The new trend in the adoption world is to view birthparents and adoptive parents as equal and opposite. They are, after all, on the opposite sides of the table when it comes to adoption. One group gains a child. The other loses a child.
But there are significant similarities in the experience of adoptive parents and first parents. Most prevalent is the common experience of pain. That, however, is skimming the surface. Surprising to many is the cause for that pain is also similar; the existential loss that happens before one can approach adoption. The easy connection is to say couples who struggle with infertility have experienced the loss of a child as the birth parents will upon relinquishing parental rights. This is the simplest, most concrete, connection to make. If the experience beneath the factual events is examined, the parallels show themselves clearly, and with ferocity.
The loss found with infertility extends beyond miscarriage. People who struggle with infertility that never successfully concieve can experience just as potent a loss as those who have lost a child that could not be carried to term. That may not always be the case, but it is possible. But what can link the experience of a family, one that has never had the possibility of biological parenthood, to the experience of a first family about to place their child forever in the care of strangers?
The loss of possibility is powerful. It ignores the lines drawn between "us" and "them". It excludes literal experience and context. The loss of possibility is among the worst we can know. Without hope for our future there is little cause to continue caring for ourselves or others beyond stubbornness, and a refusal to give up in the face of certain defeat.
This is what links the experience of first parents and adoptive parents. Each has encountered their hopes for the future, and each has watched them crumble. No matter what the cause of their decision, first parents leave their desires for their future lives the moment they consider adoption (or the moment an inopportune pregnancy is discovered). No one wants to be a birth parent. No one dreams of growing up to place their children in the care of another family. Similarly, no one day dreams about fertility treatments, years of medical frustration and struggle, only to learn the effort is lost. In this arena, too, adoptive and birth parents are linked.
No one wants to be betrayed by their body.
First and adoptive parents also experience similar alienation. The pain in our lives alone makes many around us uncomfortable. The literal source of our pain often makes us pariah. People tend to get very uncomfortable when sexuality, fertility, pregnancy, or birth enter their consciousness through anything other than rose tinted romanticism. To talk about hard realities and trouble in any of these arenas is taboo. In some contexts it may be considered acceptable, but typically only for a short period of time. Effectively, if adoptive or birth parents are given support, it usually expires within a few months. It usually isn't around long enough to get through one pregnancy, let alone the years of struggle and waiting adoptive parents often experience.
But the moment the adoption takes place the experiences diverge significantly. First families typically use the adoption process as a means of reclaiming control of their lives' direction. The birthparents, particularly birthmothers, are in the driver's seat each step of the way until the child to be adopted in placed with the adoptive parents. Even so the impending dates of an expected delivery range and court dates often feel like a slow march to execution. Yes, placing the child is something that has the promise of giving the first parents another shot at creating the lives they want. But there is no promise the lives they want are possible, nor that society will allow someone "like them" to have a good life anymore.
The adoptive family, however, has most of their dread front loaded. The court dates, while nerve racking, are steps toward finalizing a process that gives new hope and possibility. Adoptive parents' pain is redeemed through adoption. The first parents are condemned by it. These two families converge at a point in their lives, though they are on very different trajectories. That, anyway, is the promise of adoption.
The actual experience to follow may or may not live up to any of those promises. Adoptive families can be surprised to encounter significant bias, even disdain and mistrust, for how they built their families. First parents are often surprised at how their experience can become a lightning rod for similar stories. Suddenly the auto-mechanic, the guy bagging groceries, the woman waiting at the bus stop, all have stories about adoption that connect with, and share sympathy for, the first family experience.
But that isn't what it feels like. The promises and realities of adoption often don't agree. The attitudes each member of the adoption community has about others in their midst are often rather misinformed. We have a lot more in common than we give credit for, even if the order of those experiences differs.