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Pet Sins November 2005

A lack of familial attachment - 'natural and right' for some but not for others

There has been anger expressed by some adoptees about how some members of society, including some adoptive parents, seem to expect adoptees to feel extra grateful to the people who raised them. In closed adoptions, any attempt to contact first families is perceived as "ungrateful" by some people. While that sort of thinking can be harmful and alienating to the youngsters raised in adoptive homes, no less harmful is the opposite prejudice, unfortunately also very prevalent, but perhaps less discussed: the expectation that adoptees 'naturally' hold less affection for their parents than biological children hold for their parents. If an adoptee loves his/her second family or has no desire to connect with his/her first family, some people consider it an anomaly, an unnatural exception, or even just a pretense to keep peace with adoptive parents. (Never mind the many personal accounts shared by individuals who have been stepchildren, who already know and have contact with their first parents, but choose as informed adults to stop contact with a biological father of dubious character and regard a stepfather, who may or may not have formally adopted them, as their only relevant father.)

Q is a lady who adamantly claims that almost every media story about adoptees in her country of origin were stories of adoptees who, on learning of their adoptee status, abandoned their second parents and sought to reunite with the birth parents. When someone pointed out that a desire to reconnect with first parents does NOT mean a lack of love for second parents or a desire to shut them out of their lives, Q insisted "But the fact is, they DON'T love their adoptive parents. They want nothing more to do with them!"

It is doubtful if Q's dramatic claim really applies to all, or even most adoptees. If anything, it shows the bias of the media in her country, and the role of the media in shaping negative perceptions of adoptive families. Q does not fault those adoptees who allegedly abandoned ties with their adoptive parents. She believes that this is the 'natural' and 'right' thing for any human to do, that no matter how many years a parent has spent raising a child, how much love and care has been devoted to the child, the child 'naturally' does not feel love if there is no biological connection. (Never mind the many true accounts from various times and places of children who love their nannies more than they love their parents, because the nannies spent more time with them and expressed love to them more often.)

It is undeniable that *some* children, whether by birth or adoption, feel little affection (perhaps with justifiable reasons) for those who raised them, and often take a shift in family dynamics such as moving away for school, parents' divorce as an opportunity to reduce contact or even cut ties with their parents. Our purpose here is not to invalidate the feelings or criticize the decision of any individual, whether biological or adopted, who decides to cut ties with parents and make a fresh start in life. The problem is people like Q, who insist on spreading the stereotype that most if not all adoptees never develop a 'natural' affection for their second parents. She also believes that even those adoptees who say they have no wish to connect with birth families are lying in order not to hurt their adoptive parents, or in denial, because of guilt, of their 'true' desire to find their birth families.

There are quite a few stereotypes at work in just Q's statements. Firstly, she has this fixed idea that ALL adoptees desire to reunite with their birth families, and those who have no desire to do so are in denial and don't really know what they truly want or feel. This generalization is as condescending and hurtful as the idea that adoptees are not entitled to seek out and reconnect with biological family.

Secondly, her idea that an adoptee has to choose between his birth family or his adoptive family, that loving one must mean abandoning the other, is simply an imagined, human-made mental limitation. There is no heaven-made rule that a person has to limit her/his love to one family. In the case of a birth child raised by birth parents, s/he loves her first family - parents and siblings. Then when s/he grows up, meets a significant other and starts a new family, does that mean s/he no longer loves his/her first family or has turned his/her back on her parents? In the case of adoptive families, there is no reason why an adopted child cannot choose to love both sets of parents. For every adoptive parent who feels insecure about his/her child reconnecting with birth family, there are other adoptive parents who favor open adoptions, or who are happy to help their children search for their families of origin.

Q claims that her views of adoption are based on real life contact with adoptees. She claims that D, one adult male adoptee she is acquainted with, feels extremely "lost" and lonely, and is always finding some excuse not to visit family. Never mind that she has another acquaintance E, raised by bio parents, who also feels lost and lonely, and has avoided seeing family for nearly a decade (compared to D, who sees the family, which Q claims he does not want to see, at least once a year). When someone pointed out that fact, Q argued, "D is the norm among adoptive children, while E is the exception among bio kids." But E is not the only biological child in Q's circle with a negative parent-child relationship. Q's close friend G developed resentment towards his (biological) parents because of excessive physical punishment. In adulthood, G's resentment continued. Eventually he took his (biological) parents' money and compelled them to move to a nursing home.

Q conveniently ignores the fact that her adoptee friend D has a more friendly relationship with his family than her two acquaintances E and G, biological children who had issues with their parents.

To back up her beliefs, Q claims that she had another friend F who was also adopted. F was only told of her adoption when she reached adulthood. On learning that her parents were not her biological parents, she no longer referred to them as parents but as "people who raised [her]". Q claims that F feels no natural to her parents, and her use of that terminology proves her "dislike" for her adoptive parents. Q was not criticizing F's relationship with her parents. Q felt her friend's perceived distaste for adoptive parents was perfectly normal because it is a biologically-ingrained reaction. Never mind that her other acquaintance E, the bio kid raised by bio parents, also seems to have lower-than-average level of attachment to his parents, and also at times refers to his bio parents as "the people who raised [him]."

But that sort of supposedly hostile attitude coming from a biological child was NOT acceptable to Q. Q lectured E on changing his attitude, telling him to see the positives about his parents. The problem here is not E or F's attitudes towards their parents. Without walking in their shoes, for all we know, there may be sympathetic reasons for them to choose to distance themselves from the people who raised them. The problem is people like Q, who hold adoptive families and biological families to different standards. Given two people, one adopted, one a biological child, who behave in the same way, she judges them differently. The idea that "it is natural and acceptable for an adoptive child to dislike his/her parents, but it is unnatural and unacceptable for biological child to dislike his/her parents" is just as harmful to the health of families as the idea that adoptive children must feel more grateful than biological children and not take their place in the family for granted.

Since children, whether adopted or biological, did not choose to impose themselves on their parents; adoptive children are NOT any more obligated to feel grateful to the parents who raised them than biological children are. But by the same token, adoptive children are not any less obligated to feel grateful to their parents than biological children are. There should be no double standards when it comes to 'judging' families, if you want to start judging them at all.

Q once asked an acquaintance (who was raised by biological parents): "If you dislike your parents, have you ever thought that you might be adopted?" without even realizing the assumptions and stereotyping behind her attitude. The problem is not even whether adoptive children tend to have more relationship issues than non-adopted children. There has been much debate on the internet about whether adoptees have more psychological issues than biological children, and interested readers can seek that information elsewhere. Even if the process of adoption creates psychological stress whose effects are carried over into later years, when people like Q blame everything that goes wrong in a family on adoption and claim that hostile or indifferent feelings between child and parent are biologically determined, it may obscure the true causes of individual conflict, which may not have anything to do with adoption at all. Back to Q's opinion that it is perfectly 'natural', acceptable and justified for non-biological children to turn their backs on their parents and feel no attachment to them despite all the years of living with them and sharing a home. Let's extend this paradigm slightly further: it is perfectly 'natural', acceptable and justified for any individual human to turn his/her back on a friend and feel no attachment to said friend despite all the years of hanging out and sharing good times, because the two friends aren't biologically related. Does she really buy that? Not when it happens to her.

Years ago, Q took in a tenant, a young man, whom she sometimes looked after in a somewhat motherly way, offering extra help when he was ill, and occasionally assisting him with various projects. After he moved out, they continued a friendship. Sometimes, being better off and generous, she gave him leftover food. The young man was grateful. As many friends do, they helped each other out in time of need. But more than 10 years after they became acquainted, the younger person decided that whatever virtues Q had, she was not a positive influence. He started to distance himself from the critical and contentious attitude she was projecting towards others with increasing frequency. At the same time, he felt that she was his benefactor, and he gladly rearranged his schedule to make time for her when she asked for help with household tasks. But beyond doing Q practical favors, he no longer seemed interested in spending time socializing with Q anymore. When Q perceived that she had been rejected and socially abandoned by an old friend (who nevertheless still made it clear he was available to help should she ever be in a pinch), she was livid. "He treated all those years of friendship like nothing!"

Quite understandably, she felt upset, even though they were not biologically related. She apparently saw what happened as an 'unnatural' thing, calling the person who rejected all her years of friendship as 'heartless' and 'ungrateful'. But she does not at all see an adoptee who rejects her parents after years of living together as 'heartless' and 'ungrateful', believing instead that such sentiments were natural and perfectly understandable. We're not at all implying that the friend was right (or wrong) to ditch Q or that Q isn't entitled to her feelings of betrayal and outrage. We're merely pointing out her double standards.

Her friend, no biological relation to her, with whom she only had a slight imitation of a parent-child relationship, and with whom she had spent far less time than most parents and children spend with each other, was not entitled to dislike her, feel little attachment to her and to turn his back on her after all those years. She sees this act as an 'unnatural, inhuman' outrage. After all, she saw herself as a decent person who did not deserve that level of rejection. But she finds it perfectly 'natural' and 'human' if a child with no biological relationship to his/her parents does those same very things to his/her parents even if the parents were decent human beings.

This incident with Q being let go by the friend happened years after Q started ranting on the alleged inferiority of adoptive families, and thus was not a factor in shaping her views on relationships between biologically unrelated parents and children. This post is not intended to suggest that individuals, adopted or non-adopted, are NOT entitled to distance themselves socially from a parent they have little fondness for. Each person's circumstances differ, and what is the most appropriate choice is determined on a case-by-case basis. The issue here is with the double standards of people who think and act like Q - those of us who vilify adoptive families for the same flaws that they overlook in biological families, or those of us who on the surface 'take the side of' adoptees by claiming they are entitled to attitudes and behaviors that we won't condone in anyone else, we are contributing to the mountain of prejudice against people who are already struggling against social bias. And when family problems arise in the hostile climate created by the stereotypes and negative talk that we constantly put out there, we point fingers at suffering individuals and say, "See, this is the perfect example of what I was talking about!", as if it was a completely "natural" occurrence and we have no complicity in laying artificial, unnecessary burdens on people.