adoption: expectations vs. realities

Take a look at that photo. Yeah, the Asian baby with the slightly disproportionate ears and smushed-up nose. This baby mugshot was my–for lack of a better description–personal ad photo my parents received when choosing a baby to bring home.

My adoptive mother enjoyed saying how much she fell in love with that photo the moment she viewed it; another adoptee shared how her mother loving her when she knew she was conceived (huh?).

But let’s think about this. Realistically, can you truly love another person (because babies are simply people, after all) based on a photo? When adults do this, they’re usually side-eyed as being reckless and irrational. Get a grip, well-meaning friends will say. You’re in love with the idea of that person, not the human being itself.

In adoption, particularly transracial adoption, these drive-through baby-picking-ads aren’t so far off from someone browsing personal ads or trying to find the perfect hairdryer. What’s dangerous is that, with a child, this idea of what this kid is and how it’ll fit in your home can create an unrealistic bubble into which the adoptee is placed, floating around their parents’ minds as expectations, promises, and unrealistic hopes. Imagine what’ll happen when that bubble bursts. The kid ends up conforming not to their parents’ imaginary silhouette but becomes an unfamiliar (unwanted?) mix of genetics and environment.

My husband explained it like this: Pretend a family of dogs (conformists, willing to please, pack-oriented) decide to adopt a kitten (independent, aloof, intelligent). As this kitten ages into a cat, it begins displaying typical feline characteristics which run counter to dog behaviors. Dogs are social; cats less so. Cats swish their tails when angry; dogs wag their tails for myriad reasons but the well-known one is happiness. Cats drop their ears in fury; dogs drop their ears in submission.

The dog family gets angry at this cat for simply being a cat. Stop purring! the dogs say. You’re ridiculous and bad–you need to wag your tail more.

But I can’t, the cat counters, it’s something that just happens.

What’s wrong with you? the dogs chide. Why can’t you just join in instead of hiding in your room?

And over and over again, until the cat hates itself. He takes no pride in being a cat, but only berates himself for not being a dog.

In a strange twist of the turtle and scorpion fable, the cat ends up stung by the dogs who committed to loving this former kitten, only to be hurt by their inability to recognize the cat for who it was. This is the danger of loving a child based on a picture.

Racial differences add to the tension. If not properly examined, parents’ cultural competency and racial attitudes may unfairly color (pun!) how a child develops. Is this fair? No, but it is a reality. A harsh one, but in the difficult truths we can learn how better to improve.

I believe every adoptive parent loves their child, but I think this relationship needs better grounding when publically presented. To claim “love at first sight” places expectations and ideas on a human that may be impossible to fulfill. I’d rather promote the idea that parents must get to know their adopted child, perhaps in a more intense way and with guided therapy, falling in love with that entire person after a journey of mutual respect and acceptance.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Feel free to get me on Twitter or comment below!

3 thoughts on “adoption: expectations vs. realities

  1. It’s not only true for adoptees I think but good advice for all parents. A gay child can be born to a straight family, an autistic child to allistic parents, and the family who can’t accept that tiny person for who they are usually expresses it in resentment. Adoption makes it all worse when parents coached in a savior narrative can frame differences as ingratitude or biological deficiency.

    Liked by 1 person

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