Anti-Adoption? Review of “The Adoption Mystique” by Joanne Wolf Small, MSW

 

adoption-mystique1My article “Anti-Adoption Advocacy: How Should We Respond?” drew a wide variety of responses. The ones that gave me the greatest pause came from those I mentioned in the article as being against adoption, who wrote to protest.

 

According to co-founder/executive director of Bastard Nation (B/N) Marley Greiner, “We are concerned only about the civil right of all adult adoptees to receive their obcs [original birth certificates] upon request without government interference.”  (Ironically, the most heated attacks concerning the adoption/abortion issue came from members of his organization.)  However, her comments reminded me of the complexity of the issues surrounding adoption, and that to seek reform in one area is not the same as wanting to eliminate the practice altogether. (In my next column at CE/CM, I will examine the issue most central to the B/N crowd: birth records.)

 

For now, I’d like to address a comment posted by the author of this book, The Adoption Mystique by Joanne Wolf Small, MSW. She contacted CE to correct my perception, saying that she is in fact pro-adoption. I admit it made me sit up and take notice. Reaching for her book, which was still sitting beside my computer, I read the bio: “[Ms. Small] is herself adopted [at six weeks] … Her belief in the adoptive family as a positive alternate is dissonant with a widespread, covertly held public image” (TAM, back cover). 

 

Hmm… how was it that I concluded that she was against adoption?

 

The Adoption Mystique:  What’s the Message?

 

Admittedly, I’m relatively new to the adoption scene; my primary work experience is in religious publishing. As a book editor, I learned about a “seven second rule” that states that a customer decides within seven seconds of picking up a book whether to buy it. Consequently, publishers spend a great deal of time and money on spine treatment, front cover art, back cover copy, and interior design – they know that if these don’t pass muster, the customer won’t read even the table of contents.

 

What did I see when I picked up this book? And (just as important) how did it affect the way I interpreted its contents?

 

  • Front cover: A stark, black and white image of the crying infant and the subtitle, “A Hard-hitting Expose of the POWERFUL NEGATIVE SOCIAL STIGMA that Permeates Child Adoption in the United States” (emphasis in original).
  • Back cover: “Adoption: The story lurking behind the word.” (Insert “Dragnet” theme here.)
  • Endorsement from a New Jersey birthmother’s group: “Takes on sacred cows of the adoption industry and adoption movement … and makes hamburger of them!”
  • Table of contents, for chapter titles: “American Adoption: A Shame-Based Culture.” “The Adopted Child: Clinical Issues and Psychosocial Problems.” “Anti-Adoptee Media Bias.”
  • And in the introduction, a quote from one of her professional presentations entitled “The Dark Side of Adoption”:  “My personal experience as an adoptee was a positive one. In the social setting in which I grew up, I thought it was OK to be adopted. In later life I became involved in trying to establish my own identity, and subsequently worked with many others toward that end. We got, and still get the message, loud and clear. It is not OK to be adopted!” (TAM, xv).

Now, like I said, I’m still learning to negotiate the adoption landscape (and associated minefields). To me, this book does not exactly scream, “This book is pro-adoption.”  

 

What I did not consider – and now realize is vitally important – is that to be in favor of necessary adoption reform is not the same as being “anti-adoption.” Anti-adoption groups do exist (at least one bemoaned the fact that I had not mentioned them by name in my article).

 

However, I’m beginning to understand how Small’s perspective (though not always easy reading) can in fact help adoptive parents: By reminding us about the unspoken subtexts of adoption so that we can anticipate potential problems, making us better able to guide our children as they grow into confident, well-adjusted, self-determined adults.

 

So… Here are some of the issues raised in The Adoption Mystique that provide rich food for thought. I’ll mention three points here.

 

  • Adoption is not a one-time event, but a life-long reality. In her assessment of the ongoing needs and rights of the triad with regard to restored birth certificates, Small says, “Adopted adults seek to restore a right that was abrogated – direct access to the original and uncensored record of their birth. Birth parents seek to know the child they gave up for adoption.” So far, so good. Her assessment of adoptive parents was not expressed nearly so well: “Adoptive parents seek to keep adoption and birth records sealed.” (TAM, 5-6). While this is often true, it does not speak to the underlying need: The need to ensure that when and if the original record is made public, it does not destroy the existing (adoptive) family bond. Adoptive parents, too, have a “life-long reality” that may be jeopardized if the original record supplants the amended version: the commitment they made to the child not until he reaches majority, but truly “forever.” 

 

  • Adoption is everybody’s second choice. (TAM, 22). Accepting this fact, says Small (quoting Anderson, 1993.159), “allows one to appreciate what adoption is…” It is not natural, but it is real. And the love between adoptive parents and children can be equal to that of non-adoptive families. Yet it “… falls apart when people expect it to simulate natural” (Anderson, 1993.162). As I read this, I stumbled over the word “natural.” I thought of all the adoptive mothers I’ve known – most of whom have both biological and adopted children – who insist that there is no difference in the way they feel about (or treat) the various members of their family. Is this just more repression and self-deception (as Ms. Small contends)? Or has the increased prevalence of adoption in American society caused the perceived “stigma” to lose its power? This principle of adoption – that it is everyone’s second choice (I agree with this, by the way), does give adoptive families to acknowledge the challenges inherent in “creating family.” It’s OK to have doubts, or other negative feelings – just as newlyweds need time to fine-tune the rhythms of family life, so do adoptive families. Denying those feelings won’t make them go away. Acknowledging those feelings, on the other hand, releases their power so we can spend our energies learning to love each other and support each other … in other words, to be a real family.

 

  • Adolescence brings unique challenges to the adoptive family.  While there is some evidence that children who are removed from the “family, race, nation, and religious community into which he is born” (Wellisch, 1952, TAM 53) may develop a “confused sense of identity with a state of geneologic bewilderment,” Ms. Small also quotes from the work of Dr. Hoopes (1990), who concludes that identity formation and adoption are “complex experiences with multiple interlocking family and social inputs. Research has identified some of the variables that influence identity formation …. Many of the same variables are important to the biological child. It is totally possible for the adopted adolescent to achieve a mature identity if the factors outlined above [family relationship, communication about adoption, and parental attitudes about adoption] are present in the family” (Hoopes, 165-66; TAM 53, emphasis mine). The identity formation in the life of an adoptee is a complex processes involving the integration of factors that do not neatly or peacefully co-exist. Terms that are simple and straightforward for the intact family – the very word “family,” for example – are potential minefields, to be negotiated carefully.

The Adoption Mystique is not easy reading for any adoptive parent, but it does raise awareness about issues surrounding adoption that we must consider – and be willing to confront – if we are going to help our children reach their God-given potential.

 

Thank you, Ms. Small, for challenging me to take a closer look.

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15 Comments

  1. Hi Heidi,
    I felt chilled at your reference to the “underlying need: …Adoptive parents, too, have a “life-long reality” that may be jeopardized if the original record supplants the amended version: the commitment they made to the child not until he reaches majority, but truly “forever.”

    Making a life-long commitment to an adoptive child is a complex endeavor. Part of it is honoring that child’s heritage. That child does in fact have another set of parents who made life possible. From a parental view it is much like a child of divorce, a step child. It does not serve the child to deny it’s other parents. In making a life-long commitment I would hope that adoptive parents would put the child’s reality and needs foremost. If the commitment is “truly forever” it must honor the origins as well.

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  2. Why should acknowledging that adoptive parents also have needs “chill” you? Just as the child’s origins must be acknowledged and (as far as possible) honored, so must the birth parents acknowledge the contribution to the life of his or her child. Not only for the adoptive parents’ sake — for the child’s sake as well.

    The step-parenting analogy is interesting in one respect: From what I’ve seen of successful step-parenting relationships, the child thrives best when all parties concerned learn to get along with one another and work together as a team.

    However, the step parent’s analogy fails on one point: A step-parent may supports the biological parent (his or her spouse), who does the actual parenting (making the decisions, setting the limits, and instilling the values that child learns). By contrast, adoptive parents are far more like biological parents than step-parents; we are responsible for every aspect of the child’s development.

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  3. Thanks, Amy. I confess the only time I’ve heard the name was in reference to “My Dog Marley” (the dog was very much a boy). I’ve fixed the pronoun — and will try to remember in the future (if and when I interact with Marley) that I am in fact speaking to a woman.

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  4. “What I did not consider – and now realize is vitally important – is that to be in favor of necessary adoption reform is not the same as being ‘anti-adoption’.”

    Thank you for this acknowledgment. I read your original article and to be honest, it made my blood boil. So many of us who want adoption reform quickly get labeled “anti-adoption.”

    There will always be children who need to be raised by people other than their biological parents. I don’t know of anyone who denies that (even hard-core anti-adoption advocates acknowledge this). No one is saying children should be kept in abusive or neglectful homes.

    As for abortion… this subject gets conflated with infant adoption much too often. The women who carry to term and relinquish their babies are choosing between parenting and placing–not abortion and placing.

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  5. Thanks for writing. The one point I am unwilling to concede — will NEVER concede — is that pregnant women need to choose whether or not to be a parent.

    The moment the egg meets the sperm, they ARE parents. The choice is whether that child will live — or not.

    Contraception is not the answer. The vast majority of abortions are attributed to “contraceptive failure” or simply “unwillingness to parent.”

    This morning on NBC I saw an interview with Tyra Banks that gave ME chills … Of 10,000 teen girls surveyed, one in FIVE wanted to be a teenage mother. Over 50% engaged in regular sexual activity without protection … by choice. We are failing our youth because we are failing to teach them the necessary link between sex and marriage. Until we do this, the epidemic of “unwanted” children will continue.

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  6. Thanks for writing. The one point I am unwilling to concede — will NEVER concede — is that pregnant women need to choose whether or not to be a parent.

    The moment the egg meets the sperm, they ARE parents. The choice is whether that child will live — or not.

    ________

    Not sure what you’re trying to say here. I agree that once you get pregnant, you’re a parent. Period.

    However, once a baby is born, clearly the choice isn’t between adoption and abortion… the choice is between adoption and PARENTING.

    And what I’m trying to say is that in general, women who bother to carry a child to term and then relinquish weren’t the ones ever seriously contemplating abortion (earlier in the process) to begin with.

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  7. Um, I’m not sure if adoption qualifies as everyone’s second choice. It might be first choice for the single-parent adopter. Just a thought. A single-parent adopter might think about it and consider it over artificial insemination for a variety of reasons.

    I’m not sure teens’ aspiration to motherhood has anything to do with sex and contraception. I think for a certain group of girls it’s the very best (meaningful, significant, noticeable, thing-that-says-you’ve-arrived) thing to do, culturally and socially. I think this is where our attention should be when it comes to disincentives to early parenthood. How do you get people to realize that at this stage in your life, having a child won’t give you status or a future in the larger scheme of things? (I do agree that contraceptive education doesn’t make much of a dent in this group.)

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  8. Sorry, should introduce myself. Single mom of daughter adopted from China, now 11. Know of/have communicated with Marley and received her newsletter for several years. Really respect her and the attention she has given to some key issues. Having said that, I am completely OK with adoption and support different ways of making families. However, total candour and as much openness as possible should run through the whole adoption process.

    Found your site on my Google alerts. Good to be here.

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  9. It is not natural, but it is real. And the love between adoptive parents and children can be equal to that of non-adoptive families. Yet it “… falls apart when people expect it to simulate natural”

    It is not natural because the natural, *God-designed* manner is for an egg and sperm to collide and create a natural offspring.

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  10. I am anti-adoption. Adoption happens after a child is placed in a family/home other than that of their parents. Anti-adoption (to me) means being anti adoption laws an policies. It doesn’t have anything to do with caring for a child. That can be done without adoption laws that legally change a person’s identity and seal the original one (from the person born).

    See: http://nsbloodline.blogspot.com/

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  11. Heidi,

    Good first baby steps…a long way to go to “getting it.” I cannot help but wonder why you chose to write about – and were published – about subject you admit to being not very knowledgeable of? Shoudln’t you put your horse before your cart and have done your homework FIRST?

    In any event…

    “The step-parenting analogy is interesting in one respect: From what I’ve seen of successful step-parenting relationships, the child thrives best when all parties concerned learn to get along with one another and work together as a team.’

    YES!!

    “However, the step parent’s analogy fails on one point: A step-parent may supports the biological parent (his or her spouse), who does the actual parenting (making the decisions, setting the limits, and instilling the values that child learns). By contrast, adoptive parents are far more like biological parents than step-parents; we are responsible for every aspect of the child’s development.”

    Here you are right and wrong. One does not become a biological mother by a legal process. Adoptive parents have ALL RIGHTS, birthparents relinquish all rights in regard to decision making. This does not, however, change or rewrite natural law! I still gave birth to my daughter and am therefore her mother no matter who has that legal role or what prefix others chose to place before my motherhood. Likewise she is still my daughter. Is not the mother of a deceased child still the mother of that child? A child of any age whose mother has died – still recognizes her as her mother, albeit deceased. If death cannot change that fact of reality, how/why should adoption? Is not a non-custodial mother who’s child has a step-mother, not still the child’s mother.

    You said so yourself: children thrive best with honesty and openness and no laws changing their reality. So, too, do mothers.

    I applaud your efforts to try to learn…but wish you’d stop seeking only to defend your positions. Please, please, please have the humility to understand that you have no concept of what it is like to either be adopted or to lose a child to adoption. These are highly emotional issues for us. Many of your words are hurtful and insensitive to the reality and depth of our losses.

    Nor are you aware even of many of the facts and myths surrounding adoption….the legal ramifications and rights issues, such as that mothers were never promised anonymity.

    You haven’t lived it nor studied it. You have no expertise in this area whatsoever and speak only from opinions formed based on myth and propaganda put forth to rile up pro-lifers and get them to push adoptions to make baby brokers richer. I, for, instance would not have the audacity to publish an article on Catholicism, or brain surgery, or a myriad of topics I know nothing about.

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  12. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that adoption is not natural. It’s not biological, but then again, lots of things aren’t. Animals also engage in inter-species adoption. Sounds pretty natural to me. Adoption as a way of making a family does indeed fall apart, though, when people do not recognize the unique issues of the adopted person–whatever issues that person has.

    I haven’t read the book but is Ms. Small contending that I am deluding myself about the love I feel for my daughter? That is not the love of a mother for her child? I guess I’ll have to buy the book to see but I’d argue that one to my dying day.

    Another “principle” I would dispute is that all birth parents and all adopted children want and need to know each other. Some adoption activists claim this is a near-universal feeling, but this is clearly not the case.

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  13. Thanks, Osolomama, for writing in …

    Mirah: I do have relevant experience — I am an adoptive mother, who has feelings and experience that is COMPLEMENTARY to your own. Not the same, but not irrelevant. Why should birth mothers and adult adoptees be the only valid opinions where adoption is concerned?

    I have, by the way, lost a family member to adoption. Though I myself was not adopted. If the only people qualified to write about adoption were those who had personally experienced all three sides of the adoption triad, there would be VERY few people writing on the subject.

    I also have significant theological training. This gives my writing a spin that I’m discovering many birth mothers find objectionable … and yet, it doesn’t make my observations any less valid. When two people have sex and create a child outside of God’s plan for marriage, people get hurt. It’s bad enough when the adults suffer … It’s a terrible thing indeed when the child is forced to pay for his parents mistakes (either through abortion or a lifetime of suffering).

    Finally, as a foster-adoptive parent, I have a unique perspective on how the choices birth mothers make early in a child’s life have long-term consequences. One that you might get off your high horse and consider, instead of writing me off as merely “ignorant.”

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  14. Michelle: Although I don’t agree with your position, I GREATLY appreciate your civil tone. Thanks for writing.

    I am now turning comments off on this post. I’ve responded as charitibly as possible to those who have written, but frankly I’m getting tired of repeating myself and I have better things to do than respond again and again to personal attacks. I think I’m going to go help my kids clean up their rooms, and maybe bake some cookies. The rest of you can bicker amongst yourselves…

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