Becoming Whole…My First Journey
Hi! My name is Jeanette Shareen (Cox) (Faro) (Kopitowsky) Yoffe and I’ve been asked to contribute posts about my experiences growing up in foster care, being adopted and now working as a mental health professional with the Adoption Constellation.
I’d like to start by saying I hope these posts will help inspire, uplift, transform, and strengthen the understanding of your own journey, through the myriad of challenges “my voice” has experienced, beginning as a biological daughter, foster kid, adopted daughter, sister, wife and mother. I am also a Psychotherapist who specializes in healing children’s grief/loss upon separation from their original families and help facilitate attachment within their adoptive families.
I am one of those people who in the past would “stuff” and “abandon” my early experiences because of the “shame” I felt. I truly thought “I had done something wrong” to cause my birth family and foster family to leave me. After years of difficult soul searching, therapy and the love and support of family and friends I have come to realize that there is no running from this sense of shame, there is only understanding where it comes from, rising above it and moving past. I know now that my behavior or ‘who I am’ was not the cause of the turmoil in my birth family and that the situation was out of my control. I was just a child, wholly dependent on the adults around me and it was the difficult circumstances in my birth family’s lives that led to the heart wrenching decision to surrender me — not anything to do with “me”. And it was a tremendous relief to understand that “those circumstances” were not my fault and I was not responsible.
Ever since this epiphany I have challenged myself to dig even deeper, to pick up the pieces of myself I’ve abandoned or lost, rekindle the goals and dreams I told myself would always be out of reach, feel my losses — avoid, bury and deny nothing — be objective and honest. But also to take into account the many successes and achievements in my life, both personally and professionally in order to “adopt” my many “selves”, put them all together and “become whole”.
None of this was easy and in truth, it is an on-going process, but a healing one and something I hope to inspire others to do through sharing my experiences and thoughts.
As I reflect back I think of three different “journeys” that were critical in my personal development. This post will introduce the “first journey”, which began in New York City in 1971. That was the year I was born at Bellevue Hospital. After leaving the hospital I lived with my biological mother and father for 15 months in a small NYC apartment on the lower east side. At the time, my parents were married. I was an only child and I’m told I loved to go to the park and play every day if I could. My father worked for New York Telephone as a lineman and my mother was in NYC with a work visa from Argentina to be a dancer. My mother became pregnant for the 2nd time when I was 6 months old but I never had a chance to meet that baby brother because just before he entered the world I was placed into foster care at 15 months — 2 months before my brother would be born.
This is the story of how I was “surrendered” as it was told to me 30 years later in an apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina after the baby brother and I had ‘found’ each other and then our biological mother through the help of the internet. (More on that later)
On a sunny August day in New York City, while I was happily playing in a park sand box, my birthmother told a woman, sitting on a nearby bench, how ‘stressed out’ she was. She told this random stranger that being pregnant and caring for me at the same time was just “too much for her.” The woman then told her to “go to Jewish Child Care”, a foster care agency. “They will take care of Jeanette for a little while so you can get some rest.” Which is exactly what she did! Apparently, she did not speak very good English, had only been in the country for a few years, appeared shaken, stressed and overwhelmed. She would tell me years later that at the Agency they had her sign a document but as she did so she was thinking “I was only going to be taken care of for a few weeks” not in fact, surrendered for adoption. Which of course, is what happened.
In a letter from Jewish Child Care, dated July 29, 2004, I received some non-identifying information about the circumstances of my early separation. It was stated, “your birthmother was emotionally quite fragile and was apparently under additional stress during her second pregnancy.” An agency psychiatrist felt she might be schizophrenic but noted she had reported taking LSD, which of course makes such a diagnosis tentative.
So on August 10th, 1972, I was placed into a foster home in Long Island about 40 minutes outside New York City with a nice Jewish family. (On a side note: It wasn’t until I was 17, talking with my foster sister that I learned I wasn’t really Jewish, I was born Roman Catholic. I was shocked! My foster family had apparently put me in a high chair, drew a Jewish star on my head, and sprinkled water on my forehead and made me Jewish! At 13, I had a Bat-mitzvah and everything! I had no inkling this wasn’t the religion into which I was born.)
The records I’ve been able to see indicate numerous visits with my birth parents even after I entered foster care. I’m not sure exactly how many but the letter states “frequently.” When I think about this today, it just tears my heart. How difficult and confusing must it have been for me to see my birth parents for a short while and then watch them go away every time. Leaving me over and over again. What is a baby to think? Over and over I probably thought they were not coming back and would never see them again. Only to have them come and all those expectations flood. And through it all I don’t recall anyone sitting down and talking to me, explaining what was happening… I was alone.
Presently, I often think of that time period and how helpless I must have felt and vulnerable and guilty… But now as an adult and psychotherapist I find I am able to fill that hole and help explain to children and their families exactly what is happening! There is enough mystery in adoption; I feel we owe it to the children involved to keep them as informed as possible. My experience as a foster care social worker for four years gave me the opportunity to do this day in and day out inside foster homes of every sort. Every day of the week I would watch the babies have visits with their birth families and I would identify with each and every one of them. I understood their cries and I understood what they needed deep inside. I would take the babies to and from visits in my little Toyota all across Los Angeles. I would talk to them and let them know I heard their cry. I would be with them through all their tears and tell them “everything was going to be okay”. I wanted them to know they were loved and accepted. I would give them what I so desperately needed as a child, the acceptance that my feelings were valid. The lack of having someone do this for me fueled many, many years of feeling rejected, unloved and unaccepted for having these feelings. And I am now certain each visit with my birth family reinforced these feelings of “being abandoned” all over again.
Before I entered this field and chose to work with kids like me, I hoped the experience of social work would become a “corrective emotional experience” because I would be in control now as an adult and no longer a helpless victim as a child. I could now make sense of my past, open up to my grief, feel my grief…. and cry so I could let it go… And it has to some degree, it has helped me reach this epiphany but the feelings are always there.
This is another important piece of that epiphany — that we cannot change the facts about our pasts, the reality will always be there, however cold or frightening. However, we can change the way we feel about it. Because “being adopted” is not the condition, the condition is the lifelong process of working through our loss, mourning our loss, and picking up the pieces we want to keep and discarding those that we don’t want in order to reframe our lives in such a way that makes us richer and more resilient beings.
I believe each and every one of us deserves to have an opportunity to change their attitude about their past and get out from under the suffocating thought process of guilt and abandonment; to make a choice to not be a victim. To say to the world, “I am not a victim anymore and I am not a reject. I am a hero and I am worthy. I can do something with this pain now because I am an adult. My life is no longer at the mercy of other people; it is at the mercy of me.”
This is my work. To help as many people get to that healthy place as possible. Simply being at the ‘mercy of me’ and doing whatever they can to help themselves lead happy, fulfilling lives, and understand the past but live in the present.
I hope you will join me and follow these posts and this blog to learn more about my journey through foster care, adoption, reunion and ultimately reclaiming my self… without abandon. And along the way I hope to learn about you and together, maybe we can make this world a little bit better of a place for everyone.