The Truth About Adoption

Adoption.  The catch phrase is that it is a wonderful way to form a family.

Pull up a chair.  Let’s have a candid conversation, the kind where I debunk a few myths about adoption—and by “myths” I mean “those things that we tell ourselves about adoption in order to paint it in the light that is most comfortable to abide.”

Sometimes, I spend more time ruminating on the loss that many children who were adopted have experienced than celebrating my unbelievable luck that I have gotten to be the mother of two incredible children through adoption.

That leads us to the biggest myth about adoption: Adoption is a win-win situation.

It is not. Typically, every member of the adoption story suffers in some way or another.

In the case of most children, their family of origin could not care for more children and so made an adoption plan for them. They chose the needs of their children over their own heart-wrenching desire to ever see their children again. There is no win for most of the parents in that. It is a sacrifice—not a triumph.

Children adopted from other countries had to leave all that they knew and assimilate into a new country, culture, language, family, and lifestyle. Then they had to slowly forget all of what they knew before, not because they necessarily wanted to, but because that is what happens when small children get older—they forget. So, yes, this means they got to forget the struggles, but it also means they have forgotten the smell of their mother, the smile of their father, the connections they had with every member of their family.

And what about the adopting parents? Didn’t we hit the jackpot? Isn’t everything golden on our end? Well, yes. We likely benefit the most. But there are challenges as well. We have no obtainable memory of our child’s gestation or first few years of life. And much of what happened during that time has affected everything that has happened since. So, not only do we not remember ever having rocked them to sleep or nursed them, but the benefits of those experiences—the bonding, the nutrition, the mutual adoration—also do not exist. For us, there is a palpable hole where there should have been the foundation for life-long relationships.

The fact that there is often a period of a child’s life about which adoptive parents know very little—over which we had no control—and then a potential for many more years of their lives about which their family of origin knows very little—and over which they have no control—is excruciatingly painful to everyone involved.

For some families formed through adoption, the issues are different: the child who loses all connection with their family; the child who remains in contact with their family, but the contact is sporadic at best; the parents who waded through infertility and suffered innumerable losses; the extended families who do not accept the child who joined the family through adoption. The list goes on. There is rarely an adoption story absent of loss.

Therein lies another tremendous myth about adoption: Love solves everything.

How I wish this were true, but love does not solve everything.

I love them. Oh, do I love them. It’s indescribable how much I love each of my children. We are very close as well.  They are my children just as much as the child who arrived by birth is my child. It feels like nothing can ever separate us, so strong is our love for one another.

But all that love doesn’t stop me from sometimes wondering if a difficult reaction on their part or an unexpected piece of behavior is the result of my parenting or the life they had before. I never have to wonder that when my youngest, who joined our family by birth, has a melt-down, and so I am never distracted by the thought.  I can be more present with her. It’s true. I’d like to deny it, but I cannot.

All that love does not make it any easier when people tell my youngest how much she looks like me—or how pretty her red hair is. And that she has her father’s adorable nose and clearly my everything else. And she should not be denied those expressions. She should be allowed to soak them up. But I am sure that it stings my two eldest. People don’t mention to my eldest, for example, that she is a bookworm just like her mother or to my middle that he clearly has the mathematical prowess of his father. These things are not as obvious to spectators as full lips and freckles.

All that love doesn’t prevent my daughter and son from wishing they matched their little sister and parents, no matter how much they love their brown skin and tightly curled hair and no matter how much their little sister wants to look just like them.

All that love doesn’t prevent people from asking them where they are from or how long they have been home or what they remember abut Haiti, when their little sister does not have to answer a single question of the same nature. People are not being unkind. Most are genuinely interested, but, like the 13 year old boy who is already 6’7″, it gets a little tiring to have people point out how different you are from everybody else all the time.

All that love doesn’t afford them the basic right of knowing their medical histories.

All that love doesn’t stop racism from rearing its ugly head.

And all that love doesn’t correct the final myth, an almost universal assumption: God planned for us to be a family from the very beginning.

I can already feel the torches being lit.

Here’s the thing—I could never wrap my brain around the idea of a God who would put my babies, or any babies, through the loss that they had to go through to become our children. That simply is not my God. In our case, that was the work of a selfish, sinful humanity that lets an entire country suffer inexcusable poverty. In many cases, it is the work of indecent, corrupt people who run an orphanages for their own financial and personal gain, who wanted nothing more than to play their own version of God in the lives of hundreds of parents and children. In most cases, it is the work of a world that still allows patriarchy to reign, in both large and small ways.

It was not the work of God, though I do believe that God gave us all the courage and strength we needed to endure. I believe that my faith in God strengthened me through the unique experience of bringing two non-infant children home and giving birth to a third child 11 months later. I believe God nurtures the love that flows between us and the power of our connection to one another.

But God does not want children to lose their families or suffer in orphanages, and then need to learn a whole new life at very tender ages.

Sometimes the anger and sadness all members of the adoption constellation feel about such losses, about the fact that relatively few people truly understand , and that the families of origin do not get to celebrate with them overshadow the celebration that we should be able to offer adoptive children.

Allow me to conclude by sharing that, like me, most adoptive parents constantly delight over the gifts we have been given in the lives of all of our children.

But our happiness now does not come without a price, the pain and loss of everyone involved. That we have these amazing children to love is the direct result of somebody else’s suffering—and their suffering extends to our children, to our own hearts. We must be honest that it is by no means easy. Nor romantic, as so many pieces of literature and scenes from cinema would have us believe.  Nor is it ideal.

This post was originally posted in May, 2011.