Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Should Adoptive Parents Tell Their Children They Are "Gifts"?

David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I encountered something online this morning that led to a discussion about whether or not adoptive parents should tell the adoptee that he or she is "a gift from God." I myself am not in favor of such wording. A twitter friend just asked me to explain, and since I can't fit my explanation into 140 characters, I am answering here.

First of all, let me say that I understand that biological children are also sometimes referred to as "gifts" or "blessings." But the terminology is frequently used in a very specific way in discussions of adoption. This is what I'm referring to. Parents may consider both adoptees and biological children gifts or blessings, but adoptees are much more likely to grow up hearing this emphasized. Is there something inherently wrong with considering our children, bio or adoptive, to be gifts or blessings? Not necessarily. But adoptees tend to be sensitive and alert regarding the language used to define our connection to the family. "Gift" has some subtle implications that might not be immediately obvious but make sense when you think about them.

A piece of my concern lies in my perception that "gift" objectifies the adoptee. "Gift" also has an ownership ring to it, as if the adoptee was a possession transferred from one family to another. I have encountered many adult adoptees who find this distasteful, and I include myself in the group.

Another concern I have is that gift language can be a lot to live up to. Without intending to do so, the adoptive parents may be putting pressure on the adoptee to be a perfect child so the parent won't start wishing the "gift" came with a return receipt.

Language such as "gift," "special," "miracle," and "chosen" may sound lovely, but it can actually trigger anxiety in the adoptee. What if I'm just ordinary? Have I disappointed expectations? When I hit my rebellious teenage phase, am I still a gift? What about when I choose a career my parents don't approve of? Or when I decide to search for my biological family against their wishes? The bond of "gift" feels tenuous, and its focus is parental satisfaction. 

"Gift" is not as positive a word as it seems at first. Have you ever received a gift you didn't really want? Have you ever received a gift you liked at first and then tired of, eventually selling it in a weekend yard sale or passing it along to Goodwill?

All kids, adopted or not, are sources of joy to their parents at times ... and major pains in the you-know-what at others. The real objective, as I see it, is to communicate to our children that they are loved unconditionally at all times -- even when they are driving us crazy.

19 comments:

  1. I should probably also add that "gift from God" is an adoptive-family focused statement that ignores the loss experienced by the biological family. So it's problematic in that sense too.

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  2. It doesn't just ignore the loss, but in a subtle way, it puts the blame for the loss of the first family ON God, which can have spiritual implications for the adoptee as well.

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  3. I totally get this. I hate feeling like anyone's possession and for most of my life I have felt like I'm somebody's...

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  4. Wow... you know, I'm an adoptee with no idea what, if any, name my birthmother might have given me, but my adoptive parents named me Dorothy, which means "Gift of God"....I have never liked my name, never felt like a "Dorothy", whatever that should feel like, and being considered a gift....you just made it make sense. Amazing. I chose my new last name and did a legal name change....but I have never known what I would choose for a first name if I ever did. You will have me pondering that one awhile longer.

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  5. I got annoyed being told I gave my son's adoptive parents a gift and wrote a post about it awhile ago - http://racilous.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/lets-define-what-a-gift-is/. From my perspective if the language is that it was a gift I gave in relinquishing my son, I get frustrated because it says my priority was doing something nice for these (at the time) strangers rather than thinking what is best for my son. If you talking about a gift from God it immediately raises my hackles because it assumes my son's parents are somehow more deserving of the gift of raising my son than I am/was.

    I can see how it would be just as frustrating from an adoptee perspective.

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  6. Great piece Rebecca, very thought provoking. As an adoptive mother of two little girls, I do feel very blessed by my children. Having said that, I don't for one second ignore what our birth/first parents have lost in the process. It is a bitter sweet feeling, there is much joy and also much sadness.
    Having read your piece above, I'm interested to know what is acceptable language when talking about our adoptive children?

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  7. I am honored to think my birth father thought enough of his brother and to ask if they would take me. I was told by my mom the tears he had when he came to their home. I realized he would have kept me and it wasn't his idea. My parents chose to take me. My parents were thrilled to have me and were my loving parents and are now gone. Family helping family.
    I only wished there was more openess in my family.

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  8. Very well said! And of course for a gift to be received, someone else must have given it away.

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  9. Hmmm. You probably don't want a long treatise here on the nature of God, but that entity does tend to do some random and seemingly irrational things that we mere mortals cannot begin to comprehend. Still, I will admit to being just plain stunned by the idea that my loss was someone else's gift although I know I've heard those very words before. For myself, I've always spoken from the other side, namely, "Why should there be a celebration when someone benefits from another person's loss?"

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  10. Thank you for your comment and your story.

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  11. Thanks. Adoption _is_ complicated. I don't think there's anything wrong with letting our children and others know that they (the children) bring joy to our life. It's just that the gift thing tends to be over emphasized in adoption in a way that can be problematic. "We didn't give birth to you but you were a _gift_ to us." Also, I think it's important to listen as much (or more) than we talk. I remember being told how I should feel about being adopted. I don't remember being asked how I did feel about it. As much as possible, follow your daughters' lead. Be alert to clues to their preferences. I hope that makes sense.

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  12. That angle is triggering for me, too, especially when I encounter it as a justification for the relinquishment. As you point out, it makes it seem that the a-parents are a bigger priority than the child, which isn't what adoption is _supposed_ to be about.

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  13. Thanks for your comment! I'm glad I've got you thinking. I often had a similar feeling of something bugging me but I can't quite put my finger on it.

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  14. The way I see it, there's God, and then there's the way humans sometimes try to explain things by pinning people stuff on God. It is telling, I think, that adoptive parents are much more likely to see God at work through adoption than are adoptees and original parents. Hmmm. Celebration of loss is a huge problem, imho.

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  15. Great Piece.


    I have no connection to adoption but I may pursue the adoption process with my wife, so please forgive my lack of full understanding.

    In your opinion what is the best way for an adoptive parent to be both supportive of their child's feelings while at the same time help them not feel ashamed of who they are? Does it always come back to simply supporting the child and listen to them and how they feel? To a certain extent is there only so much an adoptive parent can do to help their child?

    Thanks in advance for your feedback.

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  16. I agree. A child may be considered a gift to the adoptive family, but that gift only happens after being a curse to the first family. It's really hard to believe you are a "gift' when your life begins with such a horrible tragedy. The whole concept only adds to the crazy making that results from being adopted.

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