Belonging in Family as an Adoptee

I was in my mid-forties when I found out I was adopted. Except for when I was a teenager and wished I was adopted (who doesn’t?), I had no clue. I used to think it was a big secret that almost nobody knew but have discovered it was an unintentional conspiracy – so many people knew but nobody talked about it as if it was an unimportant detail. And, maybe it was. Until it became important. Important enough for my birth sisters to seek me out. Then the adventure of coming to terms with the fact there was a birth family different from my family – the family I grew up in – began.

A new friend and colleague of mine, who also has an adoption story, recently began reading my book Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to openheartedness. She sent me a note when she finished reading Chapter 8, the story of my birth mother, her disappearance as she ran away and her inability to acknowledge my sister (or me) as her daughter even when they met up again thirty years later. My friend, who has known forever that she was adopted and has also reconnected with her birth family, wrote to me to share her response, about how angry she was at my birth mother for this lack of acknowledgement. We unexpectedly opened a conversation about belonging, particularly about belonging in families.

Where do you belong when you are born to one set of parents and grow up with another? And how do you know where you belong? Does it even matter? Even if you don’t know you are adopted or that there are family secrets, the patterns of disruption play themselves out in your life in one way or another. That is what this question of belonging got me thinking about.

slide1What does it even mean to belong or have a sense of belonging? We know it is fundamentally important to a healthy society and healthy individuals – the people feel like they have a sense of belonging, a sense of having been accepted in a community, as part of a group that might also be family. It is a human need, important in seeing value in life and in coping with intense human experiences.

 

Belonging are the people you fit with, who you do not need to explain yourself to, who do not carry huge and unrealistic expectations of you or who you are or what you can or cannot fix by virtue of being you.

An opposite of belonging, for me, is abandonment. It shows up in my language and the language of many people who have an adoption story. “Given up, given away.” I carry threads of abandonment I didn’t know I had – my birth mother fled, my birth father and grandparents gave me up, even my sister left me behind. Granted, she was only three years old and could not operate with conscious intentionality. Later, my mother “abandoned” me too, in a way, through her journey with dementia.

The fact that decisions may have been a good and even wise does not matter to the cellular memory and sense of worth that is fuelled by memories not in conscious awareness. When I was working with an amazing coach during the period of this discovery – which I did not consciously go searching for but which found me – the journey and the coach, she listened to my language and then offered that part of our work together was for me to learn to adopt myself. It resonated.

My personal journey, once awakened to it, has always had a depth of self growth, self awareness and spiritual awakening. This part was natural to me (I was going to write easy but it was not easy and still has moments that are not easy or fun).

What was and still is more interesting in the journey related to my adoption and my birth family is that I still feel a bit dissociated from this part of my story. Intellectually I know it to be true. I have enjoyed meeting every person I am connected to and I have not met them all nor will I likely meet them all nor do I have a desire to meet them all and nor is it necessary – to me or them.

Knowing I am adopted expands my story of who I know myself to be but it doesn’t change the fundamental core of who I am. I am not more because I know more. I am not less because I didn’t know it before.

I have a relationship with my birth parents even though they have both passed on. I never did meet my birth mother as her death was the impetus for my sisters to find me. I did meet my birth father and his wife. I believe my birth parents had a soul contract to bring me into this world and then let me go and that they had this contract with my parents. I do not know the significance of this “departure” at birth but I do know that I feel I have multiple lineages – from by birth family and from my family I grew up in. While answers to some questions do not flow so easily anymore – where were you born? What is your ancestry? – I do feel connected to all the lineages.

I find my birth parents from time to time in the spirit world, just as I find my mother and other guides. Sometimes they appear unexpectedly in my meditation or in whatever query I am in at the time and sometimes I call upon them for help and understanding on whatever I am working through in the moment. It feels right.

And despite soul journey understanding, “One part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, leaving me not really belonging to either.”

Your Truth Wants to Be Known

The times we are most challenged are when we are out of alignment with the truth of who we are, the truth of our own journeys. Because we are all a bit broken, it can be easy to lose our way. To forget who we are and what is at our core. To be blind to what is right in front of our eyes. To refuse to see what seems obvious later.

Our view of the world is shaped by the people around us, by events, by choices we make. In wanting and needing to fit in, we shape some of who we are for acceptance. This may mean we hide parts of who we are or we act differently than we think we are.

At times we find our selves acting “out of character”, making choices that seem contrary to our values. Sometimes we explain that away – I am not normally like this, but… And we may, at times, feel trapped. Trapped in relationship that does not and will not work. Trapped in a job we don’t like, that sucks us dry and makes us yearn for weekends and holidays. Trapped inside a shell of who we are wondering where we went, where we disappeared to and how to find our way back.

Like the truths of journey we do not know – separated families, adoption, family secrets – our own internal truths want to be known. This internal separation – of you from you – seeks wholeness and integration. Your truth will find ways to make itself known, offer to you opportunities to accept it, act on it, live it. If you do not accept at the first invitation, another invitation will come along. And another. And another. The longer you wait, the more insistent the invitation. Instead of a tap on the shoulder, or a sense of knowing or an intuitive hunch, the force of the invitation ramps up, becomes a hammer, explodes or implodes, accidents or illness come along. You run away until exhausted and still the truth haunts your very being.

You cannot hide from it, you cannot hide from you. You must turn and face that which you fear to see. It takes courage. For some it takes reaching the end of the rope, no longer willing to traverse a path of illusion and disillusion, ready to clear the smoke and mirrors to illuminate the core – the core of your being where love, compassion, curiosity, joy and light reside. Yes. In every single one of us. We just need to embrace all that is there and learn that the journey to openheartedness makes us stronger.

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The Passing of an Era

It was the end of January 2008. I was driving down the highway on my way from Halifax to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on a beautiful sunny winter’s day. I wasn’t just on a road trip for the day, I was on a journey to another era – a past I knew very little about, to visit a man I knew very little about. I was on my way to meet Fred Hanson. A few brief weeks before this I had found out he existed, that he was my birth father, that I had a birth family of which I had had no conscious awareness. Yet he – and the whole family – knew about me for all of my life.

On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, Fred died with his wife Doris, her son Corey and my sister Debbie van Soest present, bringing to a close another chapter of my own life, the passing of an era.

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson's house in Digby

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson’s house in Digby

I did not know Fred well. Most of his life had been lived by the time I met him. There are three things that stand out. When he, at the age of twenty-three, and his little family – me as an infant and my sister as a three year old – were abandoned by my birth mother, he did what he could to make sure we were looked after. This meant uprooting us from Halifax to Digby NS where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. Because my grandmother was already ill with brain cancer and my grandfather was already well on his way to alcoholism, they searched for help. Help arrived in the form of my parents, Mary and Hector Jourdain, married a few years, living in Digby at the time and still childless. An agreement was reached for my parents to adopt me and for me to know my birth family. Which I did until my grandmother died when I was still very young. Fred knew where I was and for all the years my adoption was a secret (from me and my brother at any rate), he kept his word and he did not seek me out.

Fred and Kathy

Me and Fred – March 2008

The second thing that stands out is how nervous he was to meet and how welcoming when I walked in the door. He’d been pacing from the front window to the kitchen window to the door in anticipation of my arrival. The door was opened before I even had a chance to get out of the car. He hugged me and we found our way through the awkwardness of first meeting. He gave me pictures from when I was baby.

The third thing that stands out was his agreeing to let me interview him for my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. As I asked him questions and took him back through memories he had not thought of for decades, he forgot for a moment that I was interviewing him. He reflected on the moment my birth mother left and his incomprehension, still all these years later, that she could leave two babies behind.

Doris and Fred 2006

Doris and Fred Hanson, 2006

Fred had a sociable side that enabled him to fit in many places – like the Red Knight in Yarmouth where he and Doris often when for a beer and to hang out with friends. And he had a sarcastic wit that made him a great sparring partner. I didn’t know his second wife who raised my sister Debbie and brought my half sister Robyn into the world. I did however have a chance to meet Doris and experience the warmth and hospitality of their beautiful home. They were together for 28 years.

I am blessed to have known him, filling in some blanks of life story for both him and me. There are many stories that will not be known and many that will not be written now. I do know his brother Bill, his parents and others greeted him as he passed over. My mother and my birth mother had a pact together with Fred and my dad that has gifted me with multiple lineages that are important and relevant to my own life journey and in many ways I am only at the beginning of that exploration. And for now, it is grieving and celebrating the passing of an era.

Love at First Sight

My dad, Hector Jourdain, and me during a toast at a mine celebration of my parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary.

My dad, Hector Jourdain, and me during a toast at a mine celebration of my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.

On January 11, 2008, the day of my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary, I turned to my father to ask him to tell me the truth. “I’ve received emails this week from two women who seem to think I might be their sister.” I was 46 years old and never suspected I might be adopted.

I already knew the answer before I posed the query. And I could see it in his face before I finished talking. There was, what seemed like, a long pause and finally he said to me, “Well, that’s another long story.”

A long story, yes. And it began with a very simple and clear declaration I might not have heard otherwise, “It was love at first sight!” he told me. Love at first sight. I always knew that my father and I had a special connection. And I always knew that he loved me/loves me as unconditionally as it is possible to love a child, although it hasn’t always been an easy path or relationship, but showing up most significantly, most unconditionally, in the times I have been most challenged – in job loss and divorces.

In the early moments following that conversation about what had been a family secret, dad was worried that my knowing would change our relationship. But, as I told him, we had a lot of history together so I didn’t see any reason it would change. And, I knew both my parents loved me and only wanted the best for me. The journey was undertaken in the spirit of openheartedness.

Dad is now 82 years old. Much to my surprise, not only did he outlive my mother, he became her personal care giver before she went into long term care with dementia – the same year as their 50th wedding anniversary. She died in 2012. Dad still lives home, alone, in the house they shared for many years.

Mom and dad in 2007 for his birthday.

Mom and dad in 2007 for his birthday with a 4 year old Shasta helping out.

He has had, over the years, a myriad of health issues that makes it a miracle he is still alive. He had his first open heart by-pass surgery when he was 45 years old. His second one about 30 years later and it took him almost 2 weeks to wake up from that surgery, partly because, in the end, it was emergency surgery and partly because he was exhausted from taking care of my mother. Then there was the time he became delirious with dehydration during the final week of radiation therapy for prostate cancer and it was the synchronicity of a call to him by my brother that resulted in contacting family friends who immediately took him to the ER, just short of having his organs shut down because of the dehydration. In the hospital so long, his legs weakened and he was in a wheelchair. Even his family physician thought he wouldn’t walk again. That was a few years ago now. Then, he was diagnosed with lung disease and told he would be on oxygen for the rest of his days. A few months later the oxygen was taken out of his home because he was doing fine. (And that’s just a snapshot of his health issues over the years.)

Quality workmanship - one of dad's projects.

Quality workmanship – one of dad’s projects.

This past winter, a hard one here in Nova Scotia, he was out with his snowblower clearing his driveway. Over the last couple of years he renovated his upstairs bathroom to put in a shower. And he built a row boat in his basement. He still has marine engines in his garage that he works on from time to time and he has a long list of projects to tend to. He complains that it takes him longer to do anything, but he has time and he has motivation. And he’s taken a few road trips to Quebec – his home province – to visit with my cousin (who graciously hosts him in her home) in the last couple of years. These things – things to look forward to, to get out of bed for – they keep him not just alive, but living. And just recently, he bought his first tablet and got internet at his home (thanks to some persuasion from my cousin Jacqueline) and this Father’s Day I will try to help him sort it all out. Wish us luck.

In Rimouski, Quebec - dad, me, my cousins Julie and Jacqueline (who we stayed with) and Julie's husband.

In Rimouski, Quebec – dad, me, my cousins Julie and Jacqueline (who we stayed with) and Julie’s husband. 2013 Road Trip

I’m proud of my dad. I’ve learned, am learning, a lot from him. About quality workmanship. About independence. About sheer will power. About love. About just keeping on keeping on. And, I’m glad it was love at first sight or who knows where I would be today.

Dad, Shasta and Spencer, watching me cook. April 2015

Dad, Shasta and Spencer, watching me cook. April 2015