The Too-Wanted Adoptee

There is a fabulous conversation going on over at FirstMotherForum on an old thread. It began with Lorraine’s remarks about a book written by an adoptive father, who joined the conversation and shared his viewpoints. In one of the comments maryanne wrote:

We all know the many terrible things that are supposed to happen to the unplanned, “unwanted” child in a family, but has anyone ever looked into the detrimental effects of being the “too wanted” child, the result of years of assisted reproduction or adoption that was difficult and expensive?

I think this might place an awful burden on a child to live up to some unrealistic expectations of the parents that the kid be superior and “worth it”, and cause problems if the child does not fit the mold set for him as the golden prize baby. In international adoption I could see this being a problem if the child did not fit some ethnic stereotype the adoptive parents had about people from “that country” , like that Russians are literary or Asian girls are passive. In any adoption or high tech reproduction, in some ways the kid has to be more than just a kid to justify how hard it was for the parents to become parents.

I left several comments including this one:

maryanne, your observations are astute. I was exactly that to my adoptive parents, a goal and a prize. In their world being childless was tantamount to social suicide. They needed the privileges being parents would bring, such as meeting “the right” families through contacts at school and other parent-related events. I don’t know if anyone has researched the detrimental effects of being the “too-wanted” child, but they should. When adoptive parents go through the expense and ordeal of assisted reproduction, plus the expense and ordeal of adoption itself, there is a strong pressure upon the adoptee to live up to that “investment.” In my case, my adoptive parents seemed to be under the assumption that by adopting me, they could mold my interests and personality–even going so far as to hire psychologists to try to force me into that mold. This backfired to the extent that we are now estranged. I can’t speak to the effects upon international adoptees, but I do know that trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of being the long-awaited and finally-attained “prize” is emotionally overwhelming and impossible to achieve.

I’d like to explore this more, the idea of the “too-wanted” child. Do assisted-reproduction facilities and adoption agencies elicit unrealistic expectations among prospective adopters? How does this affect adoptees in the long term? In my experience, the answers are yes and extensively. There are far too many adoptive parents out there who set unrealistic goals for the children they adopt. Even after we adoptees become adults, we are expected to fulfill set roles that act as strangleholds upon our emotional well-being and identity formation. People raised in their families of origin sometimes suffer that, too, but in the case of adoptees there is this unspoken assumption that we must be 100% perfect because we were so badly wanted and, not to put too fine a point on it, very expensive. (And, if we’re not 100% perfect, we can get shipped back.) When people spend tens of thousands of dollars they expect a return on the investment. But if you’re investing in a human being, you have to be very careful of your motives.

I think prospective adopters would do well to assess thoroughly and extensively the question: Why do you want to adopt? The obvious answer–I want a child–is insufficient. Why? Is it to provide social status? Be a “rescuer” of poor orphans (not all of whom are orphans or poor)? Or is it honestly and truly because you want to open your heart and home to a child? If the latter, are you sure? If your adopted child said she want to meet her birth family–that she wants to have a relationship with them–how would you react? Can you accept the idea that your child will have two sets of parents, both of whom are equally “real”? Will you put aside your own fears, assumptions and expectations to help your child form positive, personal attachments to her family, culture, and language of origin? Will you accept her birth family as an extension of your own, or are they the “them” to your “us”?

Tough questions, and ones that not every adoptive parent wants to face. In which case, I submit they have no business adopting. Because adoption is different–not better, not worse, just different. And failure to accept that difference hurts everyone.

What do you think about the “too-wanted” child?


  1. Triona, you asked if there could be such a thing as the too-wanted adopted child. I’ve been thinking about it for days. Yes, I believe there can be. My question would be, how different is it from the too-wanted in-vitro or bio child? Some issues are shared; others are not.

    There seems to be a trend toward the too-wanted child. You can see this in the way parents pile on expectations through academics, lessons, and hobbies and basically start their kids’ resumes at age 8. The child is in many ways an extension of the parents, a blank canvas on which to paint parental dreams and values. Also, this trend has come about because of the perception that the world, increasingly, is made up of the haves and have-nots. If your kid isn’t going to be a loser, then he has to start life by going to the very best nursery school. I think a lot of this stuff is just the age we live in. Aside from kids in families that follow the Unschool movement (which I support in many ways), few kids are given enough free time to develop their own sense of self and their own way of learning and making their mark on the world.

    It is often reported that adoptive parents do not respect a child’s individuality. But I would venture to say that the tyranny of conformity is an equal issue for the too-wanted bio child. It takes guts to stand back and let your child be who he or she is. It’s easier to rush in.

    I would agree, however, that the stakes are upped for the adoptee. Because there is such a large fee associated with adoption, some parents do believe that their child is “bought and paid for”. Sadly, this may affect their ability to parent lovingly and openly; would not this dynamic also exist after months of painful and expensive fertility treatments? I would be interested to hear more about how you think this issue affects adoptees. You already addressed the issue of the adoptee replacing the dead child. That was another great example. Thank you for asking this question!

  2. osolomama–I think you really hit this on the head. You are absolutely right that we are living in an age where the expectations heaped upon children are huge, no matter how they come into the family. I see this as a parent myself. There is a mentality out there that if your kid doesn’t get into this preschool class or that extracurricular activity, they are destined for absolute failure; no gray areas, no in-betweens. I also see a lot of parents living vicariously through their children, which was my experience growing up and I am sad to see it prevalent among some parents today.

    You also noted the lack of time for kids to be by themselves, which I think is utterly crucial to development. You may have read Richard Louv’s “Last Child In The Woods” which is a phenomenal book. Many parents are under the mistaken impression that the world our kids are living in is far more dangerous than the one we grew up in, and some feel the need to cushion their kids to the point of suffocation. I think we need to let our kids run around more, get dirty, play with sticks, ride their bikes and be on their own without scheduling their every waking moment.

    I agree that the dynamic of “getting what you paid for” wrt children can occur whether the investment involves adoption or infertility treatments, or even things like expensive schooling or tutoring. There is a perception that the kids should offer ROI (return on investment), a big buzzword in today’s business circles. I actually read one article where a parent said exactly that–he expected his kid to get into the Ivy Leagues because he didn’t pay all that money for private school for nothing. I think the children thus affected will suffer many issues including low self-esteem, uncertainty of identity, and the need to “please” everyone around them. It’s not helped by situations like Nebraska’s ill-fated safe-haven law which in effect turned into a returns department in which anyone could drop off any kid of any age for any reason from any state. With those kinds of repercussions how could a kid, whether adopted, in-vitro or biological, not be affected?

    There are a lot of issues at play here, not all of them adoption related. I think a lot of parents would do well to back off and let their kids be kids, with their own individual and unique personalities.

  3. This is a great topic, both posts above are accurate in so many ways.

    The problem arises when the child fails to meet unrealistic expections – not everyone can be a brain surgeon, pro athlete, or opera singer. But parents seem to believe that with the right effort, ANYTHING is possible. I learned a long time ago that some things just don’t work out, no matter how hard your try. That’s just the way life goes.

    The difference with the too-wanted adoptee is the issue of the birth family. If/when they come into the picture the issue becomes so much more complicated. Rivalry, fear, insecurity, all can rear their heads, placing even MORE pressure on the adoptee to be the ultimate people-pleaser.

    How can this be prevented? Is it even possbile?

  4. maybe–I think prospective adopters and adoptive parents really need more education on how to incorporate their adopted child’s origins and birth family into their adoptive families. Even then, I’m sure there will still be people who view adoption as purchasing the “perfect” child who better live up to those expectations or else. And I don’t trust adoption agencies to provide that education, they are equally as biased if not more so (since they make their money off, well, selling kids).

    I’m not sure there are any clear-cut answers. All I know is that the way things are now does not work for too many children, adopted or otherwise.

  5. http://Elizabeth says

    OMG YES! I’ve posed this question myself and felt terribly guilty and awful for it. How dare a kid who’s received every available material and emotional gift question the intentions of her loving adoptive parents? (ungrateful bastard)

    Personally I consider myself a “replacement baby” as was mentioned earlier…I was adopted just a few months after the death of my a-parents’ infant baby boy. I was always told that I was “anointed” and destined for something spectacular. Now I happen to have a happy life, but it’s no where near “spectacular” on a prophetess kind of level :P. I happen to have good genes (man do I wish I knew where those genes came from!) but my parents were less interested in my talents and intelligence than in my behavioral excellence and their desire that I function on a spiritual higher-plane.

    It took me marrying someone they disapproved of for me to finally break free. (I’m still not clear why they disapprove of him…we’ve been together for 5 1/2 years, and it’s better every day!) Sadly, this completely ruptured my relationship with my a-mother. I feel zero feelings of affectionate daughterlyness–but all the appropriate guilt. More and more I can’t get it out of my head that my life was all about HER wishes and desires to have the perfect family. She never felt appreciated enough for all her motherly martyrdom. I guess it never crossed her mind that maybe she “needed” me more than I “needed” her.

  6. Hi Elizabeth–I had the same problem of trying to live up to my adoptive mother’s impossible expectations. No matter what I did it was never good enough. Sometimes adoption is less about helping a child who needs parents and more about helping parents who want a child. Sad but true. I still get her voice in my head scolding me over the choices I make, even though I haven’t spoken with her in years.