Susan Scarf Merrell offers some interesting insights into the case of the little boy returned to Russia last week when his American mother decided that she couldn’t parent him any longer. Merrell is the author of a book about a troubled adoption:
When I set out to write my 2001 novel, A Member of the Family, I wanted to find an answer to one simple question: What kind of mother could give back a child she had sworn to love? In researching the novel, I met many families struggling to do better than survive, families that wanted to compensate for the early life tragedies that had beset the children they now called their own. Whether the child’s scars were psychological or physical, a question of malnutrition or attachment disorder or serious mental illness, these families were committed, no matter the cost of endurance to their other members.Through these conversations, I did eventually construct a portrait of a fictional family that adopted a child, did their best to raise him, but ultimately sank under the pressure and released him into the foster care system. I let my characters live out their tale. Like any novelist, I had done my homework and built my fictional case.
Because I was publishing a piece of fiction, I was unprepared for what followed. After the book was released, I was shocked to open my local paper to find a letter from a neighbor, an adoptive parent, stating that she would never read a book like mine and hoped nobody else would either. I was accused of a variety of odd things in the months following publication, of constructing a damning portrait of a fellow villager—someone I had never heard of, or met—and of fictionalizing and justifying my own behavior with my own children. (Not that it matters, but my children are biological, and have never had any dealings with the foster care system.) These kinds of reactions to the novel were surprising. I wasn’t writing about rapists and cannibals and child molesters; I was writing about a failure to parent. And it turns out that nothing makes people madder.
Ya think? The false piety in nearly every discussion of parenthood in this country is pretty thick. Even moreso are the gauzy rhetorical mists that surround motherhood and the magical, durable quality of mother love, which as we all know is supposed to heal all wounds, solve every family problem, and make everything okay, forever. We like to believe this is true, so that when a family falls apart or when an adoption goes awry, we can blame the inadequate, insufficient, withholding, hostile, and/or just not-good-enough parents, by which of course we usually mean the mother. (Heaven help this woman if she works outside of the home for money. That’s almost prima facie evidence of neglect and/or insufficient maternal love.) The angry and defensive reactions to Merrell’s novel were unsurprising: people don’t care that much if they can’t see themselves in these disturbing stories, and they have to exorcise the guilt and shame they feel in not living up to the cultural ideals of parenthood (especially motherhood.)
Exactly how often adoptions fail is poorly tracked data. A 2003 study by the Government Accounting Office found that about 5 percent of all planned adoptions from foster care “disrupt”—that is, fail after the child was placed with its new parents, but before the adoption is legally finalized. But even legally complete adoptions dissolve at a rate of up to 10 percent. And for older children adopted after infancy, like the 7-year-old Russian boy who came not from foster care but from institutionalized care in an orphanage, the failure rate shoots up to a disturbing 15 percent or more.
Yet despite the fact that adoption failure happens with relative frequency, it remains one of our great unspoken taboos. Instead of acknowledging the systemic problem, we blame the individuals involved.
But of course, that’s precisely why we aren’t more honest about the failure rate of adoptions: if we admit that placement in families and love aren’t enough to solve all mental and emotional health issues and social problems, then we can’t blame families (and mothers especially) when things don’t work out. All of that syrupy rhetoric covers a lot of hostility and violence in American family life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, since I know that a lot of you have children, and I suspect that a lot of you aren’t in fact the 100% perfect mothers and fathers you’re supposed to be. Others of you don’t have children, but you’ve probably thought about these issues too. Most people I know admit that their kids drive them crazy sometimes. A lot of my friends who had colicky babies have confessed that they can understand all-too-well where “shaken baby syndrome” comes from. (As a pediatrician friend of mine once said, “there we were, well-educated and in our late 30s, and we had to shut the door and leave him crying on the bed because we were afraid we would hurt him out of frustration. So if we with all of our maturity and skills felt this way, how much more difficult must it be for younger people with fewer advantages and resources?”) Most people I know have memories of their own parents suffering in some way from lack of perfection–months of depression and withdrawl by parents, and/or alcohol or drug abuse. No family is perfect.
Disclaimer: this post is not an invitation to offer opinions about the mother who sent her son back to Russia, or to theorize reasons why this might have happened. This is a post about the social work we expect families–and especially mothers–to do, largely unassisted and unsupported, and about the rhetoric of family in this country that serves to disguise the elements of family life we deem shameful.