Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Shame: A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.

I was a fat kid.  Not chubby, not pleasingly plump, but fat.  That meant a lot of teasing at school.  One incident I still remember to this day:  I was in 5th or 6th grade, and the class was practicing some square dance routine where the girl was supposed to fall back into the boy's arms.  No one wanted to partner me, so the teacher forced one boy to do it.  Yep, I bet you can see where this is going. . . . I fell back as the dance step required, and the boy dropped me.  He declared loudly that he didn't do it on purpose, I was too heavy for him to hold.  I didn't believe him, I knew he didn't even try to catch me, but I still lay there, humiliated, silent, while everyone else laughed.

I've never told anyone that story.  No one.  Not at the time, and never since.  I was too ashamed. If anyone found out how flawed I was -- and I was certainly flawed if I could be treated that way -- no one would love me anymore.  So I never told.

I've been thinking a lot about shame in the past few days, ever since Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute (and continued to rant on the subject for 3 days) for testifying before Congress about the importance of birth control to women's health.  As an adult, I recognize this slut-shaming for what it is -- an attempt to silence Susan Fluke and all women who witness and fear the same shaming treatment for speaking out.  Attacking women for their sexuality is a long-utilized and familiar tactic to silence them.  It might be calling her a dyke or saying she's frigid, or it might be calling her a slut and a prostitute, but the intent is the same -- if you attack her sexuality, you'll shut her up.  Shame silences.

The only thing different this time is that the centuries-old tactic didn't work!  It didn't silence Fluke, nor did it silence other women, who have spearheaded a protest effort that's led to 34 advertisers pulling their support for Limbaugh's program.

There's a lot of shame in adoption.  Like shaming teen/unwed mothers for having sex and getting pregnant:
After they called me away from homeroom into the assembly, the school department head made me stand up in front of my entire middle school and announced to everyone that I was pregnant. Until that moment, the only other student at school who knew was my sister. I was embarrassed, hurt and angry.

After they finished humiliating me in front of everyone at school, they had me sit back down in the bleachers. Some boys sitting behind me started kicking the back of my seat and harassing me. Soon all the other kids in school were teasing me, calling me names like "mama bear" and asking to touch my stomach.

I feel betrayed by my school. It's true that I was pregnant, but that doesn't mean I deserved to be harassed and publicly shamed in front of everyone.
Like shaming birth mothers who relinquish a child, like the comment received by Cassi at Adoption Truth:  "I know your story and I am saddest most about the fact that your son didn't even get a good enough birthmother to save him from abuse." Wow, how's that for an attempt to shame and silence? You're such a lousy birth mother that you gave your child to a child abuser.  Shame on you.

So you get shamed as a teen mom if you don't relinquish your child, and shamed as an uncaring birth mother if you do.

Is there shame associated with being an adoptive parent?  Consider this:
For adoptive parents, the trauma of not being able to give birth and raise a birth child, has been minimized and denied by focusing on the “solution” of adoption. Little has been said, except in adoption reform circles, about the traumas of not having the dreamed-for child; the loss of privacy of medical attempts at producing a child by various means; the invasiveness of having to disclose their financial, social, medical, and sexual histories to adoption agencies; and the on-going void of raising a child in a closed adoption system where they know little or nothing of their child’s heritage or needs.
Does that ring true to you? For adoptive parents who experienced infertility, there are feelings of shame, aren't there?  Especially for women, whose identity is often wrapped up in ideas of "true womanhood" that require her to be fertile, there is shame in infertility. And then there's the feelings of shame and guilt for ripping a child from her family, her culture, and for experiencing the joy of adoption when others have experienced such loss because of adoption (we've talked about those feelings here and here and here).

And adoptees and shame?  There's tons of shaming there, both internal and external.  Adoptees feel shame arising from feelings of being rejected by birth parents.  After all, one must be unworthy of love if one's own parents couldn't manage it.  Jean MacLeod explains:

Guilt and shame are by-products of rejection. They are a child’s paralyzing, toxic reaction to the belief that something must be intrinsically wrong with them, or that they must have done something really bad, to have caused their own abandonment. Shame is secret and silent. Adults understand that birthparents have grown-up reasons to relinquish a child, but children view the act personally as a reflection of themselves, and are deeply ashamed of not being ‘good enough’ for a mother to keep.

Shame is recognized as one of the seven core issues adoptees face. But shame isn't just internal -- it becomes imposed on adoptees by others as well:
Adoptees are often told that their reactions to their adoption are wrong. These reactions can include confusion and questioning (“Why did she give me away?”), anger at birth or adoptive parents, or a desire to address the loss by obtaining information about the adoptee’s origins. For example, adoptees who are searching for information or contact with their birth families are often told that they are being “selfish”, are maladjusted or are hurting their adoptive parents. (“You wouldn’t be searching if you really loved your adoptive parents”.) When adoptees ask questions, even well-intended explanations can confusion or shame. (“Your birth mother placed you for adoption because she loved you”, equating love and abandonment, or “You should be grateful you were lucky enough to be adopted by such a caring family”, equating a need for information with ingratitude.) . . . . All forms of shame isolate the adoptee by discouraging her from expressing needs and feelings.
Real Daughter equates the imposed shame of adoption to the imposed shame of rape:
It disgusts me that only recently has it been “somewhat” acceptable for women to speak their truth about rape. But it is still not acceptable for adoptees to speak their truth about adoption, unless it is the truth that makes other people happy- meaning adopters and the adoption industry. There is this undercurrent of shame involved with being raped and also with being adopted. Adoptees are told to shut up and be grateful. Their voice is stifled by those who only want to hear the good parts of adoption. Many rape victims were (and are still in some cases) told that they had it coming because their skirt was too short, or because they had been drinking, wore too much makeup, etc. We are dismissed. Rape victims are raped emotionally by people who are clueless about the subject of rape. It was not my fault someone raped me, just as it wasn’t my fault I am adopted. It is normal to talk about the pain and the experiences associated with both ordeals.
As adoptive parents we can unwittingly infect our children with shame. Our silence and secrecy about adoption can make our children ashamed to be adopted.  After all, other things we keep secrets about are shameful things, right?  Aunt Frieda's drinking, Cousin Bob's cross-dressing, Cousin Sylvie's 5 prior marriages, Grandpa Joe's moon-shining.  So if adoption is a secret, it must be shameful. 

We might think that we shouldn't talk about adoption with our kids -- beyond a mere mention once that they are adopted -- because we don't want to make a big deal of it, we don't want to plant ideas in their heads. We want to treat them the "same as" biological kids, so we ignore adoption.  And in doing so, we make adoption "the-thing-that-must-not-be-named," because it must be shameful. That's why we have to talk openly with our kids about adoption, it's the only way we can innoculate them against shame.

When it comes to guilt and shame for our children, Jean MacLeod gives great advice:
The prescription for shame is to blast it out in the open and help children understand that their ‘rejection’ and abandonment was not about them:
"Detect it, Expose it, Dump it!”
Shame and guilt can only exist in dark, untouched secret places. Bringing the reasons for a child’s self-incriminating feelings out into the light and exposing self-held secrets to the truth will begin to eliminate shame, rejection and guilt’s internalized triple grip.
A good message about shame, whether in the adoption triad or elsewhere: "Detect it, Expose it, Dump it!” 

I'm not equating my childhood shame to the pain in adoption, but I'm trying to live the "Detect it, Expose it, Dump it" message. I've exposed it to you, and I shared the story with my kids at dinner tonight.  They were really sweet, providing lots of hugs, which sure helps with that last step -- dumping the shame and moving on!


Nikki said...

Thank you, Malinda, for another outstanding post!! As an adult adoptee (domestic, closed, baby scoop era) and a mother to both biological and internationally adopted children, I SO appreciate your thoughtful perspectives.

B.A. said...

Rush Limbaugh's comments were wrong. I was listening to him and thought "when is he going to stop? Why is he going on and on like this?" and finally turned him off.

Sandra Fluke was wrong. She chose to attend Georgetown University explicitly to try to force a Catholic Institution to bow down to her feminist agenda. It had nothing to do with the quality of the education and everything to do with making her statement against the Catholic Church and it's policies.

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Stephanie said...

"So you get shamed as a teen mom if you don't relinquish your child, and shamed as an uncaring birth mother if you do."

This is so true of the hypocrisy that is adoption. My child's adopters had such "respect and admiration for natural parents" and told me I was a "truly wonderful person", until they procured my infant; then that all changed. I was not even offered a hello or acknowledgement after I found my child some 18 years later. I had to track him down after being shut out of his life after only a few years, when they promised and sssured me they not to do that to me.

We are only "respected, admired" and called "truly wonderful people" long enough for them to get what they want. Then, we are dehumanized, degraded and demonized. I learned that lesson the hard way...

PC said...

Shame is an interesting emotion, because it is at the core of most people's experience, but no one wants to talk about it - not even in the abstract. It is way too scary for many people to think about.

A good book to help you explore how shame has shaped your life is Brene Brown's I Thought It Was Just Me (but it's not). Especially about the way anger is related to shame.

Karen said...

I actually hate to think that my daughters will feel shame for being abandoned by their birth parents. But I also do not want them to feel they have to hide their feelings from me either. Sad.

Cassi said...

Here you go - one of the comments I pulled off a news report about the pregnant girl shamed in front of her school . . .

"What is more shocking is why she was having sex to begin with and the fact that she was stupid enough to do it without protection. Now she is looking for a payday. Do yourself and your baby a favor Ms. Hicks. Give the baby to a loving family who has a good stable home and go get yourself educated. Because if that child stays with you it is doomed to repeat your mistakes and continue this cycle."

It's the same cycle, shame the mother who dared to get pregnant so she gives up her baby and then shame her baby if he or she ever speaks out about the way adoption has affected them.

Christie said...

I feel awful for you and how your child's adoptive parents treated you. I want you to know "we" are not all like that. We adopted our baby girl 9 months ago and we have a wonderful open relationship with her BP's and a birth grandparent.We are thankful for them everyday and for the selfless and I'm sure hard decision they made.

We talk about her BP's to her and I always correct people when they use un-adoption friendly terms.

I stumbled upon this blog today while google searching something else. Thank you.

Linda said...

Thank you, Malinda.

My ap's never intentionally made me feel ashamed because I was adopted, but the secrecy around it made me feel that way. The way others viewed my story, even when they did not know it and just assumed things about my adoption made me feel ashamed.

It took a long time to rid myself of that shame. I think that underlying shame I felt allowed me to be kept in my f Mother's "closet of shame" for years, and not contact anyone else in my natural family. I even felt ashamed I did not have the strength to go against her wishes.

But, I am no longer ashamed...much to the dismay of a few. ;)

ps- I hate that boy from your middle school. Those experiences really do last a lifetime...Im sorry that happened to you.

Lorraine Dusky said...

Wonderful post, Melinda, and the original story about that girl who had to announce to her class that she was pregnant was sickening. Those who made her life hell ought to be stripped of their jobs immediately. What would take to make them see how horrible their actions were? Her suicide?

Your dance floor embarrassment reminded me of the time in the seventh grade Jimmy Martz yelled "Big Nose" to me on the school playground. We were playing some running around game as our hormones were changing, but at that moment I crumbled and ran away. Those moments live with us for a lifetime. And yes, that it is him. James Martz, wherever you are.

I am sure that infertility is embarrassing, painful, etc., but it is difficult for first mothers to equate that to the shame of an unwanted pregnancy and the permanent grief of giving a child up. To my mind, the two just can't compute as equals. Infertile women may be pitied, but they are blameless; we first mothers are guilty and never proven innocent.