Wednesday, January 27, 2016

No single right way

I once heard Henry Louis Gates, Jr. say in a lecture that there are as many ways to be black in America as there are black Americans; there is no single "right" way, or some way that's more right than others. There are 45 million black people in the U.S., and 45 million ways to be black. The same was just as true for any other cultural or racial group: 19 million Asian-Americans, 19 million ways to be Asian-American. It's a remark that meant a lot to me then, and has meant ever more to me over time.

One of the convictions I've arrived at through reflecting on my own adoption and reading about the experiences of other adopted people is that every adoption is unique, every adoptee has had different and unique experiences, and generalizations about adoption or adoptees should only be made with great caution—even when you are, as I am, an adoptee. There is no single way, and certainly no right way, to be adopted. And it is very difficult to generalize about the experience of adoption.

A lot of the most active writers on adoption in the past decade—mainly online—have rightly pointed out that well-meaning celebratory narratives and attitudes about adoption often have the negative side-effect of cheating the complex negative emotions that many adopted people have about the stories of their lives. While the strategy of celebrating adoption was itself developed in order to combat an earlier culture in which adoption was a source of shame for adoptees as well as both their adoptive and biological parents, these writers have attested that adoption doesn't always fit the positive slogans used to vindicate adoption in what was, until recently, a world that stigmatized the practice: that adoption is not an act of charity for which the adoptee is obligated to feel grateful, that adoptions are stories not only of gain but also loss, that color-blind attitudes are not sufficient to insulate adoptees from racist communities.

But it's also the case that some of the feelings espoused as truths about all adoptions by some of those same writers are not actually true of all adoptions. While I know that these writers mean well, I've often felt alienated by some of the claims they've made about the experience of adoptees—all adoptees, taken as a group. I came across an article on Twitter yesterday through Adoption.net (@AdoptionFeed):
Titled "Understand Your Adopted Child," the article has three broad headings:

  1. Understand your adopted child has experienced some very real trauma and loss.
  2. Understand your adopted child may want to search for their biological family.
  3. Understand your adopted child does not want to be told they are special, chosen, or lucky.
I can certainly understand why some adoptees feel this way. Yet taken as advice to all adoptive parents, or as expressions of the feelings of all adoptees, I can't agree to the third, and think the first is, at best, complicated. And I think we—as adoptees—should be very careful when we make claims that involve advice about all adoptions or the opinions of adoptees, taken as a class. 

The third is a bold command. It's written mainly in the context of a generation's worth of adoptive parents being given advice to celebrate, not hide, the fact of adoption. The writer makes several points. First, there is the claim that celebrating and honoring adoption are practices that "adoptive parents have made us believe." The writer then says, very broadly, that "Adoptees just want to fit in"—indeed, "want to feel like they are born into the family just as their siblings who are not adopted." Reminders of specialness are damaging, the argument runs: it inflicts feelings of guilt by making children compare themselves to other children who weren't adopted. Additionally, reminders of specialness can cause anxiety, making children feel the need to measure up or prove themselves. An analogy is drawn to the case of gratitude: no adoptee should ever feel obligated to be grateful; similarly, no adoptee should ever feel obligated to be exceptional. 

I can completely understand—and feel great sympathy for the fact—that this has been this writer's experience of adoption. And yet it wasn't mine in the least. To the contrary, being told that I was special was important and validating. Those messages felt kind and loving, and I think I would have been worse off without them. The same was true of being told that I was chosen, at least in the broad sense of being wanted, being the result of a decision process that involved great longing, excitement, and expectation. Being told that you're special is an experience that many non-adopted children have. And it's part of what parents in general—and not just adopted parents—feel or hope to feel for their children, and probably what we want them to feel. We'd be disturbed by a parent who feels the same kind of general affection for his or her child that he or she would feel for any child: we want there to be some feeling that their child is special. And one way of expressing parental love is by saying so—ideally without any expectation of performance, excellence, or achievement. You may want your child to feel empowered, or to build her self-esteem on top of your expression of belief in her specialness. But telling her that she is special—especially while making clear that she is special for who she is, not who she might be—doesn't necessarily create any anxieties about not measuring up. 

Being told that I was in a family as the result of a choice was also something that I took great comfort from when I was growing up, and still do. Again, many non-adopted children come to parents because of an active decision. This does not make them "lucky." But it doesn't make adopted children "lucky," either. (Out of the three words raised, I agree only on this one: that telling adopted children that they are lucky may be a bad message. In contrast, my own parents always told us that they were lucky, which I think is a good message.) This is not to say that loving parenthood can't come about because of, as they say, an "accident." But being told that your relationship came about because of choice is especially important for adoption because it places value on choice as a way of creating a family. It is the case that some families come about because some parents seek out a child to love—and it's important to vindicate that reason for the existence of some families as one that is just as legitimate as genetic parenthood. 

Discussion of this point begins with an objection to the practice of celebrating "Gotcha Day"—or, as other families call it, "Got Me Day," "Adoption Day," "Plane Day," etc.—the anniversary of one's adoption. The author acknowledges that it's perhaps just some, not all, adoptees who are made uncomfortable by this, but then goes on to object that it's a fiction created by adoptive parents. For some of us, however, celebrating the anniversaries of our adoptions the way we would a birthday or a holiday was an important and rewarding part of growing up. It communicated clearly to us that adoption was not something to be ashamed of. It made us feel happy, and loved. I acknowledge that there are reasons why some adoptees might prefer to end the practice—I'm even willing to admit that the reasons might be good—but it sits ill at ease with the fact that for some of us, including me, it had exactly the good effects that the social workers and adoption agencies who counseled the practice in the first place wanted it to have: a sense of pride. (I'll write more about this practice on a different occasion.) 

The author seems to be writing from the perspective of someone who grew up in a family where some children were adopted, and other children were not—and I can understand where some messages and celebrations might read differently in such a family. But that's an important demonstration of the conviction I stated at the beginning of this post: the circumstances of each adoption are different, and to be judged on a case-by-case basis before being used as grounds for general rule-making or advice-giving. What may be extremely valuable and validating in a family where all the children are adopted may feel very different in a family where some children are adopted and others not. 

This piece begins with an insistence that "your adopted child has experienced some very real trauma and loss." I've heard other adoptees say, "Every adoption begins with a tragedy." While this is true for some adoptees, I'm not sure it's true for all of us—and further, I'm not sure it's the story that we all want to have on further consideration. This impulse arises out of the sense that, too often, trauma, loss, or tragedy are denied in stories of adoption: that adoption is supposed to be happy and end happily, and the events that set it in motion are simply "resolved" by adoption. Objections to that story are right. But at the same time, it is far from true that all adopted children have experienced trauma and loss. For infant adoptees (like me), it is not part of our lived experiences, even though it may be part of our biographies. To be fair, it may be equally challenging to come to terms with having loss at the cornerstone of one's life. And that loss, if you do feel it keenly as part of your story, should not be denied. 

But even as I acknowledge that, I am wary of creating a life story that begins with trauma, tragedy, or loss, and defines the rest of its course according to that. That option should be open for those who feel it is the only way to come to terms with who they are. But it should not be the norm, or a norm, for adoptees in general, I think. I don't want my life to be an endless re-examination of one event, and I don't want to be the author of a tragedy in my feelings or actions. To the contrary: I feel like adoption has liberated me into a field of possibilities where stories well beyond the horizon of tragedy are open to me, and I am grateful for that life—certainly not because I'm obligated to be grateful, but simply because I am. What has disturbed me in reading the literature on adoption is how often adoptees who perceive the arc in their own lives to be tragic, and have made this central to their senses of self, insist either that all other adoptees can, or should—that acknowledging loss at the heart of one's story is part of being an adoptee the right way.

I disagree. Some adoptee's lives take on the cast of tragedy. But others are comedies, or problem plays; novels, romances, maybe epics. What is needed is the room and the sense of control to author the story that one chooses—not mainly to be acted upon, but rather to act. Creating those conditions is hard for any human, and perhaps adoptees in particular. We of all people should not be in the business of telling each other what kind of stories we should be living. 

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