In what they described as “one of the most magical experiences,” a Texas family posted a video on social media of their three daughters seeing their new baby brother for the first time. Captions accompanying the viral announcement included: “Sisters find newly-adopted baby brother under the tree,” “Parents hide new son under the Christmas tree for daughters,” and “Sisters’ adoption surprise!”
The children and family seem thrilled, but as an adult adoptee, adoptive mother, and social worker, I cringed and wished this family had been given better counsel. Not wanting to be hasty or “overly sensitive,” I asked professional peers and child advocates for their opinion. Most agreed that this video sends a variety of disturbing message to those not familiar with the intricacies of adoption. It was also the general consensus that surprising family members with a human being is not advised under any circumstance.
Even if adoption had been discussed in the family prior, it was made clear that the older children in the family were told nothing about this baby, and they had no idea they were about to welcome a child into their lives. The adoptive mother writes, “We met them at the door and told them that we had been out Christmas shopping and got them a gift to share…and it was under the tree!” Without knowing the context of the clip, a viewer might assume the little girls’ moment of delight, laughter, and tears was being expressed for a puppy, vacation, or desired toy. Adults understand the metaphor that children are “gifts,” however young children see the world more literally. The idea that the parents went shopping and came home with a baby reduces the complicated adoption process to a mere credit card transaction, likening the young boy as nothing more than a commodity.
While we are not told where this baby came from—or his price tag—it is likely these parents paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal and other fees for the privilege of adopting an infant. People enthralled by this “enchanting” scene would be better served to learn that there are currently over 120,000 foster children of all ages, abilities, and races available for adoption in America. People who believe it costs a great deal of money to adopt, would be interested to know that adopting children from their state’s dependency system has little to no costs, and many children come with subsidies to help pay for their medical care, education, and other expenses. (http://adoptuskids.org/; http://heartgalleryofamerica.org/Galleries/)
Adoptive parents strive to teach their adopted kids, family, and community that children are not possessions or accessories. These are little people whose needs are immense and whose love is infinite. Mothers and fathers adopt children because they want to be parents— not to be presents for their existing children. Children are not playthings to be ignored or dismissed when they cry, disobey, or getting boring; they are humans requiring years of care and nurturing. When I was still in foster care, a family who was interested in adopting me, stated: “We gave our kids the choice of getting a dog or a new sibling. They chose a sibling.” Fortunately for me, those screening the family realized this was completely inappropriate and explained this to the family.
Adoption already suffers from many skewed preconceptions. To some, adoption is a way “rich” people “steal” babies from “poor” people. Others believe they are rescuing children and should be praised for their sacrifice. Even worse, sometimes parents believe they are taking children on a trial basis and can return them if they are defective or don’t fit into their family. As a child, I knew many who were adopted—and later returned when they proved “unsatisfactory.” Adoption was a terrifying prospect for me because I knew that if I messed up, I could end up like one of those boomerang kids. As an adopted person, I must object when I see a baby depicted as an object. Parents never “own” their children and no child should be brought into a family—by adoption or birth—to fix a relationship, entertain, amuse or belong to someone else. The family is the resource for the child—not the other way around. For those of us seeking homes for waiting children, we want to find “A family for every child” and not a child for every family.
What Will That Little Boy Think?
I cannot help wonder how the adopted boy will perceive his arrival. At some point in their lives, most adoptees struggle with wondering why they were rejected by their birth mothers or families or origin in the first place. He may wonder if he did something wrong, if he wasn’t loved, if this family simply had more money or resources than his birth family. Many adoptees already feel different than birth, or previously adopted children. Because the posted arrival pictures and video clip don’t allow for any nuance or explanations, all he (and the world) will see is that he was presented as “surprise” for the other members of the family, instead of being innately a member himself. The celebration should have been about him, not how others react to him. It would have been more appropriate and equally compelling to have the parents tell the children that the family had been matched with a baby; or, as one family did, surprise their foster children with adoption papers.
Adoption is an All-In Decision
Adoption is not a quick or easy process, whether from an agency handling newborns for a fee, or adoption through the state. I was adopted from a group home at the age of 12 after spending nearly a decade in an abusive foster care system. Phil and Gay Courter, my adoptive parents, had two adult biological sons. Both of my new parents had extensive volunteer experience with children in the foster care system before they decided to adopt an older child. When I first saw the baby-surprise video, I tried to imagine my pre-teen self, sitting under their Christmas tree wrapped in a ribbon. When my new brothers arrived home, I would jump out and say, “Surprise! I’m your new sister.” Instead, my parents had included them fully in the decision to adopt. My brothers rightfully had myriad questions and were interviewed as part of the screening and matching process. Even though they were in favor of adoption, they had legitimate concerns on how their family would be altered and every member of our family had a long, complex adjustment.
Bringing a child of any age into a home changes the family dynamic. This is a very serious decision that should be talked about, shared, debated, and considered by all. Infants are needy, demanding, and require exhausting care and supervision. Even if the prospect of adoption had been on the table for a while, it was clinically irresponsible to keep the sisters in that video out of the loop and deny them the chance to learn about this baby, ask questions, adjust, process, and consider what it would mean to have this new human being change their lives and routines forever. Every family has a stressful adjustment period surrounding any birth or adoption. If these parents had been expecting a biological child, there would have been many months of preparation. Instead, this family kept the match a secret and a baby appeared out of nowhere to fulfill someone else’s “wish.” Eventually the sisters may come to resent being excluded, or feel blindsided when the full realities of the situation set in.
My husband and I were foster parents for many years and cared for more than 20 children. When I was pregnant with our second biological son, we had already adopted one of our foster children. During my pregnancy, I spent a considerable amount of time preparing our two young boys for their new brother. We read books, bought them dolls, talked about the process, and constantly sought their feedback. The same should be done during an adoption process.
Those new to the process should know that pre-adoptive parents go through an extensive screening and matching process before being approved. Classes must be taken, fingerprints scanned, background checks and home inspections completed, and many hoops must be jumped through before a family is approved. Age-appropriate planning with their daughters would have helped the sisters understand the parents’ concerns and excitement—and the serious responsibility of growing a family. Fellow adoptees, caseworkers, and child advocates see far beyond the raw emotion on display and worry about adoption surprises becoming trendy or viral as we saw with the ice bucket challenge. We work with young people and families who struggle with the complex psychological issues that impact all sides of the adoption continuum. In no way do I want to take away from the joy this family is experiencing. I wish them so much love and happiness. However, as a social worker, I feel ethically obligated to stress that there are much bigger issues and implications at play than the average viewer understands.
Perhaps this video will inspire others to consider adoption. At minimum, it generated much-needed discussion around this issue. It is my hope that all children get to grow up surrounded by love, support, and the security of a loving family. I encourage prospective families to consider the many approaches to building a family through birth or adoption. Only you will know what makes the most sense for your family, but always think about the child, their feelings, their quality of life, and their outcome above all.