ANDY AND Alicia. How odd it feels to have to lie about my children, to have to hide them behind pseudonyms, altered descriptions and simplified truths. They seem all innocence, freckles and laughter-no different from any other 6- and 7-year-olds-as they zip around in their back yard.
Andy and Alicia are my children. Two judges have ruled so, in adoption hearings less than a year apart. Their birth certificates now list my husband and me as their parents. But nothing is certain for “instant families,” those who suddenly gain sons or daughters through adoption or marriage. The strong bond of blood is missing.
Instant families live with the sharp awareness that people and events can return to haunt them. You can be drawn into custody battles and other turmoil months, even years, after a child has become yours -long after you have made the deep commitment of love. Mothers or fathers who abandoned a child or who lost parental rights through abuse, neglect or prison sentences, can be driven by guilt, genes and curiosity to seek out their offspring. They can arrive unexpectedly at your door, demand to see “their” child or insist that he or she be given back.
This is the greatest fear of the instant family: that somehow, somewhere, some way, the child or children who came to you so quickly will just as quickly be snatched away. And it’s not an unjustified fear; it’s why most people interviewed for this story asked for anonymity. It’s why we, too, have assumed pen names. The seeming finality of adoption has been clouded by court cases that have ended in favor of the natural parents, long after they had given up their children. Several birth parents who relinquished their children have recently found ways to circumvent Texas’ supposedly strict adoption laws. They have obtained copies of their children’s new birth certificates and learned the names and addresses of the adoptive parents.
Nationwide, groups are fighting for open adoption records. More than 350 organizations, such as Concerned United Birth-parents Inc., a support group which has a chapter in Piano, are helping adopted children find their original parents or helping birth parents find the children they gave up or lost to social agencies. These groups and organizations charge that adoption’s secrecy allows agencies to “play God” and eternally punish those who brought the adopted children into the world.
Andy’s and Alicia’s birth parents.who had their offspring taken away for identical reasons-neglecting them, starving them, hurting them and sexually abusing them- have made inquiries at the Department of Human Resources. Older, a little wiser perhaps, a bit changed no doubt, these parents wonder how their offspring are faring, wonder where and with whom they are living and what they now look like. Perhaps the parents have fantasies of being reunited. But the children they bore barely remember them, remember only painful hurt at their hands. Seeing their first parents again so early in their lives might confuse and shatter their fragile sense of security, might wreck their delicate trust of adults.
Such worries are always present in an instant family. Parents who adopt learn to be cautious of, even rude to, strangers who ask any questions about their children. They watch their children as constantly as possible. And they stop leaving clear trails, except those they cannot legally avoid. Unlisted telephone numbers, post office boxes, frequent changes of address, pen names. Parents who adopt-like my husband and me-are not fugitives, spies or dealers in South American drugs. We simply want to remain parents and raise our children. We don’t want sudden meetings with guilt-ridden birth mothers or birth fathers. We don’t want difficulties from ex-spouses who declared they never wanted to see their children again and now, suddenly, have changed their minds about custody arrangements. We don’t want to fear that our children will be kidnapped by obsessed ex-relatives.
Adoption in Texas can be a complicated process involving the Department of Human Resources or licensed private social agencies, plus repeated interviews by adoption caseworkers and inspections of your household. Adoption can require great emotional and financial commitments even before a couple is given a child. Adoption also can be a shadowy event involving lawyers, hospital parking lots, “baby importers,” large sums of cash and the lifelong fear that the new son or daugher may have been stolen from his parents in a foreign country. Officials in Columbia have broken multimillion-dollar rings in which hundreds of children of poor families in three nations were kidnapped or bought from their parents, then sold in Europe and the United States with forged birth certificates and adoption papers. But adoption in Texas can be a disturbingly simple affair, too: Parents merely can come to the adoptive parents’ door, push a child into their arms and sign a legal document relinquishing all rights.
In any case, adoptive parents must wait at least six months before they can go to court and legalize the arrangement. This waiting period gives the adoption time to take or break apart. Books on how to adopt never deal with adoptions that fail or, in the argot of social workers, “disrupt” before or after the court hearing. Statistics on failed adoptions seldom have been kept, especially over terms long enough and scales big enough to be meaningful. And the reasons adoptions disrupt barely have been researched. Almost all adoption studies focus on the needs and feelings of the child. The adoptive couple simply is assumed to have most of the skills, resources and knowledge needed to instantly become parents.
Yet, according to one study on adoption disruptions prepared in 1981 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, parents who adopt older or handicapped children face tougher adjustment problems than those who adopt infants or toddlers. These parents are more likely to end the process and give up the children.
In their eagerness to adopt and become an instant family, some would-be parents withhold critical information for assessments of their abilities and parenting skills by social workers. Adoption caseworkers sometimes misjudge “the capacity or readiness of family or child to make an adoptive attachment.” Occasionally, the mysterious chemistry between adoptive children and new parents simply fails to jell into a workable bond, the study says.
Whatever the reasons, many instant families don’t last. They don’t survive the emotional, physical and financial stresses that accompany the sudden arrival of a child or sibling group. Some parents adopt two, three or more children at once. The resulting effect of instant families on finances and lifestyle patterns can be devastating for adopting couples who have well-established patterns of work, play and spending money.
The desire for children and the reality of having them simply are two different worlds. And in the instant family, a couple may have to make the move from one to the other on a single afternoon or overnight, with no guidebooks or other aids to help you.
Many marriages don’t have the resiliency to absorb the shock of becoming an instant family. “Your whole life suddenly changes to chauffeuring children to activities, therapy and school,” says Toni Peters, president of the Dallas chapter of the Council on Adoptable Children. “Everything quickly becomes geared to the children. You experience a lot of new tensions in your house. And you begin to change friends because you no longer have much in common with people who don’t have children,” Peters says.
For instant families, the high cost of rearing children also hits home with disturbing speed. The traditional patterns of giving birth to children and gradually accumulating furnishings are a forbidden luxury for instant families. Often new parents must buy furniture, closets full of clothes and years’ worth of toys within days of adopting. The adopted children or new marital unions usually arrive with a few possessions from their previous households. But these items quickly seem secondhand in their new homes, and often trigger bad memories. Instant fathers and mothers don’t want their new children saddled with hand-me-down belongings. With enough cash, new parents can create an instant new world for them with new clothes and toys. Throwing out most of the trappings of their pasts is the first step in trying to give them new security.
The sudden loss of individual privacy is a major hazard in becoming an instant family, some new parents say. But equally tough, others add, is the speed with which a couple must develop “parenting” skills. One day, a couple has only one another to worry about; the next day, they are the parents of a child or group of children. Somehow, in a very short period of time, the new parents must get to know them, learn to love them, teach them the ways and rules of their household and begin doling out effective disciplines and punishments. At their previous homes, the children may have acquired strange fears, twisted notions of pleasure and pain, odd or repulsive habits, bad grammar and a host of other worries that must be dealt with.
Our child, Andy, had lived in several fundamentalist foster homes, and came to us obsessed with death and salvation. “Will I have toys to play with when I die and go to heaven?” he asked as he played with one of the first new plastic cars. “Does Jesus like to watch the Dukes of Hazzard?” Now, more than a year later, he seems to realize that heaven is not hidden in one particular cloud. But when he plays in the dirt, he never digs holes that go down more than an inch or two. “If I dig too deep,” he says, “the devil will reach up and grab me and pull me down all the way to the ocean.”
In the adoption game, infants are the coveted prize. They have no memories of where they came from or when or how they were adopted. Andy and Alicia are older children, too old and set in their insecurities to be wanted or taken by most couples. Our children remember their original parents, the pain they suffered with them, the foster homes they lived in and the first families that adopted them, then “disrupted.”
Individually, Andy and Alicia arrived at our house frightened, vulnerable and plagued by self-doubts. In their minds, they had had several sets of parents, and so far, all had thrown them away like trash. How long would it be, each wondered, before it happened to them again?
Andy came first, a tiny waif in an adoption worker’s station wagon. For my husband, B.W., the exhilaration and novelty of suddenly being a father almost immediately gave way to feelings well beyond his realm of experience.
The problem was not the quick arrival of Andy or the fact that B.W.’s telescope, ham radio station and other hobby items all had to be moved overnight into the garage to make way for toys and child-sized furniture. Waiting to adopt, B.W. and I made many mental arrangements. We played a multitude of what-if games with belongings, finances and lifestyle. Long before we knew that we had been chosen to adopt a child, we got our house in perfect order-partly to satisfy the stringent regulations of the Department of Human Resources and partly to prepare ourselves for the unknown.
Within days of Andy’s arrival, B.W. was overwhelmed by unexpected-unwanted-feelings of resentment. He had felt that many of his personal freedoms suddenly were being drained away by Andy’s intense emotional needs. He had waited until his mid-30s to marry and now began to feel that, day and night, all his free time was being spent giving attention and reassurance to a small, frightened child.
My feelings, in the meantime, were exactly the opposite. I felt instantly fulfilled. A lifetime of wanting and longing to be a mother had reached a satisfying and seemingly swift conclusion. Right away, I knew I wanted a second child. A sister for Andy. Although I had been eager to accept a boy or a girl, secretly I had hoped that my first child would be a girl.
Eight months after we got Andy, our instant family suddenly grew again. For weeks, Andy had been asking us repeatedly to “buy” him a sister. After all, hadn’t we showered him with purchased presents? We told him that adopting children was something very special and very expensive and that we might have to wait at least another year before we could afford a sister. The real reason, one that he was too young to comprehend, was that he needed more time to get over the shock of his repeated moves. He needed to develop a sense of belonging and trust. He needed to feel special and loved.
Suddenly, Andy got his wish. A couple with a troubled adoption, who knew we might someday seek a daughter, decided that they no longer could cope with Alicia’s insecurities and her behavior problems around their other children. After several awkward visits and finally groping for the right words, they asked us one afternoon if we would take her. She got along well with Andy, she even looked like him, they pointed out. “They’ve got the same freckles and brown hair. They’re a lot like twins.”
When adoption is the only way you can have children, and when you want them badly enough, you find it difficult to say no to any child, to any adoption arrangement that is legal. When the child seems right, much like the one you imagined you would have next, all cautions are forgotten.
The timing of Alicia’s arrival, however, could not have been worse. Physically and emotionally, I had not yet recovered from the bitter trauma of my third miscarriage and other gynecological problems. And feeling the tensions of turning 40, B.W. had just reached what he felt was an impassible roadblock in his career. Taking one of the biggest chances of his life, he had just quit a secure but boring job to start his own business. Only days before, with no inkling of what was about to happen to his instant family, he had given up corporate benefits, paid health plans and the predictability of a steady paycheck. He had put all of our rneager savings on the line.
Now, unexpectedly, he had four mouths to feed, four people to clothe, shelter and insure with whatever he could earn from his wits and skills. The second “instant” child seemed to shift every expense, every pressure, into higher gear. A friendly, sympathetic lawyer offered a bargain price-$700-to handle the delicate legal work of a private adoption. But once again, a roomful of new furniture, toys and clothes had to be bought virtually overnight. And very soon, both children began school. Every day seemed to bring new bills: school supplies, school pictures, school accident insurance policies, school T-shirts, immunizations and physical examinations for school.
He began to sleep restlessly and have dreams in which he shoveled wads of money out the door of our house and watched them melt like snow.
But in getting our second instant child, B.W. felt no resentments over lost freedoms. In eight months, he had adjusted to the constrictions of fatherhood. Now he knew to wait until night, after the children were asleep, or very early in the morning, before the dawn’s early cartoons, to seek his moments of solitude. In learning to love Andy, he also had rediscovered some of the pleasures of his own youth. He became interested again in hobbies and crafts that he had enjoyed as a child. He had begun to share them with Andy and show him how to build and fly model airplanes, how to throw and catch baseballs and footballs. He felt less adept at winning the heart of an instant daughter; he had grown up without a sister, in neighborhoods dominated by the activities and games of boys. Yet adding Alicia now seemed almost natural after the early panic of learning to be an immediate father, a one-minute co-manager of a family.
B.W. welcomed Alicia as best he could, added extra hours to his new work schedule and took on a part-time job to help stave off financial collapse. With his survival instincts triggered, a family to support and a business to run that demanded all his wits and experience, he felt fulfilled.
For me, the arrival of Alicia ended, at least for now, the stress of trying to bear my own children. After five years of miscarriages and gynecological surgeries, I was emotionally drained and repulsed at the thought of going to more fertility specialists. I was tired of temperature charts, $50 drugs and sex scheduled according to compulsory days on a calendar.
But the sudden presence of Alicia made me feel like I was losing my identity. Now I felt consumed by my children’s needs, by B.W.’s needs and by the demands of the household. With two children, the washing machine, dryer and dishwasher always seemed to be running, always seemed to need emptying or filling. Between meals, dishes piled up in the sink. Finding any time for myself seemed impossible.
Time and the willingness to cope finally have come to the rescue. Our twice-instant family at last has settled into its patterns. Our children, the troubled offspring and hand-me-downs of others, now speak and act with our mannerisms. They reflect our values, call us “Mama” and “Daddy” and in small ways have begun to resemble us physically. We have become simply husband, wife and children. A family. One of several on the block.
As Andy and Alicia grow older, they will wonder about and try to remember their roots. They likely will develop elaborate fantasies, even though they already know the truth. Finally, they will want to search for, and possibly meet, those who gave them life. Almost all who are adopted eventually make the search and almost all adopted parents feel threatened by it when it finally happens.
What if they find and choose to live with one of their birth parents? What if, feeling again the bond of blood, they wish they had never been adopted? Will they ever come back to see us?
When the time comes, we will tell them who they were at birth, help them remember the names of their first parents and give them color photographs of people who once also were their kin: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The facts that go with those photographs may be too difficult for them to bear, may stop their search before it begins. All we can do between now and then is give them the best of our lives and be glad we wished for children and got two of them instantly.