Adoption “Truths”: Be Careful About What You Say in Print

A friend emailed me a link to KJ Dell’Antonia’s article “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” in Slate last week. My immediate reply was “Jesus wept. Sometimes I hate the media.”

This friend is also an adoptive parent, as I am, and in his response he noted that Dell’Antonia’s piece was really about the difficult adjustment period she had with a three-year-old from China, a little girl who was clearly grieving the loss of her foster family. Dell’Antonia insists both in her piece and in a follow-up on NPR’s Talk of the Nation that she loves her daughter now.

There’s much to admire in the way she questions myths about instant bonding with adoptees. But the headline “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” lives on, circulating around the Internet. The damage is done. The NPR headline is “Mom Confesses She Did Not Love Adopted Daughter.”

I almost titled this piece “I Love My Child and Would Never Write That I Didn’t.” I don’t mean to deny that parents have mixed emotions or that such ambivalence should never be talked about. But I am deeply troubled by media accounts that emphasize parents broadcasting feelings like this online.

The subheading of the Slate article was “The Painful Truth About Adoption.” But as anyone who is part of the adoption community knows, there are many truths, some painful, some transformative.

Dell’Antonia was writing in response to the Artyom story, in which a Russian adoptee was put on a plane and returned to Moscow alone by his American adoptive grandmother. He went with a note from his adoptive mother, who wrote that she could no longer parent a child with “psychopathic issues.”

Many of the news features that have followed the original Associated Press report about Artyom have hyped either a “buyer beware” angle for adoptive parents or confessionals that have made the dificulties faced by some adoptive families seem like titillating secrets to be exposed.

It’s the Oprah-ization of everything, with adoptive parents admitting their doubts about their children on NPR or Nightline.

The subheading to a CBS news story last week included “Expert Says Many Adoptive Parents Sympathetic to Mother’s Plight.” Based on the horror expressed by many adoptive parents I saw at an adoption conference this past weekend, that claim is a figment of journalistic imagination. (The expert turns out to be Joyce Sterkel, who runs a ranch for emotionally disturbed adoptees.)

Of course every parent, bio or adoptive, has doubts and negative feelings. And it is true that some adoptive parents have struggled with difficult adjustments or endured disrupted adoptions. But I’m not sure that it’s the “dirty secret” implied by so many news reports and blog commentaries. The annual New England Adoption Conference, which I’ve attended for many years, often includes sessions about attachment issues and parenting at-risk kids. Two examples from this weekend: “Adoption and Depression” and “Self Care for Parents of Children with Disrupted Attachments.”

Even the Sunday NY Times keeps the focus on troubled adoptees with “In Some Adoptions, Love Doesn’t Conquer All.” This feature does provide a more in-depth look at the issues, and perhaps a useful public discussion about the adjustment difficulties experienced by some international adoptees will result. But headlines like”I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” are there for shock value, not educational purposes.

It’s the particular “I” in this equation that troubles me: the adoptive parent, the one with the voice and authority. We are a therapeutic culture indeed, and we’ve become inured to anyone talking about their problems—even their shame—before an audience of millions. It seems many assume that the act of cathartic confession justifies letting it all hang out.

But as parents, we have responsibilities to our children. We need to make them feel safe. We need to tell them point-blank how horrible it was that a child was returned by a mother who couldn’t cope. Really and truly, you are my child, you will always be with me, and you don’t have to be good or prove yourself worthy of my love for me to take care of you. I am your mom. I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you.

I also question the use of “love” in these media formulations, or at least the need to put it front and center. “Love” rather than “care” figures in such accounts because so often they’re from the point of view of adoptive parents.

In most mainstream stories about adoption, adult adoptees are never quoted. But in the blogosphere, they’ve been writing about Artyom, too. For instance, Jae Ran Kim, a Korean adoptee and social worker who blogs at Harlow’s Monkey, posted “I’m Tired of Adoptive Parent Confessionals” about Dell’Antonia’s piece:

“[I]t once again attempts to elicit sympathy for just how hard it is for adoptive parents who have to struggle with pathologically ill-behaved adoptive children (or in other words, kids who did not live up to the adoptive parent’s expectations of being so happy to attach to a new caregiver –  i.e. them).”

John Raible, an adoptee and adoptive parent, writes in “Learning from Artyom’s Plight”:

“The first thing I thought of when I learned the news about little Artyom was, ‘How rejected the poor kid must feel.’ As an adopted person myself, I carry with me an undying, lifelong sense of rejection that I trace back to my relinquishment as a baby. The very next thing I thought of was how scared of further rejection other adopted children of all backgrounds must be feeling.”

At the end of Dell’Antonia’s Talk of the Nation segment, Neal Conan asked her, “Very briefly, are you worried that your daughter will one day read this piece, ‘I Did Not Love My Adopted Child?'”

Dell’Antonia answered, “I certainly, absolutely have thought about that.”

And no doubt agonized about it. Yet the impact is not just on her daughter down the line. As I began writing yesterday morning, my eight-year-old son walked into my office and accidentally saw the Slate headline. We then spent a half hour snuggling on the couch, him fighting back tears, me saying I would never leave him, that what happened here was wrong.

When I asked him what he thought I should write about that headline, he snapped right back: “Say it’s creepy and scary.”

So it is. But what’s the moral? That I blew it, too, and all because I was writing a blog post? That I should have protected him? Yes. Maybe one lesson is that parents of all stripes blow it. What matters is that we pick up and keep going, reminding ouselves again and again that kids observe all that we do.

7 thoughts on “Adoption “Truths”: Be Careful About What You Say in Print

  1. Hi Martha, Great article. The horrifying episode with the Russian adoptee is a scar on the history of American adoption, and I agree it is brutal to expose children to the media coverage. Your story about Nicholas made me very sad. But the subject of the frightening dichotomy, or abandonment, of parental love, that is being discussed in the media as an adoptive issue, is a dark aspect of parental behavior. Maybe it should be discussed more openly in general, so parents who are in the throes of this affliction can understand, and untangle that dark part of the self. The desire to abandon offspring defies what should be biological instinct.
    We are all a combination of the worst and best parent in the world, and our kids read us on a different level. They can make us crazy. They x-ray our soul, and like dogs reacting to tone rather than vocabulary, they often understand what we are saying, even if it has nothing to do with what we are saying. This subliminal communication can be ferocious; it can tap into a part of ourselves we are working very hard to disguise. I confess that mentally I put my dismissive 13 year old son on the market daily. Exasperation, experiencing that crackling rip when we bypass the sane limits of our own behavior with our kids, is a very difficult zone. The issue of turning on your child, and blaming them for your own temporary abandonment of who you should be, is, I think, a universal, unfortunate aspect of parenting that has a very long half life in the psyche of both parent and child.
    One of my closest friends sent her 12 year old daughter across the country to live with me temporarily. She sent her, like Paddington, with many labels for what was wrong with her. She was a sociopath, a manic depressive, all sorts of labels that reflected the mother, not the child. When a parent abandons their parenthood, temporarily or not, they shatter both parties. There is no punitive ritual, or sanctified confessional, to exonerate the parent, nor should there be.

  2. im asking how do you come w all the mental stress they put on the family. yes i know that its been some years since the adoption but know that there older all the probles are starting to come to light, like the abuse from them being in foster care.

  3. I really appreciate all the comments from everyone here. Adoption of older children is certainly challenging and there aren’t easy answers. Parents definitely struggle with at-risk kids, and it can be very liberating to share stories with others who have had the same problems. The trouble comes in how publicly you share your children’s stories.

    Some personal blogs provide something of a social network and the kind of privacy that encourages open discussion among parents. But many other blogs are broadcasting far more than their writers may know or understand. As the journalism profession implodes, our expectations about public/private boundaries and “news” will keep evolving–for the better, I hope.

  4. I have read about adoption extensively. I would like to adopt a school-aged child with HIV. Part of me feels very guilty because of the expense involved in international adoption. We could swing it, but I feel like I am letting down my mom, who might need financial support in the future. I feel like I am being selfish. But, it is my money, right?

  5. Travel: You are posing very hard questions regarding money and the future. I think you should do what your heart says, because the future is always hard to predict.

    Also, because you are interested in adopting a school-age special-needs child, have you considered public domestic adoption? There are many waiting children here in the U.S. (if that’s where you’re from), and they need homes. In that case, you would be really helping that child and not paying to do so. Get in touch with your state’s Department of Social Services (or the equivalent) for more information.

  6. Basically my 3 month old son’s birthmother lied. Our son’s birthfather is not some random stranger who she does not know and could not find. His birthfather is her ex-boyfriend. They lived together briefly during her pregnancy. Around 5 months into her pregnancy something lead her to tell him she had an abortion, dump him and move out. Apparently she started to feel guilty about all this last week and she told him everything. He called our agency Monday and demanded his baby…. A social worker contacted the birthmother and she confirmed that she did lie and this young man is the birthfather.

  7. My cousin wrote a book on adoption and will help many of those mothers out there who has givin their child up for adoption! It can help you through the grieving process! I know adoption takes a very strong woman and it does require a grieving process and the book is your answer!

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