Zara Phillips is an adoptee, musician and author of Chasing Away the Shadows: An Adoptee’s Journey to Motherhood.
Last night I met her and I heard her story. Let’s just say, she tells it like it is.
Growing up in England as one of two adopted children in her family, Phillips had a plethora of questions. Why was she “given away”? Did her birth mother not love her? Was she not pretty enough? Did she do something wrong?
Questions that, I imagine, in some shape or form enter the mind of many an adoptee. Problem is, she never felt safe in asking the tough questions or even in admitting there were answers she needed.
She discussed how, as a child, she desperately wanted her parents to broach the subject, to offer explanations, and when there might be none, to simply talk about it. She’d plead in her mind for her parents to realize what she was thinking. She’d ask herself: Why can’t they hear what I’m thinking? Why don’t they see what I need? Why don’t they just know?
Phillips explained that when she would finally muster enough courage to ask her mother about her adoption, it was usually while she rode in the car. After all, it was easier that way. No eye contact.
She shared a conversation she’d had with her mother when finally, it seemed, she might have an ally, perhaps even headed toward some answers. At the very least, someone with whom to share her burden.
Phillips’ mother told her that if she ever wanted more information, wanted to search for the answers, she would help her.
But her mother ended the offer with this sentiment: But if you choose to do that, it would devastate me.
And so Phillips remained quiet.
She noted her parents were advised at the time of her adoption there was no reason to discuss it further, that the adoption was done, and that was that, end of story. Nothing left to say.
And that is how it was. In fact, according to Phillips, her father — an attorney and later a judge — still, to this day, has never used the word “adoption” with her.
It’s not that her parents didn’t love her, she explained. Her parents gave her the best in education, private schools and more. They had good intentions, despite all the debris piling up under the rug. Now, years later, she thinks they did what they could with what they knew.
As Phillips’ story continued, she explained that her own behavior, like her brother’s, would eventually turn destructive: drugs, promiscuous sex, hurting herself. It was after finally becoming sober Phillips realized many of her problems inevitably returned to the same theme: her adoption and its secrets.
Within a year, she’d found her birth mother. She passionately described the moments before she met her, the panic outside the door.
Now in reunion more than 20 years, Phillips poignantly talked about how she’d hoped meeting her birth mother would “fix” her. And she believes her birth mother had hoped the same for herself: that meeting the child she had placed decades earlier would “fix” what she needed fixing too.
She’s frank about the fact that although reunion didn’t mend everything, it gave her pieces to the puzzle. Pieces long missing, swept into darkness.
At first Phillips didn’t tell her adoptive parents that she’d begun a search for her birth mother for fear they’d want nothing more to do with her. When she did finally share the news, she mentioned she had learned that her birth father was Italian.
Her mother told her they’d already known that. Phillips described that realization as a “kick in the stomach.” After all, a piece of her puzzle had been so close, yet so hidden.
She played song after song, the audience asking for more. Some weren’t adoption related, some were. Her acoustic presentation of one such song, “Secrets,” was among my favorites.
My husband, an adoptive father in an open adoption and himself an adoptee in a closed adoption, asked for Phillips’ thoughts on today’s prevalence of open adoptions.
In answering, she reminded us that young children love freely and don’t inherently decide one person should be loved while another shouldn’t. She advised: Don’t fear talking to your children about their adoption and sharing what you know. Your child’s need for the pieces of their puzzle doesn’t mean they love you any less. The completed puzzle is their story, a “fundamental” part of who they are. I’m sure that in that moment I was nodding my head in relief and agreement.
The unsettled feeling I’d had earlier as she detailed her pain began to unseat itself from deep in my gut. Yes, I thought, relieved, this is precisely what I’ve believed and expressed myself. And Phillips, with her firsthand experience, has come out the other side proclaiming the same. In speaking with her afterwards, she and I discussed openness in adoption; she asked what it was like for us and our daughter to visit with her birth mother at our agency’s annual picnic.There were a variety of questions posed last night by audience members diverse in their makeup — birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents.
Some seemed to identify with Phillips while others hinted at a simpler journey. One attendee asked whether gender plays a role in how one’s adoption is processed. That is an interesting notion, after all: If women, as child-bearers, generally have an innate need to nurture — would a female adoptee have a harder time reconciling the fact she was placed for adoption?
Phillips also touched on questions that arose during her own pregnancies, things she hadn’t thought of or realized until she herself was about to become a mother.
At times dark, Phillips’ story also was, simultaneously, hopeful. Echoing her lyrics and the lesson to be learned from her journey, the message I took away from Phillips’ talk was simple enough:
Stop the secrets. Let in the light.
To learn more about Zara Phillips, visit zaramusic.com.