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Underwhelmed

Parent Trap

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 6/19/2002

The deeper my husband and I get into the process of trying to adopt a child, the more I realize what a fortuitous time it is to be contemplating this way of having a family.

The process has changed a lot in recent years, and many people seem to think for the better. Although we're adopting for the same mundane personal reasons people generally decide to have children--not to prove some kind of larger philosophical or political point--I find I'm fascinated by the "macro" implications of the path on which we've embarked.

Not so long ago, it was common practice for everyone involved in adoption to pretend as if there was nothing complicated or emotionally problematic about a child being raised by someone other than his or her biological parents. Birth mothers were told, after their pregnancy and labor, to go on with their lives, to forget all about the creature they'd carried around and nurtured for nine months--to pretend as if none of it had happened. Adoptive parents were sent off with their new baby and told, essentially, that to create a happy, successful, "normal" family, all they needed was love. If there was a racial match between parents and children, the presumption was that the child's origins could be kept secret--or, at least, a closely guarded, rarely mentioned fact, known only to those who needed to know.

There was a kind of optimism, superficial yet sincere, at work in the old-style paradigm, a willfully positive outlook that conceptualized adoption as a "win-win" situation for everyone involved. But I suspect that sunny surface belied the profound insecurity at the heart of the enterprise. No one wanted to acknowledge the unspoken "failures" behind the situation: the "failure" of the birth mother to practice effective birth control or remain chaste until she was married; the "failure" of the adoptive parents to conceive their "own" child. "Forget the past" and "love conquers all" were ways to avoid and sublimate, rather than work through, lingering feelings of grief, loss, anger, and confusion among birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children. And the idea of keeping adoption a secret only served to reinforce the notion that there was something horribly wrong with being part of it.

Although you wouldn't know it watching all those midday talk shows and late-afternoon courtroom battles, we do live in somewhat more psychologically sophisticated times than our parents and grandparents did. So when Kevin and I began working with the Barker Foundation, a well-established nonprofit adoptive agency based in Cabin John, the first thing they asked us to do was attend a two-day counseling session along with four other couples. For a total of about seven hours, we prospective adopters met with Barker's social workers to discuss the various emotional and social implications of the choice we were weighing.

We talked through some typical situations adoptive families face, particularly the small but painful crises that can occur when your child gets taunted on the playground or brings home a "family tree" assignment from a second-grade teacher. We watched a video in which adult adoptees discuss their feelings about their birth and adoptive parents and the complexities of interracial adoption. We heard very moving taped testimonials from an adopted teenager who absolutely loved her adoptive parents but wished they'd allowed her to feel sad from time to time about her unknown birth parents, and a birth mother who gave her child up for adoption several decades ago and was never able to "forget all about it," as she'd been told to do by her doctors.

One message emerged very clearly: For all the joy family life can bring, there is, undeniably, a triple loss at the heart of most adoption situations. The birth parents lose an opportunity to raise the child they conceived; the child loses opportunity to be raised by the people who gave him or her life; and, in many cases, the adoptive parents' infertility, which led them to consider adoption in the first place. These days, Barker's social workers said, most adoption professionals counsel that these losses be acknowledged and aired, openly but calmly, rather than left to fester. It takes courage for an adoptive parents to allow his or her child to feel a little sad on birthdays--but it's infinitely healthier to acknowledge that sadness than to respond with well-meaning denial ("We're your real family, after all.") or, worse yet, defensiveness ("Why even think of her? She made her choice.").

In place of the false optimism of an earlier generation, today's adoption professionals offer this more subdued yet reliable ray of hope. Some days--like birthdays--may well be colored, if not consumed, by the particular issues and complexities surrounding adoption. But most days will be consumed only by the issues and complexities faced by all families everywhere. I'm told the upside potential is exactly the same.

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