On one of my visits home from college, one of my younger sibs/cousins came into the house to tell Aunt Rita that (their friend) Richie’s parents had sent his sister “back.” I knew that Richie was an adopted kid, but my experience with adoption at that point was limited to other of my cousins who had been adopted as infants. I had five of them in two different families and I couldn’t comprehend any one of them being “sent back.” They were family. They still are.
I remember Aunt Rita being taken aback, bewildered, and saying that she didn’t know such a thing was even possible. That’s all I remember. Was Richie’s home a foster home? Had the sister been adopted? Not yet adopted? I had, and still have, no idea. But the memory has stuck with me now for over forty years. Something didn’t sit right.
This past week I met with a family who is actively planning on giving up their adopted and years long finalized child. The child’s behavior is dangerous and he should not be living at home, or even in the community. I get that. And politically it is absurdly difficult to deal with this kind of problem. The system sees parents – certainly adoptive parents – who ask for residential help for their child as “neglectful” parents. That in itself – via the Child Protective System – can lead to terrible – and unnecessary – consequences for families.
But there are options that families don’t even seriously consider when trying to solve this kind of problem. For instance, we don’t dream of killing the child. I read the other day that there are three million children in the US currently living with relatives other than the nuclear family. I can’t remember where I read it, but I was astounded at that high number: there are less than 500,000 other kids in foster care. So clearly families turn to family most of the time when there is trouble. How is it that the thought of giving up one’s child only seems to get carried out by adoptive parents? Granted that the adoption world is the world that I live in, but I have never ever ever heard of a birth parent going to court to surrender their birth child to the system because of the child’s behavior. Such surrenders happen, under pressure from DSS, because of the parents’ behavior.
This concept of adoption somehow allowing the possibility of ending the parental relationship reveals nothing about the kid, and everything about the parent. There are times when it makes sense to legally walk away from one’s child. For instance, if there is no other way to protect the family due to a child’s dangerous behavior, and the system’s bureaucratic blindness, then legally surrendering one’s parental rights paradoxically becomes a requirement of true parenting. For the Jews during the Holocaust who gave their children to Christian families to protect the children’s lives, it was the ultimate model of what it means to be a parent: sacrificing everything, including your relationship with your child, for the protection of the child. But in either case the good of the child is the object, not the satisfaction of the feelings of the parent. The key is that in either case, the disconnect is intended as temporary, a function of current circumstances. And in either case, the decision has nothing to do with whether the child was adopted.
I now know at least six children – probably more – whose adoptive parents walked away from their child. And in every one of those cases, it is obvious to all but the walking away parent (and their supporters) that they did it because the child did not satisfy their wishes, their feelings, their beliefs. I’ve been there, right at the edge of walking away from one of my own kids, before I pulled myself back from the brink.
That day that I pulled myself back, I changed forevermore. It was that day that I learned what it feels like to choose unconditional love. Not deep attachment, not deep feeling, not – as one of my adoptive families put it – “like plus.” On the contrary, that day I learned, as my mother had told me when I was a young kid, that “like” has not the slightest thing to do with “love.” They are two entirely different experiences, springing from two entirely different places within us.
Hallmark doesn’t get that. Neither do these adoptive parents who walk away from their children, revealing not a broken adoption, but rather a counterfeit one.
The damage that they inflict upon the children’s thinking, believing, and trusting is beyond anything the children ever inflicted upon them. They, of course, believe it to be the other way: every last one of them. They insist – without using the words – that the child has betrayed them (that’s what I was sure of when I came to the brink) when in truth it is they who are betraying their already betrayed child (the abandonment by birth family). They gather their evidence; they call upon their allies; they use their logic as the ultimate weapon. And they walk away feeling justified. They know that they are right. All the evidence proves it.
But what they don’t know is the experience of love – and commitment to the good of another human being – as being unconditional.
That sure appears not to be an American word, so let me translate. It means “no conditions; none; ever; no matter what.”
The Family Focus mantra: adoption is like chocolate milk. Once those two are mixed together, it is impossible to separate them. Not difficult; impossible.
One does not give up one’s children for any reason other than the good of the child. Ever. Or the child was never your child to begin with. It was all counterfeit.