I Am A “Real Parent”!by Saul Levine, M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at UCSD July 26, 2018
Parental pride in their children is universal, even if one is not from Lake Wobegon (where “all the children are above average”), and as a biological parent of three sons, I too have always considered them to be wonderful.
It’s natural to praise the “products” of our personal DNA and nurturance. But did you ever wonder what happens when your child is adopted and doesn’t share your DNA?
I bring this up because 18 years ago my wife and I made a momentous decision to adopt a baby girl from China. At that time, China’s one-child policy was strictly enforced, and many infant girls were in destitute situations. We elected to do this, knowing that we were embarking on a path fraught with unknowns, and that we wouldn’t be able to rely on any ancestral or genetic history.
After a protracted year-long screening process, we were informed by email that a six-month-old female infant residing in a state-run orphanage in the town of Huazhou in China near the border with Vietnam, had been “assigned” to us. A grainy black-and-white photo of her was also emailed at that time.
Two months later, in July 2000, in an air-conditioned hotel, our daughter was handed to us by attendants who had brought her from the nearby orphanage. The temperature outside was 97 degrees Fahrenheit and the mugginess was oppressive, the same climatic conditions which existed within the crowded (2-3 infants per crib) and non-air-conditioned “Dickensian” orphanage.
She had been living there ever since she was found at the age of one day, wrapped in a bunting in the doorway of the local post office. (Years later we read the police report when she was taken to a hospital for health screening before transfer to the orphanage.)
When we first saw her, she looked frail and limp: Her limbs and head were floppy, and she made little eye contact; she was coughing due to bronchitis, and her skin showed impetigo, a skin infection. (We learned these were common maladies among children living in orphanages throughout the country).
But she also evinced, even during this surreal scene, a serene, ethereal facial quality, which was noticed by many, and she was dubbed by another father, “the Dalai Hanna.”
During that first night in a modest hotel room, our daughter was lying in her tiny crib, we were wide-awake (of course) in an adjacent double bed, wondering, worrying, joyful and fearful. At one point we looked over, and she had pulled herself up to a standing position while holding onto the guardrails, staring at us, smiling. At that moment fear dissipated, we felt only joy and wonderment.
Fast forward to the present: Our daughter, “The Dalai Hanna (Mei),” recently turned 18 years of age, and will soon be off to college! She is bright and beautiful, thoughtful, funny, caring, has the soul of a poet, artistic talents, good friends and is close to her parents, brothers and sisters-in-law and her seven nieces and nephews.
Our daughter hopefully benefitted from our child rearing, but we obviously hold no claim to having provided her genetic endowment. We are eternally grateful to her biological parents for bestowing their DNA on her, and indeed for giving us the opportunity to raise a wonderful human being, enabling us to be loving parents, and her a loving daughter.
The term, “identity,” has been postulated as the developmental task for an adolescent and young adult to wrestle with (and even resolve) during those occasionally challenging years. One’s identity is encompassed in answers to questions we ask ourselves, like “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” and “How?”
Adopted children do indeed wonder about their roots, their identity and ultimately their destiny. While all young people ask themselves these same questions, the search for answers is more complicated with adopted children.
My wife and I are both mental health professionals, and so we knew that when adopted children are informed of their adoptive history, their sense of security can be shaken. Our daughter sensed at an early age that she looked different from us, and so we discussed her background from time to time. We wondered how she would react but she showed no noteworthy emotions, and soon asked if she could go back to playing with her friends.
Over the last few decades, adoption laws have progressed and facilitate contact and meetings between biological parents and their offspring, if both parties agree. More adopted children have begun to search for their biological parents, sometimes responding to pangs of yearning, or to clarify health or risk factors. But there have been few such meetings in China (via DNA matches), and the vast majority will never have that opportunity.
Gnawing fantasies about one’s origins are particularly on the minds of adoptees who live in unhappy circumstances. They wonder if their lives would be better had their biological parents been able to look after them.
These common fleeting thoughts can at times become more frequent, or even obsessions. Adolescent fantasies abound. In their own poignant words: “Were my biological parents nice? Do I look like them? Were they rich or poor, attractive or weird? Bright or not? Normal or crazy? Were they married? Did they love me? Was I bad? Ugly? Did they love me?”
Defining one’s identity is a recurrent lifelong challenge for all of us, and I’m certain that our daughter is engaged in this self-questioning. The core question, “Who Am I, Really?!” haunts everyone from time to time, adoptees, to be sure, but you and I as well.
We adoptive parents do feel blessed, fortunate to have been given the opportunity to raise a child gifted to us by the universe. We of course face challenges, which go along with parenthood in general, the most difficult being questions with the words “real parents” (as opposed to we lesser “caretakers”!) These well-meaning queries are confusing to children and hurtful to adoptive parents. While singular painful incidents can be challenging and must be dealt with, loving experiences over many years are wonderful salves.
Those of you who have biological children no doubt appreciate and love them dearly, whether you’re from Lake Wobegon or not. Similarly, those of you who have adopted children feel the same way. As a parent of both biological and adopted offspring, I can tell you that there is absolutely no difference in the quality and depth of love for either.
The vast majority of adoptees and their adoptive, ie, “real” parents, lead fulfilling lives and make significant contributions to society. They leave a “Positive Emotional Footprint” on our world.