Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Understanding the adoptee

NOTE: Except in cases of reference to a specific person, the pronouns "he / him / his" are intended to be gender neutral throughout the following.

After reading of the opinions of some adult adoptees about adoption, I was quite disturbed.  "Is THIS what my daughter will think in years to come?  Will she, too, be bitter and resentful?  And... is there anything I can do to stop that happening?"

To this end, I think it's useful to try to understand more about how an adoptee* may see and experience the world.  As prospective adoptive parents, we were warned about many of these things but they were lost among concerns about more immediate post-adoption problems like food hoarding, attachment issues, night terrors, etc. (thank God, we haven't had any of those crop up), as well as the understandable excitement over becoming parents and the joy we felt when Caroline became our daughter.  It is worth stating explicitly that not all adoptees are alike, and I attempt here to understand the "angry adoptee".

First, "adoption begins with loss."  This is a brief statement that is, I think, easy to pass off as a mere shibboleth, especially for the parents: after all, we are gaining through the process, not losing.  What might this mean to the adoptee?

Obviously, the adoptee loses his birth family and especially his mother.  Depending on age at abandonment, he may have developed a very close bond with the birth mother / parents.  I don't know if anybody really knows how much of a bond exists between a newborn and his mother, but I think that we all take for granted that it's very close.  Suddenly, that bond is snapped.  The child finds himself alone, then in the arms of many strangers, in a strange place, likely one among many children, denied the very personal, loving attention that he likely experienced even if for a short time.  How confusing this must be for a little child... and how frightening. 

From this...

... to this.
I suspect that this loss actually becomes harder for the child when he is older, especially if he was abandoned shortly after birth.  Particularly for trans-racial adoptees, they begin to notice that they don't look like their parents.  Further, unlike the adoptive parents of a generation or two ago, adoptive parents now are urged to be very open with their children: "You were adopted." The child must wonder why.  And from that, he must wonder if it is - somehow - his own fault.  How might a child feel when he sees other children with their biological parents, getting the love and attention that is normal between parents and child?  "Was I bad? Why didn't they want me?"

Unfortunately, there is no escape from this question as the child is constantly reminded that he is not with his birth parents.  Strangers, even with the kindliest of intent, ask his parents about him as if he is an exhibit, a curiosity.  Strangers then frequently praise the parents for their charity in adopting a child**: "He is so lucky!" and "You're doing such a wonderful thing for that poor child."
Family tree asignments in grammar school.  Family medical history questionnaires.  Simply looking at family photos ("Nobody looks like me").  The child lives in a world where he is constantly reminded that he is out of place, that he doesn't belong.

"Hee-hee!  That man's looking at you so funny, Daddy!"

After loss of the birth parent, the child also confronts a loss of birth culture.  Born in one country, he is raised in another.  His cultural heritage, part of what makes him who he is, is wiped out.  Adoptive parents are urged to try to "honor" or "celebrate" the birth culture, but this is far easier said than done: how can one "teach" culture?  How can one even define it in any meaningful way?  Is it not a fraud for a white American parent to try to teach anything about, for example, Chinese "culture"?  Is there outright danger in trying, in making a child who already feels different have that feeling reinforced by making him try to learn another language and culture ("Why can't I just be like all the other kids?")?  Is there danger in NOT trying, in signaling, even by implication, to the child that his birth culture is unimportant if not outright "bad":

"People where you were born abandon little girls all the time."

"Your home country is so poor that they can't afford to keep their children."

"Only boys are important where you come from."

The child is cut off from his birth parents.  He is cut off from his birth culture.  He is told that the place he was born is bad.  And he may well be told that he is "bad" simply because of the color of his skin.  America has an unfortunately long history of being (ahem) unkind to "outsiders" and especially non-whites, and the adopted child may well have to confront this problem no matter how diligent his parents are in preparing and protecting him from it.  The lack of connection to birth culture, it seems to me, makes this harder for the child: he has no cultural / racial pride to help armor him against racist attacks.  Perhaps worse, he may well be baffled by them: growing up in a white family, he may well FEEL "white", making racism that much more hurtful because, again, it reinforces any feelings that he may have of not truly belonging.

... and what on the inside?
The family itself may send harmful messages.  Quite aside from those parents (and one wonders why they adopt in the first place) who are overtly racist or belittling to their own children, there are things that even the most loving parent may do that undermine the child's self-confidence.  Some - perhaps many - adoptees, for example, complain about the term "Gotcha Day" as it dehumanizes them by implying that they are simply an item that the parents picked up in the same way that they would have taken delivery of a car at a dealership or a parcel at the Post Office.  In the same manner, some adoptees dislike their parents referring to them as a "gift", a gift being an object that it given, not a person.  (Speaking personally, this is hard for me as an adoptive parent to understand: if I refer to my daughter as a gift, it is in the sense that - I think - all parents refer to their children, i.e. as a gift from God***, and somebody that I love and cherish.) 

You BELONG to me, do you hear?!
The child may feel all these things.  He may wonder why he was given up... or if he was, in fact, given up at all.  He may miss his birth parents or, at least, wonder about them.  He may feel isolated in his community or even in his own family.  He may feel objectified, an object of charity or a trinket for his parents (it seems to me that some celebrity adoptions give support to this pernicious idea: what else is anybody to think of a rich singer or actor who swoops into a poor country and voila! leaves a few days later with a baby?  Is it love or a fashion accessory?).  He may even feel survivor guilt: "Why was I adopted and not one of the other thousands - perhaps millions - of children?"

But to whom can he speak about these feelings?  He is, in a real sense, cut off from the very people that he SHOULD be able to turn to: his parents.  To speak of his birth mother, to speak of any feeling of not belonging or of discontent or even simple sadness or confusion might smack of "ingratitude" or even hurt the people who love him so very much... and that he, in his turn, loves very much.  So, he may feel that he's got to hold it in.

Is it any wonder that some adoptees may grow to feel bitter about adoption?

Finally, not all parents are perfect.  There are those - I think, very few - who abuse their children, whether physically, sexually, verbally, or through neglect.  There are others who are temperamentally unsuited to be parents, or just unsuited to be the parents of the children that they have (how many children can say with perfect honesty that their parents don't understand them?  How many parents are frustrated because they can't reach their children?).  Even the best parent makes mistakes: he punishes when punishment isn't warranted, fails to praise when praise is merited, can't spare time when two minutes would make all the difference to a child who needs to talk, attempts to push too hard his own beliefs, prejudices, hopes and regrets off on his child, or simply says the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time.

Is it easier for the adopted child to turn parenting failure into an indictment of adoption?  To seek relief from the pain he feels in the belief that he shouldn't have been adopted in the first place, that the system is corrupt, that it is racist, that it preys on poor families?  Perhaps.

What should the adoptive parent do?  Where is the line between:
  • Telling a child that he's adopted and talking openly about it... and rubbing it in?
  • Honoring the birth parents... and making them into saints?
  • Honoring birth culture... and making it just one more reason for the child to feel different from his peers?
  • Being honest about the reasons that children are given up... and denigrating the child's birth culture?
  • Discussing racism... and putting a chip on the child's shoulder?
  • Celebrating happiness that the child is his... and making the child feel like a trinket?
  • Talking about the feelings the child might have as an adoptee to start a conversation... or inducing those very feelings in the child?
And how can the adoptive parent not personalize it, feel hurt, if the child begins to question adoption or wish to find his birth parents?


(*) In this case, "adoptee" refers explicitly to trans-racial / international adoptees.

(**) We have already experienced this.  We try to explain that WE are the blessed ones, the "lucky" ones, that Caroline is our daughter.

(***) 1 Samuel 1:27: "For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of Him..."


  1. Wow. Hard hitting, thought provoking questions with no easy answers.

    1. Tell me about it! Maybe I'm just plain dumb, but several of these things never crossed my mind or would have had I not read some of the (ahem) pointed writings of some adult adoptees. That was very, very hard to do as I really felt as though we adoptive parents were being blamed if not outright villainized. "I LOVE my daughter. How DARE you imply that I adopted her for selfish reasons or by underhanded methods???"

      I have spoken directly with an adult adoptee who has done some work with adoptee camps. This person had a couple of good bits of advice:

      1. Adoptees may well have real problems with adoption and still love their parents very much. It's not personal, and it's vital to remember this to keep communication open. Dismissing them as "angry" or (God forbid) "ungrateful" is the last thing to be thought of

      2. Ditto race. The TRA may decide to reject the "white world" in which he was raised while still loving his white parents very much. Again, it's not personal

      3. The role of the parent is to TALK. This means speaking frankly and freely about such things as adoption and that most difficult of topics, race. Avoiding the discussion - for example, by being "color blind" - sends the signal that racial differences ARE bad. "If you are not comfortable simply TALKING about my race... are you uncomfortable with ME?"

      4. Finally, the parent needs to WALK. There are many things that his child will experience that he won't or can't. But there are ways to demonstrate that he's trying. For example, he might learn Mandarin with his child. The intent is to SHOW that he "honors" the birth culture and doesn't merely regard it as something the child must learn like he must learn his ABC's. By the same token, the occasional trip to a Chinese restaurant or "celebration" of Chinese New Year is seen by some (many?) adoptees as "phony". I don't think the parent has to turn his house into a tiny piece of China, but some diligence apparently goes a long way

      Who knew it was so... complicated???