So here I am again, standing in a small group of mothers ten to fifteen years younger than me, smiling and nodding and going “Oooh,” and “Ouch!” and “Oh my god” at appropriate times as they swap stories of pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. The five of us mothers have children in nursery school together; we are getting to know each other, trying to connect around our kids; and so we are engaged in one of the chief bonding rituals of young mothers: swapping reproduction war stories. Everyone in the little circle knows that my daughter was adopted from Russia, but no one opens a conversational door for me, says, “So, tell us about your trip,” or, “Tell us about the first time you saw her picture.” And I don’t seize an opportunity to shoehorn my experience into the conversation, either. I feel that it would be awkward – that, all of a sudden, intensely polite attention would be focused on me, and questions would be directed at me instead of stories shared, and people would be a little worried about hurting me somehow, a little unsure about what was and was not OK to say or ask; and no one would know when or how to disengage from the adoption story and go back to their real topic, childbirth. I feel that the attention would be just slightly tinged with pity (disavowed) about my inability to experience the joys of pregnancy, my inability to know my baby’s first minutes and days and weeks, my advanced age. So I don’t jump in; I listen, murmur, ask for more details, laugh, and float away.
Adoptive mothers can’t do, of course, lots of things – can’t share the reproduction war stories, can’t know our babies from birth, can’t breast feed (without heroic and slightly, it seems to me, weird preoccupation and preparation), can’t be younger again. But I knew all of that before I became an adoptive mom, and the only thing I really mind is that I didn’t have my baby from the get-go, couldn’t protect her from all the harms the world threw her way in her first months (and, in the case of my younger daughter, years) of life. That hurts.
What I didn’t know, however, before I adopted, was that I also couldn’t complain about my kids the way bio moms can. I can’t freely air ambivalence about my kids in public. I know that many bio moms still feel constrained in airing their darkest feelings about the realities of motherhood. The motherhood mystique is still alive and well in America – all the paeans to motherhood, soppy as wet diapers; all the gauzy images of mothers and babies; all the reverence for the unbreakable organic bonds between mothers and their children. There is truth, of course, in all of these elements of the motherhood mystique. But the fact that there are darker truths, too – that the glibbest lip service is supposed to compensate us for our work; that children can make us insane with fury; that child care is filled with tedium; that mothers have hours and days when we wonder why in God’s name we decided to parent – has been well aired in sociological studies and in testimony from the trenches.
For baby-shocked bio moms who want to testify to the dark underbelly of mothering, the sound barrier has been broken: it’s really only the willfully bland who mistake maternal testimony about the travails of parenting for a lack of love for their children.
But adoptive mothers do not always enjoy the same kind of leeway. When adoptive moms complain about motherhood the way bio moms do, certain basic questions are raised in some people’s minds. I learned this the hard way when my oldest was around four, and I was venting to a friend about her spiritedness. If you have a spirited child, you know what I mean. This child (Natalie) knew very early on where all my buttons were, and loved nothing more than pushing them all down at once and then holding them down, to see what I would do. I had a lot to vent about, and I was proceeding apace on the phone with my friend. When I paused for breath, he said, “Well, but . . . you’re glad you adopted her, right?”
Am I glad I adopted her? She’s my baby!
Maybe I’m overreacting. But I just don’t think he would have checked in on my core commitment to a biological child on the basis of one rant. By questioning my commitment to Natalie, he revealed to me the truth of what I’d felt paranoid for feeling: that people – lots of people – think that I love my kids less because they’re adopted.
Almost no one will admit any more to harboring this belief. Everybody knows somebody who has adopted, or has been adopted, or who has placed a baby for adoption. Admitting that you think adoptive family ties are weaker than bio family ties is almost – not quite, but almost – as socially inept as blurting out racist thoughts. But, like racism, doubts about adoptive families are much more widespread than anyone wants to acknowledge.
We adoptive moms know this prejudice is ubiquitous – we can feel it – even though people are starting to make us think we’re crazy by saying it’s all in our heads. But all we need do to confirm our suspicions is quietly observe the tens of thousands of couples who spend millions of dollars annually and endure extraordinary physical and emotional pain feeding the biotech-reproduction industry rather than – gulp – adopt. Another way we can tell is by watching how the media handle stories of bio-family reunions. Not one of these stories has been presented without misty-eyed approval – often with no mention of those pesky interlopers, the adoptive parents, and never revealing that most adopted adults end up spending little time with their newly-found biological families. Reunion stories are presented uncritically as the heart-warming fulfillment of what, deep down, we “all” “know”: it’s blood that counts.
Parenting in a milieu that persistently questions the quality of your love (and then typically denies doing it) can be destabilizing. What mother doesn’t have days when she wishes she could walk away from the kids? For bio moms, such moments are considered part of the territory. For we adoptive moms, those recoil seizures can become an ominous sign affirming the culture’s entrenched suspicions, a source of worry and self-consciousness, a thing to be hidden. The culture’s bias puts us under pressure to prove our love, not just to ourselves and our kids, but to other parents, to the culture at large. We have to be “better than” bio moms – more saintly, more grateful, more patient. Less human. Bio moms set the standard on the mommy playing field, and adoptive moms are subtly called upon to prove that our love is just as good.
It’s impossible, I know, but I sure wish this bias would disappear while my kids are still young. It would be so freeing to be able to say that I want to throttle them, and have everyone nod and smile, knowing that feelings like this are all part of a mother’s love.