By R. Dubucs
All children are a mystery to their parents to some extent. For a child born to the parents, the explanation for a particular mystery often becomes clear upon reflection. To make sense of his unusual personality, behavior, or fears, the parent may only have to recall a relative’s personality quirks or an earlier experience that frightened the child. In contrast, in the case of adopted children, the adoptive parents may not know the child’s birth relatives or the scary experience. Thus, adoptive parents face more mysteries than birth parents about a child’s past and about the extent to which heredity is influencing behavior in the present.
Even children adopted as infants present mysteries. One example is Robin, a product of institutional and foster care in Latin America. (The names of all children identified in this article were changed, to protect their privacy.) He survived six moves and six changes in his primary caretaker prior to being adopted at age eight months.
Initially, Robin’s adoptive parents were mystified by his sleeping and eating patterns. From a time predating the adoption, he could not go to sleep without head banging. At bedtime, it looked as if he was knocking himself into a stupor against his pillow. Furthermore, when his parents first met him months before the adoption, he resisted being fed in any position but horizontal. It quickly became clear that Robin was accustomed to eating lying down.
Robin’s parents turned to their pediatrician and other sources for an explanation. They learned that some children who have been neglected get into the head-banging routine or a comparable rocking pattern as a way to make themselves sleep. Many babies in institutions are left alone and unstimulated in a crib for much of the day. In some of the institutions, infants are fed lying down with the bottle “propped” in place (so even at mealtime they are not being held).
Robin is now two-and-a-half-years old. Given his history of multiple primary caretakers, psychologists might have predicted an inability to bond, among other attachment disorders. In fact, the boy is very attached to his mother. In the winter, you may find him walking behind her holding on to her coat. In the summer, you may find him following on tiptoe, hanging from her bathing suit. Robin, once asked by a play-school teacher to name something that made him happy, smiled and said, “Mommy.”
With regard to sleep-related patterns, Robin still bangs his head to get to sleep. However, the duration and force of the head banging have diminished. He has also developed another sleep-related habit. Just before lights-off time, he loads up his bed with books and toys. Some nights Robin’s bed is so crowded that the mesh side rails are bulging, and his mother has to clear a little space for him to fit.
Robin’s parents have their own explanation, based on diverse facts, for some of his behavior. In their opinion, Robin, like many other babies drawn from an institutional or foster-care setting, had been left for long periods alone and neglected in his crib. However, questions remain. What is the explanation for Robin’s need for physical contact with his mother and for the bulging bed rails? As for the hanging on, is this simply an affectionate child? Or is this a child who, having finally found a mother, is reluctant to let go of her? As for the bulging bed rails, is this a child with an amusing eccentricity? Or is this a child with a half-buried memory of being penned up in a crib with nothing to do, day after lonely day? Robin’s parents will never know.
Another boy, Jack, exhibits a combination of toughness and sensitivity found in many adopted children. He experienced hard times before being adopted as a toddler from a foreign orphanage with a mortality rate allegedly over 50%. To the surprise of his new parents, he virtually never cried when hurt but was always the first person to console someone crying. It was Jack who tried to comfort a stranger with Down’s syndrome who was hysterical. It was Jack who rushed forward to hug the knees of a wino drinking on a park bench. And it was Jack who was the only child in his play-school class willing to play with a handicapped classmate. According to the boy’s teacher, there is more love in Jack’s little finger than in the whole body of his classmates.
Besides being highly compassionate (and popular), Jack is a good judge of character. He loves almost everyone. Yet, in the year after he joined his new parents, there were three people he rejected on sight. The first person, encountered by chance on the street, was an employee of Jack’s orphanage. The second was a sadist whose child-rearing methods included inducing her son to burn himself on a hot stove and with matches. The third was a lady known throughout the neighborhood for her good deeds. This woman, who was surprised at Jack’s rejection (because most children like her), later was found to be responsible for some despicable acts.
Was Jack born with a high threshold for pain, or did he learn at an early age that crying got him nothing? Was he always inherently loving and a good judge of character, or did he learn through suffering to be compassionate and to recognize cruel people on sight? Or is the answer to these questions both genetics and environment? It is impossible to know for sure.
In any event, many children adopted from institutions expect little sympathy yet are sympathetic to others. They know what it feels like to be ignored and unwanted. In contrast, too many biological children who were the center of their loving parents’ attention end up self-centered rather than loving. In the case of Jack, the source of his toughness on himself and his compassion for others will remain a mystery forever.
Sometimes mysteries can be solved through persistence, as illustrated by the story of Sam. The boy was adopted from Korea at age five. His birth mother had both loved and neglected him, sometimes leaving him home alone and scared for hours.
Sam presented a mystery to his adoptive parents from the start. Even after his arrival in the United States, he insisted on wearing clothing so tight that it left welts on his slender body. Given clothes of the proper size, he would fasten his belt and twist his undergarments so hard that he must have been in pain.
Sam’s new mother was determined to find out why her beloved son was hurting himself. It took more than a year and considerable persistence, but she eventually found a professional who could unravel the mystery. It turns out that the too-tight clothing was an attempt by a child desperately in need of hugs to hug himself.
It is fortunate that little Sam ended up where he did. If there is anyone who can make up for his hug deprivation, it is his wonderful, warm-hearted mother.
Despite the stories of Robin, Jack, and Sam, most people adopting little children are unlikely to encounter mysteries stemming from shocking or traumatic events. Many of the mysteries posed by adoptees are funny, charming, or sweet.
Nonetheless, people should not adopt if they are unwilling to accept mystery in their child. While some mysteries can be solved by meeting with a birth parent, an interim caretaker, or a professional, other mysteries cannot. People troubled by the thought of an insolvable mystery should remember that, even with biological offspring, not all unusual behavior can be attributed to a specific past event or a particular relative. Children are full of surprises.
In fact, adoptive parents have an advantage over biological parents with regard to these surprises. As newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman pointed out, adoptive parents are more willing to accept a child for the unique individual he is, because they know he is not their clone. Instead of assuming that he is just like them in predilections, athletic abilities, artistic talents, skills, intelligence, and temperament, adoptive parents set out to know the child as himself–and in the process let him be himself. Thus, according to Ms. Goodman, adoptive parents start out in the parenting business one step ahead of everyone else.
Furthermore, as time goes by, an adopted child may present fewer mysteries to his parents, because of their shared past. Moreover, people who consider it desirable and fun to remain a bit mysterious to their spouse may come to appreciate a touch of mystery in their child.
So, to our adopted children everywhere, I propose a toast. To the mystery and wonder of you!
R. Dubucs is an attorney, an author on adoption and other subjects, and an adoptive mother. My work has appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters (e.g., WE Magazine for Women, Washington Post, A Day in the Life of Public Service Lawyers, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Women Magazine, WNC Woman, Hudson Herald, Free Lance-Star, Ours, Adoption Today, Adoptive Families, International Concerns For Children Newsletter, and Living).