Sunday, November 09, 2008

In Defense of Adoption: Coping with "Phantom Parents"

On Tuesday my article on "anti-adoption advocates" will be running on CatholicExchange, and include a reference to an anti-adoption article recently printed in the "National Catholic Register." I was horrified to see such a thing printed in a Catholic publication, and cannot understand why they ran it. If we want to eradicate the need for abortion, adoption is the clear alternative for those who are unable or unwilling to parent their own children.

This is not to say it is the easy choice. As my article indicates, the loss experienced by birth/first parents and adopted children is real, much like the phantom pains of an amputee ... and yet, those pains (however regrettable) may be necessary in order to save a life from the alternative: abuse and neglect, or even death.

Today, I came across this article by history professor Paul Kengor, entitled "Palin, for Posterity." The line that moved me most: "When Barack Obama voted against protecting babies accidentally born alive during abortions, it was after hearing testimony about a Down syndrome baby allowed to die after an abortion attempt. ..."

We cheer Sarah for choosing life for her child, and for being willing to use her platform to draw attention to the plight of these special children. But what about the vast majority (some say 90%) who receive the DS diagnosis and choose to "terminate the pregnancy"? Yes, we need visible examples of parents who choose to embrace these special-needs children.

Even so, many will not make that choice. Is adoption, then, really a fate worse than death?

Of course not. Not for these children, whose parents feel unequal to the task of parenting a special needs child; nor would it have been from the beginning for the hundreds of thousands of children lingering in group homes and foster homes today, victims of their birth parents bad choices; and not for those whose mothers make an adoption plan knowing that it is the child's best chance to avoid the most serious consequences of that birth parents' mistakes. They may struggle. They may question. But at least they are safe and alive.

What about years from now, when the child grows up and is angry about the fact that (a) he was separated from his parents and (b) did not get to choose the adoption for himself? How do we respond to the "phantom pain" of the parents he or she never got to know?

The "phantom parent" of the [grown] child's mind is just that ... a phantom. It is real -- but cannot be allowed to define that child's existence if he or she is going to heal. True, the child did not get to choose the adoption any more than a young child chooses amputation (or other serious treatment) for a life-threatening disease. These adult choices are made on behalf of the child.

Once the choice is made, all that remains is to guide the child toward healing. To a great extent, this is the primary job of the adoptive parent. (I was interested to read that recent therapies used to treat phantom pain include "mirrored boxes" or "virtual limbs" that allow the patient to strengthen his remaining muscles while retaining the illusion of his missing limb. Although I had not thought of it before, when I read this my mind returned to those first months of parenting my children, which were so difficult on all of us. Their parents were missing, and we were a poor substitute ... Only with time did they allow us to become fully Mom and Dad.)

Traumatized children (whether physically through disease or emotionally through losing their first parents) who for whatever reason remain "trapped" by their pain can be crippled for life. And yet, as my sister (a childhood amputee and cancer survivor) has shown me, those who are able to grieve their loss and move on find themselves able to do things that leave the rest of us breathless.

11 comments:

Bernadette said...
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MightyMom said...

wait wait wait wait wait.

now I'm new to Catholicism so correct me where I'm wrong here BUT.

Didn't St Joseph ADOPT Jesus and raise him as his own son while here on earth??

Aren't we all ADOPTED into the family of Christ at Baptism??

HUH???

I'm missing something...................

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

Right you are ... although I tend to think of St. Joseph as more a "foster father." Remember, Jesus always referred to God as "my father." "Didn't you know I would be in my father's house?"

I've often wondered if St. Joseph yearned to have Jesus think of him as His "real" father. No doubt Jesus loved and respected His mother's husband -- and yet, His first loyalty remained.

So it is with many foster children. Some never do respond to the love being shown to them because of traumas from the past. This is the great challenge of the foster parent: being willing to extend yourself in love, even if that love is not reciprocated. It is a truly heroic, divine kind of love ... to love "even when."

deb said...

I read the antiabortion article that you linked to and all I can say is that the author's reasoning is faulty. The writer seems to be discounting the power of free will and choice in our actions. She makes it sound as if we are slaves to our genetic background.

How sad, if true, for those of us from abusive backgrounds. Luckily for my children, I have not repeated the emotionally abusive behavior of my mom.

TXMom2B said...

"Children do not inherit their faults and failings merely by watching and imitating mom and dad. They inherit them on a much deeper level. "

I have never heard in Catholic teachings that faults and failings are inherited genetically. That sounds more like the Old Testament idea that sins are inherited, that illness was a result of the parents' sin.

Some of her earlier points were good, but, at the end, it doesn't make much sense anyway. To be both anti-abortion and anti-adoption requires denial of the reality of far too many children living in, at best, an uncertain life and, at worst, a life-threatening situation.

Michelle said...

In a perfect world, parents would happily welcome their children into the world at an appropriate time. Parents would be married, would be old enough to have jobs to support their offspring, would not have alcohol or drug dependencies, would not die before their children were adults, would readily "die to self" and put the needs of their children ahead of personal desires, would not be apathetic, would not be abusive, and on and on and on.

At a glnce this article makes it sound like adopted children will more than likely turn out to be angry, violent and living in shelters no matter how kind and loving the parent.

Original Sin is inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, not from our biological parents. Mental disorders are inherited, hypertension is inherited, love of classical music is not inherited.

Man has free will. To suggest that a violent man would have turned out better if only his biological parents, with their specific DNA, had raised him discounts that man's responsibility for his own actions as well as the role the adoptive father might have played in forming his world-view and anger management strategies (not to mention that sweet, charitable ladies might have a dark side too).

The anti-adoption leanings of the article are bad enough, but the theology is unsound as well. I don't know what NCR was thinking.

nag said...

I read the article and I simply feel that the author has a narrow world view and is just plain wrong about adoption. I can say the same about biological parents raising their own, as I've seen plenty of misfitted families with parents who don't connect with their children and are unhappy in their roles, and who's children are miserable, depressive, and acting out. She obviously has had a limited exposure to families created through adoption and came to her conclusions in a very hasty manner. I wish the NCR would have allowed comments as I would have left one.

Amanda said...

I actually am extremely impressed that a Catholic entity would put out such a publication considering the presence the Catholic Church has providing adoption services. It is important for all sides to be heard and as a Family Preservation Advocate (often termed as Ant-Adoption which is incorrect), I knew exactly what she was speaking of and I believe that many of your readers here misunderstood.

What Family Preservation is...

-FP is against adoption in its CURRENT form. FP acknowledges that there are indeed those who are truly abused and truly abandoned that need homes. We do not support the sealing and altering of their records and denying their biological heritage as is the current state of adoption. We do not support a 3 billion dollar industry that manipulates pregnant women out of parenting based on the claims that "adoption is good because it gets kids out of abusive homes" when abuse situations are represented few and far between when adoption as a whole is considered. Women who give their children up because they are made to believe it's the best thing to do are not the same as women who harm their children. It makes no sense to justify a huge portion of the adoption industry that manipulates pregnant women into relinquishing based on abuse cases--What do we think a pregnant woman has in common with a woman who strikes her two year old that we would justify huge ethical errors in adoption services based on abuse?

-FP acknowledges the poor sentiments that have absolutely ruined large portions of adoption since the 1940's where it was discovered by certain influential adoption workers that the demand for infants, along with the stigmas against poor, single and/or divorced women could be profitable. It is important for the Gen Pop to understand adoption's past so that they can then understand adoption's present and future.

-FP seeks adoption to be a last resort. Children who do not have food and clothes do not need new parents, they need food and clothes. Even Spence-Chapman admitted to the NY Times that temporary financial situations are a large influence behind why parents relinquish their children. FP says this is not OK. Why would society ever think it is OK to sever family ties forever over temporary financial woes? Why not help the family stay together instead?

Unfortunately, the majority of adoption practice has become about fulfilling the demand that there is to parent infants, rather than seeking out homes for TRULY needy children.

The author does does not excuse poor behavior based on the adoption trauma but rather establishes adoption as a context as to why a person might be in pain and act a certain way with adoption as an influence in their life that would trigger behavior or pain. Good for her. Adoptees are reminded their entire lives that they were saved from abortion, dire poverty and abusive mothers (research shows that these assumptions about first mothers are absolutely false for the vast majority of first mothers actually) and that they need to be eternally "grateful" every time they voice a hurt or opinion. It's about time someone acknowledged an adoptee's entitlement to pain and hurt.

And honestly, there is statistically very little correlation between adoption and abortion. It has become common place to slap the two together for who knows what reason. The desire not to be pregnant has very little to do with the desire not to parent. As a Pro-Life woman, wouldn't you be insulted if someone automatically assumed you were at risk to harm your unborn child simply because you were poor and single? Women who choose adoption do so because they are already against abortion for themselves. Abortion does not even enter into the equasion for these women. We fail to understand that abortion is so heavily correlated with adoption because of the remaining false societal stigmas against women who are impoverished and single.

Amanda said...

I also wanted to say that I find comparing adoption to an amputation to be a fitting description of adoption in its current form but also very unfitting of how adoption should be. Phantom pains are pains felt in the mind when no real real pain-causing event is occuring. There are Psychological methods, such as the mirror method, used to trick the mind into being "relieved" of this pain. Adoptee pain is not phantom. It is very real with a very real pain-causing source. Our desire to know and to heal is currently placated with mirrors but this is entirely unfitting. Adoption law in its current form does indeed amputate the original family and tries to blot it out from existence (in 44 out of 50 states that is) when it should not. I am part of a small group of adoptees who has been permitted access to the knowledge of my original heritage. I am a direct descendant of Revolutionary War heros and the sojourners of the Mayflower--that BELONGS to me! and I belong to them; I am a part of the legacy that they've created. This is not something that should be amputated and thrown away. Adoption needs to start being about extending families rather than creating new ones and discarding the "old." It is when we acknowledge an adoptee's right to put the pieces back together, instead of expecting them to accept that "this body part is gone, move on" that adoptees will truly heal. "The eye cannot say to the hand 'I do not need you'..." Our places in Christ's spiritual body, his church, is parallel to how our entire body is fearfully and wonderfully made to work together. It is also parallel to family and our relationships with others. The adoption industry has no business telling original families "we do not need you" on behalf of the adoptee, nor standing in their way when they want the missing parts of their family body back.

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

Amanda: Thanks for writing. While I agree that adoption represents a loss to the child that even the best adoptive family cannot wipe away, I also contend that mothers (and fathers) who do not believe they can parent a child should not be pressured to take up the responsibility.

It takes far more than food and clothes to parent a child. And if adoption is reserved only for those situations where a parent has already failed, it is the CHILD who suffers most. Any social worker will tell you that a child who is fostered/adopted later in life has far more difficult time adjusting to his new family than those who are placed as infants. Therefore, it would seem that encouraging parents to think about the long-term needs of the child is best.

Adoption, abortion, and parenting are the three outcomes if any pregnancy. In the current culture has redefined "family" to include any combination of people who choose to live together (rather than God's definition of a man and woman married for life and their children). And so it is no surprise that as the stigma of unwed motherhood hss all but disappeared, the idea of a mother making an adoption plan seems to many selfish and cruel. And so, the message society gives women is, "If you're not ready to parent, get rid of it. Don't abandon your child to strangers, who can never love that baby or give him what you can, just by being his mother."

We need to change that message. Not because women need babies ... but because every baby deserves to live, and every baby deserves a mommy and a daddy who will love him for life.

Re-unification is an entirely separate subject. I will not address it here. Except to say that when God adopts us as children, it is this relationship that is life-giving and permanent.

The "adoption industry" does not tell original family "we do not need you." It does, however, respect and support the permanency of the adoptive bond. However individual families choose to incorporate birth families into their extended family (and I know some do choose to do so), it does not change the permanent nature of this relationship.

Adoption is not long-term foster care, and should not be treated as such.

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

Amanda: Thanks for writing. While I agree that adoption represents a loss to the child that even the best adoptive family cannot wipe away, I also contend that mothers (and fathers) who do not believe they can parent a child should not be pressured to take up the responsibility.

It takes far more than food and clothes to parent a child. And if adoption is reserved only for those situations where a parent has already failed, it is the CHILD who suffers most. Any social worker will tell you that a child who is fostered/adopted later in life has far more difficult time adjusting to his new family than those who are placed as infants. Therefore, it would seem that encouraging parents to think about the long-term needs of the child is best.

Adoption, abortion, and parenting are the three outcomes if any pregnancy. In the current culture has redefined "family" to include any combination of people who choose to live together (rather than God's definition of a man and woman married for life and their children). And so it is no surprise that as the stigma of unwed motherhood hss all but disappeared, the idea of a mother making an adoption plan seems to many selfish and cruel. And so, the message society gives women is, "If you're not ready to parent, get rid of it. Don't abandon your child to strangers, who can never love that baby or give him what you can, just by being his mother."

We need to change that message. Not because women need babies ... but because every baby deserves to live, and every baby deserves a mommy and a daddy who will love him for life.

Re-unification is an entirely separate subject. I will not address it here. Except to say that when God adopts us as children, it is this relationship that is life-giving and permanent.

The "adoption industry" does not tell original family "we do not need you." It does, however, respect and support the permanency of the adoptive bond. However individual families choose to incorporate birth families into their extended family (and I know some do choose to do so), it does not change the permanent nature of this relationship.

Adoption is not long-term foster care, and should not be treated as such.