Adoption is forever (National Post, April 06, 2005)

When our children were toddlers, my husband and I planned a vacation by ourselves involving a transatlantic flight. Morbid images of downed planes and orphaned children assailed us. Since there were several worthy candidates, we agonized over a choice for guardianship in that worst-case scenario.

An older lawyer offered surprising advice: "It's a mistake to appoint specific guardians in writing. Their situation can change in the interim. In my experience, the right person comes forward if needed."

I wondered if I could be the "right person" for my sisters' children in tragic circumstances. I reflected that at least I would have the advantage of being their only mother in perpetuity. There would be no fantasies of hooking up with bio-parents later on to undermine the legitimacy of my status. Moreover, they'd feel grateful and not, as seems the case today in our culture of complaint, like psychically wounded "victims" whose filial attachment is always contingent on mood or circumstance. In short, both our roles and their mutual exclusivity would be irrevocable.

Ontario residents who adopt children may soon have far less certainty. As things stand, birth parents and adoptees maintain the right to veto the release of their personal files. But under a proposed new law, adoptees would be given access to their records and the identities of their birth parents once the children turn 18; and birth parents would be given access to the identity of their adopted-out children. A "no contact" notice will supposedly protect those adoptive parents and children who want information, but not a relationship.

The effect of the proposed law will be to psychologically divide children's filial attachment between the adoptive parents who have invested everything -- time, money, limitless emotional energy -- and the birth parent (usually the bio-mother), who has nothing but DNA in common with the child. Who'd buy a home, if after 18 years the bank could retroactively designate your mortgage payments as rent cheques?

Who will take advantage of the opportunity? Not the well-adjusted bio-parent who went on to a successful new family life. She's happy her first "accidental" child was raised in the stable home she couldn't provide, and has the maturity to respect its painstakingly crafted integrity by remaining anonymous. No, it's the unhappy, the immature, the selfish, the psychologically needy, the insolvent, the lonely bio-parent with a sense of grievance or entitlement, who thinks finding her "lost" child will fill the aching void: She will take advantage of the law, resulting in guilt, resentment and blame on one or both sides.

Adopted children have a right to their genetic histories for obvious reasons. But they should be discouraged -- or at least not encouraged -- from nursing romantic fantasies of establishing a relationship with bio-parents. They're too young and idealistic to apply realistic criteria to such a charged decision. Lost in a Hollywood reunion mist, they'll ignore the cynical but necessary questions that arise from life experience.

What is your relationship to this bio-mother? A second parent? A friend? A kind of sibling? A financial responsibility? What if you hate her on sight, but she thinks you're her emotional saviour? Or her meal ticket? Are you obliged to continue seeing her? To pay for her rehab? How often will you get together? Christmas? Birthdays? Whenever she wants? Will she have equal status as a grandparent when you have a child? What if she's totally cool -- unlike your square adoptive parents -- and you want further intimacy, thereby hurting the real family who raised you? I can think of a hundred more negative psychological outcomes, and very few positive.

If I were adopting, I'd go to China, whose processing system is sophisticated and reliable, their babies generally healthy and well-cared for. Most attractive of all is the unlikelihood of a certain Ms. Wong from Beijing turning up 18 years from now to trivialize my role and redefine me as a long-term foster parent rather than mother.

When parents die, the "right person" comes forward. When a child is adopted, the "right person" -- the thoughtful bio-parent -- stays away. This Ontario law will only encourage the wrong person to come forward. It's a carelessly conceived initiative that should forever languish in the Bad Idea Orphanage.

© National Post 2005