Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where are all the "Happy Adoptees?"

"Where are all the happy adoptees? Aren't there any left who are grateful?" one woman wonders in the comments section after reading adult adoptee comments on a New York Times blog. I couldn't help but be amused by this comment as the comments were not really all that "angry."  They simply seemed to have a non-stereotypical take on the adoption story presented.  Adoptees expressed things like loss, ambivalence, and--dare I say it--disagreed with the author in some regard and her portrayal of an adoption issue.

"Angry adoptee" is universally defined as someone who expresses anything negative about adoption. It is said that these adoptees have had "bad adoptive parents" and "bad experiences" because they express a feeling of loss or point out a social or policy in adoption.  As an adoptee, sometimes it seems like people believe that the loving family I received through adoption must be repaid to society through my silence.  I am not allowed to have an opinion; I should be seen and not heard.

Adoptees themselves as a minority group; many of us are in other groups that adoption issues intersect with.  Minority status is typically defined as a group someone is born into, a group that tends to have less power than others and a group that has historically been disenfranchised or exploited by others.

We see in history through the lack of family preservation efforts, the Baby Scoop Era, baby farms, orphanages, the plight of illegitimate children, foster care issues, the orphan trains, and more, that those in the position to be candidates for adoption have been historically mistreated.

Likewise, when it comes to adoption issues, adoptees are in a position where they lack the power to make change.  Adoptees were sometimes adopted out of (or their family later moved out of) the State of their birth.  This makes self-advocacy extremely difficult because some adoptees can't vote in the State that creates policy surrounding their records and original family.  Resources may not be available to them because of this.  Other adoptees, such as those whose parents did not obtain citizenship for them as children, cannot vote at all.  Because of the way our records are handled, some adoptees cannot get passports, driver's licenses, or vital medical information.  We are rarely invited to the table of adoption discourse further more to help effect the changes that adoption badly needs.

That being said (and whether anyone wants to admit it or not), adoptees live in a society that does not understand adoption. Not only does society not understand adoption but it often seeks to dictate how adoptees should feel about their own adoptions.

I often say adoptees are the world's amateur psychologists for we are forever listening to the awkward responses of others to our life situations. Sometimes we find ourselves trying to make others feel better for feeling bad for us. Words and phrases can hurt ("be grateful," "at least she didn't abort you," "I have an adopted cousin who's fine with it," "DNA doesn't make her your mother," so on and so forth); sometimes it's best not to say anything.

I really admire the work on adoption done by adult adoptee and sociologist, Dr. Katrina Wegar.  In a study published in 2000, Dr. Wegar reviewed about 80 different studies and professional articles by others on adoption and summarized them in her articles, drawing conclusions on attitudes on adoption using the data.  What she found resonated with me.

Dr. Wegar found that the dominant North American opinion considers a heterosexual couple with biological children to define a "real" family and that other family forms are still often viewed as "abnormal" or otherwise deviant. She determined that "pop culture" has played the most active role in establishing how the average person thinks and feels about adoption. The concept of being adopted is often used as an undesirable thing and jokingly used against others (she notes the message of a birthday card joking with someone about being adopted).  She notes that the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute found in 1997 that 52% of Americans "regard the media (news, books, magazines and entertainment) as their primary source of information about adoption."

The portrayal of adoptees, what people believe about being adopted, it's not always kind and it's not always empowering.  Adoptees strive to be understood and others must seek to be understanding.  We show passion for change which is so often misinterpreted as misguided anger.  So, are we really "angry adoptees?"  Or as we simply adopted adults who grew up and live in a society that doesn't always hear us and understand us?