We adoptive parents are often taught (and teach) that adoption is win-win: a child who needs a family gets one, and an adoptive family who wants a child gets one. And that’s often true. My own family was formed through adoption, and I love my children more than I can say.
The story goes on, though, and this is where it gets complicated. For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.
That’s a painful reality for adoptive parents to face. It’s even harder, I would guess, for adoptees and for first parents.
Mila Konomos, a Korean adult adoptee (who loves and is loved by her adoptive family), has written a powerful, insightful essay about the loss, the complexity of it all. It’s called “I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother.”
Adoption, Mila writes, too often suggests that adopted children are supposed to never look back. “I was supposed to be so grateful to have a family that losing my family was supposed to be a negligible event with very little effect on my life or identity.”
Adoption, she continues, “is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together.”
She challenges us adoptive parents: “If the bond of one’s own flesh and blood ultimately doesn’t matter, then how much less of a bond, of a commitment, does friendship or marriage carry with it?”
Take time to contemplate that, as it is a hard-won and very real insight.
It’s a painful one for adoptive parents to consider. We go through a lot to adopt a child, we prepare to love them before they arrive, and we do our best to love them deeply when they are in our family. (Most do. I recognize this is not a universal truth.) It’s hard to think that we became parents of a beloved child because someone else had to give that child up. And it’s so important that we think long and hard about that truth.
Yes, of course, there are cases where the first parents were abusive toward, neglectful of, or dangerous to their children. I’m not arguing that adoption plans aren’t needed in this world. I’m joining Mila on the journey of acknowledging that adoption is rooted in loss.
I’m reading with eyes wide open her statement that “If you believe that…your role in a relationship is disposable, then you behave in such a way that those friendships and relationships don’t last, which you then use to confirm that indeed relationships do not last and that you ultimately do not matter.”
For some (not all) adoptees, that’s a complicated, lifelong challenge. I think of a baby who at four months learned to stop crying to have needs met, because those needs were not met in a loving way. I’ve seen this challenge manifest in an adult adoptee who, while charismatic, bright, and loved, often pushes his adult relationships to a messy end, in a self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling effort to prove that relationships don’t last. I’ve known adult adoptees who struggle with trusting that others will love them and not leave, who choose not to love so they can avoid being left, avoid being replaced. Again.
Mila concludes her essay by saying that adoption has taught her “that family is inconsequentially interchangeable and replaceable. I’ve had to spend my adult life trying to unlearn this lesson and its implications, because I realize that ultimately (was) wrong. I realize now that flesh and blood connections absolutely matter, and when they are severed, there are serious psychological and social consequences.”
What’s the takeaway from all this? To me, as an adoptive parent, it’s this:
Listen to adopted children, and let them grieve the loss of their first family, in all the manifestations that grief can take. Talk about, wonder about, write letters to, connect with their first parents in whatever ways are appropriate for your family. I remember how one of my children used to weep hot tears on Mother’s Day, not being able to recall deeply important memories. We can’t always remove the pain, and it’s hard knowing that our actions are intertwined with the pain. Sometimes our best help is to let those tears flow, and not try to make them disappear right away.
Listen to adult adoptees, whether they are in your own family or they are writing and speaking out in various forums. Mila speaks of her struggles, and also of the love of her husband and the joys of her two young children. There’s a big picture here. It’s valuable.
As adoptive parents, may we revel in the joy of parenting, and become comfortable with the reality of loss and grief. But not too comfortable. May we be willing to lead or to follow, as needed, to help our children–whether 10 years old, or 16, or 30–understand who they are, where they came from, why they may feel replaceable, even as we could never replace them.
Adoption is not an end. It’s merely a part of a path that can be alternately convoluted and smooth, with very few signs to guide us. We can’t change the past, and we must not deny its realities. We must keep moving forward, together: adopted persons, adoptive parents, and first parents. That is the only way that we can effectively improve adoption policy and practice, and outcomes for children. Adopted children grow up! May we adoptive parents be their allies, always.
Please read Mila’s post carefully, wherever you are in adoption. This video of her reunion with her Korean mother is also evocative and valuable. Many thanks to Mila, and to other adoptees who share their journeys with open hearts.