How to Love an Adopted Child

The painful truth about adoption.

“I no longer wish to parent this child.”

Those words aren’t mine. They come from a letter written by 33-year-old Tennessee nurse Torry Hansen, who sent it on a plane back to Russia with the 7-year-old son she’d adopted last September. But there were moments last summer, after we brought home our newly adopted 3-year-old from China, when they could have been mine. That line perfectly encapsulates the way I felt for weeks after we returned from our adoption trip (although my version would have included more cursing). I did not love that child. That child did not love me (although, when she wasn’t screaming at me, she clung to me like the last tree standing in a tornado). I did not wish to parent that child, and I did not think I ever could.

Obviously, I eventually did, or the storm that now surrounds Hansen would have enveloped me instead. But without taking away anything from what her adopted son was suffering, I understand, deep in my bones, what Hansen must have been going through when she bypassed all other emergency options and put that child on a plane. In the same way that women who’ve experienced post-partum depression understand mothers who kill themselves and their infants, I get it. There, but for [fill in saving grace here], go I.

Like me, Hansen must have thought she was prepared. She was screened, questioned, and evaluated. She would have sat through the mandatory “adoption education” session on institutionalized children featuring descriptions of sexual and other abuses, violent anger, and unpredictable procedural delays. She would have filled out forms, she would have been evaluated by social workers, and, because of Russia’s strict travel requirements, she would have traveled there twice—the first time to meet the child she would adopt, and again, after a waiting period, to confirm her commitment to parenting him and to legalize their ties. But prospective adoptive parents are either incorrigible optimists (that was me) or people of deep and abiding faith, and it does not really sink in with most of them that things might end badly—might really end badly—until it is too late.

Hansen’s case isn’t the first to end this way. She’s not even the first parent to return her child to Russia—a couple from Georgia took a 9-year-old girl back in 2000, saying they could not get her the help she needed. Russia is notorious for difficult adoptees—its institutional system is more rigid than those in other countries and often offers less opportunity for young children to bond with a caregiver, which is considered key to transferring trust and affection to an adoptive parent later. But there are tragic adoption stories from every part of the world. A Florida woman left her adopted Guatemalan kindergartener in the airport immediately after bringing him to the United States. (He remained in foster care until she sought, and regained, custody of him 16 months later.) Not every tough case ends in tragedy or rejection, but plenty of adoptive parents (including some of my closest friends) cling to some sort of “Plan B” as they get through the first months home with what is essentially a stranger—an angry, troubled stranger that you’ve promised to love unconditionally for life.

Hansen adopted a 7-year-old boy from a country with a long history of troubled adoptions of institutionalized children. I adopted a 3-year-old raised in the best possible circumstances for an abandoned girl-baby in China—a foster home, with a loving couple whom she called Mommy and Baba, who’d parented her since she was 2 months old. With their help and support, she was transitioned to us with as much loving care as the Chinese government would allow. Yet we still struggled. My daughter screamed for hours for Mommy, and we both knew I wasn’t the mommy she wanted. She kicked, shouted, and defied me; she slugged her new brothers and sisters when they tried (always at the worst possible moment) to hug her. She said she did not like us; she begged to go back to Baba Mike. Her bottomless well of need meant I often had to ignore one of my other three children. I was sure I had ruined all of our lives forever.

It got better—it’s still getting better; we work daily for our happy ending. Well-meaning is a term that takes a beating, but Hansen (and I) obviously meant well. With some crazed exceptions, few adoptive parents go through this process intending to do harm. The problem is that harm has already been done. Even the best adoptive parent is just the clean-up crew.

The older children waiting for adoption in the United States and in other countries are children who’ve already been abandoned or abused. Prospective parents are warned about all that, but there is also a parallel mythology that’s risen up around adoption that sounds like that of giving birth in the days before Anne Lamott and her spiritual heirs burst the bubble. The stories adoption agencies include in their material, the books, the blogs—even the very signatures of the parents on adoption forums (“mom to DD Mei Mei, joyfully home since 2007”) all speak of an experience that’s supposed to be wonderful. Your child is “home,” his or her orphaned life has ended, your respective travels are over, and you have been united into one big forever-family. Even the politically correct terminology surrounding adoption insists that once it’s legal, it’s a done deal—your child “was” adopted (not “is”), and now you are its mother, amen. We do not want adoption to be a process; we want it to be a destination—and that makes us even angrier when it doesn’t work out that way. Torry Hansen betrayed her son, and she betrayed our belief system. We were willing to accept him as her son, and she wasn’t, which makes her the villain.

This is not really anyone’s fault. Humans seem to have an overwhelming need for a tidy narrative, which in adoption almost always butts up against the uglier reality. The law understands that, which is why, however wrong Hansen’s actions seem to us, putting her adopted son on a plane back to Russia does not appear to have been illegal. Rash, yes, and ugly, but not against the law—because the law still recognizes that adoptive parenting of older children is different than parenting from birth. What’s next is for the rest of us—jaded but experienced adoptive parents and the adoption professionals who surround us (often adoptive parents themselves) to stop relying on adoption education and social workers to convey the darker realities of attachment disorders, institutional delays, and post-adoption depression and start talking about them ourselves.

As long as we keep insisting that the typical adoption narrative is one in which a family comes home to joy and laughter and a happily ever after, cases like Hansen’s will give fuel to the alarmists who insist that all adoptive parents are naive and unprepared. Russia will seem measured rather than vengeful when it threatens to temporarily suspend all U.S. adoptions—a knee-jerk reaction that will leave hundreds of children, many of whom have already met the families who plan to take them in, waiting in institutions for months or even years while “additional safeguards” (which will probably affect only a very few adoptions) are put in place. This family is waiting in St. Petersburg to finalize its adoption. This one just arrived there. Hansen’s actions—or rather, Russia’s overreaction—might make their adoptions, if and when they happen, even more likely to fail: The longer a child is institutionalized or the older she is when adopted, the more difficult the adjustment for both child and family will be.

Our family’s adoption was far from perfect, although for the moment it seems to have ended better than Hansen’s. Of course, we still don’t know how it really ends. Even if my adopted daughter turns out fine, there are the other children to consider—my 3-year-old biological son may spend years on the couch because my adopted daughter displaced him; either my older son or my older daughter could seek the love and affection they lost this past year in a cult or a series of destructive one-night stands. We won’t know until we know (and we’ll never know what might have been different).

With the publicity surrounding his return, Hansen’s adopted son will surely be taken in by some Russian family, and no matter what’s said about it publicly, that will not be a smooth sail down the Nile. Probably none of it will work out as anyone would have intended—in fact, by definition, it already hasn’t. A perfect world would be one in which every child could be well cared for by the mother he or she was born to. That’s not what we’ve got. A “successful” adoption story is one in which you can tell yourself that it worked out better than the alternative. That has to be enough.

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