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.