Adoption: A Parenting Gauntlet
I was adopted when I was 1 ½ years old. There aren’t many relevant details to tell about the actual adoption right now apart from the fact that I know (now) my biological mom loved me but couldn’t keep me, and my adoptive parents acquired me (and my twin sister) and grew to love me. My life has been pretty good. I’m a normal-ish person. I have no major quirks, and I’m happy. However, hindsight makes trials appear less rigorous than they actually are; I might have turned out differently had not a few things gone my way. Of course, everybody has hurdles in life that they must overcome; it’s not like adopted kids have it tough while everybody else gets a free ride. But, it is true that adopted kids have special issues that most kids will never have to deal with. They have to resolve feelings that most other kids don’t, and that necessitates a different kind of parenting.
Abandonment: Adopted kids probably will, at some point in their lives, feel abandoned. We ask ourselves questions like, “Why didn’t my original family want me?” Then, lacking an answer they (we) continue with more self destructive questions. “What did I do wrong to be given away?” “Am I a burden to my new family, too?” “Could they also want to get rid of me?” “Am I inferior, a subclass of kid, because I’m adopted?” These questions persist and fester in our minds, creating all sorts of unwanted emotions. It’s because of these feelings that adoptive parents, unlike other parents, need to prove their love. Adopted kids thirst for acceptance and love in a way other kids don’t. Abandonment issues can be mitigated, but only with lots of hugging and many reassurances. There is no unspoken contract between parents and their adopted kids as there is with parents and their biological children. After all, biological kids wouldn’t have any reason to think they belong anywhere but with their biological parents. The assumptions are reversed with adopted kids. Instead of assuming we belong, only to question when shown otherwise, we assume we don’t until proven wrong.
Distrust: Adopted kids don’t inherently trust their new parents in the same way a biological child would. We aren’t dogs who parents pick up from the pound, happily bouncing back home ready to be fed and washed. Trust must be earned systematically. When parents adopt a kid, they’re told by counselors to not keep secrets, to always, as a matter of course, be open and honest about the adoption. That advice is sometimes ignored. If the adopted kid never finds out he’s adopted then it’ll be all peaches and cream. But, that’s a huge calculated risk, because if the kid does find out that his parents have been lying to him, and there are a million ways he could discover it, it’s almost guaranteed to ruin the family. I’ve talked to dozens of adopted people (now grown) who have found out, only later in life, that they were adopted. Most of them, when they discovered the truth, severed ties with their families.
Curiosity: Adoptive parents will always have to live with the possibility that their kid is going to seek out his biological parents. But, as I think my family (both sides) can attest, there was no ill will in my search. I didn’t look for my biological mom because there was something wrong with my adoptive parents. I looked because I had a burning desire to know everything. Other kids get to know where they come from. We should, too. My Wilcox family reunions were always a little weird for me. Stories about our history would go like this: “So and so came from England X hundreds of years ago, and that’s where this farm came from.” Honestly, I never paid much attention to those stories because I wanted to know where I (not anybody else) came from. Adoptive parents have to endure the uncertainty that one day their kid could be doubly hurt in his search, or that they could lose their kid to that search. Give adoptive parents credit for signing up for the emotional roller coaster. It’s an extra stress with which other parents don’t contend.
Insecurity: I was painfully insecure throughout my childhood. It wasn’t until my first son came that I felt like I had any purpose in life. Before Neil the only other biological marker I had was my twin sister (granted, that’s a pretty huge one) who was adopted with me. Having no, or just one, biological connection can make a person feel pretty alone in the world and, thus, insecure. I think, with both Neil and Alan, I felt what mothers claim to feel upon seeing their newborn kids. It was an instant kinship. Before Neil came, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I felt like I could have died and it wouldn’t have mattered much. That’s exactly how important it is to feel needed. While everybody has those feelings, adopted kids frequently have them by magnitudes.
Inferiority: We can feel unworthy. When we’re toddlers we struggle with abandonment. But, when we grow up, abandonment mutates into inferiority. After a while the feeling dies that we’ll be given back to the adoption agency. But, that’s when our more mature minds start on a new, equally pernicious, course. We begin to compare our adopted lives with the lives of our non adopted peers. They look like their parents; they have the same quirks and facial expressions. We start wanting to be like the other kids, to have the things they have. That’s how we start to feel inferior. A good example: One of my friends is a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. His dad, his mom, and his whole family are super smart people, and similarly accomplished. When he was growing up there was no question that he, too, had the raw brainpower required to be whatever he wanted to be in his life. Adopted kids don’t have that. Intelligence is encouraged through one’s environment but it’s born in genetics. I felt other kids had claims on intelligence and success and that I was just an impostor. My insecurity fed my feelings of inferiority. It wasn’t until I met my biological mom and my long lost sister that I knew that I, too, have a claim to the good things.
My life, like that of many adopted kids, is turning out to be happy and meaningful. But, it could have turned out differently. The edge, the point over which lives are irreparably scarred, lurks more closely for adopted children. When adoptive parents realize the great responsibility they have in their charge, the extra parenting that is required of them, and they take it up and bear it, the rewards are there. If, however, adoptive parents expect trust and security as a matter of legal right – disaster. Any couple considering adoption should do it with the knowledge that their lives will be rewarded through hard work, not genetic or legal determinism. It is not the child’s responsibility to mold himself to the family. It is the family’s responsibility to accommodate the child. When trust is earned, insecurity and abandonment issues overcome, curiosity sated, they will have become successful parents. They will have saved a life and made the world a better place.