Nature in Adoptive Parenthood

Irving Leon, PhD
Clinical Instructor
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor


The title of my talk is not a typo. While I will be discussing the nature of adoptive parenthood, my fundamental point is that adoptive parenthood is essentially natural. That is, the crucial cement for the construction of parenthood is the motivation to parent and the action of parenting. The psychological achievement of parenthood is the natural response to the child's need to be nurtured--the behavioral, emotional, cognitive--in a word--social--relationship of parenting. Thus, the crucial stage of development highlighted by Erik Erikson (1953) is generativity, embodied in the need to care for, raise, and mentor the young. While this readiness to parent may be viewed as naturally built into our species, it is not instinctively inevitable. As with any developmental phase, generativity is sensitive to what has been learned or not learned before. Inadequate parents are not likely to have experienced good parenting as children. As important as reproduction is for most couples in ushering in parenthood, that act is neither necessary nor sufficient for true parental ties to be made.

The primary purpose of my discussion will be to elaborate a positive model of adoptive parenthood. My goals are twofold. First and foremost, I believe there are aspects of adoptive parenthood which optimally meet children's needs. The overall quality of biological parenting may be improved by incorporating some of these features of adoptive parenthood. Secondly, a positive model of adoptive parenthood is long overdue. Too often adoptive families have been told that adoption is the last resort, that adoption leaves a battalion of scarred birthmothers and wounded adoptees, that being adopted is a cultural metaphor for being different from one's family and not fitting in (Remember those old sibling childhood taunts--in biological families--of not really belonging, of being adopted.) A positive model for adoptive parenthood may be seen to benefit prospective adoptive parents as well as parenthood in general.

My intent is not to gloss over the very real losses and challenges that adoption presents for adoptive parents. Infertility is no easy loss to grieve. Adoptive parents must learn to attach to their child without experiencing pregnancy, the period during which that bond usually begins and grows. Adoptive families are denied the powerful joys of biological connection, which need to be addressed and resolved by them. I am convinced, however, that most difficulties resulting from adoption are not due to the nature of adoption in and of itself, but the prejudice, often subliminal but pervasive, against it in our society. The critical issues in adoption are less, I believe, about facing inevitable loss than recognizing and challenging culturally induced shame and stigma.

Nor is my intent to be antagonistic to biological parenthood or to establish an artificial dichotomy between adoptive and biological parenting. The two are much more alike than different and how good a parent one is has much less to do with whether one is a biological or adoptive parent but rather, well, how good a parent one is. Many of the advantages of adoptive parenthood which I discuss are true of most biological parents. While biological parenthood should remain the norm of parenthood in our culture, how biological parenthood is put into practice in our society can and should be challenged. In defining parenthood in our culture, there is simply too much emphasis on the act of procreation than the ongoing process of parenting. Children should be viewed less as offspring owned by the creating couple than a developing person whose needs should be met by competent parents.

A major controversy in adoption continues to be the question of opennness--whether the adoptive family knows and has some degree of contact with the birthparents. While the jury is still out on the impact of openness in adoption, sufficient evidence suggests that when freely chosen by adoptive parents, openness can reinforce the adoptive parents' sense of entitlement to parent and increase their empathy with birthparents (Berry, 1990; Grotevant et al., 1994). It is not yet clear that openness leads to a better adjustment by adoptees (Berry, 1993; Wrobel et al., 1996).

An important, though often overlooked aspect of openness is less the actual relationship with or even information about the birthparents, than the acceptance by adoptive parents of the reality of adoption which is concretized in openness. When closed adoption masks a wish to deny being an adoptive parent and a protest that adoption is identical to biological parenthood, I believe less adaptive maneuvers may be used to grapple with the underlying shame and stigma typically provoked by adoption--that is, I can feel comfortable as an adoptive parent as long as I can make believe that birthparents do not exist. Optimally, adoption can be built on a stronger foundation. While I will not be discussing aspects of open adoption relationships per se, my positive model implies an acceptance of openness, that believing one is able to be a complete, real parent to one's child is not overly threatened by knowing the people who created that child. Also implied is the acceptance of one's child as one's own without sharing the blood and genetic connections which, admittedly, we are taught from early on make one a son or daughter.

This positive model of adoptive parenthood encompasses eight separate factors which I will now discuss:

  1. Adoptive parenting is truly planned parenthood.

    More than half of all pregnancies are unplanned. While unplanned does not inevitably mean unwanted, when parents are not prepared or motivated to parent, their children suffer. Long-term studies indicate that when mothers are denied elective abortions (Forssman & Thuwe, 1966, 1988; Maatejcek et al., 1978; 1979) or decide to parent their children after first making adoption plans (Bohman & Sigvardsson, 1990), their children have significant emotional difficulties as they grow up. In the most extreme cases, unwanted children are killed. Resnick (1970) reported in a worldwide study of infanticide that 83% of newborns killed and 11% of children killed by their mothers had been born of unwanted pregnancies. More highly motivated parenthood may improve competence. One study (Golombok et al., 1993) suggests that adoptive parents and biological parents who experienced infertility demonstrated significantly greater parental warmth, maternal emotional involvement, and parental interaction than their peers.

    Not all motives for parenting are necessarily positive. But parenting is such a daunting task and such an important responsibility, not having sufficient motivation is a recipe for disaster. How ironic that the cultural stigma attached to adoptees (of being unwanted by their "real" parents) is more likely to apply to children raised by biological parents. Adoptive parenthood chooses and wants to parent first, a propitious beginning for all parenthood.

  2. Adoptive parents are licensed.

    Jack Westman has written so comprehensively and convincingly about the value of establishing a few basic requirements to parent, I urge all of you to read his fine book, Licensing Parents (1994). There simply is no better way of helping all children now than by insuring competent parenting.

    All prospective adoptive parents must possess sufficient mental health, maturity, motivation and money in order to be considered qualified to parent. Sadly, in our time, what I believe should be the least important criterion--financial status--has become the decisive one in the new changes in welfare legislation.

    Licensing parents presents a paradox. On the one hand, the very idea of demonstrating the most minimum qualifications to parent is often seen as a futuristic, totalitarian threat to American freedom and privacy. On the other hand, the absence of any criteria to parent clearly indicates that as a society we consider children second-class citizens, not entitled to the same rights and basic protections of other individuals. Parenting is a role, perhaps the most important one for most people in their lives. But as important as that role is, it is not life itself. Not so with children. Their lives, their development, their futures depend on those who take care of them--their parents, their family.

    The homestudy, the certification which all prospective adoptive parents must pass, is often considered at best, a necessary hurdle, and at worst, the bane of adoption. Such a process is better viewed as an appropriate regard for the importance of children and the quality of parenting they receive. How much better it would be for all children coming into this world to have their basic needs anticipated with reasonable expectations for those needs to be met by their parents, biological or adoptive.

  3. Adoptive parenthood makes the child-parent relationship, not procreation, the essence of what it means to be a parent.

    All good parents, of course, love and nurture their children. But because in our culture, being a "real" parent means creating one's child, biological parents may be inclined to believe that their genetic connection with their offspring will inevitably solidify the emotional bond with their young. It may feel a bit less important to parent when one is so assured of being the parent. Adoptive parents, not having that genetic connection, must rely on the actual parent-child bond as the principal determinant of parenthood. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969; Karen, 1994) and developmental/clinical theory (Goldstein, Freud, & Solnit, 1979) make it clear that in the eyes of a child the sense of Mommy and Daddy is based on who takes care of that child, meeting that child's needs, and knowing that child's uniqueness and individuality in moment-by-moment daily interactions.

    Adoptive parenthood holds the potential for the development of attachments becoming the essence of what it means to be a parent. All parenthood can and should aspire to that meaning. It provides the best chance for children to develop in the most secure and productive fashion.

  4. Adoptive parents may be able to become less disappointed in their children than biological parents.

    Parents who come to adopt after infertility are usually warned to grieve their losses, lest their hurt and lowered self-worth is put into (or as we say, projected) onto their children. Yet, might not adoptive parents also possess some protection from the disappointments that biological parents may be inclined to feel when their children do not measure up to wishes and expectations? The genetic connection with one's offspring commonly leads to a blurring of boundaries between biological parent and child. How often parents look to their children to compensate for their own felt deficiencies--the father hoping his son will be the football star he never became or the mother wishing her daughter will have the successful career which eluded her. Time and time again in my clinical practice, I see parental disappointments in a child, followed by withdrawal from or criticism of a child, damaging that child's development. And when parents are unable to sustain a basic sense of goodness in themselves, it may be difficult or impossible to feel the children they created can be any better. Might adoptive parents, lacking this genetic connection, not have their own self-esteem affected as much by the achievements and limitations of their children?

  5. Adoptive parents may be more ready than biological parents to tolerate personality and temperament differences in their children.

    Adoptive parents are frequently warned not to expect the similarities in styles, temperaments, talents, and so forth that are usually taken for granted in biological families. With the now constant reporting of genetic contribution to human behavior, today's adoptive parents are probably even more primed to face inborn differences with their children. As we all know, however, genetic connections work in mysterious ways. How common it is in families to have one child be the "spittin' image" of a parent and another seem, well, different. While some families comfortably tolerate differences, others do not. Might adoptive parents be more ready to accept and even enjoy these differences, assuming that has been part of their preparation for adoption? Both the readiness to accept inborn differences in one's children and the less likely tendency to invest one's self-worth in their achievements, may help adoptive parents to better appreciate their children as unique individuals in their own right.

  6. Adoption is not sexist; fathers are equal-opportunity parents.

    Biological differences between men and women in the role of reproduction may reinforce our cultural values which favor women playing the primary role in parenting. After carrying a baby during pregnancy, giving birth to that child, and then being uniquely equipped to nurse that child, a mother may feel more than a leg up on being the primary caregiver. With those reproductive activities favoring the maternal role absent, adoption may enable a more equal involvement in parenting by mothers and fathers right from the outset. Fathers may become more important as parents.

    More equally shared parenting roles may also lead to happier and more lasting marriages. It is well documented that becoming a family is not the blissful ideal our culture likes to imagine. Marital satisfaction often plummets after biological children arrive, usually due to the dramatic differences in parental responsibility and role changes (Belsky & Kelly, 1994; Cowan & Cowan, 1992). The myth of the supermom--and the strains it places on overburdened mothers and tense marriages--may only be effectively put to rest when fathers fulfill in action, not intent, their being full-fledged, not part-time, parents. Interestingly, in a recent large-scale study comparing adoptive and biological families, adoptive parents were significantly more likely to remain together than their more frequently divorcing biological parent counterparts (Benson et al., 1994). One wonders if a more planned parenthood or a more shared experience in parenting may better prepare and sustain them for the rigors of parenthood, and help contribute to the greater stability of adoptive families.

  7. Adoptive parents are potentially less likely to feel a sense of ownership of their children in which they are viewed and sometimes treated as physical belongings.

    "Children are not property." Our 1998 sensibilities tell us this is self-evident. But for most of our history just the opposite was true. From the colonial period into the 19th Century, children belonged to their fathers as an economic asset, as property. The parent-child relationship most closely resembled the master-servant relationship. Children were valued for what they produced and they were frequently traded. In fact, most of the settlers of colonies south of New England were indentured child servants, apprenticed to non-biological households. Whom you lived with (or worked for) mattered more than blood ties. As recently as the late 19th Century, older children--whose labor was valued - were much more likely to be adopted than babies, who had no economic value. Adoption battles in the 19th Century usually revolved around whether adoptees possessed inheritance rights, rather than custody decisions.

    While we are rightly repelled by the idea of children carrying a price tag on their heads, too often our legal system treats children as property of their biological parents. As a member and director of HEAR MY VOICE, a national child advocacy organization, I have too often seen family preservation programs blindly promote the return of children to biological parents who are virtual strangers to them. When birthparents wait months until the final day they can legally claim their child, one must question whether what they truly wish is to parent that child or not to give up what is felt to be rightfully theirs. Adoption may conceive parenthood based not on legal ownership and possession, but on psychological, though no less permanent, ties.

  8. Adoption potentially offers an expansive vision of family built on relating to others rather than the restrictive determination of biological families based solely on blood relations.

    Sharing our very being and substance can certainly reinforce the sense of belonging, permanence, continuity, and connection which are vital to family stability and functioning. The biological basis of family can provide a feeling of being grounded, a sure sense of where one fits in. This is an especially valued haven in a postmodern world too full of flux, ambiguity, and isolation.

    Of course, the high incidence of premarital births, single parenthood, and divorce shatter the illusion that biology in and of itself provides the strength to keep people and families together. It does not. Finally, there is the much uglier flip side to the belief that it is blood bonds that tie us together. That is the increasingly dominant reality that biological differences tear us apart. With the widespread fall of Communist ideology, virtually all the major international or civil conflicts in the world now rest on ethnic differences, whether built on different religious beliefs or national ties. From Bosnia to Rwanda, from Ireland to the Middle East, from Kosovo to our own racially divided country, tribalism rules. The belief of loving one's own transformed, becomes, hatred of the other. Never mind that the genetic differences between racial groups are always less than those within a group. We are not talking science here, but prejudice.

    Adoption offers a different concept of family and community, one in which the sharing of life together matters more than the sharing of genes. It continues to be a radical idea, challenging what we usually call family. Like interracial marriage, it says the most intimate of human relationships need not be restricted to "one's own," but may reach out to embrace others to make them "one's own." It potentially loosens the boundary between us and them, enlarging, not confining, what it means to be family and deepening, not fracturing, what it means to be a community. It may potentially change not only how we view family, but how we see ourselves and how we are most importantly connected to people. Close friends and birthfamilies may assume in some instances a familial status in adoptive families as those boundaries are made more porous and open. In a country in which all of us, excepting native Americans, are descended from those who adopted and were adopted by this country, it seems only natural that we develop and not derail the potential of this institution, integrating its elements, when applicable to biological families at large.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

Much of what I discussed is a vision of adoption, one that may be more possible to realize once it frees itself of the bias against it. It is a vision which views parenthood less as a right, but more as a privilege; less as a role taken for granted, but more as a responsibility to be earned. It is a vision in which parenthood is ultimately never an accident, a mistake, or an inevitability, but a choice. It is a vision which promotes the opportunity for children to develop their fullest individuality while fostering the deepest sense of community and connection with others based not on blood similarities but shared human relationships. It is a vision which says what matters most is not where and who you came from, but what you create and sustain with others. It is a vision which says children belong to their parents, but are owned by no one. It is a vision not only of adoption but for all parenthood. It is a vision based not on the rights of adults but rather on what all children need and deserve.

Copyright © 1998 Irving Leon.

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