'I Am Not an Incident. I'm a Little Girl': Adoptees Share Art and Pain
What it feels like to be a skeleton in another woman's closet.
All images by Shannon Peck
I always knew I was adopted. That is to say, I was told at a young enough age that I don't actually remember having the conversation with my parents. My light eyes and hair were a point of personal embarrassment, as my family have dark eyes and hair and I desperately hoped to genetically pass. I felt instinctively ashamed of having been 'acquired by' rather than 'born to' my parents. I remember feeling as though if other people knew of my origins they would use that information as ammo against me, by calling attention to the fact I'd been unwanted.
As I grew older and came to know more about why women put their children up for adoption, I began to feel like I was skeleton in another woman's closet. It's a sinking, ugly feeling to carry. Particularly since my birthmother opted for a closed adoption. The medical history my birthparents had filled out was a joke. Other than learning I was neither a twin nor a product of incest, I didn't have much to go on. While my well meaning, adoptive family gave me as much affection as they could muster, their attempts often felt like taping a bandaid over a bullet hole.
When I first encountered Shannon Peck's series Your Daughter is in Good Hands, it felt as though she were confronting me with a mirror. There were a few disparities, namely that Shannon had been adopted through the Catholic Children's Aid Society whereas mine had been handled through the state of New Jersey but we were both operating in a closed system where neither of our birth mothers wanted contact with us.
Shannon Peck's heavy, conceptual art juxtaposes familiar feelings of shame and grief with embroidered christening gowns, cloth baby books, and siamese dolls. We're lured by the harmlessness of the object and sucker punched by it's message. I reached out to Shannon to discuss fears of abandonment, Catholic guilt, and whether or not adoption is a feminist issue.
BROADLY: Have you been able to determine how much time you physically spent with your birth mother before you and she were separated?
Shannon West: Although I have copies of my birth records, and my birth mother's interview with Catholic Children's Aid, there is no mention of whether my birth mother saw me or held me at any point after my birth. I spent 11 days in the hospital following my birth. On the 11th day, I was picked up by my new parents and taken home to meet my big brother. I want to believe that my birth mother held me, told me she loved me, and said goodbye, but I will never know unless I get the opportunity to meet her.
When did you learn you were adopted? What was your relationship like with your adoptive family when you were growing up?
I've known that I was adopted for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid memory of talking with my mom about being adopted on the way to school when I was five or six years old. I've always known. Being adopted was part of who I was, but I never once felt it defined me.
I was raised in a loving and caring home with my mom and dad and three siblings. (My older brother is also adopted, and my younger brother and sister are my parents' natural children.) My family has always been wonderfully supportive of all of us and our various endeavors and life choices. There was never any delineation between adopted or natural children; we were all just one and the same. We grew up on Vancouver Island, in a number of tiny communities, where my dad was a logging manager and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. As children, we explored the outdoors, swam and fished in the lakes, camped, and enjoyed the close-knit community that logging-camp living provided. It was a rather idyllic environment to grow up in as children.
At the time of your birth in 1970, birth control and abortion had just been legalized in Canada. Coming of age for your Catholic birth mother must have been a very different experience.
I know from historical records about my maternal birth family that my birth mother was raised in a very strict Catholic home and that her grandparents were awarded a special papal medal for distinguished service to the Catholic Church. These facts made it very clear to me why my birth mother surrendered me for adoption and later filed a disclosure veto blocking me from her identity and my surname at birth. Catholic Children's Aid wrote that my birth parents' relationship was of a "short duration," with them meeting in Europe while my birth mother vacationed abroad. Her relationship with my [birth] father was perhaps her first sexual experience. She didn't find out she was pregnant until returning to Canada, and my birth father was never notified of her pregnancy. She transferred jobs from Alberta to Vancouver, where she gave birth to me unbeknownst to her family. It is heartbreaking to consider the immense weight of shame and guilt my birth mother may continue to carry for fear (real or imagined) of being ostracized by her family.
Do you think of adoption as a feminist issue? Are you child-free by choice?
I don't like stereotyping adoption as one specific issue. There are certainly feminist aspects to the treatment of birth mothers, but there is a myriad of issues at play as well. On a broader level, I see past adoption practices reflecting societal and children's rights issues as well.
Married in my mid-20s, I briefly considered having a child, but after a divorce and then a new marriage at 30, my mindset shifted. My husband and I considered adopting or fostering an older child at one point, but after attending a session held by social services, it was clear that neither of us was ready to make that huge commitment. At the age of 36, I had a tubal ligation to ensure I wouldn't get pregnant (my body, my choice!). At the time, becoming a parent just never seemed right, and we felt that having a child might actually be a greater detriment to our married relationship as we both continued to carry unresolved issues. I remain comfortable in my choice.
Does your adoptive family know about your art? Have they been supportive?
I have considered myself an artist for as long as I can remember. Even when I was small child, my mom regularly bought me sewing kits and drawing supplies. My family doesn't always fully comprehend what my artistic journey is about, but they have always been very proud of my accomplishments and some of my biggest supporters.
My [adoptive] mother and I have varying viewpoints as we were raised during different eras and have emotional biases that lead us in different ways, but we both feel a great sense of gratitude to my birth mother who surrendered me. I have also made greater efforts to ask my mom details about my adoption that I have never considered asking before. My mom is very protective of my birth mother and her feelings even though none of us has ever met. My mom understands, better than I, the shame and guilt that her generation lived under with respect to premarital sex, birth control, and a strict Catholic upbringing. I greatly value her input and am honored to be her daughter.
Has being adopted impacted your romantic relationships and friendships? My fear of abandonment often propels me to test the devotion of romantic partners. In friendships, I'm cagey. (I know everything about them; they know very little about me.)
Yes, most definitely! It took me until I was 43 years old to come to a better understanding of why I continued to make the same cycle of choices. Three years ago, I took part in a ten-week program with a counselor about attachment and bonding. My eyes were quickly opened to understand how a broken mother/child bond can affect the way adoptees relate with people and the way we react to circumstances that present themselves on a daily basis. Prior to counseling, I was always adamant that adoption had no effect on my life because I had a loving upbringing. Certainly, the fact that I was raised in a nurturing family went a long way in helping me form bonds and provide stability. However, I learned that a child's sense of loss and fear of abandonment remains with them (consciously and subconsciously) throughout their life. It can permeate their interactions and relationships well into their adult life.
In my friendships, I have a strong tendency to keep discussions on a surface level. I rarely ask personal questions or challenge beliefs for fear that I might be rejected or hurt their feelings. Surface is easy, stable, and safe. Safety and stability are key for me, which is why my past choices in life have often followed a more conservative path.
With my partners, I have always been fearful of being left. In the past, I always chose to do the leaving, because I needed to maintain control of my circumstances. It gave me the sense of stability I needed (albeit a false one!). I am a fiercely independent person and love spending time on my own, but I always need to know my partner is there for me long term. I need that stability. If I feel a threat of rejection because of a fight or argument, I become very anxious about being abandoned. It is an overwhelming feeling of utter lack of control. I now recognize this reaction as likely the same one I felt as a baby, being left by my birth mother. That small child in me continues to control my decisions. I have to make a daily, conscious effort to rewire my past and let the adult choose the correct path instead of the child.