My Burdens as an Adoptee 

My parents want me to be grateful; I want them to see the whole me.

by J.M.

iStock, Agsandrew

I was born in Kentucky and only had about three days with my birth mother before I was put into foster care. While nine months pregnant with me, she had been apprehended by the police and forcibly hospitalized because she was homeless and suffering a psychotic episode. Due to her schizoaffective disorder, she lost custody of me as well as her four older children.  

My parents adopted me as a toddler. They promised my caseworker I would be given a close-knit extended family, all the soup beans and cornbread I could ever want to eat, and a strong foundation in the Southern Baptist Church. They gave me the middle name Grace, which has the same Latin root as the word “gratitude.”  

My parents tried to show me their care. They let me have friends over, took me on fun vacations to Florida, and were financially and emotionally supportive of my schoolwork and musicianship as a flutist. My dad went to every band concert that I ever had. I have been blessed to have happiness and comfort in my life, including a debt-free college education and a phone. I’m grateful, too, that my parents were open about the fact that I was adopted.  

However, my family’s openness about my adoption came with their expectation that I should feel grateful all the time. I was not allowed to feel unhappy or upset. For example, if I was exhausted after school, my mother would say, “You’re being bitchy” because I wasn’t chipper enough during the car ride home. When I started to display symptoms of mental health issues, my mother and grandmother minimized my concerns by saying “God is good all the time,” while my dad seemed oblivious. My family seemed irritated that I was not grateful for simply being alive.   

“Thank God you even have a mother.”  

My paternal grandfather built a church in 1974, and he had over 100 congregants. He was the pastor, my grandmother was the women’s leader, and my father was a deacon. My aunt was the music leader, my uncle was the tech support, and my cousins surrounded me in the youth group. Religious zeal affected nearly every aspect of our lives.  

If I ever seemed less than perfectly happy, even for minor inconveniences, I was reminded to be grateful to God for what I had. One time, during a car ride to the mall, my grandmother noticed that I had a scrape on my arm.  

“You need to cover up that scrape on your arm,” Mammaw nagged. 

I explained that my mother had refused to give me a band-aid when I asked for one; she was busy at the time and said, “Kids are too whiny these days.”  

“You have a good mother,” Mammaw retorted.  

Then she launched into a sermon about how I should thank God that I even had a mother, and sang me a hymn: “Count your blessings/ name them one by one/ count your blessings/ see what God hath done!” I sat there placidly. Over the years, I had learned there was no use in arguing with Mammaw.   

Another time, when I was 8, I was expected to be in the church’s four-hour-long Christmas pageant. When I returned home afterward and fell asleep on the couch, my mother woke me up by throwing a pair of sandals at my face from across the room. I had forgotten to put them away, like I was supposed to, in my tiredness. As I started to cry, my mother told me, “If you think that’s child abuse, be glad you’re adopted.”  

Developing Depression and an Eating Disorder 

Around this time, I began frequently throwing up during Wednesday night church meetings. They were intense and stressful. Once, we were having a mission lesson about China’s one-child policy, and my teacher said, “You should be glad your mother didn’t abort you, and that the Millers took you in.” She sometimes made everyone drink salt water in order to explain the importance of the biblical concept of “the living water.” That contributed to my nausea.  

“For too long, I’ve alternated between two roles: the perfect adopted daughter, pleasant and high-achieving, and the feral orphan who fights against toxic expectations of gratitude and cannot be integrated into family life.” 

But most of the time, I threw up my Wednesday night spaghetti because I felt so nervous that my stomach clenched up. I was depressed for a number of reasons. I was dealing with bullying at school. I was also starting to process the sexual abuse I had experienced years earlier, as a pre-schooler, at my relatives’ house. To this day, I have not told my parents about this. 

For the next four years, I threw up at least once a week. By the time I was 12, my mother took me to the pediatrician frequently. After a few failed diagnoses, my pediatrician had me admitted to the hospital. My mother’s irritation seemed to grow as every test came back negative. I stayed 28 days and lost 30 pounds, a quarter of my body weight.  

Eventually, a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with rumination syndrome, a rare anxiety-induced eating disorder. He referred me to a psychiatrist.    

My mother said, “You made us think you had cancer, and now you’re not even really sick.” My parents let me go to the psychiatrist, but they sat in on my appointments with me and I couldn’t speak candidly. I was discharged after only two appointments. My vomiting issues continued, though less intensely than before. 

Rebelling Against My Family and the Church  

After being hospitalized and realizing that my parents didn’t take my illness seriously, I became distant and rebellious. My parents didn’t make many efforts to reach out to me. My mother once caught me crying, shook her head, and then walked away.  

I started to keep company with friends that my parents would not have approved of, kids who drank, smoked, and wrote pornographic stories. I got into fist fights, drank ammonia, and accompanied acquaintances while they shoplifted. It was liberating to do as I wanted, but at the same time, I can’t say that my parents noticed.  

What my parents did notice, however, was how I often played hooky from Sunday school. When I was forced to attend, I often heckled the teacher about how dinosaurs were real and how the earth is more than 10,000 years old. I got into routine arguments with church administrators about the absurdity of a rule banning women from speaking in our church. I replaced my Sunday dresses with clothes made for boys. I got a cringy pixie haircut. 

One day, after church, my grandfather called my father into his office. He said that the Rapture was coming soon, and that I wouldn’t make it with the way I was behaving. He thought I was under the influence of the devil. “Either get her in line or leave the church,” my grandfather told him.  

I was surprised that my father chose to leave the church, despite the disgrace it brought upon him. Although I now understand it as an act of love, I was too numb and emotionally injured at the time to appreciate the gesture.  

I Give in to Get Along 

I wish I could say that leaving the church miraculously solved all of the issues between my parents and me. Over the years, my parents and I have grown to have a relationship that is at least outwardly amicable. Some of this can be attributed to my eventual adherence to their standards of the perfect daughter: I stopped rebelling, at least externally. I get A’s, I’m polite, and I’m a dutiful parishioner, albeit not at the family church. Being on my best behavior is a way for me to show my parents I’m grateful for the life I’ve been able to have.  

Often, my gratitude is a convenient performance, something I manufactured to stop the irritating fights my parents and I had. It is also a condescension, a way for me to maintain that I didn’t think my parents were capable of having an emotionally intimate relationship with the real, much more complicated, me. 

For too long, I’ve alternated between two roles: the perfect adopted daughter, pleasant and high-achieving, and the feral orphan who fights against toxic expectations of gratitude and cannot be integrated into family life. My character encompasses both the perfect daughter and the wild child, but that is the full truth I doubt they’ll be able to handle.  

My Parents Recognize Toxic Gratitude 

Recently, my mother told me that she’d seen a TikTok video about how adoptees feel like they are required to be ceaselessly thankful for having been adopted. “Your father and I want you to know that we’re the lucky ones,” she said. Then, she asked me if I’d ever been pressured to feel grateful.  

I couldn’t bring myself to hurt them with the full, scathing truth, and I didn’t want to risk hurting myself by being vulnerable. “Oh, you know,” I smiled.  

My father was upset that he had never considered the harms of toxic gratitude. I tried to placate him by saying that the social workers, who were presumably experts in adoption, had inadequately prepared them. “That’s no excuse,” he said. “We should’ve read a book before we brought a whole ’nother human into our home.” 

I appreciate that my parents once vaguely tried to right their wrongs. However, our relationship is still emotionally distant and prone to misunderstandings. It would be irresponsible to let myself be continually hurt by my parents’ inability to connect with me, so I’ve stopped trying.  

Because of our continued emotional distance, I can’t bring myself to tell my parents that I love them, or hug them, or tell them what’s up in my life. When they text me “I love you,” I’m put off because I feel like they have no understanding of who I am, and I have no understanding of what they believe love to be. The only honest thing I can say to them is “Thank you.” Their insistence on my gratitude has come at the cost of my love.  

Discussion Questions

  1. How have J.M.’s family’s religious beliefs informed their views on gratitude?
  2. After being diagnosed with rumination syndrome, how did the adults around J.M. respond, and how did their response impact her behavior? What kind of support did she actually need from them?
  3. Even though J.M.’s parents eventually recognize that their insistence on gratitude may have harmed her, J.M. concludes that she cannot be fully authentic with them. What factors lead her to this conclusion?
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