I came home after a two-week vacation to discover that New York magazine had anointed me -- or more to the point, my family -- hip and trendy. In a story called, "The Nuclear Family, Exploded," the magazine wrote about how Angelina Jolie and Madonna's brood of biological and adopted kids -- along with the blended families headed by ordinary civilians--is becoming a "new [urban] archetype." Supposedly "altruistic" motives (as much as infertility issues) are inspiring more of us open-minded hipsters to adopt after having bio kids, and to New York magazine, this raises the single pressing question: "Do parents really love adopted children differently than their own offspring?"
Living in a decidedly unhip New Jersey suburb, with two daughters, one adopted from Kazakhstan, the other from my uterus, I guess I should be grateful to be declared fashionable by New York magazine. But I am too annoyed. Here we go again, more ill-informed and dated stereotypes are being trotted out under the guise of celebrating diversity. And the very real issues that blended families face are being ignored.
New York mag justifies dredging up the dated and offensive question about how much parents can really love their adopted kids by noting the "discordant chord of (media) suspicion about the status" of the adopted children (vs. their bio kids) in Madonna and Brangelina's families. First, news flash to all journalists wanting to do a story on adoption: Brangelina and Madonna's adoptions may make for a great news peg, but really, media coverage of their families says less about the state of adoption today than it does about our love-hate relationship with celebrity in this country. It's like saying the media excoriation of the young starlets for drunk driving is revealing a new backlash against alcohol. (New York mag does rightly point out the suspicion towards Madonna's adoption was widely shared but fails to understand that that had to do with how Madonna sanctimoniously announced she wanted to "save" a child. Note there is no similar suspicion towards many other celebrities with blended families, including Steven Spielberg and Michelle Pfeiffer; the reason is they never talk about their kids as social welfare projects.)
After my husband and I adopted, I wrote a magazine piece about blended families and then co-edited with fellow journalist Jill Smolowe an anthology about adoptive parenting called A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. What I discovered was that 1) the best estimates suggest that about 25% of adoptive families are composed of bio and adopted kids and 2) the reasons for this are complex and varied. Sometimes it is due to infertility issues and/or altruistic motives, as New York mag notes, but I also found many couples who were inspired by a desire for bigger brood, a wish for a second family with a new spouse, or just a desperate yearning for a girl. (The dirty little secret of adoption: most parents request girls.)
Another shortcoming of this New York mag article -- and so many other mainstream media stories about adoption--is that it focuses mostly on the process of adopting and completely ignores the more important story of the realities of families with adopted kids. Yes, the experience of adopting, especially abroad, is intense, dramatic, and life-altering, but it really is about as relevant to the parenting of a child as is having a C-section. Once you are two or three years past the event -- whether that's adoption or birth -- how the baby joined your family fades in importance as you focus on the realities of raising the child. And for families with bio and adopted kids, that reality can be complicated, packed with special challenges as well as joys.
Too often the media raises the question of can you love an adopted child as if that was THE critical question to adoptive families when that really is a fleeting fear that comes and passes before a couple adopts; and too often the adoption community has been invested in responding by stressing how "normal" their families are.
That needs to end. The fact is, our families are different. Just as step, single parent or multiracial families confront issues due to their differences, so do we. When Jill and I put together our book, we included an essay by Melissa Fay Greene on the profound post-adoption depression she, a mother of four bio kids, lapsed into after adopting an older child, a piece by Jacqueline Mitchard on how she armed her family of bio, adopted, and stepkids to fend off insensitive and intrusive comments from outsiders, and several pieces that explore the difficulties of "honoring" ethnic and racial heritages, especially when the family is a hodgepodge.
Soon after, I was interviewed by a reporter -- smart, well-meaning, with his heart in the right place -- who asked me a question that stopped me dead in tracks. "Aren't you worried that this book will discourage people from adopting?"
I was so stunned that I just mumbled some vague platitude about how we were pro-adoption, but here's what I wished I'd said: Does anyone say magazine articles and books about the dark side of motherhood will lower the birth rate? It's time to stop talking about the cliches and stereotypes and focus instead on the realities --t he joyful, complex, and sometimes messy ones -- that these new family constellations bring