Expanding the Umbrella of Secondary Rejection

Before I begin, I want to ask you to keep this in your mind as you read this blog article. “What comes to mind when you see or hear the words ‘Parents’ or ‘Teachers’?” What would your response have been when you were child/youth? How would you hope your children, future children, nieces, nephews, students, clients etc. respond to if they were asked the question?

Recently, I have been embarking on the slow and tedious journey of unearthing, reviewing, scanning, saving, and organizing all of the records and documents that detail my childhood and my deepest thoughts during those 18 years of lived experience. I have had many people ask me whether looking at these documents is worth the toll it may take on my mental health as I relieve some of the hardest moments of my life that are detailed in hundreds of pages and documents. Some have suggested that I pack it away, and others suggested destroying it.

It has been a process and the road is forever winding as the emotions twist around the space between my childhood and my present reality. But, I can say, these tangible pieces of paper that hold the truth of my childhood have served a part in my continued journey of healing.

I think even more important to my quest of rediscovering these records and documents, is the endless amount of material I can use to help others impacted by adoption and who may impact others through adoption. It was clearly evident, that growing up I never shied away from my truth. I refused to allow others to control my narrative. When I look back at my young child and adolescent self, I hold so much respect for her. She pushed passed a lot of obstacles, abuse, gaslighting, and statistics. But at the same time, she also bore the consequences of speaking up and out during a time and at an age where that was not broadly accepted or seen as something positive. Raw and unedited truth from the perspective of adoptees was not the narrative of the adoption industry, many adoptive parents, and society wanted to be told.

I recently came across a series of assignments I completed in my freshman year of high school. Tucked away were 10 journal entries that were crisply stacked in a file in between an ocean of more sharp and” formal” documentation and records. Each journal entry gave an inside look into my inner thoughts and feelings that were so truthfully written out in response to prompts and questions provided in class.

Sometimes they were reactions to a movie played during that class period. Other times they were simple questions meant to provoke more critical thinking. Other times I chose not to answer them because I didn’t have the capacity to and I wrote that as my response.

Each journal entry pulled pieces of my story and the intersections of my adoption experience and laced them between each sentence written out on the paper in front of me. I do not remember writing any of these assignments, the setting in time, the teacher, or my classmates. It is almost as if it is unwritten from my memories. It makes me all the more grateful that I have a time capsule of my inner thoughts and feelings during a time that isn’t within my grasp. It is clear with every journal entry just how tired and hurt my young self was but also just how determined I was to remain in control of my own story. I wanted to tell those who I hoped would listen.

These journal entries were written at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I was 15 years old and had been sent to live with an adoptive cousin that I did not have a relationship with or any type of real connection. I had not seen her in several years.

I was not asked if I wanted to go, I was told I had to go. Which translated to, my adoptive parents wanted to focus on my younger sister and her needs and that they needed a “break” from me. This cousin lived across the country in a town that had no racial representation or racial mirrors and the population was comprised of very upper-class wealthy families, something I never experienced. It was a culture shock to a child who was already on unstable ground. This was one of the first of many situations in which I was “sent away” because I refused to conform to the abuse I sat in. When I look back, it was my voice and control over my own story that they saw as a threat.

Although my adoption story is one that is laced with abuse, inherent adoption issues are not unique to situations like mine. Issues of control, rejection, grief, loss, shame/guilt, and Intimacy interlock with the basic fundamental pieces that lay the structure of adoption.

The first journal entry I am choosing to release is a great example of what rejection can feel and look like to a young adoptee who is experiencing intense emotions around abandonment. It made me wonder. Should we expand the umbrella of what is classified as secondary rejection? Should we consider the idea that adoptive parents can cause their adopted children to experience secondary rejection when in the past first families in reunion were the circumstance acknowledged?

Secondary rejection is typically used when an adopted person is rejected by their first family when the adoptee seeks re-connection through the process of reunion, more specifically their adoptive mother. It was coined to give this phenomenon a face and title. However, what if the secondary rejection surfaces from being rejected by their adoptive parents even before an adoptee has the power to initiate the process of reunion with their first family and parents?

I find it interesting that these circumstances have not already been talked about and discussed, but then again it does not surprise me either. By stating that secondary rejection can be a phenomenon that is initiated and played out by the adoptive parents, it also erodes away at the rose-colored glasses and “rainbows and butterflies” adoption narrative that society upholds. If secondary rejection were to also include the situation in which the adoptive parents reject a child for not meeting or conforming to their expectations of the adoption experience, then that would place accountability on the people who are labeled as “good” and given the unspoken title of “saviors”.

I also find it interesting that secondary rejection immediately jumps over the adoptive family experience and directly into the family of origin experience. It is almost as if the adoptive family holds no responsibility for negative experiences and that the negative feelings are solely reserved for first families and first parents.

One thing I work with my adoptive families and parents is acknowledging that they do hold responsibility for some of the negative feelings a young adopted child or youth may experience. I work with them to understand that by acknowledging this, it does not mean that they have failed their adopted child. How adoptive parents react, interact, and when they choose not to act with their adopted child can set the stage for either building the bond of connection or breaking that bond of connection down.

Below is the journal entry I wrote at the age of 15 for class. The prompt was ‘What comes to mind when you hear the words “teachers” or “Parents”‘. You can find the original piece in the pictures below which also include teacher comments. When you read these words, picture the face of a young adoptee, any young adoptee, because the reality is, any young adoptee can feel this at any given time.

I was always honest in my interpretation and delivery. I never beat around the bush or sugar-coated things regardless of the inevitable consequences—and I faced many consequences that manifested in the form of physical, emotional, mental, and chemical abuse. Not every adopted child or youth feels they can speak openly and many may weigh out the consequences of speaking their truth and decide not to. Many young adoptees may feel shame around these feelings and it may conflict with the feelings of love they also feel towards their adoptive family. They may feel that this is a form of betrayal or that they are ungrateful. Many adoptees do not want to hurt their adoptive parents’ feelings or have a fear of offending others. However, all of that does not erase the fact that these feelings are valid and true and they deserve safe spaces to release and speak about them without fear of offending or judgment.

“Today we talked about what comes to mind when you hear or see the words “teachers” or “Parents”. A lot of words come to my mind when I saw the words parents. And they weren’t pretty. My parents sent me here to live with my cousin only because I didn’t get along with my mom. I didn’t do anything wrong or anything. We just didn’t get along. I felt betrayed, taken advantage of, and pressured. So that is what comes to mind when I think of “Parents”. I have had bad teachers in the past but that number will never out number the good teachers I have had., I think of generous, encouraging, mentors, useful, pure people when I think of teachers. I mean if we didn’t have teachers we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow as much. Teachers are valuable and pretty much your friends at the same time. So many people here in Aspen I find confusing. I have been through extremely hard times were I thought why go another day. I have lived in so many states and so many houses and I have handled money and generosity with care. But I don’t see that here. One kid in the class referring to parents said “I have to say good stuff, they give me everything I want”. Kelly said she hates her parents and a girl turned around and said you couldn’t live without them and the truth is me and her can. We weren’t given everything we wanted and we aren’t regarded as kings and queens. I am already living without them so that girl was outta place. For certain people parents may be everything but for me there nothing. I was betrayed by both sets of parents, given up twice, by my biological parents and my adoptive parents. There nothing to me. I lived a hard life and can stand alone without falling unlike most of these stuck up, rude, spoiled kids here. I’v lived in a trailer, I’v lived in a house, and I’v lived in an apartment. I have goals and I wont fall form the lack of support from my parents because I’v grown up without them!”

In this journal entry, I reference the “betrayal” angrily. In reality, it was painful to feel rejection. It fed internal feelings I held tightly to, the feelings of not being worth it, not being lovable, not being wanted. If two sets of parents can “give me up” then I must not be someone worth keeping.

It’s important to remember that adoptees grapple with feelings of self-worth and the idea of whether we are truly wanted when our start began from being “given up”. How acceptance and love can grow from the place of grief and loss. How adoptive parents react in these moments is crucial to how our inner voice forms as we grow and develop and whether that voice will be a voice of love and acceptance or a voice of shame and rejection. When you act in these moments, are you centering your adoptee’s feelings or your own feelings?

It’s important to hold the space and steady the foundation of confidence and self-love that may not always feel firm and secure for our children. Adoptive parents are their adopted child’s landing pad and anchor. You hold the power of stability within the stormy sea of chaos. It is important to remember that you are who they see and turn to when the storm of emotions calms. It is the choice of the adoptive parents, whether they show up on the other side with acceptance and unconditional love that every child needs in order to thrive. That every adoptee requires in the face of the stormy sea that is adoption.

Published by Stephanie Oyler

Stephanie is a Licensed MSW professional who specializes in the area of adoption and foster care. She is also an adoptee herself. Adoptee LIT is a space created for education, advocacy, personal insight/experience and guidance in the sphere of Adoption.

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