Perspective – Mine, and Probably Mine, Alone

22 08 2011

In adoption circles, it is frequently said and widely accepted: adoption causes trauma.  Every single time I read that it strikes me as incorrect.  And I was wondering why I see this so differently from many of the people that I respect.  I think I finally figured it out.

My adoption perspective is shaped by my background in animal welfare.  The process of sheltering animals has three distinct steps.  There is relinquishment – when a lost animal arrives, or more commonly, when a family intentionally brings an animal to a shelter hoping the agency will find it a new home.  There is care taking- when an animal lives at the shelter hopefully receiving adequate food, water, exercise, attention and medical care.  There is adoption – when a match is made and the animal goes to its new, hopefully forever, home.

In human adoption we tend to refer to this entire process as “adoption.”  Still, my head always breaks it down into those three components.  The trauma in human adoption comes from relinquishment, possibly what happened before relinquishment, unfortunately sometimes what happens in the care setting, and rarely from the actual process of adoption.  That is not to say that joining a new family is easy and without its own form of trauma, but comparatively, and usually, the joining of the new family is the start of something good.  While it doesn’t erase the previous traumas, it does provide a path to a potentially great life.

I am treading on eggshells here.  I am being oh-so-careful not to say “a better life.”  A “better life” would be a giant assumption on my part and is not at all what I necessarily belief.  A better life makes the assumption that you know what the child’s alternative life would be.  Did you assume the child would be in a care center? on the streets? with his/her family of origin? dead?  The fact is we will never know for any specific child what the exact alternative would have been.  We do know many kids live on the streets, starve to death, spend their whole lives in care centers or wind up suffering in a family that is not equipped to care for them.  We also know that many women who did not think they could care for their children, find a way to get by, providing their children with everything they need and more. Furthermore, I do not want to make ANY assumptions about the circumstances leading up to the relinquishment.  In fact, I often feel at odds with other Ethiopian adoptive families over this issue.  I feel that as a community we over-simplify the causes of relinquishment.  Yes, poverty.  POVERTY.  Extreme, life-threatening poverty.  But not exclusively, and not always.

I am not looking to let adoptive parents off-the-hook.  When you enter into a complex paradigm that results in completely altering at least one human being’s life without his/her consent, you must be educated, conscientious and extremely aware of what your actions intentionally, or even unintentionally, contribute to.  Too many adoptive parents go into adoption with only their own needs guiding them, thereby opening the doors wide for unethical practices.

However, I contend, with a thousand caveats, that it is not the “adoption” part of adoption that causes trauma.  There are kids that need homes.  Millions less kids would need homes if we harnessed the political will and resources to correct the extreme imbalances in our world.  And I have seen many adoptive parents working towards that goal.  Still, there are kids that need homes.  The needing of the home is the tragedy.  The tragedy creates the trauma.

The finding of a home is actually a cause for celebration.  It doesn’t make you a hero.  The adopted child does not owe you gratitude.  Remembering the important fact that he/she did not ask to be in this situation in the first place and had no control over any part of it, the child deserves understanding (but not pity).  But a family coming together to move forward into the future as a team – that is a wonderful thing.

Fellow adoptive parents – fully conscious, sensitive, aware, concerned, adoptive parents – it is okay to celebrate your adoption.

(And if you are asking yourself – who is she to give that permission? – I humbly respond, absolutely no-one, just a woman with an opinion and a blog.  You also might want to hate me for daring to compare human adoption to animal adoption.)




15 responses

22 08 2011

“as a community we over-simplify … you must be educated, conscientious and extremely aware [to avoid] opening the doors wide for unethical practices. … [BUT] there are kids that need homes.”
The desires are so simple, but all the process isn’t. You are absolutely right to break it down. There is beauty here, but it’s not the righteous hallelujah some would make it out to be.
Thanks for another post of hard honesty.

22 08 2011

Interesting, thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m glad you feel like you can be honest and open to commentary on it. I’m not sure how I feel about it mostly because my perspective has dramatically evolved over the course of time and I don’t think it’s done. I would say that I humbly believe that adoptive parents, as being those educated, conscientious, aware parents you stated, we have to be prepared for the possibility that when our kids get old enough to form their own perspective they may not agree that the finding of a home is cause for celebration, for whatever reason, but I might conjecture that one of which may be because they may not break it down, they may feel a trauma and extend it to all aspects of the process. I don’t know. I’ve certainly considered that this may happen and that I’d have to also be prepared for that.

22 08 2011

Well. I have to say, gratefully, that being a PAP on the very precipice of receiving a referral, it is good to hold onto your words. I can be disheartened by pessimistic attitudes toward adoption. I’m not blaming anyone for making me feel more like a very tense cat (since we are including animals in our analogies here), but I am worried and tense and easily made more so. Can I also say that I really appreciate that you are candid and thorough in your explanation? Many times I feel that writers can be cryptic about why they are trepidatious about adoption nowadays. Like they know stuff that I really SHOULD know right about now that I’m gonna be quite shocked one day to learn. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the whole ‘process’ part, how it all will come to be, I feel like I may receive a referral photo and not even feel happy. That breaks my heart that I have come to that place. It is good to hear someone say that there is a place for celebration. In the current adoption environment, I feel that the part of me that is in love with this child, with this idea of my own little family, has been squished down to a quiet place inside of me.

22 08 2011

Christine – I am so sorry sometimes it seems cryptic. I know I always try to be as blunt as possible. I felt like things were cryptic too, back when I was waiting. And the thing is, that doesn’t totally go away down the road. I think you know so much that it will HELP you through this process. And I for one will be thrilled when you get that referral picture. Lots of love.

22 08 2011

Man this is a fantastic post. You’ve so well opened the door for discussion. I’d never broken it down into steps before, consciously, anyway.

I agree with you on many levels. As you’ve said, it’s so complicated it’s ridiculous. I know that in the process for at least one of my children, the parent making the initial relinquishment decision DID see the adoption as the good part. He’d figured it out. And that has always brought me peace as I help my child through the trauma.

22 08 2011
Just another evil adoptive mom

Personally, I’ve become weary of all the “adoption is so horrible” attitudes out there. We don’t make a giant deal out of American women who choose adoption for their child… but somehow in International adoption everything gets clouded and it’s always negative. Yes, in a perfect world all birth families would be able and willing to parent their children forever… but in many cases where both parents have died and there are no willing relatives who can support additional children… then what?? There are other cultural stigmas we just don’t “get” here in the USA and probably never could… and those are real reasons too! I’m tired of feeling like a villain for adopting children. And I’m tired of the adoption community at large who choose to adopt, then talk about how evil adoption is. Please. Tell that to the older kids waiting in care, hoping to be chosen, praying for a family and thinking they would be chosen if only they were younger. Sick. I feel like the anti-adoption crowd should actually just morph into a “pro-older child adoption” community… then I would respect their movement.

22 08 2011

Btw, that parent making that impossible decision? Did use the phrase ‘a better life.’ And meant it to his bones in a way that those of us that are so privileged could never understand.

22 08 2011

Gosh. You’re a brave woman for putting this out there. Really. I totally dig that you are so honest.

I agree with you on many levels. I’m half adopted- and I’ve found that even just being half adopted has given me an unexpected glimpse into how it feels to be adopted (I said just a glimpse. I know that full adoptees feel what I feel x10000 in every single direction all at once.). So that said:
I totally agree about a family finding each other should be celebrated. I think that for each human being to feel their life to be celebrated by those who love them is a basic human right. To feel celebrated- how basic and crucial is that?! How wonderful. How loving.

And yet…here I go with the half adopted part of me: there was a day that I arrived home from school to witness family members dancing an Irish jig in the kitchen. I didn’t know why everyone was so happy. I didn’t know what was being celebrated. I quickly realized it was because my bio dad was relinquishing me to adoption. The life drained out of me. I had to leave the room. I was enraged. I felt so betrayed- and part of that betrayal was the ensuing celebration of my adoption. I still can’t believe they were dancing-shameless!

So I don’t know about all of this. Whether or not we’ll celebrate when we get our referral is questionable. Last time we got the call we laughed and cried for days on end feeling every emotion. It will probably be like that.

Is this the longest blog comment anyone has ever written? Sorry! LOL!
**truly a very thoughtful post. you’ve got me thinking and feeling. thanks for putting it out there.

22 08 2011

Hmm…I see your point (and am not offended by the comaprison to animal adoptions), but I’m not sure I quite agree. Elfe’s father in Ethiopia also used the phrase “a better life” as part of the relinquishment process, and I have to believe that he made the best possible decision for her that he could under the circumstances, and I hope that he (and she) are happy with the life she has here with me…but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any trauma involved in leaving behind her first family, her country, her language, her religion, her food, and everything else. And that trauma didn’t happen until the “adoption” part of the process that you’ve described. I think we can celebrate “the finding of a family” while also acknowledging and dealing with the trauma.

22 08 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

An alternative name for this post probably could have been “Splitting Hairs.” The fact remains, she left behind her family, possibly her language and religion, when she moved to a care center. So I think that part of the trauma is wrapped up in relinquishment and not adoption.
I didn’t touch on the whole culture and country thing because it feels like the third rail of international adoption to me. Yes, for sure, it has its own degree of trauma, especially since our children did not CHOOSE it. But (oh no I am reaching for the rail) millions of people do choose to leave their cultures and countries of origin, which makes me believe that it may be traumatic but is also somewhat palatable, or at least the lesser of two evils. And only a teeny, tiny, miniscule proportion of people ever born would choose to leave their family of origin if given a choice. Therefore, I think the huge trauma of relinquishment dwarfs the trauma of cultural displacement. (At least I think that today, for the purpose of this post. And I reserve the right to have my mind changed.)
As for the “better life” – clearly there are relinquishing parents who believe it. And these parents probably have the clearest view of the alternative lives these children might lead. Trying not to assume anything can also apparently make an a$s out of me.

25 08 2011

Well, I was going to leave a reply sort of disagreeing again, saying you really are splitting hairs if you want to start talking about palatable trauma…but then this morning Elfe told me that she wished she had been able to stay in Ethiopia forever and forever and forever and that it was all my fault she had to leave, and I immediately thought of your three phases of the adoption process and used it to help me explain to her that even though I wished she could have stayed in Ethiopia forever too, it was no one’s fault she had to leave and that my desire to adopt a child didn’t cause the circumstances that led to her relinquishment…so, you might be on to something after all… 😉

25 08 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

For some reason I cannot reply to your reply to my reply… so this is in the wrong place. But I wanted to say – I am sorry. Sorry Elfe is so frustrated and sad. Sorry you are having to have these impossible conversations. On the other hand, I am happy she will be so honest with you, that the two of you can explore the deepest depths of your hearts. What does that say about your parenting – so, so much. I hope I can parent well enough that my kids will trust me that way.
I look forward to the day when you blog about the joy she feels at being part of your family. The joy in adoption does not negate the trauma, but it is also very real.
I worry that some fabulous adoptive parents are so sensitive to “relinquishment trauma” (hey, look, I am inventing a new vocabulary) that they feel they can not celebrate the adoption part. Mindy said it best – all humans deserve to have their inclusion in their family celebrated.
In the end, I have no answers, I just know that my brain categorizes the process in this manner. Some part of that categorization may be justification, but the vast majority of it is from creating a budget and developing programs for animal shelters.

22 08 2011

I get what you are saying, and have a post of my own that I bounce around, never publishing. There is trauma, and there is cause for celebration- both. I will forever have a check list in my brain- loss side/gain side. This summer, chock full of gains, has tilted the list in the positive column. I get what you are saying, and in many ways I agree. The confusion and pain present whenever my daughter and I talk about what happened to her will prevent us from ever fully celebrating her adoption- but so many things are better for her, many things that I can’t ever tell anyone, but I celebrate nonetheless.Mixed bag. Thanks for the post.

23 08 2011

This really is an interesting post, and I love that you wrote it down. I have loved reading others’ comments as well.
Btw, thank you for the incredibly kind comment on my ‘water’ post.

23 08 2011


I think growing up with people who don’t ‘match’ you has certainly got to be hard. Whether it’s necessarily traumatic – I’m not qualified to say.

I absolutely agree that there are discrete ‘bits’ to our kids’ stories – and the bit at the end (the adoption) should not really have had anything to do with the bit at the beginning (the relinquishment) or we’re heading into very, very murky ethical territory! And I think you make that point well – we can’t take responsibility for decisions that we did not make, that someone else made.

And we can (and should, I think) be glad that we came together with our kids, while still holding the tension of allowing them to feel sad that they had to come apart from someone else first. I wrote a bit about this on our first family day last year – and yeah, it’s hard to put some of those thoughts out there! I’m very glad that YOU did. Clearly lots of thoughts have been provoked 🙂

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