The Myth of the Forever Family

My article on adoption disruption and dissolution is up at Brain Child (and of course on newsstands now):

When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”

That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.

In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.

But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.

The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.

via Brain, Child :: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

There was A LOT of great discussion that could not make it into the article, which I am very sorry about. I also talked to families who ended up not feeling comfortable being quoted for the piece but whose experiences informed my process. You can discuss the article here (at the Brain Child discussion blog) and I’ll be checking in there. I’ve also invited the people I interviewed to weigh in but they are busy people so we’ll just have to see.

This was a hard but rewarding piece to write and I just hope that I did justice to the topic.

One more thing — whenever I write about my daughter’s sealed-away birth certificate and the new fake one that she has, the editors stop me and ask me if I’m SURE about that. The editors at Salon even said, “Is that legal?” So many people outside of adoption get that it’s insane, which makes it more bizarre that it’s controversial to people inside adoption.

Comments 35

  1. You just answered a question — I’ve always been curious about a grandmother’s biological father and assumed his name would be on her death certificate.Nope. It’s her adoptive/step dad (not sure if he officially adopted her or not — this would have been like 1905 or something). And it’s not like her birth dad was a big secret — her mother was married to him and then divorced him and everyone knew it. And I thought, looking at the paperwork where Mr. A was expunged and Mr. B was in the line that said “father,” “Is that legal? Shouldn’t her birth dad be on her official papers?”

  2. “Brain, Child” is the only magazine that I actually really read – every article, every letter, every issue. When I found that article and realized it was yours, I was delighted – and it was terrific. I think you did justice to the people who talked to you and to the intensely difficult topic. Thank you, and congrats on a great job.

  3. I think the huge problem is, besides the lack of information before placement, the complete absence of post-placement support. There are no adoption support groups – NONE WHATSOEVER – in my area, either private or provided by adoption agencies or by the government. There are forums all over the internet, one I know is from my area, but there are very limited resources there. If there was a place where I could reach out, in person, and find support, much like in an AA meeting, I’d be there. But I haven’t yet found such place. Our social worker is having a picnic this weekend for the families that she’s worked with in the past hoping to start the discussion. I hope a support group is born… Let’s see where that goes. In the meantime, I’ll have to stick with the blogosphere…

    Congratulations, Dawn, on an amazing piece. It takes a lot of courage to write about the reality of adoption. The judge – an adoptive mother herself – said at our finalization that the best advice she could give us was to keep in mind that adoption is not a fairytale. It’s real life.

    1. Maru, you are dead on. I really loved what Jae Ran had to say about crisis planning BEFORE the placement. She also said that agencies need to consider family access to services when choosing which child should go where but unfortunately, most agencies cannot or will not do this. Hang in there — I hope the support group is formed for you!

  4. Lack of resources….yeah…that about sums it up. Even in a case like mine where symptoms are pretty mild (in comparison to raging children and fling knives), if it weren’t for the fact that I was prepared for them, knew how to seek the help we needed, and had support I might have felt like throwing in the towel….this is no joke and the lack of resources for adoptive families and the lack of support is what breaks most. I think in our specific case it also helped that we have an open adoption (not suggesting that this is what others do w/ kids w/ RAD or other disorders…just saying that this worked to our benefit) so it alleviated some of the uncertainty she felt.

    As for the birth certificates…ugh…I find the whole thing bizarre…I umm….”lied” and totally took advantage of a new Social Worker who didn’t know what she was doing and that’s how I ended up w/ my daughter’s original BC because they said we couldn’t have them so now she has both. In our case is doubly bizarre because it is obvious that we couldn’t have birthed her so it’s weird to have our names as her birth parents…plus it invalidates her original story and she has a right to it.

    1. I love what Tiruba says about having compassion for her children’s previous placements and how much she relies on outside support and practical support. I think she did an amazing job of speaking on the need for services.

  5. Great article Dawn! I really enjoyed it and think you hit the nail on the head. There is no “one right answer” when it comes to adoption disruption (or dissolution, or placement changes in foster care) – but it is an issue that should be discussed more openly and honestly before placements are made. Thanks for writing such a well rounded piece!

  6. Thanks Dawn, for doing such an outstanding job on this article, one that must have been so hard to write. But it is so needed, and in a publication like Brain, Child which will I think have very long legs and hopefully some great, critical, and nuanced discussion!

    Thanks again for including adult adoptee voices!! 🙂

  7. Fabulous article. Most of what I’ve read on disruption has been so sensationalized. It was nice to read something smart and balanced. Heartbreaking, but enlightening.

  8. Dawn, Just read you article. It was excellent. Your passion/compassion for the subject shines throughout. When the media frenzy erupted around the Russian boy who was “returned,” I had read enough blogs of families parenting kids diagnosed with RAD (I followTiruba, for one) to know that there was much more to the story then met the eye … that most people would simply be appalled (understandable maybe but unhelpful) and have no clue about what questions should be asked in addition to the emotional response. Cheers to you for helping to illuminate this painful, painfully complex subject.


  9. FABULOUS. We adopted two kids from India in 2003. BOTH had attachment disorder. Our older adopted child (then 8, now 15), eventually ran away, had psychotic breaks, and threatened my life. She now lives with another family — one with multiple kids from disruption, where there is a less intense emotional parent-child dynamic.

    No one wants to talk about the difference b/t bio kids and adopted kids, but (as your article so eloquently points out), there ARE differences.

    Thanks for a stellar article.

  10. I wrote a post about birth certificates for Adoption Blogs. It’s not Dawn-caliber, but it’s pretty good, I think.

    In essence, I don’t think that changing the birth certificate makes it “fake” or a “lie”. I am Jack’s mother and Max is Jack’s father. Nowhere on the birth certificate does it say that the child was born to the parents.

    I would like to see birth certificates amended instead of changed though.

    1. Robyn, I think you’re a great writer. I’m glad we agree on open certificates because I think access is vital period and then we can argue details. For me, I don’t like that Madison’s birth certificate has my name on it ‘cuz that does feel like a lie. I’d be totally fine with an adoption certificate. But I appreciate that there are people who take issues with that (a friend of mine whose son was adopted by her husband thinks that her son should have the right when to be “out” about not sharing his sibling’s bio dad). If we can get birth certificates opened up THEN we can talk about what we ought to do next (if anything).

    2. Seriously? The fact that the *birth* certificate lists adoptive parents as the only parents doesn’t suggest that they were ones birthing the child? Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

        1. My children were born in Columbus, Ohio and their birth certificates specifically state their name and then it says “born to” and lists my name and my husbands name. This is the official birth certificate from vital statistics. Just FYI.

          1. My daughter was born in Florida and her birth certificate, also official from vital statistics, does no use the phrase “born to”. It says “Mother’s information” and “Father’s information” and lists our names. Guess it is not lying then… 😉 Maybe they vary from state to state… Who knows…?

  11. I am just so proud this article got published. Dawn it’s brilliant, and I think one of the most important things you’ve ever wrote. So, so happy that more people will get to read it. I think it will make people think.

  12. This is a wonderful article. As a potential adoptive mom, I feel so strongly that all stories need to be told. All potential adoptive parents need to read about the good and the bad that can happen, whether it’s fost/adopt, international or any. (Don’t get me started on the halcyon gerber baby myth of American bio motherhood either). I hope that by educating ourselves before we adopt, we can be better parents to whatever child/children eventually join our family.

  13. I wasn’t able to click through and read the article until today. I was afraid. Now, I’m impressed. Thank you for writing it and for the way in which it was written.

  14. Great article! Glad to have found your blog!

    I agree with so many comments that identify the lack of post-adoption support as one of the biggest problems with adoptions today. The next part of the problem is that people don’t even realize the NEED for adoption support. I agree whole-heartedly that adoptive parenting is different than bio parenting. No better or worse. Simply different. And if we can take away that stigma and embrace it, maybe more families will be willing to open up and acknowledge the need for support.

    Then maybe we can get more social workers and therapists who are qualified to give that support 🙂

  15. Amazing article, Dawn. As someone who has had little personal involvement in adoption, I have long found your blog a fascinating and valuable source of education and critical perspective on issues that do affect many of my friends and extended family (and our larger society, and I have long appreciated how you really grapple with the complexities that most popular discourse about adoption so blithely glosses over. But I think this may be the best work of yours I’ve seen–you do a remarkable job of critically yet compassionately exploring the nuances and contradictions of a really difficult set of problems that are mostly either ignored or sensationalized in the media. Brava!

    You also inspired me to renew my Brain Child subscription–and to order back issues of everything I missed since my last subscription lapsed–by reminding me that there are still places where smart, subtle, multi-dimensional perspectives on challenging issues can still be found, in actual print! You should ask for a kickback. 😉

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