Thursday, September 3, 2009

Loving an Adopted Child As Much as 'One of Your Own'

It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as one of your own
was the line that raised a lot of hackles in the movie Orphan. The adoptee from the USSR herself said the offending line herself, but a cursory glance at who was doing the most complaining and collecting signatures on a petition reveals it was mostly adoptive parents professing their unfettered love, insisting that there is no difference in their feelings between the adopted and the biological. That same concept--No difference, I loved you as if you were my own--was declared on the deathbed of the dying adoptive mother in Then She Found Me.

I don't buy it. Everything is all well and good when the adoptee is what Florence Fisher called "the good adoptee" who doesn't act up ever, and is the pride and joy of the parents; but it's a different story when the adoptee gets into trouble, is trouble, causes trouble. My daughter was one of those. Then it's--genes. Then it's--not quite the same. Then it's--well, he/she is adopted. Then it's--when the adoption is undone.

My daughter's family was comprised of siblings both adopted and biological sons, and I watched her struggle to be accepted unequivocally, as were the sons. She was not.

How true this was became clear to me when when one of her younger brothers, a natural son of her parents, died out West when he skied off a cliff. He was a genial guy, and a ski bum who worked at ski resorts. Her older brother, adopted, married and a solid citizen, lived nearby and there was no question that he would be at the memorial service. But who would come from the Midwest? Whose airline tickets would the parents buy?

For the natural son back in the Midwest, of course. For Jane, the adopted daughter? Well, maybe...not.

Was she upset? You bet. Did I hear about it? In full. Nothing I could say would make her feel better, and I certainly did not say, Well, you have me, and my family that is also your family, because at that moment, I was not what she needed. She needed to know that her adoptive parents loved her and considered her so much a part of their family that they unthinkingly included in family events. I did not say what I was thinking, what she had to be thinking too: that she was not blood, that she did not count in quite the same way as her brother, their natural son. (At times like this I want to write: real son.) Not until Jane raised a commotion about this unequal treatment did they relent and include her. I knew Jane was wounded, but she stuffed her pride and off she went.

What was said at the memorial service? He was my favorite.

This is difficult enough to deal with in a family all connected by genes, but a body blow to someone who is adopted. Jane came back, we talked about the service, how upset both she and her adopted brother were about this offhand comment. But within a matter of weeks, the easy/ breezy relationship we had just before her brother died evaporated. It was as if I no longer counted for anything, and this was the status quo for more than a year. It was her way of showing her other mother that she, Jane, could be a good daughter, capable of being loved as much as her own son. It did not work.

As regular readers know, Jane had a lot of physical and psychological problems, including serious epilepsy, and she was already exhibiting some of the social and emotional neuroses that often accompany someone who has seizures when I came on the scene when she was fifteen. To her parents' credit, they thought that knowing me--knowing that I was not someone who was institutionalized, which they suspected--might give Jane the ego boost she so sorely needed. Perhaps it did.

But as the years would play out, Jane's behavior made her certainly harder to be around; and as the years wore on, so did her other mother's attitude towards her daughter. A few years later, when Jane and I were back on track, I picked up the phone and heard her sobbing: Tell me that you love me, she demanded. No hello, no, this is Jane, just Tell me that you love me. Her other mother had just told her on the phone that she did not.

As for the other brother, the other real son? He's given his parents a fair share of grief too, which I won't go into here, but how they reacted to him was all very different from how they did to Jane. Jane was the adopted daughter who was harder to love than their own.

Hard truths about adoption are hard realities.

Added on Friday, Sept. 4:

Of course this is only one family situation, and I've known all-biological families in which a mother or a father clearly preferred one child over another, even though the parent loved them all. I think that often has to do with genes--as a certain child will resemble one parent, both physically and psychologically, more than another, and that parent will feel especially close to that person because he/she is most like him/her. Or a child may simply be born at a time when a person gives more to the child. We've often seen this among older fathers; now that they do not have to devote so much time to their careers, they give more to their families--and the new children.

But I have heard enough stories from adopted people (including Florence's own, which she wrote about in her book, The Search for Anna Fisher, about radically different treatment in families when it comes to, say, heirlooms and the like. One time when I was lobbying in Albany for open records, a legislator's assistant must not have grasped the intent of our visit, or who we were, because she launched into a story of how she and other biological kin tried to prevent an adopted daughter from inheriting a good-sized chunk of money from her parents. Of course that would be impossible, if the daughter had been legally adopted, and the family was not questioning this, but what we found amazing as well as repugnant was that she was telling this story as if it were the ordinary course of events and expected that we would not find this offensive. I could go on, but they do not add up to a statistical survey of adoptive families with both biological and adopted children.

So although it is impossible to nail this down with hard data, I am reporting on the sense of what I have heard over the years, and certainly saw in my daughter's family. And I write about it because it so directly impacted my relationship with her. I am sure that my involvement in Jane's life (though I was a thousand miles away physically) did affect her family back in the Midwest, but I can not speculate on what it meant to them. As a final note, I have no idea whether they would have been as welcoming to me if she had not had epilepsy, but she did and they were quickly open to me and Jane reconnecting.

I expect this post to cause a lot of reaction, but it came to mind because over at the New York Times a writer named Anita Tedaldi has posted a column about terminating an adoption because she simply could not handle the son. Blogger Third Mom has also posted about this, and both are recommended reading. On another day I'll have something to say about a mother's love for the child she bears. Love is the right word, but doesn't encompass the need we feel to reconnect (at least most of us) at some basic biological level to our offspring.

Have a good weekend, enjoy the last days of summer. Labor Day. Well, labor--that's another story, isnt' it?--lorraine

And on Saturday, September 5

Though this post does not address the question of "love," those commenting might find this post from 2008 interesting: The comparison of "virtual twins," individuals of the same age raised together but with different genes. This typically happens when a family waiting to adopt finds themselves pregnant with child, and goes ahead with the adoption.


  1. 'I love you as if you were my own' is different from 'I love you as much as one of my own'. I'm not sure why anyone would have a problem with the latter.

    "I don't buy it."
    I'm not surprised.

  2. This reminds me of the story of my sister-in-law who was disowned for being a crazy pain-in-the-ass. Now she's not adopted, so maybe it didn't hurt as much, but crazy pains-in-the-ass sometimes get disowned, and sometimes do the disowning. There are parents who display favoritism too.

    In my family I felt that I, the adopted sibling, was the favored one. My parents both spent more time with me, both communicated more with me than with my withdrawn, depressive sister, their biokin. It had to do with who I was as a person, which yes, probably had something to do with my genetics. I was outgoing, verbal and funny. Life was hardly a breeze and you'd be shocked at the crap that went on when I was an adolescent, but I am 100% sure that my parents' attitudes towards me were not adversely affected by my being adopted, and possibly the contrary.

    My point is that it's all out there. Biokin treat each other like crap, adoptive families treat each other like crap. Or not.

  3. "I love you as much as one of my own."

    And therein lies the unspoken difference in adoption - that the reassurance is NOT a given in adoption, that that line HAS to be said to begin with. With most families, is it not a default? (That does not mean it isn't a default, but it is implied it SHOULD be a default)

    Speaking as an adoptee, I can honestly say I never felt I was treated as "less than" or differently compared to my brother, who was biologically-related to my adoptive mom.

    That does not discount all the claims of other adult adoptees who state their adoptive moms treated the biological siblings better.

    And by the way, just for the sake of common sense, re: Orphan:

    If you take out the twist, you are left with a NINE-YEAR-OLD child who was FOSTER ADOPTED.

    So of course it would probably seem more natural she'd say something like that!

  4. Let me try this again, because I see my original comment didn't make it through. Sorry, my emotions get the better of me at times, especially around a-parents not viewing their kids as family in all senses of the word, including and especially if they search.

    In my original post, I wondered if searching and reunion could tilt the balance of power with the a-parents so much that they might withdraw from the child and find ways to punish her for a relationship with her first family.

    Do we really need to debate the original sound-byte from Orphan? If people believe that it is not possible to love a child who is not genetically connected to you, then I don't think I can persuade them otherwise, so I wouldn't try.

  5. I'm one of those adoptive parents who swears she loves her adopted daughter as much as her bio son. However I'm not offended by the Orphan movie because it's a freakin' movie and there are more serious adoption issues that need our attention. I don't deny that there are adopted kids who feel that and I do think there are adoptive parents who DON'T love their adopted kids as much as if they were born to them. There are some shitty, shitty parents out there and adoption home studies don't weed them out.

    I do love my kids differently. One's a boy, one's a girl. One arrived when I was a fledgling mother. One arrived when I was comfortable in my own parenting skin. I definitely love them differently and it's hard to figure out what might be because of the way they arrived and what might be because of who they are and what might be because of who I am.

    I don't know how my kids will feel when they're adults and where they'll see favoritism and where they won't. I do know what it's like to be loved less than siblings (my dad has six kids across three families -- he loves his youngest daughters more handsdown and it sucks mightily) but I also know what it's like to feel loved equally but for my own self so that even when my mom has given more to one of us than the other, I've never felt slighted. My mom, she's got the gift of loving each of us entirely individually.

    I hope I can do that. I hope that both my kids know that they are each my most favorite kid because they really are.

  6. Not having any biological children, I can't answer the question by comparison. All I know is that I love my children.

    The other question, of course, is whether adopted children can love adoptive parents in the same way that non-adopted children love the biological parents who raise them. I blogged about that a few months ago:

  7. Osolomama you said: "In my original post, I wondered if searching and reunion could tilt the balance of power with the a-parents so much that they might withdraw from the child and find ways to punish her for a relationship with her first family."

    My son and I are living in just the nightmare you describe in this statement. Knowing the outcome of Lorraine's fragile child who was adopted, it is frightening to think what lengths some aparents may imagine are OK to go to in order to maintain their superiority.

  8. "And therein lies the unspoken difference in adoption - that the reassurance is NOT a given in adoption, that that line HAS to be said to begin with."

    Does it really, if the only children in the family are adoptive children? I'm trying to remember what my daughter has said around this and the interest seems more related to why I didn't get married. How a bio-kid would compete for my attention doesn't enter into the equation.

  9. I guess I really am strange. I do not care one way or another about my daughters other parents. They have no relationship with her and what was there, as far as I can tell, was never love.

    But for me, the only answer I could ever give my daughter is "I do, have and will always love you." This is the only answer I would give any of the strays I took care of through the years. Some of them related to me, some not. Made no difference. To this day anyone one of my lost ones could knock on the door and say "Mom, can I stay for a while." and the answer would always be the same. "Of course, I love you now a little bit more than yesterday." and out pops the hide-a-bed or whatever extra bed I have.

    Love is not something you can give and take away. It can only be given if it is real. For only the love that is shared means anything at all.

  10. It is meaningless to ask if an adoptive parent can love an adopted child as much as one of their own, if this is asked as a generalization encompassing all adoptive families.

    How does one quantify "love"? How does someone else know what is any other person's heart?

    It is certainly possible to look at the family dynamics of one family, as Lorraine has done with Jane's adoptive family, and conclude that one child was treated worse than the others and perhaps loved less. I think you are on shaky ground, though, trying to generalize this to all adoptive families.

    We all have a tendency to do this, me too. It is very tempting to see your own situation as a universal norm. However, I do not think anecdotal evidence really works when you are dealing with something as complex and subjective as love in a family.

    I do not believe that a biological connection automatically equals love. I know many mothers disagree with that. There are too many biological parents who have different levels of connection and affection for their biological children, and some that have none. Sibling rivalry is a reality in families of all sorts, and so many factors play into feeling closer or less close to any child.

    Yes, some adoptees are treated badly and unfairly by their adoptive parents, some are abused, some are disowned. Perhaps this happens with more frequency in adoptive families, but I really do not know that. I think sometimes adoption makes love harder if child and parents are very dissimilar, especially if the child has other problems including behavior, but this can happen in biological families as well.

    I do know some adoptive parents, like the ones who post here, who love their adopted kids as much as any parent loves any kid. In some families with adopted and bio kids, it is the adoptee who is favored, in some they are treated all alike, in others the adoptee is not treated well, usually due to a lot of factors beyond just being adopted.

    This is just not a simple, yes or no answer subject.

  11. "Does it really, if the only children in the family are adoptive children?"

    Osolomama, yes. Well, not "different" in a bad way, but in an attempt to explain:

    When somebody asks (generic) you about children, they don't mean adopting. They mean biologically-related children. It doesn't matter if you are able to conceive or not; the point is that it is implied that you *should* be having biologically-related children, because that is the "norm" of society.

    That is why people still ask: "Can you REALLY love your adopted child as much as if s/he were born to you biologically?"

    It isn't a given.

    That doesn't make it "bad" or "lesser then." It means it's different and not assumed by default.

  12. My a-brother stole my inheritance and believes to this day that it is rightfully his because I was not a biological child.

  13. "That is why people still ask: "Can you REALLY love your adopted child as much as if s/he were born to you biologically?"

    The thing is, Mei-Ling, do they REALLY want to know the answer?
    When the kind of people who repeatedly ask that kind of question are answered in the affirmative by people who REALLY do know from personal experience that indeed, yes indeed, it IS possible, they don't believe it anyway.
    They just go on asking.

    Which leads me to believe that the motive behind the question is not what all it's pretended to be.

  14. Kippa: Do you have an e-mail address? I want to talk to you about something specific and due to that "something", it's not for the public to witness. It'd be really appreciated.

    If you don't want to give it out, here's mine:

    I really really want to talk to you about something on a previous post.

  15. Following on what Maryanne says "I do know some adoptive parents, like the ones who post here, who love their adopted kids as much as any parent loves any kid."

    Really? I guess some have the best intentions but I wonder still. Even if it was a closed adoption, or internaitonal adoption and the birth mother somehow is now in the child's life?

    I am not talking about 6 year old's here, I am talking about adult adoptees who may WANT a relationship with their natural mothers and are "guilted" for that desire.

    It is easy to be magnanimous if you are not face to face with the reality.

  16. I think the more appropriate question is whether the adoptee will love the adoptive parent as if they were his/her own.
    That's the part that no one seems to get.

  17. I think that ingrained in all of us is the desire to be proud of those who carry our genes. It's a compliment when a man says about his son who has done well in some endeavor, "that's my boy!"

    Parents who have both bio and adopted children may subconsciously want the bio kids to do better. After all, these kids are theirs and the adopted kids are the offspring of low-lifers. If the adopted children are more successful, what does it say about the adoptive parents?

    I agree with Mary Anne that one can't generalize from one situation and that the thing we call "love" is any number of things.

    In the five families I have known who had both adopted and bio children, however, I did see substantial differences in the relationship of the adoptive parents to the adopted child and to the bio child. The adopted children were simply different and demanded more from the parents. Perversely, they made themselves "unloveable". They also had adoption issues which the adoptive parents seemed unaware of. The parents went the extra mile for these children but clearly had periods of anger and frustration.

    The bio children seemed to know they were the favorite and worked doubly hard to please their parents. In three of the five families, the adopted child distanced herself from the adoptive family when she grew up.

    Having raised three bio-daughters and, of course, knowing many families with several bio children, I know that there are differences among bio siblings as well. The children most like their parents have an easier time.

    The bio/adopted conflict may extend to grandparents as well. I know a fine couple with two daughters, one daughter adopted two children and the other had two bio children. Although the grandparents tried to be fair, their preference for the bio grandchildren was obvious.

  18. I find that my daughter is treated different from the illigentament (sp) of her adoptive father. In fact, I know about it and my daughter does not. When the other daughter came into the picture, my daughter was totally pushed out of the picture.

    I don't know why, but I have watched people and wonder the same question, if you really love them, why go all the way to China or whatever to adopt out of fear that they may love some one else? Is it not just as good to have a child that will have your love, will love you, and another parent who will extend that love into a healthy, happy and successful adult?

    Maybe I am as dumb as I think.

  19. "Parents who have both bio and adopted children may subconsciously want the bio kids to do better. After all, these kids are theirs and the adopted kids are the offspring of low-lifers. If the adopted children are more successful, what does it say about the adoptive parents?"

    Jane, since you've never actually adopted, why would you attempt to describe the mindset of adoptive parents? What do you really know about what it feels like to be one or how one feels about one's child? It's amazing to me at times that FMF wanders into this territory with zero experience in the particulars (watching the a-family from the sidelines doesn't count). I would certainly never speculate on your experiences in this fashion.

  20. Osolomama,

    My comment was based on what I have observed when I have been around people who have both biological and adoptive children.

    I think it may be quite different for adoptive parents who do not have bio-children.

  21. Jane,

    As a parent with a surrendered (reunited) biological son, a kept biological son and an adopted son, all of whom are adult, I feel I am in as good as any and probably better position than most to comment.

    I know that I love all my children equally, and, as far as possibly (given that they are different people with different personalities and needs) strive to treat them with equal care and consideration.

    I know a number of families that have adopted, some that already had bio children at the time of the adoption, others where children were born later - and, although I have observed with interest, I have not been able to make any such clear cut observations.

  22. Osolo, I'm with you on this one, only an adoptive parent can answer as to how much they love their adopted child. I can't see into your mind and heart so I really don't know. But I do know some very good adoptive moms. I don't think adoptive mothers should make blanket statements about the quality of surrendering mothers' love, nor should we make that assumption about adoptive mothers in general.

    Kippa, I also agree with you, that some people who feel all adoption is wrong and inferior to biological parenting have already made up their minds that adoptive parents' love for their children is inferior as well. They are not really asking a question but making a statement.

    Angelle, I DO know adoptive parents who have encouraged and helped their adult kids to search, and have not guilted them about it.I did not make that up. These are real people, including adoptive parents who have stood by and loved a son who is gay, HIV positive, and schizophrenic for over 40 years.

    Adoptive families, like biological families, are all different. I have seen all kinds, good and bad. The family my son got was not a good one, but I do not see my story as a template for all adoption. Nor do I believe that biology is the sole determinant of human love or connection. It plays a part, yes, but humans are not solely driven by biology.

  23. My point is that it's actually very difficult to come up with one truth that mirrors everyone's situation. I know one family in which the children have become virtually indistinguishable. I have to remind myself which one is adopted. I don't know the reason for that except that there is a profound sense on the part of the mother that the type of favouritism you are talking about is abhorrent (the family is now headed just by the mom). But this doesn't really prove anything either. This just illustrates my insight based on knowing this person.

  24. osolomama wrote: "In my original post, I wondered if searching and reunion could tilt the balance of power with the a-parents so much that they might withdraw from the child and find ways to punish her for a relationship with her first family."

    That was the case with me. I was not ever supposed to ask those questions, and my doing so was part of the reason I was disowned. My adoptive father's biological children from his first marriage, however, could do no wrong, while it seemed like I could do no right.

    Jane wrote: "The adopted children were simply different and demanded more from the parents. Perversely, they made themselves "unloveable". They also had adoption issues which the adoptive parents seemed unaware of. The parents went the extra mile for these children but clearly had periods of anger and frustration."

    Jane, I wonder if some adoptees do this in order to "reject before being rejected", to test the waters and see if they really are loveable no matter how bad they are. I have known some adoptees who did this with their adoptive families and/or with their birth families upon reunion. I find myself doing it on occasion, mostly with my spouse and mostly subconscious, as if I'm trying to see if he'll still love me if I'm bad. It REALLY annoys me when I catch myself at it. I'm sure it bugs him too. ;)

    Regarding the other comments, I don't think it's possible to generalize about these things, only discuss our experiences and observations and hopefully gain some understanding from it.

  25. Has anybody seen the movie Orphan? Esther isn't an adoptee - she a 33-yr-old psychiatric institution escapee from Russia who likes other women's sexy husbands.

    The line that caused all those adopters to go ballistic was rather uneventful, really, but it did fit well with her scheme to try and drive the a-mother insane.

  26. well said Triona, "Regarding the other comments, I don't think it's possible to generalize about these things, only discuss our experiences and observations and hopefully gain some understanding from it."

  27. Michelle-

    Ya, the end of the movie was so creepy when she pulled out her fake "nice" teeth and her nasty, yellow/brown ones were revealed. This was after she wiped off all her makeup showing her age spots!!!

    I made a silly petition to make fun of the people who were protesting this movie. Here's the link:


  28. Yeah, Mara, that was the best part of the movie.

    It was just another psycho-thriller like psycho babysitter, psycho secretary etc. I wonder if landlords around the US started a protest to scream unfair portrayal of landords after Micheal Keaton's role as a psycho landlord?

  29. It bothers me that I constantly see the phrase, "...but I see that in non-adoptive families, too." These conversations do not have to do with non-adoptive families. Adoptive families do have issues that can happen in non-adoptive families, but when you add in the adoption factor, the situation is entirely different.

    My ap's adopted me, then adopted my brother, then had our sister. There is no doubt the love they had was the same, but the BOND was entirely different. It is IMPOSSIBLE for an adoptive mother to be bonded to her adoptive child in the same way she is adopted to her biological child. She did not give birth to her adoptee, and is only related by law to her adoptee.
    The bond our adoptive mother had with our sister was undeniable. It hurt us to see that bond. It made being adopted even more painful, because we could see, on a daily basis,how strong that natural bond is, and that we were missing out.

    Often times, I feel people confuse the word "love" with "bond".

  30. I agree, they are different things, and I'm sure it's painful to have to observe others benefiting from the the genetic bond, knowing that you've been denied it.
    But it is love that's being discussed here, not bonding.

    Of course, some people consider adoption as bondage.


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