your post about grateful adoptees  and the woman in denial was directed toward me and that article has been used so many times since it has been published and I have read and reread it so many times I could almost copy it verbatim.  As far as wishing someone peace in my country this is a common salutation, but excuse me if you would rather chaos and turmoil instead I thought that  possibly someone who comes off as fairly intelligent would see by name that I am not of US origin.

My daughter has been considering being a TS for my cousin and me being an adoptee you can understand how I would be involved and read such surrogacy and adoption blogs and boards.  I asked the question about whay you would do if you desired children because I see many gay men  obtain the services of TS and SM and ED being that God did not supply 2 of the same sex the ability to procreate so I wondered whay you as a gay man feel about such matters.  Such things are no socially accepted in my country as many oppose gays having families in the first place.  Since you did answer my question about what you would do if you desired a child I will ask you how you feel about gay men who are IPs and not shared parents.  In MA (assuming that is where you live) 2 of the same sex  can be listed on legal certificates such as marraige and birth.  They are listed as Parent #1 and Parent#2  likewise as far as spouses go.  What are your feelings on that? What about adoption from underdeveloped 3rd world countries?  I guess what I mean to say is are you completely against all adoption/surrogacy?  Also, why do feel the IPs are "taking babies from their mothers" what about the the women who are "giving" these babies up and allowing this to happen.  I realize thjat sadly this has become a "supply and demand" market.  Rarely does this happen in Haiti, we don't want our children used as a commodity and if such situation does occur then we would rather a famil, friend or someone close take the child and this is part reason why we have homes for such children who most like are orphaned due to death or extreme poverty.  In some villages we think nothing of taking a nearby child to our own breastif the family is too poor.  We do not just give our children out for convience.  But once again, off the soap box about such matters.


One last thing, there is a very big difference that an attempt to understand and identify and trying to relate than attempting to convince  or sway one to see things differently.

Friday, 18 August 2006 - 6:53 PM EDT

Name: "Joy"

Thursday, 17 August 2006 - 18:58 EDTName:"joy"E-Mail:Comment:

"Raedella" wrote:
I have read what you posted about 50 times and each time I rack my brains out trying to identify and find something that I am not grateful for. 
 I truly don't understand people who talk about reading things 50 times because they are so happy and grateful, I am not so happy and grateful about everything, and even I don't do that, I like to play outside sometimes. 
So I will just wish you peace, not you Brian, for Brian I am wishing that you have the strength to continue on the journey of self that you are on, it takes ganas.  And it's hard to have everyday.

Friday, 18 August 2006 - 7:01 PM EDT

Name: sonofasurrogate
Home Page:

Oh crap. Joy asked me to delete her email off of the reply, and i could not do that without deleting her whole comment and then reposting it which is what i did. Then I noticed the first comment from Raedella was gone too and I have no idea how it happened. I am terribly sorry. I didn't mean to do that, i don't know how i did it and i am very sorry it happened. :( We don't have to agree but i think everyone has a valuable opinion and i am not at all about censorship so i feel bad that it happened. Please forgive me.

Saturday, 19 August 2006 - 12:06 AM EDT

Name: "joy"

Your comment section confuses me!  I didn't know my email would be visibile, and there are all these strange lines.
I posted about Radella (sp?) forgive if I have that wrong, can't see it right now. Anyway how she said she read your post 50 times, which is quite a compliment, I don't think there is anything I have read that many times!
 But honestly, my comment was speaking to how I can't fathom being happy and well-adjusted and reading something 50 times, especially in lovely summer time.
Hell, I can't imagine doing that as a malcontent.  I do like to go outside sometimes.
And Brian, don't let anyone silence you, I find myself saying this a lot on adoptee blogs, but it is paramount.
We deserve to be heard, we have lived most of our lives for other people the least they can do is let us speak, thank you very much.

Thursday, 12 August 2010 - 12:23 PM EDT

Name: "Jay"

I agree with you, Raedella. I come to this issue from a different perspective. My partner and I are adoptive fathers of a toddler, who was abused and abandoned by his birth parents. If I thought he would grow up and be as resentful and whiny as some of these adoptees, my partner and I would probably have re-thought our decision.


I hesitate to add that most people who adopt children do so for their own reasons, not out of altruism for the adopted child; but it is also true that in most cases the adopted child is given a far better home and environment than they would have had without being adopted. 


Obviously, people feel what they feel, and it is perfectly possible that our child will grow up and feel sad that he is an adoptee.


We hope that will not be the case. In our minds at any rate, he is not our "adopted child," but our child. No asterisk. No conditions.


A pretty ugly person told me that I was just raising someone else's unwanted child and that he wasn't really my child. You can imagine what I responded to such absurdity.


In any case, people need to be more grateful for the good things in their lives and less whiny about things they cannot change.


I should add that in my state when my child is 18, he will gain access to his original birth certificate. It will be his decision whether he wants to attempt to contact his birth parents. My husband and I will support whatever decision he makes, but I suspect it will be difficult for us if he decides to make contact with them.

Thursday, 13 October 2011 - 9:22 AM EDT

Name: "Mary"


Did you ever meet your biological/birthparents?  Just curious.


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