Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Parent Surplus

“Adopted. Big Deal; so was Superman.” 
Chris Crutcher, Whale Talk

Audrey and I attended a wedding a few weeks ago. The father of the bride, a long-time friend, offered the first toast. With good humor, he welcomed the assembled guests to the union of individuals representing the Far East (his daughter was born in Korea and adopted as a baby), the Middle East (our friends are Jewish), and the Holy Roman Empire (the groom was Italian Catholic). So this was more than a “mixed marriage”; it was a union constructed on many different levels.

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan share cultures. Did they envision
a marriage of Asians, Jews, and Italians?
At the wedding reception, we were seated next to a couple from Teaneck, who were also old friends of the bride’s parents, though we had never met them. It turns out that they were connected to the bride’s parents in another way—they too had adopted two children as infants.  Of course, adoption was a big part of our discussion at the table. And part of the discussion involved difficulties their children had had dealing with being adopted. Even though the children had never known their birth parents and had no real issues with their adopted parents, they still felt a sense of abandonment that had proved painful as they went through their teen years. Now in their twenties, both children seemed fairly content. Yet the parents were still wary of possible flare ups of discontent. Is the concern of adopted parents regarding occasional flickers in the connection with their children (pre-teen, teen, and beyond) that different from those of non-adoptive parents? It’s not a question that I can answer. But I would guess that adoption adds another dimension to the width of the generation gap and a little more angst for parents.

A few days later, we traveled up to our vacation home in Vermont. I stopped into the office of the townhouse complex to speak with the manager, a young woman who had only days before completed the legal activities required to adopt the two young children of her sister. For various reasons, the sister had been unable to take care of her children, and the aunt had stepped in. It was not an easy decision to make; the aunt was not married and needed to change her work hours and look for a bigger place to live in order to accommodate two more family members in her everyday life. She seems thrilled by the decision, and is certain the children, ages 3 and 5, are willingly accepting her as their number one nurturer. I commented that the children were fortunate to have her in their lives. She said the good fortune went both ways. So this seems to be a win-win proposition, but with a twist. The children are certain to interact with their birth mother over time. How will their psyches be affected?

I received one positive response to that question from reading a biographical piece about the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s mother was only 16 when he was born. His birth father was married to someone else and never played a part in his life. His mother married when Jackson was one, and the new husband formally adopted him and gave him his last name. During an interview many years later, Jackson was asked if he resented his birth father’s actions. His reply: “People say I had a father deficit when in truth I had a father surplus.” How nice is that!

Jackson’s comment made me think about something I once said to a friend whose wife was expecting their second child. I warned (alerted? predicted?) that one + one adds up to far more than two where children are concerned. And maybe where parents, birth and adoptive, are concerned too. I hope that the children in Vermont will feel that having two mothers in their lives will feel natural and comfortable for them. Plus, if they ever go into therapy, they can have two different mothers to blame for their being screwed up. Freud would be proud! 

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