I Did Not Love My Adopted Child

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 13 2010 7:14 AM

How to Love an Adopted Child

The painful truth about adoption.

(Continued from Page 1)

The older children waiting for adoption in the United States and in other countries are children who've already been abandoned or abused. Prospective parents are warned about all that, but there is also a parallel mythology that's risen up around adoption that sounds like that of giving birth in the days before Anne Lamott and her spiritual heirs burst the bubble. The stories adoption agencies include in their material, the books, the blogs—even the very signatures of the parents on adoption forums ("mom to DD Mei Mei, joyfully home since 2007") all speak of an experience that's supposed to be wonderful. Your child is "home," his or her orphaned life has ended, your respective travels are over, and you have been united into one big forever-family. Even the politically correct terminology surrounding adoption insists that once it's legal, it's a done deal—your child "was" adopted (not "is"), and now you are its mother, amen. We do not want adoption to be a process; we want it to be a destination—and that makes us even angrier when it doesn't work out that way. Torry Hansen betrayed her son, and she betrayed our belief system. We were willing to accept him as her son, and she wasn't, which makes her the villain.

This is not really anyone's fault. Humans seem to have an overwhelming need for a tidy narrative, which in adoption almost always butts up against the uglier reality. The law understands that, which is why, however wrong Hansen's actions seem to us, putting her adopted son on a plane back to Russia does not appear to have been illegal. Rash, yes, and ugly, but not against the law—because the law still recognizes that adoptive parenting of older children is different than parenting from birth. What's next is for the rest of us—jaded but experienced adoptive parents and the adoption professionals who surround us (often adoptive parents themselves) to stop relying on adoption education and social workers to convey the darker realities of attachment disorders, institutional delays, and post-adoption depression and start talking about them ourselves.

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As long as we keep insisting that the typical adoption narrative is one in which a family comes home to joy and laughter and a happily ever after, cases like Hansen's will give fuel to the alarmists who insist that all adoptive parents are naive and unprepared. Russia will seem measured rather than vengeful when it threatens to temporarily suspend all U.S. adoptions—a knee-jerk reaction that will leave hundreds of children, many of whom have already met the families who plan to take them in, waiting in institutions for months or even years while "additional safeguards" (which will probably affect only a very few adoptions) are put in place. This family is waiting in St. Petersburg to finalize its adoption. This one just arrived there. Hansen's actions—or rather, Russia's overreaction—might make their adoptions, if and when they happen, even more likely to fail: The longer a child is institutionalized or the older she is when adopted, the more difficult the adjustment for both child and family will be.

Our family's adoption was far from perfect, although for the moment it seems to have ended better than Hansen's. Of course, we still don't know how it really ends. Even if my adopted daughter turns out fine, there are the other children to consider—my 3-year-old biological son may spend years on the couch because my adopted daughter displaced him; either my older son or my older daughter could seek the love and affection they lost this past year in a cult or a series of destructive one-night stands. We won't know until we know (and we'll never know what might have been different).

With the publicity surrounding his return, Hansen's adopted son will surely be taken in by some Russian family, and no matter what's said about it publicly, that will not be a smooth sail down the Nile. Probably none of it will work out as anyone would have intended—in fact, by definition, it already hasn't. A perfect world would be one in which every child could be well cared for by the mother he or she was born to. That's not what we've got. A "successful" adoption story is one in which you can tell yourself that it worked out better than the alternative. That has to be enough.

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