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Thinking About Steve Jobs and Adoption

Adoption may seem like a small sliver of the American experience, however new public opinion research conducted by J. Walter Thompson for the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) suggests it is closer than you think.
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Hand selecting from portrait grid on laptop screen
Hand selecting from portrait grid on laptop screen

There is heartbreaking irony in the reality that the brilliant and innovative maker of impeccably designed and life-changing devices believed in his bones that he was poorly made. In the latest film about Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Aaron Sorkin, adoption plays a significant and complex role. The film explores Jobs' adoption experience and sheds light on the deep impact on him as well as the relationships of those closest to him. Jobs denies his daughter Lisa for many years, even after a paternity test proved otherwise and trusted colleagues appreciated his abilities but not always his manner, which tended to be incredibly harsh.

Adoption may seem like a small sliver of the American experience, however new public opinion research conducted by J. Walter Thompson for the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) suggests it is closer than you think. A majority of Americans (over 60%) have friends or family members who have been impacted by adoption; they know someone who has adopted a child or have a friend or family member who is an adopted person. When we think of all members of the extended family of adoption, including first/birth families and adoptive families, the circle gets bigger. This same research also revealed that most people, even those closest to adoption, are uneducated about adoption.

We see this play out in the film as Apple CEO John Sculley explores the subject of adoption with Steve Jobs. At one point Sculley innocently and intently asks why people who are adopted feel as if they were rejected and not selected. Steve's response is riveting as he explains feeling like he was left out of the loop in the most significant part of his life. For many, the intricate layers of adoption are tough to understand. Why wouldn't they be? Open and honest conversations about adoption tend to be rare.

Sadly, dramatic depictions of adoption, and seemingly hard to fathom news stories both heartwarming and heart wrenching, help to form our perceptions, leaving us with polarized and unreal ideas of how adoption works and feels. Steve Jobs the movie sheds light on this and lets us in on how his beginnings helped to shape his professional and personal identities and thus his relationships.

During one of the very final scenes of the film Steve's daughter Lisa asks why he said he was not her father to which Steve starkly replies, "I am poorly made." This does not feel like an excuse but rather a raw admission of how id views himself and his shortcomings. While Steve Jobs does not come right out and say that his adoption experience is what fuels his feeling of being "poorly made", it is clear that the rejection by his first/birth family is indelible on his spirit. The film further elaborates on his awareness that his first adoptive family had given him back; compounding the insecurity he carried with him. His beginnings and the rejections he experienced even as a baby were defining and created room for his unique brand of detached genius.

What we do not see or have a clear reference to is Steve's upbringing. If we are paying attention though, we are left understanding and appreciating the intricate complexity of a true icon and the mark he made on others. Evidence of this appears as Steve Wozniak delivers very harsh words for Steve saying that he believed Steve's products were better than him and that being decent and brilliant need not be binary, he could be both.

Today, we need to reframe the conversation surrounding adoption in order to better understand it and ultimately strengthen families and individuals so none of us feel poorly made.

People that are adopted are not poorly made. But sometimes, adoption is. Maybe the lack of universal standards and pre-and post adoption education/services contribute to adoptions being poorly transacted? Perhaps too many parents (first/birth and adoptive) are entering into the adoption experience ill prepared and uneducated, not knowing what to expect and how their lives may change? Maybe professionals are not equipped with all of the resources they need to help families prepare?

Of course there are wonderful and beautiful adoption experiences that truly change people's lives for the better but we have so much more to explore in relation to acknowledging the realities. This is certainly true as we consider some of the bigger more dramatic issues such as unregulated child custody transfers ("re-homing"), as well as the lack of universal standards, which leave room for fraud and unethical behavior.

It is absolutely true that some families fracture and children need to transition to different families but it is time we move away from transactional adoption processes to more thoughtful and transformational adoptions where everyone is better prepared and cared for so that no one, especially the children who are indeed the most vulnerable ever believe they are poorly made.