November is National Adoption Month in the United States, and although the main purpose of the month is to encourage adoption of children in foster care, all things adoption seem to make the Internet rounds each November. This seems as good a time as any to clear up some of the most common misconceptions people outside of adoption tend to have about it. Here are the ten that came instantly to mind, based on my own experience of talking to people about adoption
1. Birth mothers are all teenagers.
Birth mothers (sometimes called “natural” or “first” mothers) — international and domestic — come in all ages and from all walks of life. Some are teens, but the mythical “unwed teen mother” that many people think of when they imagine adoption is a hold-over from the 1950s and 1960s when single and teen motherhood were less acceptable in certain areas of society than they are now. These days, the reasons for placing children in adoptive families tend to be more diverse than mere age or marital status.
2. Open adoption is confusing to kids.
Most international adoptions are “closed” by default, because the first parents are unknown and perhaps untraceable. But there is a growing trend in domestic adoption to open the process and maintain some connection between birth and adoptive families. While this idea is often hard to grasp at first thought, the fact is that closing adoption records is a fairly recent phenomenon and fairly limited to industrialized societies. Even in the United States where formal, legal adoptions have been closed for the past few decades, there are subcultures in which informal and open “adoptions” have always been the norm. These might include extended families, neighbors or close friends raising each other’s children in times of need, temporarily or permanently. Such practices have been common throughout human history. Research is starting to show that adopted people who at least know a little bit about their first families have a better chance of adjusting healthily throughout their adolescent years of identity formation and on into later life.
3. They hate girls in China.
The circumstances that lead to so many girls being available for adoption in China are complex. But, in short, it is more the tradition of wives being absorbed by their husbands’ families that is the root of the problem in China. When you combine this with an economy that relies on adult children’s care of aged parents and a law restricting most families to either one son or two children (when the first is a daughter), the problem is seriously exacerbated. Some families — by far the small minority — with a first-born daughter feel pressured enough to have a boy on their second try, that a second daughter is sometimes abandoned so they can try again for a boy.
4. Black babies are the latest trend among celebrities.
If a celebrity does something, we hear much more about it than when Bill Smith from Peoria does it, right? When two celebrities do the same thing, we hear enough about it to make it feel like a “trend” simply by virtue of the percentage of space it takes up in the media. The fact is, African American babies are still the last to be placed in adoption in the United States. African American boy babies are at the very bottom of the demand pyramid for healthy newborns. Perhaps the reasons more than one white celebrity has a Black adopted son is because celebrities live such cosmopolitan lives that when the social worker doing their home study asks “are you open to adopting a Black boy?” they say yes more often than other people. And if you say yes to a Black baby boy, you will probably get one — and fast — because not many people say yes.
5. Adoptive parents are saintly for adopting.
Adoptive parents are always hearing how great they are for having adopted. People always mean well when they say this, but the fact is, most adoptive parents adopted because they wanted to be parents. Period. Not because they are special saints. This also sometimes sounds to adoptive parents like their children are somehow less lovable, and therefore, loving them is a heroic act. Adopted parents just love their kids like other parents love theirs. It doesn’t require any special effort!
6. Adopted kids are lucky.
The knee-jerk response that adopted people are lucky is also a misguided attempt to be kind. I think most people mean, “rather than dying on a roadside in China, your daughter gets a loving family — what luck!” But in fact, the adopted person had the rotten luck of getting stuck on that roadside in the first place. Now she’s been utterly displaced from her culture, language, religion, and country and sent to live with strangers. Those things are not magically erased by adoption. Yes, it’s wonderful to have a loving family, but all people deserve this. People who only get to have it after — even as the result of — incalculable loss aren’t lucky. Often though, adoptive parents will tell you that they feel lucky to have their beloved children.
7. Adoption costs a lot of money and only rich people can afford it.
Some adoptions are more expensive than others, but some are virtually free. (In the original spirit of Adoption from Foster Care Awareness Month, I will mention here, that many state adoptions are free and/or come with financial subsidies to assist adoptive families.) There are a number of factors involved including what kind of professionals are involved (social workers aren’t in it for the money but they do have to get paid something), whether travel is required and how much of it, whether an employer gives adoption benefits and many more. Don’t assume an adopted baby is a “luxury.”
8. There is a high level of risk that once adopted, a child will be given back to/taken back by biological family members.
Cases in which children are moved after they have been living with “adoptive” parents for many months — even years — get so much publicity they can scare people into doing as closed an adoption as possible to defend against this outcome. But the fact is that adoptions are almost never overturned, once final. The hugely publicized cases are not only a minute percentage of adoptions, they are usually — nearly always, in fact — cases of would-be adoptions that are not yet final because of issues the adoptive parents have been aware of since the placement of the child. In other words, there was always a risk and the prospective parents took it willingly.
It’s also important to note that the courts in the United States favor adoptive families so strongly that when a child is removed from a prospective adoptive home, it can almost always be assumed that the reasons were excellent and much more than fair.
9. Birth mothers are saintly for placing their children in adoption. OR Birth mothers are demons for getting pregnant unintentionally/being “unfit”/not loving their children enough to raise them.
Birth mothers are women who have experienced a crisis pregnancy and dealt with it as best they can under their particular circumstances. Nothing else can really be assumed about them. Birth mothers and adoptive mothers are not in competition. Both are important to adopted people and both love their children as often as the general population of mothers love their children, that is, nearly 100% of the time. Birth mothers are severely judged in U.S. society. Doubt it? If you are not a party to an adoption, think about the birth mothers you know. If you’re having trouble coming up with a birth mother you know, that’s largely because most birth mothers are not hasty to share their adoption placement story. Some never tell a soul for the rest of their lives. Try to remember, the next time you’re talking about adoption, that the woman you’re talking to might in fact, be a birth mother. It’s time to make it safe for these mothers to “come out.”
10. Adoption is the opposite of abortion. As long as we have one, we don’t need the other.
Adoption is one option in a society with reproductive freedom. Adoption requires motherhood of a woman — both throughout a pregnancy and delivery and throughout the rest of her life — even if she never sees her child again after birth. For a woman in a crisis pregnancy who doesn’t want to be a mother, abortion is an important option. For a woman who doesn’t personally feel comfortable with abortion, but neither feels ready or able to raise a child, adoption is an important option.
These misconceptions are so popular, I think, because most media representations of adoption draw on them heavily. Racism, classism, xenophobia and national pride all contribute to simplistic understandings of adoption as well. I am an adoptive mother myself, and I have heard all of these many times in many places. I don’t mind clearing them up in a friendly conversation, as long as my children’s privacy isn’t being invaded. Most people who are not personally involved in adoption have little reason to learn the facts. But as adoption becomes more and more open in the United States, and transracial and transnational adoptions make adoptive families more and more visible, it will be helpful if everyone can learn a little bit more about those facts.
"All that you have is your soul." Tracy Chapman
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