Saturday, May 8, 2010

What words come to mind when you think of adoption?: A "talk" with an adoptive parent group

baby anger gratitude birth mom language waiting Blind Side God orphans loss rescue joy hope adapt accommodate commitment children who need a home & love DFCS custody problems between biological & adoptive parents secrecy joy excitement nerve-wracking life-changing God-inspired love mommy saving a life unselfishness opportunity for life care love unique chosen Biblical love loss

The above words are not my own words.

During a "talk" that I recently gave to a group of adoptive and prospective adoptive parents, I handed out note cards and asked each parent, "What words come to mind when you think of adoption?"--a kind of a free association activity. [For instance, when I think of the sky, words like "blue," "clouds," "lightning," "sun," etc. come to mind.]

I found the recognition of "secrecy" and "custody problems between biological and adoptive parents" a surprising yet valid association to be acknowledged by adoptive parents.

Yet what also stood out to me was that the thought of loss surfaced only twice.

The overall themes demonstrated by the words shared indicated to me a view of adoption that lacked an awareness of the loss and trauma experienced by the adoptee. If loss was a thought, it was the last word written on the note card. Anger was mentioned only once.

I have to admit that it made me a little nervous as I read over the note cards and realized that this group had a more traditional view of adoption, while it also made me glad that they were there as I began to share my thoughts and experiences as an adult adoptee. As the discussion continued and I shared more of my thoughts honestly and asked more questions, I could see that the light was coming on for some of the parents present, and that some of them seemed to have more of an awareness than initially indicated by their responses on the note cards.

Yet I will say that the impression given to me by the words written on the note cards was that this particular group of parents had not educated themselves in depth about what it means to adopt and to be adopted. More specifically, their answers indicated that as they thought about adoption they thought primarily of how they felt as parents about adoption rather than how their adopted child might feel as a result of being adopted.

A natural tendency in one way, but one that, at the least, must be added to, and at the most, must be updated and revamped, because parents who adopt need to realize that although adopting certainly affects them in every way, it is not about them. But this is true for any parent. Being a parent is not about the parent. It's about the child. A parent can't parent if he or she is thinking only about how the child's behavior is going to affect the parent. Furthermore, having a child is not about being a hero or receiving praise and applause. It's about giving, not receiving.

It is true that parents need to be able to acknowledge and process their own thoughts, emotions, biases, and preconceptions. But this must be done not only as an end in of itself, but also to enable them to be more emotionally available and informed for the sake of their child, adopted or not.

Also, the three references to God and the Bible, along with the ideas of "love," "chosen," "joy," and "rescue" further indicate how much these ideas seem to unfairly dominate perceptions of adoption, much to the neglect of the loss, grief, and trauma that also characterize adoption.

There is often this tension between how the adoptive parent experiences adoption and how the actual adoptee experiences adoption.

It's not that I am attempting to undermine or oppose adoptive parents who associate adoption with God and the ideas of love, being chosen, and joy. It is natural that these parents would feel love and joy. Practically speaking, it is true that the parents have chosen to adopt a child, and hence the child they adopted has been chosen by them.

But again, these notions are parent-centric, and also one-sided, and can perpetuate misrepresentations and misconceptions of adoption. Furthermore, so often God and the Bible are distorted and misused when discussing adoption.

Parents need a more balanced, accurate perspective that incorporates the complex and multi-faceted nature of being adopted. For example, it is also true that in order to have been chosen by the adoptive parents, the adoptee had to be unchosen, or perhaps more accurately, had to be chosen to be given up, relinquished, lost. In order to be "chosen" to be adopted, the adoptee had to first be "chosen" to lose everything.

Context. Context is everything. Chosen may carry happy connotations for the adoptive parent, but sorrowful connotations for an adoptee. Adoptive parents are often coming from a context of longing and waiting, love and hope. Adoptees are often coming from a context of grief and loss, pain and trauma. [Although, of course, there are adoptive parents that actually also share a context of loss and grief with the adoptee, which rather than being an obstacle can serve as a way for the parents to relate to the adoptee's loss and grief.]

I do find it perplexing, that after all these years, it is still not common knowledge that adoption is built upon loss. I find it unsettling that adult adoptees still have to work so hard to persuade, convince, prove that the difficulties we face are not the exception, but rather the norm. And that our voice is a valid one.

It makes me appreciate all the more the parents who do open themselves up to what we have to say. I only wish that every parent felt so compelled.

Note: I want to clarify for the sake of the parents who participated in the talk that I by no means intend to diminish from them personally. Although the thoughts and opinions I shared in this post were prompted by the talk, they do not reflect a negative judgment on my part of the parents who were present. Rather these are my own observations and opinions and are of course subject to error. Also, hopefully, should any of the parents read this post, I hope you understand that I mean no harm by what I shared. I simply hope that it will provoke any reader to think more deeply about adoption. Furthermore, I welcome input and feedback.


Von said...

How very true and how very alarming as it continues to be so that a knowledge of adoption is built on adopters needs, not the loss, grief and trauma of adoptees.I'd like to post a link on my blog if I may, so well put and so apt.

Melissa said...

Thanks, Von, for your comment. Although some progress has been made, we still have a long way to go...

Oh, and yes, feel free to link from your blog. Thanks!

Gayla said...

I, too, find it shocking that so many adoptive parents don't realize or acknowledge that adoption is built on loss. But you, Melissa, are helping to change that. You are the MLK of the adoption world. :-) Okay, you might think that is pushing it a but, but the truth is that every injustice needs courageous individuals to stand up and help us all to see truth.

Mei Ling said...

What is blind side?

And by the way, many adoptive parents aren't aware of loss and grief that their child endures in order to become part of the adoptive family because it's *heavily* ingrained that there IS no loss, or that the loss is always compensated by the gain so therefore, the loss doesn't matter.

Melissa said...

Yep, Mei-Ling. And that's what's so frustrating. That's why i wrote, "I do find it perplexing, that after all these years, it is still not common knowledge that adoption is built upon loss. I find it unsettling that adult adoptees still have to work so hard to persuade, convince, prove that the difficulties we face are not the exception, but rather the norm. And that our voice is a valid one."

With all the resources--including but not limited to adult adoptees, books, research, studies, groups, organizations, etc.-- available today (that were not previously available), the fact that it is still so "heavily ingrained" is comparable, at least to me, to the persistence of "heavily ingrained" racist or chauvinistic tendencies that remain throughout the world.

I know to a certain degree it is something we will always have to deal with, but it doesn't mean that folks are therefore released from responsibility for their chosen ignorance.

People today, particularly Americans and/or those of the Western world have to basically actively and consciously isolate and remove themselves from reality to allow such perspectives to remain "heavily ingrained."

Parents who adopt today are without excuse when they "aren't aware of loss and grief that their child endures..." or think "that there IS no loss, or that the loss is always compensated by the gain so therefore, the loss doesn't matter." To maintain such a perspective means they have basically chosen to shut out reality and the myriad of resources available.

In addition, the adoption agencies through which these parents are adopting are also without excuse for not accurately and sufficiently educating prospective adoptive parents and helping them to "un-ingrain," or undo, their misconceptions so that they can "ingrain" the actual realities and truth about adoption.

The Byrd's Nest said...

Well, I was a very naive AP when I adopted Lottie. I am not proud of it but I was....then we adopted Emma a little over a year later and THEN I realized what grief and loss looked like. It looked different in both girls. When I would sit at night with Emma during her night terrors and hold her after it was over...I would think back on Lottie's last year also and see signs that I had missed. It wasn't too late but I wish I would have educated myself more and there was NO excuse for me not to be more educated. Thankfully today, I am not that parent. And I thank you Melissa for expressing your feelings and guiding us.