Monday, December 21, 2009

The Places That Scare Us

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

A few more thoughts on "Find My Family" and a holiday wish.

On tonight's episode of Find My Family, Tina said she just wanted to know if her birth son was happy and healthy. When she learned he's in his twenties and doing fine, she said, "I could be done right now."

Of course on this ABC show she wasn't done. Tina went on to meet her son Tim. Whether those of us watching Find My Family are birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents, or not part of the adoption triad, we know such cathartic moments often lead to disappointment.

Yet that doesn't make the intensity any less true. I've come to believe that celebrating such moments matters.

Not every adoptive family is a happy one; not every birth parent wants to be found; not every adoptee is "lucky" or traumatized by loss. We all come to this issue with our own loads of baggage.

But most of us are able to handle many conflicting feelings. We can love more than one mother or father. Love is not an on-off switch or the simplistic binary of Hollywood movies or the National Enquirer. What's most transformative about adoption is the way it allows us to extend the boundaries of love; it validates the rich complexity of life.

For me, it's ironic that a reality show like Find My Family presents more emotional nuance than you'll see almost anywhere else on TV. I admit, I was on the defensive when I watched the first episode, after reading dire warnings from other adoptive parents on sites like Rainbowkids. The soapy formula, the tearful hosts, the relentless happy endings put me off before I'd experienced a second of it.

But after the first episode, I felt divided. Artificial as the format seemed—and that glowing "family tree" on a heavenly hillside is still hard to take—it couldn't squelch the feelings of the participants.

As a result, I sought other responses to the show from different perspectives in the triad. The range of reactions to these Adopt-a-tude posts has made for a bracing conversation. It hasn't been an easy discussion for an adoptive parent like me. But it's a necessary one, I think, and I find that my frame of reference has changed.

I'm still concerned about the show's melodramatic pitch and telling edits. Yet despite its flaws, I'm drawn to the undeniable gut impact of these stories. (Click here for my reaction on Open Salon: "Find My Family: Why Reality TV Sometimes Works.")

I want to thank fellow adoptive parent Lisa for her honesty in sharing how she grapples with these issues. I recognize myself in her. I thank Claudia, a birth mother, and David, an adult adoptee, for their passionate defense of the show. The journey I've gone on is nothing to compare with the walk up the hill of those previously lost souls David speaks of in his review; that's something I can only imagine—yet I am able to imagine it now, an unexpected gift.

My wish? That we carry this conversation forward. That we hear each other's pain and accept it. That we form alliances.

"What is it that allows our goodwill to expand and our prejudice and anger to decrease?" asks Pema Chödron in The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.

We may not want to train as "warrior-bodhisattvas," in the words of this Buddhist nun, but recognizing how interconnected we are—"to grow in understanding that when we harm another, we are harming ourselves"—makes sense to me. As Chödron writes,
"Our personal attempts to live humanely in this world are never wasted. Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger just might be what it takes to save the planet from extinction.... So we train in recognizing our uptightness. We train in seeing that others are not so different from ourselves. We train in opening our hearts and minds in increasingly difficult situations."
I thank you all for stopping by Adopt-a-tude and helping this op-ed-zine to thrive. May the new year be illuminating, too.


Mei Ling said...

"My wish? That we carry this conversation forward. That we hear each other's pain and accept it."

Forgive me for pointing out what may seem to be obvious enough, but many people don't want to about the adult adoptees who have pain - or if these people hear about it, they want it go away ASAP.

That's not to say people don't "hear" the pain - they don't "listen" to it. They want to "hear" it but then they want it to be brushed aside in light of all the position impressions that are drilled into them, so that they don't have to truly "listen" as to WHY the adoptee is speaking about pain.

I have been observing this a lot at YoonSeon's thread:

One of the lines that concerns me most is:

"I'm sorry you lost your family/language/culture/ancestry... BUT "

And at the "but", the invalidation starts. The dismissal. The hearing but not the listening. The "why is it so important to you." The "just take language classes!" The "Well everyone has issues" or "everyone gets teased." And so on.

It's true that adoptees can "just" take language classes, that part of one's identity is the environment in which they were nurtured, and that "everyone has issues."

But it's the WAY in which this message is delivered. It's saying "Please stop talking about your pain. I don't want to hear it because it makes me uncomfortable, so I'll say something that is supposed to make you feel better even if it comes across as hollow, and if it doesn't carry the message that I intended it to, it's YOUR fault as the adoptee for not realizing my passive acknowledgment."

The person "hears" the statement but doesn't really take the time to "listen" before the "BUT" kicks in and we all want the pain to go away because it makes us uncomfortable.

That is why adoption is so complex.

But the part about the alliance... I totally agree. In order to form a true alliance, we have to put our personal issues aside, which I think is impossible because the whole reason we are even discussing these things in a blog is because we *are* personally affected...

Martha Nichols said...

Hmmm...that thread of YoonSeon's is thought-provoking, and there's some ugliness in some of the comments or at least misunderstanding on the part of some APs. Not that I claim perfect understanding of an adoptee's pain. I don't think that's possible.

It's very difficult to listen to another person's pain, Mei Ling, you're very right about that. All I can say is that I try. The thing I've tried to avoid is "rescuing" my son from the sense of loss he feels, as if I can just make it right with a little fairy dust.

I try to sit with him when he's feeling pain, missing his birth parents, wanting to know who they are. I stay with him while he's feeling it and do my best to let him know the feelings are valid and his and not something that have to be explained away.

Can I ever make up for what he's lost? Maybe yes, maybe no, depends on what day you ask me. I know for sure I'm no savior. I also know for sure I love him--but of course that love could come to be a burden, too. We'll see.

As for forming alliances, they will never be perfect in this imperfect world, but we should still try to work together. I'm willing, and I'll do my best to listen.