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Why I’m Still an Adoption Romantic—Just a Less Starry-Eyed One

The following column about adoption by American Experiment Founder Mitch Pearlstein was written at the invitation of the Institute for Family Studies at the University of Virginia.  The post at the IFS site can be found here.

Sometime in the early 2000s, I received a call from a woman at the White House, who asked if my wife and I and our 11-year-old adopted daughter, “Kayla” (not her real name), might be interested in attending a program in celebration of adoption. Since I wasn’t the only adoptive father in the country, let’s just say I had a friend in the administration.

After talking with my wife, Diane, I told the woman we would be honored to participate. But I also told her that Kayla had met the president’s father, President George H. W. Bush, at a Center of the American Experiment dinner in the Twin Cities in early in 2002, where she refused to speak to him. It would be embarrassing all around, I warned, if we were on stage with “W” and Kayla were to do that again, especially with media everywhere.

“Thank you very much for telling me that,” the White House woman said crisply, “you’re in the audience.”

Given the uncertainties, plus the expense of flying from Minnesota, we did not attend the event. But ever since hearing that President Bush acknowledged us in absentia at the program, I’ve been unhappy about not going. Then, again, I’ve also been perpetually relieved that we avoided what could have been an abysmally dreadful moment if Kayla were rude to a second U.S. president.

I tell this story as a reasonably gentle way of introducing how difficult adoption can be, for all concerned. This is especially the case when one’s daughter or son has serious mental health needs, in large part because of the terrible circumstances they likely lived through before being adopted.

I write here in a combination of affirmation and only mild disagreement with other pieces about adoption published recently by the Institute for Family Studies. I’m thinking especially of “The Adoptive Difference: New Evidence on How Adopted Children Perform in School,” by Nicholas Zill and W. Bradford Wilcox, and last week’s “Countering the ‘Soft Stigma’ Against Adoption,” by Elizabeth Kirk.

Raising Kayla, or trying to do so, was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. She was three months short of her sixth birthday when she first came to live with us. My wife had met her at the very moment of birth. Diane was the executive director of a local homeless shelter, where Kayla’s mother, Donna, was a frequent guest. Kayla was Donna’s fifth child by four different men. In time, parental rights were terminated for all five children.

When Kayla was about four, she was placed in pre-adoptive placement by the county. That couple gave Kayla back after a year or so because they couldn’t handle her. At the time, I couldn’t understand how adoptive parents could do such a thing! But not long after she came to live with us, I better understood. Hindsight suggests I should have had a better sense given how frequently Kayla was bounced from place to place both before and after the failed adoption, and how she was abused more than once along the way.

After we adopted her, it seemed like Diane and I had meetings all the time with psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, lawyers, social workers, police officers, insurance officials, whoever. And if Kayla were in residential care at the time, we would have meetings at those places, too, sometimes out of state. Diane and I were fortunate to have flexible work schedules. But who knows what we would have done if we didn’t? I frequently wonder how parents without leeway in their work lives do what’s needed for their children in similar situations.

Around the time we adopted Kayla, my wife insisted—and I mean insisted—that I read a new book by Ann Kimble Loux called The Limits of Hope: An Adoptive Mother’s Story. Loux was a literature professor who, with her later-divorced husband, adopted two emotionally scarred girls, one of whom was severely so. Suffice it to say their lives were thick with exhausting commotion, lawful and otherwise.

I have cited the book many times over the last two decades—the following lines about adopting at-risk children more frequently than others. Loux argued:

A way to best help adoptive parents might well be to discourage them from regarding an adoptive child as a blank slate with infinite potential… Although many of us yearn to defy the laws of nature, we also understand that without a strong wind, an apple does not fall far from the tree.  

Tough stuff.

Loux and her husband had three birth children who fared much better than their adopted sisters, leading to this cringe-worthy passage: “Sandy [one of Loux’s adopted daughters] told me many things I’ll never forget,” one of which was how “she couldn’t be the best of anything in our family, but she could be the worst.”

This is not the time to fully recite Kayla’s times in jails and prisons for assault. Or her stealing. Or the times police came to our door and said, “Haven’t I been here before?” Or the explosions and screaming. Or the suicide attempts and extended stays in psychiatric units. Or the schools she dropped out of and the jobs she quit. Or the fatherless children she’s raising now.

The litany is ugly, and I’m not comfortable sharing it. But as the equivalent of a mandated reporter under the circumstances, I’m obliged. And as a husband, I’m likewise obliged as it’s important for my wife to know that understand the physical fears and other torments she continues to contend with, even though we haven’t seen our daughter for nearly two years. This is especially the case since I was more determined than she was to finalize the adoption.

Yes, I recognize that Kayla, who’s now in her late 20s, was more damaged from the start than most children “in the system.” But I also recognize that everyone must be responsible and accountable to make it in this life.

Given the ceaseless need for good homes for all kinds of children in all kinds of danger and brokenness, I remain a romantic about adoption, which is a necessary and beautiful act that deserves our respect and support. But I am also a less starry-eyed romantic who believes adoptive parents need to be realistic about how hard and painful it may prove to be for everyone involved.

Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D., is the founder and senior fellow of Center of the American Experiment in Golden Valley, MN. His newest book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in April.

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