My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “What if I Don’t Want to See the Child I Gave Up for Adoption?”
Many decades ago, I gave up a child in a private adoption. At that time, I was advised never to search for my child (and not even to note the name on the papers), and I was assured that my identity would likewise be kept secret.
Over the past decades, I married, divorced and married again. My current husband is aware of this child, as are my children from my first marriage. My parents (both deceased) were not aware, and my only sibling is not aware. I have spent my life working in women’s health care, and I have been privileged to participate in numerous private adoptions. I am pro-choice.
Several months ago, out of the blue, the child I gave up contacted me. She says that she has been searching for me since she was an adolescent (when her mother, contrary to our original agreement, gave her my name). I was horrified but unwilling to hurt her and, after a lot of back and forth, agreed to meet with her. She would like a closer relationship with me and with my children (and grandchildren). She is a nice person as far as I know, but my children do not want to meet her. I feel like I did what I had to, when I had to do it, and kept my part of the bargain. A part of me is angry that her mother broke our agreement. To me, this child is akin to a distant, long-ago acquaintance. I was not overwhelmed with motherly love when she hugged me or when I heard her voice. I have tried to come to terms with the idea of putting all this “out there,” and I cannot. For me, I did something wrong, and then I did something right, and making this public would not work for me. What do I do now? Name Withheld
My response: “What do I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.
Since decades have passed, your child is an adult. She wants something that benefits her but you don’t find benefits you. She wants to influence you but is presenting you with options that help her at your emotional cost. I call that ineffective leadership, however common.
This leadership vacuum gives you the opportunity to lead. The alternative is passively to accept her troubling you. What do you want from her? To go away? To understand your interests and work with them? Figure these things out and use your leadership skills to lead yourself to emotions and motivations you want and her to the relationship you prefer.
The New York Times response:
If you give birth to a child, you beget obligations as well. You are obliged, in particular, to do your best to set her up with a decent life. You’re not obliged to raise her yourself; in accepting your biological child, her adoptive mother took on that responsibility. So far as you know, the only responsibility she didn’t accept was the obligation to respect your privacy, as she promised to.
Should she have broken her word to you in order to satisfy her child’s curiosity? Adopted children are naturally curious about their biological parents. Occasionally, they even have a need to find things out about them in order to understand their medical situation, though that will be increasingly unnecessary as we get to know more about the human genome. But if we want to encourage unprepared mothers to consider giving children up for adoption, we should respect the terms on which they want to do it, and — for reasons your case illustrates — this means allowing them to insist on privacy, absent some weighty countervailing consideration. I understand why someone would give in to the persistent demands of a child she loved, but the child’s mere curiosity probably wasn’t a good-enough reason to break the covenant.
Now your biological child wants to establish a connection with you. But this isn’t something she’s entitled to, which means that you’re entitled to decline. It would be an act of generosity, given your feelings, to meet with her again yourself. You shouldn’t let her try to impose a relationship on the children you have raised, however. That decision is up to them.
I’m a European working in a central African country. A friend of mine (a native of that country) told me that his youngest sister was raped by his brother-in-law. He decided quickly to get him arrested. While the offender was still in detention, a huge family conflict arose. The wife of the offender, my friend’s older sister, who has children, as well as his mother, argued that the case should not proceed to court. They wanted to free the offender before the community could spread the news. They feared that the family’s honor would be damaged, and the victim would never find a husband (as most men here would never marry a victim of rape). My friend told me that even the victim decided to forgive the offender so that the community would never know, and she would have a chance to marry one day. But given the family pressure, I wonder if their quick pardon was genuine. I wonder if there might have been a solution to this situation, in which the victim would receive justice and still have the chance to marry one day. Name Withheld
My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.
I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.
My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.
However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.
I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.
The New York Times response:
Honor codes are often brutal for victims of rape. This was true in many parts of Europe until very recently as well. In Pietro Germi’s brilliant and disturbing 1964 film, “Seduced and Abandoned,” a man is required to stage the abduction and violation of a 16-year-old girl, who is already pregnant with his child, so that they can get married in a way that will preserve her honor and protect him from the charge of corrupting a minor. In their Sicilian community, the honor of the girl’s family can be preserved only if she marries the man who has “defiled” her. (And marrying a rapist is more honorable than having a child outside of marriage.) Until 1981, in fact, Article 544 of the Italian criminal code recognized a kind of marriage — the matrimonio riparatore — that “repaired” the wrong done by rape, even of a minor. In marrying his victim, the rapist was restoring her family’s honor. Not much concern there for her feelings or interests.
In such cultures, a rape victim has a strong incentive not to press charges, however much she might believe that justice requires it. She can’t have justice without becoming unmarriageable, and perhaps rendering her siblings unmarriageable as well. Unless, that is, there are decent men around who can see the wrong here. In Italy, the 1965 case that helped lead to the repeal of Article 544 involved the rape of a Sicilian teenager, Franca Viola, who refused a matrimonio riparatore and defied social codes by insisting on the prosecution of her rapist. It helped that she had a boyfriend she knew would marry her anyway and a father who was willing to accept that the family would be regarded as dishonored by most of their neighbors. Your friend’s sister wasn’t so lucky. And the only solution is a social movement that will reform the honor code to make it consistent with one simple moral insight: The sole person whom rape shames is the rapist. Forty years after her rape, Franca Viola told an interviewer that her advice, when faced with an important decision, was “to follow always your own heart.” She’s a hero of mine because she makes that sound far easier than it is.
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