Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Adoptive Parent's Role in Adoptee Narrative

"Don't you ever mention that bitch/slut in my house again!" 
"If she gave a damn about you, she wouldn't have signed those papers. She only cared about herself. She didn't want the responsibility and work of being a mother." 
"Don't get any ideas about looking for her; she probably doesn't want to be found, and if you did find her you'd probably be disappointed anyway. She could be a crack addict for all you know."
Do these seem excessively harsh? Exaggerated? Perhaps it even seems impossible to imagine an adopted parent saying such things to an adopted child.

Full disclosure: the quotations above are invented. I made them up. But they are composites, based on actual stories I have heard from other adoptees about how the original mother was spoken of in the adoptive home.

I've been thinking lately about the role of the adoptive parent in helping the young adoptee shape his or her adoption narrative. Early on in the adoptee's life, I do consider this to be an important part of the adoptive parent's task -- one of the many things that differentiates the parenting of adopted children from the parenting of biological offspring. Early on, the adoptive parent is faced with the potentially taunting task of helping the child make sense of how he or she came to be in a non-genetic family.

This can be handled well, or horribly, as in the examples above.

Salvatore Vuono at
Sometimes it can be bungled by good intentions. Many adoptees grew up hearing that their biological parents "loved them enough to give them up." This can be confusing in its own way. For one thing, if the biological parents loved "enough" to relinquish, does that also mean that the adoptive parents might one day relinquish as well … from love? In the child's mind, the equation of love with relinquishment can be highly troublesome.

My own adoptive parents succeeded in guiding my early adoption narrative as well as they could, with the limited amount of information available to them. The primary responsibility of doing so fell to my mother, and though she created a narrative in which there was never any question of my original parents' love for me, she was careful not to link that love to relinquishment. In her telling, they placed me for adoption in spite of loving me. She explained it as a matter of extenuating circumstances. They were young; they lacked means. And she confessed her own limitations, admitting that the closed adoption system had given her small information to work with in helping me to create a pre-adoptive history.

I appreciate that she never used words with the intention of stimulating resentment or dislike of the original family, and I would say that any parent who does so has failed their child and has failed in an important aspect of adoptive parenting.

Michal Marcol at
Ultimately, as the child grows, the task of creating (or of filling out) the adoption narrative shifts from the adopter to the adoptee. My adoptive mother recognized this as well. She held information regarding the identity and biography of my biological mother, and (unlike the legislatures of many states currently) she considered this to be information that was rightfully mine. In adulthood, she passed the information on to me, and in doing so passed the baton of narrative.

Reunion allowed me to enlist my biological mother in the creation of my life's narrative, and to fill in important details, not only regarding relinquishment but also in other areas of my pre-adoptive history. Ultimately, reunion gave me not only a genealogy and a medical history; it also gave me stories. And I can't tell you how much I love having stories of my parents' lives before I existed. Each tidbit adds to the length and solidity of my own narrative arc. My pre-adoptive history provides me with balance and a sense of rootedness.

Eventually my understanding of my life and adoption came to include awareness of the broader cultural forces that were at work. I learned about the baby scoop era, and the history of adoption as we know it -- a history that includes some unsavory moments and characters, such as the notorious "baby thief" Georgia Tann.

In the end it is the adult me who grapples with the task of understanding the thing that happened to me infanthood and how it has played out throughout my life. I was never, to borrow a word from George W. Bush, the "decider," but I am the interpreter. I am the meaning maker of my life.

graur razvan ionut at


  1. Excellent post for adoptive parents. Love LOVE your last line: "I am the interpreter. I am the meaning maker of my life."

  2. Rebecca,
    What a great, open explanation. It may seem "obvious" to us and to those who want to understand how adoption affects adoptees' lives, but somehow the larger/general population still seem not to "get it."

    Someone very close to me said yesterday, Why search for your biological family? It's just DNA. You hardly have time to hang out with your friends, why add more family to the mix.

    When I hear this, it is so hard for me not to get emotional; to find the right words to explain myself. But then I also know that with this particular person, that fight is long lost; and I won't be able to change his mind.

    Thanks for reminding me I'm not crazy!

  3. I think this is a post every adoptive parent should read!

  4. excellent post for me the Adoptee..and yes that last line "I am the interpreter.I am the meaning maker of My life is wonderful;-)

  5. Great post for both adoptive parents and adult adoptees. The last line is so true. We are not the deciders. We are the interpreters, the meaning makers of our lives. Thanks for these words of wisdom.


  6. Great post for both adoptive parents and adult adoptees. The last line is so true. We are not the deciders. We are the interpreters, the meaning makers of our lives. Thanks for these words of wisdom.


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