Can an adopted child ever truly be happy?

If you haven’t been following the comments on my blog last week on the future of international adoptions, especially those comments from adult adoptees, you really have missed an important discussion.  After reading the comments, one prospective adoptive parent, Sara, posted the following on the Creating a Family Facebook Support group:

Is there ever such a thing as a ‘happy adoptee’? Or, are we just deluding ourselves?  I want very badly to parent, and have always hoped to have a home full of children, but if we are doing them more harm than good, as most of the adult adoptee/first mother websites/blogs/comments I’ve read have stated, I love them (whomever they may be) too much to harm them that way. Sure adoption would feel good for me, but does it ever ‘feel good’ for the child? If not, why do we do it?

Adoptive Parents vs. Adoptees?!?

How in the world did we get here, folks?  How in the name of all that is holy did we reach a point of such contention between adoptive parents and adopted persons?

Both sides are guilty of “boxing” – placing the other side in a tight little box where we define the parameter.  In our discussions, at least those online, it seems as if neither side really listens to what the other is saying because we are so sure we already know their position and are too busy preparing our rebuttal.

I firmly believe (although in real life don’t always practice) that in any misunderstanding, the first place to look is at myself.  I can’t get into the other side’s head, nor can I change their position. The best I can do is analyze the ways I’ve contributed to the problem.  I’m an adoptive mom and an adoption educator, so what I can offer is my look at “our” side in this misunderstanding.  I think we as a group, fall prey to many myths.

Myth of One-Dimensional Happiness

What exactly do we mean by “happy” or “well adjusted”?  How exactly are we measuring an adopted person’s happiness? Would any of us fit that definition?

Within the last several weeks, I heard from two struggling adoptive parents-one has been slammed with an unexpected wave of infertility grief and another is struggling with a child who is not attaching as she had hoped.  I’ve also been reading the 280 comments on my blog Delays in Receiving the Adoption Tax Credit-What You Can Do – many of which are pretty darn mad.  So I ask you — “Is there such a thing as a happy adoptive parent?”

Of course there is.  The adoptive parents I’ve been hearing from are happy some of the time, even though struggling and frustrated at other times.  We humans have the amazing capacity to hold dual emotions at the same time.  We can be sad/mad/frustrated about something, but at the same time, be happy and satisfied in general.  We might want to blog and comment on the thing we are mad about, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole of our life.   It is indeed possible to be both things at once. The same with adoptees.

Also, happiness and adjustment are not static in time.  An adoptee’s feeling towards adoption, and the loss of his birth family often change over time, developmental stage, and life events.  For some, the birth of a child brings forth feelings of anger or sadness that they had previously not experienced.  For others, a health crisis precipitates anger at the adoption laws that prevent them from finding out their family medical history.

The same can be said for the feelings and emotions of adoptive parents.  Some are blissfully happy until their child’s more challenging teen years when they start questioning if their relationship would be better if they had a biological connection. Others feel more like a babysitter than a parent at the beginning, but grow into their parenting role with time.

Happiness is also affected by temperament.  By their nature, some folks are just basically happy and fairly content with their lot in life and some are born questioners and challengers. The world needs both kinds.  Some adopted persons are intensely curious about their first family and feel the loss of this connection acutely, and some don’t.  I once interviewed an adopted woman in her mid-40s who had never had an interest in searching for her first family. She described herself as pretty laid back and just not that curious, yet she felt judged by other adoptees, adoptive parents, and the general public, for this lack of interest.

Myth of the “Oughta Be Grateful” Adoptee

I have a question for all you adoptive mommas out there– who amongst you has not sat over a glass of wine or coffee with your best friend and kvetched about your mother?  And did you first preface it with “I love my mother, she is the greatest and I am so grateful that she decided to parent me, and I don’t mean any offense, but (fill in the complaint of the day)?

No, you did not.

Most likely it went something like “I love my mom, but that woman is driving me nuts with (fill in complaint). If you were really ticked, you left off the “I love her part” and didn’t worry that you would seem overly ungrateful, because that is assumed.  Not so for adoptees.

Many adoptees feel that if they complain about their parents or the institution of adoption, they are accused of being ungrateful or angry.  No adoptive parent would ever actually say that they expect gratitude, but when we get freaked out over negative comments by adopted people aren’t we sending that message?

Most adoptees feel the same degree of gratitude towards their parents as non-adopted persons and the same degree of frustration.  As to the institution of adoption, adoptees are in the unique position of living the adoption experience from the inside, and they are the only ones who can tell us what that experience is like for the person in the center—the one we are supposed to be making all our decisions in the best interest of. We need for them to speak up, even if it makes us uncomfortable.  Their advice will be contradictory at times and some will come from uncommonly bad experiences, but those of us who care about the institution of adoption need to hear it all.

Myth of the Generic Adoptee

One of my pet peeves is that many discussions about adoption and adoptees, we box the adoption experience by “alls” and “shoulds”.

  • All adoptees are ________ (take your pick: angry, happy, sad, grateful).
  • All adoptees should ________ (want to search for birth families, need therapy).
  • All adoptees experience _______(the primal wound, feelings of rejection).

Adoptive parents can be guilty of hearing one adopted person speak and then generalizing her opinions to the whole.  (Truthfully, plenty of adoptees fall prey to this myth as well, but I’m focusing in this blog on the adoptive parent side of this issue.)

This is absurd if you think about it.  How would you like all adoptive parents to be viewed by the opinions or actions of a few — say Torry Hansen (the mom who “returned” her seven-year-old to Russia) or even the mom who is deliriously happy and claims to have no need to understand racial differences even though she is the mom to three African American kids.  Likewise, the adult adoptee community is not homogeneous, and as with any group, we hear from just a few.

In truth, we are more likely to hear from those who have a bone to pick because that’s human nature. The people who are quietly content with their lot in life have little need to speak up.  Some do because they are altruistically oriented, but I suspect that most do not.

I have tried over the years to make sure that I interview adoptees that are not active with the adoption business and not active with adult adoptee groups to make sure their voices are heard.  Here’s an excerpt from an interview with a 34-year-old adopted from Korea by a Caucasian family when she was three. She now lives in a small town in the southeast, and until I told her about online groups for adult adoptees, she had never visited them.  She does not speak for the masses any more than the vocal bloggers or the adoption agency employees.  Hers is just one voice amongst many, but one you might not have heard.

I am immensely glad I was adopted—I feel blessed actually, which I might add, is very different from feeling appreciative.  For me the thought that I am supposed to be appreciative has negative connotations because shouldn’t everyone (adopted or not) feel appreciative of their family?  My family is my family.  I know no other, and I love them all dearly.

As you grow older you start to understand that children inherit certain traits from their parents.  As an adopted child you miss out on that.  You take that for granted if you are not adopted; it’s just a part of you–your history and your future.  I think most adopted people feel as though there is something missing…just a little part of you.  If you’re lucky to have children of your own, it fills you up and provides that missing puzzle piece.  The first time I saw my first born was the first time I saw someone who looked like me and was related to me by blood.  That was an amazingly wonderful feeling.

After the birth of my first child I had to work through some anger I had pent up related to being adopted.  I wondered how anyone could give up such a beautiful, helpless baby, and I was mad that someone had done that to me.  The generic reasons (oh, your mom couldn’t afford you….she just wanted the best for you) were all offensive to me.  The idea that people would assume the reason for abandonment was only positive made me feel like they were washing over the possible truths behind my “beginning” (as if the truth really didn’t matter).  I just had to work through these feelings….which I did.

I hear of some adult adoptees that are angry that they were adopted.  This is not my experience, but I try to understand where they are coming from.  It’s hard not knowing your own history.  This can create a feeling of always having to prove your self-worth.  Also, not everyone was adopted into a nurturing loving family that was willing to love unconditionally.  I think the angry outcry of these adoptees is a cry for attention and validation.  They get a lot of attention because they vent their hurt publicly.  The reason that the rest of us “contented adoptees” don’t get as much attention is that we are busy living our lives.  We’re not focused on the past and playing the blame game.  We’re focused on living.

Obviously there is no right or wrong way to raise your children.  Adopted children just want to be loved and accepted.  As they grow older they want answers, so it is important to provide the answers when you can and to give them the support and tools to find those answers you can’t provide.  Take your cues from your children.

The Answer

So Sara, of course, there are happy adoptees and unhappy adoptees, and sometimes these are the same people.  Just because they complain or point out ways adoption needs to improve does not make them “angry”.  We are going to continue our dialog between adult adoptees and adoptive parents later this week, so stay tuned by signing up for our weekly email newsletter at the top right of this page.  In the meantime, let me recommend the following for adoptive parents to read to expand their concept of “the happy adoptee”:

P.S. Can you do us a favor? If you are going to buy something off of Amazon, please enter Amazon from our site by clicking on one of our Best of the Best Books. (For example, When you enter Amazon from our site, we get a percentage of your total order. (It’s a small %, but hey, every little bit helps!)

Image credit:  KaitlynKalon
Originally posted in 2011, edited and updated in 2015