So in researching my recent book on magical thinking, I interviewed a psychologist about personal narratives — the way we tell stories out of our lives — and about how they might relate to perceptions of fate. He pointed me toward one of his collaborators, Miriam Klevan, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, who had interviewed 38 adoptive parents. It turns out that most of the parents had told her that their children had been brought to them by destiny.Surprisingly, the article actually acknowledges that this "magical thinking" isn't an unmitigated good thing:
This phenomenon grabbed me. I spoke with adoption professionals, who confirmed that most adoptive parents feel their children are meant to be theirs. And I heard from other like-minded parents. To me, seeing destiny in adoption was such compelling evidence of the strength — and occasional benevolence — of magical thinking. And, not having kids of my own, I was touched by the power of parenthood. Apparently the connection with one’s children can be so strong it feels as if the universe conspired to make it happen.
* * *
Ms. Klevan points out that adoptive parents might also feel more motivated than birth parents to believe in fate. Narratives of destiny provide a sense of legitimacy. Take one woman who told Ms. Klevan, “One little thing happening a different way would have kept us apart, but all these miraculous things happened.”
“She could have said ‘this is just a series of coincidences,’ but that’s such an unacceptable way to feel about your child. For most people, if you start going down that road, then this child isn’t yours … in order to parent effectively, parents must feel entitled to their children,” Ms. Klevan told me. It allows them to be disciplinarians and teach right and wrong. “Fate is a really useful way for adoptive parents to entitle themselves. ‘Of course I’m your mom! I was meant to be your mom! God said I was your mom! This isn’t coincidence! So go clean your room!’”
But of course not everyone is as sold on the idea of destiny — even when adoption goes right. Another mother offered a more nuanced and conflicted perspective, one that resonates with how I think I would feel in her shoes. She wrote:Exactly. The "meant to be" meme is so dismissive of the pain and loss and grief of birth family and adoptees. As I've posted before, it's what allows adoptive parents and others to talk about the baby being "born in the wrong tummy" before getting to the "right" adoptive parents. It envisions the birth mother as a "pass-through body," on the child's journey to the inevitable family. And for the adoptee, it shuts down any dissenting view, any ambivalent feelings, about adoption:I don’t know if I’d say my children were “meant” to be mine — it does seem like a slap in the face to the sacrifices of their birth parents, as well as turning a blind eye to the losses my children may (or may not) feel about being adopted as they grow up.
After all, if it was all "meant to be," doesn't it remove the ability to be sad or angry or confused or ambivalent, to express any less-than-happy emotion? You were meant to be mine, God chose you for our family, there's a special reason you're in our family, your adoption is part of God's plan -- all of these strike me as ways to make adoption inarguably positive -- and when it's inarguably positive, no dissenting views are allowed! A child may internalize that view, and then feel unable to work through the dissonance it causes when they also have feelings of pain and loss. And they may feel they can't talk about that dissonance with their parents, making it even more difficult to work through it.My guess is the comments at the NYT will be overwhelmingly in favor of the "meant to be" meme in adoption. It is a powerful concept for adoptive parents. But it might not be healthy for adopted kids coming to grips with the meaning of adoption in their lives.