Second Best or Second Choice: Adoption After Infertility

Dawn Davenport


Is an adopted child second best

Is it fair to an adopted child to not be their parent’s first choice.

In the midst of the really great discussion we had on my Friday blog, which took issues with Dear Abby’s response to a letter questioning an adoption fundraiser, we received the following comment that wondered how an adopted child would feel about their adoptive parents so wanting a biological child that they tried for years and spent all their money on four failed IVF attempts.

I fully admit that I haven’t “been there,” so I can’t possibly know what it’s like to deal with infertility. But how do you get around the perception (to your child and others) that adoption was your “second choice” or “last resort”? The fundraising seems to compound the problem — in “Zoe’s” [the woman from the original letter to Dear Abby] case, they’d wiped out their entire savings on IVF, so THEN they decided to adopt, but needed to fundraise in order to do so. How does that send any message other than “a bio child was so important to us that we were willing to spend every penny we had to try to make that happen, and only when that failed multiple times and we ran out of money and had no other options, we decided to adopt. And our friends and family were all willing to chip in because they knew how heartbroken we were that we couldn’t have bio children and at least we were rescuing a poor orphan.”

There is no one perfect response to this question, and the truth is that this is something that infertile  people often worry about pre-adoption—should I adopt when it was clearly not my first choice. Will this hurt the child? Will I be able to parent this child as if he was “my own”? It is so common that I have spoken on this exact topic at numerous infertility/adoption conferences.

A Tale of Second Choice vs. Second Best

I think it is important to draw a distinction between second choice and second best. Another way to put it is to distinguish between the process and the outcome. Let me explain by way of a story.

Ever since you were a little kid, you dream of going to Europe. You save and plan and dream.You decide to go to Paris because you’ve heard Paris is beautiful in the springtime, because the food is great, and because, hey, it’s Paris, right. Who doesn’t dream of Paris in the springtime?!?

On the day your trip begins,  the airline tells you that all flights have been cancelled due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Nope, not just to Paris, but to all of Europe. And further nope, not just for the day, but until the smoke clears, and no one knows when that will be. However, they mention that the Queen Mary II is leaving the next day for Paris. You’re not so sure. You get sea sick just watching Titanic. And speaking of the Titanic, well… need I say more? On the other hand, you really want to see Europe and especially Paris, and if not now, then when?

The next morning, you show up at the harbor to board good ole QMII, but after waiting in line for hours, you find out it’s sold out. Not to worry, they say, a Carnival Cruise ship is sailing later that day, but the only cabins left are on the first floor. This gives you pause, having spent the evening Googling “Titanic” you are well versed on what happened to the poor souls in steerage, but you really really want to see Europe, you’ve heard of the quaintest little bistro on the Left Bank, and a glass of French wine is beginning to sound real good.

The North Atlantic passage was awful.  Maybe the Icelandic volcanic clouds caused some weird weather pattern, maybe the cause was Global Warming, but for whatever reason the weather and waves were almost more than you could bear. You seriously start questioning if someone somewhere above is trying to tell you something. Maybe seeing Europe is not supposed to happen for you. Maybe you are meant to be one of those people who spends their life having to sit silently while others extol their European vacations.

The trip is so horrible that the captain decides to dock in Lisbon rather than go on to Paris. Lisbon?? Lisbon is not the place of your dreams, but at this point you are so ready to get off the ship, that you gladly “settle” for Lisbon, in fact you practically run off the gangplank to embrace it. And the funniest thing happens– you discover that Lisbon is wonderful. It’s chock full of history, art, quaint bistros, and great wine. It’s not Paris, but then again, Paris ain’t Lisbon either. Perhaps you treasure it all the more because of how hard you had to work to finally get there. The process of getting there was definitely your second or third choice, but Lisbon is not second best; in fact, it is now your favorite city in Europe.

What Adopted Kids Need

My little story is to explain the distinction between second choice and second best to adults not necessarily to kids. In my experience, children understand the actions of love. They want to hear how much you wanted a child, how hard you worked to get them, how long you had to wait, and how incredibly happy you were when they finally arrived. Your actions and words will clearly reflect that they are not second best.

I interviewed many adult adoptees for my book, The Complete Book of International Adoption. When talking about their feelings towards adoption and their adoptive families, a number of them referenced the adoption poem that was particularly popular in the 1960s and 70s by saying that they always knew that they grew in their parent’s heart. I’ll be honest–I had always thought of that poem as a little trite, but clearly it captured the essence of their parent’s message for many of them. This feeling of belonging and of being the longed for child came through loud and clear regardless whether adoption was their parent’s first choice.

Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it. ~ Fleur Conkling Heylinge

Originally posted in 2011. Updated in 2016.

02/02/2016 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 33 Comments

33 Responses to Second Best or Second Choice: Adoption After Infertility

  1. Pingback: Is Love Biased? (On loving adopted & bio kids- PLUS!-how siblings reacted to adoption) | Less to be More

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  3. Avatar Marilynn says:

    Always with the different perspective, here I go: If your first choice was to have your own children rather than to raise other people’s kids, guess what? The other people’s kid’s first choice was to be raised by their parents and not some other people. Works both ways. Instead of focusing on trying to make them seem more like first choice why not empathize that you understand that having adoptive parents who love them dearly and would do anything for them is not the ideal situation for anyone, ideally their own parents would be willing and capable of raising them and would be great at it and happy about it. For whatever reason the ideal situations did not pan out for the people who wanted to have their own kid or for the kid who wanted to have his or her own parents raise them and hopefully the adoptive relationship is going to be the ideal situation for both of them given the circumstances and they will all be really grateful to have each other. If the adoptive parents can let the kid know that they did not loose their own family in order to be added into adopted into the family of their adoptive family then that might make for a much more happy and secure adopted person. The similarity in neither being either’s first choice but best given the circumstances has it’s limits though because the kid is being separated from real live living parents and relatives who are their first choice but for whatever reason can’t be with. The adoptive parents are not actually being separated from a real live biological child they had, but for some reason are not allowed to raise. So a little extra compassion and shoe wearing is probably required. In the end it might be best if everyone admitted first choice of course is for people to be healthy enough to have their own children and to have healthy partners to have them and of course its would be ideal if every child had to willing and able parents to raise them who were loving and dedicated to the tasks of parenthood. When ideal situations don’t pan out for children and for adults hopefully children find their way into the homes of loving competent people who are dedicated to the tasks of parenthood whether for their own child or for someone else’s. Then that becomes the ideal situation given the circumstances. Then it’s OK to be sad they were not raised by their parents while simultaneously feeling like their adoptive parents are fantastic.

  4. Avatar Daphne says:

    Again, I keep wondering where are these narratives of devastated children come from. While I will never disbelieve an adoptee who says they feel this way, this was never my experience.

    My parents were very upfront with me about trying for years to have a child the “regular” way, and how they were told by fertility experts that they would have to move to a different city (abroad!) filled with experts if they wanted to conceive. My mother rolled her eyes, decided that was ridiculous, and they both decided to adopt.

    Never once, during all those stories, did I ever feel as though I was the second choice, or second best. I was the baby they had dreamed of, the child that they wanted so much and worked so hard to get. They didn’t “settle” for adoption. They filled out paperwork, jumped through hoops, met with countless social workers and were followed unbeknownst to them to make sure they would be good parents. Having me was a triumph, not a concession.

    It’s only other people who ever seem to interpret adoption as somehow being second-best. In my family, I am their first choice, no matter what order I happened to arrive in.

  5. Avatar Steph says:

    What a great post and great way to describe and analogise it! I agree what what you’re saying and agree with the argument that if anything, it shows how determined you were to try and have a child, not that an adopted child in the end was a last resort.

  6. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    it was! ha.

  7. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    (i just googled lisbon – it looks amazing. i think i’d prefer it over paris!)

  8. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    so interesting, though. all of it!

  9. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    totally, and i know this first hand. i get it. i was on the treadmill for a few years before we decided to adopt from ET. and even that’s had its complications. but i just thought a little reframing might be apt, since the “poor orphan” entry seemed a little biased.

  10. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    …and when i say that the second option requires more work, i meant in terms of educating yourself about the options, legalities, etc. PRIOR to an adoption. it’s quite different than simply leaning on a trusted doctor referred to you by a friend or book!

  11. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    i feel like the person who wrote the response upon which this is based has a bias already. she/he starts: “a BIO child was so important to us that…” when perhaps “zoe” just felt that “a child was so important to us that…” and then talks about “rescuing a poor orphan.” i don’t think we should put words in zoe’s mouth. she v well may have exhausted their funds on ivf b/c her doc told her three times are the average number of rounds done on a woman her age, then moved onto another option that, frankly, required a lot more research and resources and work than the first one. i love your metaphor dawn about lisbon! so apt! but zoe’s child doesn’t even need to be lisbon – it could be london or barcelona … another beautifully sought-after option, just not the most common among her friends and family. the interesting thing, i think, about moving from infertility to adoption is realizing that now an infertile woman now has the opportunity to create a family in a way that is important to her. that can be very empowering for the parents and the child, i think.

  12. Avatar Dawn says:

    Somehow the blog wouldn’t let Suzanne post this, so herewith are thoughts from Suzanne:

    Unless you have a heart for adoption as a child or young adult, most people choose to form their family via the easiest route… ie get pregant. Then after a while the quest to “become pregnant” takes over your life and, when you are dealing with infertility, seems to take on gigantic meaning. Somewhere along this path, some couples begin to question if the goal is to become pregnant or if the goal is to be a parent. For me, this realization came out of the grieving for failed IVF attempts. I had to go down the wrong path to find the right one. Now, I realize how insignificant pregnancy is as compared to being a parent. I know a lot of people who had success with their fertility treatments and that is wonderful. Not everyone has to take the same path… and sometimes you go down a couple of dead ends before you find the road that you need to take. I wouldn’t call it 2nd choice or 2nd best. It’s just a different path than the one I expected to be on. But no less wonderful…

  13. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    “It’s a choice of process rooted in hope….” BRILLIANT turn of phrase. And really, so applicable in any of the choices before us to become parents. Such a beautiful way to put it. If more folks thought of others’ decisions in THAT vein, there’d likely be a danged-site less criticism and judgement flung around that make us question ourselves or others. Wow. I love that.

  14. Avatar Dawn says:

    Anon wp posted this response over on the other blog and I thought it so well said, that I’m pasting it over here to kick start the discussion.

    this is one of those questions that many adoptive parents ask themselves. At least, it certainly seems like it from the classes, discussion boards, and conferences I’ve attended. And it’s something my husband and I have talked about. So, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ll tell you how we think about it (though we’re just in the “waiting” phase of adoption, so there’s no doubt we are missing things). For information’s sake, we’re in a domestic newborn program, so understand that I write with that jargon and perspective in mind.

    It’s probably best to be honest (and age appropriate) with the answer. For our part, this means explaining that we made a decision to be parents first then looked at our options for becoming parents. Funny thing about that is that when we made that decision, we had visions of sleepless nights, cartoon themes being stuck in our heads, juggling activities, the joy of (hopefully) visiting our adult kids in their homes, and all that good stuff. Notice that none of that is child-specific because whether you give birth to a child or adopt a child, it’s all abstract until they arrive. No one knows who their kid is going to be. So choosing to adopt vs. trying to get pregnant is a matter of choosing a process rather than choosing a child.

    We tried to become parents without involving anyone else because it seemed the easiest way to go. We always knew adoption might be the best choice for us for various reasons, but keeping the decision of parenthood between us alone seemed like the easiest starting point. Once it was clear that that particular path was not open to us (not even an option, let alone a choice), we looked at the other possibilities and went with the one that seemed the best fit for us.

    When our child does arrive in our lives, we choose, first and foremost, to be the best parents to them we can be. To love them, support them, be engaged in their lives, and to help them figure out where they fit in the world. That would be true regardless of the way they joined the family. Adoption will always be a part of our lives once he or she arrives, and there is no doubt that the process by which they join our family will be a part of what defines us. We will do our darndest to make sure that they know that having been adopted does not make them “second best” to us or to anyone else. We also sincerely hope that his or her birthfamily will be a part of our lives so that they can help our child understand the difficult, careful decisions that were made before he or she even arrived on the scene. The very first choice that will be made for our child will not be made by us. It will be made by expectant parent or parents who are trying to find the best home and family possible for their child. The second choice will be on our side, when we say “yes, we will be the parents”.

    As for folks who chose a different path than we did and struggled through multiple rounds of IVF, I think it’s very, very easy to see it as a mistake when it doesn’t work, but it’s a choice of process that is rooted in hope. If they’d exhausted their funds but had success in the last round, we might say that the effort was worth the outcome. And think of it this way, if they spent $20k on six rounds of IVF (a quote from one local fertility clinic), then they see it as having six chances to become parents. Adoption might also cost that much, but they might see that as only having one chance. Not an odds analysis that holds up terribly well under scrutiny, but you see my point (maybe). In the end, they are still choosing what they feel is the best method for them to become parents.

  15. Avatar Kristine says:

    Thank you, yes it was very special and I feel emotional thinking about it. We were walking behind them and my husband was the one who said to take a picture of it.

  16. Kristine, what a beautiful image.

  17. Avatar Kristine says:

    I like that poem. ♥ I think our children by adoption are “our own.” My sweet adoptive mom never made me feel any less than that and would say “my daughter” in conversations, that was just how she talked. My birthmom thought she was making a point by calling me that when she was there, but that was how my mom talked with everybody. It’s sweet that my mom still felt and said that I was her daughter with my birthmom there, and sweeter still when she said to her something like “she’s ‘our daughter,’ she is your daughter too.” (That meant a lot to my birthmom) Someday I hope I can find the picture that we took of them walking on the beach together and holding hands and talking – it was when we went to visit my birthmom in Virginia the second time we were all together.

  18. Avatar Cate says:

    Thank you, thank you thank you for posting so thoughtfully about this! I am blessed to realize how much I wanted BOTH of these options –a bio child and an adopted child. DH and I had already chosen a child from Reece’s Rainbow and gotten in touch with an adoption agency when — to my utter shock — the day 6 single FET decided to put 2 pink lines on a pee stick! Choirs of angels couldn’t have been happier — but I found that I couldn’t get that other child out of my head. I worried about him to the point of tears! And then — as these things so often happen — my long-dreamed-of pregnancy decided to be ectopic. And strangely enough it was ok — because I *still* couldn’t get the other guy out of my head.
    Personally I am praying that my grief over never having a bio child will help me to better understand the Little Guy’s grief over never knowing his bio mom.
    Again, thanks for such a thoughtful post!

  19. Kristina, lol. I’ve actually been to both and I loved them both. Oh wait, that is kind of the overall metaphor here, wasn’t it. 🙂

  20. Kristina, I knew what you meant by “more work”. One of the reasons that this decision of when and if to switch from infertility treatment to adoption has become more complex is that there are so many more options with treatment. It is hard to step off the infertility ladder when the doctor is suggesting one more thing to try–ICSI, donor eggs, surrogacy. It does take work to get educated and excited about another avenue for family building.

  21. Avatar Kathleen Nolde-Martin says:

    Adoption for me was the right choice. It did come after 3 rounds of IUI (Intra-Uterine Insemination), but I never trusted that my body would conceive. I knew somewhere inside me that my child would be adopted and he is. However, I have a friend who did assisted reproduction for 7 years and now has 2 sons. She told me she could never trust a birth mother to care for her child in-utero. Different strokes, we are both mothers and that is the most important thing.

  22. Avatar AdoptedAP says:

    “Regarding what you wrote about Paris, I don’t believe that we can compare any other expectation in life to the one of having our biological child”.

    I have a child with autism. We share this story (but we use Holland as our city) with parents of newly diagnosed children. Many people feel this way when their hopes are dashed by a “disabled” child. People have a lot of expectations in life and obviously from so much experience shown here, life itself is unexpected. Now that I am old bird I can see that and roll with it better.

  23. Tracy, I loved that phrase as well.

  24. Avatar tera says:

    I think at some point in time, it will be appropriate to share how many times they tried and why at that time it was important in their lives to keep on trying. I do think if you would tell them that at a point in their young lives when they are vulnerable or feel insecure about your love for them, then that could be harmful. It would depend on how you share it, how often, when you share it, why you are sharing it and also the perception of the child about all of those things as well.

    Part of having a biological child is just instinct that is put into us to procreate. It’s a drive that we cannot escape without a lot of work, and I mean A LOT of work. Sometimes we are told point blank that there’s no possible way to have a biological child and the transition to acceptance is made more quickly. Or we know we don’t have the money for IVF and we’re realistic people. Or, we never really wanted to go through the whole body changes and do the pregnancy part anyway, so part of us is perhaps seeing the positive aspect of it. Or, we know that in our family there are genes that we’d be better off not passing down. Or, we are not risk takers and we’re already older and afraid we’d have something genetically wrong with the baby at this older age, so we move more quickly to adoption.

    Then there are the rest of us, that would include me, where neither of those are exactly true for us. The money would be the biggest one for us, but there are less expensive routes or we could have moved to a state where insurance covered it. So, money wasn’t the reason. For us, it was just that we didn’t believe the doctors when they said we couldn’t have a child. We didn’t trust them because the only thing that was wrong was my husband’s sperm and we thought it just takes one. We believed that if we kept trying it would happen.

    Regarding what you wrote about Paris, I don’t believe that we can compare any other expectation in life to the one of having our biological child. I think it’s pretty much what I said: we either are quick to accept adoption because of specific factors or we will struggle with this until our hope runs out. We shouldn’t adopt until we know for sure our desire for a biological child and our inability to have one will not interfere with our ability to love an adopted child.

    There could be other reasons why the relationship with an adopted child might not be a good one, but it shouldn’t have to do with how much they are loved by the adoptive parent. The adoptive parent needs to be healed of this pain and loss they’ve experience regarding biological procreation. That is a must, in my opinion.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tera, you are so right that you shouldn’t adopt if you think your inability to have a biological child or the longing for a biological child will interfere with your ability to love an adopted child. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, adoption is not for everyone.

  25. Avatar Gemma says:

    Love what you said and the above post.

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