When They Just Don't Get It

Adoption awareness is spreading, however slowly. Here's how you can help move it along.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Adoption used to be something society kept hidden, a reflection of the secrecy that accompanied the process. Television shows featured biologic families. Advertisements portrayed families who looked alike. Baby albums, announcements, and greeting cards celebrating the joys of adoptive families were nowhere to be found.

Today, adoption is more open, and the public has a greater awareness of it. There are even signs that society is becoming sensitive to the differences between families formed by adoption and those formed by blood. Still, many of us find that our own experience isn’t always understood.

Signs of the Times

“Everybody is different in some way,” your child’s teacher tells the class as she compares adopted children to those who wear glasses. She is good-hearted and believes she is expanding her students’ knowledge of the world.

You contact the director of the “adopt-a-soldier” program to point out that sending letters is not the same as adopting. You’re told, “We don’t think anyone will see it that way.” They’re using the term “adopt,” because they believe it’s a loving practice.

When you attend your sister’s baby shower, she makes a remark and you realize that — along with teachers, Hollywood, and “adopt-a-soldier” programs — your own family members don’t truly get adoption.

They don’t get the ways adoption is different — and the ways it isn’t. They don’t get that adoption involves loss, even though it’s a solution to crisis. They don’t get that adoption is often a second choice, but that it’s never second-best.

How can we make them understand what adoption is really like?

Cut the Public Some Slack

How many of us who are directly connected to adoption understood its complexities before we were knee-deep in them? How many of us once rejected the idea of adoption? How many of us judged birth parents? How many of us thought adoption was simply about loving a child as though he or she had been born to us?

Adoption is complex and often paradoxical. Often the truth about adoption — or what we believe to be true — contradicts common sense. For example, it makes sense to think it’s too painful for a birth mother to see her baby after giving birth. Adoption experts, however, maintain that the experience helps the birth mother make a more thoughtful decision.

Common sense, reinforced by movies and books, might suggest that parents who adopt a child can’t love him as deeply or in the same way as they would a biological child. Experience, however, proves that parents love the children they adopt as intensely as they love children born to them.

Common sense might say that adoptees feel less rejected if they’re never told they were adopted. Experience, however, says that adoptees sense the lie, and believe there is something about them that is too shameful to discuss. Before people can understand adoption, they have to realize that they don’t understand it, even when they think they do.

If you are reading Adoptive Families, which profiles real-life experiences of those who adopt, you understand that there’s something to “get” that isn’t immediately apparent. Unfortunately, many people who are directly touched by adoption don’t read about it. They don’t listen to experts, and they don’t log on to adoption Web sites. Some may find their views of adoption change with new life experiences, but some focus only on those experiences that support their preconceived ideas.

Whether or not you’re an adoptive parent, something significant must happen to change the way you view adoption. For example, some adoptive parents resisted the idea that their children would benefit from meeting their birth parents — until they saw how unanswered questions kept their children from moving forward in their lives.

Their desire for their children’s well-being motivated them to change their views about open records and adoption reunions. If those of us who are directly touched by adoption are reluctant to see adoption from any view other than so-called “common sense,” it must be far more difficult for people without a direct connection to change their view.

What Can We Do?

Be patient. Sometimes it seems we are fighting the same battles, challenging the same myths that we did 30 years ago. We still hear people argue, for example, that birth mothers don’t want to be found. But evidence shows that many birth mothers want to know about their children — but they don’t always feel that they deserve to know.

But things are changing. Over 20 years ago I wrote an article discussing when it was appropriate for newspapers to make reference to the fact that a person had been adopted. The article was rejected by the first journal to which I sent it, with the comment that the editor hadn’t heard complaints from adoptive families.

Efforts by adoption advocates to educate journalists have been effective. Although we still see news stories that treat adoptive status as an explanation for someone’s behavior, we often read stories that treat the fact appropriately (or don’t treat it at all).

Not everyone gets adoption, but more people are realizing that there is something to get. Be open-minded, ourselves. Most myths about adoption aren’t born out of malice or prejudice. Many of the ideas make sense, based on people’s experiences. For example, nearly every adoptive parent has had someone nominate her for sainthood.

“What a wonderful thing you’ve done,” people will say. The implication is that adopting is somehow settling for less than what biological families experience. I believe that these people just imagine what a loss it would be if they hadn’t had their biologic children. It would be so devastating that they could never get beyond it — and they can’t believe that we’ve gotten beyond it.

Come from vulnerability. When you feel inclined to challenge someone’s ideas about adoption, remember that people who are attacked for their beliefs will become more entrenched in those beliefs as they defend themselves. Even a non-threatening approach can be perceived as threatening if it takes issue with something someone said or did. The parent who contacts the teacher regarding an assignment on family trees may find the teacher more defensive than if she had contacted her early in the term to discuss lessons inclusive of adopted children.

When you feel you must deal with a specific incident, you may find people more receptive if you focus on how the incident affected you, instead of emphasizing how wrong the person was to say or do what he did. For example, rather than saying “Not every child in this church is white,” try “When you make a statement that assumes all families are white, I feel our family is invisible.”

Change the world one person at a time. You cannot confront every bigoted person, challenge every insensitive comment, or disprove every myth. And while it’s important to speak up and take a stand for adoption awareness, it’s also important to remember that the biggest impact we have on the world is the way we live our lives.

If you live joyfully in an open-adoption relationship, that communicates far more than an op-ed piece listing the pros of open adoption. If you are open to seeing the world from the viewpoints of others, you make it safe for other people to see the world in new ways.


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