This is the second in a series (diatribe?) on how ignorance and thoughtlessness impact adoptive children and families. You can find the first installment here. This post continues my response to some of the comments and questions I receive. Maybe you would NEVER say something like this . . . but would you think it? Would that thought color how you might relate to someone coming from a partially institutionalized childhood? Would you subconsciously treat them differently? I think we all participate in this way of thinking more than we realize.
Sometimes someone says, “She probably does that because she is an orphan.” And I have to yank back my rage really quickly so that I don’t do or say anything crazy.
First of all, regardless of what happened to her first parents, my child is not an orphan. She’s a child with two sets of real parents who traveled a complex journey to the life she now lives. She is not an orphan. She’s a child. Please don’t label her. Think about someone referring to you as an orphan and see how the word feels. It doesn’t feel very good. It comes with a whole lot of baggage. Let’s leave that word behind.
Secondly, I gotta love what an expert you are on children who have experienced the trauma of being separated from their first parents. How did you get so smart? Have close friends who have shared in-depth their own adoption experiences with you? Read a number of books on the subject? Have a degree in child counseling? No? Oh, you just have some stereotypical beliefs about how orphanage life affects children. Got it. Well, just like with stereotypes about race and sexual orientation, orphan and adoption stereotypes are often untrue, and more often harmful. Why don’t we just pretend like you don’t know anything about this situation because, lets be honest, you don’t.
My child is competitive, smart, strong, agile, focused, perseverant, determined, loving, affectionate and a big tease. None of these qualities are a result of her leaving her first family and eventually making her way to ours. All of them have been magnified or minimized in some way because of that experience. It’s her story. Our stories shape us. I’m sure you were shaped too; by your parents divorce or their failure to bother divorcing, by the early or late loss of your virginity, by your inability to birth naturally or your deep fear of public speaking. By the way your father idolized you or your mother rejected you, by the words your teachers spoke. Yes, my daughter’s personality is shaped by her life experiences. But I outright reject the idea that her strength, her affection or her perseverance came about because of it. As hard as it may be for you to accept, my child is just as complex as the rest of us.
But if I take a deep breath and think happy thoughts, I realize why you said what you said. We all say (or think) words like “because she’s an orphan” because it helps us to find meaning behind others behaviors. And finding meaning helps us feel powerful, smart and competent. Of course we all want those feelings! Labeling people is easy. It makes us feel better. It gives meaning to things we don’t really understand. Choosing not to label someone is harder. But it’s oh-so-much-smarter. When we step back from assumptions and labels and treat each person as unique, we accept their complexities, no matter how much or how little we know about their past, and then we move forward towards that individual. Labeling works for us because it helps us to feel safer, but it doesn’t really work because it creates distance. Labeling can offer us clues to behaviors or personality but it can also rabbit-trail us right away from the deepest truths about the people around us.
I do it too. I internally label people as divorced, single-mom, home-schooler. But it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s a subconscious habit I’m trying to break. I hope you’ll try to. Because each of us is just as perfectly imperfect as the rest – and no label can possibly put a name on that.
*More in a future post on why I believe the term orphan, from the Greek orphanos meaning “bereaved” is never a suitable title for vulnerable children living without their first families.