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The Beauty of Adoption

An antidote to the media's view of adoption.

By Marjorie Hershey

If you were to form an opinion about adoption based on media coverage, you'd probably conclude that it was a mess. Babies snatched from ambivalent birth mothers. Crying toddlers ripped from their families by birth parents who changed their minds. Teenagers searching for their "real" parents and discarding their adoptive families like out-of-style clothes.

Those are the media images. They have little to do with the reality experienced by most adoptive families. Nevertheless, the media's focus on "problems" posed by adoption encourages a very distorted view of a vital and wonderful institution. If you were part of an adoptive family, this is some of what you might hear:

"Do you have any REAL (or natural, or biological) children?" News flash: children who come into their families through adoption are real, natural, AND biological. As Miss Manners points out, they are not polyester. Language makes a difference. What should we call little people who become part of a family because of adoption? Simple. We should call them that family's children.

"Who are their 'real' parents?" Say, what? We are the people who were sleep-deprived during their infancy. We are the people who paid for their braces. We are the people who cry with them when things don't go well. We are the people who live through their teenage years. If that isn't "real" parenthood, what would you call it?

"You are so kind to have adopted a child." You give us too much credit. Adoption is not charity. People adopt children because they want to have children, and adoption is one of the ways that children come into a family. We are not the United Way. An act of charity, no matter how commendable, normally takes place occasionally and at a distance. Parenting a child is up-close and personal. Our commitment to our children, like any other parents', is total. It does not depend on sympathy, pity, or a desire to feel good.

"I couldn't love an adopted child as much as one of my own." Many people seem to believe that a genetic tie is necessary for a happy family. If that were so, presumably you would love your husband or wife much less than you love your brother or sister. After all, you have a direct genetic link to your siblings; you don't, I hope, to your spouse.

This belief seems to underlie much of the media treatment of particular families. In reports of child abuse, for example, reporters seem to find it necessary to indicate if the perpetrator or the victim was adopted. Do they feel they're helping to explain the tragedy? Is it that people with direct genetic ties would not ever hurt one another? Carefully-done studies show that adopted children, especially those adopted very young, are just as well-adapted, healthy, and smart as are non-adopted children. But some children become available for adoption because they were abused or neglected by their birth families, and even years of loving care may not cure the anger that was thus sown.

"I want a child who looks like me." Look at a newspaper photo of a Little League team. Without looking at the legend, guess which child is the son or daughter of each coach. Chances are, you'll be wrong at least half the time. "Looking like" is a matter of perception and expectation at least as much as physical reality. I couldn't count the number of times I've been told that my tall, blond, blue-eyed oldest daughter looks like me. I'm small, brown-eyed, and brunette. Trust me, we don't look like twins. But we are mother and daughter; people expect us to resemble one another, and so they find the ways in which we do. Unless one of us grows another nose, they will continue to find the resemblances between us. "I don't want the possibility of a birth parent taking back the child." Fortunately, that possibility is slim, especially when adoptions are handled by licensed agencies. Granted, it may happen much later. With the Geraldo-ization of American life, we are inundated with romanticized stories of tearful meetings of children with their birth mothers.

Many years ago, it was considered shameful to admit that you were adopted. Now, given the tendency of the culture to lurch from extreme to extreme, it has become almost expected that adopted children will search for their birth parents. At some point, we will build up enough experience with birth parents who would rather not be "found" and with adopted children who discover that their birth parents have as many warts as their adoptive parents, that the situation will come into better balance.

"Adoption is expensive." Is it ever. That's a shame, though I understand why it's so. Just as families do not grow their own babies for free -- hospitals and doctors do send bills for their services, no matter what -- licensed social workers and various other safeguards, to make sure that these precious little lives are protected, cost money.

The legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton to provide tax breaks for adoption was much needed and should be made permanent. One function of the tax code is to encourage behavior that helps society. Adoption, like the tax break for homeowners, clearly does that.

It's not easy to convince some people of the beauty of adoption. There are some who go so far as to object to all adoptions, on the ground that adoption "breaks up families." (Don't ask me; I don't understand it either.) To all of them, let me say:

Adoption is not a problem. Adoption is a solution. There are people all over this country who would like to be parents, and who would be fine parents, but who are not able to grow babies. There are children all over this world who no longer have parents, or whose parents are unable to care for them. When these two get together, it is not a trauma. It is not a minefield. There's a word for it. It's called a family.


Marjorie Hershey is the mom of three daughters, ages 9, 15, and 19. She is a Girl Scout leader and involved in other community activities.Her husband teaches genetics at Indiana University, and she teaches political science there.As professor of political science, Marjorie specializes in American politics, political parties and interest groups. She can be reached at <hershey@indiana.edu>. A much shortened version of this article was published in Adoptive Families in the March/April 1998 issue.


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