Matthew Salesses explains that adoptees may not be able to find all the answers they’re looking for, and that needs to be okay.
—This was originally published on the author’s blog.
Editor’s Note: This is an open letter to Ann Brenoff and @HuffPoParents about her piece My Daughter’s Baby Picture.
Dear Ann Brenoff,
Earlier today, I read your essay about taking your adopted daughter to China to get her some answers about her adoption. I noticed that the comments are overwhelmingly positive, and also that they are overwhelmingly from other parents. I’m a parent, too, but I am writing to you as an adoptee, not as a dad.
I won’t beat around the bush: your essay upset me. Angered me, even, at first. Because it simplifies the issue of adoption and suggests that answers can be gotten from a quick trip to the birth land and a photograph. Then I realized I wasn’t truly angry but sad.
I wish I could make you see how much you are leaving out, how you are giving your daughter and future adoptive parents the wrong (and perhaps harmful) impression. That there are “answers” that can set someone at peace with being adopted. Peace for an adoptee does not come from seeing the place she was left. (Or even, I might argue, how or why.) I know this. Peace is not about answers. As far as I can tell, from everything I have learned and questioned about myself, it is about accepting that there will always—always—always be questions. The answers are never really answers.
I can’t say whether meeting one’s birth mother would give one a real answer—maybe it would. I haven’t found my birth mother, and probably couldn’t even if I tried hard. I was abandoned and found by an orphanage as a baby, where I was raised until I was 2-and-a-half. Or so says the orphanage and the adoption agency I came through—though I learned recently (an important lesson), from an adoptee who eventually found her birth family, that these organizations often lie. Maybe things have changed since when I was adopted. Maybe things are different in China.
But speaking from experience, finding out about the orphanage that raised you does not allow you to understand your adoption. If, Ann, you meant to talk about specific answers, like what the place was like, and who took care of your daughter when she was there, and what kind of baby she was, then I wish you had framed your essay like that. I wish you hadn’t made it sound like adoption had been answered, like your daughter is healed now of that deep deep loss we never truly “get over.”
Adoption isn’t simple. It’s the most complicated thing I know. Answers are not easy and not firm and don’t answer the questions you’re really asking—or, as the case may be, not asking. Adoptees may wonder about their real birthday, or what it was like where they grew up, or even why they were abandoned (getting closer), but what they are really asking is much more complex than that. I have asked those questions both out loud and in my head my entire life. And underneath those questions are further questions—like how has adoption made me who I am, and who is that, and how would I be different if I knew my birth family?—and underneath those questions are questions I don’t even know how to ask, or know to ask, since the part of me that would know what to look for is a part of me I can’t recover. I am searching for answers, but I am searching for questions. And answers always lead to more questions, at least in my experience.
It is complicated. Adoptees need their adoptive parents to know that it is complicated, and to tell them so. The language in your essay, Ann, makes implications that could be damaging for adoptees looking to understand, and for adoptive parents looking to understand. Confusion is how adoption is. Adoptive parents, please acknowledge this. Please don’t try to tell us differently. Please don’t try to tell us the fog isn’t real. Just stand there with us and let us hear your (true, honest) voice.
When you say, Ann,
One of the cold realities of adopting an older child from China is that she comes with a lot of questions, many of which you can’t answer.
Why cold? Why older? Why China?
One of the realities of adopting is that there are questions that can’t be answered. There. This is the truth. It doesn’t matter where that child is adopted from or how old she is when she’s adopted. The questions will always be there, and I wish all adoptive parents would know that this is universal and that it is okay and that it is not cold but simply real.
When you say, Ann,
Still, it was an orphanage and what she didn’t have during those years was what she wanted most: a forever family. Us.
How do you know what she most wanted? How do you know it was “us”? Again, we do not really know what we want—that’s part of it, that there is such a deep rift in your life that you don’t know how to climb down into it to see how far it goes or what is at its bottom. On top of that, though, why do you think that what she wanted most wasn’t her birth parents? I love my family. I love my parents and am enormously, endlessly grateful to them. I am so so grateful. And yet they weren’t what I wanted, as a kid. Of course they weren’t. What I wanted was what other kids had, or seemed to have. What I wanted, at least, was to know what it would be like, to be part of a family from which I sprung, even if to find out that what I needed was my adoptive family. Which I do.
When you say, Ann,
But I also heard from many, many more parents who told me that their children’s orphanage visits went smoothly, were cathartic and helpful.
Why didn’t you ask adoptees? Why didn’t you ask adoptees who had grown up a little since then, who have some perspective and could tell you what those trips meant to them? I wish I had gone to Korea when I was 14, or younger. I went when I was 24. And I learned a lot. I learned so much. And I have even more questions for all the “answers” I found. It was great and eye-opening and important to me to go to Korea, but I can tell you that no trip is going to answer what being adopted means. I can tell you that at 14, I might have thought or even made myself believe that I had figured something out, but I wouldn’t have. I don’t think a trip back to an orphanage really answers the real questions at any age, and I know it takes time, a lot of time, to process what you feel. Six years after my first year in Korea, I’m still trying to figure out what that trip meant to me at 24, having married a Korean woman and with a child of our own.
When you say, Ann,
that Sophie got her answers. But what the trip gave me may have even upstaged that: I got a baby photo of my daughter taken when she was just 40 days old.
You make it sound like she got all of her answers. You make it sound like she is suddenly whole, as if adoption can be put behind her. You make it sound so easy and so complete. And then you make it sound like even if your daughter got answers, a photo is more important to you. I can’t even begin to say what is wrong with that. That makes me so sad, to take the focus away from her. That makes me the saddest of all.
On the other hand, when you say, Ann,
We saw where Sophie once slept and I immediately knew where her aversion to itchy blankets comes from.
I love that this is about you understanding her. That is an essay I would have loved to have read. The mother’s perspective, how the trip brought the two of you closer. That is something beautiful and empathetic.
But when you say, Ann,
And yes, Sophie got her answers. She was given the details of how and where she was found. The story made her cry and I wept alongside her. The truth sometimes hurts and there is no greater pain than the one you watch your child experience.
I get so sad again. That you would let her think that knowing how and where she was found was enough, or that you would think that it is enough. It isn’t. It isn’t enough. Are those the “answers”? Are they?
When you say, Ann,
She knows that the small scar on her arm wasn’t caused by anything noted in the orphanage records, suggesting that she may be one of the Chinese babies whose birth mother marked her, hoping to be able to recognize her should their paths ever cross again.
I worry that the orphanage records wouldn’t record abuse (of course). I worry because I have unknown scars, and because orphanages and agencies that make money selling babies are not always the most honest organizations, and because you suggest that the scar might be from your daughter’s birth mother, a suggestion that could influence her opinion of her birth mother and make her think her mother thought too little of her body, or her pain, when there is no evidence for that. There are more questions here. I want us to see the questions not being asked.
Lastly, when you say, Ann,
Later, when we visited her finding spot in a village on the outskirts of the city — led there by a map provided by the orphanage — I caught my trouper of a daughter staring into the faces around us. Unable to help myself, I asked if she was looking for her birth mother. “No,” she said, “You’re my Momma and I’ve found everything I came looking for,” she said.
I looked at her baby photo and thought: “Me too.”
I know that your daughter loves you. I am glad of it. I love my mother and I would tell her the same. But I would tell her that out of love. I wouldn’t want her to worry that I hadn’t learned enough, that I still felt incomplete. I might even use my love of her as an excuse not to figure out more. I know I have used it. I wish you had encouraged your daughter to find out more, and more importantly, to question more. I wish you hadn’t thought you had found everything you were looking for. I wish you had passed on, as a parent, how unknowable the future and the past are, and how a photo is nothing compared to the moment in time trapped within your daughter’s heart.
For more from Matthew Salesses, check out his article Yellowface in Cloud Atlas.