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Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D.
Abbie Goldberg Ph.D.

Stigmas About Adoption Remain, and Hurt Families

Myths about adoption, and how to confront them.

Although I have not seen the movie, The Avengers, I am aware that it has recently gotten some heat from the adoption community, based on this dialogue, regarding Loki.

Thor: He is of Asgard and he is my brother!
Black Widow: He killed 80 people in 2 days.
Thor [deadpan]: He’s adopted.

Jessica Crowell, author of the New York Times blog Motherlode, observed that this interchange was rewarded with “the biggest laugh line in the movie theater yet.” She writes, “As an adoptee and comic book fan, I sat in the dark theater stunned. I thought of the 12- and 13-year-olds whom I had just seen file into the theater with their parents. Were any of them adopted children as well? Were any of the adults, like me, a member of an adoptive family? Was everyone laughing, or did it just sound like everyone?”

The dialogue in The Avengers” serves as a reminder of the ways in which adoption stereotypes and stigmas continue to be fairly pervasive in society—so pervasive that they frequently go unrecognized. Beyond the stereotype that children who are adopted are damaged in some way, there are many other dominant stereotypes and myths about adoption, such as these:

MYTH: Birthparents can show up at any time to reclaim their child.

REALITY: Once an adoption is finalized, the adoptive family is recognized as the child’s family by law. Despite the publicity surrounding a few high-profile cases, post-adoption revocations are very rare.

MYTH: Open adoption causes problems for children.

REALITY: Adopted individuals are not confused by contact with their birthparents. They benefit from the increased understanding that their birth parents gave them life but their “forever families” take care of and nurture them.

MYTH: Parents can’t love an adopted child as much as they would a biological child.

REALITY: Love and attachment are not the result of nor guaranteed by biology. The intensity of bonding and depth of emotion are the same, regardless of how the child joined the family.

The general lack of knowledge regarding adoption in contemporary U.S. society is problematic, given that the majority of Americans are personally affected by adoption (e.g., they have an adoptive family member or a close friend who is adopted). When people ask adoptive parents, “Is that your real child?” or “Where’s her real mother?” they are communicating a set of beliefs about what “counts” as a family and what types of relationships and families are more valid than others.

Hearing these kinds of questions over and over, and feeling the responsibility to respond to them in an educative and polite manner, can be emotionally challenging for adoptive parents. They may feel angry and frustrated by the fact that they are being put in a position, yet again, to defend and explain their families. They may wish to sidestep or ignore these kinds of questions—or even to berate the questioner for their ignorance—yet feel pressured to respond to them in an educative, respectful, and nonjudgmental manner.

Should adoptive parents internalize the various adoption stigmas they hear repeated around them (i.e., the notion that adoptive families are not as valid as biological families; the notion that adoption is a “second-rate” route to parenthood; the notion that adopted children are “damaged”), they are at risk for mental health problems. Indeed, a recent study of mine found that adoptive parents (lesbian, gay, and heterosexual) who internalized adoption stigmas were more depressed.

So what can adoptive parents do to preserve their sanity? How can they resist internalizing the societal stigmas that continue to exist, educate others without feeling overwhelmed, and maintain equanimity and calm when faced with what they perceive as ignorant or stigmatizing questions from family, friends, coworkers, and strangers?

First, they can recommend books, websites, and other resources to people who ask questions or make inappropriate or incorrect statements about adoption. This takes the pressure off of adoptive parents to do all of the educating themselves. Adoption is a Family Affair, by Patricia Irwin Johnson, for example, is a book that is appropriate to give to family members and friends who don’t necessarily understand adoption. It clearly explains the adoption process, appropriate adoption language, questions not to ask, and tips about how to support adoptive families. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute has many excellent briefs and other sources of information about various topics related to adoption: open adoption, adoption via the child welfare system, and the adoption process.

In addition to referring others to various resources to learn more about adoption, adoptive parents (as well as individuals who were adopted themselves) can choose to treat intrusive questions or inappropriate statements as “teachable moments” to educate the offender about adoption and their families themselves. Yet individuals who choose to go this route should be mindful about how to protect themselves emotionally. Setting firm boundaries about what types of questions are appropriate may help. If faced with a particularly intrusive question, adoptive parents may choose to say, “That question is actually pretty personal, and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it”; or, if faced with a particularly alarming statement, they may wish to say “That’s actually a common myth. You can find more information about that at [reliable adoption resource/website].” By standing up for all kinds of families, we can hopefully begin to shift the societal conversation about families.

About the Author
Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D.

Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University.

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