Dispelling Assumptions and Misconceptions About Adoption and Mental Health

Published on: 25 Nov 2020
Nora Vose Adoption Story

Every year there are over 100,000 adoptions in the United States alone. While this is clearly a common way that families grow, there are a lot of misconceptions and assumptions about the experience of adoptees. As a way to celebrate National Adoption Month, and as an adoptee myself, I want to clear some of those up. 

First, let me tell you a bit about my story. I was born in what used to be rural China, on a spring day in May of 1994. My parents were rice farmers who loved me deeply and would have kept me if not for the One Child Policy in China; or at least that’s what I was told. To be honest I don’t know what my actual birthday is. I don’t know the time and position of the stars, I don’t know if labor was long or fast, I don’t know if I cried or was silent. From what I was told, I spent the first three weeks of my life with my birth parents, until one foggy morning when I was dropped off on the steps of the YiWu orphanage with the hopes that I would be found by one of the caretakers. 

I spent that first year of my life surrounded by other children whose parents made the same difficult decision mine had. We spent our days sitting in high wooden potty chairs eating crackers and drinking formula. We spent our nights sleeping with other babies in cribs made of the same material. We were picked up and held occasionally for spurts of time and all grew accustomed to the routine and monotony. New babies came in and old babies left in groups. I believe we all wondered where they went when they left those cracked grey walls. 

One year later, in June of 1995 I was adopted by a couple from New York. They flew across the world with bags full of toys and cheerios, to embrace a baby as their own and brought me back to a small apartment on Second Avenue to start my second life. I spent that next year adapting to my new world. The language was foreign, the food was foreign, my parents’ faces were foreign and unfamiliar. I had to learn how to turn over, how to hold my head up. The first year of my life turned me into a survivor. While my developmental milestones were random and sometimes out of order, I adapted and learned quickly. My mom says I learned how to walk backwards before I could walk forwards! 

Misconceptions About Adoptions

To say my life was changed after I was adopted would be an understatement. I was suddenly the center of attention. To my delight, I was held all the time, ate all kinds of food, had my own toys, my own bed, and I felt comfort for the first time. Little me was thrilled and truly embraced this new life. My mom always said that I owned Second Avenue when I was little. I knew all of the shop owners and would almost strut my way down the street. People would come and give me small gifts and snacks. I loved the attention!

When I think back, I wonder how much of that generosity was out of pity. While ultimately I embraced this new life, as I got older, the misconceptions and assumptions of others did take a toll. Let’s dive into what those challenges can look like for other adoptees and the potential impact on mental and emotional well-being. 

While probably not meant to be malicious, these are a few of the things I’ve heard people assume about me when they discover I was adopted. 

“Oh you poor thing, abandoned as a baby and no one wanted you. Gosh you are so lucky that these kind people have decided to raise you as if you were their daughter.” 

Almost like a line out of a movie, I remember hearing a version of these words so often they came to envelop me. I was constantly surrounded by a cloud of other peoples’ pity. But I was a survivor and I was fueled by my mother’s deep love. I knew that she fought for me, she wanted me in her life, and she chose to love me. 

My experience wasn’t something to look down on and pity. It was something to celebrate! A family was born and it was a family that fought to be together. My birth parents had to make an incredibly hard decision fueled by political, societal, and cultural expectations that few could ever imagine or understand.

adoption and mental health story

“Your parents couldn’t have their own real baby so they settled for you.” 

How do you reconcile the idea that you were a second choice? The runner up, the silver medal, the consolation prize. But adoption isn’t something that you just do because it’s the next best option. Adopting is a choice. There are hundreds of thousands of families around the world that choose to adopt a child. While they may go on different journeys to get there, it is not at all an easy decision. You must fight to prove you can provide for your child, you have to go through months of intense scrutiny and examination by an adoption agency, and above all else, you have to know deep down, that you will accept and love this new child with all of your being. 

“You really don’t know how this child is going to turn out. They could have so many issues and you don’t have a medical history. They might have health or developmental problems. How could you be okay with that? Can you trade for a different baby if you don’t like the one you get?” 

Nature vs nurture — it’s a well known topic that has been researched and written about for decades. How will a person know what their kid will be like if they aren’t going to inherit their traits? What if a parent doesn’t like what they get? I argue that these questions apply to any type of parent child relationship, regardless of biological connection. Do parents who have a biological child think about these questions? Oftentimes it’s the opposite; “I hope this child inherits your humor but not your impulsivity.” “I hope our baby gets my blue eyes and your brown hair but neither of our height I hope he’s tall!” And, regardless, there’s certainly no guarantee of health or protection against developmental problems for birth parents. 

Now, I’m not a parent — very far from it in fact — but I believe that what matters in the end is not the objective traits a person is born with but the person that baby becomes. 

What matters is the excitement of raising a child, teaching them right from wrong, balancing out inherited impulsivity with taught patience and still supporting your child when that impulsivity — your impulsivity — shines through. Buying them hair dye when they want to bleach their beautiful brown hair over the bathroom sink, and then taking them to the salon when it goes terribly wrong. Encouraging them to play basketball even though they’re short and cheering them on from the sidelines at every game. What matters is seeing your child learn and grow into the person that you helped and encouraged in the right direction; the child that you nurtured. 

That’s the job of a parent — regardless of what traits a child inherits or doesn’t, whether the child is adopted or birthed from your own hips — they deserve the same messy, joyful, imperfect, and loving parenting. 

“Children who are adopted are extremely traumatized and can never attach properly, they’ll have abandonment issues their entire life.” 

I’ve always made jokes about having severe attachment issues. About having trust issues and being traumatized from that fateful day in 1994. My experiences in dealing with a barrage of ignorant comments and assumptions my whole life has granted me a great sense of grace and ability to find humor in the ignorance of others. 

I won’t joke about this, though — it was not easy to get to this point. 

My goal right now is to dispel myths and clear up common misconceptions about adoptees. This is one of those assumptions that has some truth to it. I have experienced a lot of attachment trauma on both a subconscious and conscious level. Throughout my life I’ve always craved stability and consistency. It could have been the frequency that I saw my dad after my parents divorced, the way I approached friendships, or the amount of food that I had access to. I needed to know, I needed to be able to predict on some level, what would happen next.

I approach life with measured practicality and logic rather than with emotion and impulsivity. I never make big decisions without thinking through every possible outcome, every pro and con. I always try to think 10 steps ahead to ensure that I know what my future will hold. I never run, always walk, looking down at the ground — as far as I can see — before taking a step forward.

Each Story is Unique

Reading this from an outsider’s perspective, it might be easy to see that this was tied to my adoption, that my patterns and calculations were all part of a reaction formation to not knowing what would happen after I was dropped off on those damp steps in the dark of night many years prior. I always fought against assumptions, my goal always to disprove them. 

It took years and a lot of deep self-reflection to understand that I did and still do have some intense trauma around being abandoned that night. That physical connection was severed and it left a hole deep in my core. This pit of a feeling was almost like a shadow over my big life experiences and it influenced my actions in ways I never realized; at one point I feared the shadow and the way it had control over my life. 

Nora in crib

With time, care, patience and a lot of help from my therapist, I don’t fear the shadow anymore. I learned to be thankful for it. I’ve learned to turn my trauma and pain into something positive. My practicality, logic, and planning used to hold me back; they would prevent me from ever taking action for fear of rejection. I believed they helped me avoid making the wrong choice or influencing the future in the wrong way, but in some ways these traits just stopped me in my tracks. 

Now these qualities help me make informed decisions and build confidence in my choices and the actions that I do choose to take. That shadow of abandonment and pit of a deep, complex feeling is no longer a looming figure behind every action in my life, but has transformed into a helpful buddy walking by my side. It reminds me of where I came from. It reminds me to be thankful for my life and my opportunities. It encourages me to take a jog every now and then without the fear of taking the wrong path. 

While I set out today with a goal to clear up some of the misconceptions and assumptions around adoption, I also think it’s important to remember that — while adoptees might have very similar life experiences in common — they each have unique stories. 

Often, life is easier if you can categorize people. The brain absorbs so much on a daily basis, it wants to organize and systematize, and find commonalities between different pieces of information so it can file everything neatly away. The downside to this easy categorization is people then end up pathologizing an experience. And really, what good does that do us? Always challenge the way you see people, question the sources from which you draw information, and resist the instinct to put people into a box. 

I am an international adoptee who fully embraces my adoption as part of my identity. At times I put too much weight on that experience and at other times it’s faded too far into the background. 

I choose to share my story and experiences but others might not. I choose to study how I fit into the world, while others might not. I choose to self-reflect and dive into therapy to work through my trauma and pain, but others might not. My life is both incredibly unique and multifaceted, but I believe there are aspects of human experience that everyone can understand and where we all find commonality. I do not claim to represent the thoughts and lives of other adoptees around the world. Each of them has their own story and set of experiences. If you ask, nicely of course, they may choose to share them (or they may not); if they do, be sure that you are ready to listen with open ears and a clear mind. 

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