As a therapist who specializes in working with adoptive families, I wish that all adoptive parents and those considering adoption would read Larissa MacFarquhar's recent article "Living in Adoption's Emotional Aftermath." It’s rare for a mainstream publication like The New Yorker to explore the complexity of adoption at any depth and MacFarquhar succeeds in delivering a primer on the experience of many adoptees.
I have worked with many adult adoptees who --- like the people profiled in this article --- report some version of “coming out of the fog,” of re-examining aspects of their interior lives, particularly pain points, and newly seeing them not as quirks of personality or general experience but as a specific result of having been relinquished and adopted.
The MacFarquhar article is about adoptees and I want to announce now that even at the risk of de-centering their experience, my purpose in this post is to discuss the article with adoptive parents. I’m speaking to you too prospective adoptive parents. The article has the potential to be a tough read for all of you because it asks very pointed questions about the ethics of adoption in general and transracial and international adoption in particular.
I really want to encourage current and potential adoptive parents to read it for two reasons. One, these questions are important to consider before adopting --- you are building the creation narrative of your family and it must be clean and kind and principled and you need to be able to imagine explaining your choices and how you arrived at them to an adult child.
Two, if read closely, you can discern the outline of sturdy and ethical adoptive parenting.
Angela Tucker is one of the adoptees profiled and when she went to visit her birth family for the first time “her [adoptive] parents had supported her throughout her search, and she wanted them near her for this.” In other words, she wanted her parents to parent this experience. Later in the article Angela’s current take that transracial adoption should only happen when absolutely necessary is revealed as well as her wish that she had not been adopted. I think we can safely assume she would also like to have these feelings and experiences parented as well.
Though not the focus of the article, there is an important background message here that matches one I always give to adoptive parents: your children can hate the complexity of how your family was created, they can wish they were never adopted, they can need to explore and have relationships with birth family and culture and language and still love you and be attached to you and very much need your parenting of these experiences. There are other adoptees mentioned in the article that feel they cannot bring desires to contact their birth family to their parents because they have intuited that it will hurt their parents’ feelings. What this means then, is that as adolescents and young adults they process feelings and make decisions about whether or not to pursue contact with birth family secretly. And often totally alone.
Joy’s story highlights the need for adoptive parents to acknowledge that their internationally adopted child’s life did not start when they all met at the airport or orphanage. There was a life, family and history that existed in Korea before the transracial American family was created. Internationally adopted people need their adoptive parents to acknowledge this and parent the experience by assertively collecting all information they can during the adoption process and then being present for what is known and unknown. "It is so hard to not know how you came to be at the orphanage. It is so hard to have fragments of memories and not know how to understand them. I am here with you. We can talk about this."
What should adoptive parents take away from this article? Concretely they should
Emotionally, be sturdy. You will know from parenting that if your child is injured, yours is the lap they want to crawl into. They want your comfort and reassurance. Think of their adoption experience the same way you would think of any other hard or complicated thing with which your child has to find a way to cope. And if you find yourself feeling insecure, ask yourself: is this something I want my child to go through all alone? Or instead is it something I want them to feel supported and guided through?
Tara Noone is a therapist currently treating all members of the adoption triad in her private practice. She was formerly an adoption social worker and the Director of Adoptive Parent Services at Adoption Connection in San Francisco. She served on the planning committee for the California Adoption Conference for five years and led workshops at the conferences each of those years. She has taught adoption competency and the evaluation and treatment of the members of the adoption triad to therapists and school psychologists in Northern California. She has served on the board of Weaving Threads, a group that serves first/birth mothers in adoption.