Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. Dissonance theory suggests that people have a motivational drive to reduce or eliminate the conflict. This is most often done by changing attitudes, beliefs, and actions. It can also be reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.
Dissonance typically arises when experience clashes with expectations. A commonly used example of this idea (and the origin of the expression “sour grapes”) is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop . In the story, a fox sees high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour. This example follows the oft seen pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. Social and political theorists call this pattern “adaptive preference formation.” I personally call it fascinating shit that I love to study.
Despite my understanding and continued study of dissonance, I only recently identified my own cognitive dissonance as it relates to my adoption reunion. I am surprised it took me this long. With all my knowledge, I should have caught my own, no?
Maybe not for dissonance is a tricky little thang.
The dissonance, or uncomfortable feeling, I refer to is the state of my reunion; more specifically what I expected to find in reunion versus what I actually found. When I say found, I do not necessarily mean my daughter. I mean the situation I found myself in, the feelings the situation provoked and more. For the sake of clarity, it may be helpful if I restate two very important factors that contributed to my dissonance.
Point 1 – At eighteen years old I was told, deceived, cajoled, [insert your own words here], into believing certain things would occur in my daughter’s life. I won’t enumerate them now but I will tell you that I absorbed them in 1986 and they were pressed into every cell of my being. I fed on them. I survived eighteen years without her by reflecting, reinforcing and randomly snacking on them. Having a rough adoption surrender day? Gobble down some foolishness about the wonders of adoption and how uber fabulous your daughter’s life is. Pat yourself on the back and when that adoption snack gets dry, mealy and stuck in your throat, follow it with an adoption Kool-Aid chaser. The snacks were continually processed and stored internally. I was socialized to believe (and more importantly allowed myself to believe) that my daughter would be/have X and would be Y when I found her. I survived the trauma of losing her by fanning the flames of these strong beliefs and ingesting massive amounts of dry adoption snacks and Kool-Aid chasers. Refer to this time period and the beliefs formed during it as Conflicting Belief Period1.
Point 2 – Interestingly, when she turned eighteen I started to search for her. I went into this search with NO (conscious) expectations of what I would find, how it would turn out, etc. even though expectations had been deeply implanted in 1986. This is now my adult self. My matured, adoption educated persona setting out on the search. I was not aware of that 1986 imagery. I know this for fact. I had no fantasies of running towards each other in an embrace. No visions of a heated or loving confrontation. No expectation of who she would be or how she would behave. The only conscious thought (and it was mightily consuming) was to find her (and later to be the best little birth mother I could be in reunion). I was proud of my self-education on adoption issues, what adoptees often feel, how they react, and more. I had read and studied and talked and shared. In the end I felt I was ready to find her and felt I would be a good, respectful mother in reunion (because after all, I had this power, right? My bad behavior created the situation so my uber good behavior could also influence it? Ha! What an idiot I was) . I wouldn’t push, press, expect, become emotional, or other. In summary, I would not honor or recognize the mother in me, I would completely disregard that silly girl whore mother from 1986. Refer to this time period and the beliefs formed during it as Conflicting Belief Period 2.
When I did find her in 2005, I found myself disappointed with what I had found. I was not disappointed in the person I found, after all I hardly know her. I was disappointed in every emotion that surrounded completing my search. How could this be? If you had no expectations, why would you be upset or disappointed? I have grappled with this for a very long time. Both beliefs, both feelings, both positions are very real for me. They exist, simultaneously within me. They battle each other constantly.
I have only recently become aware of the fact that I did have very real expectations and feelings surrounding reunion. More importantly, I have realized where they came from and more painfully that they were incorrect and completely off base. Yet they exist and they regularly demand attention like a small child does in a grocery store when they eye a ring pop.
Not clear enough? Allow me to illustrate further. I will allow you to listen in to a conversation between these two “me’s”.
M1 – Oh, her birthday is coming up! She will be 25 years old! I wonder what I should get her.
M2 – What? Get her? Must I remind you she told you to never buy her anything again and more importantly she doesn’t want a relationship with you? Why would you get her anything? She probably threw away all the stuff you sent her in 2005 and 2006. Really, just let it go.
M1 – Threw away my gifts? No. I don’t think she would do that. She liked some of them. She told me so. The Tiffany star, the bottle of Dom Perignon for her 21st birthday, even the silly green beads I strung for her. She liked them. It would be terribly hurtful to her if I did not send her a birthday gift. What mother does not send her child a birthday gift?
M2 – She doesn’t recognize you as her mother. Remember? She doesn’t recognize you as anything. You don’t exist to her therefore she would have no need or expectation of a gift from you. Please stop doing this to yourself. To me. To us.
M1 – Not her mother? Of course I am her mother! Don’t say that. Why would you say that? Just look at her. She looks like me. She even shares my hobbies and interests. And I have proof I am her mother. Have you forgotten that birth certificate we have in the box?And her amaaaaazing adoptive parents were going to tell her all about me.
M2 – Do you mean that fake birth certificate? The one that St. Joseph Hospital gave to you. That is not legal. That is no proof. The real proof, the real certificate, has her adoptive parents name on it – not you. Remember? You don’t exist to the law, to her adoptive parents, or her. And my amaaazing adoptive parents do you mean those people who would prefer you did not exist and never send anything to their home? Yeah, amazing alright. Amazingly idiotic of you. You don’t exist, now shut up and leave me alone. Stop your nonsense.
M1 – (stuttering). I exist. I am here. I matter. You are talking to me, aren’t you?
M2 – Yes. Yes I am talking to you and I agree. I am sorry I was mean. You do matter. You always did but seriously you need to cease this endless fantasizing about your daughter…well, our daughter. May I recommend you do some reading and learn what adoption really does to children? There are many books on the shelf in the family room. Pick one. Any one.
M2 – What do you mean what adoption does? Adoption is good for children. She was better off without me, remember? They told us that. We were single, discarded, without a job. She deserved so much more. I was nothing. Pond Scum. Adoptive parents were seated at the right hand of God. Who wouldn’t want Godly parents? I am sure she had everything the world could offer her. My perfect daughter turned even more perfect by a lifetime of beauty and rainbows and money and so much love.
M1 – Of course they told you that. They wanted your child to sell to the highest bidder. They needed you to believe you were worthless. Yes. You were single. So were legions of other women and they did not abandon their children to strangers, did they? Discarded? And you did have a job, remember? You worked full-time in retail. Don’t tell me you did not have a job. Maybe you did not have a job that “they” found acceptable. But you had a job. Discarded? Why didn’t you force him to marry you? Why didn’t you go to his house and tell his parents you were pregnant? His mother liked you, even loved, you. Why didn’t you call her up and tell her? Why didn’t you tell Gramma Julie! Why did you permit mom and dad to send you away! Gramma Julie would have helped you. Do not give me your naïve bullshit. I won’t accept it and guess what, neither would she! Your lack of self-esteem disgusts me and your delusions even more so.
M2 – (hurt into silence. Unable to respond)
Conversations like the above happen all the time inside me. They have been happening for at least six years. Each side of the argument, the person, the mother, has valid points.
How do I reconcile them into one?
The strength of cognitive dissonance is a direct function of two factors: the number of beliefs in conflict (many!) and the importance of those beliefs. Cognitive dissonance theory research suggests that the dissonance can be reduced by 1) adding new beliefs or 2) changing existing ones. Adding new beliefs is reported to reduce dissonance if the new beliefs add weight to one side of the conflict or if they reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs. Changing existing beliefs reduces the dissonance if the new content makes them less contradictory with others or their importance is reduced.
How for goodness sake does one do this in adoption and more specifically, reunions like mine? My younger self was naïve and foolish. My current self is educated and aware and mature (and a tad harsh with herself). How do you form new beliefs about a child you have only met once? How do you change existing beliefs if that child will not meet you and tell you anything to the contrary?
(to be continued)