I was sitting with an old friend at a party in her backyard, our children playing on the climbing structure, as the sun went down, and, as we often did, we talked about parenthood. We're pretty much on the same page in most areas, but that night she said a sentence that struck me mute: "Even you know that an adopted child will never feel the same as one you gave birth to."
Her presumption was that she was speaking a truth so obvious that even an adoptive parent would find it reasonable. While studiously keeping my eye on the only child who will ever call me Papa, I let the words sink in, and a lot of thoughts crossed my mind: Does that mean my friend's partner will never feel about their daughter the way that she does? Did she, unbeknownst to me, have a comparative experience on which to base this huge claim? Did she realize she was quantifying my connection to my daughter in a way that lessens our bond next to hers?
I wish I could say that I'd engaged, let fly with a really pointed rejoinder. And the dad writing this column now certainly would have. But the dad I was that night was not only exhausted but keenly aware that if this turned into a heated argument, it could well spread to the other families present, which included both adoptive dads and birth mothers. I could envision the evening needlessly devolving as we split into camps by rhetoric and parenting route.
What I answered, to my lingering regret, was muted, a dodge. "I guess I can't really say, can I? I just know what I feel." My friend allowed that was true, which was only proof that I couldn't know the intensity of seeing my own flesh and blood in the form of a child growing before my eyes. When the conversation sagged, I got a drink, the standard conversational exit strategy at parties everywhere.
Certainly, my friend is not alone in her opinion, or alone in stating it publicly, and sometimes the speaker has the defense of knowing both experiences. Typically, people who make this claim do so in the name of honesty, as if they are bravely telling the truth about an empirical fact. Well, here's a fact for you: there is no such thing as a universal experience.
For every proponent of the idea that adopted-kids-aren't-quite-the-same, you may easily find their counterpart, the I-never-bonded-with-my-biological-child writer who bravely tells the truth that they never really connected with their kids, or even regret having them, period. (Not to mention those who abandon their children, or worse.) But guess what: these too are firsthand, subjective experiences, the passionate opinions of people who can tell the truth, but only about themselves.
I understand that for birth parents who have bonded well with their offspring, it is intuitive to believe that having shared your body or genetic matter with your children directly correlates to the depth of your ability to love or feel, or how much you would do for them. But intuition is not correlation -- not in any provable sense. No parent can really, truly know what anyone else's parenthood feels like.
What I can tell you, what I can prove, is only that my feelings about my daughter were immediately life-changing and, considering that I'd been married for a decade at this point, game-changing. In my memoir of that time, I wrote, "I really did feel as if a whole new chamber had opened in my heart, a secret room I couldn't have imagined the size of, which was now the place she occupied." Our daughter's umbilical cord had not yet fallen off when my husband turned to me and said, "You know it's her first, now, right? If something horrible made me choose to save only you or only her, it's her." Not only did I not feel slighted, my first thought was, "Well, obviously!" But that's just us.
I would never say to a straight couple who conceived easily that they could not feel for their child the way I feel about mine because they didn't have to go through the same process. I would never dream of telling the non-biological parent in a lesbian couple that her child was less hers than her partner's. And I would never tell my friend that she's wrong about how she feels about her girls, because she isn't. She just isn't qualified to speak to me about mine.
Parenting is not biology or blood work, just as it's not process of acquisition or paperwork; parenting is practice, the love you give, and the life you make. What my daughter and my friend's daughters have in common is this: they're all loved ferociously by parents whose feelings are beyond compare.
From "30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days," a series designed to give a voice to people with widely varying experiences, including birthparents, adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents, waiting adoptive parents and others touched by adoption: