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From the literal "family tree" on a sunny hillside to the earnest hosts, Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. Even some mainstream TV reviewers have called the show "grotesque." When it was first picked up by ABC (it's based on successful "relationship reality" programming in Holland and Australia), Variety ran this headline: "ABC adopts 'Find My Family' show."
But clearly not everyone in the adoption community feels the same way. The "grotesque" remark from a TV critic doesn't account for why reunions really are emotional and difficult to pull off. At Adopt-a-tude, we'll be running responses to the show from different angles. We'd like to invite the adoption community to talk about this together.
First up is adoptive parent Lisa, the Caucasian mother of a Chinese-born daughter. Posts by an adult adoptee and a birth mother will follow this week.
I came to Find My Family already grappling with a whirlwind of emotions. A recent discussion on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog opened my eyes to the very real pain adult adoptees may experience. Watching the December 7 episode of Find My Family last week, I felt I understood the emotions expressed by adult adoptees Kari Spencer and Jennifer Curtis—and that's not just because of the recent discussion on Motherlode.
I've seen some of these same feelings reflected in my 9-year-old daughter's eyes, if not her words. The sense of abandonment. Of feeling tossed aside without explanation. The potential for all that to gnaw away at one's sense of self worth.
I understood too the longing: "I deserve to see where I came from." And sadly, as a single mom raising a daughter who's an only child, I've spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying whether my daughter will feel "alone in the world"—as more than one adoptee on the show articulated. In truth, the show made me long all the more for the possibility that my daughter might someday find and connect with her Chinese kin.
So, on the one hand, the show made me question again the wisdom of closed adoptions. The bottom line is blood relations are family. You don't cease being "family" just because you're not there. Adopted or not, we all have far-flung family members. Is there a draw there? The possibility for that sense of kindred connection? I'd be lying if I said no.
The truth, for me personally, is that I think if I were Kari Spencer's adoptive mother in the first story aired on last Monday's show, and Kari Spencer's birth mother had—as she claims—returned within those first, very early (three) months and demonstrated that she and her husband had both the desire and means to raise Kari, wrenching as it would have been, I think I’d have wanted to give Kari the chance to be with her biological mother.
The American Adoption Congress highlights the issue this way:
“The AAC believes that all children have the same core of basic needs, and that these needs can be met most easily when children can grow up in the family into which they were born. Every effort should be made to preserve the integrity of this family. When birth families are unable to meet the ongoing needs of children born to them, however, we believe that adoption provides the best alternative—provided the adoptions are humane, honest, and rooted in the understanding that adoption does not erase a child's connections to the family into which they were born. We believe that those who have lived the adoption experience are in the best position to articulate the importance of these conditions and to bring about an adoption system that is based on them.”I think the AAC’s focus and priorities make sense. That said, there's a broad range of adoptee experiences and opinions. While it's clear there are a number of adult adoptees who are active, vocal, and angry, I’m curious to know how broadly representative their opinions are. I’d love to see a broad-based, statistically meaningful study that represents the full range of adoptee experiences to date.
In the meantime, as much as I feel sympathetic to the pain articulated by the adult adoptees and birth mothers in Find My Family, I'm also an adoptive parent and—I’m human. So while I understand the deep-seated need to discover the connection and sense of belonging that comes from blood ties, from the sense of having been molded from the same clay, there is another part of me, in my head, in my heart, that feels there are things about Find My Family that are one-sided, superficial, and potentially exploitative.
What individual—adopted or otherwise—doesn’t fantasize about the perfect family, the one that's truly attuned and connected to who we are on a cellular level?
Family is in part based on DNA. But that's the raw material, and it's just the beginning. Family, particularly the intense job of parenting, being the mom or the dad, is about being there, day in and day out, year in and year out, through the good, the bad, the sick, the rebellious, and ugly. It’s a commitment, a bond that grows in the heart and in the wiring that develops in the brain. It comes from living and breathing as a family unit, so much so that you unconsciously share the same gestures, the same manner of speech, the same quirky sense of humor.
It's about the emotional equity, the sweat equity, and, at the risk of sounding crass, the financial equity as well. It's about paying the emergency room bills, the annual doctor's bills, the dental and orthodontic bills. It's about putting money aside each year for college. It's about the puppy in the window, the school ski trip, the camping adventure, and presents under the tree each year at Christmas.
It's not just a climb and a hug on a sunlit hill thirty years later.
So I’ll admit that when the Find My Family hosts and adoptees kept saying, "That's your mother" and "We found your mother" and "We found your family"—as if these adoptees were still orphaned and alone in the world—I couldn't help but cringe. I wondered what the adoptive parents were feeling as they viewed this footage. Yes. This was the birth mother who had clearly struggled and grieved her lost children. But what about the woman who was there all those years doing all the actual...mothering. Who was she? The babysitter?
I know how subjective and biased I sound as I read what I've written. I think it's the sweat equity talking. But I don't honestly know how, or if I can, disengage from that. The bottom line for me is that, as an adoptive parent, the show made me feel incredibly invisible.
If, broadly speaking and in actuality, adoptive families form a “triad,” the show should try to represent the reality, not just a selective slice, a single fairytale moment in time. Include the full triad. I know this can be sticky. But that’s in part the point—and the reality.
Within my own family, among myself and my cousins, we have more than seven examples of adoption to draw from. They include two international adoptions, two open adoptions, two closed adoptions, and a foster parent who became an adoptive parent. In the case of the foster parent, she only moved to adopt her daughter after four or five years of waiting for the birth mother to overcome her addictions and provide for her daughter. When the birth mother proved unable, she relinquished her claim to “mother” her daughter.
In the case of our family's two open adoptions, sadly, the adoptive parents pursued and tried to maintain the originally agreed-on connection. In both instances, to varying degrees, despite ongoing efforts, the birth mothers dropped away. This isn't to say open adoption is a mistake or a bad idea. It's just to say every adoptive circumstance is different. Families fracture. Pain can result any number of ways. The question is, what "family" will be there to pick up the pieces?
I'll be interested to see what kind of follow-up occurs on Find My Family. Will they choose only those stories that offer a happy ending? I'm sure there will be many wonderful, heart-warming connections and re-connections established. These are wonderful to see. But what will they do if, over time, some of the romance in these newly discovered relationships fades? Real families inevitably entail real conflict.
As an adoptive parent in the trenches dealing with the grit and grind of everyday life, the challenge I grapple with is the everpresent threat of the phantom perfect parent—as much as I know we're all human and that birth parents undoubtedly have their struggles. I’m wondering what Find My Family will do with those stories where the birth parents are found and the adoptee is confronted, God forbid, with a second rejection? This is real life as well. It happens. But then this raises another issue. Is this really appropriate material for prime-time television?
I'm wary of an opportunistic prime-time reality show competing for ratings that paints a one-dimensional, overly romantic view of adoptees and birth families when the picture is, in reality—like most real-life families—far more complex.