My 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.