Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

“Every Kid Is Where They’re Supposed to Be, and It’s a Miracle”: Family Formation Stories among Adoptive Families

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

“Every Kid Is Where They’re Supposed to Be, and It’s a Miracle”: Family Formation Stories among Adoptive Families

Article excerpt

Storytelling is pushed to its limits both by the use of a particular story beyond the context of the experience it represents and by the use of a personal story to represent a collective experience. . . . I understand the first as the problem of entitlement and the second as the problem of the allegorical. . . . It is the intersection of the two limits that produces what I see as the greatest complexity and the greatest source of both the promise of storytelling and its condemnation. We ask, who has the right to tell a story, who is entitled to it? And we ask, is this representation a sufficient, adequate, accurate, or appropriate rendering of experience? -Amy Shuman (2005:3)

"HOW DID YOUR CHILD BECOME part of your family?" For most parents, such a question makes no sense. Your child simply is part of your family; no narratable process produced his or her belonging. For families formed through adoption (including my own), however, there was a process through which a child born to other parents, a being who already existed in the world, joined his or her parent or parents and possibly siblings to form the family he or she now collaboratively constitutes. The adoption process sometimes proceeds relatively smoothly, but not infrequently it proves long, painful, and complicated, full of obstacles and surprises. Consequently, the question of how this kid became part of that/their family remains significant in the consciousness of parents and children and often lurks in the minds of those with whom they interact as well. Friends, fellow adoptive parents, and children themselves may be eager to hear accounts of family formation out of curiosity and a desire to understand that story and incorporate it into the narrative with which they frame their own identities. In families for which the adoption process was difficult or doubtful yet successfully resolved, parents may find it satisfying to narrate and share the story of the remarkable events that brought their family together. I will argue that, like many family stories, these accounts are intended to foster a sense of shared identity. Yet these stories, particular to certain adoptive families, also expand our sense of both the range of what should be considered family stories and how they may function over time, not only for various family members, but also for those outside the family with whom they are shared intentionally or who hear them at several removes.

An adoptive family origin story is only one element that may help to assure that members of adoptive families feel that they belong together and will be treated accordingly. Maintaining this sense of belonging requires attention, however, and is particularly fraught for members of families formed through international and transracial adoption, since those with whom they interact often make it clear that, in their minds, the children and parents do not "look like" each other or belong to the same racial or ethnic group. An estimated 2.5 percent of children under 18 in the United States are adopted (Riley and Van Vleet 2012:5; University of Oregon Adoption History Project), and many researchers report an increase both in adoptive families' willingness to be open about how their family came to be and in social acceptance of adoption, including international and transracial adoption, as a route to family formation (Pertman 2011:3-34; Riley and Van Vleet 2012:63). Still, children and parents regularly encounter implicit and sometimes explicit messages that their families are not normal, recognizable, or "real." Children at school get asked, innocently, "Is that really your mom?" or, hostilely, "Where's your real mom? Didn't she want you?" They may endure racist taunts that their parents may not anticipate or think to ask about (see Chung 2014).1 Parents also encounter questions, from the clueless, "Is he yours?" (asked about a child with whom the parent is obviously interacting in a parent-to-child fashion), to the outrageous, "How much did you pay for her? …

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