Differences in Adoption
Interview with Pat Johnston
Interview By Allison Martin
Pat Johnston is a well regarded publisher and prolific author
and speaker on international and domestic adoption. In this exclusive
interview she discusses various ways of acknowledging differences and
simlilarities in adoptive families. Anyone interested in adoption will
also enjoy her exemplary book, Adopting:
Sound Choices, Strong Families.
What is a "role handicap" and how does this apply to an
The term role handicap comes from the work of Canadian adoptive parent
and sociologist H. David Kirk as part of his "shared fate theory."
Kirk's long term research with hundreds of families throughout North America
led him to believe that all of us come to adoption with a "role handicap".
Birthmothers are mothers, but are not raising their children. Adoptive
moms are mothers, but didn't give birth to the child they are raising.
Adopted children are sons and daughters both to parents they don't know
who are genetically connected to them and to adoptive parents, with whom
they share no genes. Since the rest of the world defines these family
roles genetically, we each experience this difference, which he called
a role handicap because he saw how handicaps played out in non-adoptive
families of children with disabilities had impacted the family and saw
them to cause similar behaviors on the part of the family.
Kirk saw that these adoptive families or families dealing with disabilities
both tended toward two types of behavior: the families either "acknowledged/accepted
the difference" and so dealt with the differences head-on or, for
the most part, talking about them and helping their children find concrete
ways to address them,; they "rejected the difference" that the
disability (or role handicap) brought, which meant that adoption wasn't
talked about unless the child brought it up--and the child soon "learned"
that it wasn't a good thing to bring up.
How might adoptive parents react by rejecting differences?
Adoptive parents often tend to reject adoption's differences in a number
of ways. For example, many still buy into the "love is enough"
myth. Those adopting transracially may claim to be "colorblind,"
which is not helpful to their children. Families may choose to adopt from
a country where they feel certain they could never have contact with birthfamily
members because they want to avoid birthfamily contact. They may avoid
giving their children the tools they need to talk about adoption when
they want to because they prefer that the adoption be thought of as secretive.
One thing was quite clear in Kirk's long term study. Families who looked
like one another (same race adopters of infants) were far more likely
to reject differences than were families who adopted transracially or
who adopted older children. Obviously, those differences were so "in
their faces" that these families were forced to acknowledge them--though
they were often given inadequate tools to help their children deal with
being so "out there."
But this doesn't get transracial families "off the hook" when
it comes to AD or RD behavior. Among the ways the interracial families
can behave in an RD way are to claim "colorblindness"--it just
doesn't matter what race we are. Well, it does matter to kids! Race and
racism are real and tangible issues on the playground. Another RD behavior
is to blythely continue to live in a community where the child is a "token"...
the only AA or Latina or Asian child in school, in scouts, in church.
AD behavior demands that families adopting transracially "color-up"
their lives, making big changes about where they live, school and go to
church; who they hire and who their friends are, so that the parents and
same-race siblings, too, often have the experience of "standing out
in the crowd" an the only person NOT of color in the room.
On the flip side, how might they practice insistence of difference?
Insistence of difference behavior is something that psychologist and
researcher Dr David Brodzinsky brought to add to Kirk's theory. In his
practice he began to see parents who wanted to blame all parenting difficulties
on the fact of adoption or what led to the adoption: Their child by birth
would never have taken drugs, so this must come from the birthfamily,or
his pre-teen behavior problems must be adoption-related not because of
his age/stage or our relationship problems, etc. His behavior is due to
his personality, which is just so different from ours. His acting out
is because he has developed friends of his race and he is acting like
"one of them" rather than "one of us."
What is acceptance of difference?
When a family accepts the differences that adoption brings to it they
can comfortably accept that their children do have two sets of parents
without being threatened;they can answer their children's questions without
fear; they feel no need to be secretive about the fact of the adoption;
they deliberately make opportunities for their children to talk about
their worries or fears or sadness about their losses (perhaps of a genetic
connection, or of racial sameness, or knowledge about a culture or language,
Families in which differences brought by adoption are generally accepted
are families in which everyone acknowledges that there is both gain and
loss, sadness and happiness for everyone who is personally touched by
adoption, both parents (adoptive and birth) and children.
How do we find a healthy balance? What is the goal for our children?
Finding that healthy balance is all about keeping ourselves well informed
over time, dealing directly and healing from our own losses, and developing
a relationship within our family that clearly sends the message that it
is OK to talk about anything--nothing is off limits, nor will it hurt
parents when kids share sadness, because the love here is unconditional.
The goal for our children is that they grow up having fully incorporated
adoption as one more part of who they are--not better than or worse than,
not second rate or second class, not rejected but planned for, etc.--but
just one of the facts of a personal life story that makes them who they
are as successful adults with many people who love them and care about
Copyright 2008 Allison Martin. This interview was also published in
the Chao Ban
Vietnam Adoption Newsletter.