Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thoughts on Child Centered Adoption

***I'm still on medication. Please forgive me if this post derails or doesn't make sense. Please point out mistakes or areas that need clarification. I don't want you to ignore my mistakes. I want you to help me make them better***

In discussing the "right-ness" or "wrong-ness" of adoption I've discovered a trend. People tend to speak directly for children when children cannot speak. It's not uncommon to hear people say things like "your baby wants to be raised by you," or "all a baby wants is to be loved." In the former I'm paraphrasing statements I've heard from people who are pro-parenting/anti-adoption and the latter pro-adoption/anti-parenting depending on your person taste for terminology. I take serious issue with this proclivity even though I don't doubt that I've been guilty of it myself. These statements are troubling because of the processes one must go through to make them.

At first glance it looks a lot like compassion. To speak for the child one places him/herself in the child's position and attempt to understand the fullness of that experience. From that exercise s/he then speaks from that experience on behalf of the child. The ability to put oneself in "the other guy's shoes" is fundamental to compassion. That exercise has many practical applications and generally keeps humans from treating one another poorly. Unfortunately in the adoption related debates I've encountered that is this tool has been turned around. Instead of compassion it is used to fan the flames of conviction. This may be due to the strength of the emotional experiences encountered when applying this tool to adoption.

Most people, in my experience, involved in adoption debate have been involved in an adoption plan. The parties involved are typically a member of a first family, adult adoptees, current or prospective adoptive parents, and on rarely adoption workers. In these situations everyone has an experience to bring to the table. On the part of first families those experiences are, uniformly, emotionally intense and often traumatic. On the part of adoptive families the experience is often one of great joy muddled with the pain of infertility and loss. Very often both sides of the adoption equation have lost children yet that commonality is rarely discussed. That is something I wish to address, but not now.

After all, the point of this post was discussing child centered adoption, right? So where's the child in all of this? Well that's precisely the problem. Adults are jumping through a lot of mental hoops trying to understand the experience of the child in order to speak for their experience. Bringing their own experiences into the process of imagining the experience for the adoptee adults have amplified reactions. Before the adult can attempt understanding the adoptee experience s/he is typically overwhelmed by his/her own emotional experience. That's when people start speaking for themselves through the voice of the child. That is not only disrespectful to the adoptee experience. It disallows for adoptee experiences that differ from the adult's perceived experience. I consider that malicious behavior.

There's another level to this. The question of how a person does compassion is important. I described the exercise of "putting yourself in the other guy's shoes" as fundamental to compassion. It is a necessary step. Compassion doesn't stop there. That's how we teach compassion to children. An adult requires an adult understanding of compassion. "Spare the rod, spoil the child" isn't what I'm talking about. The real point is abstraction. Early compassion says I know your experience and I will behave how I wish others had behaved toward me. Abstract compassion says I don't know your experience and will behave with respect and kindness toward you.

Why can't I know your experience? Why must I assume I'm ignorant? Because there are billions of neurons and billions of discrete experiences that separate my experience from another person's. I can never know the full subtlety and depth of another person's emotions, thoughts, or choices. This is why I try to speak only for myself. When I do speak for others I attempt to do so in terms of probabilities (Billy probably doesn't want cockroaches in his sandwich, birth fathers probably aren't universally jerks). I do this because I believe no one has the right to speak for another in positive terms. At the very best we can make guesses but must do so with full admonition of our ignorance.

How does this apply to child centered adoption? It means in the often heated debates about whether adoption is right or wrong I put a few lingual filters in place. Let's take my paraphrases above as examples. When a first family member says "your baby wants to be raised by you," I hear "I wish I chose to parent." When I encounter the same statement from an adult adoptee I hear "I wish my first family had chosen to parent me." These are very valid statements that cut to the quick of the emotional experience they represent. There are more reasons than I can imagine for a person to have these desires and they are legitimate. Similarly "all a baby wants is to be loved" from an adoptive parent arguing against openness says to me "I wish my love is all my baby ever needs."  This, too, is a legitimate desire. Wanting things and experiences, if honest about the needs they're attempting to address, is perfectly healthy. Knowing desires are often terribly unrealistic is also healthy.

I can feel my brain starting to fog over, so I'll wrap this up quickly if, perhaps, tangentially. No doubt you, the observant and critically engaged read that you are, have noted that I've not spoken to whether adoption is right or wrong here. That's intentional. I'm not concerned with whether adoption is the correct choice or a morally abhorrent choice at the moment. My concern is how we speak about adoption and how that reflects our attitudes toward each other. Adoption is polarized on many levels and I'm growing tired of seeing people turning their past injuries into weapons to further injure others. It feels like an east wing versus west wing cancer ward battle to the death. We've all been taken by surprise*. We've all been hurt by the same thing** and are in various stages of healing. A little kindness doesn't seem like so much to ask for. I suggest you be a trend setter. Tell someone that you don't understand, but you care anyway. Tell them you'll never fully know, and you love more deeply because of it.

*Whether it be unplanned pregnancy, infertility, unethical adoption workers, or even being raised by "the wrong family" and encountering stigma externally and internally everyone involved in adoption has encountered a situation in his/her life that s/he would not seek.

**Adoption hurts people. So does chemotherapy. No one wants it, even if s/he needs it.


  1. This is a very insightful post and I thank you for it.

    Let me be the first to say to you, Iam, that I certainly can't understand what you and Athena have gone and are going through but be certain that I do care anyway. For that matter, as an adult adopted in a closed, domestic, infant adoption situation 47 years ago, I don't understand all that Festus will deal with in his particular adoption situation but again, care anyway.

  2. Awesome! Very well said. You rock.

  3. yes, yes.

    I love your interpretations of the statements of others. so much of what we ascribe to others is sheer projection, adoption-related or not.

    I'd be interested to read your future post on the commonality of loss among adoptive and birth parents. I've had several conversations with our daughter's birth mother about this, but I've always been wary to draw any similarities between the preterm loss of my son and the placement of her daughter. but to me, at heart, we are two women who very much loved our babies who could not, for one reason or another, parent them.

  4. Thank you! Again, another magnificent post so well-articulated. I always appreciate your thoughts, and you remind us to be mindful of others. I personally believe we can support and help each other without needing to further our personal agendas or assuming our pain/joy will be what someone else will feel as well. I do believe that we all need support and love, and as human beings, we are all capable of compassion despite our different experiences.

  5. oh, much to say. much to say. too late and woozy to say it, so expect my long winded post in the morn.

    but I will say this: I wish there were more rational people in this community, people willing to look at both sides, recognize the uniqueness of their situation, and extend compassion to others. I agree with so much of what you said, and find some fault in some of it. More later.

  6. I think this post is very naive. If you want to learn more about humans I suggest you read early childhood development esp. re: attachment Bowlby, Harlow at all.

    As special as we all think we are the dictates of biology are not as whimsical as one's ego may wish.

  7. So interesting how one person's insightful is another's naive.

  8. Another great post. Even in pain and on meds, you are thoughtful and articulate...

    I know for me, in dealing with infertility and then adoption, I constantly have to remind myself to stretch beyond my (hopefully) rational mind into my (often totally) irrational heart. This is where I find the most compassion for those who do not share my experiences or views.

    I especially love your last two lines.

  9. It hasn't ever occurred to me to spear for Pie. She's 7 months old, so all there is to say right now is that she's a happy, healthy baby.

    People say to us frequently that she will have a better life with us. I don't think better is the word, I think different is more appropriate. I'd like to think easier as well, but I know that's only partially true. Some things will be easier with us, while others will be more complicated.

    I've come to some surprising conclusions through the course of the adoption process, especially in regard to its openness. And I imagine I'll come to many more through the years.

    All I can say with certainty is that my husband and I love Pie with everything we are and want the best for her. Pie's birthparents love her with everything they are and want the best for her. We'll figure out the rest as we go.

  10. There is so much that I love about this post, but most has already been said about your thoughtfulness and insight. I, too, loved the last two (pre-asterisk) lines. Also, thanks for prompting Kristin's comment that included, "I constantly have to remind myself to stretch beyond my (hopefully) rational mind into my (often totally) irrational heart.

    I was prompted to comment, however, when I looked at the post's labels. The juxtaposition of "Compassion, Rant" cracked me up. :)

  11. We do want to speak for the voice of the child and I appreciate you pointing out that we can't do that because we're still ourselves. This doesn't seem so bad, it seems as though you are referencing a bad experience where that was the case. But I will be careful from now on. :D


What do you think? I'm curious.