I’ve considered writing about adoption several times but haven’t until now. Mainly because I wasn’t sure where to begin or what exactly I want to say about it. Then I read Casira Copes’ article, The Way We (Don’t) Talk About Adoption is Weird.
And you know what? She’s right.
The way we don’t talk about adoption is weird.
While reading the great points, Ms. Copes makes, another issue arose in my mind regarding adoption. One I’ve noticed repeatedly in my own conversations and observations for over a decade, and continue to today — the dangerous attitudes many potential adoptive parents seem to have around adoption.
My background with adoption
It might interest you to know that my sister is adopted. She was born in China and joined our family when she was four years old — two days before my ninth birthday, to be exact.
Shortly after, Mom started volunteering at a small nonprofit adoption agency. During her time there, she became the agency’s International Director and became best friends with the owner and Domestic Director, who adopted both of her children through America’s foster system.
I worked at the agency after school my senior year of high school and during breaks from college. Then, when I was nineteen and my sister fifteen, our parents took our older brothers and us to China for three weeks over Christmas.
Thanks to Mom’s relationships with China’s international adoption program, she learned things about my sister’s past over the years that most orphaned Chinese girls don’t ever get to know.
We visited the street she was abandoned on when she was three months old. We found the foster home she spent her first three years living through some miracle. Then we visited the orphanage she stayed in for a year and a half before traveling across the world — to us.
My sister and I are extremely close. Our relationship is everything I hoped it would be and more. She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known, and I could easily dedicate an entire article to her — maybe I will, but not this one.
The point is, adoption holds a special place in my heart and is something I have strong opinions and knowledge about.
Stigma About Adoption
In her article, one point Ms. Copes mentions is definitely worth repeating, “adopted children are not inferior to biological ones.”
I’m always sad and frustrated when movies like the not-so-subtly named, Orphan, portray parentless children as sociopathic or evil monsters. These false narratives only add to the fear and misleading images about adoption that already exists and cements the belief that adoption is a dangerous choice for growing a family.
Now in my mid-thirties, I’m at an age where friends are having or thinking about having children. One friend, in particular, told me she and her husband are considering adoption. Then she confided she’s worried they’ll “end up with a broken one” or a child who has “issues.”
I admit her concern pained me. Especially since she’s no stranger to my family or sister, but I also understand how this fear buried itself into her mind.
This narrative that there’s something “wrong” with children who are up for adoption — especially older children — hurts my heart because it’s ridiculous and not true. In fact, in my experiences, when there is a problem after an adoption goes through, it’s almost always the parents who are the issue.
Deciding the children are the problem is nothing more than blaming children for the sins of their biological parents. The truth is, these children are slaves to their circumstances — the reasons they were given up for adoption probably have nothing to do with the child and everything to do with the birth mother’s life situation.
If a child isn’t adopted as a baby or toddler, then their odds of getting adopted dramatically decline through no fault of their own and their quality of life is completely dependent on the quality of their government’s systems. Often surviving unstable or abusive environments before finding a ‘forever home’ — if they’re lucky.
But sure, blame the child for any “issues” they might have.
The Ego of Adoptive Parents
I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told how ‘brave’ or ‘wonderful’ my parents are for adopting my sister. I mean, my parents are brave and wonderful, but not because they chose to adopt.
Mom gets annoyed too when people praise their decision. She doesn’t think she’s any more of a saint than any other mother. As far as she’s concerned, motherhood is motherhood regardless of where the children come from.
But this idea that adoptive parents are brave feeds into a dangerous mindset some parents have. One saying they’re heroes for adopting and the belief that the children they adopt will be, or should be, perfect in every way.
Expecting they’ll never misbehave because these lost and forgotten kiddos will surely be eternally thankful their adoptive parents saved them from the clutches of assured death or worse! — gasp — puh-lease.
Anyone with this attitude going into adoption will be sorely disappointed no matter which child is unfortunate enough to end up in their homes.
Let me tell you a story.
While working at the adoption agency, a couple adopted a nine-year-old boy and his twelve-year-old biological sister from Kazakstan. The couple was outdoorsy. Hiking and camping were their favorite activities, and they couldn’t wait to do it as a family.
A few weeks after the lengthy adoption process, the excitement wore down, and the kids started to settle into their new lives, which is when the parents contacted the adoption agency with concerns.
The younger boy was a great addition, they said. He fit right in, loved to play outside, go on adventures, and get dirty.
But their pre-tween daughter, who believes she’s finally found a safe place, isn’t as interested. She’d prefer to stay inside, watch TV, and be on her devices. She doesn’t want to go camping and hates getting dirty. So, they’ve decided to return her and keep the boy as soon as possible.
I wish I could say this story is a unique example, but unfortunately, I’d be lying if I did.
Thankfully, I can say the story has a better ending. The siblings weren’t separated. Instead, they were re-adopted by another family who had other adopted children and lived happily ever after. (I know this because Mom is still in touch with the family.)
Lack of Understanding
I’m concerned about the entitlement, fears, and fantasies I still witness from some potential adoptive parents. It seems to me that deciding to adopt means you’re choosing to love, nurture, and support another human being who is coming into your life not with a clean slate but with their own history.
It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend like their lives didn’t exist before being adopted.
Neither does the belief that these children owe their adoptive parents anything. These kids have lived lives most of us can’t even fathom, especially older children. Then they’re expected to be their parent’s idea of perfect — and blamed when they don’t live up.
I’m continually baffled by the stories my sister shares with me when people learn she’s adopted. By high school, she stopped telling people altogether because she grew tired of explaining her life.
Some of the more interesting questions she’s been asked include a casual wondering if she was a slave before being adopted. More than a few asked why her parents “didn’t want her anymore,” and after telling one person she’s adopted, they asked her what generation that makes her.
I also get asked questions. The most common one is whether or not my sister ever ‘acted out.’ I understand the intention behind this question.
There are all kinds of concerns I’ve heard about adopted kids rebelling or disowning their adoptive parents. These worries are usually followed by fearing an adopted child will throw caution to the wind and hitchhike across the country to find their real parents — or something along those lines.
So let me say. First of all, in stories like that, please note that the parents usually hid knowledge or tried to conform or manipulate the child, which led the said child to flee.
Second, what kid doesn’t rebel against their parents at some point? Isn’t that part of growing up?
Third, too many older kids are adopted without support to help them adjust or heal any invisible wounds they may have. More often than not, they’ve had to survive until the point of adoption. Then they’re tossed into a new life, told it’s their new normal, with a new family, and people are surprised if they struggle to adjust?
This is getting long, so I’m going to wrap it up. There are amazing adoptive parents out there. Countless children are fortunate enough to be adopted into wonderful and loving homes with families who are ready to support them any way they need — just as any family should. This article is not directed to them.
But adoption needs to join the list of discussions we’re having. Especially since more women are choosing to become mothers later in life, and more couples turn to adoption.
There are plenty of resources out there to help potential adoptive parents understand the reality of adoption. Especially when it comes to adopting older children. There are so, so many children out there who need love and support. These kids are smart, compassionate, and brave.
I think an adoption is an amazing option for growing a family, and I hope more people consider it. All I’m saying is when doing so, make sure your eyes are open and you’re not making it all about you.
Katrina Paulson is a writer on adoptive issues and more. For more, sign up for her newsletter.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.