Published on January 10th, 2015 | by0
If you are adopted or part of an adopted family then you’ve probably heard a question like this before: “So, what’s the big deal about being adopted?” or perhaps one like this: “Why aren’t adopted people satisfied with what they have, they should be grateful?” I’ve heard such questions or some variation thereof so many times that I have to wonder what compels people to ask such questions – which are surprisingly personal – yet which express surprisingly common views. I conclude that these kinds of questions are born of a misunderstanding about the nature of adoption, what I call ‘Adoption Mythology’.
Adoption has been practiced throughout recorded human history, yet the way it functions and how the participants feel about it is determined by the social context in which it exists. It can be a stigma or an honour. I am curious about the way in which adoption functions in our current time and North American context that could give rise to such questions and their underlying beliefs. Some elements of the myth are a holdover from times past when the shame of illegitimacy was more of a social concern than it is now, others elements of the myth are rooted in the biological imperatives of procreation and social belonging and others are simply fiction. So what do I mean by mythology? According to my Gage Canadian dictionary “mythology is an invented story; an opinion, belief or ideal that has little or no basis in fact or truth.” This article is intended for those who have posed a question like the ones above and who actually want to know the answer. It is also for the many people who have been the recipient of these kinds of questions and find themselves unable, in the moment, to formulate an answer.
The first myth is that adoptive families are just like any other family except for one small difference. It’s more complicated than that. Adoptive families are different than other families in distinctive and predictable ways. First off, it is virtually impossible in an adoptive family to not keep coming up against the fact that there is a missing biological link between family members. Whether it’s from observations and comments made by outsiders, “My, isn’t Johnny tall, I wonder where he gets that from?” or differences noted within the adoptive family like the “odd smell” that one adoptive mother kept trying to scrub off her adopted daughter. Such obvious markers of differing gene pools are difficult to disguise, despite the best efforts of adoption agencies to match physical and other characteristics between adoptee and adoptive parents. But this kind of matching is problematic, because in most cases, the pretense is difficult to maintain over the long run. In order to preserve the illusion of co-sanguinity the adoptive family is forced into further acts of deception as the fact of the matter naturally reveals itself, often when least expected and will not – inconveniently – bend itself to the will of desire. If desire alone were what it took to keep the truth from exposing itself, it would certainly make the closed adoption system much easier to sustain. I take exception to the deception inherent in this adoption practice because it perpetuates a family model in which truth is low on the list of priorities. We can say that the sky is not blue, but that does not make it so. Denying reality ensnares a family in a web of lies. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, family members expend a great deal of energy trying to deny the truth, and in the end, it serves no one’s interests particularly well. Secrecy and the shame that comes of it destroy the potential for family intimacy and healthy communication. The thing is, what is so wrong with differences? Those involved and the outside world are left speculating that something terrible indeed must be worth keeping hidden, or why would systematic deception continue to underpin the institution of adoption. After all, the definition of adoption is that two non-related families become one. Why deny it?
I think the main reason is that adoption is built upon a foundation of loss. No one wants to acknowledge loss because it is not something our culture does well. Birth parents give up a child for a variety of reasons, but whatever those reasons may be, they experience a profound loss in doing so. Adopted children experience the loss of all that is known to them, the cradle of their mother: her smell, her voice, her rhythms as well as future access to her and her kin. Adoptive parents are seeking to fill a void in their lives: that of a child or children. They are presumed by the world to experience a profound loss in not having biologically related children, hence their desire to adopt. Loss is painful and our culture is limited in it’s rituals to help people cope with grief. As a result, grief – our response to loss – permeates the typical adoptive family, and in predictable ways.
The first loss is that which allows adoption to happen. When a child is given up for adoption he or she loses their original family constellation as well as their knowledge of and access to genetic and family history. Those who aren’t adopted often fail to appreciate the extent of this loss. Human identity, our sense of self, is built upon intimate knowledge of our selves within a social group. As a species and as individuals, our survival depends on our belonging to a social collective. Although adoption provides the social context for development, loss of the primary bond between infant and mother is experienced as a trauma. The subsequent access to genetic and family history – information that might help a person understand why they think or act or look a certain way – is also lost. The prevailing beliefs, which have no basis in fact, are that infants are a blank slate; that they have no meaningful memory of or response to experiences prior to and following birth; and that development is influenced more by environmental factors than genetic factors. Considerable bodies of research in many fields contradict these myths. We are influenced by both our genetic makeup and by the environmental context in which we develop. It is a mistake to believe that just because babies cannot talk and later, when they grow up, cannot verbalize their early experiences, that they therefore have no memory of or reaction to events in early life. We are all deeply influenced by the early experiences we have. The fact of the matter is that adoption creates a form of trauma for a child. If this trauma is never acknowledged, the grief from that event will continue to affect the person throughout their life. People who have experienced separation trauma often exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or are (mis)diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses. It is well documented that adopted people are at a considerably higher risk for mental illness than the general population. I do not know the statistics for birth mothers, but there is considerable anecdotal evidence which documents severe life disruption following the loss of a child to adoption.
If an infant lost her mother early in life, we would almost certainly not keep the truth from the child. We would expect her to have some grief about the event and help her to understand it when she became old enough to explore it using emergent language and cognitive skills. Why do we not afford adopted children the same understanding? Does their loss just disappear as though it never happened? The myth of adoption in our culture would have us believe so. The same goes for birth mothers and fathers: the loss of their child/ren is a real loss, and yet in most cases it goes unacknowledged by society. We have no rituals to help adopted people and birth parents deal with their loss, and glossing it over and pretending it never happened does a disservice to those who experience such a loss. It is an inconvenient truth that is easier to ignore than to explore.
Loss experienced by adoptive parents is another cornerstone of adoption. Infertility is the primary, though not exclusive reason for the existence of adoption in our culture. Adoptive parents who have experienced loss through infertility, miscarriage or death of a child are also without socially normalized rituals for grieving. They are left to grapple with their loss and deflect the often insensitive observations of the outside world as they go about building a family by what is viewed by many as a second rate method: adoption. The screening process which evaluates the suitability of adoptive parents fuels adoption myths as well. In a highly competitive environment, with so few infants available, adoptive parent candidates are unlikely to express their grief, fears or reservations, to ask for help or to make themselves appear vulnerable in any way for fear of derailing the adoption process. For many adoptive parents it is easier to adopt babies from abroad where the qualifications are easier to meet and the potential for future re-union with the biological kin of their child is reduced. A prevailing myth, shared by many adoption agencies is that closed adoption is in the best interests of the child, with the secrets of the past guarded by those who “know best”. Sadly, many adoptive parents believe this to be true. Though it may seem to be in the best interests of adoptive parents to keep their children’s past a secret, in the long term all it does is create a stumbling block to intimacy and trust between family members.
Many people confuse an adopted person’s desire to know their genetic and family history with a lack of gratitude towards their adoptive parents. The two are mutually exclusive. This is another unfortunate myth of adoption. It is understandable that adoptive parents may feel threatened by their children’s desire to know about and possibly connect with their biological family. Divided loyalties prevent many an adopted person from being honest within themselves about questions they have concerning their origins. They are forced into denying the importance of knowing the facts about their identity for fear of being disloyal and hurting their adoptive parents, or from fear of the terrible truth that may lie at the centre of their existence. Rarely is the truth worse than what imagination can conjure up. I think I can safely say that ALL adopted people wonder who their biological parents are and what their family history is like. Almost all concoct some fantasies or beliefs to help explain and understand their existence in the absence of fact. Is the truth so much more dangerous than fantasy? And to whom? What is the real obstacle to having access to the facts? Why is there such an insistence on secrecy? Denial of access to their truth leaves the adopted person stranded in a wake of shame. Even if the circumstances of an adoptee’s origins are less than ideal, they can hardly be held responsible. A persistent element of the adoption myth is that birth parents are bad or flawed in some significant way. In most cases, they are average people who faced difficult circumstances and made the best choice they could at the time. Regardless, we all have the right to the truth about who we are. Don’t we? Could the truth be so damaging that it must be kept hidden? That is what the adoptee is forced to conclude and doubtless the rest of society, and what, presumably, keeps the myth alive.
Loss permeates many adoptive families in more complex and subtle ways. Adoptive parents may fear that without biological ties, their role is compromised, that they may not be parents in the fullest sense of the word. It is an understandable fear. But parenting in the context of adoption consists of two separate roles. One is the biological mechanics of reproduction; the other is the psychological role of parenting. Most people never have to consider the distinction; in most families they are one and the same. In adoptive families it is a very clear and important distinction, and for the vast majority of adopted people, their “real” parents are the ones who raised them. In fact it takes quite a bit of effort to be so bad at parenting that a child will reject their parents, adoptive or not. Nonetheless, adoptive parents may feel that they are held to a higher standard, that they must ‘prove’ their parenting skills in a way that those who raise co-sanguineous children do not. Adoptive parents may respond by being overly protective, overly fearful about the potential loss of their children, and more sensitive to being seen to be good parents. Adoptive parents would benefit from realistic information, guidance and resources about what to expect in their roles as psychological parents and what unique needs adopted children are likely to have.
Adopted children, having experienced the real loss of one family (or more) are understandably fearful of experiencing that kind of loss again. Adopted children frequently feel insecure about their position in the family, fearing that they can be given back if they do not behave the way they are expected to. Many respond by becoming pleasers, hyper-vigilant to the nuances of others around them, fearful of stepping out of line or compromising what they perceive as their tenuous position in the family. In adolescence, while most teenagers are testing the limits of their parent’s love, adopted youth face a more difficult challenge in doing so and may become deeply conflicted by the identity dilemma they face. Adoptees have had a real life experience of loss – it is not academic to them. Their need to become independent, as any normal teenager must do in order to become an adult, may be compromised by their fear of loss. This may explain the incredible loyalty that will often have adopted people place the needs of their adoptive parents ahead of their own interests. In the typical process of reaching adulthood, most children will at some point stand up to their parents and challenge their authority. In so doing they will be taking a necessary step towards independence. Those adopted adolescents and young adults who do not, face a challenge in achieving a solid identity. If identity formation is constrained, and the individual does not find a secure base of selfhood, as is the case for many adoptees of the closed system, this critical leap into adulthood can remain unrealized indefinitely. It is not just fear of hurting adoptive parents that keeps adoptees from searching for their genealogical history; it is the fear that they will destroy the fabric of the adoptive family in the process. The subtle and complex losses and fears that are part of many adoptive families create such situations of enmeshment and dependence that, while not unique to adoptive families, are understandably more common in them. On the other hand there are adopted children who do nothing but challenge their adoptive parents as a result of their need to test and see if they are accepted and loved unconditionally. Adoptees in this camp want to know just what it takes to be rejected. In either case, the fear of loss and rejection is a fundamental issue for the adoptee which colours their understanding of the world and their place in it. A continuing fear of rejection plagues many adoptees throughout their lives. They are highly sensitized to acceptance or lack of it, and often report feeling alone despite having created successful lives and families for themselves. A core feeling of isolation persists, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
If mythology weren’t the basis for adoption policy then what might adoption look like? If the secrecy and consequent shame in adopted families were eliminated by attending to the grief and loss faced by most adoptive family members, and a fine balance of truth and accessibility were to become the standard practice in adoption, what would happen? Open adoption models have been operating successfully in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia for more than a decade. Open adoption practices are feared by many in North America as too complex and challenging. I would argue that families are just that, and you cannot pretend otherwise, adoptive families even more so. Slowly, policy here is changing towards openness and I am optimistic that we will see great benefits to the adoption community as a result.
What would happen if we were to dispense with the myths of adoption?
Adoptive parents would be better prepared for the reality and demands of their situation and more understanding of the needs of the children entrusted to them. Adopted people and their families would have resources available to help support them during those life stages when adoption issues rise to the forefront. The connection of biological kin would never be completely severed. Instead the link would be maintained, with the adults – birth parents and adoptive parents – working together in the best interests of the adopted child. In this scenario, the needs and rights of all parties would be fairly considered and negotiated and open to change as the situation demanded. It won’t make adoption easier I expect, but it will make it better for everyone involved. When the myths of adoption are no longer driving social attitudes and adoption practices, then appropriate changes will result. In becoming open and honest in its policy, in providing relevant and accessible resources to assist all family members involved in adoption, and in placing the needs of the most vulnerable members of society first and foremost, I think adoption will achieve its most noble aims.