Angela thank you for offering your time to have a discussion about your adoption experience.

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview Thomas and to share some thoughts.

Approaching your fiftieth year, giving you much time to both live and reflect on your adoption, what has been the most enduring impact of adoption on your life?

That’s an interesting question and not one I can answer easily given the myriad of aspects that interact. I would have to say that the sense of abandonment and rejection has been one of the most enduring aspects and this is interwoven with disenfranchised grief. I am not sure if this sense will ever be completely diminished despite being in a stable and loving relationship with my husband. However, I continue to work on myself by engaging in therapy.

Many non-adopted people, including health professionals, often make the assumption that adoption only effects the adoptee as a baby or as a young child. Adopted people know this totally misinterprets adoption as a lived experience. How does your adoption experience continue to affect your life and decision making as an adult?

Yes, it does in my opinion, misinterpret, misrepresents and diminishes the evolution of the adoption experience. Similarly, to what I said in my opening response, there are enduring aspects that continue to unfold in my life and this in turn is impacted by certain emotional events which can trigger a deep, deep visceral response in me which I may not have been prepared for.

An example, when an unexpected event occurs or a stressful situation where I am uncertain of an outcome, I can be triggered, which in turn activates my primed fight or flight mode, which has been my companion my whole life. If I am not careful it can influence my decision making which manifests as me running away (figuratively but sometimes literally too).

Sitting with uncomfortable emotions in my ‘adoptee identity’ seems to sometimes render me to feeling like that vulnerable five-year-old child who couldn’t understand (and hated) being adopted. I am cognisant that it’s not just adoptees that experience this sensation of vulnerability, however I have developed enough self-awareness to understand these drivers within me and they are most definitely related to my early childhood experiences as a function of being adopted. The hardwiring of my brain, was most assuredly impacted and we now better understand how this impacts on the formation of the amygdala for example.

I was in a nursery for 6 weeks before being adopted and my adopted mother said I was not cuddly. I clearly was experiencing attachment issues. However, I want to stress that this is not a pathology, but rather a normal reaction in an highly abnormal situation.

Science tells us that it’s not advantageous to take a child away from its mother and then place it in a nursery without her and the necessary hormonal interaction with the release of oxytocin, that occurs. Thankfully, advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity means that this can be remediated but this takes a lot of effort given my age. For example, secure attachments can be formed throughout one’s lifespan and this coupled with engagement in therapy (in my case mindfulness), can retrain one’s brain to better respond to triggers. Knowing this gives me hope and allows me to keep looking forward.

Are there any other complexities you have had to deal with emanating from your adoption experience?

There are added complexities of adoption that others take for granted such as identity, reunions, equality (or lack thereof).

Adoption is a lifelong experience, and I am sure there are still many ways that it impacts on other elements of my life that I still don’t know about yet. I know things about myself now and how they relate to my adoption that I didn’t understand in my 20s or even in my 30s.

That is certainly true Angela. One’s understanding of the impact of our adoption evolves throughout life or when key life events intervene.

Yes, there are life events too that are reminders that I am adopted. When I go to the doctor and I am asked about my family medical history, for most of my life all I could say, “I don’t know, I’m adopted”.

Even reunions do not guarantee that all this information is gathered because it takes time to navigate these discussions. Television shows that focus on ancestry such as DNA Nation on SBS are sometimes a tender reminder. Whose ancestry do I belong to – my adoptive family or my biological?

In addition, the ubiquitous shows and articles which emphasise the mother and child bond, and even discussions on breastfeeding, are stark reminders that I didn’t get those benefits.

It frustrates me there’s a real disconnect in the discourse between motherhood and adoption. We celebrate motherhood and the bond she has with her baby in-utero unless of course the baby is marked for adoption, then a whole new narrative takes place.

I don’t dwell on this incessantly, but they are reminders nevertheless, when I am feeling vulnerable, I feel it and I sure this is something only another adoptee would understand.

This is all part of the grief and loss of adoption and the aspect that most people again no not understand.

Adoption is predicated on loss because we had to lose all our family of origin in order to be adopted. In my case, this meant identity change, I was not allowed my birth certificate and then many years ago I was issued a false one and so on. So whilst I gained a wonderful adoptive family, and I love them dearly, I had to lose a lot in order to gain this. This is what the mainstream needs to acknowledge and recognise.

You have described yourself as a survivor of forced adoption. What personal attributes are most useful for an adoptee to have to survive adoption, particularly as an adult?

I am still discovering this for myself, however there are certainly elements that come down to personality and temperament.

I have always been driven by a strong sense of social justice, even as a child. These characteristics have been useful in terms of fighting back or swimming against the tide and this in turn taps into the notion of self-determination which in my experience adoption has undermined. Therefore, being able to find a vehicle, such as contributing to your website, writing on my blog etc, elevates that sense of taking some control back and hence surviving. However, it’s a battle as I am sure you can appreciate.

Some adoptees see themselves as victims, rather than survivors, of adoption. Why do you choose to see yourself as a survivor rather than a victim?

Much like other aspects of the adoptee experience, it’s not been a static process for me but rather an evolution – one that will undoubtedly continue throughout my lifespan. I also do not see the two concepts as mutually exclusive. I think there are certainly times where I feel that overwhelming sense of vulnerability and powerlessness and let’s face it, you have to be a victim in order to survive an event don’t you?

Adoption has certainly not been easy for me and it’s certainly left its enduring legacy however I try to be active in how I respond to this.

In essence, and in my experience, I started to feel more like a survivor once I was able to participate in the Senate Inquiry into Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. Through this, I was finally able to learn that I was not alone in my disenfranchised grief, by meeting others impacted by adoption, and I finally had forum to pursue that sense of social justice.

Although this provided the impetus the outcome was not one that I had envisioned in terms of on the ground services and rights of adoptees etc. Furthermore, I am especially disheartened given that on the heels of state and national apologies, the discourse is reverting back to this notion of forced adoption noting that with infant adoption the child never consents to this arrangement. This makes the apologies seem disingenuous given that there was a commitment to never repeat the mistakes of the past.

In terms of permanent care arrangements, I cannot understand why the focus is reverting back to adoption as a child protection measure as opposed to looking at models of guardianship that preserve the child’s identity and legal link to their family of origin. Adoption severs all legal relationships to our family of origins, it obliterates it. This means we are no longer related to anyone in the family including other siblings (unless adopted), aunts, uncles, grandparents etc. How is this acceptable? I would argue that that we need to focus our resources on developing an inclusive model of permanent care that preserves our links to our family. Current models may need tweaking but I reject the ideological driven argument that adoption is the panacea. Loving a child and providing nurturance and stability should not be contingent on them being divorced from their kin.

I digress, to answer your question, I find that it takes a lot of resources to actively survive, but I would never seek to diminish the reality that I am part of a group who were victims to the system of forced adoption.

Pro-adoption lobbyists often state that the only adoptees who suffer ongoing trauma are those who had unhappy childhoods due to negligence or abuse by their adoptive parents. From your experience would you agree or disagree that the complex long term effects of adoption are only applicable to those who had unhappy childhoods or abusive adoptive parents?

I am anecdotally aware that there are some who advance this argument, however, I suspect that suits their agenda but that has not been my experience.

I love my adoptive family but not adoption.

Likewise, I continue to be contacted by adult adoptees, in secret, to say that my blog pieces resonate with them but they cannot say this for fear of hurting their adoptive parents. They stress that I have put a voice to their complex feelings and again this taps into the notion of disenfranchised grief.

We have a real issue where the voice of the adoptee has been silenced and lobbyists and adoptive parents control the adoption narrative.

As a young adoptee, I would have been your poster child for adoption as well. Despite my internal disaccord with it, there was no other way I could be because that’s what was expected.

Up until the last few years, I thought I was on my own with these feelings! I am not.

We have not mapped the outcomes for adoptees in Australia, especially during the boom baby scoop era. We were all handed over to our respective adoptive parents and the government abrogated all responsibility for us. I am not saying that this is the case for every adoptee but nor can the lobbyists make this claim that it only relates to adoptees who suffered abuse.

In terms of happy or unhappy, well they’re relative and how is this being measured? If what you say is true, and I have no reason to doubt you, then I would suggest that the lobbyists are resorting to an ad hominem argument, one designed to shut us down.

In Australia we are fortunate that at both at a national and state level people directly affected by adoption have received formal apologies for the policies and practices have been described as illegal, unethical and unjust. You attended the national apology with your mother and were also involved in the preparation, and took part, in the Queensland apology. How important were these apologies to you as an adopted person?

They were incredibly important at the time because it provided a sense of validation. Furthermore, getting to meet so many other adoptees and mothers and fathers was life changing.

My concern, along with many, throughout the entire process was what happens after the apologies? I am not at all satisfied and this is undermining the fundamental criteria that the apology was based on, namely to be guided by the Canadian Law Commission which developed five criteria for effective apologies. Briefly they recommend, when developing apologies, the need to address the following to have lasting meaning and effect:

1. Acknowledge the wrong done or naming the offence.
2. Accept responsibility for the wrong that was done.
3. Express sincere regret and profound remorse.
4. Assure or promise the wrong done will not recur.
5. Reparate through concrete measures.

(For more information about these criteria readers can refer to this document)

I do not believe criteria, 2, 3, 4 or five have been met and I doubt they will be given the current adoption direction being advanced by some members of government and lobbyists.

Given that activists in New Zealand and the U.K. are pushing for apologies in their own countries what do you believe are the most critical elements in delivering meaningful apologies?

I believe the five criteria for a formal apology mentioned above should be the benchmark but its problematic in terms of holding government accountable for fulfilling these. Ours has not been operationalised in all instances and I would suggest that activists in New Zealand and the U.K. should consider what outcomes they are after before drafting content.

Apologies are validating (for some people) but there needs to be concrete measures that follow in accordance with the five criteria. They would need to determine if they want to pursue these criteria and if so how the machinery of government accountable? Perhaps they will come up with a better pathway.

Notwithstanding the various apologies in Australia in recent years there has been a renewed push to increase the frequency and number of adoptions, both domestic and inter country, in Australia. In your view what would work best to ensure that the ongoing harmful effects of adoption are neither ignored nor forgotten in the face of a push to revive and increase adoptions as active social policy?

I think there are several intersecting issues here especially given that in mainstream Australia, there seems to be a concerted effort to shut down adoptee voices who question adoption as a family creation process free of any harmful consequences. I believe we need to welcome the voice of adult adoptees especially those of us who challenge the dominant discourse, as we have direct experience of living with adoption in all its complexity, both good and bad.

I don’t have all the answers and there should be a survey undertaken on this to garner other adoptees views and a mapping activity. That said, I believe there should be national advisory body comprised of adult adoptees that government engage with around policy.

In addition, there should be a national concerted effort to collect more meaningful data on people who enter statutory and human services (homelessness, mental health, prison, or who attempt or complete suicide) to identify gaps in service needs as there are indicators suggesting adoptees in the past make up higher proportions of these types of cases when compared to the general population overall. From here there should be more funding for services on the ground.

I also believe there needs to be on the ground services that are not always tied to former agencies that were involved in forced adoption. I am not saying that these services are bad and I know some people access them and find them useful. I just mean that we recognise diversity of services. I understand this is difficult in rural remote areas however there must be models that exist that can be used as a template? Surely? Hence mapping!

The Australian media also needs to hold government accountable for fulfilling the criteria of the national apology, however, I am a realist and this is unlikely to happen.

One of my aspirations is to establish an Australian Adoptee Speakers Bureau where willing adoptees, mothers and fathers (and other extended family) linked-in with universities, and other services, so that people in training: psychologists, doctors, nurses, etc, hear real and authentic accounts of adoption experiences. I stand firmly behind this idea and would like assistance from others to help me drive it.

For a short time, I had the privilege of coordinating the Queensland Positive Speakers Bureau and I witnessed the impact that this had on the audience. Of course this alone does not elicit change so again, there needs to more awareness raising as well around the diverse adoptee experience were adoptee voices who question, or wish to offer alternatives to adoption based on their lived experience, are welcomed not silenced. There’s so much more that can be done and I am sure there are lots of ideas out there in our community – we just need to tap into them.

Thank you Angela for sharing your some insights about adoption and its impact on your life. In many ways we have merely opened the discussion. We probably need another session some time in the future. Is there anything you would like to add to close?

Thank you again Thomas for affording me this opportunity. I confess that I prattled on much more than I intended, your questions did require quite a lot of deliberation.

Angela’s website can be found here.

2 thoughts on “In conversation with … Angela Barra

  1. It’s impressive to read about events and emotions that at the age of 65, I am finally identifying as being directly connected to my adoption, but my attempts to identify my triggers through therapy were unsuccessful at 20 and at 30 due to the lack of interest and ignorance of psychologist on the impact of adoption on the adoptees.
    Thank you for sharing and validating my feelings of unequility and misunderstanding. My sense of loneliness and not fitting in have been a heavy load to carry, a true burden that has made my life unbearable for to long!

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