Friday, April 01, 2011

Oh, the lost subtleties

Irritation. It's one of those annoying, chafing, totally distracting things. It's hard to put off, although I wish to heaven I could.

Why do people persist in being so willfully tone deaf? I have seen my friend Joy go through the emotional wringer this past week, and we've had conversations about how the opinions of some adoptees, no matter how they're couched, get swatted away like flies. And other people just don't get it when we speak out in defense of ourselves. They don't. I wonder if they don't care (probably), if they get thrills from being nasty (probably), or if they're just plain unable to understand what we say in plain English (probably).

First, there was a post on another blog. A young first mother is dealing with having placed her son. I feel for her. It must be devastating. I am glad that she wants dialogue with all kinds of adoptees, even the ones who aren't happy-go-lucky and prosaic about it all. I applaud her for taking a broad view. And yet there are commenters who are quick to tell her not to listen to "angsty" female adoptees, who skew the narrative and aren't as well adjusted as the males. Whatever that means.

Joy pointed out to me the different between Angst, a Germanic word that translates into English as "fear" among other things, and "angsty," which is an English derivative word that has the following, more insidious meaning in slang:

"What a lot of teenagers tend to be at times. Generally it involves the feeling of not being understood by anyone and that the person is alone in the world. When in reality about a million other people are feeling the same thing." (

There is clearly a huge difference between straight up "fear" and the immature, self-involved navel-gazing suggested by "angsty." The former suggests an acknowedged emotion, the other is a put-down. The person who wrote "angsty" in relation to female adult adoptees, given the benefit of the doubt, probably didn't mean it as a put-down. I feel, however, that it merits mentioning because there are so many throwaway things said that do hurt. I, for one, like to be told when I hurt someone. I don't see why it's wrong to point out when I, or others, are hurt. 

There is, moreover, the strange component of being told that male adoptees just don't have the same issues as females (Gott Sei Dank, I suppose, for that blogger with the placed male infant). I think this is a simplistic statement based largely in gender stereotypes and the way that males are raised. I am sure that there are many men who are just fine with being adopted. Really, I believe it. But to say that most men have no issues is to pathologize those men who do have issues, and not to look closely at our culture which largely does not encourage men to speak out about their emotional experiences. In another place I spoke with adult male adoptees about this, who said that they are labled "gay" or "weak" when they do express anger, sadness, or what-have-you in relationship to being adopted. It's awful for them. See this

Another thing: I am sick of the adoption police saying that adoption is a one-time event. They want me to say that I "was" adopted, not that I "am" adopted. No. I was, and continue to be adopted. It's a legal process. Just like on June 26, 1999, I was married, but I am still married today. What hokum to say that such a transformative process has no lasting influence. Adoption is not a party that you go home from. It's something that is lived. And some people may not give it a second thought, but some of us do, and to tell us that we shouldn't--well, you don't have that right. Live your own life, and don't insist that your adoptee say anything except what she or he wants to about her/his experiences.

Finally, what is it with the knickers in a twist about adult adoptees wanting to be called adults, when we are? I am no longer the 10 week old that my aparents took home from the agency. I reached my majority a long ass time ago. I am not a child, and I don't want to be called a child or treated like a child. No infantilizing, no head patting, no speaking for me. Just stop. 

I shouldn't fall down this particular rabbit hole AGAIN, but I find the magnetic pull too hard. I cannot believe when people say, definitively, that separation from a caregiver is meaningless to infants who were adopted before six months of age. I argue that yes, there isn't any scientific evidence to prove that a child can communicate distress at separation before six months of age because they're not developmentally able to do so. It isn't observable, although anecdotally from my job, I would argue otherwise. I have to take infants away from their mother's breasts to get their baths, take vitals, and get their vaccinations. I am fairly universally shrieked at by the neonates when this happens. Maybe it's the cold, you say. Maybe it's the smell in the room. Maybe it's this, that, or the other: but no, it could NEVER be that the infant is put into a stressful position by being taken from his or her mother. Nope, just not possible. This seems stubbornly blind. Then do studies of neonates and find a way to eliminate variables to your pleasure! But don't say that babies don't feel anything until six months of age. They don't COMMUNICATE stress at separation in a scientifically observable way until they're six months, but it doesn't mean they don't FEEL anything. Find a more subtle way of measuring things. At least some scientists are looking at markers such as cortisol, a stress hormone, to be able to study younger infants. Why throw the baby, for real, out with the bathwater and say that such studies are meaningless? Oh yeah, behaviorists only care about behavior, not feelings. Argh. 

I agree that there is a ton of pseudoscience out there, but that doesn't mean that the way things stand, TODAY, in developmental psychology, is the way things will be forever. There is no Bible for neonatal experience, and to sit there and judge people for voicing their pain and their hypotheses is just plain cruel. What people say about neonatal separation isn't even anti-establishment. The party line states that  babies are developmentally mature enough to communicate, with words and behavior, that they are stressed about caregiver absence, at about six months of age. I know that I bonded to my aparents and did express stranger anxiety, per the protocol, at six months of age. That doesn't mean, however, that I didn't have a completely different emotional experience when I was alone in the hospital for 10 weeks without a primary caregiver. It's apples and oranges. We need to find a way to study neonatal stress in a way that even the most left-brained can buy into. Maybe this is my new calling, so that I can say BOOYAH to all the non-adopted people invested in telling me I am full of shit because science says so, or because their placed or adopted kids are JUST FINE. Please stop pathologizing me and treating me like I belong in the Salem Witch Trials or in a cave in the Negev. I am neither an infant nor an idiot.

And if these subtleties, which really aren't all that subtle, don't compute for you, then maybe YOU aren't thinking hard enough about being respectful of adoptees. And yes, we deserve respect just as much as real kids do. And I mean real kids both in terms of kept kids and in terms of us not being fairy children or changelings. Or aliens. 

Edited to Add: I was looking at research papers available online that discuss neonatal stress and its measurement. Of course the most thorough studies were conducted on rats and nonhuman primates because we can't (or shouldn't) use humans for experimentation that might lead to pathology. Most of the articles included maternal separation as a variable for stress, which is interesting, given that (supposedly) the Powers That Be don't believe in maternal separation as a neonatal stressor. Why study it if we absolutely know it cannot be problematic? Hmmm. 

This particular article dicusses how maternal separation caused chemical pathology in the brains of rats and nonhuman primates that mirrors that of depression and anxiety in human adults. Worth a read.


Jenn said...

Thank you for this post. I agree 100%. Rock on!

ms. marginalia said...

Thank you, Jenn. I have been looking at research into the lasting effects of neonatal stress (conducted on rats, because we cannot purposely stress out human infants--except adoptees), and interestingly, in all three of the studies I've read, maternal separation is considered a stressor and included as a variable. If it were so pointless to consider maternal separation, as some would have it, why bother? Oh yes, because "some" are not the people actually interested in learning. Just critiquing from on high.

ms. marginalia said...

Interesting article which discusses how research indicates that maternal separation causes signs of acute distress in neonatal rats and nonhuman primates, leading to adult psychopathology. True of rats but not of humans?

Amanda Woolston said...

I agree with you 100%. Angsty is ironically condescending to adoptees, whether people understand that or not. Adult Adoptees are not children, another label fraught with irony.

And, if I "was" adopted, and am not still adopted, someone please tell that to 44 out of 50 states who continue to discriminate because we ARE adopted. I think saying "was" adopted is just another way to ignore adoption's continued relevance in a person's life.

Have you had a chance to read "Coming Home to Self" by Verrier yet? I just started it and so far, I really recommend it. It is her recommendations on healing the Primal Wound. The first three chapters are about the science (mentioning things that can be measured included) surrounding infant stress and are very interesting.


Unknown said...

Excellent post! I totally agree. It is curious that these people who are so perplexed by our point of view about our own lives dammit, can't wrap their heads around not having to understand but at least respect what we are saying.

It is the least a decent person could do.

ms. marginalia said...

Amanda, I haven't read "Coming home to Self,"but I will add it to my list. Today. Sounds like it might help me focus on the real heart of this matter. I also bought that book, "Origins," about the nine months in utero and what research there is on maternal-fetal relationships during gestation. I skimmed it a while back, and while it is more journalistic than scientific, there are some nuggets to be further explored.

Amanda and Joy: thanks for your support, as always.

Trish said...

This month's issue of the Psychotherapy Networker is dedicated to attachment. I admit I have not read it yet. I did skim this, and it does touch on the earliest newborn experiences of rejection/attachment:

ms. marginalia said...

Trish, thank you for pointing me to the article. It was a thoughtful discussion of attachment, for sure. I liked how the authors said:

"[Attachment theory] can bring perspective to questions such as why change is so difficult and why emotional closeness can be so scary to some people. Long before children have the language and conceptual tools to process experience, negative or even traumatic patterns of interaction are incorporated in the brain, the functioning of their psyche, and even in the molecules that control the expression of their genes."

I know that the authors are talking about Bowlby/Ainsworth/etc., and infants six months and over, but it is true that infants experience things, and I am quite convinced that those things become woven into how the infant tries to make sense of the world, which is through relationships (or lack thereof).

Broken Branch said...

Great post. I have read Coming Home to Self by Nancy Verrier and highly recommend it. It has helped me better understand my daughter (lost to adoption).

Have you ever seen Hog Genius on the National Geographic channel? It aired again recently. There is a short piece near the end showing piglets who were separated from their mothers too early. They performed a swimming experiment in a small pool. Those piglets taken too early from their mothers showed severe signs of stress/distress when trying to reach a platform in the pool. Piglets kept with mothers did not show these signs of stress. I found it interesting.

I am convinced that human infants know their own mothers and experience stress and anxiety when separated from their mothers at birth. I learned my daughter had feeding problems in her first weeks of life which I think were related to her anxiety. I also learned from her when we were reunited that she cried so much when she was first in her adoptive home that her mother put her in a room on her own. It breaks my heart that she was crying for me (and left alone, uncomforted). And, at the same time, I was crying for her. (My parents wouldn't let me keep her and I never saw her again since I left the hospital when she was 2 days old). So cruel it was for both of us to be separated and longing for one another.

Thank you for highlighting this issue.

Unknown said...

Well said. Ten weeks alone in the hospital? Wow! That's a long time!!! Bonding starts before birth, and, no, I don't have any scientific proof for that. It's just intuitive, in my humble opinion.