A conversation I had a few days ago with one of my daughter's friends reminded me how far we still have to go in deconstructing the negative association that so many people have about kids who are adopted. The recent conversation with this particular 10 year-old boy pretty much mirrored the several dozen other discussions I've had with children about adoption. Sure, there is always a little variation on the words and how things are phrased, but the overall message is essentially the same. First - a little background about the impetus of this particular conversation, just in case people are wondering if I go around grilling random kids about adoption. My daughter's friend, let's call him Sam, knows that my son and I are both adopted, and he asked me some very pointed questions about my "real" mom and dad. Before I addressed his questions, I first asked Sam for his definition of adoption. I often do this whenever I'm talking to kids about adoption in an attempt to gauge where the child's level of understanding is about the concept. Here was Sam's reply when I asked him what he thought it meant to be adopted:
"Well, being adopted is when the kids that nobody wants are put into an orphanage and then if the kid is really good, someone rich will pick them and buy them to have in their family."
Now, to be sure, whenever I hear someone talk about a child being bought, I cringe. And yet Sam's understanding of adoption was so familiar to me - including the part of a child being available for purchase. His succinct albeit limited understanding of adoption was wholly consistent with virtually every other conversation I've had with kids about adoption. In fact, based on my own personal experiences, the recurring themes that that eventually emerge from just about any adoption conversation I've had with a child between the ages of 4-16 are the following:
1) Are unwanted
2) Can become more desirable when they exhibit good behavior, i.e. being the perfect child
3) Are thought of as a commodity; they are a good that is exchanged in a transaction typically received by someone considered rich or well-to-do
4) Are disposable; their permanence in their adoptive family is always conditional
5) Deserve pity, because they are the kids who no one wants
I realize the conversations that I've had with Sam and the many, many other kids I've talked to about adoption does not provide any scientific proof that all or even most kids feel the same way they do about children who are adopted. But nonetheless, I still find it incredibly disturbing and hurtful that my young son and other young adoptees are still being perceived by so many of their peers as unwanted, unlovable and unworthy. Too many adoptees from my own generation, including myself, have fought a relentless internal war against the societal messages that have had us second-guessing our self-worth. It's one thing to take a critical look at adoption as a whole, but it's quite another to be so critical of the one who truly is without any power, choice or voice. Sam and the other kids I've talked to don't just get their working definitions about adoption out of thin air; clearly they've been ingesting, processing and retaining messages from someone, somewhere and presumably from a multitude of sources.
And so the question I have is this: How can we talk about adoption in such a way that makes an unequivocal separation between the circumstances surrounding the act of adoption (regardless of what they are) and the perceived value of the adoptee? How do we go about challenging - and thereby hopefully changing - the way we talk about adoption so that the word adoptee is no longer synonymous with unwanted, damaged goods and the leftovers that people are forced to take? Now I realize that yes, there exists a contingent of children who tragically do fall into the true "unwanted" category, far more than my heart can comprehend, but I refuse to believe that all children available for adoption are deemed in their families' eyes as unwanted and easily disposable.
Let's compare the perception of children of a divorce versus children who are adopted. From where I stand, a fair number of people do not conflate the decision that two adults make to get divorced with the value of the child(ren) affected by the divorce. Regardless of the circumstances, I'm led to believe that many children of divorce as well as children who are adopted are quite susceptible to internalizing the same kinds of messages as a result of their life-altering events: that pervasive, internal soundtrack that rotates amongst the tracks of "If only I could have been better, this wouldn't have happened", "I know on some level that it's my fault for what took place", "If only I could have been more lovable, I might have prevented this", "I'll be perfect in every way so that I won't get left again", "If I can accomplish x, y or z, it will show them that I'm worthy enough of their love", "If I can just keep these walls up, I won't ever have to hurt like that again", or "Who needs them anyway? I'll show them I'm strong enough to survive on my own."
I'm not trying to play the "Who suffers more" game between children of divorce and children who are adopted. What I am trying to illustrate is that I bet if you asked a handful of kids to define divorce and then to define adoption, the former answer would emphasize the role of the parents (i.e., "Divorce is when two people don't want to be married anymore") versus the implied negative connotation against the child in the latter (i.e. "Adoption is when the unwanted kids get new families"). It seems that we as a society talk about divorce in a way that protects and keeps the children as they should be in this circumstance: innocent and absolved from any responsibility. And yet, so many people talk about adoption as something that ends up implicating the child as the unwanted and burdensome toll that needs to be removed in order for the original parents to "move on" with their lives.
The suppressed yet omnipresent shame that many adoptees can feel at various times in their lives can manifest itself in emotionally and mentally exhaustive ways. It's a shame that I can only describe as a war of Head v. Heart. As I've said on this blog numerous times before, as a young child, teenager and young adult, intellectually my mind knew that I was not responsible for being in a position of having to be placed for adoption, but my heart was so inexplicably heavy with guilt, shame and a complete sense of responsibility that somehow, someway I must have been so unwanted and so much of a burden to my parents, because otherwise - how could they ever, ever let me go?
I've come so far in processing my adoption and truly attaining a measure of peace and acceptance for who I am. I like to think it would have been just a bit easier and a more expeditious journey of shedding those layers of shame if so many people hadn't harbored and communicated to me their interpretations of adoptees as unwanted, easily discarded goods for the unfortunate people who couldn't have children "of their own".
Who knows if Sam will think any differently about adoption after our little talk. I can't control what he or anyone else thinks about kids who are adopted, but I can continue to speak up on behalf of my son and myself and say with absolute certainty that no, we are not unwanted.