Thursday, June 21, 2012

Exploring Right and Wrong in the Adoptive Context

Today my thoughts have been swirling around this post by Megan of Earth Stains about the dramatically different responses of her birth parents to the whole idea of whether or not her adoption was "the correct decision." 

(image credit)

There are probably few decisions that receive more after-the-fact analysis than the decision to place a child for adoption. I frequently encounter birth parents explaining that they remain confident that they made the right decision for their circumstances even though they live with the painful consequences everyday, whereas others reach the point of saying that the decision was the wrong one. "Given what I know now," they say, "I would make a different choice." Adopees, too, sometimes feel the need to weigh in on rightness or wrongness of the decision. And for both adoptees and original parents, the answer can change over time.

In my story, the person who comes across as the primary decision maker is my biological grandmother. I cannot say that her decision was the right one, because it was a decision made from fear rather than love. She seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire to protect herself from the sideways glances of neighbors and community members. It wasn't really about what was best for me or her daughter, though I'm sure she convinced herself that it was. And of course, she was only doing what everyone did in those days. As I have written previously, she would have needed to be a remarkable woman to step beyond the social mores of her time. Her "fault," if we want to call it that, was that she was merely ordinary. I understand that she perceived herself as an innocent party, even the victim of the situation. After all, she wasn't the one who got knocked up. I can't say that her decision was the right one because of some of the hurtful things that she said to my mother during that time, and because of the ripple effect it had on their relationship for many years after.

But neither can I say it was the wrong decision, for it set my life on a path that, for the most part, has turned out pretty well so far. Ultimately, I can't make the judgment call. I can't tell you that the decision was either right or wrong.

But I can tell you that it wasn't normal. Adoption has been normalized in our culture, and a great deal of effort (and yes, money) has gone into making sure that adoption is perceived as a normal, even celebrated, way of creating a family. And from the perspective of the adoptive family, that may be so. As an adoptive parent myself, I understand the desire to have one's family perceived as no different than any other (or maybe -- let's face it -- just a little bit better). But things are often more complicated from the adoptee and first parent point of view. Even when placement happens from an absolute place of love, for the sake of protecting the child or giving him or her a better life, there is nothing normal about placing a child for adoption; to the contrary, it goes against the natural instinct to keep the child close. Likewise, there is nothing normal about being raised in a family of genetic strangers and not knowing your history. People respond to the abnormality of the situation in different ways. Some become master adapters; others fight against it, kicking and screaming. Some build walls around their emotions and go to great extents to keep their feelings hidden, even from themselves, whereas others of us wrestle with our emotions in front of the world, in the very public arena of the Internet.

Part of the conflict in the adoption community arises from these different ways of reacting. It can be difficult to look at another's way and see it as an equally valid response. Rather, we tend to perceive the other as wrong. But in the end, there isn't a single "correct" response to adoption, anymore than there is a single "correct" decision in the first place. From what I can tell, we're all pretty much just muddling along the best we can. 


  1. Monika ZimmermanJune 21, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    You are oh so wise. That's one of the realizations that I've come to through this whole journey and why I can seem to speak out against adoption sometimes. I'm not against adoption as a whole, but I cannot say that the right decision for my daughter and I at the time of her birth would be the right decision for ANYONE else. "Muddling along" is a very appropriate way to put it!

  2. Could you be the most insightful person I know?

    Once again, amazing thoughts.

  3. I do agree, there is no right or wrong way and how one perceives adoption would depend from which angle of the triad you're coming from.
    But I would like to point out that in some cultures adoption is considered normal. In the African culture, there is a long standing tradition of Ubuntu where children are adopted into families and raised as if they were genetically linked to that family. So again the whole area of adoption being normal or not is again dependant from what stand point one views the triad.

  4. Thanks Sharon. I appreciate your comment but I guess I'd have to speak to those Ubuntus who were raised that way to see how it worked out for them. It actually sounds pretty similar to what we do in our culture (I've encountered adoptees who complain that their adoptive families expected them to identify with the adoptive families heritage) and for a long time it has been assumed that everything was fine. In recent years adult adoptees have been speaking up more and telling our own stories (thank you Internet) and a different picture is emerging. Not everyone is listening yet (in fact, many are not), but we are speaking. And many of us are speaking with our own true voices for the first time instead of repeating the culturally expected lines we were taught. (Trust me, I would have once told you with absolute certainty that being adopted was no different than being born into a family because that's what I had always been told. It took me a long time to realize that those words didn't actually match my experience, and even longer to start speaking up about my own experience.)

    Please note that I didn't say that adoption wasn't considered normal in our culture. In fact, I tried to say the opposite: that it _is_ considered normal but doesn't feel normal to many of us who have experienced it, in spite of being told by the culture that it is.

    I definitely agree with you that the point of view on the triad matters. Things are pretty simple for me as an adoptive parent, emotionally at least. I love my adopted daughter completely ... just as I love my biological daughter. I have no ambivalence about the experience of being her mother -- it's great! I love both of my mothers, too, but my experience of adoption from the adoptee point of view is much more complicated. Lots of ambivalence there!

    Anyway, I can't speak for others; I can only try to put my own experience into words. This blog expresses what it has felt like to _me_ to be an adoptee in an adoptive situation that was assumed to be "just like biological" but wasn't.

    Thank you for reading.

  5. Thank you!! I understand that seeming contradiction. And that's why the "anti-adoption" label that sometimes gets put on those of us who try to look critically at this imperfect, human-created institution is such an oversimplification.

    Anyway, am an expert muddler! :-)


  6. There is something else that has emerged during the last 50 years that isn't "normal" compared to the rest of human history. There is currently a big gap between the age one is able to produce a baby and the age in which one can reasonably support that baby. One might be fertile around age 11-13, but not graduate from college with a good-paying job until age 24-25. That gap is abnormal compared to the rest of human history.

    It used to be a woman would become fertile around the age of 16, which was very close to the age when a man and woman could work on a farm, or begin a trade.

  7. Agree with the part about not knowing your history in the sense that all measures should be taken for this information/connection to be available (so local, closed makes no sense to me) but sometimes in international cases/war/genocide etc... a child/family may never gain this information... And this is where, and I think this applies to everyone in adoption (and in fact, everyone) ... Here is my big statement... it's vital that all members of the adoption circle, at a certain point, gain a measure of peace and acceptance with their situation. You cannot live out your life in a state of constant anger, conflict or regret (this does not mean you should not try to get information, change laws, bat for what your believe in)...


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