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Interpreting Adopted Children: "Telling"
By mid-century, most agencies required adopters to pledge, in writing, that they would tell, and how-to-tell conversations were routine parts of the adoption process, along with lessons in how to answer children's inevitable, curious questions about their birth parents. The how-to literature aimed to help parents face "the dreaded job of telling their child the truth of how he came into the family." Many adoptive parents remained very uncomfortable talking about it, and professionals viewed this as proof that insecure parents needed more help and better interpretation. The difficulties of telling were bound up with the difficulties of acknowledging adoption's difference from biogenetic kinship, even within the closed circle of the family itself.
The rationale for telling had less to do with honesty than it did with therapeutics. Parents would be wise to tell children about their adoptions before they learned the truth from unfeeling relatives, nosy neighbors, or cruel classmates. (The presumption that adoptees would necessarily be penalized by their status is another indication that therapeutic ideals took white, middleclass norms as their starting point. African-American and other poor and working-class communities had histories of informal adoption that often made telling irrelevant.) Emotional inoculation against shock and stigma was the main reason for telling, with closeness and trust between parents and children a secondary benefit. Some parents still resisted, convinced that adopted children who did not know they were adopted were less likely to face stigma and more likely to be "just like their very own."
The therapeutics of telling required parents to do far more than simply tell. By telling, they navigated the precarious gap between constructively emphasizing and destructively over-emphasizing the fact of adoption. They were supposed to acknowledge that adoption was different, at least to their children, but also behave as if it were not. They were supposed to raise children who appreciated the momentousness of their adoption, but also proved their adjustment by never thinking or talking about their natal backgrounds. They were supposed to carefully approach the explosive potential of adoption with an attitude of studied casualness. Benjamin Spock, to take a famous example, advised parents to accept the fact of their child's adoption "as naturally as they accept the color of the child's hair," while simultaneously suggesting that adoption was anything but a neutral fact of this kind. Adoption made children fearful and insecure. Spock warned parents that "one threat uttered in a thoughtless or angry moment might be enough to destroy the child's confidence in them forever."
Adoption mattered, but it was not supposed to seem that way. Telling earned a unique place in the literature of therapeutic adoption. It linked deliberate, emotional labor to the effective management of potentially dangerous difference. Exactly when, how, and what to tell were described at great length and in great detail. Sample scripts were frequently offered in the interest of making this difficult challenge easier. A burgeoning children's literature, including classics like The Chosen Baby (1939) and The Family That Grew (1951), provided handy aids that literally made adoption go down as easily as a bedtime story. More proactive and creative parents were advised to supplement such literature with custom-made scrapbooks including photographs of landmark events: the day you came home, the day your adoption was finalized, etc. Occasionally, the strategy of allowing adoptees to adopt something themselves--usually pets--was advocated. As an activity with no guarantee of working out well (pets could misbehave, run away, die, or be given away), it had obvious disadvantages.
Until the past few decades, preferred telling methods stressed "chosen child" themes. Parents were instructed to use the words "chosen" and "adopted" early, often, interchangeably, and always and only with a happy and relaxed tone of voice. Any hint of anger or frustration could defeat the purpose of telling by betraying adoption's negative associations and substandard social status. Even with infants too young to understand, verbal repetition promised to cement positive associations with phrases like "my precious adopted daughter" and "my dear little adopted son." The aim here was not only to boost children's self-esteem, but prepare them for the inevitable encounter with adoption stigma. If a child's parents faithfully exclaimed, "How glad we are we picked you out!" then he was likely to feel carefully selected in comparison to other children, whose parents were obligated to accept whatever nature gave them. Selection made adoption special, even superior.
Telling children themselves was mandatory, but there was far more room for debate about whether neighbors, teachers, and health care providers also needed to be told. Occasionally, a liberal approach to "coming out" was advocated, but most advice-givers cautioned parents against exiting the adoption closet too boldly. First, confidential information conveyed in a moment of excitement might return to haunt the child. Second, adoptees had an unusual need to fit in smoothly, especially with peers. The very measures that others recommended as symbols of authentic belonging--adoption announcements, adoption day celebrations--might accentuate the child's differentness and tempt teasing. In deciding whether and what to tell others, parents faced a fundamental dilemma. How to normalize and dignify adoption without either publicizing its distinctiveness or denying that it involved any meaningful distinction at all?
Running the gauntlet of telling was as much a test of parents' authenticity as it was a method of ensuring that children experienced realness in family life. Passing the telling test suggested that parents were real: mature, loving, able to prioritize their child's needs, and willing to acknowledge that adoption made their family both different and not different, all at the same time. Failure to tell well, or worse, to tell at all, indicated that parents doubted their own realness and harbored toxic fears that children born to others could never truly be their "own." Although no precise formula existed for the timing or vocabulary of telling, advisors spared no effort in conveying to parents that there were right and wrong ways to feel about adoption. "If you yourselves have fully accepted your child's adoption," one advisor concluded in 1955, "you will be able to make him accept it, fully and happily." Doing so frequently involved calculated efforts to manage the emotions associated with infertility and illegitimacy. In therapeutic adoption, how parents turned out was key to how children turned out.
Therapeutic Government and Difference
In recent decades, the movement toward openly honoring previously concealed differences has, if anything, increased the number of therapeutic openings and interventions in adoption. Opportunities to instruct participants and govern the course of their family lives have multiplied. The spread of post-adoption services, for instance, suggests that legalization is but one step (and probably not the most important one) on the road toward authentic kinship, and that adoptive families need help over the long haul, perhaps permanently. At mid-century, casework and probationary periods from 6-12 months were common features of agency practice, but supervision ended promptly after the new family's day in court. Therapeutic intervention into the adoptive family ceased in the interest of making it as autonomous, private, and immune from interference as any other. Post-adoption services barely existed before the 1960s because differential treatment of legally equivalent families was a flagrant violation of the matching paradigm. With the emergence of the difference paradigm, post-adoption services have spread, along with their therapeutic logic.
Today, there is very little dissent from the claim that adoption is a risk factor that jeopardizes mental and emotional health. Adoption, according to both public and professional opinion, causes primal wounds that may require a lifetime of effort to heal, even in cases where children show no conspicuous signs of disorder or suffering. The very differences in adoption that deserve publicity have thus also been responsible for the loss, insecurity, and crimes of trust and attachment that many believe typify adoption as a kinship arrangement. The repair of psychological damage done by adoption has become a growth industry.
Whether authenticity quests in adoption were founded on a paradigm of similarity or a paradigm of difference, the ultimate measure of realness--blood--hardly budged. Matching respected a singular standard of kinship to be emulated as closely as possible in the name of achieving authenticity; families were supposed to look natural and be treated as if they were. Matching's critics advanced a pluralistic standard of kinship in which openly acknowledging adoption's distinctiveness offered a new path toward authenticity; adoptive families could finally appear to be what they actually were, and might actually deserve special protection and treatment because of their difference.
In either case, the realness that biogenetic reproduction was presumed to confer served as the index against which mediators, participants, and observers gauged adoption's successes and failures. The stamina of a profound cultural equivalence between blood and belonging helps to explain two extremely important and interrelated features of adoption's modern history. First is the emergence of therapeutic ideals and practices devoted to producing authenticity deliberately, such as those represented by telling children about their adoptions and probing the meaning of infertility in adoptive parents. Second is the inability of these ideals and practices to achieve full dignity and equality in the face of a realness that was necessarily ascribed rather than achieved. Child adoption consequently illustrates some of the obstacles to therapeutic authority as well as its triumph.
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