Monday, August 25, 2008

Too Many Secrets -- No More Secrets

Anyone remember the movie, Sneakers, about hackers looking for the ultimate code-breaker? I always think of those lines from the movie -- "TOO MANY SECRETS" pre-code-breaker and "No more secrets" post-code-breaker -- when I think about old and new advice about adoption.

Up until the 1950s, the standard advice given to adoptive parents from social workers was to keep the adoption secret. SWs used matching rules -- creating great similarity between the adopted child and adoptive parents -- to make it easier to keep the secret. Race, ethnicity, hair color & texture, skin tone, eye color all had to match. More incredibly, it was thought important to match religion (yes, many newborns have a religion!) and social class (poor children to poor families, middle class children to middle class families, etc.). Adoptive families were advised to move after adopting a new baby so that new neighbors would easily accept the child as a birth child. Mothers were told to pretend to be pregnant prior to the adoption, or to leave town for a time and return claiming to have given birth to the adopted child. All of this was thought to protect the child from the stigma of adoption and illegitimacy.

The "Too Many Secrets" school of thought seems pretty silly and quaint to us these days; the new advice is to be open and truthful about adoption. It doesn't always happen that way, though. I teach an Adoption Law class in law school, my students mostly in their 20s and 30s, and I am always being approached by them and told about the secrets and lies in their adoption stories. One student wasn't told she was adopted until she was 16, another not until she was about to get married. One student was adopted by his biological aunt, and not told she was not his birthmother until his birthmother (whom he thought was his aunt) died. One student described suspicious behavior by her mother -- including but not limited to refusing to give her her birth certificate for a passport application and insisting on sending it in herself -- that made her wonder if she was adopted. She wanted to know how to look up records, and I suggested she talk to her mom first. Sure enough, when confronted, her mother confessed she was adopted.

And then there are the lies. One student was told she was born in Houston, TX, and adopted there. When she was an adult, her parents told her she was actually born in their small Louisiana town; they told her the Houston story so she wouldn't always wonder whether she was seeing her birthparents in their small town. One student was told her birthparents were married, but too poor to raise her. She later found out her birthmother was young and unmarried; the adoption agency was the one who lied, saying they were trying to protect her from the stigma of illegitimacy.

We're talking here about adoption in the 1970s and 1980s! Unbelievable!

The students who shared with me uniformly expressed anger at their adoptive parents, confusion, and love for their adoptive parents. Most described their feelings using the word "betrayal." Happily, all of them were able to forgive their adoptive parents. A few, though, said they still had trust issues involving their parents. (Duh!)

No possibility of secrecy with transracial adoption, huh?! I consider that a really good thing! (Though I am always surprised by the folks who ask, in front of my kids, "Do they know they're adopted?" I'm playing with a variety of answers, none of which I've had the nerve to give yet: "They do NOW -- thanks a lot!" or "No, they're STUPID!")

I'm sure some people think we talk about adoption TOO MUCH in our family. It's hard for me to believe that one could talk TOO MUCH about adoption when it is such a central part of my kids' identities. No, it isn't the sum total of their identities, but it is formative. I have no control over what the girls will think or how they will feel about their adoptions in the future. But I do have some control over how we lay the foundation for that future.

So here's the new rallying cry: "NO MORE SECRETS!"


Wendy said...

Right on! I soooooo agree with you. I do not and never will understand families do not want to talk about their child's adoption from the beginning. I've been on several boards where parents will say that they will talk when the child brings it up or when they are older--strange to me as the child may feel it is taboo or not bring it up in order not to hurt their AP's. Is it better that a school friend or neighbor brings it up (most likely in a negative way) or that the child always feels something is off as they don't look like their AP's?
I have two close family members and my ex-husband who were told the lies and it will does come to bite the AP's in the butt big time. One of my cousins wasn't lied to, just not really told the full truth and that too has seriously strained their relationship with her parents.

Adoption is a part of our life, not something to be ashamed of, afraid of, or hidden away. Some conversations are hard to explain, some hard to face for our girls, but I am positive for our situation that it is better to know all along and come to a greater understanding as time passes. It is not about us (AP's), it is about our kids and they have the right to know and come to terms with all that has happened in their lives.
I see M developing such a maturity that some of her counterparts do not have, we discuss--they do not. I cannot imagine beginning this conversation at 8, 10, 15. Adoption is a part of her story, it is not all she is or who she will become, but it will have an impact on her life--no amount of lies, hiding, or delaying the truth will change that.

This is a great post btw!

malinda said...

Thanks, Wendy, I needed that!