November is National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM). But for adoptees, it’s become National Adoptee Awareness Month. The name change by adoptees is part of their efforts to have a voice in discussions about adoption, rather than having parents and adoption agencies speak for them. They want to share their experiences and raise awareness of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption trauma that are experienced by adoptees daily. Out of the many impacts, I’ll briefly focus on one of the core issues: identity. What I write is from my personal experiences, as well as from what I’ve gathered from books, speakers, online forums, friends, and clients (no personal information will be shared).

Identity, the question of “Who Am I?”, is complex for Adoptees to answer. Finding those answers is complicated and difficult because many don’t have easy access to information, or to people who could answer those questions. Identity takes shape in different ways, and for adoptees, forming their identities is more easily accomplished if they have knowledge of:

  • birth family name
  • birth parents and extended family
  • birth story – date, location, time, with whom
  • their name given at birth
  • country
  • culture
  • language
  • customs
  • heritage
  • family legacies

Another way is through relationships:

  • when they have connection to birth family, ancestors, people who knew their birth family
  • mirroring from someone who looks like them, sounds like them, acts like them
  • when birth families can tell them stories about them and the family
  • when people (preferably birth family) of their own race and culture can teach them how to be a part of their group

For adoptees who are adopted Transracially (a different race from their adoptive parents) and Transnationally (adopted from a different country), access to information and people is even more difficult because they can’t easily travel to their birth country, and the country may have different laws that prevent adoptees from having rights to their information (that still happens in the U.S.A too). Having a minimal amount of information, or none at all, results in adoptees having a sense of not really existing, and if one doesn’t exist, then it’s difficult to have an identity.

Adoptees may experience that lack of sense of Self in ways that affect them socially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In relationships with others, it’s difficult to feel safe, connected, have a sense of community and belonging without a sense of Self, so they adapt by:

  • Isolating – if I am alone then I can ignore my lack of identity, I don’t need to be anyone, no one will ask who I am, I’m not worthy enough to be in relationships, no one can abandon me, I won’t be hurt again
  • Fawning or people pleasing – if I do everything you want, then I am somebody to you, my thoughts, feelings, and needs don’t matter anyway, you won’t abandon me, I won’t be hurt
  • Codependency – if I focus more on you, then I might exist through you, I don’t matter anyway, maybe you won’t abandon me, I won’t be hurt again
  • Overly Independent – I don’t need you and I can do everything on my own, I’m too much for others anyway, I’m safer because then you won’t abandon me, I won’t be hurt again
  • Fighter – I have no worth, if I push you away first, then you won’t abandon me, I won’t be hurt again

Another aspect of identity that is particularly difficult for Transracial Adoptees (TRAs) is the complexity of racial identity. Many TRAs are adopted by White parents and live in predominantly White communities. In order to survive, have a sense of belonging, acceptance, and community, TRAs adapt by trying to be as White as possible. That’s confusing for them, though, because they know they aren’t White, are treated as if they aren’t White, and at the same time they also feel like imposters in their own race because of the lack of exposure and knowledge of their race and birth culture. Again, here is where lack of mirroring from others who look like them hurt their sense of belonging in their own race and their identity. I know from my own experience and what other TRAs have shared, we have a lot of parts, or versions, of us showing up in discussions about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Allow me to share from a personal example. Recently, at work, during a conversation about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a lot was happening internally for me, as it usually does in those situations. If we imagine my thought bubbles, here are some of mine from that day: “They don’t see me as a person of color! Should I say something? Do I qualify as a person of color? I have been influenced by my White parents so probably think more like a White person. Ugh! Asians are always forgotten in these discussions! No one sees me! I don’t want to be seen. If I’m a person of color, will they expect me to join the DEI team? If I’m a person of color, will they expect me to have input on this topic? I’m such a bad Asian because I don’t know what to say to stand up for us! They expect me to be the expert to teach them and I don’t want to teach them. They need to teach themselves! I want to be asked but I don’t want to be asked because that comes with a lot of pressure to inform, teach, and know. I don’t know enough. Maybe I know enough. Did I make them feel bad for saying that? I hope I didn’t sound too harsh. I’m shaking so much right now. I hope they can’t see that or hear it.”

Adoptees struggle to know their identity because of what is missing, what was lost, how they’re treated, how they aren’t seen or heard, how they’re afraid of being abandoned or relinquished again, and how they’ve tried to survive their traumas by adapting. Here are some ways to care for the heart of adoptees as they try to form their identities:

  • During NAAM and every month Listen to adoptees, Amplify their voices, Care for their hearts and hear what their hearts are saying
  • Correct your own assumptions and behaviors about adoption that invalidate them
  • Learn why it’s harming to tell them to be grateful: for being born, for being adopted, for having a family, for not being aborted, for not living with birth parents who were ____, for not living in their birth country
  • Learn why it’s harming to tell them: but you have such loving parents, I thought you got along with your family, but you seem so happy, you have so much going for you, that’s in the past and look at what you have now, but you were so young
  • Learn and correct your own biases about their birth country, birth families, race because whatever you say feels like a reflection of who they are
  • Allow them to change their identities as many times as they want
  • Allow them to have layers of emotions and thoughts about being adopted and who they are
  • Advocate for change that will prioritize adoptees’ experiences and voices rather than adoption agencies or adoptive parents
  • Stop infantalizing them. Adoptees grow up, even if their younger parts show up often, and they are trying get to know their true Self and feel safe enough for that part to be present. They have a right to speak for themselves
  • Advocate for their rights to their records
  • Advocate and support keeping first families together as much as possible
  • Listen and listen more, rather than explaining and problem solving. They are the experts on their identities
  • Allow them to feel all emotions, and not pathologize them for having and showing their emotions

In the space of how this article is meant to be used, the idea of Identity as a core issue for adoptees was somewhat simplified and is only a beginning to understanding. I hope it ignites curiosity in you so that you will ask more questions of yourself if you’re an adoptee, and/or of someone in your life who is an adoptee. Most importantly, please pair the curiosity with compassion and love for the heart of adoptees.

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