Is an adopted child second best

In the midst of the really great discussion we had on a recent article, which took issues with Dear Abby’s response to a letter questioning an adoption fundraiser, we received the following comment. The reader 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, many referenced the adoption poem that was particularly popular in the 1960s and 70s by saying they always knew they grew in their parent’s hearts. 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 of 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.