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From a blog called Dispatches from the Culture Wars: Thoughts from the Interface of Science, Religion, Law and Culture (www.scienceblogs.com/dispatches) comes this thought-provoking treaty on Biology and "Real" Parents by Ed Brayton...

Biology and "Real" Parents

Posted on: May 31, 2007 9:16 AM, by Ed Brayton

One of the disturbing things to me about the current brouhaha over gay parents is the religious right's elevation of biology over relationships. By this I mean that they act as though being a biological parent is infinitely more important than being a day to day parent, which is entirely contrary to reality. Here's a perfect example in an email sent out by Stephen Bennett of Concerned Women for America:

Fact is Mary Cheney, the Vice President's daughter - in one way or another - received a male's sperm. She is the biological mother, parent number one, and some man, somewhere out there, is Samuel David's real biological father, parent number two. ..

Heather Poe is Mary Cheney's live-in lesbian lover. She may act like a parent, she may treat the baby as a parent, she may love this baby with all of her heart, but in this reality we all live in, Heather Poe is NOT the baby's real parent. She has NO biological connection to the child whatsoever. Some man, the baby's real Daddy, is the child's other REAL parent.

But this is quite absurd. The fact that Heather Poe will have no "natural" - i.e. biological - relationship with the child is absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether she will have a healthy parental relationship with the child. Mary and Heather have been together for 15 years, and in all likelihood will be together for the rest of their lives. Heather will be a parent to this child every bit as much as Mary will despite the lack of a biological relationship. The first rule of parenting is this: biology is irrelevant; only relationships matter.

Shaquille O'Neil was raised by a man named Phillip Harrison, who is legally his stepfather. Shaq says Phil is his real father, and he's right. His biological father is a man named Joe Toney, who suddenly appeared in 1994, when Shaq was a budding NBA superstar. Shaq's response was to do a rap song called Biological Didn't Bother where he says that "Phil is my father...cuz my biological didn't bother." Shaq knows something that Bennett doesn't, that parenthood has virtually nothing to do with biology and everything to do with relationships.

If my father called me tomorrow and told me that I was adopted, I wouldn't even blink. I wouldn't wonder about my "real" father because I know who my real father is. My real father is the man who raised me, the man who held me when I had bad dreams and spanked me when I was bad. The man who taught me the right way to treat other people and who taught me that when someone you care about needs help, you're there for them, every time, without question. That's my father. And if it turned out that he wasn't the guy who supplied the sperm, that wouldn't change one iota.

I would like to think that Heather Poe will be a parent to this child just as much as my father has been a parent to me. She'll help her with her homework and help instill a sense of dignity in that child like all parents should. She'll punish her when she deserves it and praise her even when she doesn't. That's what good parents do, and good parents are not determined by genetics but by love. If she does all those things that a good parent does, does Bennett really think that the child will care whether Heather is her biological mother or not? If so, he's nuts. This attitude is an insult to the millions of adoptive parents and step parents who have forged real parental relationships with their children without any biological connection whatsoever.

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Well YEAH for adoptive parents!

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I feel conflicted after reading this. Sometimes I wonder why we have to denigrate one group in order to support another. As an adoptive parent, I do not want my important role in my daughter's life to be denigrated simply to support the role of her biological parents, so why would I want their role denigrated to support mine.

I was raised by my step-father and I do not consider him a step-father. But I do not feel a need to denigrate my relationship with my biological father in order to celebrate his role in my life. I feel free to love both for the relationships that I have been allowed to have with them, even when those relationships are very different. I hope that my daughter always feels the same freedom!

Bobbi

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This article makes me think of a book we discussed many moons ago here on the forum. Jaqueline Mitchard's Theory of Relativity is a wonderful exploration of this topic. I thuroughly enjoyed it. And after all (if I remember right) she is an Abrazo alum like us. Yet another benefit!

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"If my father called me tomorrow and told me that I was adopted, I wouldn't even blink. I wouldn't wonder about my "real" father because I know who my real father is. My real father is the man who raised me, the man who held me when I had bad dreams and spanked me when I was bad. The man who taught me the right way to treat other people and who taught me that when someone you care about needs help, you're there for them, every time, without question. That's my father. And if it turned out that he wasn't the guy who supplied the sperm, that wouldn't change one iota."

I found this part very true, but also assuming something he'd have no clue in how he felt. I mean, of course his dad is his dad and he knows that, but...would he really not wonder or even ponder his biology or his bio parents and who they are, what happened? I feel he was careless in tossing aside the feelings he may truly have if he truly faced a phone call such as this. He might not care, but he doesn't know that. I think it's hard to assume how we'd feel till we've been there. I think that with the open adoptions we see here, and are reading about and learning from, we see that as amazing as it is to be an adoptive parents, biology STILL does matter. That doesn't mean bad, it just means it does. Even if the parents don't worry or care yet, the child may.

Jenny

Edited by LovingBoo

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Lisa2,

I had to say that it was funny to see you mention the "Theory of Relativity", because I jsut picked that up as my evening escape book. I have had it on my bookshelf to read forever and just started...just thought that was a funny coinkidink!

Bobbi

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Here's the topic: discuss!*

*in the words of Linda Richmond, from SNL's "CoffeeTalk" ;)

"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. "

--Adoptive Parents: Fables, Facts, Fears by L. Anne Babb, Ph.D.

True? False? Inspiring? Outrageous?

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"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. " [/size][/b]

I think people that want to become parents through adoption need to come with an unequivocal understanding that their child will have two sets of REAL parents, one by birth and one by adoption...and it's okay!

Neither takes away from the other...

Neither replaces the other...

Neither is more important than the other...

There is room for both... in our child's life.

Karen

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I think people that want to become parents through adoption need to come with an unequivocal understanding that their child will have two sets of REAL parents, one by birth and one by adoption...and it's okay!

There is room for both... in our child's life.

Karen

I completely agree, Karen :)

Cathy

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Here's the topic: discuss!*

*in the words of Linda Richmond, from SNL's "CoffeeTalk" ;)

"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. "

--Adoptive Parents: Fables, Facts, Fears by L. Anne Babb, Ph.D.

True? False? Inspiring? Outrageous?

How sad that those words left my lips this morning.

I was defending our decision to see our BP to my mother when I uttered the phrase. My mother is TERRIFIED of Makenzie's BP's. Mom is certain that the biological pull will be such that MAkenzie will want nothing to do with us if she knows her bio. side. In fact, the "meaning" was my mother's argument exactly.

I have never worried about a "biological" pull for Makenzie. As far as I can tell, the more people that love her the better. It certainly takes a village to raise a child today, and the bigger the village, the happier the child.

I pray my mom figures this out someday.

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Tina,

Give your Mom more time...she might surprise you one day...mine did. :)

Sometimes our parents have to see open adoption working (over time)... before they can let go of those fears...it would be even better if she could meet Makenzie's Birthfamily one day. She might then see everything differently.

Sometimes during conversation when I feel like I am having to explain too much...I just turn it around. I begin asking questions like, how would you see your life as a birthparent? Would you want to know the baby you placed is okay? Would you want to know your child's family? Would you want to know that as painful as it is, your doing your best to stay in touch? Would you want respect?

Those questions usually turn things around.

Let your Mom know that you do not fear Makenzie's Birthfamily, nervous (maybe) about seeing her Birthmom again, but not fearful.

You should not have to defend who you are to your child or your family.

Karen

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Here's the topic: discuss!*

*in the words of Linda Richmond, from SNL's "CoffeeTalk" ;)

"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. "

--Adoptive Parents: Fables, Facts, Fears by L. Anne Babb, Ph.D.

True? False? Inspiring? Outrageous?

How funny that this came up right now.

For the past month Grace Ann has been telling me that I am not her "real" Mommy. Knowing my daughter the way that I do, I know she is just saying this to get some kind of reaction from me. Each time she says it to me, I do what I believe Karen Dooley(feelingblessed) said she did when it happened to her. I ask her to feel me and then of course I ask her if I feel real etc.

Ok now back to the question, with open adoption Grace Ann will never have to search for her birthparents. So I think this quote is false in our situation.

I would hope that all adoptive parents would find this quote false, but I know there are still people out there who believe in doing adoption the old fashion way.

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Are You a Real Parent?

Take This Helpful Quiz & Find Out For Sure!

(Award yourself five points for every "yes" answer):

__ You dream about the things you plan to do once you have "a child of your own" long beforehand

__ Go to work not realizing you still have baby burpus on your lapel

__ Learn to breathe through your nose even during the nastiest diaper changes

__ Opt for sleep over passionate love-making with your spouse

__ You forego the latest issue of People in the doctor's waiting room to read "Parent" magazine instead

__ You talk goofy and sing aloud to your baby even if others are listening

__ Sneak into sleeping child's room at night to give extra kisses and tuck blankets around them

__ Brag about your child at work to your coworkers

__ Give up "mad money" in order to budget for diapers or formula instead

__ Make your son or daughter go to church even when they don't want to

__ Reprimanding other folks' kids for throwing sand at the playground

__ Your wallet now contains as many or more baby photos as credit cards

__ Clean up after them when they throw up in the car

__ Pack their school lunches with extra care

__ Give up smoking so the children won't learn it from you

__ Nag them about writing thank-you notes to relatives

__ Make deposits into a bank account you opened for them that they know nothing about yet

__ Rewrite your will to include appointment of a guardian just in case tragedy strikes

__ Have your baby baptized or dedicated in church

__ Never drive anywhere without first making sure everyone is buckled up

__ Attend countless childrens' birthday parties so your kids don't miss out

__ Forgive the crayon marks on the wall because you love the artist who drew them

__ Buy endless rolls of wrapping paper, cookie dough and popcorn to support their school

__ Endure parent-teacher conferences patiently although you already know your kid's brilliant

__ Know all the words to the Barney song

__ Watch the Wiggles with your child so you have another excuse to snuggle on the couch

__ Buy the sugary kid snacks you always swore you wouldn't because your child craves them

__ Know all the restaurants that offer "kids eat free" nights in your town

__ Flinch whenever you hear of a new Amber alert

__ Cry when your child has to be immunized

__ Worry about global warming because that's your kid's world they're talking about

__ Continually find parts of McDonalds' Happy Meal toys in the bottom of your purse or briefcase

__ Wipe children's faces with spit on a hankie

__ Struggle to remember what life was like B.K. (Before Kids.)

__ Know all the Power Rangers' first names

__ Forgive your children the first time they unexpectedly try cutting their own hair

__ Learn to sleep with one ear cocked

__ Fantasize about a romantic getaway: a tropical island with just your spouse and the nursery monitor

__ Catch yourself turning around in the grocery store whenever a child shouts "Mom!" or "Dad!"

__ Have the Poison Control Center number on your speed dial

__ Stay up late finishing your child's homework for them

__ Pay extra attention to your own healthcare needs so you can stick around for the kids longer.

__ You catch yourself telling your child "just wait 'til you have kids, someday."

YOUR TOTAL SCORE: ______

SCORING KEY

Less than 20 points: You're right up there with Brittany Spears. Don't tell anyone.

20-30 points: You may not be Parent of the Year but you could surely be trusted with a small chimpanzee on the weekends. Keep learning, friend!

31-75 points: You're the Real Deal, all right! 100% Genuine Parent!! Stay the course and tell everyone Abrazo inspired your success.

76-150 points: Why, you're nearly Cleaveresque! Too bad parenting's not a paid position or you'd be CEO by now. Good work!

Over 151 points: Go ahead and write the book; Spock's got nothing on you, SuperMom/SuperDad!!! We bow in humble adoration of your extraordinary skill!

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"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. " [/size][/b]

I think people that want to become parents through adoption need to come with an unequivocal understanding that their child will have two sets of REAL parents, one by birth and one by adoption...and it's okay!

Yes, I agree Karen, most/many adoptive parents come knowing that (or come to know that) at least in open adoption situaitons and where they have been educated.

I disagree with the above writer: We as adoptive parents are bombarded with books/article/lectures etc. on "claiming" the adopted child and our role as parents and "entitlement" -- we are taught that we are the "real"parents. We are also bombarded with insensitive and downright ignorant or rude remarks that make us need to defend our position. And we are often times called upon to educate those same people so as to spread the "correct" message about adoption. So, while we may very well have an honest respect for the "realness" of the birthparents and are very comfortable with our role as real parents, we feel the need to assert our "realness" when placed on the defensive. I think we don't answer that way unless provoked.

Dr. Babb's "the lady doth protest too much" approach doesn't fly with me.

Edited by mbell

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"I hear this [from adopters] all the time: 'We're the real parents...'

Do you know what adoptive parents really mean by that? What they really mean is, "We're not real parents, and if our child searches for and finds her [his] parents, she [he] will abandon us and we will be what we were before we adopted: childless."

People who have to assert who they really are don't know who they really are. "

We are also bombarded with insensitive and downright ignorant or rude remarks that make us need to defend our position. And we are often times called upon to educate those same people so as to spread the "correct" message about adoption. So, while we may very well have an honest respect for the "realness" of the birthparents and are very comfortable with our role as real parents, we feel the need to assert our "realness" when placed on the defensive. I think we don't answer that way unless provoked.

Dr. Babb's "the lady doth protest too much" approach doesn't fly with me.

I agree with your sentiments completely. How often do we hear comments about how our children are not our "real" children? Or hear people ask what happened to the "real" parents? I've kind of developed a "water off a duck's back" attitude to those types of comments, but if anything will make you stand up to declare your own "realness," it's being faced with someone who just won't accept what you know to be fact: I wake up at night with my son when he cries. I feed him in the morning. I clean his cuts and scrapes and sing stupid songs with him. Does he think I'm real? You bet.

None of this, of course, negates the role or impact of birthparents in our children's lives and our lives. In fact, this kind of psychobabble seems designed to drive a wedge among the partners in the adoption triad, rather than help to bond us.

I swear that people like Dr. Babb put too much weight on what escapes our mouths sometimes in a bizarre effort to prove how smart and insightful they are. Even Freud recognized that sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar...

(By the way, Elizabeth, I scored a 110 on that little test, and that was only because HP is still too young for homework!)

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I agree with your sentiments completely. How often do we hear comments about how our children are not our "real" children? Or hear people ask what happened to the "real" parents? I've kind of developed a "water off a duck's back" attitude to those types of comments, but if anything will make you stand up to declare your own "realness," it's being faced with someone who just won't accept what you know to be fact: I wake up at night with my son when he cries. I feed him in the morning. I clean his cuts and scrapes and sing stupid songs with him. Does he think I'm real? You bet.

Amen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn't have said it better!!

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Are You a Real Parent?

Take This Helpful Quiz & Find Out For Sure!

(Award yourself five points for every "yes" answer):

__ You dream about the things you plan to do once you have "a child of your own" long beforehand

__ Go to work not realizing you still have baby burpus on your lapel

__ Learn to breathe through your nose even during the nastiest diaper changes

__ Opt for sleep over passionate love-making with your spouse

__ You forego the latest issue of People in the doctor's waiting room to read "Parent" magazine instead

__ You talk goofy and sing aloud to your baby even if others are listening

__ Sneak into sleeping child's room at night to give extra kisses and tuck blankets around them

__ Brag about your child at work to your coworkers

__ Give up "mad money" in order to budget for diapers or formula instead

__ Make your son or daughter go to church even when they don't want to

__ Reprimanding other folks' kids for throwing sand at the playground

__ Your wallet now contains as many or more baby photos as credit cards

__ Clean up after them when they throw up in the car

__ Pack their school lunches with extra care

__ Give up smoking so the children won't learn it from you

__ Nag them about writing thank-you notes to relatives

__ Make deposits into a bank account you opened for them that they know nothing about yet

__ Rewrite your will to include appointment of a guardian just in case tragedy strikes

__ Have your baby baptized or dedicated in church

__ Never drive anywhere without first making sure everyone is buckled up

__ Attend countless childrens' birthday parties so your kids don't miss out

__ Forgive the crayon marks on the wall because you love the artist who drew them

__ Buy endless rolls of wrapping paper, cookie dough and popcorn to support their school

__ Endure parent-teacher conferences patiently although you already know your kid's brilliant

__ Know all the words to the Barney song

__ Watch the Wiggles with your child so you have another excuse to snuggle on the couch

__ Buy the sugary kid snacks you always swore you wouldn't because your child craves them

__ Know all the restaurants that offer "kids eat free" nights in your town

__ Flinch whenever you hear of a new Amber alert

__ Cry when your child has to be immunized

__ Worry about global warming because that's your kid's world they're talking about

__ Continually find parts of McDonalds' Happy Meal toys in the bottom of your purse or briefcase

__ Wipe children's faces with spit on a hankie

__ Struggle to remember what life was like B.K. (Before Kids.)

__ Know all the Power Rangers' first names

__ Forgive your children the first time they unexpectedly try cutting their own hair

__ Learn to sleep with one ear cocked

__ Fantasize about a romantic getaway: a tropical island with just your spouse and the nursery monitor

__ Catch yourself turning around in the grocery store whenever a child shouts "Mom!" or "Dad!"

__ Have the Poison Control Center number on your speed dial

__ Stay up late finishing your child's homework for them

__ Pay extra attention to your own healthcare needs so you can stick around for the kids longer.

__ You catch yourself telling your child "just wait 'til you have kids, someday."

YOUR TOTAL SCORE: ______

SCORING KEY

Less than 20 points: You're right up there with Brittany Spears. Don't tell anyone.

20-30 points: You may not be Parent of the Year but you could surely be trusted with a small chimpanzee on the weekends. Keep learning, friend!

31-75 points: You're the Real Deal, all right! 100% Genuine Parent!! Stay the course and tell everyone Abrazo inspired your success.

76-150 points: Why, you're nearly Cleaveresque! Too bad parenting's not a paid position or you'd be CEO by now. Good work!

Over 151 points: Go ahead and write the book; Spock's got nothing on you, SuperMom/SuperDad!!! We bow in humble adoration of your extraordinary skill!

I scored a 70 ... Happy to know that I am the Real Deal! 100% Genuine Parent.....

( I think I might have scored better, but my boys are still a little too young for me to answer some of these :P )

Edited by Daniel & Erika

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In a word: Ouch!

First off: a word of warning, because what you're about to read may be painful or offensive.

(And secondly, a word of warning, because if no part of what you're about to read pains or offends you, it's probably a good indicator that Abrazo probably isn't-- or wasn't-- the 'right' agency for you.)

------------------

One very nice couple named Brooks and Elizabeth, who went through a lengthy phase infertility and treatment, ultimately elected to adopt from Russia. They specifically avoided domestic adoption, because they were adamant about wanting (well, needing!) their adoptions to be closed. Brooks later wrote a book about their experience, and from it comes this quote, which provides a startling illustration of what a visceral response some adopters have to the issue of authenticity, when parenthood comes to them by means other than biology:

From The Brotherhood of Joseph, by Brooks Hansen (pg 82):

I was on the subway one time, and this must have been when Elizabeth and I were just dipping our toes. A bunch of teenagers got on, college freshmen, clearly all just getting to know one another. One revealed that she was adopted. Actually, her roommate yielded up the information-- "Yeah, she was adopted"

My ears perked up. The young woman in question give it a kind of "big whoop" shrug--yeah, it's true--to which one of the boys replied, first thing out of his mouth, "Oh yeah, so have you tried to contact your real parents?"

I Darn near took him out at his knees. I should have, on behalf of the girl's actual parents, but I doubt anyone in the car would have had the slightest idea what I was doing. He was just trying to get in her pants, after all; show some interest.

Still, that was a first for me, feeling the sting of mere words, but there's no denying: Depending upon the ears that heart it, that phrase "real parents" is right up there with "n****r" and "c**t." Except that no one out there appears to be remotely aware.

Can we all relate to the need of any parent (whether biological or adoptive) to have their role validated? Absolutely, yes. (Well, not Hansen, perhaps; he opines that those who raise adopted children should be referred to as the only "actual parents" those children will ever have.)

But is there more to it than this? Does openness in an adoption make those who adopt any less "real" parents?

Does acknowledging the other parents in a child's life story make either set of parents (biological or adoptive) less authentic?

Apparently, for Brooks Hansen & his wife Elizabeth, the answer to both questions (as contained in the above-cited book) was --and is-- regrettably, "yes":

"Just because we'd been through the IVF wars and lost, that didn't mean that Elizabeth should always have to save an extra seat at the dance recital... (Open adoption, with its) update letters, report cards, scheduled visits, etc. seems like one giant free baby-sitting scam."

Hansen is obviously an intelligent individual; well-educated, articulate, committed to the role of fatherhood. Yet, what is it that causes some people (like the intelligent, sensitized folk reading this post) to 'get' why open adoption is so much more than a "free baby-sitting scam" and others (like Hansen) to never comprehend how and why closed adoption, with all its secrecy and denial, is so potentially injurious to the children we love so?

Who's truly more "real" -- those who raise children in truth, or those whose families are borne of lies?

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A "real" man would not be so scared of the people who made him what he is today (a father).

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I do not think that open adoptions mean that adoptive parents are any less "real," or any of the parents less authentic, but I do believe that the fact that as a society we don't necessarily want to share impacts the way some feel about adoption.

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Thanks for sharing the excerpts, Elizabeth - always good to keep us on our toes - and prepared for hurtful phrases.

We just got back from a visit with Grace's birthmom this weekend. Grace had a blast playing with sister and cousins. She now has a firm understanding of the word "play" and is even agreeable about getting into the carseat when it is mentioned :)

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Here's one more perspective: "Mom" vs. "Birthmom".

Speaking for myself, I think "real parent" is an incredibly loaded term, so I understand why it's offensive to those who adopt to be disregarded for the very real parenting they do, even as I flinch at thinly-veiled efforts to discount a birthmother's role in bringing a child into the world (parenting through the gestational stages, as it were) by sanitizing her "title" and relegating her to nothing more than a borrowed womb.

I wonder if the greater challenge is really more about empowering those who adopt to feel fully entitled to love their child/ren without reservation nor apology-- and empowering those who place to do so with full license to maintain a maternal connection to/with their child/ren across the lifespan?

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"... individuals who wish to parent through adoption find their personal values and most intimate behaviors subject to intense scrutiny and bureaucratic regulation. A powerful and opinionated cast of “helping professionals” are enlisted to evaluate the “suitability” of prospective parents before they can legally adopt. Yet, the lack of any reliable tests of parental suitability contributes to the resentment many adoptive parents feel about having to undergo costly and intrusive home studies. Instead of having to prove to others their fitness to parent, they wish they had post-adoption assistance to alleviate the unanticipated, or insufficiently disclosed, physical and psychological needs of the children they adopt.

The cultural convention of biogeneticism and the legal doctrine of parental rights thus combine to impede the formation of adoptive families and undermine their sense of authenticity. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, biogeneticism and the parental rights doctrine embody an ideal to which many adoptive families aspire. This aspiration is most evident in the traditional assertion that adoptive families are a “complete substitute” for, and function “as if” they are, biogenetically-based families and are entitled to the same cultural acceptance and legal protection." -- Joan H. Hollinger

From a law conference some years back, but just as relevant today: Hollinger on Authenticity & Identity in Today's Adoptive Families

How would you describe your own "customary laws of adoption," based on what has worked best for you and your family?

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With the continued question of "real" family, why wouldn't a couple exhaust all efforts to have a biological child? I know of (extended) families that don't accept an adopted child as a true part of their family. I know that the homestudy scared the tar out of me. What if a social worker thought I didn't deserve to parent???? That fear paralyzed me for a while and halted our adoption plans. What if an expectant woman didn't choose me? Another very real fear!

I have said many times that adoption is not for the faint-of-heart. I tell people that they did everything but a rectal exam when talking about what we had to go through to be paper-pregnant. Because ours were both BOGs and happened in a total of 16 days for the two of them, many in our life act as if adoption is easy. Not at all, regardless of the time frame!

As for the "customary laws of adoption," we go with the flow. I am still struggling to get into contact with Arianna's mom. She has expressed the desire for contact, but I think it terrifies her. With Nichole's mom things are up and down. All I can do is continue to do my BEST to maintain contact and that openness. Right now I defer to their first moms. Later, I will factor in each girl's feelings. Letting D know that Arianna really wants to see her might help, but since Arianna doesn't really get it just yet, it might not have as much impact. Arianna knows that we see C and her son...and asks why she can't see her mom and siblings. I continue to tell her that D is not ready, that it is still difficult for her.

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Many thanks to Abrazo's friend, Patricia Irwin Johnson, for her permission to share this article, as she is retiring at the end of the year and shutting down her website...

Getting Real

By Patricia Irwin Johnston

The earliest version of of this article first appeared in Roots and Wings (now part of Adoption Today) magazine’s Spring, 1996 issue. It has been revised and expanded from that original. It is included in the Adopting: Sound Choices, Strong Families.

For several years I’ve had the interesting experience of participating in Internet newsgroups and commercial on-line usegroups discussing adoption. The culture on the Net is different from that of local support groups or conferences or magazines. Protected by anonymity and by the facelessness of those to whom they are “talking,” Net folks often feel less constrained by conventional “rules” to coat their anger or their angst in politeness. Net groups are dominated by an oustpoken few. Many other subscribers merely lurk, reading over the shoulders of other posters, afraid to chime in with their own opinions for fear of being blasted. Conversation is up front, “flaming” is commonplace.

While those engaged in Net dialogues or diatribes are frequently reminded that they cannot and should not speak for others, there’s a lot of generalizing on the Net, but the bottom line concerns are really little different than they turn out to be after months of getting to know somebody in your local parent group: Adoption can be wonderful, but it’s scary, too. It brings with it a blend of gain and loss, happiness and pain. Some people on all sides of the triad go through periods (sometimes lifetimes) of feeling powerless and victimized by the experience. Pain expressed in any forum tends to create defensive attitudes on the part of other members of the triad. The fear is nearly palpable. These wounded souls are in constant search of their “real” selves… whatever that means.

As a young parent (it seems a long time ago now that my children are 17, 20 and 26) I remember worrying that the babies I was fiercely loving might not see me as their “real” mother, or that their grandparents, who were loving them, too, might not be “really” seeing them as grandchildren. I came to understand that many of those concerns were a result of my own self esteem questions–questions that were brought to the surface once again by infertility and by adoption, but which were not created by it. I suspect that’s true for many others.

I began to read omnivorously about adoption. One of the most mind-opening things I read was social work professor and adoptive parent Jerome Smith’s now somewhat dated (1980) book You’re Our Child. It introduced me to the concept that adoptive parents need to build a sense of entitlement to their children–coming to feel that their children are theirs to parent and that they are deserving of the parenting role.

Building a sense of entitlement is related to attachment, but it isn’t the same as attachment. One can be firmly attached but not feel entitled. One can feel quite entitled to a child who is not attaching well.

Over the years in the workshops I frequently do for professionals and people touched personally by adoption I’ve expanded a lot on Jerry Smith’s concept. It seemed to me early on, for example, that entitlement was not just a task for the infertile adopters about whom Smith wrote, but that preferential adopters had issues to deal with, too. Though Smith didn’t say so, it seemed clear to me that entitlement was a two way street, and that children being raised in adoption needed to build their own senses of entitlement to their parents and families. Still later I saw that, depending on the closeness of the family, it is likely that not just parents and children need to work on this entitlement building stuff, but that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, too, need to build a sense of entitlement about those joined to them by adoption. The result of a healthy entitlement building process is that the members of a family come to believe that they all belong together and are deserving of one another. When entitlement building is ignored, the fact that “something is missing” is clear from both inside and out.

Smith says (and I include some of my own expansions here, too) that building a sense of entitlement involves three steps. A first step is in being honest with oneself about the motivating factors that brought you to adoption… for adoptive parents that means dealing with infertility or honestly acknowledging the good and the bad about other motivations for adopting; for adoptees this step involves understanding and accepting why a birthparent chose adoption rather than parenting; a grandparent may need to embrace his child’s philosophical drive to make the world a better place or to mourn the loss of his genetic connection to this particular grandchild. The second step is coming to understand and deal positively with a concept first discussed by sociologist H. David Kirk: that adoption is different from being related by birth in significant and unavoidable ways. The third step in building a sense of entitlement is to learn to deal straightforwardly with society’s widely held and broadly spread conviction that adoption is a second best alternative for everybody involved.

In my husband’s and my family, adoption has been central to two generations of family building. My in-laws and their brothers and sisters were not a very fertile bunch. Of five siblings between the two sides of Dave’s parents’ generation, two gave birth to only children and the other three (including Dave’s mother and his father) adopted children. So of Dave’s generation of six cousins, only two were born to the family and four were adopted into it. In the next generation, Dave and I are parenting three children thanks to adoption.

I’ve often shared in speaking and writing some of our multi-generational adoption-expanded family’s defining moments in “getting” the concept of entitlement, which we believe is central to successful adoptive family life. I use our personal stories in trying to help families exploring adoption understand the importance of all members of an adoption-expanded family coming to feel a sense of entitlement to one another and to their respective interactive places in the family. I encourage these families to begin before arrival to bring their families on board, and to expect that issues surrounding what brought them all to adoption may resurface later and need to be dealt with on a variety of levels over time. Accepting that this is so, I tell families, will allow them to be less defensive about their own pain, and the result of that lack of defensiveness will be that they will be more open to listening to growing children’s processing of adoption’s gains and losses in their lives.

Perhaps if I share one particulary poignant anecdote here, you’ll understand why we believe that the done or undone tasks of entitlement-building have a powerful impact on all who are touched by adoption…

My husband Dave was adopted at age six months by his parents, Perry and Helen. His parents were particularly “advanced” in their adoption thinking for their time, and Dave does not remember ever not knowing that he and his younger sister had been adopted. His questions were answered openly and honestly. The Johnstons were intensely involved parents–volunteering at school and in scouts, baking cookies and building projects. His parents and extended family embraced Dave and Mary into the family fold without apparent reservation, and the gang of six citified cousins growing up in Chicago and the New Jersey suburbs were a close and rowdy bunch when gathered at the family’s homeplace in Central Illinois.

During his growing up years, Dave received a number of family heirloom gifts from his father: the Civil War sword and camp stool carried by a Johnston ancestor who was a Union soldier; the pocket watch with which a Johnston grandfather had clocked a long career with the Chicago and Elgin railroad; a late-1800s-published book, The Johnstons of Salisbury, which traced the family from New England in the 1600s as it branched out and extended through the South and the West (and into the back of which his grandfather and then his father had carefully printed the updated information available for their own generations of cousins and children and grandchildren.) These things came into our marriage and found places of honor–along with the Chinese lacquer box my own great grandmother had brought home from her days as a missionary, the medical texts from my great-great-grandfather’s country medical practice and the law books from his son’s Illinois State Supreme Court offices, and the beautiful landscape painting by my housepainter great-grandfather–in the home we established as our own for the family which was to come to us through our adoption of three children.

When our son was about nine, our middle daughter three and our youngest girl just a baby, Dave’s parents moved from the house they had lived in for nearly 50 years to a retirement community. In the process of weeding out all those years’ accumulation, the senior Johnstons asked us during one Sunday afternoon phone call if there were particular things we would like from their home. Mary’s list had been long: china, crystal, this chair and those lamps, handmade quilts, etc. But Dave, a less acquisitive person already dealing with a confirmed pack rat wife, had fewer wishes.

Two items from his parents home came to mind that day–items whose stories I already knew. The first was a rickety table from the dining room. I shuddered to think how long it would stand in our house with active youngsters. But the table had come to Central Illinois over 100 years before in a covered wagon driven by his mother’s people, who were migrating from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The second item was a string of sleigh bells belonging to that same covered-wagon family. The bells had hung on a leather strap in the front hall of his parents’ home for as long as Dave could remember. Dave’s interest in those bells had little to do with their heirloom status, but instead involved a custom begun by his own dad– one that Dave was following (albeit with modern adaptations and a single garage sale purchased bell) with our children.

Every Christmas Eve during the 23 years Dave lived with his parents, Perry Johnston had waited until his children were asleep and then ventured out into a Chicago winter with those sleigh bells in hand. He put a ladder against the side of the house and climbed to the porch roof; from there he made his way in the windy Chicago night onto the usually icy roof to a spot above his children’s rooms, where he stomped his feet, rang those bells, and shouted out a hearty “HO, HO, HO!” What a memory!

When Dave expressed interest in those two items, his mother blurted out, “Oh, I’m sorry, Dave, I’ve already promised those things to my nephew, Bob. He’s my only living relative.”

We mumbled a few more awkward words, said our goodbyes and hung up. I dashed downstairs from the bedroom extension to where my husband had been using the kitchen phone. He was leaning against the counter, softly crying.

Her only living relative? For over 40 years the son Helen loved with all her heart (we don’t doubt it for a minute!) had felt no questions about who he was or where he “belonged.” But in that moment, 40 years were nearly shattered. For in that single conversation, Helen Johnston revealed a carefully hidden piece of her own unresolved pain: parenting her cherished children had not been enough to heal the anguish of her infertility and the loss of earlier children to miscarriage and neonatal death. Though her children had felt entitled to her, an important piece of herself had been held in reserve for the genetic children she never had on behalf of her family of origin.

That afternoon Dave and I wandered from room to room in our house, turning over keepsake items and family mementoes and applying pieces of masking tape bearing our children’s names to the bottom of them. We were determined to protect our children from ever having to feel pain in adoption. (How naive we were to think we could do that!)

And, yet, that single moment taught us more as adoptive parents than any book we could have read, any class we could have taken, any counseling or preparation we had had. The greatest gift we give our children is our own determination to do the personal work necessary to build our own senses of entitlement as parents in adoption and to bring our family and friends firmly on board with us, so that all of us, together, can help the children believe in and feel entitled to our familiness.

Since this article was first written, the story above has come full circle. A couple of years ago Dave and I were invited to the wedding of his cousin’s daughter–the first wedding in this next generation of the family. We were delighted to be there and were pleased to be seated in what seemed to be a place of honor behind the family of the bride and then to find ourselves at the bride’s parents’ table at the reception. As introductions began, we listened as Bob’s wife introduced her large extended family of many brothers and sisters and their children, her nieces and nephews. Then Bob rose, and looking around the room, he chuckled that his family introductions would be shorter. He had been an only child, and his parents had been dead for many years. He put his arm around Dave’s shoulder, tears welled in his eyes, and he said, “I’d like you to meet my cousin, Dave Johnston, and this is his wife, Pat. Dave and his sister Mary Jane are my only living relatives.”

Bob never knew–still does not know–the story of Dave’s request for the sleigh bells and the table which were bequeathed to him instead. But Bob feeling of family entitlement is secure. He, like his cousin, is bouyed by the family he has loved his whole life–no matter how those connections began.

“What is real?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit in Margery Williams’ classic children’s book of the same name. And the skin horse who was the nursery’s philosopher responded by reminding the rabbit that, yes, becoming real does sometimes hurt, and that it usually doesn’t happen easily to people who need to be “carefully kept.” Real, advised the skin horse, usually happens after your fur has been loved off and your eyes have dropped out, but that doesn’t matter. For when you are real, you can only be ugly to those who do not understand.

We claim this book–we touched by adoption–and yet sometimes it is we ourselves who do not understand. Building a sense of entitlement to one another is a part of the claiming and bonding process for all of those in adoption-expanded families. It’s about believing, with all of one’s being, that you are OK, that you are deserving, that you belong, that, together, the family and each of its members is whole and strong. That we are real.

Copyright © Patricia Irwin Johnston. Please do not republish in print or on the internet without the author’s permission.

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