When my kids were little, I used to hear fairly often how saintly and noble and exceptional I was for having adopted. I don’t know if it was because of the choice to adopt, or because the adoptions were transracial, or because my daughters were six years old when they arrived from Ethiopia: clearly, different folks were motivated by different reasons. Their dad and I got comments like “How lucky these children are!” and “I could never do that!” I guess “that” was adopting, or white people adopting black children, or adopting older children—I don’t know. We would accept, demur, and deflect the ostensible compliments.
It took me a while to understand the impact of the remarks about the luck of the kids and the saintliness of us parents. I felt fortunate—I wanted kids, and these four are blessings—don’t most parents feel that way? But in adoption, there’s always an undercurrent of rescue, which is a step away from saving, and from saviorism, a word often preceded by “white.”
The object of a rescue is often understandably grateful. People who are saved from some dire outcome are grateful.
Ergo—adoptees are supposed to be grateful.
And that is a complicated, contentious, disturbing, problematic statement, one which is often discussed in many an adoption circle.
We can all be grateful to our parents, especially if they have been kind and good to us.
But should adoptees be grateful they were adopted? Were they truly saved from a dire outcome?
Do they owe us, their adoptive parents, a special note of gratitude for having “chosen” them, and raised them?
Is adoption a kindness, one that our adopted children should thank us for?
“This Is Us,” a series on NBC, resonates with many in the adoption community, especially transracial adoptees and their adoptive parents. (Spoiler alert) When Randall became the replacement child for the triplet who died, the Pearson family had no idea what awaited any of them. A kind doctor arranged for the white parents to take the abandoned black baby home from the hospital with them in 1980. Now, in 2016, Randall is 36.
The final episode of this season’s “This Is Us,” a show which I have been enamored with, takes place on Christmas Eve. There is a flashback scene where, coincidentally (this is a show that thrives on coincidences), the doctor who delivered Randall’s siblings (and gave Randall to the family) is in the hospital at the same time that Kate (Randall’s sister) is undergoing an appendectomy. The kids are all around 10 years old.
The Pearson parents, Jack and Rebecca, tell the kids that Dr. K was responsible for their family, and now, since Dr. K’s family can’t get to the hospital, “tonight we’re gonna be his” family.
Randall meanders into the gift shop, and buys a snow globe for Dr. K. In presenting the globe to the doctor, Randall says, “My dad said you’re the reason they adopted me. So thank you.”
I know firsthand there were some adopted adults whose eyebrows went up and hearts sank at that line.
Dr. K is kind and complimentary about the snow globe, and about his role in the adoption. “Only thing I did that day was nudge a man in a direction he already wanted to go.”
A sentiment that unwittingly speaks to the lack of agency by the adoptee, omits the role of the mom, and is silent on what direction Randall’s birth parents may have wanted to go in.
Dr. K goes on to say to Randall, “If at some point in your life, you find a way to show somebody else the same kindness that your parents showed you, well, that’s all the present I need.”
Adoption as kindness: there’s a much bigger picture, and I recognize that many folks don’t want to hear it, think I’m being negative, and wish I would lighten up.
I love my children beyond words, and I know that my joy has come at a price, for them and for their first families. They love us, their adoptive parents, deeply. Each has experienced and dealt with loss and trauma differently. Their view of gratitude around adoption is multi-layered, and theirs to express.
I don’t think my children should be grateful to be adopted. Maybe they should be appreciative and thankful for sacrifices their dad and I have made for them, but that’s what parents are supposed to do. We hope they will do their best for their children.
But adoption is based in loss. It’s supposed to take children from a bad situation into a “better” one, and sometimes that happens. Adoption should certainly be an option for abused and neglected children, when parents can’t or won’t take care of their children and keep them safe. Adoption shouldn’t be a permanent solution to a temporary situation, when, with a little help, parents could raise their children. Adoption can be positive and powerful, when done with transparency and integrity.
As an adoptive parent, I am often stunned at how rarely the losses (or existence) of birth parents are mentioned, as well as the grief that adopted children/adults may experience as a result of having been adopted.
To its credit, “This Is Us” has a strong birthfather story line. On his 36th birthday, Randall found his birthfather William, and it turns out that William had desperately wanted to know his son. Rebecca, Randall’s adoptive mother, closed that door for 36 years. (Randall is now in danger of going from a grateful adoptee to another stereotype, an angry adoptee. The writers of “This Is Us” have a lot on their plate.)
I both understand and despise Rebecca’s choice in cutting William off. As a white, middle class, non-drug addicted parent, she held the power. (Indeed, we white, well-educated, non-addicted parents have traditionally held the power in adoption, and have often been considered saviors and rescuers of our children, especially of brown and black children, and of orphans. What a burden that places on our children.) She exercised her power, and it was not a kind decision. I hope the show continues to unpack the nuance and heartache of what seemed “best” to her.
I hope also that those who were a bit teary at that scene of Randall expressing thanks with the snow globe realize that tears fall for many reasons in adoption, and not necessarily for gratitude or kindness.
Here are some adoptees’ perspectives on the complexity of gratitude in adoption: