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By KJ DELL'ANTONIA
April 4, 2012 / The New York Times
In 2010, Joyce Maynard wrote an article for More magazine announcing her adoption of two girls from Ethiopia. I read it (it’s no longer available online), and although Ms. Maynard and I had never met, I wrote her, congratulating her — and adding, as a parent a little over a year into the adoption of a child (as opposed to a baby) myself, some words of caution. Ms. Maynard had declared herself “happy, happy, happy.” I wrote knowing that even when “happy” didn’t feel like the applicable adjective for our changed family, happiness still appeared in unexpected ways.
Adopting a child — a small, confused person with an identity and a sense of herself as a part of a family or a community that isn’t yours — isn’t simple. No matter how good the intentions are on all sides to become a family, it doesn’t always work — and “doesn’t always” is more often than you think.
Some experts estimate that as many as one in five adoptions of children over the age of 6 end in disruption, for complex reasons. A newly adopted child is apart from everything she’s ever known. She’s without any firm touchstone from her past, and her future is nothing but a promise — a promise of “forever” and “family” from someone who’s taken her from a life she never truly realized was anything but forever itself.
This is a truly difficult dynamic to surf. And the adult in the bargain is usually on completely unfamiliar ground as well, with the obvious difference being that adults sign up for the ride — and are far more responsible for an outcome they might never have realized was so uncertain. I know that I couldn’t really apprehend what had been taken from our daughter until she became our daughter. As convinced as I was that I understood what we were both getting into, I really had no understanding of how hard it would be for us to come from our different places and fall in love. There were moments when I thought it would never happen.
For Ms. Maynard, and for those two young girls from Ethiopia, it didn’t. In May of last year, she took the girls to live with another family, and she has been uncharacteristically silent about it ever since. Today, on her Web site, she wrote about what will look to some like a public failure for the first time.
I will not speak here of all that transpired between that happy, hopeful day I first brought the girls home to where I sit now, writing this. I will simply say here that though there was no shortage of love or care — and despite some very happy and good times — the adoption failed.
From the day she wrote her first memoir (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” published in the Times Magazine in 1972), Ms. Maynard has been the subject of both adoration and criticism. When she announced her intention to adopt, there was no shortage of the latter: my then-colleague (and friend) Hanna Rosin, writing for Slate, proposed that Ms. Maynard “had run out of material.”
She is sure to be the subject of even more criticism now. But I suspect very little of it will come from those who have a bone-deep understanding of the complexities of adoption, or how difficult it can be to blend a family from the mixture of emotions and motivations and intentions and actions that we all bring to our little tables. When adoption is successful, it is at best a phoenix: it rises from the ashes of a tragedy. It is never the life we hope for when a baby is born. When it works, it’s wonderful.
But sometimes it’s clear that these people, under these circumstances, cannot give their best to one another. And particularly when the adoptive parent is a public figure like Ms. Maynard, it’s easier to blame than to try to understand how a commitment to be a “forever family” to two girls can become a commitment to, as she writes, “make sure they had a good life in America.” She continues: “I still took my promise as a firm commitment. But part of honoring it meant finding them two parents — a family with other children, and a big, wide net of a support system that I could not give them, myself.”
I have no insight into why Ms. Maynard and the girls she hoped would become her daughters could not stay together, but I have seen another adoption fail, and I have watched a family and a child separate and become stronger and better and happier apart. It may have been the best outcome for all involved, but it was not easy on anyone. I am sure it was among the most difficult things those parents have ever done, and it was a decision that will stay with them, and with their family, forever. It obviously isn’t the “forever” anyone had in mind.
I am having trouble coming to some pat conclusion about this end to an adoption conducted, at least initially, in the public eye — probably because there is no easy conclusion to draw, and maybe no conclusion at all. What I’m left with is a reminder that Tolstoy sacrificed truth in favor of a balanced sentence — happy families and unhappy families alike are all happy, or not, in their own different and complex ways, and very few of us are in a position to pass judgement on one another. I hope that two young girls, and one formerly adoptive parent, find happiness in their own unexpected ways.