Adoption, Parenthood, and the Desire for Guarantees

Reading all the stories and commentary about the recent Russian adoption fiasco have made me think of how much parents crave certainty and how little of it they can have.   This story, from today’s New York Times, raises this point nicely in the context of international adoption. 

When you become a parent, you give up a tremendous amount of control even as you assume enormous responsibilities.   I recall being stunned by the realization that I could not make my children sleep–I could put them in a quiet room, I could sing to them, I could ensure that they were warm and well-fed and dry.   But whether sleep happened?  Not up to me.   (If you are now thinking I was a naive parent, I will accept that judgment.)  

That’s a trivial example.  There are countless far more serious ways in which we cannot control our kid’s destinies–will they be strong and healthy?  Will they be happy?  Will they be good people?   Parents have enormous roles to play in all this, but cannot be guaranteed any particular outcome.      

It’s therefore fair to say that parenthood doesn’t come with guarantees, even though we’d all like it if it did, and that this is true no matter how you get to be a parent.   Here’s where the NYT article added to my understanding.   

These general concerns manifest themselves in particular ways in adoption, particularly international adoption.   Dr. Jane Aronson, the subject of the article I linked to, observes that kids from China, Ethiopia or Russia (which are the top three countries from which US residents are adopting kids) face greater risks than American babies born to mother’s who get good prenatal care.  (The last qualification is doubtless important.)   People contemplating overseas adoption need to accept that risk, and it is her life-work to help prospective parents understand this.  

The article ends with a lovely depiction of a couple, Phillip and Susan Shih, who have an adopted son, Paul.  Paul was adopted from China and spent much of his first 13 1/2 months in an orphanage.   There are undeniable consequences from this upbringing, which are described in the article.   No one can say right now exactly what those consequences will be. 

 But that’s not what the Shihs focus on.  They’re focussed on Paul, the child who falls asleep in their arms.   While I’ll accept Dr. Aronson’s observation about the greater exposure to risks children like Paul have faced, I think there is a universal here.   We all have to learn to live with the uncertainty that is a necessary part of parenthood, even if the degree of uncertainty varies.    And perhaps we all manage in a way akin to the Shihs–we love our children for who they are now.  

I suppose I wanted to link to this story partly because it is the sort of story that doesn’t make the news very often because, after all, what is the news here?    Instances where things go dramatically awry will always get more attention than those where things go just as they should.   That tells us nothing about the relative frequency of the different outcomes.

36 responses to “Adoption, Parenthood, and the Desire for Guarantees

  1. Marilynn Huff

    Paul is an interesting name for a boy born in China. Are the Shihs loving this child for who is or who they wish he had been?
    Chinese immigrants that are not adopted choose their own American sounding names when they are old enough, if and only if, they feel the desire to do so.

    • This is a bit of a generalization. I live in Vancouver, BC – 43% Chinese population – and tons of Chinese Canadian kids have anglo first names. Some also have chinese names, but there’s certainly no universal pattern.

  2. Marilynn Huff

    I’m from San Francisco which is historically one of the main points of immigration for Chinese immigrants. Certainly Chinese people born in the US have Anglo-type first names. I was talking about people who, like the baby in the story, were born in China. While people born in China that move to the US do get American sounding names, like the baby in the story, they choose the American name themselves, unlike the baby in the story. I guess my point is that people that Adopt often change babies names to ones they like better. People that adopt rename kids as if they were not already a person with their own name. This practice is certainly not limited to people adopting from China – my point is a little broader than that. Its just more obvious with asian children because you know for sure that the baby was not born with that name. Its really irritating how many adopters think that leaving the childs real name as its middle name somehow makes the fact that they try to reinvent the child as their own, more acceptable. Especially with Chinese adoptees the adopters will often say that the name is difficult to pronounce or that they worry that kids will make fun of their name. Growing up in SF around lots of Asian kids, I’ve got to say I did not witness or participate any such thuggary. Maybe thats because its such a melting pot here, I don’t know.

  3. Likewise, I oppose the practice of Jewish parents converting the adopted child to Judaism. Even though the child is given a change to confirm or reject the conversion at puberty (historically the age of adulthood), nowadays 12 or 13 is too young for such a decision. Certainly the child should be told that it is legitimate for him/her to choose the religion of his/her birth parents and that such a choice is not a rejection of the adoptive parents.

    • I’m curious about your use of the word “converting.” If Jewish parents adopt a child of unknown religious origins and raise the child as though the child were Jewish (Jewish education, Jewish observances), is that conversion?

      To me it seems unreasonable to say that parents cannot raise the adopted child in the religion to which the parents belong, because that is an imposition on the child. I think many families find great strength in religious communities and to say that all in the family but the adopted child seems harsh. But I’m not sure this is what you mean.

      • There is a formal conversion ceremony after which the child is the child is a provisional Jew pending confirmation at puberty (generally the bar- bat mitzva).
        However, Judaism as I’m sure you’ve noticed is an identity and an affiliation well beyond a particular belief or practice. You can be a Jew but not practice Judaism and you can practice Judaism but not be a Jew. And the idea in Judaism is that there’s no going back; once a Jew always a Jew. So when the kid is 18 or 20, he’s could be in for a religious identity crisis, if he did not make the choice at age 13 truly freely.
        (Jewish born children do not need to confirm their Judaism at there bar mitzva. )

        Reversing the scenario: If Christian parents adopted a child that was known to be Jewish, certainly they have the right to expose him to their beliefs and expect him to live the same lifestyle as them, but not to tell him that he is no longer Jewish.

        • I had not even thought about religion. Probably because I don’t think about religion, but good point saramaimon.

        • I believe that adoption is not part of traditional Jewish law at all–it’s Roman, if I recall correctly. A child must be born to a Jewish mother in order to be Jewish, right? But current practices vary among the different branches of Judaism. In Reform congregations, adopted children are typically understood to be Jewish, I think, and can certainly be raised as a part of the religious community. If an Orthodox family adopts a child who was born to a non-Jewish woman (or perhaps a non-Orthodox woman?) is the child considered a part of the Jewish community even though the child is not himself or herself Jewish? I imagine it might be difficult for the child to feel a sense of belonging without being recognized as Jewish.

          This is probably a bit far afield from the topic, but you’ve made me think about it.

  4. (Naturally I feel the same way about Christian parents….)

    • Which is why the idea of “entitlement” in adoption rubs me the wrong way. Even now with open adoptions, the protocol remains the same: changing the name, changing the birth certificate, adopting parties being referred to as mother father or parent rather than as guardian or custodian. It all smacks of the same thing – the adopting parties can still present themselves to the world as if they conceived rather than adopted the child. With open adoption this must be very confusing for the child. Or at least I have personally met only the people that found it confusing – made them feel guilty. I’m sure there are those that don’t find it confusing but they don’t approach me to find their families.
      Julie had said that she feels there is a stigma being raised by a guardian rather than by “parents”. I’d like to hear some people chime in on this that were raised by people called guardians and by people that adopted them to see what they think. I’ve known lots of people raised by legal guardians. They did have parents, so they were not lacking in that department but there parents were either deceased or in jail or whatever. Nobody I know ever made fun of them, I certainly can’t conceive why anyone would. That’s not to say it never happens.
      Mostly the people I’ve heard say that genetic family is not all that important are people raising someone elses kids or at least looking to raise someone elses kids. I find it interesting that they never comment on it having been irrellevant in their own lives (like they wish that they had been adopted and raised by someone else). Maybe someone has an experience they’d like to share?

  5. I don’t mean to engage in hair-splitting but it seems to me there is a difference between adoptive parents presenting themselves to all the world as though they are parents and adoptive parents presenting themselves to all the world as though they are biologically related parents.

    While there are doubtless instances where adoptive parents do seek to present themselves as biologically related, there are many instances in which it is apparent that the child is adopted (particularly in instances of international adoption) and all adoptive parents what is to be recognized as parents.

    I am inclined to think about the two situations slightly differently. But generally I think it is little business of the rest of the world what the actual genetic relationship is. Honesty is important within the family, but I also see a role for privacy when it comes to the rest of the world. Thus, I don’t really need to know who is and who is not genetically related to my daugther’s soccer teammates.

    • Marilynn Huff

      Mother/Father/Parent are genetic terms universally understood to mean direct kinship to ones own offspring unless specifically qualified otherwise (i.e. adoptive or step etc.) Adoption differs chiefly from guardianship in that the adopting parties are granted the right to unqualified genetic title over the adopted child so that they may present the child as their own offspring if they choose to do so. Therefore it is not technically a lie for an adopter to omit the word adoptive when introducing themselves to someone as the parent of an adopted child. It does meet the criteria of a lie by virtue of omission because omitting the word adoptive will lead people to believe that the child was conceived by the parents rather than adopted by them. This is where Julie raised the point that it’s important not to lie by virtue of omission to the child because honesty is important within the family. Julie went on to say that it’s not really anyone else’s business that the child was adopted. It’s true that nobody else cares if the child was adopted. But is that a good message to give your kids? Its ok to lie (by virtue of omission) as long as you believe a person does not need to know the truth?

      I think originally things were very clear in adoption; the idea was to conceal the truth from everyone including the child so that nobody besides the court and the adopters would ever know about the adoption unless the adopters decided to tell them so. What happens now is that adopters want to be honest and not lie by virtue of omission to the adopted child, but continue to lie by virtue of omission to outsiders.

  6. I think children need someone they can call Mom and Dad.

  7. Marilynn Huff

    Are you saying that parents should introduce their child as my adoptive child whomever? That by not doing so they’re telling or living a lie by omission?

    That doing so would somehow be a good message to give one’s kids?

  8. The crux of what I’m getting at is that the legal process of adoption gives people the right to use genetic titles so that legally they are not telling a lie when they say they are the parents of an adopted child, while in fact, in reality they are not the parents…the child has parents but they are not present and are unable to care for him. If not telling the child that you are his parent by adoption is a lie then how is in not a lie if its said to someone else? A lie is a lie. It will matter to some people and it won’t matter to others.

    Being a childs legal guardian is so much more straightforward and honest all the cards are on the table and there are not the subtle implications of lying by virtue of omission when it comes out to the childs friends later on or whatever. I only encounter adopted people that are looking for there relatives, I know my view is narrow, but from what I have been told they feel obligated to perpetuate the biological family image in public out of respect for the people that adopted them. Like an unspoken expectation that they will pretend for them. And they privately refer to their biological family as their real family – but would never want to hurt the people that raised them by saying so.
    Calling yourself a child’s God Parent or Guardian does not lie to anyone or the child and does not dishonor him or his own blood family by pretending they don’t exist, it makes the kid know that they are loved for who they really are rather than the child they wish they’d given birth to. Its complicated. I don’t really expect to see any changes to adoption laws they are too deeply woven into the american fabric.

    • I’m generally in favor of truth-telling (though I’ve been known to admire haircuts I have my doubts about when in a pinch). But it seems to me you are basing all this on an enormous assumption that I disagree with. If saying “I am the child’s parent” is the equivilant of saying “I share DNA with the child” than for an adoptive parent to say she or he is a parent is a lie. But that’s not (in my mind and in law) what it means to say “I am a child’s parent.” I understand the parents of the child to be the people ultimately responsible for raising the child. From this point of view, the adoptive parent IS the parent and thus, it’s not a lie at all to say so.

      I realize that for you the statement “I am a the parent” is the equivalent of the statement “I share DNA with the child.” This use is actually unconventional and inconsistent with a good deal of history and with the practices of many cultures.

      Beyond that, I think switching to this usage would be policy. I think we (rightly) hold parents in high esteem–they perform a difficult and critical job. As a society we ought to support people who have made an irrevocable commitment to raise children. It’s laudable. Creating status differences based on genetics won’t help us.

  9. There are adopted people who really do think of their parents by adoption as their “real parents”, and for that matter, biological parents who feel just exactly the same way.

    Real parents to some are the people that raise them, not the people that conceived and gave birth to them.

    It’s very unique and situational and change won’t come if people are unable or refuse to understand or admit it.

    • I’m with Campbell on this one. When people use the phrase “real parents” I always think of the Velveteen Rabbit. (There’s a great book called The Velveteen Father, by the way.)

      I think the concept of parents ought to be anchored in the reality of a child’s life. I don’t see that it does any good to tell the child that your real parents have gone away and never want to see you and that these people here who love you and care for you aren’t “real.”

  10. Marilynn Huff

    “Real parents to some are the people that raise them, not the people that conceived and gave birth to them.”

    My worldview is pretty narrow just based on the stories of the people that contact me looking for relatives. I’ve been following Julie’s blog to get a broader understanding of the reasons why so many people are not allowed to know who they are related to. I am specifically seeking out other points of view – not because I’m looking to pick a fight. I am looking for someone to point out the logic in things that don’t make sense to me. My words made an appearance in your blog. I’m pretty embarrassed, I spend a lot of time trying to help mend families, I’m really not a radical if I came off that way I’m sorry.

  11. Hey Marilynn, no sweat.

    Most of us are just here to learn and as I told you on my blog at least now I understand where your passion comes from.

  12. marilynn huff

    Lie by omission. If the people that adopt never told the child that they were “adoptive” parents, and just used the word “parents” and nobody ever suggests to the child that they were adopted rather than conceived, and the child someday finds out – he is likely to feel deceived. He is likely to believe that he is related to his parents because they did not say they were his adoptive parents. I know several adopted people that felt lied to over this and several DI kids, that the word parent was used with no qualifiers. I’m sure there are an equal number who don’t feel deceived, but they maybe are less vocal.

    • Here’s a place I think we basically agree. It seems that concealment and then eventual discovery is the worst possible scenario. And since eventual discovery is probably likely one way or another, that seems like (purely pragmatically) the best course of action is to not conceal in the first place. Of course, even more centrally, I think we are role models for children and we ought to model honesty, even if some conversations are hard to have. Finally, I think concealment implies shame, and shame cannot be a healthy thing.

  13. I recall one adoptee who referred to both of them as my mom. Although the mom who gave birth to her but refused to have contact with her was often given the qualifier my mom, the stupid bitch.

    I bring this up not to be entertaining but to point out that her absence from her child’s life did not make her irrelevant, it did not make her not a mother. It made her a “stupid bitch” of a mother. (I do apologize for my language).

    She did have a relationship with her biological grandma thought, which was very comforting for both, a relationship based on the genetic tie between her and her bio mom. so the genetic relationship was significant for this reason as well.

    • Given what pregnancy and birth entails, it’s not hard for me to accept that a person would be curious about the person who did that for them. (I actually wonder who this plays out in surrogacy, and the fact that the person who gave birth might not be genetically related doesn’t seem to me to be an entirely satisfactory answer.)

  14. marilynn huff

    Yes Kisarita, I know what you are saying; its someone saying “my stepfather is my real father I have a a deadbeat dad.”

  15. “he is likely to feel deceived.”

    This may be the understatement of the day lol.

    I doubt there’s even a question : )

  16. marilynn huff

    I’m trying so hard not to speak on behalf of all adoptees and not to make broad generalizations!!!! I was thinking “parent” on its own is absolutely going to be interpreted by the kid (and the world, but they don’t count) as biological unless the word “adopted” comes up at some point. And if the state leaves it up to the people who do the adopting there will inevitably be kids who are raised without being told. The law can’t mandate that people “tell” that is impossible to enforce, but I think all the documentation should be transparent so that there is no chance at all that the adoption can be concealed from the child. Unfortunately I don’t see a way to do that without the word adopt (ed,ive,ion) being printed on any document that names the people who adopted as the child’s parents. I could see there being two documents one for people that don’t need to know and one for people that do but that leaves the child right where the law is now; the people that adopted can choose not to show the child the documents that say adopted. Its a toughie.

  17. Well, would it be so impossible to make it a stipulation that the adoptive parents have to tell the child? As a condition of the adoption?

    Children have rights too, and knowing one is adopted should be a pretty basic human right.

    And good work on reducing the broad generalizations!

    Teasing aside, I sincerely appreciate the effort.

  18. marilynn huff

    Julie had mentioned before that she thought stipulations like the one you suggested would be difficult or impossible to enforce. How would you think the courts could double back and check in to make sure the kid is up to speed on what’s going on? I could see the court having something in chambers with the child when they are maybe 5 years old to check in? Maybe again at 10? Thats why I thought the language thing would nip it in the bud, however the goal is the goal though. Many ways to sking the perverbial cat. And thank you for the compliment. Don’t want to stagnate.

  19. Hit em where it hurts.

    Tell the parents that at 18 the system will be informing the adopted child that they are and will be sending them a copy of their original birth certificate. If the child has not been informed prior to the 18th birthday they would be in a position to sue the parents if they so desired.

    You can’t make adopted kids call their parents something different so that they know they’re adopted. It’s not fair.

    • I do not think this is wise. The state has no knowledge of what is going on in that young adults life to spring it on them like that. I’m aware that your purpose is to push the adoptive parents into telling the truth. But there has to be a better way.

      • I don’t know, I can’t picture a parent keeping the info to themselves if they know that ultimately the child will find out, and would have legal recourse.

        I wonder how common this withholding of information even is nowadays.

        As far as it being sprung on a young adult, I don’t think there’s any good age or mind frame to be told you were adopted if you’ve thought for even 1 second that you weren’t.

        • Interesting point. I suspect it is probably true that if adoptive parents knew for sure that the child would be informed that he/she was adopted at a particular time, they would be motivated to tell the child in their own way and at a time of their choosing. So perhaps this would work.

          I think (although I do not have statistics to show this) that it is more common for adoptive parents to be honest with their children. Sometimes (with lesbian/gay adoptive parents, with transracial adoption, often with international adoption) it is obvious to all. And then there’s clearly quite a cottage industry of books–picture books for young children–dealing with the topic of adoption. I think there’s less shame and hence less secrecy associated with adoption, which can only be a good thing.

        • then all the more reason for the state to stay out of it.

  20. marilynn huff

    Had not thought of it that way. A big part of me says 18 is too late but, if they are the parents responsiblity until then I suppose it makes sense. Logistically the mail could be intercepted….some kind of confirmation would be I think the step the government really needs to take to make sure it no longer unwittingly assists in the deception of children.
    There are two issues though, one is the child simply being informed of the difference between being someones biological child and someones adopted child, that it means they are related to people whom they have not met. And second is whether or not and when the child should know who those people are and if they should know where the child is. The 2nd know is a touchy one i know. You can guess what my opinion is on it. I think the first issue is not such a touchy one, easier to change that law, because nobody could claim to have privacy invaded by knowledge of adoption, vs knowledge of identity.