Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Being adopted for me has meant living on the outside. My relationship with my nfamily is fractured because of the trauma surrounding my birth and placement; there are dynamics way beyond my control, and it hurts. Yet in some ways, I can brush it off and say, "Well, they don't know me. It's about them, not me." I don't have history with them, which saddens me, but again, that was beyond my control.

Adoptees hear over and over and over that "All families have problems," and "We all have our crosses to bear." These are true statements, but it is highly annoying that people automatically assume that adoptees don't know this. When we talk about our problems, they're dismissed as being irritating and "less than" because we should shut up and be happy; any other narrative is disturbing, and why don't we know our place? My friend Joy wrote a brilliant rebuttal of this insanity in a blog post here.

To demonstrate that I am aware of other people's problems, I want to share something that my husband is going through. I hate seeing him suffer, and it sickens me that his family feels free to treat him as cavalierly as most of my nfamily treats me. Mark was born in 1970 to German parents who were then living in New York City; he is a dual citizen. His father worked for the Deutsche Bundesbahn [German railroad] and managed its ticket sales office in Manhattan for six years. When Mark was an infant, his family moved back to Hamburg. He comes from a very small, highly buergerlich [bourgeois is a close translation, but not quite spot on] Prussian family to whom appearances mean everything. Clothing, manners, language, social functions, house, garden, everything is tightly managed (if you've read anything by Thomas Mann, that's the culture). Mark says that there's a word for this properness, Spiessigkeit, that is difficult to translate into English, but combines elements of complacency, smugness, and arrogance. The only thing Mark's mom liked about me was that I had a Ph.D., because that is a title. Buergerlich people are way big on titles. But then my being foreign canceled it out, and I was back to zero. 

Although I am slagging off Germans here, there are regional differences that have everything to do with culture. The Northerners (Prussians) are cold, cold, cold. I have heard from many different people that they have hated Hamburg because of the demeanor of the people. Bavarians are different, and my friend Dirk is from Saxony, which has a great history and, I must say, friendlier people than I encountered in Hamburg. Mark says Saxony is Russian, but he's a Prussian and we're back to square one with the regional snootiness. When I say, "Deine Leute," or "YOUR people," to Mark, I generally mean Prussians.

Mark chafed under the strictures of his village's Aryan culture, wore torn jeans, asked his mother not to iron his underwear, tee shirts, and jeans, and had yearly arguments with her about how terrible it was that he wasn't working in a job that required a suit. He hates suits. Always has, always will. And yet the arguments ensued, without fail. I witnessed one of these arguments a couple of years into our marriage, and had to hide my face in a pillow to avoid her seeing that I was laughing when she called him schlampig, which translates both as messy/sloppy and slutty in English.

Anyway, at a point in his 20's, Mark decided to emigrate and move to the United States. In retrospect he feels this is because he wanted to escape the strictures of his family. Since he left, he has been nearly completely ostracized. He is as much an outsider from his family of origin as I am from my nfamily. It's terribly sad. I mentioned in an earlier post that his family boycotted our wedding in California, and other than a visit from his father after his mother died, we have seen nothing of them on this side of the Atlantic. Mark has to do all the work, make all the phone calls, do all the bridging and traveling. And when he's there, they treat him badly. It's wrong. It infuriates me to see someone I love demeaned this way. It's about *them* and not about him and his needs. Hmm, have I heard this before? Is it so hard to support someone in following their heart and dreams? I guess it is, for some people. He is basically alone, except for me, my parents, and our children.

His mother has two sisters, one of whom passed away in 2002, and one of whom is still living. His elder aunt was someone I adored. She was the only person in the family to welcome me with open arms, even though her English was minimal and my German is pretty rotten. She enjoyed that I was different, in as much as Mark's mother didn't. I loved her, and when she died, I lost my only ally. She would take Mark's mother on and call her out on all the garbage she said to me, which is, sadly, more than I can say for Mark. [An aside about that: when I was newly engaged to Mark, his mother made me a calendar with pictures of Mark. Some of those pictures involved him kissing an ex of his whom his mother *wished* he had married. I was horrified to open this object of torture gift and be slapped in the face by her disapproval. At the time, and for some 11 years later, Mark said that there was no malintent. Q.E.D. Germans are sadists. Seriously, I can laugh now, but it was terrible to have her do this and to have my husband say that she loved me. It's almost as bad as "Your mother loved you so much she gave you up for adoption." Really?] [Another aside--how I am on asides today--Thomenon hadn't heard about this rainbow-farting nonsense, and when I told him about it yesterday, he said, "No one actually believes that bullshit, do they?"]

So back to my story. Mark's younger aunt is a widow now, and Mark has always loved her very much. Since the death of his own mother in 2007, he has drawn closer to her and they speak far more. But twice recently she has been hospitalized and his family *completely* neglected to tell him. Twice. Once with a stroke and once with a hip replacement. He doesn't exist to them because he left the Heimat [homeland].

I would argue that the only difference between us is how we got to our place of exile: he chose to leave, and I was involuntarily sent away. Either way, it sucks. Yes, I know, other people have problems with their biological families. And I can love them and support them.


Unknown said...

We have foster relatives (since my mom was a foster child and we've taken in some foster kids), biological relatives, and now adoptive relatives (since we have an open adoption with our last three girls). It can get a little confusing (like when our youngest girls tell people they have five grandmas and three grandpas), but it's all family nonetheless. And family, whether adoptive, foster, or biological, is supposed to be your pillar of support. I'm sorry yours has been so rough.

Carlynne Hershberger, CPSA said...

I understand the dismissal. You as an adoptee are to "shut up and be happy" and we as nmothers are supposed to shut up and go away.

I'm sorry that you and your husband have these situations - amazing how different and yet how similar they are. Neither is about you or Mark, it's about fear and ego from the other side.

Third Mom said...

This really struck home. My husband is also German, got here in circuitous fashion, and has a difficult relationship with his father (back in the Heimat). They have been dismissing him all his life, and even at his current age, it hurts and frustrates him.

Why are families like this?


ms. marginalia said...

Margie, I have no idea. The cruelty amazes me. I do not fit in well at all in that world.

I am sad that you know what I am talking about, but glad to have someone who really gets it.