Chances are, you heard the announcement in April from writer Joyce Maynard, who adopted two Ethiopian sisters in 2010, that she'd disrupted the placement and found the girls a new family after parenting them for 14 months. After raising three (biological) children as a single parent following divorce, Maynard brought home the two girls when they were about 6 and 10 years old; she was in her mid-fifties. She published a story about becoming a mother for the second time in More magazine shortly after the girls arrived, but the piece has since been removed from the magazine's website.
I'll be honest, this story makes me sad, and I've been reluctant to write about it for many reasons. First, the world is amazingly small. Like Maynard, I live in Northern California, and I happen to know several people who know her -- some writers, and some adoptive parents. Because of these connections, I've been privy to a few aspects of her adoption story that aren't available to the general public. Obviously, it doesn't feel right or fair to share that kind of information here, and I can't claim to know the whole story, so I've been quiet. However, Maynard's recent discussion of her adoption during a presentation for National Geographic has just been posted online, making me think it's time to finally dive in.
Here's Maynard's conversation with Don George, the editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine. She starts talking about her adoption in the context of a harrowing trip she took around Ethiopia with the two girls at approximately the 12:00 mark.
Disruption is such a hard issue to talk about. Of course there are times when disruption is absolutely the right decision for all concerned, and that's probably true in this case; Maynard clearly seems to think so, maintaining she couldn't give the girls "what they needed." The stigma and shame of disruption may keep some unhappy adoptive families bound together, potentially leading to even greater tragedy; don't we all wish that the adoptive parents of Hanna Williams had chosen to find her a new home instead of abusing her to death?
Still, I see a danger in normalizing disruption as a viable option; prospective parents must enter into an adoption with thoughtfulness and clarity about their own motivations, and not with the comfort of a potential "escape hatch." There's no way to be fully prepared for the demands of adoptive parenting, but inner clarity and self-knowledge can help a stressed out parent stay committed when times inevitably get hard.
I'm sure Joyce Maynard never expected that her adoption wouldn't work out, and yet, I fear that those hearing her story may come away with the idea that unbuckling an adoption isn't all that difficult. In the tape above, Maynard describes her decision to let the girls go as the most difficult of her life, yet emphasizes it wasn't the worst thing that the girls ever experienced. That may be true, but that doesn't mean that the upheaval from orphanage to home to home wasn't wrenching for them.
Just to be clear, I've got no inside info about this part of the story, but I have talked to adult adoptees who've ben through disruptions, and the process can be deeply hurtful even when it leads to a happier situation. (That's just common sense, right? Change -- even positive change -- is demanding and stressful. Rejection hurts. Why should children who've already been through so much have to endure still more loss and disappointment?)
Maynard is feeling the heat of public opinion on this; many of the comments on the Family Goes Strong blog, for example, have been brutal. Others see her as heroic, offering the girls a "bridge" to a better life. Unfortunately, as in other highly publicized disruption cases, many bystanders are also quick to condemn the children involved, assuming there were "brats" at best, or stricken with Reactive Attachment Disorder at worst.
I've written before about how disturbed I am when adoptees are explicitly or implicitly blamed/demonized when an adoption goes wrong. To Maynard's credit, she's said nothing negative about the girls or their behavior. Unfortunately, though, disruption stories are almost always told from the adoptive parent's point of view. That framing in and of itself priviledges the adult's experience and the adult point of view when the child's story should be at the center. And so while I'm happy to hear that, post-disruption, Joyce Maynard is carrying on with her life "joyfully" and "with gratitude," I can't help but wonder if the two girls she let go are doing just as well.
I certainly hope so.