Reflections on Adoption, part 4

Part 4, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social Convention 4: remember that parenting is really, really, really hard, regardless of the number of parents/children or the path to parenthood and be more forgiving of ourselves and more helpful to others.

What happens in the absence of this convention: expectations, both externally and internally imposed, become insane. This one is tricky. There certainly are others judging our decision to parent and waiting to see whether we’ve really thought it through. But usually, we’re the ones self-imposing the unreasonable expectations we imagine others have of us to keep it all together and be over the moon all the time about parenthood. So although I think there genuinely is a problem with people having unreasonable expectations about how parents will feel about parenthood and handle the complications it presents, those of us who are parents are a big part of the problem. We are often the ones forgetting how hard what we are doing is and expecting ourselves not to show “weakness”. So here’s the real deal with me, and I strongly suspect it’s the unspoken real deal with a lot of people: seeing my son born was the most incredible moment of my life, and I was shocked by how much love I felt in that instant. But when the nurse handed him to me, my first thought was something like “WAIT! What do you mean I’m responsible for him now?! That seems like a terrible idea.” Everyone knows that parenting is hard. But experiencing it is…well, the knowledge that it’s hard just doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of it. I was exhausted, frazzled, on edge. But what people kept asking was, “Are you over the moon?” The answer is complicated: yes, I am. I am happier than I have ever been. I am also now existing in the depths of the underworld. In 11 days, I went from just a person with an adult home and lots of time to sleep to being a very tired mother of an infant with a house full of baby junk. I am feeling ALL OF THE THINGS. But I felt like I should answer “Yes, I am sooooooo happy!” Nevermind that my day now revolves around someone else’s bodily functions, and I have reached the point of exhaustion where I am physically ill. Let’s just leave it at “Yes, I’m soooooo happy!” I suspect all parents feel this way. We internalize the expectation that we will exist in a constant state of gratitude, bliss, and togetherness. Sure, that’s a lofty goal, but it sets us up for certain failure. As a single parent via adoption, I feel this pressure three times over. I feel somehow less free to complain about financial stress or work-life balance because people will be thinking, “Well, you chose to be a single mom!” or “Well, you wanted this!” Although people have in fact said exactly those things to me, both that reaction and my fear of it are irrational. The reaction itself assumes that my choice to become a parent was somehow more deliberate than anyone else’s. The process may have involved more (and far less pleasant) steps, but the decision itself was exactly the same. It further assumes that a second parent would help, and that’s not obviously true. (In fact, I think flying solo is way, way better than most people imagine.) But my fear of that reaction is also irrational because although I am occasionally greeted with “Well, you chose to be a single mom” or “Well, you wanted this!” I have also been offered food delivery, babysitting services, and all the free venting you could want. So although people occasionally reinforce my fear, most do not. Nonetheless, I have internalized unreasonable expectations the few have and projected them onto everyone. After all, I chose single motherhood and got lucky enough to finalize an adoption with a perfect little dude. I need to prove that neither of those were bad decisions, right? What baffles me about the absence of this convention is that every parent I know – regardless of the path to parenthood, the number of parents in the home, the number of children, or the amount of money and professional flexibility – feels something like this pressure to have it all together with smiles on our faces. But we also all know that a) parenting is really, really, really hard and b) that pressure to have it all together is an entirely unnecessary additional stress. We’re trying to raise tiny humans, for crying out loud!

Advice: let’s all be kinder to each other and to ourselves. Let’s remember that new parents are over the moon and more in love than they thought possible, but they’re also getting pooped on and missing sleep, privacy, that guest room, and the ability to just run into the store really quickly. When we focus on the former, we trivialize the latter, and the latter is definitely not trivial. And new parents, people want to help. If you’re tired and want a nap, just say so. No one will judge you, and people are not generally opposed to an hour or two of baby snuggles.

I shall now take the first step toward being kinder to myself about this: tomorrow is my son’s birthday. Of course I will celebrate his birth. I am so, so, so excited that he was born. But you know what else I’ll be celebrating? That I made it an entire year as a single, working mother of a small child. Because let’s be honest: that’s freaking awesome. So there.



Reflections on Adoption, part 3

Part 3, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 3: be excited for adoptive parents, not proud of them.

What happens in the absence of this convention: adoptive parents find themselves getting loads of praise for adopting a child. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Who doesn’t like praise? However, the praise very quickly starts to imply that one views adoption as somehow similar to mission work, which makes it seem like there was a reason we *wouldn’t* adopt our children. I wanted to parent for the same selfish reasons others want to parent. (I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m perfectly at peace with the selfishness.) Although now I am of course motivated by a fierce love of one particular little dude, my desire to adopt was motivated by my desire to parent, and my desire to parent was exactly the same as anyone else’s desire to parent. I wanted to have that kind of relationship in my life even before there was some specific person with whom I might have that relationship, and adoption was the path that made that possible. I was not doing mission work; I was just trying to become a mom. Praise for having adopted is particularly strange because a successful adoption makes adoptive parents feel unbelievably lucky. PowerBall lottery winners have *nothing* on someone who hears a judge declare s/he has all rights and responsibilities of natural parents. I thought I was being a little nutty and overly sensitive about this until I spoke with other adoptive parents and read several books about adoption, and it’s apparently a pretty universal experience that adoptive parents are a) praised for having adopted, and b) uncomfortable with what that praise seems to imply about adoption and/or the adopted child. There is no question that much praise in the form of “he’s so lucky to have you” or “I’m so proud of you” would have happened had I given birth to my son, but there’s also no question that some of it wouldn’t have. The latter category is bad but unfortunately often indistinguishable from the former. I freely admit that this may be a situation where adoptive parents are reacting to all praise badly even though much of it is totally unproblematic. Nonetheless, in the absence of this convention, we are praised, and though there’s no earthly reason someone who hasn’t been through it would know this ahead of time, the praise is uncomfortable. Hence the new social convention.

If you have friends or family who have adopted, be excited for them and with them, but do not praise them. Even if you disagree about the implications of such praise, resist praising because that praise will – rightly or wrongly – make the adoptive parent(s) uncomfortable. In fact, the best response to someone who adopts is “Congratulations! You’re so lucky!”



Reflections on Adoption, Part 2

Part 2, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 2: unless the adopted child, adoptive parents, or birth parents say otherwise, assume the birth parents are off limits.

What happens in the absence of this convention: Curiosity quickly moves to voyeurism, the expression of which ranges from thoughtless insensitivity to staggering cruelty. First and most importantly, details about the birth parents are simply none of anyone’s business. Just as it would be invasive for me to ask for the details regarding someone else’ child’s conception and birth or the impact those have on the parents’ emotional, financial, or professional situation, there’s no good reason to ask for those details about my son’s birth parents. Second, the tone underlying many of these comments is troubling. They are sometimes openly derogatory and almost always disregard the birth parent’s experience, treating the birth parent(s) as merely means to an end. In general, questions and comments about birth parents fail to recognize them as moral equals. One thing that has always shocked me is that while people will celebrate my new family, they will show disdain for the person who made it possible. Third, people often ignore the fact that my son is present when they ask these questions/make comments about his biological parents. The effect is that I am often asked invasive questions in front of my child, and those questions (or the assumptions that generate them) are insulting to the mother of my child. That is obviously an undesirable effect, and I am certain not the one intended by the person posing the question or making the comment.

The advice: bear in mind that questions about the birth parent(s) seem benign but are often experienced as intrusive and offensive. Moreover, the type and quality of relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents vary widely. Those relationships are deeply personal and complex, so it’s best to avoid probing into/commenting on the relationship for the same reason it’s generally a good idea to avoid doing so with respect to someone’s marriage. In this case, curiosity is trumped by a family’s desire for privacy, so err on the side of caution: wait for an invitation inside.



Reflections on Adoption, Part 1

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.



Racism and Adoption

The NPR article “Six Words: Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt” is one of the most shocking things I’ve read recently (and that is saying a lot). If you want a bleak portrait of contemporary racism in America, look no further.

[Adoptive parent Caryn] Lantz says she remembers a phone call with an adoption agency social worker. “And [she] was telling us about these different fee structures that they had based on the ethnic background of the child. And … they also had, sort of a different track for adoptive parents.”

Moving through the process would be quicker if the family was open to adopting an African-American (not biracial) child, the social worker explained to her. “And that is because they have children of color waiting,” Lantz says. Adopting biracial, Latino, Asian or Caucasian children could be a slower process, she was told, because there were more parents waiting for them.

“And I remember hearing this and just sort of being dumbfounded that they would sort of segregate — to use a loaded term — segregate these children by ethnic background before they were even in this world,” Lantz says. “That’s when I started realizing that, OK, being a parent to a child of a different ethnic background — this is gonna be some work. There’s going to be a lot of work on our end in order to be successful parents and to get our child ready for this world.”

The Race Card Project spoke with social workers, adoption agencies and adoptive parents about adoption costs based on ethnicity. We discovered that this is not widely talked about, but it is common.