The blame game

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.)

Back to Merrell’s article:  She asks, “why do we demand there be a bad guy in this sad story? Why don’t we see ‘adoption failure’ as an unfortunate—but inevitable—part of the adoption system itself?”

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.

0 thoughts on “The blame game

  1. 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”. I’m honestly surprised the failure rate is just 15%.

    Sadly, many of these children have serious emotional and psychological problems due to neglect and abuse by their birth families, or by caretakers in the institutional care systems, or both. It’s a miracle that so many manage to achieve a successful adulthood. Without more details about this specific case, I have nothing but sympathy for both the child and the adoptive parent.

    The saddest thing is how little support is offered to people who decide to adopt older children. Once the child’s status switches from foster child to adopted, the government support systems often dry up and the new parents are left on their own to raise an often deeply-troubled, and potentially dangerous, child.


  2. Even more so 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.

    That’s a great statement summarizing almost everything in the post. We live in a black and white society. Ten percentage doesn’t exist, it’s either 0 or a hundred.

    All we can do as parents is try to improve on our parents while, hopefully, be able to respect their efforts. We do make our own mistakes, hopefully, manageable ones.

    The society will not change soon (look at our current politics). We have to parent with as much shades of grey and colors and hope.


  3. another problem here is the inability to understand or appreciate literature. Apparently these people think everything is either a memoir or a didactic parable. Sigh.

    But yes to everything you’ve said about the cult of motherhood


  4. madaha–you’re right. Apparently, some people find it difficult to move beyond the “I loved that character!” or “I hated that character!” school of lit crit. I maintain that Nabokov was probably the greatest 20th C writer because of his ability to make a pedophile a fascinating and compelling character.


  5. People romanticize a lot of things. Adoptions are supposed to end with a rosy glow with the child automatically adoring their family.

    Children are romanticized anyhow or at least used as an object for their care-givers wish-fulfillment. The adults might happily spend their down time lying around drinking alcohol, eating Fritos, and watching reality shows, but children will read classics and embrace wholesome food if only given the chance. A kid who doesn’t love you back or doesn’t give a crap about what they ‘should’ care about is unimaginable.

    Also, people LOVE martyrs, particularly females, and even more particularly females who martyr themselves for family. If a woman is running her mental and emotional health into the ground due to caregiving 24/7, she’s just awesome. Should she decide she doesn’t want to be a martyr anymore and sets up other arrangements, then she’s evil and selfish.


  6. Miranda–great points. I like your description of the martyr/selfish bitch complex, kind of like the madonna/whore complex. There’s no role for real women at either extreme.

    I like the fact that Merrell points out that it’s not just adopted children who get “returned” to the state. Some people’s so-called “natural” children (as the genealogists say) who are unable to fit into or function in a given family situation. I suspect that all of this bile and anger is directed at families of “failed” adoptions, because they serve to redirect our knowledge and anxiety of the fact that sometimes people surrender their own blood to foster care or other state agencies (juvie, for example.)

    (Does anyone else call it “juvie” any more?)


  7. I remember when a couple left their son with cerebal palsy at a hospital. Everyone carried on about how terrible they were…of course, no one had offered to help care for the boy and give the parents a break. It’s draining.

    I’ve done caregiving for relatively short periods of time…say a few months at a stretch, off and on. It was for people I loved and they weren’t violent, but it was grinding exhaustion even with help. Constant 24/7? I can’t imagine.


  8. This is the post I wish I’d written. I’m horrified at the adoptive family putting a 7-year-old on a plane back to Russia. I’m horrified at the impossibility of living with a child who threatens to kill you.

    I know a family who adopted two kids, both beyond infancy. The older boy has severe problems with aggression. He’s the closest thing to conduct disorder that I’ve seen (but note: I’m no shrink). His family isn’t rich but they are pouring all of their energy and finances into therapies, yet nothing seems to undo the damage his original family inflicted on him. Their daughter is sweet and slow, thanks to her bio mother’s alcohol abuse.

    I could not do this.

    I have days as a mother when I think I’m perfectly incompetent. I remember bouncing my firstborn on an exercise ball. He wouldn’t sleep. The ball was our one chance to get him to nod off. You’d think he was asleep and as soon as the bouncing slowed. I recall bouncing so hard it could have harmed us both – and muttering imprecations the whole time.

    I still have plenty of days when I think: “If this were a job, I’d quit!” That’s no reflection on my kids or my love for them. I love them plenty. I treasure them. But the 24/7 is grueling, and all kids are capable of brattiness. I barely handle that well (and sometimes I don’t, and then I snap at them and yell and basically just sink to their level). If I had a child with serious attachment problems, I seriously doubt that I could manage at all.

    I guess this is just a long and rambly way of saying I wish our national (and now, international) conversations about parenting expressed a whole lot more compassion and a lot less judgment.


  9. Thank you for this post. My father and step-mother adopted two older children from Haiti several years ago. It has been incredibly hard- the adoption process took a long time and was very expensive. Now they pour all their energies into helping these children overcome a variety of issues (racial, abuse, abandonment) so that they can do well. The one thing they always remark on is that no one ever wants to adopt the older child, but the adoption process takes so long that most infants turn into older children while in foster care or orphanages. And our jails are filled with products of the foster system. The foster care and adoption system needs to change in order to change our criminal system.

    Having said that my husband works in a school for severely emotionally disturbed boys who were in the foster care system but can’t stay there because they need extra help. There are a few parents that place their children in the system voluntarily. The goal of the school (it’s also a living facility) is to help the children (they are there until 18) function in society. Some of the children were in horrible situations (either biological or foster care) but many also come from loving homes whose parents didn’t have the ability and networks to take care of the children themselves. The kids have a range of issues- some constructed through bad experiences, many others are neurological. Even loving parents could not take care of these kids all the time. The burnout rate for the caregivers at my husband’s facility is about four months (he’s been there five years). Most of the workers have their hearts in the right places, it’s just very hard work (emotionally and physically- the kids are often violent) for very little pay.


  10. I still call it juvy.

    Just by the way: In my town (I didn’t watch the story) the evening news teaser on the Russian boy’s story was “warnings for adoptive parents!”

    And I think I’ve seen a commercial for adoption (very late night) showing something like a teenage girl storming out and slamming the door, and the mother sighing or something—that is, the message I got from it was “it won’t be perfect and easy all the time, but the kid would rather have an adopted parent to be mad at than not have a family.”


  11. This topic hits close to home, but pseudonymity being what it is, I’ll keep my comments vague. Two students who are quite dear to me are trying to care for a very challenging child whom they rescued from a horrible situation. This is emotionally and financially draining, yet they persevere. And for their effort, they have been called selfish because they refuse to give up on their studies (it’s selfish to see education as the best opportunity for their entire family?). Every time somebody compliments me for being an academic mom, I think of these two women and feel humble. You know, most of us, we do the best we can with the resources at hand.

    It does strike me that my peers laud student fatherhood as character-building while they evaluate student motherhood as character-defining.

    The most succinct advice I ever heard about becoming a mother was “don’t do it if you are not prepared to do it on your own.” I think it’s great advice but in a country where access to reproductive health care is dwindling, I wonder how useful it is.


  12. Oh, and on my own parenting, my goal every day is to live up to a colleague’s sage advice: “don’t lay any trips on your kids.”


  13. truffula: that’s a noble goal, but don’t you think that even if most people avoid laying some trips on their kids, they lay others on them of which they were totally unaware? (That is, if they avoid the trips their parents laid on them, they’ll almost inevitably lay their own trips on their kids.)

    Sungold, thanks for your honesty about motherhood! I think that your experiences will sound familiar to most parents. (But the screaming at your kid while bouncing him on a fit ball is not the side of infancy we’re sold now, is it?) Parenting one’s own spawn from infancy is stressful enough–but as the stories here suggest, taking in older children (old enough to remember trauma, anyway) who were reared in abusive or neglectful environments is much, much more difficult in most cases.

    Considering all this, it’s kind of amazing (as Merrell says in the linked article above, and Ellis above notes too) that there isn’t a higher rate of adoption failure (which is 5-15%). That means that 85-95% of adoptive families stay together and work it out–now that’s a heroic story of mother- and father-love (as MsMcD suggests). But, we as a culture focus on making the 5-15% into monstrous mothers to alleviate our own fear and guilt and shame as parents.


  14. When a woman with her child asks for help, the response is quite different than when a man asks for help. My husband and I have both flown alone with our child, and our experiences were radically different. (Although, frankly, Newark airport where I had the worst time is just awful all by itself.) Going through security, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, at each stage of the way my husband had men and women rushing to help him. For me, it was refusals of help (from a flight attendant!) and additional steps in the screening (at Newark they forced me to take apart part of my stroller, bizarre all around). My husband is fully aware of how unfair this is (strangers kept on telling him what a great dad he was!), but it doesn’t make it any less annoying.



  15. I too was horrified at the venom heaped upon this mother (though not at all surprised at it, considering the truth in H.’s post regarding the treatment of mothers/ romanticization of motherhood). The NYT also had a piece on the issue of adoption “failures” this weekend and I thought it was interesting and reasonably well-balanced. It’s a shame that it takes an incident as shocking as this to force people into having an honest conversation about adoption, especially international adoption of older children. Of course, the majority of visible reaction is as we’ve noted about mommy-blame and the “naturalness” of parental love. But people on the adoption circuit tend to be candid among themselves about the realities – ie, that there is often no “insta-love” but that it’s a relationship that has to be built. (And of course the same is true of *biological* parenthood.) And there are honest conversations about these issues happening on infertility forums as people with reproductive difficulties struggle with the question (always launched at them) “Why don’t you just adopt?” The fact of the matter is adoption isn’t for everyone. Parenthood, for god’s sake, isn’t for everyone, and why we think it is I have no idea. And it’s only getting harder as we strip away supports for mothers, or refuse to adjust to the changing reality of parenthood (more working mothers, more single parents, etc). One of the big points of the NYT piece was the ways in which adoptive parents are basically deceived – about the emotional and/or physical health of children – and then completely abandoned once the adopted is complete. We *pretend* in this country that we are family friendly. But in fact it’s a society that is actively hostile to parents, especially to mothers. While there are particular challenges to adoption, it’s important to think of the struggles faced at adoptive parents as related to those faced by many biological parents. They all need support and services. And as MsMcD points out, all society is the loser when these don’t exist, not just parents and children.


  16. I’m a product of a big, multiracial adoptive family – six kids total, every color of the rainbow, as my Dad would say. All but one of the children were older. The last child we adopted was a tough case, the child of a drug-dependent mother from the Bronx, and damaged as a consequence. As a teenager, he routinely threatened to kill my mother. He physically assaulted my sister, got institutionalized, started taking the hard stuff, and really never got out. Currently, he is doing ten years for a grocery cart’s worth of felonies.

    He is my kid brother. I adore him. But his downward turn absolutely crushed my parents. And it contributed to the breaking of the family. It is impossible to know what is in the “best” interests of a child, and to have calm, thoughtful conversations, when you are all worried about theft for drugs, when you are installing locks on the liquor cabinets, when you have to search your brother’s (or son’s) room for weapons, when the police are called regularly, and when parents have to lock themselves into their bedroom at night. Everything you do is triage.

    I should also say that for some adoptive families (those which, like mine, reference the rainbow) parenting is a dramatically, publicly political performance. All parenting is, of course, but adoptive families are uniquely performative. I have no doubt that the melancholy of the last few years of my parent’s marriage (my father died) was linked to the peculiar racial dynamics that accompanied their adoption of my brother, and then his seeming embodiment of every worst stereotype of the 1980s. I have every reason to believe, as well, that my mother’s pronounced rightward turn is rooted in the same “experience.”


  17. Oh, and I should add since Historiann appealed for parents to talk about their experiences that I had no idea how challenging parenthood would be until I became a parent – I had no conception of the loneliness, isolation, challenges, depression, pressure, surveillance. And I have a partner who is a complete co-parent (ie not a man who thinks he’s a great father because he changes some diapers). I take refuge in mommy-blogs that create space for women to talk about the *real* experiences of motherhood, not just sugar-coated “I feel so fulfilled!” fantasies. A recent post asked mothers to talk about when they felt like they hit a “sweet spot” in motherhood – that is, when the shock and sometime profound difficulties of first time parenthood smoothed away somewhat and they felt like they had adjusted to it – most answers spread between 12 months to 2.5 years. The process of becoming a parent is extremely challenging even under the best of circumstances. While some people take to it beautifully with few problems, that’s not the common experience, and we need to be honest about it.


  18. Do you remember that study recently that showed that the hetero, married couples who reported the greatest satisfaction with their relationships were couples who were child-free by choice? Having children of your own and/or adopting them are incredibly stressful. Your stories are really fascinating, and some of them very sad. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, Lance–but your family may discover that institutionalizing one child can bring some peace to the others left at home.

    This is an issue too not just with adopted children, but with “natural” children too, and not just with children with criminal/behavioral records, but children suffering from profound medical and mental disabilities too. In the case of medical issues, families not only are left on their own to manage care, they’re also left on their own (in “the best medical system in the world!”) to pay for it all themselves, too. And many families struggle to pay for one child’s medical care and attend to the basic needs of other children in the family, keep a roof over all their heads, etc.

    In our culture, children are all either Blessings or Curses from God we’re supposed to accept and manage on our own. I keep thinking that deep down, the puritans and other Calvinists are to blame for this original-sin like view of children and families.


  19. The notion of not laying trips on your children helps me think before I act (or speak) when I’m upset. For example, last night while I was typing that comment, a six year old sailed off the sofa taking a curtain and its hardware with him. What I thought was “why are you doing this to me?” but what I said was “okay, time for bed!” You are of course correct, Historiann, I can only control what is within my awareness. To me, that’s the point of the advice.


  20. Heh. That’s quite an image, truffula, of a 6-year old doing an Errol Flynn maneuver in your living room!

    (And then you beat hir within an inch of hir life, right? Like the old woman who lived in the shoe. . . who “whipped them quite soundly and sent them to bed?”)


  21. I have known at least two families who gave up custody of (biological) children because the services the children needed could only be obtained long term if the child were the ward of the state. These were educated, caring parents. But to get what their child needed, that’s what they had to do. It made them crazy.

    I’m not a parent, but I had a summer job as a “mother’s helper” when a teen, and I realized by the end of the summer that parenting was no picnic… I thought the kids were great, but oh, they could drive me nuts. I have nothing but admiration for parents.


  22. @wini: Yeah, a man navigating with a kid will likely either be seen as a saint or a predator. With women it’s so naturalized as to be all but invisible.

    I haven’t followed this case as closely as I probably should but what a nightmare to have a personal trauma turn not only into a public episode but a veritable international incident with diplomatic implications.

    I once house-sat in Britain for an American friend couple who flew back to the US for a trial run at adopting twins, well beyond toddlerhood. It didn’t work out and they came back traumatized enough, but hardly as badly as if the samaritan impulse had created an irrevocable situation.


  23. I must admit that I had a knee jerk negative reaction to sending the child on a flight with a note and avoided further news on the subject because it’s heartbreaking all around.

    We are childfree although we did start with the adoption process. Every step of the way we were warned that adopted children may have problems connecting with us regardless of much support we offer. In the end, our situation changed and we did not end up adopting. In retrospect it was a good thing to happen. Being a mother was never a life desire for me (unlike being an scientist) but I didn’t have the courage of my convictions until I hit 40.

    Looking in from the outside – parenting is hard, good parenting is harder.


  24. All I could think of as I followed the coverage of this episode was when Nebraska passed a “safe haven” law that was not limited to newborns. Parents drove across the continent to abandon unmanageable (not adopted) children, including teenagers, at hospitals in the state. What was the response? Nebraska quickly passed a law limiting “safe haven” to infants. No one addressed the fact that families all over the U.S. were so desperate, and so bereft of assistance, that driving two thousand miles to abandon a child legally seemed a reasonable choice.

    The sense that she was in it alone and could expect no assistance that led the woman in Tennessee to send her son to Russia seems a piece of the very same story.

    Children may be a public good, but in America we treat them as a private lifestyle choice. If you are lucky, and your children (born or adopted) are healthy and sane, you win. If not, you lose bigtime. And your childless relatives and colleagues also lose, because they are the ones who get called on to pick up the slack when there is no social safety net. (We had this discussion here some months ago, didn’t we?)


  25. Therapists, which I call Reeducators, think I have terrible parents, but I remind them that my parents sent someone to a selective college away from home at 17, who graduated at 21 with no police record, no drug/alcohol problems and no children.

    I adopted a teenager in open adoption. I do not talk about that on my blog because people have lives. Neither I nor his actual mother could afford to send him to college and he worked for DirecTV. I would see him on campus in his DirecTV overalls and think, my God, we intellectuals have taken an academically oriented child and raised someone our grandmothers would have excoriated us for knowing: a Working Man.

    I thought then: he is a Working Man and he is still in classes. He is not in jail and he is running websites in his field of interest. We have done poorly, but then again not so poorly.

    He ran away from us before graduation to become a Flight Attendant, because this would enable him to fly internationally and live in New York.

    I argued with him about intellectual issues and he refused to speak to me for at least two years (or more, I cannot remember now).

    Now he is back to take that last class and graduate. He is applying only to the best graduate schools. He is 30 years old.

    He chose me to adopt him because he wanted an academically oriented family. He has not had the privileges I had. You have to take people as they come. It may mean they do not speak to you for two years or more.

    I understand the point of view of the Russian government and also that of that adoptive mother.


  26. Pingback: Helicoptering: what does it matter to faculty? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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