Joyce Maynard Announces Failure of Her Adoptive Family


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.


Failures in Adoptionland

The following is an excerpt from Joyce's blog, dated April 4, 2012:

As many of my friends here know, almost three years ago, at the age of 55--as a single person, with the three children I’d given birth to grown and gone from home--I made the decision to adopt two young girls from Ethiopia, sisters ages 6 and 11, who’d lost their mother to AIDS and were living in an orphanage. This was a decision that many people in my life, and those who heard about it, viewed with a great deal of skepticism. As for me: this was something I’d thought about since I was in my teens. I said at the time that there was no experience in life I’d loved more than raising children. I had love enough for more, and a blind faith that love was sufficient to get us all through the challenges I knew would lie ahead.

I first traveled to Ethiopia in the summer of 2009 to meet the girls I already considered to be my daughters. I knew it would be many months before the paper work would be complete to bring the girls home and I wanted them to have some reassurance in the meantime that I was watching out for them.

I spent five days at the orphanage with the girls. Leaving them as I had to that day was very hard, though as it turned out, not the hardest thing.

Six months later, in January of 2010, I returned to Ethiopia--this time to bring the girls home as my daughters. The adoption was finalized. They were U.S. citizens.

The two children I brought home that day had lived through more hardship and loss than many adults reading this. They were leaving behind every single familiar thing, including a living father unable to care for them and three older brothers. They were healthy, and of strong character, but not physically strong. They spoke almost no English.

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.

I have never in my life tried harder to make something work than I did, to make a good home for the girls. I was not able to give them what they needed.

It was first suggested to me by a therapist, over a year ago, that sometimes, despite the best efforts of everyone, an adoption fails. When this happens, the best thing to do can be to find a really good home where the children you love can move forward.

When I first heard these words from the therapist, I told her never to speak of this again. It was unacceptable. I mention this now because I know there will be people reading what I say here--including some who have viewed themselves as my friends--who will feel the same way I did, and to those who do I want to say I understand. I would have said once that there would be no circumstance, ever, in which I would tell a child I’d adopted, who had already lost her birth mother, that I could not continue to be her parent.

In the end, what I told the girls--a year ago this past January--was this: I made a promise, when I went to Ethiopia to bring them home, that I would make sure they had a good life in America. 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 am reminded of a story about two brothers from Ethiopia, and how ill-prepared the APs were when they faced post-transracial-adoption reality in White Majority America.  The end-result for both boys brought to America was met with tragic loss.  In this particular case, the oldest brother was sent to Tranquility Bay, (a now closed "re-training" camp) because he had uncontrollable behavior problems.  His problem?  He was caught fighting, repeatedly, at school.  Correction.  He was defending his younger brother who was being bullied, repeatedly, in his uber-white school.  The AP's decision to have the older protective brother removed, due to behavior/anger issues, sent a strong message to both adoptees:  as adoptees, you will be labeled, and there's no escaping that label... so you best behave, or you too will be removed and shipped-out.

Imagine, then, being a young child, orphaned through AIDS, and after X amount of  time in an orphanage (that may or may not care for the physical and emotional needs of traumatized children), you receive the good news that a loving family in the land of milk and honey... the land of opportunity... will care for you.. they will help you get an education and help you recover from all the loss and trauma you have endured in your short life.  Imagine, too, after a prolonged period in this new home in a new country, with new tastes, smells and sounds,  you find yourself being moved to yet another "home", because the original forever-family/parent chosen for you was too ill equiped to care for troubled orphans.  This scenario sure makes permanency, with roots, a very transient idea..

The more I read about disrupted adoptions, the more I believe far too often, PAPs eager to "do some good for foreign orphans" are much too unaware of the realities behind the pre and post adoption experience, as it is experienced by and through the children put in foreign orphanages hell-bent on making ICA agreements.

I fear the source of this problem comes from the private adoption agencies, themselves.  

Based on the feedback I receive from confused and frustrated APs, it seems as though too many adoption agencies are not providing the services PAPs need; they are not taking the time to prepare and educate eager PAPs about the effects stress, trauma and adoption itself has on a child living in a foreign region.  Instead, the agencies are offering seminars on scrapbooking, because [I guess] the need for a 'Baby Book' supersedes the need to know and understand the effect loss and trauma has on child development and learning.

I strongly believe this ill-preparedness found in APs, coupled with a lack of appropriate post-adoption services is reflected in the statistic that says 1 out of 5 adoptions end in disruption.  After all, Maynard herself was a seasoned mom at the age of 55 when she adopted two girls found in a foreign country.  How much "instruction" does such a single-woman with three grown children really need?  [Answer:  more than most can begin to imagine, especially if the white parent(s) is unaware of the level of bigotry, racism and "label-making" that exists in both urban and rural regions of America.] 

But difficult adoption issues that require appropriate training and preparation are not limited to anatomy, physiology, and brain development.

Whether most APs of trans-racial adopted children will admit publicly or not, bigotry, racism and "label-making", as it is seen and experienced outside the adoptive home, makes the transition into American Living (assimilation) most difficult, if not impossible... especially if English is not the child's native language.  This type of stress can only serve as a set-back for young children still learning how to adapt to life in a new adoptive home.

These factors need to be considered when making an adoption plan involving a child born in an impoverished region with less than ideal circumstances surrounding him.

Finally, as the author of the above article wrote,  I have no insight into why Ms. Maynard and the girls she adopted could not stay together, but I am almost certain both sides have different perceptions of the "family experience".  These types of details need to be known and explained so members of the adoption community can do what's needed to be done to ensure fewer adopted children will be removed from their "forever home" and "re-homed" either through underground parenting networks or put through the legal adoption process, once again.

What caught my eye in this case was the age and marital status of the adopter taking in two young girls born and raised in Ethiopia.  While divorce (failed marriage) in the USA has become less taboo, we need to question how divorce itself desensitizes us to the problems that result when an adoption fails.  By no means are these two types of broken families the same.  Sure, in a way both situations may start the same:  living conditions become intolerable for at least one party.  But the long-term effects are not the same.  You think divorced singles have difficulty finding love, and the ability to trust again?  Try being the child abandoned by both mother and father... not once, but twice, and then try to love and trust an adult.

Of course, my own experience with divorce is limited. I recall a conversation I had in the sixth grade with a close friend whose parents were getting divorced.  She was told by both parents even though they stopped loving each other, they will never stop loving their children.  I remember thinking:  that stinks, having your dad move out and away... but at least you are still keeping your original parents... they're not giving you away. 

A few months later, after I saw how much happier my friend was living in two different homes, with two new rooms, it crossed my mind how happy both she and her parents seemed to be with the separation.  It took some time to realize it's easy to love someone on a part-time basis; it's easy to be patient and kind when you're both on best behavior and not together every single day.  It was hard to feel sad for a girl who appeared to have the best of everything.  But a year or so later, things began to change.  She became more quiet and more distant.

It didn't take long for my friend to remove herself completely from all her long-term friendships.  We didn't know how to help her with her silent struggles.  We didn't know how to talk about the trauma and instability separation and family member removal brings.  We were in high-school... all we knew how to do was bury uncomfortable feelings, and act like nothing was damaged or wrong inside.

I think too many adults entering adoption forget what commitment to another really means.  As I mentioned, divorcing a spouse, and ending a commitment to a child are two very different things.  Issues like trauma, separation anxiety and the instability that results when a family member is removed or missing need to be talked about BEFORE committing to an adoption plan. 

Bottom line for me:  I can't help but think much of the failures found and experienced by both the single divorced Amother and the girls she adopted had much to do with the adoption agency she, a successful, smart  55 year old writer, chose and used for herself and those traumatized girls.

Pound Pup Legacy