“The baby I turned away”

This article has been circulating around my many list-serves and from friends. What do you think about this woman’s decision? I thought it was interesting that she voiced what I think so many adoptive and prospective adoptive parents are unwilling to say out loud for fear of being judged. The orientalism and negativity about birth parents and naivite about adopting babies from other countries as being less messed-up are topics I’m not going to address in this post. What I’m really interested is in this idea of adoptive parents deciding what they can handle.

The baby I turned away (the article at Salon.com requires you to sign up for a membership. I also have the article archived here.

I didn’t want a second opinion; I wanted my perfect daughter back. Back home, Neil went online and looked up head circumference and height and weight charts for rural southern Indian girls. She wasn’t on that chart either.

I wished we were different people, the kind who would welcome this child, welcome the risks, with no questions asked. I wanted to help her, to make her OK. But what if I couldn’t? Could I love her anyway? To a parent, this question must be unthinkable. You love your child no matter what, accepting all limits and gifts. But we had a choice, and the magical thread that had spun us around this child for the previous two days was beginning to unwind and tangle. Until we signed the referral papers, until an Indian judge granted us legal guardianship, she was not ours. We had a choice.

That passage really struck me in a familiar way.

Once I made some prospective adoptive parents cry. We were in a meeting and they were frustrated by how long the process was. As prospective parents, they had spent the last several months submitting their home study for several children and they had not been chosen by these youth’s social workers. They were feeling rejected. However, at this same meeting their home study worker had a 4" binder filled with photos of waiting children and I watched as one after the other they’d reject these youth based on "too high needs" or "too old" or "his parent’s history of mental health" or "just doesn’t seem like a good fit."

So when they expressed frustration about being rejected by all these youth’s social workers, I couldn’t help but remind them that they’d just done the same thing to a binder full of children. As this thought sank in, they realized the truth of that statement. I didn’t intend to make this couple cry, but I wanted them to realize that "matching" parents and children isn’t just as easy or romantic as picking someone from a photo. Workers for both children and parents have a tough job. These adoptive parents were focusing solely on their own needs and their feelings. They’d had six months of rejection, these children in the binder had years. Children aren’t perfect and prospective adoptive parents are looking for that gem in the haystack. But often social workers for the children are doing the same thing. We’re looking for that parent or parents who won’t reject our children and who we think will be the parents that can best meet their needs.

Read this article (also archived here) and share your thoughts.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

14 thoughts

  1. As an adoptive parent of five daughters, I have serious reservations about disruption once a child is placed. But I have none when it comes to facing one’s limitations on the front end. It is not helpful to a child to be placed with a family that, from the beginning, did not want to deal with the issues that child has. I knew, for example, that I was fine with angry, in-your-face kids, but I also knew that I am not a particularly sensitive or observant person, so a very withdrawn or depressed child would be hard for me to parent. As it happened, one of my angry, in your face kids turned out to have depression, but by the time it was discerned, she was thoroughly MY child and we just dealt with it. I do think that when it takes a long time for a child to be placed in a family, the families sometimes feel like they have to take any child that is then offered. This does not make for good adoption practice.

  2. I think parents need to think long and hard about what they can and can’t deal with. Regret and disruption is not a good think for either parent or child.
    I know as a prospective dad, I was not fully informed about all the risks and potential problems. I was told, but I didn’t hear. I think parents contemplating a high needs or special needs child must be able to have a full support system in place. I know my family does not have that. I would not be able, and neither would my wife be able to handle a child with high medical, psychological, or learning problems. I know I would not be equipped to handle it. If my child, in the long run, ends up with severe medical or psychological problems will I deal with it, yes, I would.
    My dad is a doctor, and commented that parents with kids that have severe medical problems end up with a higher divorce rate than parents who don’t. This, to me, is an indicator that parents aren’t equipped with the right skills and support.
    I really think parents need to be honest with themselves when going through adoption. There are a lot of hassles and challenges, and not having the right mindset to do it, causes things to end up poorly for both kids and parents.
    ps, Harlow’s Monkey, this is a blog I really have learned a lot on. Please keep it up.

  3. This article really hits home. A friend of mine received a referal for a 17 month old boy from China. She also sent his medical report to the pediatrician in New York only to hear the same thing – the head circumfrence was off. My friend was not sure what to do and I told her that I thought it was silly to worry about head size. Her son has been home 20 months now; just turned 3. After 1 year of speech therapy he is still behind in speech and socially. I often wonder if my friend wishes that she had taken the advice of the peditrician more seriously and not accepted the referral but I am afraid to ask her.

  4. I wonder if the illusion of control, the idea that by making a wise choice you can have a baby that will be just what you wanted, is worse for adoptive parents, or if the romanticism of parenthood is the same for any prospective parent (the author daydreamed about breastfeeding and babywearing but I bet she didn’t daydream about getting woken up every few hours to nurse, or a 35 pound 4 year old hitting and shouting because mom wouldn’t carry her)
    Not that people who know ahead of time they can’t cope should adopt (though possibly they should donate that $30K to a group that helps unwed Indian mothers keep their babies?) But parenthood is a crapshoot anyway – it’s just that if you give birth to a special needs kid you can’t claim to have been “misled” or “unprepared” by social workers or profiles.

  5. I just wrote yesterday, “Adoption should not be like walking up to the relationship counter of life and picking out the cutest kid you see.”
    I was so naive. I thought all children needed someone to love them. I thought I would be open to any child, but I was wrong. The first referral I got was for a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. She was predatory and needed 24-hour a day direct supervision to keep her from harming other children. I was a single mom who worked full time outside of the home. As I read her history, I ached. I could not parent this child; I would be yet another source of loss. I said no.
    When my daughter came to me, I had her evaluated because of her developmental delays. I was told she was healthy and would catch up in a stable environment. The psychologist wrote that I was the best treatment. That was almost 10 years ago. My daughter was diagnosed with pFAS 3 years ago ~ she is a blessing and a miracle. But, I will be parenting her for a long time.
    Whenever anyone asks me about adoption, I tell them that if they are not willing to parent a special needs child they should not adopt ~ every adoption is a special needs adoption. I wish more people were honest about that. Despite this, I think adoption is a good option for people who want (not need) a child and for children who would otherwise live in state care or be institutionalized.

  6. This articles is disturbing. Not because the author chose not to accept the referral. Not because her decision wasn’t valid or understandable. But because this situation, which is all too common a concern among prospective adoptive parents, does nothing to change the many stigmas regarding adoption versus biology.
    All adoptive parents want to make their children feel just as special, just as valuable, just as loved unconditionally as their non-adoptive counterparts. But realistically, there ARE conditions with adoption. And this article is a perfect example of some of those conditions.
    I have to wonder if the author gave birth to a child that later showed delays and/or possible mental retardation, would she and her husband decline to parent him/her? Most likely not. They would probably dig deep and do whatever they needed to do for their child. This choice, this ability to decline, is limited (in most part) to children joining families via adoption and not so much an option for biological children.
    Can adoption ever be viewed as equal to biology if it comes with conditions? And at the very foundation of this question, can adoption ever be viewed as equal to biology if it is more often than not a second choice after biology failed?

  7. I think people overreact. My daughter’s head circumference was very small according to her medical report. Our ped freaked and demanded they do a new one…all while I’m telling her not to even bother.
    All three of my nephews were born fairly normal size and quickly fell off the height and weight charts. They are all fine.
    I think people worry too much about unknowns. They were so worried this child might be unhealthy and she may be highly intelligent. They don’t seem to realize that even a “healthy” child could become very unhealthy at a later date.

  8. The child turned away also begs the exploration into how isolated are the judgments that are made between or upon the (would be) parent who failed to take up a needing child, and the birth parent who through force or limited choice did just that too. Actions in adoption hold up a mirror but you have to look to see all the reflections. Thanks for bringing this to our eyes JRK.

  9. I think this situation is very important in the conversation about adoption, and I think it’s critical to get it into the open, especially for people contemplating becoming adoptive parents.
    I also think, as a preferential adopter with 2 SN children, it’s unfair to judge an adopting parent who “turns down” a child with special needs, or suspected special needs, when after careful consideration that parent decides they aren’t ready to meet that child’s needs. That’s different from turning down a child because s/he doesn’t match some vision of “the perfect child”, of course. It’s particularly unfair to suggest that they would have had no choice had that child been biological. Nonsense. How many pregnancies are aborted because of Down’s Syndrome, Spina Bifida, even gender selection? How many children in foster care would be with their birth parents had they not had special needs, or become special needs kids at least in part because of maternal choices during pregnancy (smoking, alcohol, etc). How many families with genetic conditions utilize assisted reproductive technologies to ameliorate their child’s risk of those diseases? How many children in overseas orphanages are there not because of gender and poverty but because of a deformity? Birth parents have choices too, and they make them. Not always, of course; most people get pregnant imagining the beautiful healthy baby who will be perfectly behaved, and graduate top of their class at Harvard 22 (or so) years later. Most have very little idea of their actual risks for a child with some kind of special need. And if that child develops a special need later. . . well, they already love the reality of that child.
    A previous commenter said, in effect, that if you aren’t prepared to adopt a special needs child you shouldn’t adopt at all. Another remarked on the reality that adoption is so often a “last resort after biology fails.” Adopting parents, particularly those adopting out of necessity, have become all too aware of risks. It’s human nature to want to control them, and to think that low risk means no risk, and high risk means certainty.
    Any child has a better opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential in a loving, nurturing, stable environment than in institutional care. Every child deserves that chance, but in this imperfect world, not every child will get it. That’s something we should all work to change, not something that should be looked at as the obligation of adopting parents.

  10. Deb: Every child deserves that chance, but in this imperfect world, not every child will get it. That’s something we should all work to change
    Quite true. One step would be working on the ways in which cultures (and all cultures do this in various ways) treat children as chattel. And of course another big part of it is making one’s society (and oneself) more accommodating to all kinds of people, and reducing prejudice.

  11. The link does not work, unfortunately. I would be interested in reading the story, so please let me know what the link once was.
    I understand this issue personally. We waited three months to travel for our second daughter from China, who potentially was severely undernourished with a small head size. It was quite difficult but we did not contemplate refusing the referral. The ped. advised accepting it, and we had some confidence in the Chinese adoption process, with one daughter from China already.
    Most of all, she was our daughter already and, like us (infertility survivors), had been through so much. We were overjoyed to find my daughter chubby and healthy, so full of life. At 5 she is thriving despite her early rough start.
    I too think that in some sense all adoption is special needs adoption. But I also know that transracial international adoption puts great stress on the children who are adopted. I have seen it in my own children. If the child cannot cognitively understand the changes in her/his life and adapt to them, international adoption may not be in her/his best interest. And if it’s not in the child’s best interest, adoption should not take place. Not always the criteria, I know, I know.
    We know several international adoptees who have never been able to adjust or assimilate b/c of their age or disabilities. I really think that these children would have been better served in their birth countries.

  12. For prospective adoptive parents, I think the $60,000 question is HOW they can accurately judge which situtions and circumstances they can handle without ever having had personal experience. Attending trainings and conferences, receiving counseling, reading books, and speaking with adoptive parents and indiviudals who have been adopted can help overcome prospective adopters’ naivete, but I don’t think any of these compare to first-hand experience. And even if prospective adopters can somehow determine ahead of time what they can handle, their careful predictions may all be for naught, since forecasting a child’s developmental path with certainty is impossible (particularly for younger children). Yet making the prediction accurately regarding what prospective adopters can handle (and acting in accordance with it) is vital for the well-being first and foremost of kids, but also of the parents. I wish I knew the answer.
    On a related note, sometimes I wonder if – in the interest of overcoming naivete through education (particularly for those considering adoption from foster care) – some couples or families who could potentially be great resources for kids decide not to pursue adoption, having had the stuffing scared out of them with horror stories.

  13. Do we not “shop” when we choose a partner to have biological children with? I suppose I failed in that regard because I chose to marry a cancer survivor that I knew might not be able to give birth to children.
    I once had a woman, a mother of two children she gave birth to, ask me why we chose to adopt infants. And likely healthy infants as well. When there are so many children that are in greater need?
    My answer was to ask her why she hadn’t adopted special needs children herself.
    She did not appear to appreciate my response.
    I will say that our commitment to our children is absolute and fate did provide us with a tough choice we didn’t plan on – and I believe we made the harder, but “right” choice.
    But I do not quite agree with this idea that as adoptive parents we are making immoral decisions by choosing who we are willing to adopt. Not that I don’t question our decisions. I actually do.

  14. “These adoptive parents were focusing solely on their own needs and their feelings.”
    Therein lies the crux of the problem.
    Many, many disturbing things in the adoption industry. I’ve even read an article about an orphan fashion show, complete with runway, where orphans walk on a catwalk to be displayed for prospective adoptive parents…

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