By Craig A. Steffen
No one sees me.
Every face is unfamiliar. I have no idea where I am, or what has happened to all the people I once knew. Everyone else seems to know what to do – but I am lost.
My hair is disheveled from a night of fitful sleep in the upper room of this cottage. I attempt slumber alongside row after row of strange, orphaned kids in ancient, steel army cots no longer fit for soldiers. The only light comes from a single, naked bulb glowing dimly in the center of the large, open loft – like a tiny moon above vast, ominous waters.
I am adrift.
This is a fragment of my earliest childhood memory. Along with my older sister and brother, I was relinquished to an orphanage in Eastern Iowa in the autumn of 1962. Our mother had taken the family car and disappeared a week before my second birthday. A few months later, our father left the state, leaving us kids behind.
When we think of child abuse, we don’t often list abandonment among its definitions. Traditionally, child abuse is selfish misuse of a child, or actively inflicting physical, emotional, sexual or psychological pain. It follows then, that if the parent is completely absent, that they can’t possibly be actively abusing their child, right?
For me, abandonment was a deep, cruel wound that has yet to fully heal, even more than half a century since it was inflicted. It was not the departure of one or two people from my life, it was the sudden vanishing of literally everything and everyone I’d ever known. One could argue that abandonment is a passive abuse, since it requires that the parent NOT be present when it is meted out. But if abandonment is passive, it is so at the end of a long line of lesser, active abuses that culminate with desertion.
Having recently researched my own childhood history, I discovered that my parents did not awaken one bright morning and suddenly make a choice to leave their children. The leaving was gradual and evident long in advance.
Perhaps the first act of abuse was entertaining a question like, “what would my life be like if I didn’t have all these kids?” The longer this question was allowed to prance about in my parents’ minds, the more power it amassed. Feasibly the next step was resentment toward the progeny for having stolen the fantasy life that the parent “could have had,” if these kids hadn’t shown up and demanded so much. Next the parent withholds tenderness, care and love from the child, treating them more like a hated job, than a precious offspring. Finally, came the twisted rationale that the kids would be “better off” if the parent disappeared and someone different/superior took over.
Each of these steps is an active and subtle choice to withdraw. The first choice may be intellectual – “what if?” The second choice may be emotional – “these kids!” And the last may be deceptively philosophical – “wouldn’t they be better off?” Each step perpetrates a deeper wound into the heart of the blamed child. All the recent research indicates that the child, even if yet in utero, instinctively perceives their mother’s attitude toward them. Yet, none of these active choices would typically attract enough concern from family or authorities to be labeled as “abuse.”
Through my research, I learned that my biological mother was disowned by her own parents – especially her father – after failing to live up to their 1950s expectations of morality. Those expectations were, no doubt, born out of their deep desire for her not to experience the negative consequences of unwed pregnancy, as they themselves had a generation earlier. Deeply wounded by her parental abandonment, my mother, then 16 years-old, found herself ill-supported in every way to nurture her three children, all born while she was yet a teenager.
Unfortunately, statistics indicate that familial choices, both good and bad, tend to get passed from generation to generation – often with devastating consequences. After being disowned by her parents, my mother led a mostly nomadic life and met with a tragic demise at age 25 shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. Her fourth child also died tragically – while pregnant at age 13. Only two of her children are still living today.
Hurt people – hurt people.
Perhaps every parent has fleeting thoughts that look similar to those I’ve noted above? Yet only a small percentage of parents ever take the final step to physically abandon their children. Though it’s a small percentage, there is a new orphan in the world every two seconds.
I’ll give you two seconds to ponder.
How much would the percentage rise, if we included emotional abandonment to the above statistics? Most of you aren’t fellow orphans. Far more of you can relate to the feeling of being emotionally adrift even inside your biological family unit. Didn’t that also feel abusive? Though perhaps less visible and terrifying, aren’t these wounds as real as if the abuse were physical?
When I was adopted at age four by a religious farm family 300 miles from the orphanage, I was joining a family to which I had no prior connection. Nothing about them bore any similarity to the original family I had once known. I was both stranger and orphan. Without belaboring the facts, I can confidently say that my mostly well-intentioned adoptive family never understood the strange phyla of creature they had brought to their home. Even though I had no shared experiences, interests, acquaintances, beliefs, nor personality traits, I was expected to fit in on day one.
I didn’t. Nor did I ever.
They couldn’t comprehend my interest in academics, my taste in women, my love of sports, nor my genetic talents that have led to baffling professional endeavors. They never did understand what I do for a living. I later learned (while inadvertently overhearing a conversation) that I wasn’t the “chosen child” they’d declared. It wasn’t me they went to the orphanage to get – it was my sister. But the orphanage had packaged me with her – two for the price of one. My parents’ inability to want or comprehend me eventually led them to withdraw from me emotionally. I was literally on my own, except for food and shelter.
Sadly, this emotional abandonment isn’t uncommon, even among biological progeny. And though it is not as visible, stark or newsworthy as physical abandonment, emotional abandonment carries with it many of the same consequences for the children who endure it.
Let’s agree that life is difficult, even in the best of circumstances. Financial, relational, legal, and moral pressures pile up to cause increasing stress that may soon result in neglect and withdrawal. But let’s also agree to wake up to these external pressures with internal awareness and resolve. Let’s notice the little abuses in ourselves, and in those we care about, and overcome them with active steps toward re-engagement and unconditional love. It probably sounds trite, but John Lennon was right – “all we need is love.”
We can overcome abuse – one enlightened, loving choice at a time. It’s the only way it’s ever been done.
Craig A. Steffen is an author, entrepreneur and educator living in Dayton, Ohio. He shares his journey to find his biological identity in the compelling new book “A Family Apart: Sleuthing the Mysteries of Abandonment, Adoption and DNA.” For more information, visit Amazon or www.craigAsteffen.com.