This picture captures the moment the judge told Sprout (then 2) that the magic pen that he used to sign his name just made us a forever family.
Picture it. A warm spring day, perfect for being outside with baby. Your neighbor comes home from work and stops between her fence and yours, pausing to admire this little burst of life that shines with all the possibilities in the world. Your neighbor comments on how adorable your child is, as if you didn’t already know. And then tacks on, for good measure, “I had a friend who had a baby. Of course, that was a long time ago. And her son spent some time in jail. It was just awful for the family.”
Yeah. I bet you didn’t see that one coming.
And when it first happened to me, I didn’t see it coming either. The only difference between the imaginary baby in the scenario above and my reality was that my new baby wasn’t new to the world, just new to me and my wife. Sprout burst into our lives as a vibrant, wide-eyed toddler, at all of 18 months old. And when my generous and very well intentioned neighbor congratulated us on the upcoming adoption, in the spirit of shared connections, she told the story of her friend’s adopted son, now an adult, struggling with narcotic and alcohol abuse in between bouts of jail time. Happy adoption day, indeed! I watched Sprout dig in the dirt, add water to her dirt cakes, and slather herself in mud while forcing a painful smile on my face and looking for the first excuse to get the hell out of the backyard.
I’ve had these experiences of well-meaning but ultimately uncomfortable and borderline hurtful conversations my whole life. I boil it down to having the name Mollie. Inevitably, if your name is Mollie (-ie or –y ending), and you introduce yourself to a stranger, that stranger had or knows someone who had a dog with the same name. And, for whatever reason, instead of, “Nice to meet you,” that stranger feels it necessary and equivalent to say, “Oh! I had a dog named Molly.” But never before with a small child had I heard someone follow up, “Congratulations!” with a terrible story of a family’s demise.
Unfortunately, it would not be the last time. In the first year of our life together with Sprout, I cannot count the number of times friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers congratulated us on our adoption with a story of an adoption fail. To their stories, you’d think the only people in the world who are alcoholics, have severe mental health issues, are in jail, or have just simply disappeared into the world never to be heard from by family again, were all adopted. To be clear, never in the process of foster parenting and adoption were my wife and I naïve; anytime you take on a person in any kind of relationship, you take on the baggage that comes before. Children in foster care or who are even adopted at birth in private adoptions face many things that are unknown to us—malnutrition, drug exposure, abuse, all kinds of stress. All things that can, without intervention and care, lead to any number of horrifying adulthood results. In her short life before we knew her, Sprout had plenty of baggage, but she also had (and still has) a whole life ahead of her. To hear these stories, I started to wonder if people took the baggage only, and left the person behind. For every adoption horror story, I also happened to know an older child or adult who was adopted and was a wonderful, healthy, contributing person to society. Likewise, there are plenty of people with substance abuse and mental health issues who had “normal” childhood experiences with their biological parents. I’m almost certain nobody gazed into their newborn eyes and told their parents a story about a baby who grew up in a family only to become an addict and prostitute.
In the essay, “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice” (from the book, In Praise of Messy Lives), journalist Katie Roiphe writes of her experience in single parenting, and the equally hurtful things said to her about her choice to be a single parent:
“Such small word choices, you might say. How could they possibly matter to any halfway healthy person? But it is in these choices, these casual remarks made while holding a glass of wine, these throwaway comments, these accidental bursts of honesty and flashes of discomfort, that we create a cultural climate; it’s in the offhand that the judgments persist and reproduce themselves.”
The cultural climate and judgments in the comments we’ve experienced in all of Sprout’s life are larger than just the view and attitude toward adoption and foster care, but adoption and foster care are a good place to start. The whole point of foster care and adoption is to keep kids in bad situations safe, to provide them with stability, to show them another way a loving family might operate. And along the way, if you can change the adults in a child’s life so that the child can return home, even better. To have an attitude of “apples don’t fall far from the tree” gives these children, any children really, zero credit for being their own resilient, resourceful beings. If nature was the sum total of what makes us as individuals who we are, then foster care would be entirely pointless. How we care for our children makes just as much of a difference. Sure, there may be a different, more complex kind of nurture needed for kids who are adopted or adopted from foster care, but wouldn’t we give that kind of nurture to our own biological children if the need was there? Would we question it for half a second?
When I think of my daughter and the other children I didn’t get to keep but got to love along the way, each one of them has their own spark, their own spunk, and their own survival skills that let them come out of awful situations—everything from abuse to neglect to drugs. And not just come out of them, but bloom. Every child who lived in my home had their own distinct spark that allowed each of them to explore the world, find beauty and good in it, and in themselves. Instead of telling me horror stories about adoption, if you stop and ask my kid what she wants to be when she grows up, watch and listen closely. See her eyes glow as she tells you her plan to be a veterinarian on Mondays, a pediatrician on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a police officer on Wednesdays, and a train engineer on Fridays. Or a pilot. Not only will you see that she can (and will) do any of these things she wants, but that all she needs from you is a simple nod in the right direction to believe that she can. Would you tell her, “Nah, you’ll sell yourself for crack”? Then why are you telling me? Of course I worry about all the possible bad outcomes of her choices in life. I’m a parent. That’s what we do. But I also believe that, no matter what was stacked against her in the first 18 months of her life that I didn’t know her, my Sprout has the persistence to achieve whatever she sets her mind to.
Another cultural stigma in offhand comments about adoption is the implied question, “What’s wrong with her?” Believe me, I ask that question of my kid a lot, but no more than the average parent who cannot for the life of them figure out why dipping green beans in both ketchup and apple sauce, together, would ever be a good idea. When a person tells me a story of a friend’s adopted child growing up to be a drug addict, I wish they would just come out and directly say, “So you better watch out, because she probably has something wrong with her and will grow up to do drugs, too.” At least it would be fully disclosed and honest. In that conversation, I would probably acknowledge the evidence of truth in the statement. Addiction can be a genetic trait. Children who have been exposed to violence and abuse are more likely to be violent and abusive. I would probably be forthright in admitting that of course I worry about her mental health and future decisions on how to handle it. I’d probably even mention that our family is no stranger to therapy—from grief counseling to cognitive behavioral therapy—and it has helped us to help our daughter deal with all the turbulent emotions that she experiences. But then I’d probably also say that we should be concerned about the mental health of all children, and how, with neglect, mental health issues might negatively affect who they grow up to be. All of my children were in foster care not because of who they are, but because the adults around them made dangerous, unsafe choices. Period. They are great kids. And with a lot of love and the right care and treatment for the trauma experienced, they will continue to thrive.
I’ll admit that my own upbringing versus what I know to be true as a reasonable, educated adult puts me at a lot of odds with my own stigmas about mental health. It’s something I deal with in myself and with raising a child with ADHD. Every time Sprout has a rough day, it’s hard to just let it be a rough day. I think of the movie Parenthood, and Steve Martin’s overactive imagination. His son has a bad day on the baseball field, and in his imagination, that son is now standing on the roof of a high school building with automatic weapons, recreating an image that is altogether too scary and real. In part, I worry because parents worry. In part, I worry more because somewhere in the back of my brain, all these stories of failed adults who were adopted play themselves out. I have to repeat the line from my favorite Kevin Henke’s book, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse: “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.”
On the hard days, I also remind myself of that expensive English degree that, contrary to popular opinion when I started it, I use every day. If I stop to think positively, I can see that my child’s life fits the archetypes of a hero. Unusual, possibly dangerous, circumstances of birth? Check. Leaving family or homeland to live with others? Check. There have been traumatic circumstances in her short life, both with us and before us, but it may be a little too soon to tell if her quest has started. She definitely has a number of superpowers at her disposal, even though my wife and I are immune to her puppy dog face and laser eyes. The events of Sprout’s life could be her undoing, if she or her mothers let that kind of thinking win. I try to choose each day to believe that she is a hero in training and her capacity for love will win in the end.
Oftentimes, these awkward exchanges about a distant family member’s adopted child end with the phrase, “She’s lucky to have you.” Again, I believe the sentiment to be kind. But let’s dismantle that phrase for half a second. Any human being who has someone, anyone, in her life who loves her as deeply, fiercely, and tenderly as I love my kid is lucky. I am not her savior. I am her mom. I am equally lucky to have her.
Likewise, my Sprout has been loved from the moment she was brought into the world. Last fall during a weekend camping trip, Sprout befriended another spunky little first grade girl. And like most kids, this little girl desperately wanted to understand our family. “Which one’s your mom?” she’d ask, to which Sprout would answer, “Both of them are my moms.” The conversation continued in the usual direction—no, I don’t have a dad. No, both are my moms. Neither one of them had me. They chose me and I chose them. Each time Sprout gave an answer, I smiled on the outside, and silently cheered her on in the inside. These are conversations she’ll have all her life, and so we’ve always told her story with love. When the little girl finally realized that Sprout was adopted, her immediate reaction was a big-eyed gasp. “Oh, I’m so sorry your mom didn’t love you.” This was another first. Now instead of horrible adoption stories coming to me, my kid was dealing with them first hand. I nearly bit off my tongue trying to keep quiet to let Sprout answer. I looked across our picnic table to my wife, who was clearly taking some of her own deep breaths. Sprout said, “What are you talking about? Both of my moms love me the world. Let’s go ride bikes.”
See? You have nothing to worry about with my kid.
Around the picnic table that night, we talked about the conversation, just to continue to reiterate how much she is loved. How much she has always been loved. We told her of the few times we met her tummy mommy, and how, the last time, she told us that she loved Sprout the world, but couldn’t do what she needed to take care of her. About how she asked us to be her forever moms and love and raise her. About how we said yes, and how it didn’t matter anyway because the first day we met Sprout she asked us to hold her and wouldn’t let us put her down. We talked about how much we love her tummy mommy because without her tummy mommy, there would be no Sprout. And some day, when we answer her bigger questions with the harder details, we will also tell this same story, because it is the ultimate reality that matters.
Every time I’ve heard someone’s horrible adoption story, it’s never been their own story. A friend, a cousin, a friend of a friend. I know several parents who have adopted children from a variety of situations, and these parents will tell adoption stories, too. But their stories of struggle and worry are told for a different purpose: seeking help, offering help, sharing about growth or setbacks. They’re the same conversations I have about being a parent with other people who are parents. And now that we’re seven years in to parenthood, I look back and wonder about those storytellers in our first years. Why did they tell us all those horrible stories? If I could go back to those first storytellers, I would ask about their own kids. I wonder what struggle, what worry, what surprise was there. Was it their own need to find something good and right in their family situation that lead them to, consciously or subconsciously, take a joyful moment like adoption, and find something terrible about it? Was it truly just out of concern for our own future heartbreak as parents? If there’s anything I’ve learned from parenting thus far, heartbreak is just part of the package, but definitely not the whole package. And so I wonder, how were their hearts breaking? How were their hearts jumping for joy?
I wonder, too, about the rest of those horrible adoption stories. Surely jail or addiction isn’t the end? That seems much more like a middle. What happened next in their lives? Was there recovery? More challenges ahead to make them prove themselves? Did they find atonement with family, adopted or biological? I would like to hear even one of these stories told to its full conclusion. Less a cautionary tale, more a heroic journey. Even if I don’t like the ending.
Because that’s all we’re trying to do, right? Love our kids, support them, and teach them to use their powers for good and not evil. Because all parents have horror stories. But all parents have humor, love, joy, and silliness, too. It’s okay to hear “adoption” and think of the horror stories, but before telling them, just take half a second to look at that bundle of joy that’s just come into your neighbor’s (or friend’s or cousin’s) life, and marvel at all of the shiny possibilities.