“As we talk about all sides of the triad, I feel it’s important to include those of us with just one adoptive parent.”
Mallory Fogas is the founder of Arrow + Root, an adoption profile book company, and the co-creator of Woven Together, a faith-based online course on ethical adoption practices. Mallory spoke with Raise founder Jessica Butler on what it means to be half adopted, the trauma adoptees face, and how adoptive parents can help.
Mallory’s Adoption Story
My mom had me when she was 15 years old. My birth father was in and out of the picture, and there wasn’t a lot of consistency in his desire to be involved. As time went on, his involvement dwindled, and my mom met the man that I call dad — my adoptive dad.
She married him when I was three and at that point, my birth father decided to terminate his parental rights. He had another girl pregnant at the time, which I didn’t know about until much later, and I guess he thought that the man my mom was marrying would make a better dad than him, so he terminated his rights, and my [adoptive] dad legally adopted me.
How Being Half Adopted Is Different Than Having A Stepparent
A stepparent’s role usually involves co-parenting with both of the child’s biological parents. Of course there are cases where one biological parent isn’t in the picture and the stepparent doesn’t legally adopt the child.
In my case, my stepfather legally adopted me, which makes me half-adopted or a partial adoptee. It’s a label I created both to communicate my place within the adoption community and to makes sense of my own feelings. I have feelings of grief and trauma that are commonly experienced by adoptees, and I had to figure out how to handle those. I had to put a label on it for myself. By no means am I saying that I know what a full adoptee experiences, but partial adoptees represent a large group of people who haven’t had a voice before. As we talk about all sides of the triad, I feel it’s important to include those of us with just one adoptive parent.
Last summer I spoke at a small conference, and I had three people walk up to me and say, “I had the same life that you’re describing.” I spoke with a father who said, “I adopted my wife’s son, and we haven’t told him, and now we realize how much we need to share with him.”
Understanding Adoptee Trauma
My [adopted] dad is amazing. He’s the perfect example of what a father should look like and be like, and he stepped into the role seamlessly. He will always be Dad to me, but I still have feelings of grief and loss and trauma.
My biological father was not a good guy, and I knew that growing up. We met when I was 18, and it wasn’t a good fit for a relationship. But there’s still a sense of loss when part of your DNA, part of everything you are, isn’t around to be involved. There’s always a sense of wondering, “Did I do this thing because of him? Did I have this emotion because of him?” Just missing that subconscious heart connection that you can’t have when they’re not there.
My DNA, part of who I am, does not want to parent me, and there is always going to be loss and grief surrounding that.
Growing up, I asked questions about him here and there, but I felt a sense of shame whenever I asked. A sense that my parents felt like I was implying that they weren’t enough. It’s natural for adoptees to wonder about that other person, whether that’s both of their biological parents or just one, and it doesn’t negate their feelings for their adoptive parents. It’s just part of processing the fact that the person who helped create my life doesn’t want to parent me. My DNA, part of who I am, does not want to parent me, and there is always going to be loss and grief surrounding that.
Helping Your Adopted Child Process Their Trauma
In a perfect world, adoption wouldn’t exist. We would all be with our biological parents. But we don’t live in a perfect world and as an adoptive parent, you have to go into adoption knowing that you might be everything your child’s needs, but you can never fill that one void, and that’s okay.
Your child’s longing for a connection to their biological family is not about you. It has nothing to do with you or anything you did.
Counselors are wonderful resources. Have your child see a counselor, even if they’re not exhibiting the common trauma factors. You don’t have to see them weekly. You can see them once a month or quarterly.
Talk about your child’s adoption early and often. It will lessen the feelings of loss and grief. Integrate the topic into their everyday life. An adoptive mom who is also a psychologist shared this example: If your child is little and you see a plane in the sky, you can say, “Did you know Mommy and Daddy traveled to X, Y, Z to meet you for the first time? We met you at hospital and your birth parents were there, and we loved spending time with them.” Just talk about it. Talk about it. Talk about it. You can’t talk about it too much.
Understand that your child’s longing for a connection to their biological family is not about you. It has nothing to do with you or anything you did.
I recently talked to a mom – an adoptive mom of three boys – and one of her sons was crying in the car, “Why can’t I just be with my other mom?” He had been adopted at birth. All he knew of his first parent was love. He knew her heart beat and her voice and all of those things. He didn’t know that she struggled with drugs and alcohol or anything like that. He only knew love.
His mother said to me, “I had a choice to take it offensively or to realize that something deep inside of him was grieving the loss of her. I wasn’t my job, in that moment, to bring up her struggles.”
As an adoptive parent, the best thing you can do is comfort them and say, “You know what, Buddy, I don’t know why you couldn’t be with your first mom, but I know I love you very much, and I’ll help you walk through this the best I can.” It’s hard to step outside of yourself and and make it about other people when you have your own heartache to deal with. There are so many layers to adoption, so many different heartaches, and it’s so it’s hard. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, all in one.
Jessica Butler is the creator of "Raise Magazine," stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to "Raise," she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and five-year-old son, Levon.