Tolerating ambiguity

This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now and I’ve been working on this post for awhile.  Like every parent, I want to do the best I can for Bing-Bing and I find myself reading blogs by adult adoptees now and then, wondering what’s ahead.  I hear a lot of anger from these writers – anger about their adoption and everything about it.  I’m not naive enough to believe that adoption is a wonderful thing, full of rainbows and ladybugs, that it isn’t full of all kinds of serious ethical problems, yet here we are.  Adoption exists and we participated and I don’t think we’ve done a horrible thing, despite some of the things I read. 

I also believe that there are many adoptees out there who aren’t so angry, who don’t identify themselves so intensely in terms of their adoption.  Adoptees who identify other parts of themselves more strongly or don’t see their adoption as a negative thing.  Adoptees who really don’t give it much thought.  But, these folks aren’t writing blogs.  I figure they are hanging out on Facebook and MySpace writing on walls and chatting with their friends.  Their adoption is a part of who they are, possibly an important part, but not so all-defining or negative.  Of course, this is my speculation.  I’m not friends with them on Facebook chatting away, sending good luck tea and martinis, and tagging in an Internetty sort of way.  No, I’m just reading the blogs by those who are angry about it all.  And don’t get me wrong, these writers have much to teach.  I just don’t think they have the whole story.

And I wonder, what makes the not-angry folks different from the ones writing angry, rather black and white blogs?  All I can come up with is the ability to tolerate a lot of ambiguity.  Adoptees, especially those who come from closed and international adoptions, have to deal with an enormous amount of unknown about themselves. 

Where did I come from?  Who did I come from?  Why didn’t my first family keep me?  Do I have siblings?  Who do I look like?  Who do I act like?  What is my medical history?  I don’t look like the rest of my family.  I look like people outside my family, but I’m not like them.  Am I second best?

Some of these issues creep up naturally in many families’ conversations and when I hear them now, I hear them differently than I once did.  I filter them through BB’s ears wondering how she will feel knowing, “I don’t know”?  I hope she will be okay with not knowing, as somehow that seems to be the key to me.  If one can tolerate not knowing, one can be concerned about what one can know.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to learn, but when the answer is, “I don’t know” we can say, “okay” and really be okay.

There have been times in my life when I felt I needed to know about something.  And the not-knowing was painful.  I felt that knowing would make me whole.  When I let go of that; I found relief.  Really, the why didn’t matter.

I do think that The Hubs and I are both quite tolerant of ambiguity.  I think he always been; I came to it later.  There’s a certain freedom in not needing to know.  That doesn’t mean we don’t wonder and look for answers, but when the answers aren’t forthcoming we are okay.  In fact, Hubs knows more than most people I know and is always searching.  But, he’s okay with what he doesn’t know.  I’m hoping we can pass this onto The Bing and that she will be able to tolerate the ambiguity she has been handed – so much already.

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25 Responses

  1. […] Tolerating ambiguity « Cavatica’s Weblog […]

  2. What a great & thoughful post! My first reaction is to say that it’s possible Bing would have those type of questions, although not because of being adopted but because of being abandoned. Thankfully, she has loving parents now who will do their best to guide her through the ambiguity.

  3. Great post!
    Adoptees are not “one size fits all”.
    You guys are already so far ahead of the game because you do read and listen – and that is the best you can do!

  4. Aunt A and Holly have said it beautifully!

  5. Hmmmmm……… I’m wondering about this posting and thinking, Cavativa is going to hope I weigh in! I am the product of a closed adoption as is my brother (non-biological) and my cousin (again non-biological). I always knew we were all adopted and for the longest time, this was my “norm”. I didn’t find out my nationality until I was in my 20’s. I always thought I was the same nationality as my adoptive parents.
    There are SO many things I feel like I NEED to know. Why doesn’t Pluto get to be a planet any more? Why does the hair on my left leg grow so much faster than the hair on my right leg? And then there are things I can meet with a shrug. Others feel like they need to wake me up….. “What do you mean you don’t know your family medical history???? Why don’t you try all the searches? Why don’t you try harder to find your birth family????”
    To me, I feel a certain freedom in not knowing my family medical history. I’d prefer not to know that it is all but inevitable that I will have a heart attack or breast cancer. I truely enjoy telling people that my good-for-nothing brother is not really related to me. There is a freedom in not knowing too.
    Last night I was looking through some new colorized photos of the Nazi Era. I know know I am German by birth and I was searching in those faces for similarities to my own. I have a sense of national guilt for the Halocaust.
    And while I know I am a product of both learning and genetics, I am my own person above all. My adoptive parents, my REAL parents instilled a sense of ethics in me which I have fine tuned through the years.
    Will I ever feel a sense of acceptance one may feel knowing their history? Probably not but I have an acceptance of who I am now and I guess that is all that matters.

  6. I have two daughters from China, now aged 8 and 5. And oh, boy, does my 8-year-old have questions! She’s extremely verbal, and tells me she thinks about her birth parents every day. She struggles very much with the not-knowing. She understands probably better than most 8-year-olds about the one child policy, social preference for boys, etc., but she still wonders “why did they let me go?”

    Lately, her question has modified slightly — instead of asking, “why did they let me go?”, she’s begun to ask, “Will I ever understand why they let me go?” She’s nailed it, hasn’t she? How does one “understand,” accept, live with, cope with, abandonment?

    I think that’s the thing we adoptive parents have to accept — that loss is a part of adoption. That our children experienced one of the most profound losses possible — the loss of parents — before we met them. Even if they love us, think we’re the cat’s pajamas, are completely happy with how we raised them, they will STILL feel pain over their initial losses. And they will still wonder about the unknowns.

    True, not all adoptees will deal with the loss the same way — by writing angry blog posts, for example. But deal with it they must. And as adoptive parents we can help or hinder. Reading what adult adoptees have to say is a great way to prepare to help!

  7. I don’t think I ever considered adoption as a loss nor as an abandonment. At least not until adolescence when we hate just for the sake of driving our parents crazy!
    My most profound loss to this day was the death of my adoptive mother when I was only 18. And how I HATE calling her my “adoptive mother”…….. she was my real Mom.
    I think, to me, adoption is still the “norm”. Back in the 60’s when I was born abortion was still not legal and I always felt that someone CHOSE me. No one was “stuck” with me but the people who became my parents were people who really wanted a little girl.
    Nope, to me, adoptees are the most special among us.

  8. I think our girls will question and NEED to know on some level–they can never hide their adoption, they can never not go in public or with friends and them not realize they were not adopted. As you know M is very interested in her birthparents (not all of her peers are at her age, but she is). As you also know I am trying to find those answers that we were told we unattainable–and as you may know from my post, the answers are being provided.
    The thing is this, I don’t see all adult adoptees as angry–quite the contrary–I see those who are hoping the IA kids of today will not have to deal with the ignorance of their parents as they did, that they will be heard. There are “angry” adoptees, there are those who want to work out their feelings on their blogs, there are those who want to educate, and there are those who do not feel the need to know. No two people are alike, but can’t imagine one adoptee who would not wonder who they looked like or just the basics of their beginnings–especially in relation to those who were actually abandoned (or taken as we are seeing). We cannot equate our girls adoptions to that of domestic adoptees or same race adoptees due to the circumstances and the fact that they will forever be labeled and seen as adoptess by the community.
    I agree that maybe we see more adoptees questioning adoption because people who want or need information find a way to seek it, it is not mutually exclusive to be adopted and needing to know who your birthparents are. I think we have to take all accounts as possibilities, there is no magic formula for making your child feel a certain way when they are older–the so-called “angry” adoptees try to show time and time again that being angry about circumstances or lack of knowledge does NOT equate to not loving their AP’s–they are seperate and not necessarily relating to one another.

  9. Wendy, You raise a good point about the “angry” adoptees not being always angry with their APs, but angry with their circumstances. And when they are angry with their APs I think it’s because their parents didn’t listen. They were taught to treat them like white, birth children and to ignore their past. Just because that past may be 9 months or less (as in BB’s case) it is still an important past. This is why I read them. I wish I could come up with a better way to refer to these wonderful writers. I’m using the label “angry”, but they are more. I don’t want to put them in a simple box.

  10. I’m curious, Malinda, how do you answer your 8-year-old’s questions? Yeah, she has nailed it.

  11. I remember a classmate in high school. She was adopted from Korea as a young teen and immediately sent to high school with us. It was a private school so there was some flexability but this class mate hardly knew and English at all. Her name was changed from a name she had been answering to for a previous decade. She didn’t finish high school with us so I am unsure of where she went but I can totally understand if she were angry. Everything she had ever known was taken away and replaced but what others were trying to tell her, was better.
    All in all, and I know I’ve discussed this with Cavatica in the past, no matter what we can or cannot do raising a child, children do rebel and if it is not about cultural differences it can be about anything. It may be easier to understand why adoptees rebel but they don’t have the market on rebellion for sure!
    I think adoption is such a wonderful thing for all involved and I do wish there would never be any wrinkles in the works but that is inevitable. All kids, no matter race, origin, culture thrive with love and to me, there is no greater love than knowing you want a better life for your child and for adoptive parents to not only be willing, but be driven to give these kids the best lives they can.
    I applaud you guys as well as both my sets of parents.

  12. Sometimes it feels like answering Zoe’s questions is a full-time job! I blog a lot about our conversations over at my blog.

    I try to answer her as honestly as possible, and like you, say “I don’t know” when I don’t know. But we also use a lot of role-play, “fictional” writing, to kind of try out different answers.

    We also read a lot of books as a jumping off point to talking about her birth parents and circumstances in China that might have lead to her adoption. So many of the China-adoption books are for younger kids — I wish there were more in the 8-12 year old range — but some especially good ones are Mommy Far, Mommy Near; At Home in This World; The Three Names of Me; An Mei’s Wonderous Journey; We See the Moon; Kids Like Me in China.

    And lately we LOVE LOVE LOVE Beth O’Malley’s “My China Workbook,” which lets kids make their own fill-in-the-blank lifebook. I know that Wendy’s M. has it and loves it, and another friend of Zoe’s got one recently and loves it, too. I was thrilled that it gave my 5-year-old a chance to talk about her adoption, since she is often drowned out in the sheer volume of Zoe’s conversation.

    Great post. I love these discussions, as you can tell by how I’ve droned on!

  13. I glimpsed at the same “angry’s”
    and while their feelings are valid……because they are theirs
    The millions of well adjusted people just don’t write.
    You can only do the best you can and you are ahead with your knowledge.
    Really…….none of us knows why we are here or how we got here

  14. Great comments Malinda and yes, M loves her workbook!
    It is upsetting to see someone equate those who speak openly and honestly about their experiences as someone who is not “well adjusted” and/or equating adoption as something that is good for all involved. I would hope that AP’s are doing a better job than that in 2009, such an old attitude and one that is shown to be outdated and detrimental.
    I am very honest with M, I have always made sure she knows she can ask me anything and I will not judge. I will help her as much as humanly possible or stand aside–depending on her needs and wants. She trusts me and I think that is at the core of our relationship and discussions. It is funny because another A mom told me her daughter never thinks about her birth mother–uh, she told M all about her and what she thought about her abandonment–the little girl was 3 1/2! I think it is usually a case of AP’s head in the sand syndrome.
    I know you will do a great job as a mom discussing these topics with the Bing! You are asking the questions and are open to her needs and feelings moreso than your own.

  15. OK, I did not have time to read all the replies, so maybe you have covered this, but I think that the “angry” blog entries are just one slice of these adoptees’ lives. Who hasn’t been angry over something and vented on their blog (well, if you’re a blogger that is?). Maybe this is their place to work that out, but in the rest of their lives they are happy and functioning and love their parents. Well, I am sure as in everything, there is an entire spectrum from those who let their anger and not knowing the unknowable color their lives negatively to those who never question and feel only positive feelings about their adoption. But the majority must be inbetween, feeling various amounts of anger for one moment, two weeks, intermittent points in their lives, etc. But anyway, I agree with you that tolerance for ambiguity must be a large part of acceptance. And as I saw you also touched on, so much of adoptees’ anger that I read about stems from parents who just dismissed difficult feelings about adoption, loss, race, etc. either because they didn’t know better or they just couldn’t handle the pain. Hopefully, all of us APs today are learning from them.

  16. Cav,

    I saw your post linked on a site populated by adult Korean adoptees, (one you’ve apparently visited) and thought I would respond. I am 50, and have never been particularly “angry.”

    Within my own family, there were seven who were adopted, and three who were “home made.” Five were adopted domestically, and two of us were adopted from Korea. The five domestically adopted siblings were all mixed race, being half African American, or Native American, or Chinese. The “angriest” one amongst us, was the other one adopted from Korea.

    During the many years I have been at that site for KADs, I have tried to understand the anger that so many of my peers express. For some, the reasons are shocking and completely justifiable. They were placed in homes where they were physically, and/or sexually, and/or verbally and psychologically abused. Some have had to endure racist comments coming from family members or relatives. The victims of those situations feel let down by every possible institution –
    their biological families who gave them up,
    the adoption agencies which they view as purveyors in human trafficking,
    the Korean government for actively participating in the “export” of its own, but disposable children,
    Korean society at large for not having institutions of its own to care for or adopt children,
    the abusive families that brought them here, only to torment them,
    local organizations that incompetently performed home studies that approved those families,
    lack of monitoring by social workers for post adoption problems,
    and on and on . . .

    It’s hard to say how many were placed into those kind of situations. But whatever the number, it was a tragedy that they continue to live.

    For those who were placed with more wholesome families, there are still many issues to overcome. Even the most well meaning adoptive parents, siblings, and relatives may at one time or another let slip emotionally damaging comments that may make the adoptee feel like less than a full fledged member of the family. And certainly, not all of the relatives are well meaning. That sense of being an ‘outsider’ need not always be communicated by overt comments, either. It might come across via unspoken attitudes and other forms of non verbal communication.

    One thing all of we trans-racially adopted folk have in common is various forms of latent and overt racism we have been subjected to outside the family. Neighbors, acquaintances, and total strangers can say the cruelest things. Many of us were raised in less than racially diverse or tolerant communities. Years of frequent taunting and name calling by other children, just for looking different, leave scars that may never completely heal. That’s something you, as a (may I presume?) white parent, will never be able to fully empathize with.

    Fortunately, the racism has diminished over the years. America has become a much more diverse and tolerant society than the one I grew up in. But don’t kid yourself. Racism is still there, and it still cuts to the core, even if your children never tell you about it.

    To this day, I never know when some random person is going to jump out of the woodwork with a racist or threatening remark. It can happen while standing in line at the post office, and some guy turns to me and says “We’re sending you back to China!” It can happen at a car dealership, where the salesman asks me if I’m “only interested in buying a Jap car?” On occasion, I encounter people who seem to be of the ‘Neo-Nazi /White Supremecist persuasion. I can feel their hateful stares pierce right through me. Even at the church I attend, there’s a woman who thinks it’s hilarious to make asides about “the inscrutable one” as we sit together in committee meetings. There are others there at that place of ‘fellowship and love’ who cannot or will not look me in the eye, or offer a friendly greeting, or otherwise acknowledge my presence. I am apparently ‘invisible’ to them. Yes indeed, churches are still places for sinners and hypocrites. And btw, I live in a very liberal, progressive community, and attend one of its most liberal churches. I’ve also had occasion to attend local Rotary Club meetings, where many of the pillars of the community can be found. There are few places where the invisibility treatment is more palpable than at those gatherings of ‘feel good about yourself do-gooders.’

    Something all of us can relate to is the experience of being raised by white parents, often with white siblings, and in many cases in lily white communities. We were socialized as white people with white middle class values. Most of us, at some subconscious level think of ourselves as ‘white people.’ And yet, we’re constantly being reminded that we’re not. Although the face looking back in the mirror in the morning is not unexpected, sometimes it comes as real shock to chance upon a reflection of yourself during the day and surprised to see an Asian face. The realization dawns on us that we’ll never be full-fledged “members of the club.” You will never be able to understand what it’s like to grow up in a family and community where you look different from everyone else. (Another btw, I lived in Korea and taught English there for 15 years. I cannot describe in words the remarkable feeling one gets from being in the midst of thousands upon thousands of people who look like you, after having grown up in America. It’s an unspeakable relief to not stick out in the crowd.)

    And hence the feelings many have when they say “I don’t know who I am.” As a young adult, that’s one of the things I would hear my sister say with much anguish. Again, I am not one of the ‘angry ones.’ But I’ve come to appreciate why some feel that they’ve been irrevocably ripped from their native culture to be a fish out of water; that they don’t really belong in America and never will, yet cannot return to the land of their birth, where they do not know anyone, and know not the language or the customs. Not knowing your biological roots leaves a gaping hole in the psyche of many people. Not knowing your family’s medical history can make one feel they’ve been denied a basic human right.

    The feelings intensify as they contemplate how we were brought here ‘against our will,’ and all of the other failings of the various social institutions. The coup de grace for many is when they summon the courage to try to find answers about their past, often knowing that their adoptive parents would not approve or do not support such a quest, only to be stonewalled by the adoption agencies. Being patronized to, and lied to, and treated like children by the people who sent us away is about as infuriating as it gets.

    Adoptive parents need to stop being shocked by the existence of ‘angry’ adult adoptees. Of course there are angry adoptees. There are tons of angry people who weren’t adopted, too. Would you want to patronize them as well, by telling them they ‘shouldn’t be angry’?

    If adoptive parents feel threatened by what they read at a forum for and by adoptees, then for pete’s sake don’t go there! Adult adoptees have the right and the need to come together to vent, commiserate, and find community. For many, it’s the first time and only place where they’ve been able to express feelings that they could never express to family members, who would find them ungrateful and unacceptable. It’s the only place they’ve found where they can share experiences with others who truly understand.

    Perhaps you’ve heard of ‘the five stages of grieving.’ Anger is one of those stages. All adoptees feel loss to a greater or lesser extent. Adoptive parents might do well to consider the ‘angry phase’ a necessary part of the healing process that some adoptees need to go through, and just let it be.

    If you can instill in your children a deep sense of belonging and security, your chances of ‘success’ will be greater. Of course there are no guarantees. My own children (biological) are now 18 and 20. One of them has been angry since she was eleven. Her rejection of me and my wife as parents is greater than anything I or any of my nine siblings ever threw at my parents. The other one as well, has had his share of adolescent ‘anger at the world’ in general. What’s a parent to do?

  17. Adult adoptee — thanks so much for your incredibly comprehensive post explaining adult adoptee anger in a very accessible way..

    I’ve always hated the expression “angry adoptee.” I know that Cav was using it as a short-hand expression of the whole adult-adoptee blogosphere, but it’s a phrase I find that many APs use to distance THEIR children from those “angry” ones — see, I’m a good parent so my kids won’t be angry, so I can ignore the angry ones. This ignores the fact that parents have no way of knowing how their children will think about their own adoptions. And it ignores the fact that pain, loss and anger are a part of adoption for many adoptees REGARDLESS OF HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT THEIR APS. Sometimes, it just isn’t about us! Shocker, huh?!

    I also find the phrase quite dismissive of real, legitimate issues in adoption. And it pathologizes completely normal pain and loss. AND I find that APs and the general public, too, use “angry adoptee” because they find the anger incomprehensible and really unforgiveable– because they really think adoptees ought to feel grateful for being adopted, not angry at the loss of birth parents, birth culture, racial identity confusion, abaondonment and trust issues, etc, etc., etc..

    So, thanks again!

  18. Thank you adult adoptee commenter, we (AP’s) can only try to add what we are trying to learn and understand from TRA adult blogs and often time it is dismissed by those within our community. Thank you for your words, it is only with your words (and that of fellow TRA’s) that maybe those AP’s who do not want to see/understand/know/accept may change their minds.
    Excellent comment.

  19. Yes, thank you adult adoptee commenter! What a wonderful and useful post. And Malina, I think I’ll stop using the “angry adoptee” label. I don’t like it either and even if I am able to make myself understood on the issue, it is devisive and inaccurate, as it negates the experience and separates us.

    I’m so happy for this dialog, I will send people here when they have confusion about all the issues involved for BB’s future.

  20. Cav, I have HUGE respect for anyone who can “confess error!” No doubt, BingBing has a great mom!

  21. I have a tendency to easily use labels, even for myslf, because they are easy shorthand. Also, I tend to laugh at them – I think many labels are ridiculous. But, in writing my tone and intention doesn’t come across. It’s happened before.

  22. Hey, I see that you’ve linked to my blog!

    “If one can tolerate not knowing, one can be concerned about what one can know. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to learn, but when the answer is, “I don’t know” we can say, “okay” and really be okay.”

    The first thing I’d like to say about this is that even though you don’t know and it’s OK for you to feel that way – meaning you’ve accepted & and dealt with the “not knowing” – I would never presume to speak for your daughter, but as she grows up, she may or may not be OK with the “not knowing.”
    She is the one whose roots are in China. She is the one who has lost her parents and culture. She may ask about it, then be satisfied with the answers as she grows older and won’t look back. But if she’s not OK, then you will need to learn how to deal with that, if you haven’t already.

    The second issue is the whole “being angry.” I agree and disagree with that labeling. Yes, you are right to an extent – some of us ARE angry. And why wouldn’t we be? We lost our families, our cultures, our mother tongues, and we are expected to be grateful we’re breathing oxygen?!

    If a family member died tomorrow, would you be told to ‘be grateful” that your other family members are still alive? No! You’d be comforted, told how sorry people are that you’ve experienced such a loss. Adult adoptees don’t usually hear that in real life.

    Also, the label “angry” tends to imply that you’re hearing but not listening. It gives us the implication that you’re hearing but you aren’t *really* acknowledging what we have to say because in your mind “angry” has already cast us off under a misconcepted opinion. When using “angry”, you’ve already made up your mind as to how you will perceive us, and that’s never a good start for education. Right?

    Not sure if you’ve checked out my blog, but I just thought I’d stop by and learn a bit about where those stats hits are coming from… see you around.

  23. Mei-Ling,
    You’re right – I don’t know what my daughter’s take on all this will be. I read the adult adoptee blogs to get some ideas about what she might think someday, wondering what those before her are thinking. Thank you for giving us that gift – your adoptive parents didn’t have that and struggled blindly through. I’m hopeful that with your guidance we will do better by being able to acknowledge the natural emotions involved in this, even when they are hard. I can’t imagine ignoring my daughter’s losses, but that’s partly because of what I’ve been taught. I think that your generation’s APs were taught to pretend as though their children had no past and that they were just like the rest of the family with no different issues. We want to raise our daughter to be one of us – 100%, but we recognize that she is more than one of us. She has a history not shared with us and it is very important. We love all of who she is, whatever that turns out to be. I expect at times she will be angry.

    I agree, the angry adoptee label distances. I decided in an earlier comment under this post to stop using it. The easy shorthand isn’t worth it and I think it was distracting and divisive. As my daugher would say, “no no more.”

  24. Actually, to clarify, my adoptive parents did recognize, honour and respect that I had another set of parents. You are referring – for the most part – to the BSE (Baby Scoop Era) when things weren’t discussed openly because people thought secrets & lies would just “go away” if they weren’t addressed. Of course, that never works the way they expect it to.

    Yes.. the “angry” label used to bother me, and then some adoptees would claim it as a label of victory, I guess to get their points across? And then I tried to figure out why it bothered me… and it took me a while to realize it indicated hearing, but not listening. 🙂

  25. Keep up the good work, bookmarked and referred a few mates.

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