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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Adoption and Magical Thinking

There is a very interesting discussion going on this week over at the New York Times website Motherlode in response to an article entitled Adoption, Destiny and Magical Thinking.   You can read the article and the subsequent comments here.  The centerpiece of the story is a study showing that many adoptive parents feel that fate, destiny, or the will of God has played a part in bringing their adopted children to them.

The story struck a nerve, as many of the comments show.  As a mature adoptee, I concur with many others in saying that entirely too much magical thinking occurs in the world of adoption.  When cold, real facts about adoption are not confronted, the adopted child is likely to suffer because she learns early  on that she must keep some of her deepest feelings to herself.  If her placement in her adoptive family was "meant to be," then how can she freely express her conflicted feelings or explain the desire she may feel to know and understand her original family?

The comments to the article are powerful, and I'll share some of them here.  An adoptive parent provides this eloquent perspective:

"When our cherished adopted children are young, we can hug them tightly every night and repeat the story of the magical journey that brought us together.  But no matter how much we love them, and no matter how steadfast our belief in our shared destiny remains, we need to prepare for a future in which magical thinking is no match for the reality of an independent child with critical thinking skills.

Adoptive parents are only one third of the adoption triad.  It may be best to consider the perspectives of the other people involved, as fate and destiny are in the eye of the beholder."

I love this writer's statement that "magical thinking is no match for the reality of an independent child with critical thinking skills."  Most adopted children do think about their original families once they are able to comprehend how most babies become a part of the family unit.  And as one adoptee writes, "Even children in very loving adoptive families must confront the fact that their birthmother decided, for whatever reason, to relinquish them, and no amount of "magical thinking" can wish that very real pain away."

Separating a child from her mother often causes intense pain for the relinquishing parent, as many original mothers have come forward to tell us.  And the fact that she has been relinquished often causes pain for the adoptee who allows herself to explore that part of her past.  Naturally, these mothers and surrendered children as adults often feel a need to reconcile their feelings about each other, and they should not be prevented from doing so by archaic state laws that obstruct so many and "protect" a tiny minority.

I cannot tell you how much I resent the law that tells me, as an adult, that I cannot explore my own genealogy.  I know my original mother's identity, and my original father has long been deceased.  The adoption agency knows his name but will not share it with me.  Who in the world is there left to hurt?  As some adoptees who are thwarted in searching for knowledge about their own history say, "I feel as if I were born in a file cabinet."  Talk about magical thinking!  Denial is forced upon many of us, whether denial is a natural coping mechanism for us or not.

What many adoptees find when they do discover their biological relatives is that the stories they were told don't quite fit with reality.  One commenter who was able to find her original family shares the story that the relinquishing parents had requested pictures and updates but had never received them.

"I do think of my adoptive parents as my parents, and I don't blame them for anything," she writes.  "But they and other adoptive parents would have benefited from a framework of thinking about adoption that was less adoptive parent-focused and more empathetic towards birthparents."

And as another adoptee says, "Bring in any child into your home with love and compassion, but do not strip them of their sense of self or identity."  The adopted child comes into a family with its own DNA and its own genetic predisposition.  As one commenter says, "She is not a Cabbage Patch doll."

For me, the problem with adoption is that for too long, it has been defined by adoption agencies, adoption attorneys and adoptive parents.  Many of those entities promote "magical thinking" in order to sell adoption.  The voices of the original parents and the adoptees themselves have, in many cases, been silenced.  I'll give you an example.  The adoption agency that won't reveal my original father's name to me and that has stood on the sidelines for the past 30 years as adoptees have lobbied for equal rights in New Jersey, does not have one adult adoptee on its board -- just attorneys, hospital executives and social work "experts."

The result of all of this is that many adoptees become angry -- and then determined to change the antiquated laws that certainly don't promote a child's best interest.  I want to make it very clear that I am not angry with my adoptive parents, whom I loved, nor am I angry with the original family I've been prevented from knowing.  I am angry with an unfair system that prevents full-grown adults from knowing their own genetic history for no good reason.

Not one legal document has ever been produced to show that relinquishing parents were promised confidentiality.  Presumably, adoptees always had the right to petition the courts for their records if they could show "good cause."  So how could any surrendering parent have ever expected that she would remain forever unknown to her offspring?  The opposition's arguments are ludicrous, especially given statistics that show the vast majority of relinquishing parents are open to contact.  It would seem that the adoption industry opposes giving full-grown adults the equal treatment under the law to secure their own birth certificates for one reason, so they can continue to promote the "magical thinking" that sells adoption.

I'll save the most potent comment about "magical thinking" for last:

 As an adoptee, I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard and been told magical things such as "she loved you so much she gave you away" and "you were chosen." Spin, rationalization and magical thinking are quite the trends in adoption.

One could argue that engaging in magical thinking allows adoptive parents to avoid acknowledging the very real, and rather unethical, aspects of the adoption industry. If one believes it is fate or a higher being that brought a child to you, it is much easier to ignore such facts as 1) every single state government falsifies the legally-recognized birth certificates of adoptees so that that adoptive parents are listed as the natural parents; 2) the heavily promoted open adoption agreements are not legally enforceable in any state; and 3) adoption agencies are allowed to charge thousands upon thousands of dollars to transfer a human being from his or her natural family to other people. 

Something tells me that those checks written by adoptive parents while obtaining a child are not made out to "Fate and Destiny." Those checks are written out to a government or private agency in exchange for a human being. As such, the real danger with the magical thinking of adoptive parents is that adoptees are often expected to buy into it. As an adoptee, I can tell you that the healthiest thing for adoptees is to, at the very least, actually be allowed to live an existence grounded in reality--not magical thoughts and fake birth certificates.

Adoptive parents, I know you love your children, just as mine loved me.  For that reason, please join us in the state-by-state efforts to restore adult adoptees' access to their original birth certificates.  When adoptees are treated like second-class citizens, the entire institution of adoption is diminished.   Sealed records are ludicrous, insulting and unnecessary, and they do not serve your children well.

You might also like:

Sealed Records are Wrong.  Period.

The Media and Adoption Issues


  1. Excellent post Susan. As a first mother, the "meant to be" stuff drives me nuts. My relinquished daughter believes her adoption was God's plan. What pray tell did God have against me?

  2. This thoughtful post resonates with me, in part. By lumping religious faith into a general category of "magical thinking," it also diminishes me and denies an essential part of my experience in the world...which is ironic, given the subject matter.

    Many people of varied faiths struggle to reconcile the idea of an omnipotent Creator with the realities of grief and evil. Adoption is just one more arena where this plays out. The same person who finds personal comfort in saying "God wanted another angel" to a young boy who has just lost a parent will say "God wanted you to have this baby," as if a merciful and loving God would get a teenaged girl pregnant just so that I could have the baby of my dreams. I do not believe that is possible, and yet I see the same merciful and loving God at work in the events that brought us together with that girl so that we could become an extended family.

    I have two children who are miraculous to me: the one I birthed after being told that would never happen, and the one we adopted after a young girl, improbably, chose two people who weren't what she was originally looking for to raise her child. For each of them I give thanks daily. My daily dose of magical thinking does not keep me from having an ongoing relationship with my son's first mother and family, or from advocating for access to identifying information for all adoptees.

    My kids may eventually share my faith, or may reject it. They will know that I believe we were meant to be a family. They will also know I think most organized forms of Christianity have done a pretty poor job of dealing with adoption in way that is consistent with their own teachings. That's not because of "magical thinking," but because organized religion is run by human beings, with all their flaws. So much of the bad that happens in adoption is because of fear...but perfect love casts out fear.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Barbara. I agree with you that "so much of the bad that happens in adoption is because of fear." I am not anti-religion, unless that religion tries to deny me my equal rights as a human being. I am simply pro honesty and transparency in adoption. The adoption industry too often pits natural families against adoptive families, and that scenario is not healthy for anybody. I am hoping that more and more adoptive parents will join the fight to unseal birth records for adult adoptees. In my case, I was unable to participate in a medical trial as a cancer patient because I had no access to family health history. That reality began my avocation as an adoptee rights activist. I loved my parents, but I detest the closed adoption system.

    2. I am also an adoptee, and I agree with you. I was just trying to make the point that believing in God - by itself - is not what denies us our rights as human beings. Other deeply flawed human beings do that. Please don't be too quick to assume that people who have faith that God has a plan for them are being cavalier about the grief of others.

  3. It's clear from the comment section that the likelihood of having "meant to be" thinking depends quite a bit on which part of the triad you most identify with.

    Not that it's clear-cut, but that the lens you look through, and whether you felt you "won" or "lost" in adoption, has a lot to do with just how magically you think.

    I'm still figuring out how I feel about the piece. It's interesting that I just reviewed a magical-thinking film from a Magical Thinking entertainment corporation. My review reflects the fact that I'm not much of a magical thinker.

  4. I am a mom through adoption two times and our family has expanded seamlessly to include their families. I saw this article and it reasonated with me because I think it was fated that we met and began a relationship with each of our girls' birth mothers that ultimately made us all one family. Our girls know they were adopted, they know all of their family and it may not be magical all the time I do think we were fated to be together as we are.

  5. I watched my now-adult children struggle with the reality of being adopted. My kids resent the concept of the "chosen child.” I agree that it trivializes the genuine loss they experienced when they were uprooted from their birth families and grafted to our family tree. Our greatest joy--their arrival in our lives--came at a high cost to them.
    The pervasive cultural attitude about adoption assumes that adoption is a perfect solution--one in which all parties win and never look back. The truth is more complex and far more painful. It doesn't take long for adoptees to figure out that before they were "chosen" they were rejected. Before they were one family's "miracle" they were another family’s "problem." Talk about a mixed message.

  6. I am a factual thinker and just cannot comprehend the circular reasoning that goes on in adoption. It is all just too much. To believe it is destiny you also must believe it was destiny for the flip side of the equation that isn't so rosy and nice.

    I wasn't conceived because of destiny - I figure it was those "in love" feelings and "raging hormomes" we all have when we are young...

    Sorry - having a really hard time with all this magical thinking that doesn't play out in the real world.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the discussion about the NYT article.

  8. Thank you, so much, I actually had this conversation topic with my AP recently and it did not went well at all. I was called delusional, playing around words, thinking too much about adoption and all in all, just being too sensitive; a poor misunderstood, depressive kid.

    I find it awesome to know that there are people who are standing up against all the fairy tale nonsense. I feel less alone now. Thank you.

  9. Randomadoptee,
    You are not alone! Go back to the original New York Times article -- you can link to it near the beginning of my blog post. There are more than 145 comments now, and most agree strongly that adoptees should have the right to secure their own legal birth certificates as adults. Whether an adoptive family was successful or not has nothing to do with this issue. Adopted adults should not be treated like children -- they should have the right to explore their own history if they desire. You might also find the websites at the American Adoption Congress and the Adoptee Rights Coalition helpful. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. As the adoptive parent to five daughters who came to me as older children, the "meant to be" stuff makes me cringe, even though I do often feel as though my daughters and I are perfect for each other. Four of my five kids went through physical and sexual abuse as well as severe neglect. Trust me on this--I could never believe in any God who would torture children just so Julie could have her "meant to be" family. Conversely, I think I would have been satisfied with any children who wound up with me--and had they actually been placed with me, they would have felt like they were "meant to be" in my family as well. I never really express this to my daughters. Our conversations tend toward--"we were all in a certain place at a certain time where we were each other's best option for a family. I'm sorry about what you went through to get here, but I'll never be sorry that I was here when you needed me." As a side note, all of my daughters had contact with their birth families during their teens and adulthood. Those relationships vary now that my daughters range in age from 44 to 22 but the relationships do exist.

  11. Great article, Susan. My first time here. I'm sharing widely.

  12. Thanks for reading and sharing, Denise!

  13. I wrote about that article too! I really liked the one adoptive mother's quote - she explained that she really didn't see fate playing a role in her position as mother. I'm with you on the birth certificate issue.

  14. For anyone interested in joining...

  15. Im a bio mom and always wonder an worry about what my birth daughter has been told...I know thru some of the papers I received that there were some lies.. or sorry "mistruths"" I hopand pray the adopted parents gave her what info they had and I hoped she was raised to know she had another family, and I pray she is able to make them understand that someday it might be ok to want to search me out and contact me...Thanks Theresa

    1. Theresa,
      I pray too that your daughter will one day reach out to you. That's all so many of us who were part of the closed system are looking for -- closure. Adoptees should be free to search their own ancestry with no questions asked. As I try to explain to people, we adoptees and original parents share a private past, and however we choose to relate to each other should be no one's business except for our own.

  16. The people not reading your blogs are missing out a lot of quality contents.
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    1. Thank you, Erik. It's comments like yours that motivate me to keep writing. I started this blog because I find it so difficult to get informative articles into the mainstream press, and I do send many posts to legislators and the governor's office here in NJ. One day I hope to get a book together.

  17. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you - from a birth mom. i cried my guts out reading this. You know, I recently watched an episode of Ricki Lake about adoption and it talked about "the dark side" of it. It didn't discuss any of the things mentioned in this post - rather it talked about birth moms who change their mind, and did nothing but shed a negative light on them. I was appalled and so hurt watching it because I have wished I was one of those wishy-washy birth moms who changed her mind for a decade now. I was so hurt by so many of the adoptees because so many of them talked about how they weren't interested in their birth mothers. I felt like I was being shot with a dozen arrows hearing it come out of their mouths because I fear that will ultimately be my fate. :-( This entry has given me some hope. Thank you again.

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  19. I get so frustrated that people believe that an adoptee who tells their story is revealing someone's dirty laundry. Such a falicy, but people sincerely believe this. An adoptees search when it comes to discovering something unusual and controversial, we adoptees suffer the results as well. We grieve the adoptive family, the birth family and our own often oppressive life. I simply wrote my book to thank everyone who helped me search, and the result of my search was to find so many veterans of WWll in Manila, that saved my birth mothers life and thus mine. Will they ever allow me to thank them? I may never know.


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