The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. It’s also the month I arrived from Ethiopia to the United States in 1994 at the age of 6.

There is so much I could express here but one thing is for sure: Adoption is rooted in trauma. Despite the new life I was given, I carry with me always the experience of my life before adoption.

The smell of coffee that my birth mother used to roast, the siblings and other family members I loved, the language I lost, and the emptiness I felt in April 1994 when my twin sister and I were placed in an orphanage with very little explanation. Add to that the recurring dream I kept having as a child of my mom coming back to the orphanage to visit me and rock me back to sleep. I dreamt of holding to her tightly and wished that that moment could last a lifetime.

Then later, after 18 years of holding onto that dream, my heart was shattered into a million pieces because I found out that it wasn’t a dream: it actually happened. My mother did come back for me—but the way the system worked, I was no longer hers. She wasn’t empowered to know her rights. But this is how the system works. It preys on the vulnerable, and it leaves them disempowered.

Now, as an adult, I carry with me that pain, the heartache that I now know my mother felt, the trauma it created for everyone, and the resilience of every birth family that has been impacted by a broken system.

I find myself counting my blessings, working through the pain—not being grateful but taking each day as it comes—because anyone that gets through this life, as an adopted person, carries with them the complexities of adoption and is grappling with the trauma in various ways.

As an adult, I’ve been able to work through these feelings, and the loss adoption creates, but I’ve also been lucky enough to live to tell about it.

We lost two young adoptees recently to suicide, and it breaks my heart because life was supposed to be better if you are adopted—at least, that’s the narrative.

I was inspired to share my thoughts today because I’ve been experiencing what some call a “traumaversary,” the idea that on the anniversary of traumatic events (such as suddenly being moved to an orphanage, or unforgivably (for a 6 year old) being moved to a place with strangers and not understanding why), we feel the trauma again, sometimes in our bodies, our minds, or both. November 1994 remains with me. Some Novembers, I have felt uneasy, sad, and confused, and I didn’t know why. Then I remember.

I remember that my new life was supposed to be enough. For some, it may be. But understand that the most resilient soul often still suffers in silence, no matter how well-adjusted they may  seem. My ability to get through this isn’t because I had a perfect life, but it’s because I hold onto the love of my birth and adoptive family—yet, I still struggle with the loss.

I am thinking today also of my fellow adoptees, especially the little ones, who are angry and sad and don’t know why. Or who aren’t able to talk about their sorrow, because they don’t yet have the words, or because they are afraid their adoptive parents will be mad, or because they don’t know what will happen if they voice their pain—and that is a terrifying feeling. We adoptees often have memories that have faded or disappeared, but which actually still reside in our bones and souls.

Now, at 30, I am thinking of my small 6 year old self. One day, with her beloved, devoted mother, and one day gone from her. I reunited with my mother several years ago. I cannot speak to her except through a translator. That is another enormous loss for both of us. We share our love without words.

Adoption is not perfect. It’s not win-win. It’s broken for so many reasons. Through support, counseling, and time, some wounds can heal. We need to reshape the narrative around adoption to normalize pain and trauma, especially for young children, but for all of us.

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