Last week, Yahoo Shine published a story about a Spokane, Washington mother, Stacey Conner, who adopted a 5-year-old boy from Haiti and then gave him back. Her reasons were many and storied, including that she didn’t like him, and that his tantrums felt like “a domestic violence situation.” When I shared the story on my Facebook page, along with my own enraged response as an adoptee, a mother and a human being, one friend then commented: “What if it was her own kid with these issues? She wouldn’t be able to just give him back.”
Well, actually, it is her own kid. That’s the point of adoption.
I don’t fault my friend for making this comment (and she very quickly conceded when I corrected her) -- although it does bring to bear how enormously misinformed we are about both the perception and reality of adoption in America.
Adoption is many things -- difficult, painful, complex, wonderful, necessary -- but here’s what it is not: Taking in a child as your own, a child of whatever age, from whatever country or continent, and with whatever acclimation struggles, scars, issues, outbursts, and then deciding you’re not into it. That there is even a term for this action, “failed adoption,” seems entirely, exactly, a thousand times wrong to me.
As an adoptee with a particularly complicated backstory that involves race and an intense, lengthy and ultimately soured birth reunion, I have been critical of adoption in the past. And the reason I’ve been critical is because it is not something people should enter into lightly. While I tend to veer away from toeing the party line of organized adoption speak, advocacy groups and other formalized agendas regarding adoption, I do have my experience, which has included the perspective of almost every key individual involved in both mine and most adoptions (adoptive parents and siblings; birth parents and siblings, extended family, etc.).
Stacey Conner, like author Joyce Maynard, who adopted two daughters from Ethiopia and then changed her mind, decided to use these children to make their lives more interesting. Indeed, as Connor said in the article, "Having an instant multicultural family was magical … for about two weeks.” In her case, after two weeks, the boy started to act out, and during one tantrum accidentally hit Conner in the nose with the back of his head, which Conner then likened to a domestic abuse situation.
There are so many things wrong with this parallel to begin with, but that Conner compares the behavior of a clearly traumatized child to an adult abuser is incalculably irresponsible, and egregiously self-serving. When you decide to become a parent, by any means (adoption, surrogacy, straight out of the uterus), you are legally obligated to care for your child until they are 18 years old. That’s a real thing.
But many people, and clearly Conner and Maynard, see adoption as being different when it comes to parental obligations. They see adoption and their role in it as negotiated, tentative, idealistic and, often, as an act of rescue. This tends to be the case especially with interracial adoptions, because there is no way to pretend that the child is biological offspring -- which for decades and for many families was how adoption was handled (or not handled) when both the parents and the adopted child were white.
Up until the past 50 years or so, for various reasons primarily surrounding shame over not being able to conceive “their own” children, and/or fear and protectiveness of an adopted child’s response, many white adoptive parents behaved as if their adopted white children were actually their biological children. Thousands of adoptees never even knew they were adopted.
Not so easy when the child is black, or of any other racial or ethnic background. Although, these are the kids that are becoming increasingly easier to adopt -- both in America and abroad -- and there’s now a whole booming industry behind interracial and transracial adoption and its exotic allure (see the Jolie-Pitt family). Not to mention a booming industry of illegal interracial and transracial adoption called The Child Exchange, but that’s another (horrible) story.
While Conner and Maynard approached adoption in ways both baffling and misguided, ultimately they are A-OK in the aftermath. Conner stands healed and triumphant in the article’s accompanying photo (and seven years later, in an oddly reasoned admission, she and her husband have decided to become foster parents). Maynard wrote a heartfelt letter on her blog (made further cringe inducing given the huge magazine spread she did for "More" magazine featuring the girls when she first adopted them), which drew attention from the New York Times and may well result in a book deal. But the kids they adopted and gave back are now doubly traumatized.
There is an inherent luxury and assumed ease within biologically constructed families -- hence, “Screw you, mom, you controlling bitch.” Or, “You suck, you snot-nosed little brother.” Read: I can say whatever I want to you because we are family, we are bound by blood and we will always be family. For adoptees, this is a deeply internalized mistruth. Because, evidently, there can be a time when we will not be family. The body, the flesh, the blood that I came from is no longer my family.
So when that happens twice, when a child is made to feel that family is not only provisional, but abruptly so, there is trauma, and an emotional atrophy that could have been prevented, or at the very least soothed, by an adoptive parent merely being a parent. I might be less inclined to pass total judgement on Conner if she had taken any responsibility for her part in the situation. Instead, she blames everyone and everything else -- her husband worked too much, she "felt like" the therapist was encouraging her to find another home for her son in order to protect her younger children -- for her own ill-preparedness.
There will always be extenuating circumstances, whereupon a parent or a family feels genuinely overwhelmed, paralyzed and unable to rise to the occasion, and one can only hope that the family that Conner found for her son will do better by him. Still, I maintain that when it comes to adoption -- don’t do it unless you mean it.