In recent months, like some of you, I’ve had the interesting experience of participating in Internet newsgroups and commercial online groups discussing adoption. The culture on the web is different from that of local support groups or conferences or magazines. Protected by anonymity and by the facelessness of those to whom they are “talking,” People online often feel less constrained by conventional “rules” to coat their anger or their angst in politeness. Online groups are dominated by an outspoken few. Many other subscribers merely lurk, reading over the shoulders of other posters, afraid to chime in with their own opinions for fear of being blasted. Conversation is up-front; “flaming” is commonplace.

While those engaged in online dialogues or diatribes are frequently reminded that they cannot and should not speak for others, and there’s a lot of generalizing on various issues, the bottom-line concerns are really little different that they turn out to be after months of getting to know somebody in your local parent group. Adoption can be wonderful, but it’s scary, too. It brings with it a blend of gain and loss, happiness and pain. Some people on all sides of the triad go through periods (sometimes lifetimes) of feeling powerless and victimized by the experience. Pain expressed in any forum tends to create defensive attitudes on the part of other members of the triad. The fear is nearly palpable. These wounded souls are in constant search of their “real” selves whatever that means.

As a young parent (it seems a long time ago, now that my children are 11, 14 and 20) I remember worrying that the babies I was fiercely loving might not see me as their “real” mother, or that their grandparents, who were loving them, too, might not be “really” seeing them as grandchildren. I came to understand that many of those concerns were a result of my own self-esteem questions–questions that were brought to the surface once again by infertility and by adoption, but which were not created by it. I suspect that’s true for many others.

I began to read everything I could find about adoption. One of the most mind-opening things I read was social work professor and adoptive parent Jerome Smith’s now somewhat dated (1980) book, You’re Our Child. It introduced me to the concept that adoptive parents need to build a sense of entitlement to their children– coming to feel that their children are theirs to parent and that they are deserving of the parenting role.

Building a sense of entitlement is related to attachment, but it isn’t the same as attachment. One can be firmly attached but not feel entitled; one can feel quite entitled to a child who is not attaching well.

Over the years I’ve expanded a lot on Jerry Smith’s concept. It seemed to me early on, for example, that entitlement was not just a task for the infertile adopters about whom Smith wrote, but that preferential adopters had issues to deal with, too. Though Smith didn’t say so, it seemed clear to me that entitlement was a two-way street, and that children being raised in adoption needed to build their own senses of entitlement to their parents and families. Still later I saw that, depending on the closeness of the family, it is likely that not just parents and children need to work on this entitlement building stuff, but that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, too, need to build a sense of entitlement about those joined to them by adoption. The result of a healthy entitlement-building process is that the members of a family come to believe that they all belong together and are deserving of one another. When entitlement-building is ignored, the fact that “something is missing” is clear from both inside and out.

Smith says (and I include some of my own expansions here, too) that building a sense of entitlement involves three steps. The first step is in being honest with oneself about the motivating factors that brought you to adoption.  For adoptive parents that means dealing with infertility or honestly acknowledging the good and the bad about their other motivations for adopting; for adoptees this step involves understanding and accepting why a birth parent chose adoption rather than parenting; a grandparent may need to embrace his child’s philosophical drive to make the world a better place or to mourn the loss of his genetic connection to this particular grandchild.

The second step is coming to understand and deal positively with the fact that adoption is different from being related by birth in significant and unavoidable ways, a concept first discussed by sociologist H. David Kirk.

The third step in building a sense of entitlement is to learn to deal straightforwardly with society’s widely-held and broadly spread conviction that adoption is a second-best alternative for everybody involved.

Our Family’s Journey

In our family, adoption has been central to two generations of family building. My in-laws and their brothers and sisters were not a very fertile bunch. Of five siblings between the two sides of Dave’s parents’ generation, two gave birth to only children and the other three (including Dave’s mother and his father) adopted children. So of Dave’s generation of six cousins, only two were born to the family and four were adopted into it. In the next generation, Dave and I are parenting three children thanks to adoption.

I’ve often shared in speaking and writing some of our multi-generational adoption-expanded family’s defining moments in “getting” the concept of entitlement, which we believe is central to successful adoptive family life.  It is essential it is that all members of an adoption-expanded family feel a sense of entitlement to one another and to their respective places in the family. Accepting that this is so allows them to be less defensive about their own pain and more open to listening to the concerns of their growing children, who must process the gains and losses that adoption has brought into their lives.

One particularly poignant anecdote drawn from our own family’s experience may help you understand why we believe that the completed (or uncompleted) tasks of entitlement-building have a powerful impact on all who are touched by adoption…

My husband Dave was adopted at age six months by his parents, Perry and Helen. His parents were particularly “advanced” in their adoption thinking for their time, and Dave does not remember ever not knowing that he and his younger sister had been adopted. His questions were answered openly and honestly. The Johnstons were intensely involved parents who volunteered at school and in scouts, baking cookies and building projects. His parents and extended family embraced Dave and Mary into the family fold without apparent reservation, and the gang of six citified cousins growing up in Chicago and the New Jersey suburbs were a close and rowdy bunch when gathered at the family’s home base in central Illinois.

During his growing-up years, Dave received a number of family heirloom gifts from his father: the Civil War sword and camp stool carried by a Johnston ancestor who was a Union soldier; the pocket watch with which a Johnston grandfather had clocked a long career with the Chicago and Elgin railroad; a late-1800s-published book, The Johnstons of Salisbury, which traced the family from New England in the 1600s as it branched out and extended through the South and the West (and into the back of which his grandfather and then his father had carefully printed the updated information available for their own generations of cousins and children and grandchildren.)

These things came into our marriage and found places of honor– along with the Chinese lacquer box my own great grandmother had brought home from her days as a missionary, the medical texts from my great-great-grandfather’s country medical practice and the law books from his son’s Illinois State Supreme Court offices, and the beautiful landscape painting by my house painter great-grandfather– in the home we established as our own for the family which was to come to us through our adoption of three children.

When our son was about nine, our middle daughter three and our youngest girl just a baby, Dave’s parents moved from the house they had lived in for nearly 50 years to a retirement community. In the process of weeding our all those years’ accumulation, the senior Johnstons asked us during one Sunday afternoon phone call if there were particular things we would like from their home. Mary’s list had been long: china, crystal, this chair and those lamps, handmade quilts, etc. But Dave, a less acquisitive person already dealing with a confirmed pack rat wife, had fewer wishes.

Two items from his parents’ home came to mind that day– items whose stories I already knew. The first was a rickety table from the dining room. I shuddered to think how long it would stand in our house with active youngsters. But the table had come to central Illinois over 100 years before in a covered wagon driven by his mother’s people, who were migrating from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The second item was a string of sleigh bells belonging to that same covered-wagon family. The bells had hung on a leather strap in the front hall of his parents’ home for as long as Dave could remember. Dave’s interest in those bells had little to do with their heirloom status, but instead involved a custom begun by his own dad–one that Dave was following (albeit with modern adaptations and a single garage sale purchase bell) with our children.

Every Christmas Eve during the 23 years Dave lived with his parents, Perry Johnston had waited until his children were asleep and then ventured out into the Chicago winter with those sleigh bells in hand. He put a ladder against the side of the house and climbed to the porch roof; from there he made his way in the windy Chicago night onto the usually icy roof to a spot above his children’s rooms, where he stomped he feet, rang those bells, and shouted out a hearty “HO, HO, HO!” What a memory!

When Dave expressed interest in those two items, his mother blurted out, “Oh, I’m sorry, Dave, I’ve already promised those things to my nephew, Bob. He’s my only living relative.”

We mumbled a few more awkward words, said our goodbyes, and hung up. I dashed downstairs from the bedroom extension to where my husband had been using the kitchen phone. He was leaning against the counter, softly crying. Her only living relative?

For over 40 years, the son Helen loved with all her heart (we don’t doubt it for a minute!) had felt no questions about who he was or where he “belonged.” But in that moment, 40 years were nearly shattered, for in that single conversation, Helen Johnston revealed a carefully hidden piece of her own unresolved pain: parenting her cherished children had not been enough to heal the anguish of her infertility and the loss of earlier children to miscarriage and neonatal death. Though her children had felt entitled to her, an important piece of herself had been held in reserve for the genetic children she never had on behalf of the Rohrer family.

That afternoon Dave and I wandered from room to room in our house, turning over keepsake items and family mementos and applying pieces of adhesive tape bearing our children’s names to the bottom of them. We were determined to protect our children from ever having to feel pain in adoption. (How naive we were to think we could do that!)

And, yet, that single moment taught us more as adoptive parents than any book we could have read, any class we could have taken, any counseling or preparation we had had. The greatest gift we give our children is our own determination to do the personal work necessary to build our own senses of entitlement as parents in adoption and to bring our family and friends firmly on board with us, so that all of us, together, can help the children believe in and feel entitled to our family.

“What’s real?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit in Margery Williams’ classic children’s book. And the skin horse who was the nursery’s philosopher responded by reminding the rabbit that, becoming real does sometimes hurt, and that it usually doesn’t happen easily to toys who need to be “carefully kept.”  “Real,” advised the skin horse, “usually happens after your fur has been loved off and your eyes have dropped out, but that doesn’t matter. For when you are real, you can only be ugly to those who do not understand.”

We claim this book– we who are touched by adoption– and yet sometimes it is we ourselves who do not understand. Building a sense of entitlement to one another is a part of the claiming and bonding process for all of those in adoption-expanded families. It’s about believing, with all of one’s being, that you are OK, that you are deserving, that you belong, that, together, the family and each of its members is whole and strong. That we are real.