Hole in My Soul

Adoption is not a once-off transaction, an isolated event. It is a multi-faceted, multi-layered, lifelong journey. And by sharing our stories, our lived experiences, our truths – through books, and blogs, and wonderful initiatives like this ‘Stand Up & Speak Up’ campaign – I hope we are able to bring an end to the suffering of all those burdened by so many unnecessary secrets, and stigma, and shame.

You are not alone. There is help out there. And hope for healing.

I was relinquished as a newborn in 1974, under the highly secretive closed adoption system, which was a common practice for young, unwed mothers in South Africa at the time.

My adoptive parents were given no identifying details about my birth parents, and vice-versa.

My name was changed completely, and I was only allowed to access my file containing my birth parents’ names when I reached the age of majority (18 with my adoptive parents’ written permission, 21 without their permission).

My birth parents were never allowed to initiate contact.

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted. My parents introduced me to the concept from a very young age.

Although extended family and close friends all knew my younger brother and I were adopted (different biological parents), it wasn’t exactly something I went around advertising.

Unlike transracial adoptees that can’t hide the fact that they are not biologically related to their parents, I tried my best to keep my adoptee status a secret.

Kids are cruel, and I knew if they found out, I’d be a bully’s easy target.

I played my cards close to my chest until I was in my mid-to-late teens when I had grown a thick enough skin to deal with the kind of insensitive adoption ‘jokes’ and ignorant comments that are bandied about in everyday conversation, and sometimes even directed straight at adoptees.

For the most part, I had a happy, carefree childhood, but things changed quite dramatically when I was fourteen and my best friend’s mom committed suicide. It triggered in me a sense of urgency to find my birth mother before it was too late, and the answers to my burning questions were taken to the grave.

Knowing virtually nothing about my biological roots resulted in a crippling identity crisis during adolescence, manifesting in all forms of anti-social and self-destructive behavior, and ultimately a deeply dysfunctional relationship with my adoptive parents.

Although they tried to hide it, I knew they felt extremely threatened by the idea of me reuniting with my birth parents. I believe the fear of rejection runs through every thread of the adoption tapestry.

Deep down, everyone in the triad has a fear of it.

For adoptive parents, it is the fear of being replaced by their child’s birth parents.

For birth mothers, it is the fear of being rejected by their child – as punishment, for abandoning them, and not being able to provide for them like a parent should. And for adoptees, it is the fear of their birth mother not wanting to meet them, of being rejected by her a second time.

When I turned 21, I was granted access to my file at the welfare society, which had facilitated the adoption, and I met my birth mother shortly thereafter.

Looking into the face of the woman who had carried me for nine months and brought me into this world was an incredibly emotional and life-changing experience.

I met my birth father three years later. Most people say I am the spitting image of her, but I also see a resemblance to him. Talent and temperament wise, I am a blend of both.

Discovering more about my biological roots, the circumstances surrounding my relinquishment, and finding out I had three half-siblings gave me closure. I felt a wonderful sense of inner calm and peace. All those questions I had carried around inside me for so long were answered, the aching hole in my soul was filled. I felt liberated, and I began to heal.

I broke the news to my adoptive mother about my reunion with my birth mother two months after my first face-to-face meeting with the latter. It was a VERY awkward conversation. It felt like confessing to having an affair, telling a jilted lover about the ‘other woman’ in my life.

My adoptive parents only met my birth mother 15 years later, and my birth father the following year – both meetings at my request. I was tired of leading a double life.

In 2016, I released Umbilicus, an autobiographical novel focussing on my journey as an adoptee. For me, my belly button was the last point of contact with my birth mother, and growing up I always felt a spiritual connection to her, so the word umbilicus just fitted the ‘tie that binds’ thread of my work so perfectly. The main theme of the story is the search for identity. There is also a strong underlying theme of redemption.

Although my story deals with what is officially termed a closed, domestic, same-race adoption, and I do not claim to speak on behalf of all individuals adopted under this system, I do know that many of our unique challenges growing up as adoptees are universal.

I believe it is my duty, my calling, to be a voice for the voiceless.

To paint an accurate portrait of the challenges faced by many adopted kids the world over, particularly during the teen years, as we all strive to acquire a sense of self and forge our own identity.

To fast-forward a few years beyond the adoption agency’s picture-postcard image of a happy mom cuddling a chubby baby, and relay with authenticity and objectivity the raw dynamics between parents and teenagers in a not atypical adoption triad.

Like Frederick Douglass so wisely wrote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And having personally run the gauntlet over the past four decades, I hope to pass on what I have learned to adoptees, parents, and professionals working in the field so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

I was recently invited to sit on a four-author panel discussion, at one of our country’s most significant literary festivals. It was facilitated by an acclaimed cultural commentator, and was called 'Cut Off at the Roots'. We spoke about some of the many challenges faced by adopted and emigrant children when trying to build a sense of identity, and probed the concept of truly knowing who we are if we don’t know where we came from.

I am a firm proponent of open adoption. I believe it should be a basic civil and human right for every single adoptee to have access to their original birth certificate and adoption file whenever they feel ready. I encourage all adoptive parents and social workers to build life books for/with the adopted child. And I strongly advise all adoptive parents to seek out a professional for their child to speak to. Someone who specializes in dealing with adoptees, and the unique psychological and emotional challenges we face. Someone with a strong grasp of pre- and perinatal psychology, and how it relates to ensuing problems with attachment, bonding, and abandonment issues – as uniquely experienced by adoptees. Someone with proper training in treating the trauma associated with the primal wound, the ghost-kingdom, genealogical bewilderment, mirror loss, and identity issues – again, as uniquely experienced by adoptees. Unfortunately, normal family psychologists and school counselors and clergymen are not qualified to deal with these adoption-specific issues.

My advice to fellow adoptees who are considering, or have already embarked on the search and reunion process, just remember that ‘making contact’ with your birth mother (and/or other members of your biological family) doesn’t have to involve a face-to-face meeting. Perhaps you and/or your birth mother will only be comfortable exchanging info and photos via email initially. Maybe after a while, you’ll be open to chatting on the phone or via Skype. And eventually, you may be prepared to meet in person. Don’t rush it. Give each other the time and space needed to digest information and process feelings. Allow things to unfold and evolve organically. Set healthy boundaries. There will be ups, there will be downs. But ultimately you, the adoptee, will have a far better sense of who you are, and your place in this world. I firmly believe we are all here for a reason.

Although my birth parents and half-siblings have all been extremely supportive of my decision to share my story with the world, my adoptive family has been less than thrilled. I have been estranged from my adoptive mother since March 2015 (she cut me out of her life the day I sent her a copy of my manuscript, and has never explained why), and I only have sporadic contact with my adoptive father and brother.

But I have no regrets about my decision to forge ahead with the publishing process. This is my truth. And like author Anne Lamott so eloquently wrote: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."