In Adoption, the Loving is the Same

"Adoption makes a family different." It may also make it stronger.

An adoptive family at the beach

What tipped off the policeman were the small sneaker prints in the neighbor’s garden. Ben and his two brothers steadfastly denied having stomped on the vegetables, and their parents couldn’t believe the boys would do that. But the prints were clearly Ben’s. Even when the policeman, with a big shiny gun in his holster, took him to the scene of the crime and reviewed the perils of lying, Ben insisted he was innocent. Eventually, alone with his parents, Ben admitted the act. Angry with a playmate, he had trampled the plants.

Didn’t Ben know right from wrong? Worse yet, how could he lie so shamelessly to a policeman? Was this a childish prank? Was it related to adoption? Was the behavior from Ben’s heredity? Not knowing what to think, Ben’s parents took him to a child psychiatrist.

No biological family asks these questions, yet no adoptive family escapes them. And these are only a few of the questions families face when parenting children who were adopted. The societal adoption stigma may cause the unenlightened to wonder, “Do you really love your adopted child in the same way that I love my kids?” To adoptive parents, the answer is obvious from the delirious moment when they first meet their child. Supporting that intuition are a large number of research studies establishing that there is no difference in bonding, the loving attachment between a mother and her infant, whether that infant was born to her or adopted.

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“They form ‘attachment’ relationships, the underpinnings of all subsequent relationships, in ways that are virtually identical,” writes psychologist David Brodzinsky and his co-authors in Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. “Indeed, when we have studied babies who were adopted before the age of six months, we usually could not distinguish them from babies in biological families.” In adoption, then, the loving is the same. But in other ways, adoptive parenting is not quite the same.

The landscape of adoptive family life holds many challenges and surprises that biological families never need to consider, challenges that when embraced and enjoyed, make adoptive parenting uniquely rewarding. From the very beginning (often infertility), the dynamics of adoptive families may be different from biological families. Most adoptive parents were required to examine their motives and their desires from the first steps of the home study. They were desperate to become parents, and having succeeded, they enjoy parenting and work hard at it. In general, adoptive families are strong, stable, and wonderful.

Adoption Revelation

With the adoption process behind them, parents face a crucial challenge which never confronts most families: when and how to reveal their child’s origins—to others and to their son or daughter. (In international adoptions a difference in appearance within the family may make this happen more quickly.) When couples adopt an infant, they have a few years to practice responding to the comments of strangers without worrying about the impact on their child’s emotions. In these early years, the challenges of adoption often fade into the background as the parents adjust to more immediate matters: feeding and sleeping schedules, childproofing the house, and endless diaper changes.

Nonetheless, an underlying worry emerges that biological families never have to face: someday our child must learn that his or her history is not the same as ours. Adoptive parents see this as a major hurdle and feel it looming from the outset. Telling the child his or her adoption story is often perceived as the most difficult aspect of adoption because it sets the tone for their life as an adoptive family. For them, it’s a reminder of their own loss of biologic parenthood, and for the child, a loss of innocence.

[Is It Adoption, or Is It Life?]

Metaphorically, it’s like taking a bite of the apple: paradise lost. As parents think about how to discuss adoption with their child, they fear that the child will feel rejected, feeling he or she was not the parents’ first choice and not the birth parent’s choice at all. As the child grows and understands adoption, parents fear that the child will feel more connected to his or her birth parents than to them and will love them less. At the same time, they worry that their child will feel less loved or “second best.” Once parents have gotten past the hurdle of telling their children the adoption story, their concerns about adoption often lessen. Feeling more at ease, and in the daily stress of busy lives, school, sports, and work, adoption issues often become very insignificant to many parents.

But for adopted children, ironically, as they grow older, and especially in the middle childhood years, the issues usually become sharper. Children begin to ponder the meaning of their adoption and may long for more discussion just as their parents are ready to put adoption behind them.

“My sense is that to adoptive parents there really isn’t a difference to the love they feel for their children,” says Jan McCarthy (not her real name), who was adopted as an infant. “For the parents, there really aren’t as many issues as there seem to be for children as they get older. Whatever feelings I had of being different were very acute to me. I felt weird about feeling weird about it.” In reality, at various later stages in the life of an adoptive family, the fact that its history is unusual will emerge and then fade, and then emerge again.

Facing any of the ordinary challenges of parenthood—school problems, rebellious behavior, sibling rivalry—the underlying question will surface again and again: is this related to adoption or not, and if so, how? This is a thread that will run through the family history, like it or not. Is it any different from the challenges that surround children of divorce? Probably not. And just like divorce, teachers and other people in society will often see adoption as different and expect problems. At the same time, each family needs to consider whether the adoption history is an element in a particular crisis.

Unending Misconceptions

Adoptive families may not realize that they are, in essence, part of a minority group. As such, they are subject to the prejudices and stereotypes that society holds about them. Society values “blood links” and disparages those who choose not to raise their birth children. A large segment of our society believes the bonds in adoptive families are not as strong as in other families, and that adopted children have a strike against them from the start. This misconception may even affect adoptive parents, if only unconsciously.

[Confronting Stereotypes and Prejudice About Adoption]

Lois Melina has written about the importance of parents not viewing a child as a “victim” of adoption and treating the child as if he or she were especially vulnerable because of being adopted. To compensate for an adopted child’s “misfortune” some parents never set limits, never say no, “He has so much to deal with already,” a mother may think. “How can I add to his troubles?” By being treated as vulnerable, the child may become vulnerable.

A family once came for counseling because the parents thought their 6-year-old daughter was becoming obsessed with her adoption. Their daughter often got upset about adoption at bedtime, and needed her parents to talk with her a long time before she could sleep. One weekend, for example, on the way to a picnic, the family stopped the car in response to a question from the back seat, “Why did my mommy give me away?” and talked with their daughter for an hour before resuming their journey. In fact, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this child. Some children train their parents to jump to attention about nightmares, toilet training, with food struggles, or a variety of other issues. In this case, the parents perceived adoption as a problem and, in an effort to protect their daughter, were overreacting to normal questions and thus reinforcing her sense of vulnerability.

Birth Parent Connections

Another issue that impacts an adoptive family is the existence of another set of parents, somewhere. Like an extended family, the existence of birth parents can be complicated. In traditional adoptions, there is always the concern, even fear, that the birth parents may resurface, or that the child may want to find them. In open adoptions, the other person or people are known and may actually be a presence, like an extra set of in-laws. Both open and traditional adoptions bring unique challenges. I remember one adoptive mother who felt guilty that she did not invite the birth mother to every school play. On the other hand, a family created by confidential adoption may live forever with the hovering presence of a saintly birth mother who made the ultimate sacrifice—like the new family of a man whose perfect first wife has died. No one else can ever live up to her.

Throughout the life of an adoptive family, occasional ordinary moments take on a special poignancy. There’s that jolt of surprise when a mother realizes that her teenage son’s face has changed, and she sees afresh that it doesn’t resemble hers. One inevitable day the pediatrician will ask an adolescent girl about her mother’s gynecological history and both mother and adopted daughter will realize that this fact is unavailable. In an era when family medical histories are ever more important, any doctor’s visit is likely to be a reminder.

As a child approaches adolescence, issues of sexuality can complicate life for an adoptive family. Societal prejudice against birth mothers may cause parents to wonder if their child’s birth parents were promiscuous, and whether their child will have the same tendencies. The question of values around sexuality is especially difficult: how can adoptive parents avoid sounding judgmental about the birth parents? What are we saying about a birth mother if we express a pro-choice philosophy? What does that convey to our children? The pregnancy of an adopted child will inevitably raise all sorts of painful issues. An infertile mother cannot be an information resource during pregnancy and labor. An adopted daughter may feel she has to hide her joy at the prospect of a child who will resemble her genetically in order to spare her mother’s feelings.

Eleanor James (not her real name) probably thought she had seen all the issues she would ever see as her three children, all adopted, grew to adulthood. “Then you become a grandparent and discover that some of those adoption issues are still there,” she said. “Because now I have a grandchild who one day asked me exactly what time of day her mommy was born.”

Unique Issues

Like all families, adoptive families have their own unique stories. Adoption is an undeniable piece of this story, which will be there forever. Sometimes it feels very large. Sometimes it feels small. Sometimes it’s comfortable, sometimes not. But it’s always there. At the same time, it is obvious to me after years of contact with adoptive families that the experience they share has enriched them all. As adoptive families mature, they are usually better than just good. Facing special challenges together has made them strong. They are tolerant and open-minded. They don’t merely love each other; they’re enthusiastic.

Contrary to popular opinion, a 1995 survey of 715 adoptive families conducted by the Search Institute of Minneapolis showed that, compared to a nationwide sample of students of the same age, adopted teenagers who were placed as infants were no more likely than others to suffer from mental health or identity problems. I can confirm this through years of practice; adoptive families know it in their hearts. Ben, the vegetable garden vandal, is in college now, an affable fellow who owns his own car, loves to fix broken appliances, and dotes on his aged grandmother. His older brother Jake is about to be married and faces a serious dilemma. He must choose a best man, either Ben or his biological brother Sam. “I can’t pick either one,” he wailed to his mother. “I can’t choose between them.” “So don’t choose a brother at all,” she suggested. “Choose someone else.” “I can’t do that!” he said. “I can’t not choose a brother!”

Does this problem have to do with adoption, or not? Not if we take Jake at his word, when he says he isn’t able to choose between his brothers. Their birth histories are different. The love is the same.


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