My friend Brynn Welch (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Emory and Henry College) has written some extremely thoughtful reflections of her recent experience of adoption. She’s kindly agreed to share these with the FP audience. I’ll be posting them here in four parts (based on the four social conventions she’s arguing would be helpful for adoptive parents) – once a day for the next four days.
Social convention 1: Dump out, not in.
Years ago, there was a great NYTimes article about the phenomenon of people expecting those in the middle of a crisis/loss/major life event to deal with the sadness/anxieties of those not in the middle of it. The suggestion was to draw circles representing people’s proximity to the event in question and always remember to dump out, not in. When someone announces that they are adopting, follow this rule: Dump out, not in.
What happens in the absence of this convention: a match – the period when a birth parent has selected adoptive parents but the adoption is not yet final – is far more terrifying than I could hope to convey here. Unfortunately, the combination of curiosity and protective instincts often combine so that prospective adoptive parents spend a good portion of their match time fielding questions about the various ways in which this could go wrong and listening to advice about how to feel about the situation. None of this is malicious. In the worst case, it’s unthinking. In the best case, it’s motivated by a strong desire to protect a loved one from unbearable loss. The effect, however, is that the adoptive parents are asked to focus on the worst possible outcome during their nesting window. Moreover, no one going through a match is not already thinking about all the ways things could go wrong. In my case, I didn’t celebrate during the match time because I wasn’t always – constantly, at all times, every waking minute – aware that things could end badly, but rather because this would be my only “pregnancy,” and I wanted badly to treat it as such. These issues continue well after the baby is home. I lost count of the number of times someone in Abingdon met me, realized I had adopted, and immediately began asking if I was afraid “she” would change her mind (more on “she” questions later) or telling me stories of adoptions that failed after the baby was already home with the adoptive parents. This amounts to saying, “Oh, congratulations! But you know, this could still end really, really badly. Are you worried about that? You should be.” This takes a serious toll on someone who’s already emotionally fried. Instead, here are some suggestions for what to say when someone announces a match (or introduces you to a baby in a non-finalized adoption):
-That’s great! I’m sure you’re excited. What can I do for you?
-How are you feeling?
Adoptive parents may want to talk about the stomach-turning fear they’re experiencing, but give them the space to do that on their own terms. Just be in it with them, and let them feel whatever they’re going to feel. Don’t try to temper their excitement or alleviate their fears. They’re already investing all of their energy trying to do both of those things at once. Just be with them, and if – heaven forbid – it ends badly, they’ll know you’ll be with them then, too. Of course you’re curious and scared, too. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t curious, and you wouldn’t be a trusted friend or family member if you weren’t scared to death that your loved one was about to be crushed. But remember: dump out, not in.