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Being Honest About Our Motivation to Adopt
Growing up adopted is complicated, difficult, and confusing for many reasons, but sensing the discrepancy between what their adoptive parents say and the whole truth of why they left one family and then another adopted them adds tremendously to that. I have observed, over my many years as a member of the adoption community, the tendency for adopting and adoptive parents to tell less than the truth about why they adopt/adopted, which is toxic for their children and also for the parent-child and sibling-to-sibling relationships that best promote psychological health and family well-being over time.
People tend to adopt because they are not able to conceive and birth children readily, or without risk, or because they desire to have a child of a specific gender after having birthed children of the opposite gender. Some have medical conditions or genetic history that would put themselves or a biological child at considerable risk. Others are single and not prepared to utilize assisted reproductive technology alone, without a partner or spouse. While the exact percentage of people adopt for one or more of those reasons, MOST adoptive parents tend to tell others (and sometimes themselves) and in front of their adopted children—that they adopted “to give a child without a family a good home,” or that they were “called by God” to adopt, or that they “chose” to adopt (as though conceiving and birthing a child is not a choice).
Regardless of what the stated-motivation is, its the message to the CHILD that should be of the greatest concern, for the child’s very sense of self is informed BY what the adoptive parents say to or in front of the child. There is often a disconnect between the whole truth, and what is said—that the child senses but cannot make sense of. It leaves the child with the sense that he/she cannot completely trust the parents—and in a child who already has evidence that adults can and do fail to do what they should in order for him/her to stay safe and secure—this is a HUGE problem.
What I am suggesting is that we, as adoptive parents, tell the truth to ourselves and to our children about why we adopted. If we grappled with secondary infertility and then began to consider adoption, our primary reason for adopting was NOT to provide a good home for a child. It was because we wanted an additional child and that didn’t happen via pregnancy. If we are single and ruled out assisted reproductive technology, pregnancy on our own, then it is not really truthful to say of ourselves that we wished to rescue/save a child from an inferior life. If we had unprotected sex with a partner/spouse and didn’t become pregnant and then opted not to seek fertility treatment, it is less than the truth to say that adoption was our first choice.
Why is this a problem for our children? When we do not tell ourselves and them the whole truth, the REAL truth, we shift the burden of pity that others tend to convey from ourselves to our children. NO child wants to feel that he/she should be forever-grateful for what every other child can and does take for granted. No child wants to be burdened with being their parents’ happiness. No child should have to strive to compete with the Dream Child—the child-who-might-have-been-born whom they know their parents lost, but won’t admit to having lost or to the grief they had over that. No child wants to have others assume that he or she should feel “lucky” to be growing up with parents who did something noble, or who are pretending to be noble when, in fact, they felt too much shame and sorrow to admit to themselves, and so spun differently as: “we wanted YOU to have a chance to grow up in a family.”
What I tend to see as an adoption professional is that this myth can prevail until the adopted child reaches adolescence. What is unspoken and unacknowledged—sooner or later—comes out into the open, even sometimes when adoptive parents don’t realize that it has. And it poisons the parent-child and sibling relationships.
We, adoptive parents, owe it to ourselves, but even more so, to our children to be completely honest and open about why we sought to adopt and the feelings we had when and if family-building was challenging for us. Our ability to tell the truth to ourselves and to them makes us human. It makes us vulnerable—raising the likelihood that our kids can let us see their vulnerable, underside—how they truly think and feel, what they wonder about, what their fears are (rejection and abandonment feelings when these arise). We also tend to feel better about ourselves because we don’t have to preserve the facade that we acted for the children, instead of that we first considered adoption because of OUR needs and THEN realized that we could meet a child’s needs, as well.
I particularly take issue with parents who suggest that God “called” them to adopt—as though they are doing something noble for the unworthy poor (their child). That ends up making kids feel less deserving, inferior, the object of pity—and many to most realize, sooner or later, that they are put in that position in order to cover over their parents’ discomfort with infertility, secondary infertility, single status, medical problems or genetic risks, or deep desire to get to parent a child of a specific gender. That does NOT promote family-intimacy, and instead, causes the child to feel resentful, angry, burdened with pity, burdened with the expectation that he/she is supposed to feel “lucky” and “forever grateful,” while their parents—who caused this—get dubbed as the noble, do-gooders who made a considerable sacrifice to adopt them. Most do not express their own, independent thoughts and feelings and opinions about this until they are adults—adults who awaken to examining what all of this has meant to them and how its shaped their sense of self. Many, unfortunately, turn away from the religion their parents so hoped to impart to them.
What God—they ask—would first destroy their original family in order for their to have even BEEN a child in need of a family, just so their parents could feel noble?
As an adoptive parent and adoption professional, I came to understand how important it is for us TO be honest with ourselves and our children, and to see how damaging it is to me/us and them to NOT do so—only gradually, and through enduring a great deal of pain, sorrow, guilt for things I’d said/clung to. I only slowly and gradually realized how freeing it is to face things courageously and without fear, because it strengthens instead of undermines my relationships with my children and yours—the adopted kids I work with. It also helped me to realize how essential it is to me and my growth as an EFFECTIVE adoptive parent and adoption professional—to have a meeting of the minds and hearts with adult adoptees and first/birth parents, and that that cannot happen UNLESS and UNTIL we are first, honest with ourselves. We can’t understand one another until we first truly see ourselves, and embrace the hurts and sorrows inflicted by the adoptism perpetuated in our society that tells us that we should feel ashamed and inferior because we didn’t or couldn’t birth children, and then considered adoption—not truly understanding all of what that would mean in the life of a child or in our own lives. I believe that being honest with ourselves—stripping away the partial truths we tell ourselves, others, and worst of all—our adopted children—yields strengths, greater confidence in our ability to be the parents our children need for us TO be, and greater comfort within ourselves that we do not have to be ashamed no matter what others think or say.
I would encourage others to consider thinking carefully about this—taking the words of the generous adult adoptees into consideration as you do—in order that you transform yourselves into the parents your children need for you to be. Its a challenging journey, but one that we CAN make with one another, and with—I believe—the support and encouragement of the adult adoptee community, IF we can be honest and open.
Jane A Brown, MSW
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