On Being Wanted and Worthy
According to the Office on Women's Health, one in two pregnancies in America are unplanned. The adoptee brain often translates the word "unplanned" into its cultural predecessor, "unwanted." From there, it is a short hop to "unworthy" -- of love, happiness, success, relationships, self-esteem -- the good stuff in life.
This can be further complicated by the realization that when adoptive parents said, "We wanted you," it usually meant "we wanted a baby and you were available, so you were what they gave us." The specter of the chosen baby rapidly vanishes upon the adult realization that nowhere was there ever a baby super market visited by loving couples with shopping carts, exclaiming "This is the one!" It is a humbling thing to awaken to the fact that puppies and kittens are, by and large, more "chosen" than those of us who were adopted as infants. Awareness that "brokered" or "assigned" may be more accurate descriptors of the transaction is the kind of thing that can leave adoptees feeling like commodities and questioning our lovability and value as humans. Being chosen is one thing that those who met their adoptive parents prior to being adopted from foster care can claim over those who were adopted as infants.
At a recent ASRC meeting, I confessed, to a burst of laughter, that I'm having a bit of an obsession with YouTube videos of blind auditions from the television show The Voice. What bizarre satisfaction lies in watching nervous singers stand up on a stage, hoping that judges who begin with their backs turned will spin around and beg them to join their team, from which all but one will eventually be culled? Who would want to put themselves through that kind of process? I don't get the same charge out of watching later episodes from each season. It's only the blind auditions. But then it hit me. As each judge hits the big red button and their chair turns, the illuminated words on the rotating base proclaim, "I WANT YOU." The phrase sends my brain's synapses to a happy place that I want to experience over and over. Can we as humans, and especially relinquished and adopted people, ever receive enough of that message?
Author Ayn Rand offered a very different take on want and worth in Atlas Shrugged:
"Most people feel that they rise in their own eyes if others want them. I feel that others live up to me, if they want me..."
Did Rand's words emanate from arrogance, or simply a confidence in who she was? What is it in most of us that depends on the affirmation of others for our sense of self-worth, and how can we address it more productively? Psychologist Beth Fisher-Yoshida offers some practical tips in a Psychology Today article entitled "I Want to be Wanted." But for adoptees, the matter goes much deeper than the workplace, or whether we were chosen first or last for kickball in elementary school. It is visceral, because it traces back to our very existence; our sense of whether or not we are supposed to be here, in the family where we landed.
So is it good news, bad news, or immaterial to our existence that half of all American pregnancies were not preceded by a conversation something like this one from Ted 2?:
People have sex for a variety of reasons, any of which can produce a baby. Philosophers have pondered the question, "What has intrinsic vs. extrinsic value?" for millenia. In other words, do we have value, are we "wantable," simply because we exist, or does our value stem from what we have to offer on a utilitarian level? Though I have days in which I am far from feeling immersed in my own intrinsic value, I absolutely believe that we all have it, apart from our externals and circumstances. It is an essential part of what forms the core of a decent, humane society.
Beneath much of the online angst over "entitled" adoptive parents may lurk a deeper question, which is really a false dichotomy, from adoptees: "Did you want me because I helped you build a family, or because I am inherently lovable and worthy to be wanted?" A "yes" answer to one option does not require a "no" response to the other. Both can be true simultaneously. Similarly, as birth/first parents have shared their stories in support groups and with their relinquished children with whom they reconnect, the most frequent narrative is, "I wanted you. I loved you. And I believed that I had no choice but to give you up." Though true, such statements are wholly unsatisfying to our "baby brains," which have difficulty embracing seemingly contradictory ideas.
There are, of course, exceptions. Some birth/first parents truly did not want to raise the children they relinquished. A minority of adoptive parents, such as some who took in children who were "put up for adoption" on train platforms during the Orphan Train era because they were looking for a farm hand, or, even more chilling in today's online community, a toy to abuse. As a side note, the deep desire to be wanted may make adoptees more vulnerable to sexual predators than children with a secure connection to their biological parents.
Much of the relationship struggle between adoptees and our parents, and later our spouses/partners (or lack thereof) appears to flow from what we choose to believe about ourselves. We are relational beings and affirmation from others is important. But those mental constructs we build in order to function early in life may well play a significant role in whether we allow ourselves to be wanted and loved as adults.
Though brain chemistry and early life trauma have an undeniable impact on development, if any of the following beliefs are ingrained in our minds, perhaps it's time to question them and seek help to reframe our thinking:
I am unlovable and unworthy of love.
I am unwanted.
People only want to have a relationship with me because of what I offer them.
My value comes from what I do/produce/give -- not who I am.
Anyone who claims to love me will ultimately leave me.
If we lower the drawbridges to our castles and allow at least a few trusted friends, loved ones and counselors into our fortresses, we may discover that it is not so much relinquishment and adoption, but our false beliefs, that have been the major obstacle to feeling wanted and worthy of love.