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Adopting an Identity

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Growing up and figuring out who you are is hard enough. For adoptees, it’s even harder, with their past history often unknown and maybe even culturally different than their current circumstances. How do they reconcile that and form their own identity?

By Evelyn Metric

"I felt like a Martian who had landed on a foreign planet—just wrong all the time—like I didn’t fit in. It seemed as though there was nothing I could do about it.”

Mark Hagland, 58, remarked that is how he felt growing up as a transracial adoptee. Hagland, adopted from South Korea in 1961, was raised by white parents in Milwaukee where he experienced little diversity and knew few others who shared his experience of being adopted.

“I grew up feeling totally marginalized and alienated because of my race,” he says. “Beyond that, I had complete identity issues because I didn’t know many people who were also adopted, so it was difficult to work through those feelings with others who understood.”

These feelings are not uncommon amongst adopted individuals. Mia Zanzucchi, 22, was adopted from China at nine months of age and grew up in Wilmore, Kentucky.

“It’s a huge internal struggle,” she says. “Because I grew up in Kentucky, I was able to slightly pass as white, at least culturally, but that didn’t feel quite right. It’s like lying to yourself.”

Zanzucchi recalls avoiding the topic of her adoption in elementary school in an effort to fit in amongst her peers. But despite skirting around the issue, bumps in the road still arose.

“Family tree assignments are really common at that age,” she says. “But they are so difficult for adoptees because a lot of times, we don’t have much information about our birth families, and sometimes we don’t have any information at all. Imagine what it’s like to be a young child who is unable to complete an assignment about something as simple as your family’s history, while it’s very easy for the rest of your classmates. It’s heartbreaking.”

Developing a healthy sense of self-identity and connection to the larger community is a challenging process for adoptees. But there are ways to make the experience one filled with meaning, acceptance, and a sense of normalcy.


 

Understanding the nuances of adoption

One critical component to an adoptee’s identity formation process is whether or not their adoption was closed or open—meaning, whether or not there was an exchange of identifying information between the biological and adoptive families at the point of adoption. In closed adoptions, there is a clean break and the adoptee will not have any contact with their birth parents growing up. In open adoptions, the families exchange contact information and work out the frequency and degree of contact they wish to maintain with one another.

For decades, open adoptions were most common. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, closed adoptions rose significantly in popularity because many believed that contact with the biological family was detrimental to the adoptee and the bonding process. In the early 1970s, the open adoption came back into the spotlight after adoptees spoke out against their inability to have a relationship with their biological families, and searches for those birth families increased. But Saybrook University faculty member Kent Becker, Ed.D., says it truly is up to each individual family to decide which move is right for them.

“A fully open adoption isn’t right for everybody,” he says. Dr. Becker teaches in the Department of Counseling Psychology at Saybrook, and is also a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked closely with families impacted by adoption. “For some children, having access to their personal history can help with identity development because there are fewer missing pieces for them. For others, they don’t want to have that information because it could spark feelings of loss, anger, or confusion. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach for adoption.”

For some children, having access to their personal history can help with identity development because there are fewer missing pieces for them. For others, they don’t want to have that information because it could spark feelings of loss, anger, or confusion. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach for adoption.

Dr. Becker knows this from personal experience, as he is also an adoptive father. He and his wife openly adopted their daughter while he was completing his doctoral studies. They ensured that they maintained ongoing contact with their daughter’s birth family while she was growing up, but when she turned 18, they let her take that relationship into her own hands and decide whether or not she wanted to continue that contact, a decision Dr. Becker says her birth family has been very respectful of.

The incorporation of his daughter into their family is what inspired his dissertation, which focused on the effect of contact between biological and adoptive families on the marital relationship of the adoptive parents, as well as the effect that contact has on the feelings of grief and loss for the birth parents.

But Dr. Becker struggled to work through the complexities of adoption from the perspective of a mental health professional.

“I was relatively clueless as a professional before I was living and breathing adoption,” he says. “Even today, mental health professionals aren’t very well educated on the subject. When I’m talking to a counselor, I can tell within five minutes the level of experience they have with adoption based on the language they use, which oftentimes is very archaic. It becomes very evident that they haven’t had much exposure to it.”


How can we counsel adoptees and their families?

So what is important for mental health professionals to know when counseling adoptees and their families? First, Dr. Becker says that mental health professionals must be cognizant of the individuality of every adoption case.

“It’s so important for a counselor to really understand the adoption story,” he says. “You can’t assume that it’s a universal experience or situation. In the past, some truly poor assumptions were made about adoptees, such as that they all must have some sort of attachment disorder. While this may be true for some, it is not the case for everybody. So first, a counselor needs to really hear their story.”

Next, Dr. Becker says that grief and loss are inherent in all adoptions.

“For adoptees, there is grief and loss related to birth families,” he says. “On the flip side, if families come to adoption because of infertility, which is often the case, these emotions can also be present and are related to that inability to conceive. With birth parents, that grief and loss comes forward with the relinquishing of a child, which is a very painful process.”

Finally, Dr. Becker stresses the importance of using adoption-positive language when working with adoptees and their families.

“One of the biggest faux pas when talking about adoption is the use of pathologizing language,” he says. “We often hear people talk about giving away a child, but you don’t just give away a child—you give away objects. It’s crucial that counselors, and everyone in general, gets the terminology and phrasing correct so that adoption can be normalized and framed positively.”


 

Language has power for adoptees

One word can make all the difference in making an adoptee’s experience normalized, or in making it an othering experience. So what are the helpful and hurtful things to say to those impacted by adoption?

Of the many forms of pathologizing language that can arise when talking about adoption, Zanzucchi says that what frustrates her most is the use of the phrase “real parents.”

“It can be very upsetting for adoptees to be asked about their ‘real families,’” she says. “For us, our adoptive parents are our real parents. They raise us, they clothe us, they feed us, they take care of us just like any other ‘real’ family would. Everyone must realize that adoptive families are real families."

They raise us, they clothe us, they feed us, they take care of us just like any other ‘real’ family would. Everyone must realize that adoptive families are real families.

Dr. Becker says that the proper way to address the issue of the “real family” is to utilize the phrasing “biological parents” and “adoptive parents,” which acknowledges the differentiation between the two without diminishing one family or the other.

For Hagland, the narrative burden is an exhausting conversation that he finds he often has with people who are relatively unfamiliar with adoption.

“The narrative burden is the demand imposed on us to explain who we are and our identity,” he says. “People ask us where we are ‘really’ from. They hold expectations that I know everything about that culture, but I just don’t. They hear my name and become confused that it doesn’t match my face, and suddenly they are confused by me. I shouldn’t have to fit a certain mold but that’s what people expect of me and of other adoptees.”

To combat this, Hagland says, the conversation should not shy away from talking about the adoption head-on. Instead of asking where an adoptee is “really” from, Hagland says it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions about the adoption story and experience to better understand that person’s identity and how it may differ from one’s assumptions.

Dr. Becker agrees, saying that by avoiding the subject, adoption continues to be an alienating experience rather than one where the adoptee feels validated and accepted. In having open and honest conversations, others can learn more about adoption while also allowing the adoptee to talk through their story and how they identify.

Keeping the lines of communication open ensures a healthy and positive dialogue and a relationship between those who are impacted by adoption and those who are not. But Hagland and Zanzucchi stress that while adoption is a huge component of who they are, it does not define them. They agree that in having conversations with their friends and families about their family dynamics, they were able to come to a place of acceptance and peace, and even feel like any other family.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for how open my mom was from the very beginning in talking with me about our family dynamic,” Zanzucchi says. “I remember having conversations with her while I was growing up that involved various states of crying and anger and trying to understand. But she was always more than willing to talk about where I come from and she listened to me and what I was feeling, and we worked through those feelings together.

“Because of her openness, there are days when I don’t even think about being adopted. It feels so normal and natural. That has made all the difference in discovering who I am.”

 

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