Guest in Your Heart / Writing

Open NOT Broken

Category: Friendship

Beth O’Malley’s New Blog & Divorce: Adoption-Style Article

My soul sister friend, Beth O’Malley, is a national adoption expert and the author of Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child. She had a lifelong long career as an adoption social worker at the Department for Children and Families (DCF). She was adopted from foster care as an infant. She and her husband adopted a beautiful spirit over ten years ago. She blends her knowledge about adoption which is a blend of profoundly personal and professionally extensive and warmly accessible.

She has published workbooks for kids in foster care as well as children adopted from China. Her website is and she has just started blogging at – YAHOO! I am so glad because she has so much wisdom to share.

We met at a workshop about the home study process for adoptive parents. We had seen each other at events at Wide Horizons for Children where she was a vendor and I helped plan cultural events. Since then, we have been friends and our daughters, born only ten days apart, have yearly cookie baking and summer outing and crafting sleepover traditions which are yummy and fun rituals for all of us. 

The reason I’m mentioning her here, on my blog, is because she has asked me to write for her newsletter about divorce from the perspective of an adoptive mother. I have and share that piece below:


I never planned to be a stay-at-home mother. I was a feminist who earned the same as my husband when we decided to adopt a child born in China. Our daughter Kai’s attachment needs trumped my politics. I stopped working, woke up many times a night to feed her bottles and soothe her terrified cries which lasted for years.

I needed to differentiate myself from the staff people who had been in the orphanage, show her what it means to have a loving and available mother available who is responsive. Her secure attachment was my priority. There would be no passing her around like a hot potato at family events, no babysitters each week or weekends away without Kai. We lived to protect, feed and nurture her physical and emotional development. We didn’t believe in letting her cry it out – ever.

So when her father and I decided to divorce during her first year of kindergarten, not only did I feel like I failed at marriage, but at being her adoptive and attachment parent. Adoptive parents aren’t supposed to divorce. Our babies come into our lives already having experienced loss. We are supposed to love, heal and nurture not re-traumatize or be the cause for tears.

At therapy, with an adoption specialist, I agonized. How can I do something “right” for me when it feels “wrong” for my daughter? But trust between her father and I was shattered. Adoptive parents aren’t supposed to have addictions, mental health issues, trust issues and remnants from childhood trauma still unresolved – they do. We did. Our children might have anxiety, depression or attachment disorders but not us.

We didn’t know how to reconcile our failings (which is how they felt) because adoptive parents are supposed to be make life better, not worse, supposed to have answers – not questions. No one expects divorce but adoptive parents feel a unique brand of guilt because our children have already lost their birth parents, their first parents and we know the profound loss, the transitions in foster care, orphanages or homes.

We had devoted five years to Kai’s growth and development, learning about malnutrition and being a bicultural family. Adoption conferences, books and magazines filled my “free” time as did organizing a cultural play group. But I couldn’t keep my marriage or Kai’s family together. It didn’t make sense. 

We tried an in-house separation, sleeping in different bedrooms, considered buying a duplex or building an addition to remain under one roof while apart. Nothing worked. Trust was shattered between us and we didn’t want our tension to be a skunk perfume so strong it could be tasted, so overwhelming it was hard to breathe or pay attention to anything else.

Together, at the therapist’s office children’s blocks were on the floor, Korean art on one wall and photos of families on another, we got coached on how to talk to our daughter, what to say and not say, what to do and not do.

Don’t get a dog too soon to try to replace Daddy. Don’t be Daddy Santa Claus and only do fun things when she’s away from home. Cry enough to show feelings but not so much you frighten or burden. And of course, reassure her that you will always be her parents, together or apart, and that she was blameless.

On our dining room floor we all sat and her father and I took turns with sentences. I explained Daddy was moving out. He said he would be close by and see her often. We both told her none of our “grown up problems” was her fault.

“Why would it be my fault?” she asked. That sentence was the one ray of sunshine that warmed. There was little else to celebrate. Kai pointed out “perks” to our divorce saying, “It’s just girls in the house now,” or “Can I have the extra close?” She seemed more bewildered than sad.

There were school concerts and Halloween, then the holidays to get through and spring cleaning. My camera worked and I took photographs as I had done each year of her life. I’d load the pictures on Snapfish but put off developing them. Photos of her father and me on the first Christmas morning with strained smiles as she opened gifts. He had showed up at 6:00 a.m. and stayed through lunch. The intentions were good. The photos were not frame-worthy.

There were photos of events I attended without Kai because she was with her Dad. Her absence all I could see. The time she waved to me from the booster seat in the back of her father’s car the first time she went to sleep at his apartment is an image I will never forget. Her hands out the car window waving to me and mine out the kitchen window waving to her. They couldn’t reach or touch. When the car rounded the corner I sobbed. No cameras. No witnesses. That is stored in the solitary confinement of memory.

We didn’t write away to Chinese Consulate for Adoption Affairs seeking permission to parent expecting we would do child support calculations one day. There were no books or pamphlets on how to divorce adoption-sensitive and attachment-style. We struggled to factor in the needs not factored into any state formulas or parenting plans. Could we keep her home and school life consistent as her family changed? Would I work full-time or part-time? How much of her schedule would we disrupt?

Divorce is not ideal. It can be painful and messy – and she’s not even a teenager. It isn’t an experience, like a surgery, that has a clean end date. It took time to accept our new normal, four years before I could get old photos printed, organized and into albums.

The heaviness of my avoidance finally lifted. I realized not all the photos had to be turned into scrapbook pages with hearts and smiley faces. Kai didn’t need a four-year gap in the visual archive of her childhood because some of the images were difficult. It felt right to capture memories and experiences of our whole family life so she will have them for later. Space and nothingness won’t be used to deny reality.

Once, Kai said she was going to write a book called “My Divorce” for other kids. I wanted to correct her, to tell her kids don’t get divorced, don’t ever get divorced from their parents. But how could I say those words to her? She had lost her birth parents, country and language before her first birthday. Parents can be lost and sometimes forever. It was her divorce too. It was the end of a family life she had known.

We are not the family we were, the one we dreamed we would remain, but Kai’s father and I adore her when together or apart. We swap Christmas lists and co-host her birthday parties. We sit together at school outings and sometimes grab a meal together. We share stories and concerns, celebrations and report cards. He has the keys to my home. I have the keys to his apartment. Both places Kai calls home.

We are doing our best to nurture, co-parent and provide stability. We are “doing” divorce as attachment-aware and adoption-sensitive as possible.


Sometimes You Get an Actual Sign

An edited version of this is coming out soon in Elephant Journal this week. Also, you know those people who write short and get to the point in 3 paragraphs or less? I’m not one of them.

Walking a new beach in a super heightened discovery mode (like a dog just let off leash); I came upon a sign, in the form of drift wood with a magic marker message. I took a picture. It says: even if you are lost, you’re here now & that’s good enough.

signI’ve been lost. I’ve been lost not even knowing I was lost. Have you? Has life served you a fresh dish of WTF? Are you still eating the leftovers?  

Being lost is familiar to me. Loving people who are lost has been a favorite hobby. Believing being here now is enough is a radical concept I’m only beginning to embrace.

I had a conversation just last week with my friend Jen about this subject and how, for most of my life, I have been auditioning for the part of human. I have lived with this idea of myself as a decent,whole and accomplished woman. I was her wanna be, her almost but her not quite there yet. In my mind, I was a totally potentiated self entirely “over” my past, with no scars from the ugliness of childhood and absent any untidy emotions spilling out. This imaginary self was what I used  daily, as a hammer, to beat the hell out of my actual struggling and imperfect self.

The former me would have laughed at this driftwood sign, would have stood in the sand and said, “It’s not enough to just be here. You need to make a difference, make a mark – you lazy four-eyed fuck.” This yelling would have been at myself just in case I was in danger of believing the world would offer any pillow and tempt me to put down my guard. I would have thought, “You can’t just take up space on the planet.”

Jen not only understood she could relate and shared how she too had been trying to perfectly execute her roles as mother, daughter, sibling, friend and spouse. She wanted to be “good” above all and to get life “right.” She wanted to exceed the expectations of others. She was proud of what a hard working soul she was, how good she was at helping, giving and exerting A+ effort. We both prided ourselves in anticipating the needs of others and were gifted at judging ourselves for personality defects and character weaknesses.

We didn’t see ourselves as people pleasing, co-dependent or even acknowledge how afraid and exhausted we were. We saw ourselves as activists; sensitives willing to make life easier for others because we were tough and others were in need. Dire need. It was an identity and a lifestyle so deeply ingrained we thought it was who we were and would always be. We didn’t know exactly what we were trying to accomplish or gain. But the desperate and excruciating effort of wanting to be productive and caring had a self-denying relentlessness that became a machine that never stopped to rest. It operated on autopilot without having a destination.

It took root in childhood. The details aren’t necessary except to say, though different, we each experienced and survived two or more of the following: Abuse. Abandonment. Neglect. We didn’t become addicts or criminals. We weren’t materialistic or blatantly narcissistic. Our pain was mostly internalized. We appeared to be kind, responsible, sweet and upstanding. We were the type named to guardians in wills, go-to people who could be counted on for advice, rides or loans. We would never be caught doing anything dishonest or “bad.” If all of those ways of being had given us pleasure and were the deepest expressions of who we were meant to be – so be it. But they weren’t. We were anxiety ridden, trying to justify our existence, to prove we were worthy enough to take up space and air. 

Jen recently found a note she had written to herself that said “I feel guilty for even being here on Earth.” My mantra used to be, “Who cares if you feel bad, who have YOU helped make feel better today. Why don’t you focus on that?” I tried to bully myself into mattering.

We didn’t see being human as a birthright. We didn’t see ourselves as lovable or even likable. We were terrified that who and how we were was deeply flawed, wrong and bad. We were trying to “sell ourselves,” not just to others, but to ourselves. Despite our desire to break family cycles, and how good we seemed to others, we were cruel to ourselves. We abandoned our own desires, abused our bodies and neglected our needs.

The reason I bring Jen into this is that she, like me, didn’t question her way of being in the world until life exploded at midlife. We both thought we had paid our dues in childhood and would be spared future hardship. It wasn’t until “the plan” failed that either of us drastically changed. For both of us, it took major relationship betrayals and shocks to wake us up and force us to re-examine ourselves, lives and assumptions. It took career changes, moves, depression, divorce, post-traumatic stresses and varied heart breaks to teach us we needed to learn how to be there for ourselves. It took seeking, creative discovery, self-exploration and endless lifestyle adjustments to begin making new lives.

We realized being good wouldn’t protect us from life’s hardships and being “bad” didn’t cause bad things to happen. Those were old childlike beliefs that helped us survive childhood. We thought: If we are better, life will be better. If we are good, life won’t be bad. If life is bad, we must not be good enough.  Do better. Be better. Try harder was the antidote as though it had ever worked. It wasn’t true in childhood and it’s not true as an adult. Pain, change and loss are part of life. There’s no outrunning or outwitting those experiences or emotions without shutting out joy, love, creativity and adventure.

Our lives look less white picket fence but we both feel more honest, connected to ourselves and authentic. We are kinder within, more supportive and gentle. We both agree we would rather be disliked for who we are than loved for who we are not. Still, the process of reclaiming the abandoned self can be painful as hell. There are many people who loved us better before, when we met their needs more and our own less. Others feel abandoned or betrayed, that our lives and priorities have changed, that we’ve gone “off” script and we no longer match their image of who we are. Some see us as going from self sacrificing to self absorbed. They aren’t wrong.

They loved the only version of us they knew. It’s harder to embrace a more honest and complicated person who is less predictable and apologetic. than it is to be with someone who tries to anticipate your wants and needs before you even verbalize them. It’s a big adjustment.

I still believe in changing the world and caring about others but it’s not an activism born of self hate. What can I offer the world if I’m not at peace with myself? In the past, I tried to “earn” love and support doing some unspoken exchange, hoping giving myself away to others meant they would give me back to myself. That version of caring used to seem kind to me. Now, it seems manipulative, controlling and a way to avoid the intimacy of being real when adult needs conflict. I don’t want to do that anymore.

The shattering of the life I had was necessary to unearth my deepest self hidden a few decades deep. One part of me feels young and new, like a baby bird, still wet and pushing out of a cracked egg eager to explore. Another part of me feels ancient – filled with trust and gratitude as though my deceased elders are on my shoulder saying, “Don’t spend your entire life too afraid to take risks or make mistakes.”

Maybe what I’m going through is common at midlife or post transition. Maybe it’s a new level of healing as I shake off old survival skills in favor of finding new ways of living. I’m not sure it matters. There’s a cosmic rightness to it all I’ve not felt before which is why the words on the beach written by a stranger meant so much to me. I am grateful for getting a sign, that sign, because, “Even if you’re lost, you’re here now and that’s enough.”

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