Formula-Finding: One Way Adoptive Parents Harm Adoptees

by: Rebecca Peacock Dragon

               Recently, a social media page for a magazine with a fairly large following posted the following question:  “If you’re an adult adoptee, what advice can you give to current adoptive parents?”  Although I generally find these questions to be a kind of trap for adoptees: respond accordingly if you don’t want to be dehumanized, told you will be prayed for, or told “sorry your adoption was bad but not all adoptees….”, many of the responses from adoptees had a similar flavor.

  • Listen to adoptees
  • Don’t expect your children to fulfill your desires and expectations
  • They have another family, you aren’t the ONLY parent

These are the basics, things that adoptees suit up daily to talk about, defend, and try to explain to the masses who are generally receptive only to the point that we don’t suggest radical changes in our systems.

In this post, several adoptive parents answered the question, even though it clearly said “adult adoptee”.  When called out, it didn’t matter…they know an adoptee, so of course they can give advice.  They know what “worked” for them as adoptive parents, and have some kind of undocumented permission to speak for the adoptees in their lives.

However, I think that the question itself deserves evaluation.  It may seem “open”, as if there is a genuine desire to “get advice” from adoptees, but let’s break it down a little more.  Asking for advice is in itself looking for a how-to.  The real question is, “adoptees, what can I do so that I can get one of you happy adoptees, and not one of these adoptees that seem so unhappy and angry?  How can I get more of the just-like experience for myself as a parent instead of a trauma-and-struggle result?”  If we are very honest, often the root of this question is insecurity, “how can I make it so that my adopted child will love me, and not reject me as THE mom/dad?” or “how can my adoption be less adoption-y?”

The problem is, formula-finding in adoption is a central cause of adoptee trauma, even when done with the goal of “lessening trauma”.  Let’s imagine:

  • Bob and Jane are hopeful adoptive parents.  They do “everything right” based on the advice they got on online forums and from the “experts”.  They even listened to some adoptees, and understand that there “can be trauma”. 
  • They read the books intended to make them “trauma informed”, and “how to” talk to their adoptee, etc…. which has the effect of deepening their confidence that they are “doing it right”, and decreasing the chances that their adoptee will struggle or be traumatized.
  • They learn the preferred language of the modern adoption narrative.  They use it, and angrily insist that others around them do as well, indignant for their potential adopted child who has to face the ignorance of society.  “Given up” becomes “placed”.  “Not your biological parent” becomes “born in my heart”.  “Children of my own” becomes “you are mine”.  “They are so lucky to be adopted by you” becomes “no we are the lucky ones”. 
  • They manage to secure a child to transfer to themselves legally, and now they are adoptive parents.  They spend lots of time on online forums and other resources asking for advice, such as “how do I tell my child they are adopted?” “how do I speak about their birth family?” “How do I react when people, or even my child, tell me I am not their real mother/father?” 
  • They get advice, mostly from other adoptive parents.  Sometimes from the “experts”, perhaps the social worker that helped facilitate their adoption also has a blog which they follow.  They even dare to ask adoptees for advice sometimes, and when the advice isn’t too uncomfortable, they add it to their toolbox.
  • They take this advice, and attempt to create tangible formulas:  “If I A…then my adoptee will B”  “If I don’t do C, then my adoptee will never D.”  Some may even understand, “A doesn’t always lead to B, sometimes it leads to C”…but that is usually followed with “even if I do everything RIGHT.” 
  • They raise their child: a happy, smiling, compliant child who loves the chocolate cake served on their Gotcha Day.  Their child even proudly, with their emotional support and 50 bucks of craft supplies, did an amazing adoption-friendly version of the family tree project in fifth grade.  It brought tears to their eyes.  Perhaps their child, even though has struggles through adolescence, finds a mostly functional early and later adulthood.  College, families of their own, careers, friendships, passions….
  • Their adoptee, now perhaps a mother to children themselves and living a life of their own making, is spurred on by the birth of her children to start really evaluating how relinquishment and adoption has impacted them.  Or, perhaps their adopted son goes into reunion with biological family, and for the first time is faced with his own biological context.  Maybe their now grown child suffered a terrible loss, of a partner or friend.  Perhaps their adoptee never needed a “wake up call” to actively evaluate their own lives as lived through adoption…maybe they just finally start talking about it after years of fawning and self-suppression.
  • “Their” adoptee starts saying some pretty painful stuff.  The adoptee expresses deeply held and secreted insecurities from childhood, feelings of being “other”, the pain of genetic isolation.  Perhaps if the adoption was an “open” adoption, the adoptee begins to express the pain of having to say goodbye again and again to their natural parent(s) and watch their siblings being raise en famille when they can’t be.  Perhaps the adoptee talks about the deep wound of being completely isolated from their people, culture, and language, being so displaced that even if a reunion is able to be orchestrated, they can’t even communicate with their family without a translator.
  • Adoptive parents are generally shocked when adoptees speak in this way.  Their objections reflect how much they clung to formulas and formula-finding in their parenting.  “But you were happy as a child, whatever you are feeling now is not a reflection of your happy childhood.”  “But we did everything right!” 
  • The objection to the real lived experience of the adoptee, even if it takes decades for the adoptee to self-reflect and express themselves, is that these hard feelings of the adoptee can never be the fault of adoption itself.  Since the formulas were followed, the parents are in the clear.  The institution of adoption is in the clear.  When adoptees are adopted by “ethical” adoptive parents who “do everything right”, then the cause of the adoptee’s negative experiences always lie solidly on the adoptee.  We adoptees are quite literally at fault for the result of something we had no say in, control over, or ability to consent to.
  • There is now a rift in between the adoptee and adoptive parents.  The adoptive parents are incredibly hurt that their adoptee would try to “mischaracterize” something that they were THERE FOR (adoptee’s childhood).  The adoptive parents are the larger authority than the child, because they saw them smiling, laughing, going on playdates and getting into college.  The adoptee, at this point, will often limit or cease contact, because it is just too painful to not be accepted as a whole human being, to not be loved unconditionally, to have to put the emotions of their parents above their own.  To avoid the impossible emotional chasm, the dissociation of not being authentically seen by the person(s) meant to accept you unconditionally, is too much.  It’s unsustainable to be in relationship with people who see you as a failed formula.
  • Their adoptee has now become an ungrateful one, an angry one.  There is no soft place for them to land, not if they want to speak authentically about any personal lived experience of adoption that doesn’t also include some kind of caveat that “my adoptive parents are wonderful people and of course I love them and they are my real family,” even if that is true.
  • The adoptive parents now take their experience with their adoptee…and create new formulas.  When younger adoptive parents ask for advice, the cycle continues.  The older adoptive parents with the estranged adoptee now become a case study in what “not to do”, and new forms and formulas are created in an attempt to avoid that outcome.  Without ever looking at relinquishment and adoption as the cause.  So, we are in a never-ending production cycle of formula making, and we never stop to think “what would happen if I destroyed the formula factory…what if the formulas are the problem?”

There is no “advice” without a dismantling of the formulas and the system itself.  Advice from adoptees to adoptive parents, although crucial and important, is most often commodified into adoptive parent formulas…which are then used as weapons against the adoptee.  Rarely on purpose, and generally with “good intentions”…but it is weaponized just the same, through an unrecognized selfishness in the adoptive parent.

        One of my biggest personal struggles since being involved in adoptee advocacy is the balance between “helping” and “giving advice” and being careful that my words (no matter how true or efficacious) are not used as a cudgel against a younger adoptee when it is transformed into a formula aimed at trying to mold and form them to the adoptive parents’ desires and expectations. Adoptees need to be very careful to never give promises disguised as “advice”. And adoptive parents should reject ANY advice that has the glimmer of a promise in it.

        The system is desperately broken, and the power imbalance is harmful to the point of being fatal in many cases (check out adoptee suicidality rates, addictions, mental health issues, rehoming, etc…).  It is very difficult to give any advice about what you can actually DO for/with/to an adoptee to “make it better”.  The real work for adoptive parents, if they really want to “help” is to:

  • Ongoing self-evaluation for when you are attempting to manipulate the adoptee into certain outcomes, even when those outcomes are “good” in your estimation
  • Ongoing self-evaluation for feelings/desires/narratives that are self-serving and not actually about the child
  • Ongoing self-evaluation for confirmation bias when reading/listening to the experiences of adoptees (including their own) with the goal of not dismissing, diminishing, and dehumanizing the adoptee when they express themselves authentically
  • Realizing that adoptees are the only entity to actually “live adoption”. 
  • Never, ever, reframe what your adoptee (or any adoptee) is telling you.  If they say “my mom gave me away”, do NOT say “oh no honey she loved you so much she placed you….”, etc..  You just got good information: your child feels given up.  If you reframe it and reject their perception they will likely never trust you with their inner feelings and thoughts again.
  • Admitting when you have participated in a system, and benefitted from your privilege in the “triad” (PS, there is no triad as that insinuates equity)….even if you believe you “saved” a child from terrible circumstances.  In those rare cases, personally benefitting by “getting a child” is parasitic and vulture-like.  Own up to how you got something you wanted on the backs of the suffering of others.
  • Consistently take a radically honest look at the system that you benefitted from, and actively support those who are working to reform and even dismantle these systems.
  • Remove the “self” in everything going forward.  Whenever you are tempted to try and make your adoptee “see” or “understand”, realize that YOU are the one who needs to see and understand.  The “work” is yours, don’t put it on the adoptee.

The only formula is: reject all formulas unless you are applying them to yourself in an attempt to de-center yourself.  Allow adoptees to develop without your pre-determined scaffolding.  Your love is not enough, and in many cases can actually harm.  Finding what “works” assumes that if you just get it right you get what you want.  Humble yourself…you have no idea what it is like to be adopted, even if you have adopted and raised an adoptee.  In fact, because of your confirmation biases (if remained unchallenged), you are actually one of the least likely to know what life is like for an adoptee.  Realize that your lens as an adoptive parent will pretty much always skew your perception of your adoptee to positively confirm your desires, emotions, and preferred narratives.  Often, when you think you are observing your adoptee, or other adoptees, you are actually just looking at your own reflection. That is narcissism, and it harms adoptees.

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