The other day on AnnArbor.com, I wrote this post about Christopher sending a handmade Valentine’s Day card to his birth mom — and made the exact same card for us. Three adult adoptees wrote in comments on the article, each of them affirming that I am indeed my children’s “real” mother, and that one day Chris and Sarah will come to see me not as their “adoptive” mom, but simply their “mom.”
I wish I shared their confidence. One of the down sides of open adoption (or any adoption in which the child is old enough and has the means to get in touch or stay in touch with his or her biological parents) is that distinguishing labels are almost inevitable. And of all the labels bandied about within the adoption triad — “adoptive,” “birth,” “first,” “natural,” “forever,” etc. . . . the one that is most likely to create hard feelings is the word “real.” As in, “Are you his REAL mom, or was he adopted?” As if the two facts are by definition mutually exclusive.
The other day I mentioned to a church friend that there had been a death in the family, and that my kids seemed to be having a strong reaction to this. “Why would it bother them?” she asked. “It wasn’t anyone in their REAL family who died . . . ” She wasn’t trying to be cruel. It just never occurred to her that my children would have such strong feelings about my extended family.
As I’ve been researching the history of adoption, especially here in the United States, I’ve come to realize how much the nature of both childhood and adoption has changed over the years. For example, while couples today typically seek healthy infants, in the late-19th to mid-20th centuries it was typically older children — in particular, older girls — who were most in demand. Younger children simply required too much attention, and contributed too little to the family upkeep. Girls, however, could be useful in the home even from a relatively young age, so long as they were properly trained. Children were valued for what they contributed to the family’s physical upkeep. For unwed mothers, adoption was about the only way to ensure the child would grow up without the stigma of illigitimacy, obtain a useful trade, and become a contributing member of society. Childhood was perceived to be a transitional state between dependent infancy and useful adulthood.
Times have changed. Childhood now tends to consist of a prolonged protected state of dependence in which relatively little is expected of the child (apart from contributing to the emotional well-being of the parent). And because single parenthood has become so widely accepted, women who would have once made an adoption plan, for the child’s sake, are either aborting their children, or raising the children themselves — whether or not they are in a position to be able to parent successfully. Unfortunately, this has created different but no less stigmatizing effects on their children, who are less likely to suffer ostracization because of their mother’s marital status, but far more likely to be affected by poverty, abuse, and neglect.
Where once the identities of birth families and adoptive families were sealed for the protection of all concerned, adoption has evolved into something so “open,” it has permanently altered the meaning of “family.” A child could conceivably (if you’ll pardon the expression) have five “real” parents: two to supply genetic material, a surrogate “birth” parent, and adoptive parents. (Plus godparents, as Christopher frequently reminds me.)
The same thing happens with siblings: When the children from Family A are adopted by Families B, C, and D; then Family C adopts children from Family E and F, Child AB and Child AC remain siblings. Child AC and FC share adopted parents in common. But how about Child AB and FC (who share sibling AC in common, but have neither birth or adoptive parents in common)?
Is it any wonder that some of us are left grappling for boundaries, or wondering how it all affects our children?