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“as if born to”

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Weaver linked the essay “a social worker’s plea to potentially adoptive parents” on her blog yesterday, and I’m stealing it to link here because it’s brilliant and should be required reading for all hopeful adoptive parents.

Many people first come to adoption with one (or both) of two thoughts in mind: First, “I want a child”; and second, “I can provide a loving home to a child who wouldn’t otherwise have one.” Neither of these is a terrible place to start (although I must confess—and anyone who knows me already knows this—that the “adoption as charity” angle really squicks me out), but neither reflects an understanding of just how complicated adoption can be. And no one can be faulted for starting here—after all, why would a person have an in-depth understanding of adoption if he or she has just begun to think about adopting—but it’s important to move beyond this place to one where daydreams about life with a child (which all hopeful parents have) are tempered with an understanding of the realities of adoption. So, from this starting point, there is a lot to be learned.

Much of what hopeful adoptive parents learn is, rather, unlearning: unlearning the outdated, incorrect stereotypes and attitudes our society holds regarding adoption. For example, there is a good deal of controversy in some adoption circles about the “as if born to” language in the legal paperwork. Some people read this as reinforcement of an idea first promoted in the earliest years of modern adoption: that an adopted child was a “blank slate” who could be molded by his adoptive parents into whatever they desired, regardless of the child’s inborn temperament, talents, and abilities. This attitude often led to serious issues for the children as they grew up trying desperately to live up to their parents’ expectations and having to contend with their parents’ disappointment when they simply couldn’t.

A more positive reading of that language is that adoptive parents will treat their adopted children as they would biological children, loving and nurturing and supporting their adopted children just as they would biological children and, if they have both adopted and biological children, not making potentially damaging distinctions between the two. In this reading, our adopted children are part of our families forever, whatever may come, just as they would be if they had been born to us.

But a lot of people simply don’t get this. When my cousin was pregnant with her second child, a co-worker asked her if she was going to put her older (adopted) daughter up for adoption. And I wish I could say that question was jaw-droppingly stunning to me—but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of someone being asked that. Which means there are a lot of people walking around out there who see adopting as inferior to giving birth, who see it as something we settle for but would surely change if it turned out we were able to have “our own” children, and—more important to this discussion—who don’t see adoption as permanent.

And perhaps this is why, when an adoption is disrupted because the child has issues the adoptive parents can’t handle, many people see it as perfectly OK.

Reading and thinking about the essay linked on Weaver’s blog, I remembered Anita Tedaldi. She was the subject of heated debate last fall when she was all over the news trying to justify her decision to disrupt the adoption of her two-and-a-half-year-old son. (I’m not going to go over all the details here because my thoughts on it would take up another twelve posts & I’d still probably have more to say, but it begins with this story on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog and continues as other bloggers dug deeper into the story, for example, herehere, and here. And here. And here.) And I remember being surprised, at the time, that so many people thought her decision was fine, admirable even—some people labeled her “heroic”—and thinking that most of these same people would likely have quite a different opinion if her son had been her biological child.

Many people who came to Tedaldi’s defense in these discussions were the parents of children with severe attachment disorders (some of whom had also disrupted their children’s adoptions). “You have no idea what it is like to parent a RAD child; until you’ve walked in these shoes you shouldn’t judge” was a common theme. And it’s true. I have no idea what it is like to parent a child with those kinds of severe issues (although—and yes, I’m being judgmental here—based on Tedaldi’s vague descriptions of her son’s attachment issues and the fact that during his short time in her family she gave birth to not one but two additional children, I’d be willing to bet Anita Tedaldi doesn’t know what that is like either). But I know several mothers whose biological children have severe psychological, emotional, and intellectual issues that make parenting them extraordinarily difficult, and not a single one of them has relinquished her child.

Which brings me back to this thought, from the essay I linked above:

If you had two biological children and one of them started displaying violence, threatening the life of their other biological sibling, constantly running away, or destroying your house, you would be hard pressed to convince me that you would disown your child and terminate your legal parental rights as their biological parent. You might remove the child from the other children and take the child to a more secure, structured environment like a residential treatment facility to address their mental health issues, and keep the other family members safe. But I highly doubt that you would give your child up and turn them over to the child welfare system.

Yet, for too many people, if your child is adopted and displayed these issues, it’s a different story. There is something so sick and disturbing about that, it makes me want to vomit.

I find it disturbing as well, because unless I’m completely misunderstanding the concept, “as if born to” means you take what comes and you deal with it, just as you would if your child had been born to you. It doesn’t matter if the agency didn’t give you all the facts (it happens). It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel prepared to deal with issues you didn’t foresee. It doesn’t matter if you wanted a “healthy” and child the one you got wasn’t. Children aren’t merchandise; you don’t get to return them because they’re not what you expected—and that is (or should be) the case whether your child is yours by birth or through adoption. If you gave birth to a child who later had a horrible accident that left him needing round-the-clock care for the rest of his life, you’d adapt—and what’s more, you’d be expected to adapt. You wouldn’t get to “send him back,” and “as if born to” means you shouldn’t get a free pass because your child is adopted.

And this is one thing hopeful adoptive parents need to understand—really understand—before they are truly ready to adopt: Even under the most ideal circumstances, adoption isn’t all sunshine and bunnies. Adoption can bring immeasurable joy, yes—it is snuggling with your child on the couch reading storybooks and beaming with pride when she makes some new childish discovery and staring at her in awe as she toddles around the living room, wondering how it’s possible that you’re lucky enough to be this tiny person’s parent. But it is also watching your two-week-old stare at the window while you’re holding her, worrying that she’s wondering who this strange lady is and when her mother is coming back; it is pacing the floor with a colicky six-week-old and wondering whether you’d know how to soothe her if you’d given birth to her. It is helping your school-age child deal with her feelings about her adoption—feelings she wouldn’t have if she had been born to you.

And sometimes it is trying to work your way through serious issues you never imagined you’d be facing. It might mean having to make difficult decisions. But unless you would relinquish a biological child under the same circumstances—and truly, very few people would—surrendering your child because his issues are “too much to handle” shouldn’t be one of them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, 25 March 2010 2:09 pm

    I’m glad and humbled that you liked my post on adoption. I get to see these adoption issues from the child’s perspective on a daily basis, so it’s become quite a concern of mine. I’m glad other people care about these issues in the same way.

    • Thursday, 25 March 2010 6:26 pm

      Thanks for your comment. And thanks for writing the piece.

      I try really hard not to be judgmental—I tend to assume people have Very Good Reasons for doing the things they do—but in situations like that I keep coming back to the thought that if the child in question were a biological child, relinquishment wouldn’t even be a consideration. I thought your post really succinctly highlighted why it shouldn’t be a consideration with adopted children either.

  2. Heather permalink
    Monday, 7 June 2010 5:44 pm

    The part that you’ve block-quoted puts perfectly into words the things I couldn’t quite find a way to say when reading the Tedaldi story and the recent “return to sender” Russia case. I don’t personally know what it’s like to parent a child with RAD, either. I do know that once a child is part of my family, whether through biology or adoption, they will remain as such. Forever. No matter what.

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