I’m tired of adoptive parent confessionals

Several folks have sent me links about the Slate article, "I did not love my adopted child" and the companion piece on NPR.

I hadn't written about it here because frankly sometimes it just seems too much. And because I'm trying to finish writing 3 research papers! 🙂

But I finally had to take the time to at least jot down a few thoughts:

  • I give her a few points because at least to some degree she recognizes that the typical "happy-happy-joy-joy" adoption narrative serves to hurt everyone involved who does NOT experience a smooth transition, a good "fit" between adoptive parent and child, post-adoption depression on the part of adoptive parents, post-adoption grieving on the part of the child and all the ways in which adoption is nothing less than this perfect way to "grow a family"
  • The author does clearly state what I think a lot of us have said in the past – prospective adoptive parents often think they're more prepared for the difficulties of adopting than they really are. It's easy, I think, for prospective adoptive parents to think, "not me, not my child."
  • To some degree I can even appreciate the "there- but-for-[fill in saving grace here]-go-I" sentiment, which I think all of us who claim to have an ounce of compassion often say

But –

  • I truly hope that the author is using a pseudonym. For the child's sake. I can't even imagine some day that child g00gling her adoptive mother's name some day and finding this article in which her mom confesses to not loving her
  • Is it not completely clear in this article that the child was TRAUMATIZED by being adopted? Being adopted as a toddler (3 years old in this case, which I really relate to because I was the same age when I was adopted) is considered by many to be one of the WORST times a child can be adopted. 
  • There seems to be a total lack of empathy for what the child went through being pulled from her foster parents to a strange white family in a strange country where EVERYTHING – language, food, sleeping, parenting, noise, environment, people – was different.

In general this was another adoptive parent's "I did it to help other adoptive parents" self-confessional, a la Tedaldi, but it once again attempts to elicit sympathy for just how hard it is for adoptive parents who have to struggle with pathologically ill-behaved adoptive children (or in other words, kids who did not live up to the adoptive parent's expectations of being so happy to attach to a new caregiver -  i.e. them). For parents who claim this is about the best interest of the child, whose interest is truly valued in these articles?

Where is the acknowledgment of the adoptee's perspective? Why do these articles merely continue to pathologize adopted children without really recognizing the trauma of the adoption experience itself? Lots of attention seems to be spent on the pre-adoption trauma – the triple bad boys of pre-adoption experiences (abandonment, institutional life, pre-abandonment abuse or neglect). What about the trauma of ripping a child away from the only people this child knew and placing them in a foreign country? What would Dell'Antonia have wanted for her biological son if he had to have been taken away from her and sent to China to an adoptive family who wanted to "grow their family?" Would she have recognized the trauma her son would have felt in that scenario? My guess is yes. My guess is she never recognized that the fact her adopted child was so attached to her foster parents was in many ways a good thing – it meant her daughter had the capacity to love someone. My guess is that it didn't really matter. It was more about her daughter's lack of attachment to her. Which is ridiculous, right? I mean, you don't expect to go on a first date with someone and immediately fall in love. Why would you expect that from a child?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

13 thoughts

  1. Thanks for addressing the Slate article. I read it a couple of days ago–and when I did, I had some not-so-nice words that I wanted to share in response to the article. You addressed the article with much more diplomacy and maturity than I was able to muster.

  2. The answer, I think (as an adoptive parent) is not to chastise the author of the Slate article who was expressing HER feelings, not that of her child, but to encourage adoptees to speak out and write about THEIR experiences. {I found this blog entry by Dr. John Raible, an adoptee, to be very relevant: http://johnraible.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/learning-from-artyoms-plight/ ) That’s why I appreciate your blog so much, and wish there were many others. I also wish there were more books and more spokespeople among adoptees. It is disturbing to me that the ones apparently being asked by the media to comment on the Russian returnee are largely aparents, NOT adoptees. I’d like to hear from them (and do like hearing from you).

  3. I hope I did not add to your stress when I was initially seeing it from the AP POV (No need to reassure.)
    You asked, “Where is the acknowledgment of the adoptee’s perspective? Why do these articles merely continue to pathologize adopted children without really recognizing the trauma of the adoption experience itself?”
    This is a really good question. Even in the Waiting Child training I attended it was more about what the child will do, than what the child is going through. Compounding that is the AP’s need to feel successful by eliminating the behaviors as quickly as possible, which can certainly cause further trauma. Which can then be blamed on the preadoptive trauma, as the Slate article said “the damage is done, we’re just the clean up crew.” NO the damage can continue and made worse!

  4. What Julie said. Adoption is still framed as being about US (adoptive parents) first and foremost and isn’t that what drives the mess that led to Artymom’s abandonment? He had no advocates. None to get him better care. None to get him a family that was best for HIM.

  5. My family and I adopted through CHSFS in Minnesota. Until a year or so ago, they had a very active message board of Ethiopian adoptive families. Some of it was the same ‘ole AP gunk, but much of it was supportive and helpful. And I think the most important function of that board came from the parents who shared the hard truths about adoption, both about the child’s experience and the parent’s.
    I read in Jane Jeong Trenka’s excellent memoir about how she and her parents were each other’s second choices–they wanted a child born to them, and she wanted to be with the mother she was born to. Some APs really recoil at that idea (and we’re ‘preferential adopters,’ so our kids really were our first choice), but what I hate the most is the notion that providence, God, whomever destined your family to be together. That seems to totally invalidate the child’s trauma of losing their first family. But maybe this idea helps some APs stick with parenting kids even as they struggle? I don’t know.
    I do know that the most important message for APs to hear is “Fake it til you make it.” You tell your kid “I love you” enough, and eventually you will realize that you mean it. Some of us mean it right away; some of us don’t.
    But as the parents–as the adults–it’s our job to love, or to act with love, towards our children, no matter how awful life can be.
    If I’m sounding blase, I don’t mean to. My older son suffered terrible trauma through his relinquishment, institutionalization, and adoption, and I am pretty sure he’s going to be dealing with it his whole life. We had a wonderful week-long honeymoon in Addis Ababa, followed by months of stress and crying and exhausting tantrums (exhausting for all of us, I mean). I am absolutely certain he would have been better off staying with his first family.
    But he couldn’t, and it wasn’t his choice. And no matter how awful or stressed I felt, I knew that the very worst thing I could do to him was send him away to yet another family. I wasn’t the best family for him (that was his first family), but at that point, I was the second best.
    Through my adoptions, I’ve pretty much lost relationships with both my sister and my mother, for reasons I don’t really understand. But my kids are my priority. And I really don’t understand how other APs don’t see this.

  6. Thank you for putting into words many things that I have not been able to. I’ve had many of the same questions you have-
    I have also read that there is no pseudonym used- not sure if that is accurate or not.
    Glad to have found your blog today!

  7. This article was really disturbing. I agree, it has a narcissistic bent (me! me! it’s hard for me!) and her sentence “plenty of adoptive parents . . . cling to some sort of “Plan B” as they get through the first months home”. Wow. I think most parents dig into reserves of compassion they never knew they had, and yes, fake it for a while, but clinging to plan B? I don’t think that’s typical.
    I agree, what an awful thing for her child to have to read someday.

  8. Why would an adoptive child adapt immediately? Think about it. If they grew up in a less than desirable orphanage they probably didn’t have all their needs met. So they learned they couldn’t trust adults, that adults wouldn’t meet their needs. Why should these new strangers be any different? Just because they call themselves “mom” and “dad” isn’t good enough for the child. That child has learned that adults won’t take care of him or her. It takes TIME to build trust.
    You have to think of things from the kids perspective. This is a child. Not an adult processing adoption. Non adopted kids do things that don’t make sense ALL THE TIME. Why would an adopted child be any different. Children have a very different sense of logic than adults and I feel like some adults simply don’t see things through the child’s eyes.
    As for a child from a foster home.. She grew up attached to those people. Those were her primary attachment figures. To have them ripped from her must have been devastating. and little kids assume that everything is their fault. She probably thought it was something she did, that was the reason she was being sent away with this lady. Think about toddler logic!
    People have got to look at things from the child’s perspective.
    I’m so glad you wrote this post!

  9. Excellent post.
    For myself, it has gotten down to trying really hard to get a good grip on what my role is as a parent. What it should be, not what I imagined it to be before I became one.
    These articles really agitate me because they only seem to reinforce the idea that adoption is all about them (parents).

  10. What if someone survived a terrible car crash and instead of focusing on them, everyone was concerned with how badly a witness was traumatized?
    I mean, sure, adoptive parents go through a great deal of pain. They need love, help, support, and an outlet to speak about how they feel. Yet a good parent will put the needs of the adoptee above their own, and recognize that whatever trauma they feel is exponentially less than that of the child.
    I will admit that being the husband of a adoptee has its challenges at times. But it’s a cakewalk compared to BEING a adoptee. And as a matter of fact, though we do have our challenges, I am grateful for every moment of our marriage.
    I cannot judge the author of the Slate article, as I have not walked in her shoes, but I do hope that in the future she will spend more time focusing on the needs of her little girl and other adoptees.
    And shame on Slate for giving the article such a sensational and awful title. I imagine the title itself is enough to some people to tears.

  11. 1. I was abandoned at age 18 mos and adopted at age 3 as well. Rejection/abandoment is the fundamental trauma. That’s what needs addressing first. Adoption is a potential solution that can be equally traumatic, but it is not the first and only.
    2. AP’s need to discuss themselves and their feelings, exclusive of their children’s. They need to validate their experiences, just as we adult adoptees need to. That’s what support networks are all about.
    3. A very small percentage of AP’s and PAP’s are actually capable of understanding/empathizing the adopted child’s experiences. Of course, that means a very small percentage should actually be adopting.
    I’m finding that my experiences as an adoptee and as an AP are much more complicated than expected! Thanks for the post and your tireless work.

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