Wednesday 4 May 2011

Adoption Paradigms

When I was young, a crazy and wonderful uncle, my mother's younger brother, drove a car like this: 

And it had a sticker on the back that looked like this: 

And I thought that the whole combination was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Obviously I had no idea what the sticker meant. I knew it meant something cool, because my uncle was cool, and the car was hilariously cool, so the sticker must be cool, but I didn't know what that cool meaning actually was. So I asked my mother. 

"Mummy, what is a parra-digg-em?" I asked, my little eyes as round as saucers. 
"Why do you ask, O beloved daughter of mine?" she no doubt replied. 
"I want to know what it means to subvert the dominant parra-digg-em". 
And then she said "Oh" because she had seen the sticker too, of course. Then she answered "Well, a para-dime is like an idea or a way of thinking, and the dominant paradigm is the most common way of thinking, the way that everybody thinks. Subvert means to work against something, so subvert the dominant paradigm means to think differently from how everyone else is thinking and act to change it".  (I've said before that my mother is a teacher, right?)

Well, okay then. I was duly impressed. My mother ended up driving that car, sadly sans sticker, but I've thought about the sentiment off and on in the years since.  And I'm thinking about it again now, obviously. I've been reading back through a lot (and I mean a lot) of blogs over the last few days, (for reasons that are very sensible (trust me) but which I don't want to go into right now). Anyway. It's been particularly interesting to read a lot of adult adoptee and first mother blogs at the same time as a lot of adoptive parent blogs. What I'm noticing is just how unexpectedly similar we can all sound, while drawing totally different conclusions. I've been interested to find just how often different triad members say: 

Everybody thinks that adoption is like this, and they are wrong, and here's why. 

We are all trying to subvert the dominant paradigm. 

The problem is, we don't agree on what the dominant paradigm is

Speaking as a fertility-challenged adoptive parent, when I wonder 'how does the world view adoption?' my answer would probably be: everybody thinks adoption is nice, but that it's not as worthwhile or as wonderful as having 'your own kids'. 

This was especially true when we were at the beginning of our process - making decisions and telling people. These painful messages were what I felt like I was getting. It hurt. It was really, really important to me to speak out against that attitude, to write about it, and to do what I could to act to change it. (It still is). I had never talked to people very much about adoption before that point in my life. When people said "you're adopting? Oh, I'm sorry to hear that" it really shaped how I felt like the world viewed adoption, how the world viewed my family. Negative, negative, negative. Comments like that helped to build my view of the dominant paradigm. 

But this is obviously not the dominant paradigm that many adult adoptees (and first mothers) see. 
If I was going to summarise the dominant paradigm, the 'everybody thinks'  that I think is often operating on the other side of the triad fence, it would be this: everybody thinks adoption is really great and there is no pain involved and adoptees should be happy and grateful and shut up. 

And thinking about me, thinking about my own life experience, thinking about what I have experienced, that doesn't feel like the dominant paradigm to me. And honestly - that's why I sometimes get really frustrated reading adult adoptee blogs. Not for the reason that is sometimes assumed - because I want to deny adoption loss - believe me, I'm fully convinced of the reality and importance of adoption loss.  Nope - it's because I disagree about what the assumptions are about what everybody thinks. Because honestly, I don't think any of those things. And anyway, I know what everybody thinks, everybody thinks adoption is nice, but that it's not as worthwhile or as wonderful as having 'your own kids'.  Right? Right? 

And then I think about my kids, as they grow up. I really didn't think very much about adoption before I decided to do it. My children are going to live with adoption every day of their lives. And we're in different positions, so we will get different messages. I'm the parent, so people relate to me as someone who might have had other, biological, children, and didn't. That affects what they say to me about adoption. But my children are going to get their first, and by far their most dominant, adoption messages from us, from me and J. My children will grow up hearing how much we love them and even if we don't do the happy-shiny-look-there's-a-unicorn version of adoption (which we won't) they are still going to get the overwhelming impression that we are glad we adopted them (because we are) and that we think their adoption was, on balance, a good thing (because we do).  (For them, in their specific situation. Not saying adoption is always good, so please don't hear that). Positive, positive, positive. 

And my children are going to get a very different set of messages about adoption from the wider world than I do. Honestly? Most of the time, nobody is talking or caring about adoption. Which is a separate issue. But when they do talk about it, if some people feel a bit sorry for me because I don't have bio kids (which is stupid), an equal number of people will probably feel like my kids should be grateful because they get to grow up in the West (which is equally stupid). These are two equally ill-informed messages about adoption being sent. Two different ways to build up what I see, what they see, as the dominant paradigm. The one I get is a message telling me adoption is bad, the one my kids get is telling them adoption is good. 

Equal ignorance about the issues, totally different messages. I guess that is one of the reasons why adoptees experience as much dissonance reading AP blogs as we do, the other way around, even when everyone is well intentioned.  They see that we are operating under an assumption of everybody thinks adoption is nice, but that it's not as worthwhile or as wonderful as having 'your own kids' and want to spew milk out of their collective noses. Seriously? You people think THAT is the dominant paradigm? 

But we're all getting different messages. So when I say everybody thinks adoption is nice, but that it's not as worthwhile or as wonderful as having 'your own kids' please believe that I really experience this, in my specific situation as an adoptive parent. 

And if you say: everybody thinks adoption is really great and there is no pain involved and adoptees should be happy and grateful and shut up, I will believe that you experience this, too. 

I think that it would be a good thing if all members of the triad were able to remember that we are all getting a different set of messages from the world. We all get a different set of messages about what everybody thinks. I can't know what it's like growing up with parents who always talk about my adoption as a wonderful, lucky thing, because that hasn't happened to me.  I can't know what messages I would find most painful as a first mother because I haven't been there, either. You can't know what messages it sends when people look at your beloved children and feel a little bit sorry for you, if that hasn't happened to you. 

So many different messages. There really is no one dominant paradigm in adoption. And that is its own lesson, I think. We probably need to be careful - all of us - about drawing conclusions about majority opinion from the minority who make our hackles rise. Most people are not stupid. Most people are not unkind. Talking to myself most of all, here. And where possible we should probably try to keep it in the first person, speaking for ourselves, using 'feeling words', rather than deciding what other people think. "I feel like everybody thinks the following terribly offensive thing" is probably an improvement on the same sentence without those first three words.  (One important fact I've learned recently in arguments  discussions with my husband is that if I put the words "I feel like" in front of my argument, I cannot be wrong. It's awesome. Try it). 

But in the meantime: 

'adoption is nice, but that it's not as worthwhile or as wonderful as having 'your own kids'  & 
'adoption is really great and there is no pain involved and adoptees should be happy and grateful and shut up'

I think both of those paradigms are worth subverting. Where people do think either of those things, or anything else that we know to be wrong or unkind or unhelpful, we should act for change. 

So I guess we should all keep on writing.  Back to your keyboards, girls. 


  1. I often find that comments that people make are so ignorant that it's tough to stomach. It's worse when they say them infront of my children. I know that my children will have to deal with it on their own soon enough. Often a simple comment will point out the person's error in judgement. I try to never be cruel, even though I may think they are, as I don't want my children to learn to respond in a mean hurtful angry way to inappropriate or ignorat comments. I do however want to get my point across and encourage the person the think before they speak.
    Adoption is not a perfect system, but it is how we started our family. I couldn't imagine life without any of my children (adopted and bio). I'm so thankful that I get to be their mom. I am the lucky one for having them, not the reverse as so many people think when it comes to international adoption. They were born in a beautiful country, to which ours can't compare. I hope that one day they want to learn more about it because we look forward to traveling there with them.

  2. Fantastic post! I've realized that there are so many adoption paradigms out there that I really can't wrap my head around what one paradigm might be any longer. It not only depends on who you are in "the triad", but where you live, how old you are, how much money you make and where you are on the geo/political spectrum. So many shades of grey; I think I will go paradigm-free!

  3. I feel like before we adopted our children, we heard some "Oh you're adopting? My [relative/friend/coworker] had to to that" but I feel like as soon as we had our kids, the dominant paradigm that we confront is "Bless you. You've done such a wonderful thing" a.k.a. the "your kids are so lucky" b.s.

  4. Another amazing and spot-on post Claudia! You handle touchy, emotionally-charged issues with grace, wit, and wisdom. Keep it coming...

  5. Well done you. Claudia, I'm dealing with a lot of this in my head right now. You may just have given me the boot up the backside to try to articulate it.

    Thank you.

  6. I love this post so, so much. Could not agree more. There is one blog I read in particular that lately seems to be just post after post about how adoptive parents judge adoptees and exalt themselves as heroes. And it is nothing I recognize at all - from either AP blogs, or my own life or AP friends, or from the commenters of said blog, though I am SURE there are people like that. But I seriously read and think, is everyone really like this, or is this just furthering a narrative that fits an agenda? But then I also read a lot of adoptive parent blogs who seem to be writing from a defensive space and it's post after post about how this kid is REALLY MY KID and how dare someone mistake me for a nanny, et al. And both of these stances just seem to be people reacting to the marginal and (I would assume) minority voices of ignorance in their life. I really wonder if the dominant paradigm of adoption is much less dramatic than all of us in the triad make it out to be . . .

  7. There is a lotta lotta smart in these comments. It's making me want to go back and edit the post :) ~Especially what you said, Kristen, about how it's probably a lot less dramatic than we all sometimes make out.

    I know that what I am hear and interpret is definitely (at least partly) a function of what's going on in my own head at the time. I feel quite differently about what 'everybody thinks' than I did, say, three years ago. So even when we're hearing the same conversations, we 'hear' different messages from them. And like Melissa said, this depends on a lot more than where we are in the triad.

    Oh, and by the way, In case my sister questions my veracity, I should have said that my uncle's car was actually BLUE. But I couldn't find a picture of a blue one on google images.

  8. One thing I think about is that I am now old enough (if not wise enough) to not really care too much what people think about *me* and my decision to adopt. The paradigms, in my world, right now, don't affect me that much. That's just me being selfish, though, in some way. Because I've made a decision to adopt, I've made that decision for a child who will be adopted and for my biological son. They will both live with the paradigms and have to negotiate it themselves and decide how much it matters to them as individuals. I feel very conscious of them dealing with paradigms.

  9. Such a great and thought provoking post. In my paradigm, adoption is just another way a child is classified - and should we classify at all?

  10. I don't have a lotta smart to add to this post--although it is thought-provoking (as usual!). We are at the beginning of our adoption journey, and sometimes I feel like responses from other folks are what they think they are *supposed* to say, versus what they would actually say if they thought about it on their own terms. Not sure if that makes sense, but really intelligent, thoughtful, kind people have said some surprisingly thoughtless things to us, and I'm never sure whether it is just that (thoughtless) or something more. Think it's time to come up with and practice responses, before we have kiddos in our home.

  11. Claudia, as usual, brilliant! Just brilliant!

    I know as adoptive parents we tend to get our back up when people approach us. Typically the people who approach us are do not mean to harm us (not intentionally anyways). They are just curious and haven't been educated. Sometimes the paradigm a I see a lot of AP's using is "Shut the hell up, why are you bothering our family asking us all these questions, can't you see we are trying to live our lives."

    Instead I try to subvert that paradigm by giving people a big smile and helping them understand better what adoption is about. To be honest, you can tell when the 3 of us are out together that we look different and there is no sense trying to pretend we don't. What does that teach our child if we do? That we are ashamed of him?

    However, if someone really starts to get all up in our business asking personal questions like "how much did he cost?" or "what happened to his family?" or saying things like "My daughter is going to go and get one too"....then I can get a little defensive.

    Our kids are going to encounter these questions as they get older, if I can teach him how to handle himself by handling myself in front him it should turn out alright (fingers crossed).

    I agree also that we as an adoptive community can get a bit overdramatic about things....but I think it is us just trying to protect our kids' hearts.

  12. So much to digest. First of all, I cannot imagine anyone saying to me "You're adopting, I'm sorry to hear that." That would feel like a knife in my heart. But, most everyone I meet knows my whole story and I think they are just happy to see us be parents. But then I get a little offended that they don't recognize the loss my children will face, because they also want to just wrap it all up in a big package with an even bigger bow and say: "well see there? You couldn't have kids, but you wanted kids, so you're adopting kids, who are lucky lucky lucky to get out of Ethiopia and now you're going to be happy being a parent!." Oof. True on some fronts--we're happier than we ever thought we could be, but the glossing over the loss (not mine, THEIRS) is hard to hear. And if I try to correct, they look so confused, like why would I be pointing out something negative like that in our moment of happiness.

    Thanks for writing, as always.

  13. I was going to write something along the lines of what Melissa did, that there are lots of paradigms that come at us as adoptive parents. I don't get the "not as good as bio kids" one, probably because I'm single, but I do get the one a lot closer to what you describe as what adoptees experience, "adoption is great and there's no pain."

    And I also want to echo Christine - on my good days, I could give two hoots what other people think about adoption (as long as they are not being idiots out loud where my kid can hear it)!

  14. Brilliant post. I'd love to see some comments from those on the other points of the triad and see if you have found common ground.

  15. Claudia, we must be reading the same blogs because I have seen some things lately that really make me shake my head.

    I totally dislike being categorized as a certain type of person just because I adopted, and adopted Internationally. It's the assumptions people make about me and by extension my daughter, that irk me. I admit to a rather serious knee jerk reaction to being pigeon holed as a "type" of person based on any one action or a decision I made. I am more complex than one part of my life.

    I try to keep an open mind about the path other people have walked. You never, ever know what people have lived and what has shaped them.

  16. SUCH a good post!!!!!!

    I'll say it again... SUCH a good post!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I tried writing about this issue a while back and I just couldn't put my finger on it the way you did. You are (obviously) a VERY talented writer and I'm so glad you wrote on this subject. Why do I need to continue my blog??? I'm just gonna link all your posts from now on.

    Oh, except to post pix of my kids when they are being adorable. ;-)

  17. Wow, such a great post I had to think about it a few days.

    For a lot of people I think, adoption was their second or third choice of ways to have a family. So the attitude of "second best" is sadly often true. It's not pretty though. And frankly, people who make comments right in front of the kid should be smacked.

    I knew several kids who were adopted growing up and I always thought that was so cool. They got picked! My parents got stuck with whatever they gave birth to, but the adopted kids were special because they were chosen. Well, that's how I saw it as a kid anyway.

  18. Beautifully stated, Claudia. I've been around reading a lot of places for quite some time. At first I was drawn in ready to learn from others in the triad. Some I continue with and am so grateful for all they are willing to share, but many I have since stopped reading because of the continual badmouthing and generalizing of ALL adopters. I do think we have so much we can learn from one another if we stop finger-pointing and start trying to work together.

  19. Well said, as usual, Claudia. In coaching language, this is similar to what we call a "perspective" which is the point from which you look at/view/receive something and you think it's fact, but it's really just one perspective or angle. (Not to say that aren't some perspectives closer to the objective truth about something.)

    I would put money down on one fact about adoption: there's a lot of ignorance about it. And that leads to all kinds of different messages which can create the two you mention.

    I had something else to add but now it's flown right out of my brain. I don't even have kids yet so this is sad.

  20. Excellent, excellent post, Claudia. Between this one and a few others, I really need to play catch-up with my Sunday Linkage. I may just have to do a post this Sunday with the bits that have snuck through since we received referral.

    As for these being the dominant paradigm... three months ago I would have said no, of course not. That type of ignorance is a minority viewpoint. But now that we are getting ready to adopt again, more and more casual acquaintances are coming forward to "talk adoption" with us. And the ignorance? Is so thick I could spread it with a trowel.

  21. Fantastic post! (Followed TM Sunday Linkage). It explains something that has been confusing me for months! It will really help me to sort through my own hidden beliefs and understand what I read at times.

  22. Great post!! We are just starting to navigate our own way through the adoption waters, and it always helps to read about the experiences of others. I love your point about how each member of the triad experiences the dominant paradigm of adoption differently. Thanks!

  23. I really enjoyed reading this, thank-you so much for posting it :) I get confused reading blogs from all members of the adoption constellation - so many mixed messages. Reunion is great, reunion is awful, adoption is great, adoption is awful. It sounds like such a simple idea - we're experiencing this from different sides of the same coin, but it's hard to live out, eh? I wish everyone could read this post and try to understand it from each other's point of view. Thanks again!

  24. There's a lot of cognitive dissonance in adoption.


Over to you!