Why I’m a Control Freak

I’m on vacation this week in Hilton Head, SC. It takes the solitude of a place like Hilton Head to open me up to write this blog post. I’ve been thinking about it for several months, but I just haven’t been able to muster the peace or courage or insanity or whatever it is that I’ve needed to write. Until now.

When I started first grade, I cried every day when my dad dropped me off at school. I don’t mean the tearful goodbye of a little kid who’s going to miss her parents for a few hours. I mean the screaming, holding onto his leg type of crying of a little kid who’s desperately afraid she wouldn’t see him again.

By that point, I already knew I was adopted and that knowledge messed with my world. Before you lash out about telling children too young, I want you to know I forced my parents into the conversation with questions they couldn’t answer without being open about my adoption, and they did a great job of explaining the whole thing. Adoption was and is part of my reality, and my parents felt it was important to acknowledge that fact and I am thankful they did.

It’s difficult for a little kid going to school for the first time not to have irrational fears. But mine were different; they weren’t completely irrational because they were built in some reality. For all the right reasons, my natural parents chose not to raise me. I was told that fact from the first time my parents told me about my adoption.

But when you’re a kid, that means other people can decide not to raise you too, and when I went to school each morning, I was afraid that’s the decision my parents would make while I was at school. I envisioned them just deciding not to pick me up. So I would be “that kid” who sits on the school bench, waiting for someone who is late to get them, but my situation would be different because my someone just wouldn’t be coming at all.

My parents always came, but I still believed it would be possible for them to decide not to and in my head that could happen at any time. All that seems silly now, as an adult, after I’ve heard my natural parents talk about their respective decisions, and witnessed the agony of the decision for my natural mom, who still can’t talk about the whole process without getting emotional.

But who I am at 38 is shaped by who I was at 5, and I like to be in control because it ensures that I will never be “that kid” – physically or emotionally. I protect that part of me with every fiber of my being. I see that 5 year old every time I think about whether I can trust someone. I see that 5 year old every time I consider whether I should reveal my heart to friends and even family. I see that 5 year old every time I think about letting someone else have any semblance of control in my life. I see that 5 year old and I think it’s my responsibility to protect her.

I’ve lived 38 good years on this earth. I have a few close friends, and they are the best I could ever ask for in my life. I have married a wonderful guy, who I love deeply and who loves me despite my weaknesses. I have families (adopted and natural) that I love with all of my heart and who love me.

But I hold part of myself back – even from my friends, and my husband, and my families. And I think they know it. And I think they respect it. And I think they hope one day I won’t. And I think they will love me even if I do. And I think it’s something I want to change. And I think it’s something I may never be able to change. But I’m trying. And I think that’s worth something.

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My Payne Family Tattoo

Last weekend, I spent about 4 hours at Lure Tattoo in Vienna, WV getting my fourth tattoo. Mat Ward, the tattoo artist, created another beautiful piece of art to honor my natural family – this time my natural mom’s family.

From the minute I reunited with my natural mom, the Payne family has been “all in” with me. There was no hesitation in accepting me as part of them, because to them I always have been part of them. The first communications with my natural mom quickly escalated to calls with Grandma Audrey, email exchanges with Aunt Arlene, Aunt Teresa, and Uncle Kenny, and additional Facebook friends in the form of my brothers (Damon and Jared) and sister-in-law (Anyse). When I met many of the Payne family members during the spring and summer of 2012, it was like I had come home after being on an extended trip and just needed to get acquainted with everyone again. I have no idea why God made our genetic connections so powerful, but it has been a blessing to me in reuniting with the Payne family.

The tattoo is a very special design based on some key moments in the reunion process with my natural mom.

  • There are two dates – March 20, 1975 and February 19, 2012 – which are our separation and reunion dates. March 20 is my birthday and February 19 is the day we first spoke.
  • The tattoo also features a river that separates over a hill into two branches and eventually comes back together over another horizon. Having come from the same source, we were separated, but are now united again. The river is particularly important because very early on in our reunion, my natural mom sent me a photo of rivers merging with a promise that she would not allow anything to separate us again.
  • The river also has significance because one of my favorite songs is “Aqueous Transmission” by Incubus, which includes the lyrics, “I’m building an antenna, transmissions will be sent. When I am through maybe we can meet again, further down the river. And share what we both discovered, then revel in the view.”
  • The landscape scene is “framed” in a heart-shaped bouquet of flowers with the family name “Payne” at the top, representing the love that my natural mom and the rest of the Payne family had for me regardless of the fact I was separated from them.

The tattoo is on my upper right leg. I tried to be modest in having the photo taken, but please forgive me if you are seeing more of my upper leg than you desired to see.

DSC02494

The Meaning of “Adopted”

I don’t spend most of my time focused on the fact that I’m adopted. That’s not to say that I am not acutely aware of it, but I don’t obsess about it or spend every waking moment thinking about the implications of being adopted. Most of the time it’s just like any other fact about me – it just is and doesn’t demand much thought or explanation. Granted the reunions with my natural families have brought it to the forefront in the last two years, but even that has just become part of the fabric of my life now. On most days, I’m just being me and that means I have lots of families. All of this is true on most days. Today is not one of those days.

Today, I am wondering what it really means to be adopted. My day started innocently enough. I went to the gym, led a lunch and learn opportunity, ate a late lunch with a client, and answered emails. Then, I went for an afternoon haircut. And that’s where my day shifted. The conversation in the shop was pretty casual and focused on the fact that an individual’s mom just celebrated a birthday. The lady telling the story explained that her mom is now 83, but they put the candles on the cake backwards so it would say 38. Of course, her mom got a big kick out of that fact and snickered because the daughter always says she’s 39, which prompted the mom to say, “Oh, I guess I couldn’t have had you. You must be adopted.” The daughter laughed while telling the story and noted, “Well, if I was adopted at least I was wanted by someone.”

Ouch. Is that what adoption really means? That someone wanted me – with a heavy dose of implication that someone else did not? I have to admit, that thought stinks. Not just for me, but for all adopted kids. I’ve always thought it was a bit more complicated. That my parents probably did want me, but life circumstances led them to make a decision to give me to someone else rather than keep me. Now that I’ve heard their stories, I think that is true. But not every adopted kid has heard their parents’ perspectives. And that means there may be a bunch of kids who really stress over that heavy dose of implication. Wanted by some, but not by all.

Interestingly, I’ve often struggled with what it really means to be adopted. As I was growing up, my parents had a tendency to “claim” people – meaning they would take them in (sometimes physically, but always emotionally) and support them. In fact, they still do that, which I think is cool. But in introducing those folks to others, they would often say something like, “this is our adopted son/daughter.” In some ways, I knew I was distinguished from those individuals because I was never introduced as adopted, but because I knew I was adopted, I wondered if there really was a difference between them and me. I have always been a good thinker, so I often rationalized the distinctions – for instance, I was living in the home and the “adopted son/daughter” was not – but I still struggled with the idea that I might not be so different from one of those people. That in reality, it could have easily been one of them living with my family rather than me if the timing would have been different.

One of the cool things that has come from my reunion with my natural families is that I’ve seen where I belong with both families. But on days like today, when I struggle to understand what this whole adoption thing really means, I wonder if it’s more like I don’t quite belong to either family. And that thought does not help my already well-established tendency to believe I should rely only on myself because you never know when someone might walk away (by the way, this is apparently a common reaction in adopted kids).

I realize this post isn’t exactly encouraging, but it’s real. And because I was still thinking about it after a 2-hour lawn-mowing expedition, dinner, and an ice cream cone, I figured I better get the thoughts out of my head and onto paper. Here’s to hoping the next post is more positive. In the meantime, I’m going to try to stop thinking and get some rest. Hope you guys have a great night!

Symbols of Connection

Throughout time, individuals have sought to identify themselves with each other. Whether we use last names, tribal paint, jewelry, or team clothing, it appears we use those symbols to let others know to whom we belong or who we claim.

When I married my husband, I took his name, but I kept my maiden name as well. While it was important to me to identify myself with him (and his clan), it was of equal importance for me to keep my maiden name because it identifies me with my clan. I like carrying my full name – even though it’s very long and I have to spell it every time I meet someone because most people just don’t get the hyphenated name thing.

I like using my full name because it properly honors my families. At least it did until last year. Now, I have two additional families to honor and it’s just not practical to add two more names to an already lengthy set of names.

So, yesterday I embarked on my journey to recognize my other families by getting a tattoo to honor my natural dad’s family. I started there for two reasons. First, because yesterday was his birthday and I thought it was another cool symbol to have my tattoo done on his special day. Second, because my connection with my natural dad’s family is more loose than with my natural mom’s family, I need the symbol to help remind me I am part of them too.

I’m posting a photo, and here’s the explanation of the key elements:

1. Peace pipe = honoring Creek Indian heritage
2. Reynolds = my natural dad’s last name
3. The words peace and love = my natural dad’s signature phrase

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

THE TATTOO IS ON MY UPPER THIGH.

SCROLL DOWN AT YOUR OWN RISK.

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Reynolds Tattoo

The Primal Wound – Abandonment

A friend (who is an adoptive parent) recently suggested I read “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Newton Verrier. I have read numerous books about adoption, but most focused on search and reunion processes because I began reading as I was seriously considering my search (again) a couple of years ago. While Verrier’s book includes information about search and reunion, the core of the book is about the impact abandonment has on babies. I marked significant passages in the book and will likely write several posts about my reactions to those passages. I have not spoken much about the “wound” that I experienced as an adoptee, but I hope doing so now will give me peace in the matter and serve as a reminder to all adoptees that someone understands. Here goes…

The adoption process – a beautiful, loving experience – always begins with an abandonment. Those are not the exact words in Verrier’s book, but that’s how I interpreted what I read. Abandonment. It’s a word we don’t like to throw around much in relationship to adoption, which is why my adoptive parents took great pains to explain to me that only a mom who loved me so much could actually give me to another family. Turns out, they were right. My natural mom made her decision because she believed I would be better off with a two-parent family. But the abandonment occurred nonetheless.

As a kid, I intellectually acknowledged this loving natural mom who gifted me to my family, but emotionally I couldn’t help but process the feelings of it too – I was abandoned. Period. At times, I was so concerned about being abandoned again that I was basically paralyzed. I cried every day of first grade because I was afraid my parents wouldn’t pick me up from school. Literally cried. And made myself sick because I was so worked up. I waited anxiously every single day for a car I recognized because that was another day I would have a family. My adoptive parents never gave me any legitimate reason to question whether they would be there, but I questioned it anyway and likely drove them crazy trying to find solutions to my angst.

Verrier explores the power of the abandonment from an interesting perspective – it’s based on the bond a baby feels to her mother. A bond that is deep and strong regardless of whether the baby ever saw the mother or was held by the mother. The 40-week pregnancy experience is the source of the bond and allows the baby to know its mother’s smell, voice, touch, and, interestingly, allows it to pick out it mother’s face from a gallery of photos within minutes after birth (see page 5 referencing work by Dr. David Chamberlain). I wouldn’t have understood this idea prior to reuniting with my natural mom, but I get it. I get it because there is something about her voice that is soothing and washes peace over me – and it happened the very first time we spoke. We both wonder if it’s because of the countless hours she spoke to me while she was pregnant.

In my experience, abandonment is real. And it doesn’t go away. I still have abandonment anxieties that are played out in my every day life. For example, I have very few friends. That is driven, in part, by the fact that I am an introvert, but a piece of it is because I don’t allow myself to engage with people I don’t trust to keep me in their lives for a long, long time. Another example is in relationships. I have sabotaged several dating relationships because I was going to be the one doing the leaving. I knew it at the time, though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I didn’t feel like I had other good choices. Now, I am married to a great guy who, even in our toughest times, has never talked about giving up, but I have talked about throwing in the towel several times so that if he says “yes” it was really my idea. Intellectually, the whole thing is bizarre. If abandonment is so bad, why would I be willing to do it to someone else? But that’s just the thing. Abandonment isn’t about intellect. It’s about emotion. Emotion that comes from a child, a baby even. And that isn’t logical. And it’s all about self-preservation.

If you are the loved one of an adoptee who is dealing with these issues, please be patient with him/her. And if you are an adoptee and are experiencing these feelings, please know that other people have experienced them too. The wound is legitimate. And it’s okay to talk about it.

My Brothers and Sister

I spent the last week at Camp Manatawny, a Christian youth camp in Douglasville, PA, working with 7th and 8th graders. On Thursday night, the campers participated in a talent show and some family and friends came to watch. I was mesmerized by one particular family interaction – between a young man and two of his older siblings (a brother and sister). The older siblings looked to be between 5 to 10 years older than their brother, but that didn’t negatively impact their interactions at all. They laughed, hugged, and talked the entire evening, and even cried when it was time to leave. I talked with the camper the next day and found out he’s from a family of 10 kids and that the brother and sister who visited live close to him. As I was wondering why their departure would still be so hard for each of them, he added that he loves his brothers and sisters so much that even though he knew he would see them in a couple of days, it made him cry to see them leave because he enjoys being with them as much as possible.

I’ve been thinking about why this family scene was so captivating to me, and I think I finally determined the “why.” I have an older brother (Shawn, who is a member of my adopted family) and he is the best older brother I could ever imagine. From the time I was brought home, he watched out for me, played with me, talked with me, and made sure I was never left out of any activity – even if that meant taking me to Friday night high school football games in Seneca, SC when he was 17 and I was 10. While our relationship has matured (no more fighting over room in the backseat of the car), it still carries the elements of concern, conversation, and play that it always did. I am lucky to be his “little sister.”

But the “why” doesn’t stop there.

I have two younger brothers and a younger sister (who doesn’t yet know about me). I think as I watched the camper with his family, I realized something I have lost by being adopted – the chance to be the “big sister.” I wasn’t there to help my brothers and sister as they were growing up – to play with them, give them advice, help keep them out of trouble with our parents, etc. I will never have the memories with them that I have with Shawn because we didn’t grow up together. And now, we are all adults and the forging of our relationships will be much more complicated.

Perhaps without having Shawn as my role model, I wouldn’t have been a very good “big sister” anyway. I don’t know. But I do know this – I am a “big sister” and I am proud of my “little brothers” and even my “little sister” who I have never met. And I’m thankful God saw fit to let me have a fantastic big brother and I hope I can be 1/10 as good for my younger siblings as he has been for me.

Rebel or Compliant?

I spent the summer and fall of 2011 reading books, blogs, and articles about adoption – studying may be the more appropriate word. I wanted to understand the experiences of others who found their families so that I could “prepare” myself for my experience and understand more about the experiences of the others impacted by my decision to seek my natural family. In the midst of reading, I encountered (over and over again) a very intriguing notion – that adopted children have a tendency to become a “rebel” or a “compliant.” The literature suggested that most adopted kids choose one of two paths – they are “hellions” within their adopted families and society in general or they are “perfect angels” in those same circles. And I had to ask myself, “which one am I”?

I’ve been thinking about that question for almost 2 years and I think I’m both. Growing up, I did some things that I am not proud of today. Made some bad choices, some known to my parents and some not. Found myself in some situations that I am lucky to have survived. But I also got straight A’s in school. Won more debate trophies than I can count. Earned scholarships to college (where I did more of the hellion stuff). And (finally) “settled down” to a life of law school, marriage, and then a real job. Bottom line? I had some great moments and some not-so-great moments in my youth. And I figure my story isn’t that much different from yours.

Except for one thing – the “why.” You see, I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. In every good choice, in every bad choice. And the reasoning went something like this…

“If I do X (insert bad choice) and people give up on me, it just proves that people don’t really care, that I’m disposable, and I should get out before they can hurt me.”

“If I do X (insert good choice) and people think I’m great, they’ll always want me around.”

As I type the words (and consider erasing them and this entire blog post because I’m not sure I’m ready for the world to see this much of my psyche), I waiver between laughing and crying in my head. Laughing because it’s all pretty laughable. People are much more complicated than I am giving them credit for – a few bad choices won’t make people who love you stop loving you and a few good choices won’t make people who don’t love you start loving you. Crying because it’s all pretty sad. People aren’t always more complicated – they have a tendency to love those who are easy to love and reject those who aren’t.

I was blessed to be raised by parents who were more complicated. My highs and lows never seemed to rile them too much. They praised me appropriately for the good stuff and punished me appropriately for the bad stuff (at least the stuff they knew about). But they taught me that love is love – and it remains in place regardless of what you do because love is about who you are.

And I believe that. And I don’t. And I trust that. And I don’t. And I want that to be true. And it’s scary to rely on it.

So at 38 years old, I wear more earrings than my professional colleagues think appropriate, while I deliver the best leadership content I can create. And I am careful not to show off my tattoos to those who might be offended by them, while I plan my next two to honor my natural families. And I cautiously enter friendships with people, while I hold my best friends very close. And I look like a slacker, while I pride myself on my work ethic. And I wear t-shirts of my favorite rock bands and comedians (some you likely would think are inappropriate), while I read my Bible and pray. And I keep my inner-most thoughts to myself, while I write a blog that I hope will help people like me.

I don’t know about most adopted kids, but I am neither a “rebel” nor a “compliant.” Those “boxes” aren’t quite big enough to contain the complicated, nuanced juxtaposition that is my life. And I doubt they are for you either – adopted or not. So, here’s my advice – just take what God has given you (including your nature and your experiences) and be the best version of you that you can muster. It’s enough for the people who matter. And you need to know the ones who really matter – sooner than later.