Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Truth and Beauty

This post is about searching. This feels like an odd thing for me to be writing about, because you all know how strongly I feel about protecting the privacy of my children's story, but I'm going to keep all of this very general. Please forgive me if I occasionally veer into annoyingly vague. 

So okay, searching. I'm in favour. Some people who adopt are able to have meetings with known birth family through an independent translator and then uncensored ongoing contact - for everybody else, there's searching.  For families with relinquished children, searching provides the chance to make independent contact with birth family, verify (or otherwise) the information given at referral, provide mutual updates and somehow inch towards openness.  For families with abandoned children, searching provides the possibility of finding birth family, if they are able and willing to be found. If they are not, it provides the chance to make contact with other important people in the child's history, fill in gaps and, again, verify that the story the family was given is true.  Some people say the whole thing is very expensive, but if you don't want to spend a lot of money, don't use the overpriced American lawyers. There are other people out there. Honestly. 

Some people search while they are in country. In some ways I am glad that we know our children better at the point we are searching, that we have eighteen months of photos of them looking happy, but honestly it would have been better to do it sooner. I wish I could say we did, but I couldn't handle even thinking about it while we were in Ethiopia; I was too busy freaking out and vomiting.  After we got home,  we decided to wait until our UK process was complete and the children were citizens. And then after that, it took months and months of false starts and delays before things could actually get underway so we're only doing it now, after our children have been with us for about eighteen months. We never intended to wait this long; we were thinking more like six.  But this is how it's worked out, and so here we are. Now. Right now. 

A piece of advice from me to you - do not instigate a search during a month abroad visiting family. It's not smart and it's not fun. This is what has been taking up a large part of my headspace for the last few weeks, and I do not recommend it. I do not recommend that you spend hours hiding in the food court at a mall for privacy, typing out a list of questions for an investigator and trying not to cry. I do not recommend that you catch a late movie with siblings and then swing by the seven-eleven for a quick slurpee and oh, also to quietly transfer a bunch of money to Ethiopia on their moneygram machine.  And when I say 'you', of course, I mean 'me'. I'm not trying to be secretive about all this (obviously) but I don't really want to talk about it at family gatherings either, because it's impossible to talk properly without getting into specifics. Or breaking down.  

Oh yes, the breakdowns. Now that we're actually doing this, I'm realising how much I don't actually want to be here. There are lots of plausible reasons other people give for not searching but I'm going to be honest with you and say that  in reality, all my reasons for not-searching would be really bad reasons. In fact, they mostly boil down to one reason: there is a great big chunk of me that doesn't really want to know the answers to the questions we're asking. 

Honestly, I'm not particularly afraid that we will uncover anything unethical or corrupt.  I'm aware of the possibility, of course,  but I don't really think that's what's going to happen. We have no reason to suspect any of the details of our adoption; every reason to trust the people with whom we worked, so I'm not really expecting that kind of tragedy. What I am afraid of is any one of a number of less spectacular tragedies, the unspectacular sort of tragedies that it would be easier to know less about, easier not to talk to our children about. When I'm talking to my kids, it's much easier to deal in generalities about cultural attitudes to single motherhood, the prevalence of waterborne diseases and the realities of poverty. On the other hand, learning that something real happened to a real person, or (more difficult) that a real person made a real decision with real effects- this has the potential to be much less palatable.  I think what I'm saying is that the 'beautiful country beautiful people rich culture unavoidable decision' rhetoric can be a very effective way of blanking out that our children come to us from specific people, for very specific reasons, often unpleasant ones. 

But none of that is good enough, is it? My discomfort with finding out uncomfortable things is really pretty irrelevant. J and I aren't doing this for us (please, start the swelling orchestra music now), we're doing it because we owe it to our children to give them a history of themselves that we know to be true, that is as complete as possible, that leaves as few questions unanswered as we can, a history as complete as we would want for ourselves if it was us who had been adopted.  Doing this feels non-negotiable, to me. Morally compulsory. The more I read about open adoption, the more convinced I am that it what we should be working towards, no matter where we start. And we cannot leave this until our children are eighteen; the information won't be there.  I have the power to open up my children's history for them, or keep it closed. My conscience tells me that, for our kids, in our situation, only one of those options would be right. I could not look them in the eye, when they are old enough to ask the questions, and tell them that we never tried to get all the answers we could. 

Okay, end of stirring speech. Stop the orchestra. Because honestly, knowing this in theory is one thing; facing the reality is quite another. I am committed to this course of action but in some ways it feels like the hardest thing I have ever done. There are so many ways (it feels to me) like this could go so very badly wrong. I could easily find myself five miles out to ethical sea and many fathoms out of my depth. I could find out things that break my heart. I could find out things that will break my children's heart. I could be opening Pandora's box.  I'm terrified. It's so easy to mouth the platitudes about my child's best interest and pat myself on the back for my commitment to ethical parenting but in my heart of hearts I'm screaming out loud.  If anybody is in the mood to criticise me for finding it emotionally difficult to do this on my children's behalf - don't. At least not until you've done it yourself. Any adoptive parent who claims this isn't hard is lying. Or has absolutely no imagination. 

I have to remind myself - there are things that we might find out that I would rather not find out. But really, the problem is not with the finding out. The issue is that I do not want any of those things to be true. And not looking for them would not make them any less real, if they are real. And it's better to know than to wonder. I think. Keats said: 

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
I think about this quote all the time at the moment, because I think he's flat wrong. There are a lot of true things that aren't beautiful, and a lot of beautiful things that are a long way from true.  Sometimes in adoption I think we have to pick one of those things: truth or beauty? Beauty or truth? Actually - no. That's not quite right. It's not either / or, because some things are both. But which do we choose for our starting point? Which one do we hold on to, if we can only hold on to one? It has to be truth, surely. It has to. We can spin beautiful stories for our children but surely, surely it is better to give them something real, even if it's hard. And so we search. And I don't know what we're going to find. I'll be keeping it private. I hope it will be true. 
But I would bet a lot of money that it's not going to be beautiful.  


  1. as you know, we are living in the wake of research having been done for us, forcibly, because of a lie. it's painful. and what I thought initially was an "ugly" situation would have turned out to be a much easier situation to explain than the one that is the truth. But would I rather not know the truth, if there were an option of avoiding this 8 month delay? There is no way to say "no" emphatically enough. Even though the truth will be so hard to tell our son, especially with the tricky-to-explain addition of "Why did ___ lie about my past?", we treasure knowing details that we thought forever lost.

  2. Wow. You articulated this so well. I cannot even begin to relay how painful some birth family information is to hear, and it would be so much easier to un-know some of what we know. But, our children deserve to have answers and if it be in our power to find them ... well, you said it best.

  3. I just wrote a similar post (sort of). We are in the midst of a search as well. And what I thought would be easy, is turning out to be not quite. As ugly as their stories may be, it would be even uglier if we didn't search. We are doing it for them. Not for us. Hope we can all find what our babies need to know.

  4. I really want to search for my son's first family, but I have to admit that thoughts of them often get lost in the shuffle of my brain simply because he lived with a loving foster family for 2 years. We keep in touch with them and he will always have that bond. I tend to just think of them as his first family, but I have to remind myself that there are others. I have also put it out of my brain because my son, at 4 years old, is only at the very beginning of acknowledging the word adoption at all or even his birth country. Every time I discuss it, I am rebuffed. But the point is, I should probably try to find any information that is there. He doesn't need to know it until he is ready. Thanks for sharing what you could.

  5. When I think of what a privileged we all have--the privilege of knowing our beginnings, and then I think of my daughter who has nothing but a hole...I knew I had to search. Even if what we discover is good, bad or ugly, it is her life, it is her story and she deserves to know it.

    I can't imagine living with a void. The mind fills a void with all sorts of scenarios. Whether I can find all of her story for her or not, at least I am trying.

    Good for you for having the courage to go forward.

  6. Yes, yes and yes. And things just get more and more complicated the longer we wait. The first care center our son was in has just lost its license. Word is that it has nothing to do with ethics violations. Still, every change is another link to his past cut, another trail covered with dust.
    For financial reasons I feel I have to wait just a little longer, but maybe that is just an excuse.

  7. Searching has led to a lot of pain and beautiful truth for us. I shudder to think how life may have been without the truth. There are days when parenting through the fallout makes us wish we had kept our heads in the sand...but no one ever told us it would be easy. It was the right thing to do. Wishing you peace for the journey.

  8. Go for the truth every time but please remember that ultimately the journey is the adoptee's, the search is theirs as should be the decisions.

  9. I know we will search someday, too-- sooner rather than later. I know I feel the void of not knowing enough about my girls' pasts and birth families, and I can only imagine how it will feel for them. At 3.5, my older daughter has already started asking questions, and we know a lot more about her story than we do our second daughter, who's almost 2.5.

  10. In the end, I think you will be glad to know all the details you can find out, however heartbreaking. It is easier to speak to others in generalities about poverty and single parenthood and whatnot, but in my experience, it is far easier to speak to my daughter about the truth of her life. Because she wants to know, needs to know, as much as she can. If I didn't have the information I do have, she would long for it. There is enough we don't know to make this abundantly clear, and for that reason we will show up to visit her family someday (hopefully sooner rather than later) with a hundred more questions in our hands.

    The best details we are fortunate to have heard from our daughter directly, but she is losing some of those memories, and we are now the keepers. She asks every day for me to repeat the stories she's told me, to talk about the names of her sisters and what happened to Ama and Ana and why she is here with us. Perhaps it will sound strange, but it becomes more normal over time, and something that I look forward to each day. She relaxes into her own details. She needs them, to find her place where she is now. And by talking about those details now, even as she is still so little, we open the door to help her grapple with them as she grows. It is a good thing, to know whatever you can know.

  11. hi Claudia, another fine post, orchestra and all. Truth, yes truth. I made a promise to myself right from the beginning to always be truthful with M. Good luck with your search, and although you hold your breath expecting the worst, there may be some priceless stuff in there too. We are so lucky to have been able to keep in touch and meet with our BF 4 times since adopting M. She has been back and visited them too. We got answers to big questions but also little, seemingly inconsequential things as well, which helps flesh out her beginnings and make her whole. Good luck, and while I don't ask for details, I am sure you'll find a way to tell us all about it, and how it feels, and what further questions it brings up (for there certainly will be more questions than answers I am sure).

  12. I was terrified of searching. I was terrified of that someday my daughter would look back and blame me for doing it for her. I was terrified that we'd do more harm than good.

    Maybe we were the exception, but it was a miracle to learn the truth. I can't imagine if we hadn't known. I can't imagine telling her "the other story" that wasn't the truth.

    I wish you the best of luck with this. :)

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  14. I am joining your party C0baby. We are searching, but not hiring. We are going. Trying to figure out the best time to leave four young children has been difficult and heart wrenching. Will it be more traumatic if we leave for two weeks a kiddo who has shown amazing attachment progress in the last five months, or more traumatic if we lose a trail of information and people and ultimately have to say "well, we didn't think it was the right time." Time feels of the essence with us, too.

    I am ALL for open adoption. Yes, it's an adoptee's choice, Anonymous, but the choice isn't there to make unless we as Ethiopian Adoption parents fight, pay, seek, and pray for that option to even exist.

    And you're wrong, I think, maybe? My son's journey is never, and never will be his alone. It is my journey now. His fathers, his first families'. He is not alone in what I believe will be his ongoing, ever changing quest to figure out who is and how much he wants to own his heritage.

  15. Our searching was a bit different because our daughter was 5ish and remembers so much detail. After our agency facilitated meeting at the time of adoption, we went in person a year later and though we were nervous, it turned out beautifully and we will continue to have ongoing contact. We were told the truth, from the beginning.

    All of our questions are not answered, nor do I think they ever will be...I'm learning how to live with the messiness.

  16. I love this post. This Keats quote is one that I never liked either, though I do like Keats. I just woke up and am having a very hard time forming a coherent sentence. I am mulling over this post a lot, just letting you know.
    A neighbor/friend of mine was telling me about how she wants to keep her children from life's ugly realities for as long as possible, and she gave a very convincing argument for why we should keep this childhood "magic" alive for our little ones, not letting them see the things that burden us adults...and I found myself getting offended because, well, that's nice for her, but that option was taken from our family and our children. That's great (I guess) if your children have never witnessed death or disease or crime, but many in the world *have*, and so what are we to do?

  17. I think you are very brave and I admire you so much.
    Amy x

  18. We have started the discussion about searching. But they are just at the very beginning stages as discussions but you are right - waiting until they are 18 isn't going to work.

    I am with you on the part of yourself not wanting to know the answers and yet another part of me screams "find out his story so he has it all" if all is something possible. Even a teeny, tiny bit would be better than our telling him the little we know.

  19. As an adoptee adopted in the closed records era I applaud you. The emotion for me your blog has evoked takes me by surprise. I always thought as an older adoptee now (I tell people I'm 21 plus 30 years experience) I've come to understand much of adoption working in reform and activism and adoption education. You get it. You really do. For us as adoptees, it's an amazing thing, almost rare sometimes. The world doesn't get it. This blog helps. Thank you.

  20. This is a beautiful post. I love Assembling Self's comment.

    We met with B's birth father a couple of times and traveled up to his home. We met siblings and villagers and shared a meal in their home (having severely malnourished people 'feed' us was for me the most trying time in my life, bar none.) We have an open adoption and can go back and I hope we are able to with both of our sons (our bio son traveled with us to the birth families home.) All of that said, I still have so many questions. Questions about their particular story, very obviously orchestrated by the father (the women not having as much say in how everything goes down) but also questions about how the world can let this happen. Our son is home 4 months and is around 4 years old. He hasn't lived with his father for over a year but many days he asks to go back. We have videos of his father with him and lots of photos. He carries around his photo album to show anyone he likes where he is from. He wants all of us to travel back with him too. We are to live there together in the mountains of Ethiopia.

    Best of luck with your search.


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