Words Have Power

According to the Children’s Bureau, “National Adoption Month is an initiative of the Children’s Bureau with a goal to increase national awareness and bring attention to the need for permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system.” However, as an adoptee, I think it’s important to use National Adoption Month to highlight the adoptee experience. It is essential that our government not only take steps to see permanent families for potential adoptees, but to take steps toward making family preservation a priority as well as making adoption a more ethical practice.⁣⁣
As an adoptee, I felt the way non-adopted people spoke to me about adoption was rooted in a false narrative which labels all adoptees as unwanted children, and furthermore promotes the idea that those who have chosen to take us in are to be regarded as our saviors. When I was younger and attempting to understand what it means to be adopted, I was confused about how I should feel. Strangers would tell me how much my biological mother must have loved me to give me up, and how generous my adoptive parents were to raise a child who wasn’t their own. I didn’t have the vocabulary to process all these emotions, and I think that has been the driving force of why I write. I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is that’s happening within, and sometimes it can be very painful.⁣⁣
So, for this National Adoption Awareness Month, I’ll be doing another installment of my #WordsHavePower campaign. I’ve also added the words from previous installments:

Artwork and photography for this project was made possible by the incredibly talented, generous, and just plain beautiful soul, Martha Wasser, of Amour and Ink Paper Company.


As a younger adoptee, I spent a lot of time going over what ifs : what if my adoptive parents were able to conceive naturally – would I still be here? What if my biological mother is looking for me? What if there was something wrong with me? What if there was something about me that made her want to send me away? What if I went back?

What ifs are a huge part of an adoptee’s life, identity, and story.

A quote I love, and try to live by, is from Cheryl Strayed, “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”


As a young adoptee, I was constantly told how lucky I was to be adopted. Hearing this over and over again filled me with a sense of obligatory gratitude to my adoptive parents. That same gratitude gave birth to extreme guilt and fear. As a result of being told how grateful I should be to have been adopted, I felt guilty for wanting to know more about my biological parents – for acknowledging and being curious about them. I felt afraid my desire to know where I came from was going to hurt my adoptive parents, or that it meant I was being disloyal to them.

People often say, “You could have been aborted.” And while I am grateful that I wasn’t aborted, and I am grateful I was raised by such loving people, it doesn’t change the fact that adoption begins with loss on all sides of the triad. Just because some adoptees lead good and normal lives does not mean they’re not suffering, not grieving, not trying to reconcile the inherent feelings of trauma, not belonging, and self-doubt. So before you tell us we should be grateful, perhaps consider the following:

-The odds of a reported suicide attempt were 4 times greater in adoptees compared with nonadoptees. (Keyes, Margaret A et al. “Risk of suicide attempt in adopted and nonadopted offspring.” Pediatrics vol. 132,4 (2013): 639-46. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-3251)

–Nevertheless, being adopted approximately doubled the odds of having contact with a mental health professional (odds ratio [OR], 2.05; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.48-2.84) and of having a disruptive behavior disorder (OR, 2.34; 95% CI, 1.72-3.19). (Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, 75 E River Rd, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. mkeyes@tfs.psych.umn.edu)


Being adopted means you have a permanent job is customer service. As soon as people find out you’re adopted, you are forced to suffer being asked deeply personal and invasive questions: do you ever think about finding your real parents, how old were you, is your sibling your real sibling? However, non-adoptees don’t just ask questions – they also make assumptions about the value of your life.

I’ve been told by so many people I’m blessed: blessed to have been given up, blessed to have been adopted by a loving, blessed to have “a better life”. And while this might be the truth, I don’t consider it a blessing never to have known the woman who brought me into this world. I don’t consider it a blessing that my parents endured so much struggle and had to conquer so many challenges to have a family. I do not consider it a blessing that I am constantly plagued by wondering what my life could have been were it not for this one decision someone I never knew made.This is not to say that I don’t consider the life I do have a blessing, but I’d never call myself and the trauma I have felt at adoption’s hand a blessing.

When I say this to people, they consider me to be ungrateful or they try to make me see it their way. But to deny an adoptee’s perspective of their experience is to deny them. Use this month to listen to our stories, and perhaps to change how you see us.


So many people tell adoptees how lucky we are – how we were spared the horrible lives we would have lived with our biological families and given a “better” one with our adoptive families. We’re constantly being told how “better off” we are being in America (or elsewhere), often raised without a connection to our homeland and without information essential to knowing one’s true self.

Who is to say our lives would have been better or worse? Who is to say our lives are better now? Who is to say who we might have been, what we might have done, where we would have found ourselves had it not been for this one decision we didn’t make? I ask myself these questions often, but I don’t have the answers.

I wonder if I look like the woman who gave birth to me. I wonder if the blood in our veins, and the physical resemblance that may or may not go with it, would have filled me with an inherent sense of belonging. I feel as though the inadequacy I feel as an adoptee wouldn’t be there, and perhaps I wouldn’t have found myself with bad men and the bruises they gave me. I wonder if I’d have a son or daughter now, since I wouldn’t have the overwhelming fear of unknown family medical history, and the implications my genetics could have on any life I’d bring into this world. I wonder what “better” means.


One of the worst things about going to the doctor is having to explain (usually more than once) that I have no family medical history. Receptionists, medical assistants, and doctors don’t seem to register that I’m not refusing to provide my medical history, but it’s that I don’t have access to it. And as a transracial adoptee, it’s unlikely I ever will.

When I was younger, this used to be a minor inconvenience – just something I needed to explain. But as I’ve gotten older, and heavier, and closer to child-bearing years, a lack of family medical history is something that has weighed on me. It’s another question in a long line of unanswerable questions. It’s an unknown, a risk…a fear.

Aside from feeling disconnected from those I love most due to lack of a genetic bond, lacking medical history makes me feel as though I am, and of, nowhere and nothing. And while there are DNA tests, genetic testing, and the like – it doesn’t make up for the fact that the person who could give me these answers isn’t here…and she never will be.


Today is the last day of my #wordshavepower campaign, and I wanted to highlight a phrase which has increased in popularity among adoptive parents.

I have the same problem with “gotcha day” that I do with the phrase “foster to adopt”, which seems derivative of “rent to own”. Gotcha Day makes me feel itemized. The phrase makes me feel like a transactional being – as though I am a possession which was acquired, not a child being welcomed into a family. Now, while I know this is not the intent of adoptive parens, I think it’s essential that consideration is given to the way we talk about adoption, especially where adoptees are concerned.

After all “Gotcha Day” isn’t going to be “Gotcha Day” to the adoptee forever. While we may spend several years enjoying celebrating this day, and the presents and cake that may go along with it, soon we may come to acknowledge this day as a day of loss. The day we truly became separated from our biological family, the day we were taken away from the country we once called home – the day when everything changed.


In the adoptee community, a lot of conversation has surrounded the vernacular. I have always referred to the woman who gave birth to me as my biological mother. In high school, I called her “BioMom” because I thought it would hurt less if she sounded like an evil robot some villain had created. Some adoptees call this woman first mother, birth mother, or other names. ⁣⁣⁣
But when it comes to the woman who raised me – the woman on whose shoulder I cried whenever something went wrong, the woman whose heart knows my heart – that woman is Mom. Some adoptees call this woman adoptive mother.⁣⁣⁣
As a community, I think we need to respect and accept the way other adoptees identify the people in their lives – whether it’s parents, partners, siblings, or otherwise. Would it be more convenient to have an “official” name designated for each person in our lives? Maybe. But the fact of the matter is all of us our different. All of us relate to these people differently, see them differently…love, hate, need them differently. ⁣⁣⁣


One of the words I hear most often from nonadoptees is lucky. People tell me I am lucky to have parents like mine, lucky to have a wonderful life…lucky to be alive. But luck has nothing to do with it.⁣

The truth is I, and so many other adoptees, were separated from the women who brought us into the world – whether it was at infancy or not long after. The truth is the trauma of that separation is something I carry with me each and every day. The truth is because of that separation, I have never looked into my mother’s face and seen my own. I have never been able to physically reflect that I belong to the most important people in my life. I have never known my motherland, its history, its love.⁣

I have, however, spent the entirety of my life wondering who I am. I have laid awake at night wondering why I was relinquished, wondering if my biological mother has ever given her thoughts to me in the 32 years since we last saw each other, wondering if my biological father knows his blood runs through my veins – blood which I will pass down to any child I carry. I have been mistaken for a separate party when going to restaurants with my parents. ⁣

People tell me I am lucky – that I have been saved and given a better life. But I cannot recall what inferior life I was living before, or who had been responsible for it. They say this as if I had escaped some unspeakable fate which would have rendered me ill, wounded, or worse. ⁣

I’ll never know about if the life I did not live would have been better or worse than the one I am living now. All I know is that “lucky” isn’t a word I’d use to identify myself, my adoptee journey, my trauma.


As an adoptee, I’m always surprised by how strangers – and I mean STRANGERS, as in people I’ve just met, people standing behind me in line, people who over hear me talking to a friend – will ask me completely invasive and deeply personal questions about my adoption. These people approach adoption casually, as if they’re asking how my summer vacation was or what I’m going to order for dinner.⁣

The first question, nine times out of ten, is, “Have you ever looked for your real parents?”.The second question I usually get is if my brother is my “real” brother. Real as opposed to what? Real as opposed to counterfeit? Real as opposed to imaginary? Real as opposed to fake?⁣

What bothers me most about the word “real” is that it suggests the love, care, and existence is somehow insufficient or lacking. “Real” implies that the only family I have ever known is somehow invalid or fraudulent.⁣

Personally, I have only ever known, needed, and loved one mother and father in my life. I have only known, needed, and loved one brother. They are not figments of my imagination, hallucinations created by my mind…they are living, breathing, real people. ⁣

Additionally, the decision whether or not to search for one’s biological relations – whether it be parents, siblings, or otherwise – is for the adoptee to share with who they wish. It’s not a conversation piece. These are our lives – respect that.⁣


About ljsharks

Lauren J. Sharkey is a Korean American writer from Long Island, NY. Her debut novel, INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER is forthcoming June 23, 2020, and is based on her experience as a transracial adoptee. Sharkey's creative nonfiction has appeared on DEAR ADOPTION,, Blind Faith Books' I AM STRENGTH collection, and others.

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