Adoptee View: Coming to Terms with a Parent Who Did Something … Awful
Once a person learns that I was conceived from rape, the first thing they want to know is, “how did you come to terms with this knowledge?” I don’t blame people for wanting to know, and I talk about it because the effects of rape and domestic violence are simply not talked about often enough. Being raped is stigmatizing for the women who have experienced it. The sons and daughters who were conceived as a result of rape experience a stigma as well. People tend to assume that all women who conceive from rape have abortions and that individuals of this conception circumstance must not exist. We have become invisible.
Because of this, I rarely am presented with an opportunity to interject my own perspective. Good dialog on the perspectives of people conceived from rape is infrequent in a society that exudes shame for us and our mothers. With rape being brought up frequently in the media now, due to floundering GOP candidates and the abortion debate, this isn’t a topic I can ignore. I cannot continue reading articles or viewing newscasts full of ignorance without saying something.
I have decided to address my thoughts here. There are many adoptees and biologically-raised/non-adopted adults who share this conception circumstance in common with me and I have had the privilege of becoming friends with several of them. Three of my friends have helped me with this blog post. April and I are reunited adult adoptees who were conceived from rape. Jill is an adult adoptee and adoptive mother who was told by her original mother that she was conceived by rape later into their reunion. Each of us were told at a different time in our lives, and in different ways. Amy is an adult adoptee who conceived while in a sexually abusive long-term relationship, and surrendered her daughter to an open adoption. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Coming to terms?
My answer to this question has not always been helpful and I am not claiming that it will be any more profound in this post than it has ever been. My answer to the question I talked about in the first paragraph has always been “I really don’t know how I came to terms with it.” I’m realizing this is not entirely true. It’s not that I don’t know, it’s that I have not until now spent a great deal of time analyzing my thought processes on this topic.
Perhaps the phrase “come to terms” is a bit misleading as it almost indicates that a person is never impacted again by something or feels hurt by it. In short, I am not a victim; I am a survivor. I do not let my conception circumstances cause me to feel badly about myself. However, I will not lie and say that something so profoundly unjust as having rape as part of my narrative does not bother me. I am not sure there is a world for the emotion caused by an injustice this great.
How my parents told me.
I clearly remember the day I found out about my conception circumstance. I was fourteen years old, and was about to deliver some type of pro-life debate at my Conservative Christian high school. Of course, I intended to use myself as an example of someone whose mother “chose life” (I wasn’t a feminist or an adoptee rights activist back then). Part of the “personal experience” I planned on using in the debate was the story of how I thought of how my original parents had been “irresponsible” by getting pregnant but then did “the right thing” by giving me up. Up until that point, I assumed this was my story because of adoption stereotypes. I knew I was adopted but had never been told about my biological father up until this point in time in my life.
A devout Christian, my adoptive mother couldn’t bear me getting up there and telling this story I had unknowingly fabricated. She attempts at all times to be truthful and didn’t want me passing on a false story. So, she being the secretary at the school at the time, decided to tell me of my conception circumstance right before my speech/debate.
There was nothing I could do with that information at the time. I looked at her impassively and said “OK,” and then I walked out of her office. I did not want to become upset and have to explain to others what was wrong. I quickly adjusted my speech by taking out any mention of “father” in it, and went on about my day. I remember asking myself, “do you want to think about this now? Nope. OK then.” I went on as if I had never been told.
Jill did not grow up with the knowledge of her conception circumstance. She was told in an unexpected way, out of the blue, by her original mother after they reunited:
About 2 years into our reunion, we were having a political discussion. She is a die-hard Republican…..me not so much. We got on the topic of rape as a reason for abortion and she yelled into the phone at me, “I WAS DATE RAPED AND I DIDN’T KILL A BABY!” I remember that day very well. Immediate shock and denial. I ran a hot bath for myself, got into the water and called my husband. He couldn’t believe she said that to me. I hung up and cried.
April was told by her original mother upon reunion. Both she and her sisters had been conceived the same way from an ongoing, sexually abusive situation. April said “That took a few days to sink in. I’m OK with it now as I realize it’s not any of our fault. [Our mother] also made it clear although we were unplanned, we were never unwanted or unloved to her.”
Doing the telling.
How I found out about being conceived from rape was not ideal. On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to say how something like this should be told. I don’t take it for granted that my adoptive mother fervently believed I had a right to know this information. She somehow told me in a way that condemned the actions of my biological father but did not make me feel as though I had something to be ashamed of.
I do not think they told very many people about my conception circumstance when I was growing up. I understand why a parent might feel compelled to share an adoptee’s narrative with curious friends and inquirers. People tend to say ignorant things about original parents, to adoptive parents. The invisible original mother ends up being a person of myth. I think it is only natural for an adoptive parent to want to share an adoptee’s story to bring reality home to nosy people who ask probing questions. To my knowledge, my parents did not share a great deal of my story. I appreciate this because it is my narrative and therefore mine to tell. Additionally, I would have had to live with the ignorance of the people around me, should everyone had known my full narrative. The fact of the matter is, people have said really ignorant things to me about being conceived from rape. Because of this, I am selective with who I discuss it with, and it should ultimately be my choice to disclose it to someone–no one else’s.
Thinking about it
I did not think about what my mom revealed to me that day at school right away, but I did start to think about it soon after. I needed to think about this and evaluate what it meant as a part of my narrative. I clearly remember the thought process I went through as an adolescent processing this: did my father do something bad? Yes. Does that make me bad too? No. Over the years, I have read whatever I could get my hands on about women and sexual violence to attempt to understand as much as I could on the issue. Arming myself with knowledge has become a coping mechanism.
Amy identifies with this coping mechanism as well. She regularly reads research pertaining to rape, abuse, relationships, genetics, behavior, and illnesses. Amy told me she feels researching is “a part of understanding what happened. It’s not hindsight, you can’t go back and change it. But knowledge can help you keep it from happening again or to others.” Amy agreed that passing on being informed about these issues to her daughter is important as well.
People can be cruel and ignorant when it comes to sensitive issues about women, violence, and adoption. It has been important for me to develop a filter for this ignorance, and always be able to go right back to a solid foundation of embracing my self worth. People spout theories of victim-precipitated rape. Pro-choice advocates forget about choice and bicker with pro-lifers about rape and abortion, using terms like “rape baby” which ultimately ends up shaming the very real people who were conceived from rape. Other people attribute any problem a parent has to biology and assume their offspring are automatically fundamentally flawed. Coming to terms with having rape as a part of your narrative is only half the battle. Dealing with societal ignorance and the horrendously untrue things people say about you is just as daunting.
We both inherit and learn things from our parents. We also make our own choices. Personality (who we are) and behavior (what we do) are shaped by many different factors. I do not know why my biological father did what he did. I do not know why he was such an incredibly selfish human being. But I am not him. I inherited his Irish and German roots. I inherited my creativity in part from his mother, who was a hairdresser. But I did not inherit his bad behavior, his selfishness, or his disregard for the other people in his life. I do not feel sorry for myself because my narrative has this very negative element to it. I do not feel bad about myself because of what he did. It is what it is.
Amy identifies. She believes it is important for her daughter to embrace the good things about her daughter’s paternal ancestry. She wants her daughter to decide that she is whomever she wants to be. She is not defined by the actions of an ancestor.
Jill wrote her truth:
25 years ago, a friend gave me the book, ‘The Missing Piece’ by Lee Ezzell. The lessons I have learned from that book, growing up adopted and raising my adopted daughter are this: Like Lee, I too believe that every person has a purpose, regardless of their conception story. We don’t control the cards we are dealt, but we can turn negative circumstances into a beautiful life.
April remembers reading something online that helped her. She recalls that it said that it is good to “think of it in terms of ‘the conception was caused by rape’ instead of ‘the person is a product of rape.’ It is no reflection on you whatsoever. Nobody is responsible for anyone else’s behavior.
I was reunited in my early 30′s. It did take a couple of days to process that info. I accept my story now, and life makes more sense to me knowing it. I always say it is better to deal with the truth than a pretty lie or the unknown. Adoptees are not any less capable of accepting negative facts about other family members than anyone else. We do not need to be shielded from our stories, whatever they are. I know that I personally never did anything wrong to my [original] mom & it really helps me to know that she sincerely feels the same way too. It also helps knowing that the circumstances of our [original] mom’s rape had nothing to do with the circumstances that led to our adoption years later.
The abortion topic & self-esteem
One of the unfortunately unhelpful suggestions people have made to me over the years is to force myself to look at the bright side because “At least you weren’t aborted!” It bothers me when people make these assumptions, especially off of flimsy agency narratives and stereotypes of original mothers. It bothers me that this is the nicest thing some people can think to say. It is as if my value, and my original mother’s value, is limited to her reproductive choices 20-some years ago.
There are people who find rallying around the pro-life movement and associating themselves with abortion helpful. I do not. Perhaps at one time I did. Looking back, I feel like thinking of myself as “should have been aborted and grateful I wasn’t” was not as good for my self-esteem as I thought it was.
It is unrealistic to expect all adoptees to process this conception circumstance this way. I do not want to be expected to be more grateful for my life or that the adult in my life cared and provided for my needs than anyone else is supposed to be. I do not want to be a poster-child for adoption or the pro-life movement just to be heard or voice the issues. I never once agreed for such a thing to be my responsibility. When I Google the term “conceived from rape,” the majority of resources that pop up involve adult adoptees lending their narratives to a political cause. I wish the majority of what I find when I search to be people seeking to support us, free from any other motivation but altruism. In case you are wondering, all of the adoptees who helped write this post are pro-choice.
Jill described a scenario when an adoptive parent at her church commented to her that she should be grateful to her original mother for not aborting her. Jill said “I admire my birthmother for her decision; but I am not grateful to her for that very decision. There was a reason I needed to be on earth and here I am. The rest is a mystery to me.”
April worked out the abortion stigma and the difference between an unwanted pregnancy and a loved child conceived and born from an unwanted pregnancy:
“I think there’s a difference between: expressing they wish they had handled the situation differently back then by choosing abortion and expressing they wish the adult person should not be here NOW. The latter is a personal attack on the adoptee & it’s a cruel thing to say. The former is non-personal, just talking about the situation before you as a person ever entered into it.”
When Amy and I got into the topic of abortion in the context of rape and the abortion debate, she had something I found particularly profound to say:
“If you feel it is a life and have a connection then you love that being with all your heart and it doesn’t matter how you conceived. I believe most women who decide to give birth do not think of it as anything other than their child. People think that most women who conceived of that circumstance who give their child up for adoption just want to get rid of that child. I just don’t believe that to be the case……………..The name I gave my daughter means, ‘innocent.’”
She continued later:
“I never once didn’t want my daughter with all my heart. Through the whole pregnancy I was trying to find a way that I could be a good enough mother for her and I didn’t feel like I could find a way. But I wished I had been good enough. I wished I could have made myself good enough.”
One of the biggest concerns that I had when I reunited is that I might look like my biological father. I was afraid that if I looked like him, it might be upsetting to my original family. Only one aunt has ever made a comment to me that she’s thankful I don’t look like my biological father. I ignored the comment and moved on. Other than that, who I look like has not been an issue in my reunion.
On this topic, Amy told me:
“[My daughter] does look a lot like him. And talk like him. And make jokes with the same sense of humor as him. Sometimes I feel like I can just see him in her, like I’m sitting there with him in some way. But it what it makes me think is of all the good things in him, and all the very real love. And the love I had for him. And I feel like this little person is a chance for all that was truly good in him to shine and to be a beautiful force in the world.”
Amy said that she wishes for her daughter’s father to have been the happy and healthy person that she knows he could have been. She feels the best of each parent, not the worst, gets passed on to the offspring. She told me that no child is born condemned by the misdeeds of a parent.
Amy’s story is a reminder that domestic violence isn’t just date rape or being attacked by a stranger. It includes on-going abuse between partners who may love each other but are not in a healthy relationship where each partner shares equal power and a commitment to protecting the other.
It’s not easy.
Having a positive view of myself does not mean that I do not still feel upset about my conception circumstance from time to time. My mother was raped, pregnant, scared, and alone. She then lost her first child to unscrupulous adoption counseling. It’s OK to be mad about injustice.
I also feel upset from time to time when it comes to medical issues. While I am glad to finally have medical history, when I write down the long list of cancers that run in my biological family, I realize they are all from his side. I had a (benign) tumor at the age of twenty-one that put me at significant risk for permanent complications once it was operated on. I deal with this medical history because of the selfish actions of a man who cared nothing about me or my mother. I don’t know how this will ever not be bothersome to me in some way.
Adoptee Rights exclusion.
One reason all parents really need to get on board with the Adoptee Rights Movement is the message that demanding equality sends to all adoptees. Advocating for us to receive our records the same way those who aren’t adopted do sends the message: “you’re equal and we accept you!” In my birth state, one of the limitations to adoptee record access is that those of us who were conceived from rape have to go through an additional process in order to obtain our pre-adoption information. This limitation sends the message that rape victims have a state-sanctioned reason to be ashamed of themselves. It also says that those conceived from rape are less human, by treating us differently than others.
How to react.
Sharing tough circumstances in our lives like these is never easy, and many adoptees choose not to share at all. Even with anonymity in this post, it was hard for April, Amy, and Jill to share their feelings. How people respond to an adoptee who shares is really important. Responses that have helped me are not ones that sought to say something profound or insightful. Responses I have found helpful were not negative, they avoided stereotyping, and they avoid telling me how they think I must feel (or should feel). Some of the best things people have said to me in return is simply “Thank you for answering my question about that,” or “I am glad you have so much support.” Simple replies are sometimes the very best.
Rape happens in this country 700 times per day; that’s about once every two minutes. Various studies report increasing instances of sexual assault on college campuses and alarming percentages of college women (as much as 70%) saying that they have experienced forced sexual contact sometime in their adolescence or young adulthood. Only a small percentage of rapes are actually reported. This topic is very hard for women to talk openly about. I can only hope that by talking about it will bring progress and healing. These issues are never easy for women to share openly about. It is certainly not easy for adoptees conceived from rape to talk about, either. However, if I can help even just one other person by sharing my experience it has made breaking that silence and sharing my thought processes well worth it for me.