Children Are Exactly Who They Are Meant To Be
Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Anne Moody
This piece is an adaptation from Anne Moody’s intelligent, thought-provoking book called The Children That Money Can Buy: Stories From the Frontlines of Foster Care and Adoption.
“When a wonderful baby flies over the ocean
To come like a little bird, safe to this nest,
We’ll surround her with all of our love and devotion
And give thanks for the child from the East who came West”
By Jean Moehring, on the occasion of her granddaughter’s arrival
I have a distinct memory of the moment I first wanted to be an adoptive parent. It was 1964. I was thirteen years old and on a spring-break road trip with my parents and sister. We were driving across country, stopping at various sites of historical significance along the way, but I just wanted to stay in the car and read.
At one point in the trip, I was sitting in the car reading a newspaper article about a single woman (I believe she was a well-known reporter) who had adopted a little girl from Korea. I think what made the story newsworthy was that the woman was a little bit famous and had managed to adopt as a single parent at a time when that was almost unheard of. But whatever the reason, I was fascinated—and could clearly see my future, most of which was extremely murky, as the mother of a Korean daughter.
Twenty-three years later, that future was realized in the adoption of our youngest daughter, Jocelyn, who arrived from Korea at three-and-a-half months old. My husband, who is a writer, wrote a wonderful story about our adoption experience for the Seattle Times, in which he tried to explain why we had made the decision to adopt.
As he told it, when I brought the subject of adoption up to him it didn’t seem like I wanted to start a discussion; it was more like I was announcing a pregnancy. And that’s exactly the way I felt about it.
People were curious about why we had decided to adopt. We were already the parents of two daughters who had fulfilled our expectations of parenthood beyond our wildest dreams. The grandparents, especially, couldn’t figure out why we didn’t just have another child like the two we all adored so much.
I would try to answer their questions logically, by saying things like, “Well, we just feel we’ve been so fortunate to have two healthy children and we don’t want to press our luck with a third pregnancy.” But that wasn’t true at all: We wanted to adopt because it felt fated that we do so. I had known that little girl was coming for a long time.
I had been an adoption counselor for five years by the time we adopted Jocelyn. I don’t think it’s necessary for adoption counselors to be adoptive parents—although many are—but there’s no question that becoming an adoptive parent teaches you things you can’t learn in any other way. And being an adoption counselor definitely helped me as an adoptive parent.
Jocelyn’s adjustment to her new life as a member of our family was not easy for any of us. Although she weighed only ten pounds when she arrived, Jocelyn was a mighty force who immediately dominated the household with her distress.
Her sisters, Erin and Caitlin, who were eight and five, were old enough to understand that she was, as her doctor so scientifically explained, “freaking out” about all the changes in her world. Most specifically, she was freaking out about the loss of her foster mother, and she wanted nothing to do with us—with the exception of her sisters, who could amuse her by day, and her new grandfather, whose broad chest could comfort her into sleep.
Since Grandpa loved naps, this worked well for both of them when he was around. But the night times were dreadful.
Because I had known other babies who had similarly difficult adjustments, I took Jocelyn’s unhappiness as a sign that she was smart and sensitive and, most importantly, that she had been able to develop healthy attachments in her foster home, along with the belief that her crying and protests would matter to someone.
The babies who concerned me in my work were those who seemed not to have noticed that their lives had been upended, not only by new caretakers but by an entirely new world with strange sights, sounds, smells, and touches.
It was common for me to do a post placement visit in the first few weeks after a baby’s arrival and then write a report stating that the parents described the child as calm and easygoing, noting that she rarely cried and was already sleeping through the night. On the surface, it looked as though these babies were doing well, and their passivity made the early adjustment period for their families relatively easy.
But I think many of these “easygoing” children were actually so frightened and overwhelmed that they had retreated emotionally. Rather than register protest, they responded to the trauma with silence and complacency.
I remember one seven-month-old baby from Korea who carried this reaction to an extreme. She arrived bearing no resemblance to the child described in her referral paperwork. Her parents were expecting a child who was “smiling and babbling, sitting steadily and standing when her hands are held.”
Instead they brought home from the airport a silent and limp baby who seemed unable even to hold her head up. They rushed her to the doctor, assuming she was sick, but there was no indication of a physical problem.
For two excruciating days and nights, the parents worried while the baby remained listless. Then, on the third day, she began to cry and she cried for hours while her parents made futile attempts to soothe her. Finally, completely exhausted, the baby was quiet in her mother’s lap.
Then she slowly lifted her head, sat up straight and cautiously reached up a tiny hand to touch her mother’s cheek. This child turned out to be exceptionally bright, and I think she had just initially “decided” that total withdrawal was an intelligent and sensible response to such a traumatic situation.
Jocelyn’s adjustment period wasn’t nearly as dramatic or as rapid. It felt as though it took months before we figured out how to make her happy, yet when I look at pictures of her first few weeks with us now, there is evidence of faint smiling even then. But she remained mysterious to us, and my husband and I had to relearn many of the things we thought we knew about parenting.
This time, our tried and true methods for getting a baby to sleep, such as gentle rocking and quiet singing in a darkened room, seemed only to infuriate the baby. We finally figured out that what she found soothing was rigorous bouncing and distracting chatter, neither of which came naturally to our minds as methods for soothing babies. (When we met her incredibly vivacious foster mother twelve years later, we finally understood why this behavior felt comforting and familiar to Jocelyn).
I think a primary lesson parents, whether by birth or adoption, need to learn is that it is their job to adapt to the child—not to try to make the child adapt to them. All children come to us as unique, distinct people, and it is the parent’s responsibility—and joy—to discover how to help them thrive. This responsibility extends to everything from figuring out how to soothe them as babies to knowing how to steer them toward becoming independent adults.
When Jocelyn was a toddler, I was working as a supervisor of the birth parent counseling program at a large adoption agency. Ten years earlier, this agency had been one of the first to embrace open adoption.
I remember a training session for the counselors that included a fascinating talk by a psychologist who wanted to give us tips about how to talk to birth parents about choosing adoptive parents for their child. She told us about a study of adoptive placements whose authors concluded that the single most significant factor affecting long-term happiness in adoptive families was the fit between parents and children in what the psychologist called “energy level.”
She explained that a mismatch in the energy level of the parents and child was the most highly predictive indicator of an adoption disruption—meaning that the child ultimately left the family.
At first this idea seemed preposterous to me. After all, there are plenty of birth families in which there is an obvious mismatch in the energy levels between parents and children, and they seem to have no more trouble getting along than do families in which everyone is similar in that respect. I also resisted the idea that families can be typed according to energy level and that family members necessarily resemble each other in this way.
I found myself rejecting a lot of what the psychologist was saying, but as I thought more about it I realized that my agency and others that encouraged open adoption were already doing a version of what she recommended. We weren’t doing it deliberately—it was just a natural outcome of openness.
When our birth parents searched for the right adoptive family for their child, they looked for people with whom they felt comfortable, and their (possibly unconscious) recognition of a shared energy level probably contributed to that feeling in subtle but significant ways.
When a child is born to a family, we assume that he or she will in some ways be a “chip off the old block.” Children aren’t clones of their parents, but they do share traits that go beyond height and hair color to include more nebulous areas such as talents, interests, and personality type.
As someone who has worked with many hundreds of birth parents and adoptive families over a period of thirty-five years, I have been in a position to study the age-old nature-or-nurture question. I’ve watched in amazement as some children turn into the spitting image of their adoptive parents, even when they are of different races.
I’ve been equally amazed by children who have had no contact with their birth parents but nevertheless grow up to share not only their physical traits but their mannerisms, avocations, and dispositions.
I often thought about the psychologist’s explanation of this “fit” between the energy levels of adoptive parents and children. She had used the example of the Thanksgiving dinner traditions of two large extended families. One family traditionally played football after dinner; the other played Scrabble. The kids in each family grew up knowing what was expected of them as they became part of the family tradition.
For a high-energy kid in a football-playing family, everything feels natural, just as it does for a quieter kid in a Scrabble-playing family. But when you have a child who doesn’t like to play football and is either forced to play anyway or is allowed to sit out (maybe reading a book), then problems can emerge. Other family members might interpret his behavior as being uncooperative and “not like us.”
Conversely, the kid who loves to play football would be just as noticeably different in the less energetic family. He would be squirming, unable to focus on the Scrabble game and dying to work off some energy—and the family might interpret all of this as uncooperative and “not like us.” Of course, the families still love their children, but there is an underlying recognition of difference, and when the different child is an adoptee, that can feel significant.
Then I started thinking about my own family, and the fact that there was a clear discrepancy between Jocelyn’s energy level and the energy levels of the rest of us. Jocelyn is not hyperactive and the rest of us are neither quiet nor sluggish, but there was a noticeable jolt of energy when she joined the family.
My husband referred to her, with what he called her “outsized zest for life,” as “the human plus sign,” but she could be just as energetically unhappy when forced to do something that required sitting still.
My husband and I were kept busy modifying our beliefs and approaches to what we had assumed was good parenting in order to accommodate the reality of this very distinct little person. With Jocelyn, good parenting meant things like understanding that a toddler—at least this toddler, unlike her sisters—just shouldn’t be expected to sit happily at the table (not at home, not at someone else’s house, and definitely not at a restaurant).
Had my husband and I shared Jocelyn’s energy level, we probably already would have known that.
Intellectually, I understand that high-energy children might fit better in a high-energy family and that the same is true for calmer children and calmer families. I also understand how completely appropriate it is for birth parents to pick adoptive families with whom they feel familiar and comfortable.
It all makes perfect sense—except that if adoption agencies actually matched children with adoptive parents according to this metric, we never would have been matched with Jocelyn. And that makes no sense at all.
Before we adopted Jocelyn, I was part of an adoptive-parent support group made up of clients and fellow counselors. The group included mothers with children, aged newborn to six years old, who had been adopted from all over the world as well as through in-country infant adoptions. There were also a few birth children—including my two daughters—in the group. I thoroughly enjoyed socializing with these women and learned a lot from them and their children.
I also sometimes attended a larger gathering of adoptive mothers where speakers would share information and facilitate discussions. One discussion focused on the proper way to talk with a child about adoption—particularly about how to address your child’s feelings of loss or confusion over not having “grown in your tummy.”
The consensus was that when children expressed this feeling, parents should soothe and cuddle them and tell them that they also wish that the child could have been in their “tummy.” The mother and child could then bond over their shared loss.
I wasn’t an adoptive mom at that point, and everyone else seemed to be in agreement, so I didn’t say anything. I had read similar things in books about adoption, and although the approach seemed a little odd, I couldn’t explain why it bothered me.
Some years later, we adopted Jocelyn, and she grew into an energetic, outgoing, mischievous little four-year-old. She was not at all what I would call introspective, and generally made it obvious when something was bothering her.
Because of my work, we talked about adoption freely around our house, and we knew many other adoptive families—including our own extended family, with four of the eight cousins being adopted. (In later years, the number of cousins in the family would number eleven, with seven of them being adopted and four of them being Asian.) So Jocelyn just naturally amassed a lot of information about the subject.
Jocelyn knew the basics about where she had been born, how she had come to us, and that she looked different from the rest of us. The most complicated thing that she knew was that she had a birth mother and that when she was born, her birth mother hadn’t been able to take care of a baby and had decided on adoption. It was complex information for a four-year-old, and she didn’t ask a lot of questions or express concerns until one day when she voiced the classic, “Was I in your tummy ?”
I had always assumed I would say and do some version of what had been advised by other adoptive mothers. But the moment my daughter said that to me, I realized that telling her I wished that she had grown in my tummy was not only inaccurate but could be interpreted as saying that I wished she was a different child.
The truth for her and for me was that her father and I had quite specifically wanted a daughter from Korea. We had made the deliberate choice not to have another child by birth primarily because I had always wanted to adopt a child from Korea. A child who had “grown in my tummy” not only wouldn’t have been Korean—she wouldn’t have been Jocelyn.
I ended up telling her that she was exactly the child I had wanted and the child she was supposed to be. I also told her that I didn’t know why it had happened that she had been born to her birth parents and then adopted by us but that, for us, it was exactly the right thing to have happened.
And, most importantly, she was who she was, the exact right person, because she had been born to her birth parents, not to us. There was a little further talk about how it was very, very hard for women who lived in Korea (31 years ago) to have a baby when there wasn’t a daddy around to help them, and that maybe her own birth mother had decided that she wanted her baby to have two parents to take care of her.
That sounds like a pretty complicated conversation to have with anyone, let alone a four-year-old, but it was actually quite brief, and off she went on her busy, independent way.
There were no tears or cuddling—just big sighs of relief on my part for having figured out in the nick of time not to inadvertently make her feel like I wished she was some other child.
About six months later, when she was five years old, I read Jocelyn The Mulberry Bird. We had already read lots of books about the process of adoption and had talked a bit about her own adoption, but this was the first time that the idea of birth mothers (in this case mulberry-bird birth mothers) was addressed in any depth.
The book is about a young mother bird who is trying to raise her baby on her own because mulberry birds are the sort of birds where the father doesn’t stick around. Although it is hard, she is doing well until a storm blows her nest to the ground and she has to struggle to keep the baby warm and protected while also having to go off in search of food.
Eventually the baby gets sick and the mother realizes that it will die if she doesn’t get help, so she seeks advice from a wise owl. He tells her about some ground-dwelling birds that live far away (sandpipers, who according to the book raise babies as couples, so that one can look for food while the other stays and protects the baby), and she agrees to put her baby on the owl’s back and let him fly the baby to them.
Jocelyn took in the story without question, no doubt registering the breaks in my voice and lengthy pauses while I collected myself. (I cannot read this book without getting emotional even though there are some flaws in it, such as why not have the owl just fly the baby to a new nest, since single parenthood apparently works for mulberry birds most of the time).
I wasn’t sure that Jocelyn even understood the book as a story about adoption because it doesn’t actually use the words “adoption” or “birth mother.” But when I was tucking her into bed she told me that she thought that maybe now her birth mother “has a daddy and some other children.” She went on to say “wouldn’t it be nice of we could go and see her sometime and see her house and her beautiful garden.” (It’s all recorded in her “baby” book.)
Jocelyn didn’t say anything further that night about adoption but she had clearly understood the essence of the mulberry bird’s story. And she had clearly remembered our earlier conversations. At age five, there was obviously still a great deal she couldn’t understand about the selflessness of a birth mother’s love for her child (even when disguised as a mulberry bird).
But I do think she got the message that birth mothers love their babies, that her birth mother had loved her, that we loved her, and that she was exactly who she was meant to be.”
Anne Moody is an adoptive parent and the co-director of an adoption agency specializing in in-country infant adoption. Her youngest daughter, Jocelyn, came from Korea in 1987 when she was three-and-a-half months old. Anne is the author of The Children Money Can Buy: Stories From the Frontlines of Foster Care and Adoption. Anne Moody wrote a piece for the 2016 Portrait of an Adoption series.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter