A thorough guidebook for adoptive parents

Monday Book Review

June 07, 1993|By Jeffrey M. Landaw


IF YOU'VE been involved long enough in the world of adoption, support groups and information exchanges can start to seem like the norm. So an assertion like Jayne Schooler's, that "adoptive parents generally have no role models to steer them through the process," comes as a healthy reminder of how it must seem to parents and aspiring parents who are just starting out.

Mrs. Schooler is an adoption coordinator in Lebanon, Ohio, about halfway between Dayton -- where last summer I saw a billboard put up by the county advertising a picnic where prospective parents could learn about adoption -- and Cincinnati. She's the mother of a biological daughter and a son whom she and her husband adopted at age 16 after he'd been living with them as a foster child.

Drawing on her own experiences, those of other parents and children and respected authors like Lois Melina ("Raising Adopted Children") and David and Anne Brodzinsky ("Being Adopted," "The Mulberry Bird"), she has put together a compact, very useful guide through this wilderness.

Mrs. Schooler lists the different ways of bringing children into the family -- through a public agency, a private agency or independently -- but her main subject is dealing with the children, the parents and the rest of the world once the children have arrived.

Older children, who may remember their birth families and may have been passed from household to household, present the most obvious problems, and take up the most space in the book. They may have lost any chance to deal with the grief of separation, have learned to trust nobody, or have taken on the cunning and preternatural maturity of children living in a war zone. (In Anne Tyler's novel "Saint Maybe," a young brother and sister, their mother and stepfather dead, conceal all records of their long-vanished biological father for years so the stepfather's family can't send them to the birth father's relatives, whom they consider "strangers.")

But even children adopted at birth, like mine, can react to the knowledge that they had parents other than the ones they know in ways that range from cute (one adoption newsletter we get quoted a small child as describing Bethlehem as "where Joseph and Mary went to get baby Jesus") to harrowing. Children with normal instincts go through life looking for weapons to use against their parents, and "You're not my real mother!" is a classic. Trying to rear any children is difficult enough, and this just adds another layer of trouble.

Parents of adopted children can make two major mistakes. They can put too much stress on the difference between an adopted child and a biological one, turning the adoptee into a "bad seed." Or they can deny that there is any difference, concealing from everyone (including the child) the fact that the child is adopted. As Mrs. Schooler notes, this gives up "control of the secret" to others, and is likely to mean worse trouble for the child later.

The examples she gives recall a lesson from "The Scarlet Letter" or almost any of Hardy's novels: Secrets revealed after years of hiding don't just seem worse than they would have been otherwise; they become worse.

Mrs. Schooler lists ways to deal with these issues and questions. She also tells how to gain vital information about the child's genetic background and about how the child was reared before he or she entered the family. And she advises how to deal with separation from either biological or foster parents.

(A once-familiar adoptive parents' tactic, telling children they were lucky because they were "chosen," has fallen out of favor with the experts, and I'd think that parents would get fewer and fewer chances to use it in any case. The expression goes back to the days when prospective parents would actually choose babies from among dozens in an institution. As the stigma attached to birth control, abortion or unmarried parenthood disappeared, and infertility grew, the demand for healthy white infants, traditionally the most desired children, increased while the supply diminished. Would-be parents are less likely to choose than to compete to be chosen -- by the adoption agency or the birth parents.)

All parents could gain by reading Mrs. Schooler's prescription for building healthy families: a sense of belonging, authenticity, dignity, being valued, unconditional love. She doesn't shirk the peculiar hazards of adoption. Her chapters on adolescent psychology and trans-cultural issues should test any aspiring adoptive parent's commitment to going through with it. But she knows, as do most of the parents and children she quotes, that with care, hard work and faith it's all supremely worthwhile.

Jeffrey M. Landaw, the father of two adopted daughters, is a makeup editor for The Sun.

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