Thursday, 5 August 2010


Earlier today I admitted to someone outside the adoption community that I really struggle with knowing whether or not my children are securely attached to me. I feel like I’ve admitted to a murder. I can’t believe I said that out loud! As another blogger said recently - like lots of adoptive parents, I find it hard to admit the hard parts to the wider world because I’m always thinking ‘What will this say about adoption?’*

I’m trying to learn to let go and remember that it doesn’t say anything at all about adoption, really. It says something about our adoption, not something about every adoption. But the problem with being in a minority is that each story is too often treated as a shortcut to every story. J and I are the only adoptive parents that most of our friends know. This means that, to them, we are adoption. Our family is adoption. Our story defines what adoption is like. I don’t like this, but it’s the way it is. I put myself under unreasonably heavy pressure to make everything look great, all the time**. I’ll do anything to keep it positive, because if people have negative views of adoption, then I feel like they are judging my children and then I start to hyperventilate and I need to go and get a paper bag to breathe into.

I was thinking about this recently, when I read what a few adoptive parents had to say about a film dealing with issues surrounding adoption. The consensus was but it was really negative and that’s not what adoption is really like! Adoption is fabulous! and I found myself getting angry along with them until it hit me: hang on. This film isn’t claiming to be the adoption story, just an adoption story. Do I really think that there are no adoptions that result in massively dysfunctional families? Of course not, any more than I think that there are no massively dysfunctional families who are all related by biology. So why am I so threatened by an adoption story about people who are seriously messed up and miserable? I can watch a film about romantic betrayal without thinking that it’s really about my husband and I, why can’t I watch a film about adoption without assuming that it’s really about me and my children? It‘s a story, but it‘s not the only story. It shouldn't threaten me. It‘s not my story. ***

And this has spun me onto noticing more that a similar set of dynamics - the desire to ignore and dismiss inconvenient stories - are often at work during dialogue within the adoption community. So many people in the adoption community - and I'm including all triad members here - are so passionate about what adoption has done to our lives (either for good or ill) that we can easily see everyone else's story as either a reinforcement of or a distraction from our own view. Adoptive parents (and maybe particularly prospective adoptive parents) are notorious for dismissing what adult adoptees really have to say. And as for listening to first parents.... sorry, what? Are they even part of the conversation?

Adoption and the personal story have a tricky relationship. Sometimes, adoption feels like a space where too many stories collide. We want everything to balance. But it doesn't, and our stories show this, and that can be profoundly uncomfortable. Your wonderful story of love against the odds might be someone else's story of loss dismissed and ignored, or an adoptee's story of a happy childhood jostles messily against the experience of a first mother who wishes that she had never been convinced to relinquish.

I remember how it felt to read adult adoptee writing, as we were just deciding on adoption as our future. I'd like to pretend I welcomed the new points of view, but no way. I kept wanting to say shut up, shut up! If you keep on talking like this, people will get the impression that adoption isn’t fabulous! I wanted to say if you’re going to be negative like this then your story can’t be true, or if it’s true, it can’t be important.

In short, I was a typical PAP. I had just decided that adoption was a Good Thing, so I was really only interested in having that view reinforced. And this isn't unique to APs and PAPs. It's human nature to want everybody’s story to reinforce the view that we already have. Sometimes adoptees do it to each other as well: but I’m perfectly happy about my circumstances so your trauma must be invented or you’re too happy, you must be repressing something. Sometimes we are so busy having a point of view that we really aren't willing to listen to each other's stories.

We forget that if the circumstances had been different, we could so easily have been at a different point on the triad. I think that adoptive parents are most guilty of forgetting this one, of treating first parents as if they are a different species rather than equally real, equally important people caught up in totally different circumstances. We think adoption is a happy story because our story is happy. But the unwillingness to listen to another story can flow in other directions, too. I’ve read some remarks from adoptees about infertility that are, frankly, pretty heartless. I suppose that if you’ve grown up hearing about how your parents tried and tried for a baby and it never happened and then the lady from the adoption agency called and they got YOU well, then, that narrative has probably lost a good deal of its punch, especially if you have come to wish that phone call had never been made. But once or twice I have found myself thinking - this could happen to you, too, sunshine, and then you would find out first hand that fertility grief is as real as any other sort of grief. I can see that the happy adoptive parent story threatens their view of adoption, in the same way that adoptee honesty can threaten adoptive parents.

Personally, I couldn't be more glad that I read some of the those threatening things. My thinking about adoption has changed a lot, so I no longer want to shut down the critical adult adoptees. Quite the opposite, in fact: if anything, I've become a groupie, and I know I'm not alone. Sometimes I wonder what some of these adult adoptees think of us, their dedicated group of wide-eyed AP fans. They must be chortling into their coffee a bit at our expense, yes? I've left my fair share of comments that say I'm really grateful to you for sharing your experience here. I'm an AP and I have really learned a lot from your blog. Thanks so much for your perspective - it has really changed the way I think and it's ALL TRUE, but seriously, Claudia. Really, it's the emotional equivalent of "Oh wow, you like cookies? I totally like cookies too. You have such pretty eyes! CAN I BRAID YOUR HAIR?" and I sort of hate myself for it. Why do I feel compelled to do it? There's a mixture of motivations, of course. There honestly is a lot of gratitude for having my thinking challenged. There's a genuine outrage that the wider media ignore and dismiss the adult adoptee voice. There's a real desire for dialogue. But I wonder if I am also so eager to be an ally because allegiance is a two-way street? If I can get an adult adoptee, particularly one who is critical of adoption practice, to be an ally with me, this will validate my approach to adoptive parenting and then I have got it MADE, baby! My kids will definitely be happy with their childhood and their family if I have that kind of seal of approval, yes?

And so I no longer want to shut this kind of dialogue down, but I've become so invested in it that now I find myself wanting to shut down other points of view. Now, if someone says oh hey, do you want to hear my story? It really shows that adoption is FABULOUS I find that I'm doing my little mental shut up shut up! routine in their direction. I've learned a lot, and I've grown a lot, and I've changed a lot, but I'm not really sure that I've become more open minded. Sigh.

For a lot of us, adoption plays a big part in defining who we are and what our life is. So unavoidably, we end up with a view about what it is and what it means. (This is true even for adoptive families who don't think or talk about adoption - what they have decided is that adoption is something that doesn't really matter very much, and this is a point of view too). And then someone else comes along, touched by the same thing but in a different way. When they tell their story, it's almost impossible not to hear it as telling us no, adoption isn't like THAT, it's like THIS.

And sometimes, that is what the person is trying to say. But more often, they are just saying: this is what happened to me. This is how I experienced it. When we are unable to really listen to other people saying this, it's time to stop and think. And I'm not just talking about people who aren't willing to hear the negatives, either - I guess I'm also talking about people who aren't willing to hear the positives, or people who think that adoption has to be done only one way to be successful (whatever successful means) or people who have decided, on your behalf, that adoption is going to be your lifelong scar. We become unwilling to really listen to stories that don't mesh with our own, where we don't agree on who the good guys and the bad guys are. Once this meant that I didn't want to read critical adult adoptees. Now it means that I'm unwilling to read stories about families who want to rescue orphans. My viewpoint has changed, but it's as rigid as ever.

It's hard to know what to do with this, really. I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that we will never be able to say okay, what is adoption like? and really have an answer. I'm trying to remember that it truly is a mosaic. Adoption doesn't have one face, any more than families have one face. There are happy stories and sad stories and a lot of stories in between, and nobody should have the right to censor any of these or pretend they don't exist. This doesn't mean that we should be unthinking as we listen. Some adoptive parents write with such entitlement that it's tempting to find out their addresses, go to their houses, and give them each a giant wedgie***. Some people can make sweeping statements about ALL adoptive parents, ALL white people, ALL non-adopted people that I think are unjustified and unhelpful. And I've read some first parents (and adoptees, and even the occasional regretful adoptive parent) who write off all adoption, everywhere, for all time, as evil, and I don't agree with that either. I don't mean that we should become relativists who suspend our powers of judgement, but we should listen very hard before we exercise them.

For me, I've been thinking a lot lately about how I present my story to the world. I think I can be a bit of a hypocrite - internally, within the relative safety of the adoption community, I'm very interested in the gritty bits of adoption, but externally, with my friends and family, it's all smiles and laughter. I need to remember that if adoption doesn't have one face, I shouldn't feel any pressure to be that face. I am trying to be a bit more nuanced in what I say, but it feels like fighting a losing battle with my own fears about what other people think of me, think of my family. Does anybody else find the same thing? And like every adoptive parent who has ever blogged, I'm thinking about writing it down as a book,***** and that's its own whole can of worms. But that's a topic for another day.

*I'm putting the link here rather than in the main bit of the post because I have to warn you - this post has a lot of bad language. Really, a lot. She has a lot of very thought-provoking things to say, and I'm glad I read it, but You Have Been Warned. I know some of you are rolling your eyes at this, but I feel a bit weird linking to a post that uses so much language I would never use myself. Also, the comments section? SKIP IT. Or, no matter what your views are on ANYTHING, you are just going to want to SCREAM. Again, You Have Been Warned.

**Not on this blog, obviously!

***I'm still not going to watch Juno, though. That would be a step too far.

****Please do not do this to me. Thank you.

*****And gosh, did I really just say THAT out loud?


  1. I think that anyone who actually cares about you and your situation would value honesty from you about the realities of adoption (and other issues). Maybe you could balance out your own story by talking about what people in other adoptive families you know feel / think. People who don't care - give them the sanitised version!

    Also, re: the other blog - I'm sure she has good reasons for the things she says about non-adoptive parents (ie judging APs / thinking they shouldn't complain about the hard bits of parenting), but I don't want you to think all 'other' parents feel this way - I know the majority of my friends would not think that (my christian friends anyway). I hope it's the same for you. I just think making that assumption about people (ie that they will think you should never find parenting hard) is simplistic and unfair to them and would create persecution complexes that are probably unfounded and definitely unhelpful. Not saying you do think everyone thinks that, but as a non AP I just didn't want to let that go unchallenged!

    Better go :)

  2. Sorry me again! (How exciting, I get to be first AND second commenter!).

    Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your thinking about this. I think the risk you run is overthinking the role you play as the 'adoption representative' and overthinking what other peoples' reactions / thoughts will be. (I'm speaking as a fellow over-thinker here!).

    I know that when I try to talk to people about things I'm worried they will judge me or think badly of me for (specifically my christian faith, or my views on some ethical issues) I know do much better when I try to speak honestly and try to not really care too much about what they think.

    Now I really better go... running late for an appt!

  3. I haven't read the link but I just read your whole post in about 30 seconds and it seemed like you were yelling at me (and everybody I know) in one big run-on sentence but maybe that's just because I couldn't get enough and kept reading to see where you were going and it was all so exactly what I would want to say and I think everybody who has ever adopted or thought about it or been any person in the adoption triad should read it and realize that that's a lot how it is but I don't mean to say that you were actually yelling just that it seemed so directed at me that you could have been yelling and I wouldn't have known any difference, the point being Oh. My God. Yes. What. You. Said.

  4. Well, Claudia, as usual, you are hitting the nail on the head. If I talk about adoption I talk to friends who get it, friends who want tot talk about it. And I have run across some random conversations with people which have been challenging, interesting, or difficult.

    I think that along with parenting goes a lot of thinking, worrying, wondering, and pondering. My son (who is bio) obsesses my mind. He is on the cusp of beginning Kindy and right up until the last moment I am still thinking of putting him in a private school. When he was a baby I worried about his sleep, what he ate and what he pooped, of course you know these worries times two. I don't really think that my worrying has decreased, I have just become accustomed to it. And now I worry (perhaps more obsessively) about his baby sister who will come here to live with our family one day. I agree with you about what adoption means and that there is not one story that really properly represents it. I am beginning to become accustomed to having no particular theory about the merits or the flaws of adoption. I had all kinds of ideas once upon a time about why it was okay and now I have none. I think the adult adoptees have put me in this place. It's been a good thing, not comfortable, but it can be an okay thing to float a bit through space.

  5. Just sticking my nose in to support your decision to not watch "Juno." Dear lord, I HATED that movie.

  6. Awesome post. Thank you. I have been thinking these thoughts but haven't been able to put them into words. It feels good to read them here.

  7. Claudia, girl, you cracked me up. I totally want to give soooooo many people a giant wedgie. You have NO idea. But seriously, I know what you mean about feeling the pressure of holding the flag representing ADOPTION! I feel the need to be a model family, something I fall far short of on a daily basis.
    I agree with you too about how most people cannot see any other view point other than their own. Been guilty of that myself once or twice or a bajillion times......
    Great post.

  8. Oddly enough, I loved Juno. It had serious flaws, but I was able to forgive them because I did let it represent adoption to me, or think too much about what it said about adoption. I don't think it was actually trying t say anything about adoption. I think it was hysterical and sweet.

    What I wanted to say was I really enjoyed your thoughts and posts and the whole "we are the poster for internation adoption" feeling is started to become more prevalent to me, and I feel I have to be some kind of ambassador to the shiney happy goodness but have this constant caveat of "we are so happy and he's a rockstar but it's not always easy and there are great losses and we honor his birth country and family and there is corruption in adoption." It's exhausting being a representative. Sometimes you just want to be a family. Which you've already said much better in previous posts.

    Also, I loved the link. Yes, she has a foul mouth and I disagree with her concept of "if you don't like how I talk get the f off my blog." because I think she has a LOT to teach people. She thinks about issues in ways that are challenging and inspiring and important, and you teach people more by not saying "F--- You." I want to read her again and again though because she helps me remember things I should remember. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I meant "I didn't let Juno represent adoption." oops.

  10. dear lord how many typos can one person make in a comment. i am going to go sleep. sorry for hijacking your comments section with my idiocy.

  11. sigh... yes, yes...

    "what will this say about adoption?"

    living in that.
    worrying about that.
    thinking about that.

    trying to deal with how to be honestly straightforward about our son's adoption in life, amongst people who frankly sometimes don't even care.

    oftentimes, I revert back to the hypocrisy, because it's easier.

    sigh... yes, yes....

  12. Made me think. A lot! This is good.

  13. I totally agree. Thanks for this and the link!

  14. I agree, and thank you for writing this.

    While everyone's adoption is different, there are common elements in all adoptions. These are things that can unite us in working to improve.

    Here's what all adoptions (except for some Step-Parent adoptions, of course) entail:

    -Loss of an Original Mother and Original Family--the experience of separation.
    -Sealing of an Original Birth Certificate and Original Identity (unless you're born in in Alaska or Kansas!).
    -Who you were before you were adopted being nearly completely, legally, inaccessible to you as an adult (unless you were born in Alaska, Alabama, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon--and in some cases Tennessee and Delaware).
    -Loss of legal entitlement to access to answers, roots, opportunity to be loved by Original Family, medical history and ancestry. Yes, some adoptions are open, but this is not legally enforceable and many adoptions do close after beginning on the premise of openness. I think it is great when parents keep their promises of openness. Once an adoption is finalized, an adoptee retains no real legal entitlement to these things.

    There is rampant misuse of money in multiple realms of adoption as well.

    No matter how happy or sad an adoption story nor where one sits in the "triad," there are common things we can all unite upon, admit need to change, and work together to change them. We don't have to feel separated by differing stories as I see that you have acknowledged here :-)


Over to you!