Mom Confesses She Did Not Love Adopted Daughter

KJ Dell'Antonia is an adoptive parent of a child from overseas. In a piece for Slate, Dell'Antonia says she understands Torry Hansen, the mother who sent her adoptive son back to Russia, because she too did not bond easily with her daughter from China.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

You probably heard about Torry Hansen who sent her seven-year-old adopted son on a plane back by himself to Russia with a note that said: I no longer wish to parent this child. Most of us hear that and ask, how could she? KJ Dell'Antonia read that note and said, I get it. The writer does not condone what Torry Hansen did, but she wrote in a piece for Slate, I understand deep in my bones what Hansen must have been going through.

KJ Dell'Antonia's story focuses on her own experience after she adopted a daughter from China. It's called, "I Did Not Love My Adopted Child." If this is your story, call and tell us what happened. 800-989-8255 is the phone number, email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. We've posted a link to her article on Slate there. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And KJ Dell'Antonia joins us now from her home in New Hampshire. And it's nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. KJ DELL'ANTONIA (Author, "I Did Not Love My Adopted Child"): Hi, Neal. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And I know your daughter was three when you brought her home from China last year. And tell us about those first few difficult months.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: Oh, the first few months were really hard. They were hard for both of us. We came home last year during the summer and Rory(ph) was - she was really grieving her foster family. I think when we went into - we knew that she had been fostered but I think it's easy to forget that the foster family relationship, especially if you've been with the foster family since they were - since you were two months old, the foster family relationship is a strong one.

So she was grieving them. And I was sort of, you know, dealing with a grieving and angry three-year-old who, you know, she acted out exactly the way that you would expect her to. She kicked, she screamed, she didn't want to be with the other children. She would, you know, she would wake up in the middle of the night and she would be calling for her mommy. And, you know, she called her foster mother Mommy. And she had Mommy and Baba(ph). She wasn't calling me. And I was what she got.

CONAN: And you...

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: That didn't make her happy or me.

CONAN: And you write that there is this illusion - maybe a myth - that adoption, and particularly international adoption, well, as soon as the child enters the new home, rainbows and sunshine breaks out.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: A little bit. And also, there's - what information there is really focuses on the child's adjustment and doesn't talk as much about the family's adjustment and the parents' difficulty. People are really prone to writing about their adoption and talking about their adoption as though the minute that it happened, they were in love and they were completely and fully were embracing this as their child. And that's not the way that it was for us. And I suspect it's not really the way it is for a lot of families.

CONAN: And indeed, again, not that you would have done what Ms. Hansen did, nevertheless, you say you understand why she did it.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: You know, I think I understood her in the same way that, you know, back in 2001, mothers of large families listen to the story of Andrea Yates and went, no. No, never. But yes. Yes. I - you can understand how frustrated and how difficult life with five tiny, you know, very young children must be and have been. And just because people can't imagine, you know, drowning their five children doesn't mean that you don't have a really integral sense of what it must have felt like to be her. And I think that's a little bit the way I felt about Torry Hansen.

CONAN: She, of course, suffered from postpartum depression. And indeed, you say that there's a parallel to be drawn in there.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: I think there definitely is. There is something that people are starting to talk about called post-adoption depression. You know, it's out there. And I think a little bit in the world of adoption we're where maybe we were in parenting, you know, a couple of decades ago. People started to talk pretty freely about the fact that having a baby was not necessarily instant sunshine and roses. And now we're starting, I hope, to talk about adoption as the same way. It doesn't have to be instant sunshine and roses.

CONAN: No, no. And I understand that, too. But - and perhaps a realistic preparation is better. Nevertheless, you did get preparation. You wrote about the adoption education sessions.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: Absolutely. They're there and they're - and I'm sure Torry Hansen attended them, too. It's all about the difficulties of adopting a child from an institution and the various issues that come up if you're going to be a multicultural family or if you have biological children already or if you have multiple adopted children. There is an attempt to educate people. I think having it all come from the professionals isn't enough. I think we need to talk about it amongst ourselves, too, and with our friends that don't adopt.

CONAN: And with your friends that don't adopt, and indeed, support groups would be helpful in this. And of course, computers make that much easier now.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: That's true. But it would be nice as an adoptive parent if the general public - if everybody got that, you know, maybe your first few weeks home and your first few months home were not going to be easy. We happen to be the only people in sort of our immediate circle who were going through this, and I really felt like, you know, my friends wanted to see this is as, oh, you know, this is a wonderful new family. Let's - even - let's be politically correct. Let's say, you know, this is your daughter and let's look at it that way.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: And I maybe needed a little more support than that.

CONAN: And what kind of pressure - you talked about the, well, conflicting emotions on you and you must've felt terrible that, you know, you were - not rejecting this child, but that you didn't embrace her the way you had hoped at the time, but it also must have put tremendous pressure on your family.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: It did. And you're right, Neal. Those were terrible times. I would - when I - yeah, I wanted to love her instantly, and it was a horrible feeling not to. And this is something I can talk about in part because I love her so much now. But, you know, we didn't come to that instantly. And it was hard - I mean, it was difficult on everyone around us. It was hard on my other children, I think, to see me and her, you know, struggling with each other, really.

It's hard to parents - it's hard to know if you're, say - you know, if you're disciplining, and I mean that in a sort of the nicest way, your new child. You obviously can't let them, say, you know, hit your other children. But you haven't formed a relationship with them yet and you don't necessarily know what's going to work. Can you - you know, you don't want to do a time out because you don't want to separate them from you. But on the other hand, you don't want to give them the idea that the reward for, you know, slugging their new baby brother is a big hug and a kiss. I think that was hard for the other kids to watch, too. They would be like, you know, but you're not treating me that way, or hey, wait, Mommy. You're being really mean to her. I think it was hard on all of us.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email from Kristen(ph) in Tucson. I'm not sure it's possible to emotionally bond with an older adopted child and often wonder if it's in the best interest of the child to be taken out of his/her country and culture. My bond with my adopted son who came home at age five is one of caretaker. I feed him, clothe him, take care of him, but we don't have the same emotional connection that I do with my two older biological sons or my son who was adopted as an infant. There is little understanding and patience for parents of adoptive children who don't experience the joys of the adoption myth.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: Wow. That's really honest of her. And there isn't very much patience - absolutely right. I would say that I, you know, I know people who, you know, brought home children older than five, seven, eight, nine and then had, you know, difficult but eventually wonderful and rewarding relationships. But I think it's fair to say that some people are going to end up feeling - you could still love that child and maybe love them differently than a biological child or maybe not. I think that's going to be a person-to-person thing.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: But the more we are able to talk about this, maybe the, you know, the easier that your emailer's life and feelings about her son are going to be.

CONAN: It's interesting that you wrote in your piece that Torry Hansen, again, the woman who sent her adopted son back to Russia, that she betrayed her son and she betrayed our belief system.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: Yeah. That - I think that's part of what makes us so angry is, you know, no child who ends up being adopted had a happy beginning. That's just - by definition, they've been abandoned or, you know, left or orphaned or however it's worked. And we really want them to have a happy ending. And we want that to happen right away. And for her to, you know, so definitively declare this not a happy ending, that is part of what's hard for us about this, I think, is that it forces a closer look at the adoptive-parent relationships.

CONAN: Hmm. There are still some confusion at the moment as to what the upshot of this is going to be. Some officials in Russia seem to say, wait a minute. We're going to put all these American adoptions on hold until we can work out a better system. Some American officials say, that's not our understanding. But nevertheless, some people are acting as if this is the first time this has happened.

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: It's so not. There was another couple that actually got on the plane with their daughter and put her, you know, took her back to Russia. She was nine. There was a Florida woman who actually abandoned her Guatemalan son in the airport when they got back to the United States. That one didn't get any particular publicity.

There have been, you know, there have certainly been these big and large problems. I think something that's important about, you know, trying to talk to somebody like me when we talk about Torry Hansen is to understand that there's a whole lot in between a perfect happy ending. I know of people - I know a few people that have had those, and Torry Hansen.

CONAN: We're talking with KJ Dell'Antonia, the writer and a contributor to the online magazine, Slate. She wrote an essay, "I Did Not Love My Adopted Child: The Painful Truth About Adoption." And she's with us from her home in Hanover, New Hampshire. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, let's get Steve(ph) on the line. Steve calling us from Rochester, New York.

STEVE (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much. I'm listening to your speaker - guest with interest, having adopted two children from Russia myself. And I guess I would just point out that I personally have experienced both ends of the spectrum. The first child was a very young - a 10-month-old girl. And truly, the minute we received her in Siberia, I had this overwhelming sense of parenthood and bonding and love. It was just an amazing, emotional experience, kind of like this thing you may read about.

But our son, in contrast, is two-and-a-half, and indeed had his own personality that has continued to evolve. And it's been very different and took awhile for us to get to know each other and form that bond. So I guess I just thought I'd share that, you know, one family having both experiences. And, you know, I think the age of the child is obviously a fundamental issue here. But I'm glad your guest is bringing some attention to some of the issues that parents face.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Here's an email from Tomeo(ph). My sister was adopted from Paraguay when she was younger, and arguably, still to this day, has struggled to fit and struggled with what is called attachment disorder. But with due diligence from my parents, the necessary love and tenacity, my sister is unequivocally my sister and a member of our family.

Your guest, it sounds like, is as so many people, like the woman in Tennessee, succumbed to what I call boutique adoption: Angelina Jolie wannabes who simply want to enhance their status in their communities through adopting a child from a foreign country.

Well, she may be under the misimpression, and that's my fault if she is, Tomeo, that KJ Dell'Antonia, you sent your daughter back. Of course, you did not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: No. Absolutely not. We love our daughter very much. She's very much a part of our family and she will always be with us. You know, the people talk about this boutique adoption as though you can just go out and be like Angelina Jolie and pick up your child like a pair of shoes. And that's -it's crazy. Anyone who's been through adoption or who knows anyone who's been through adoption, knows that it is a process that takes years. It's a major investment of your - well, it's a financial investment. But putting that aside, there's a lot of time and there's a lot of effort and there's a lot that goes into this. There are social work interviews, there are - I mean, it's extensive. It's not something you just pop out and do.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's go next to Craig(ph). Craig with us from Sacramento.

CRAIG (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm an adoptive child, adopted at birth. And I know that both of my parents loved me, but I never really felt that my parents understood me. And frankly, I don't know if that is a result of the fact that I was adopted and not their biological child or whether that was just a simple part of the growing up process that was - that you know, that happens with all parents and children.

And I'd be curious to know from adoptive parents' perspectives whether they feel more or less able to understand their adoptive children or sort of connect with them.

CONAN: Craig, can I ask you what age you were adopted at?

CRAIG: I was adopted at three months.

CONAN: At three months. Okay. KJ?

CRAIG: Yeah. Excuse me?

CONAN: I was asking our guest to respond, an adoptive parent.

CRAIG: Oh.

CONAN: And I think we've lost her on the phone. The Skype connection to New Hampshire has seemingly left us. In any case, Craig, thank you very much for the call and appreciate it. Let's see if we can get one more caller in on the conversation. And this is Bill(ph). Bill with us from Saint Joseph's in Michigan.

BILL (Caller): Hi. We adopted a 12-year-old girl. We actually had fostered quite a few children. And I think that the important thing is (unintelligible) the age that you're adopting. And you just modify your expectations. We never -you know, we certainly were open to that wonderful bond that we have with our own biological children but were certainly not going into it with that expectation. But that was the outcome.

CONAN: But that was the outcome. So you have to be careful about what your expectations are and then adjust accordingly?

BILL: I think so. I think, just be realistic. You know, we're certainly - we're all in a better place now, four, five years later. But it's, you know, we all -we're still struggling with this relationship. And I think, also, adoption is rare, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BILL: We only have a vast wealth of resources to draw from, personal experiences, you know, everybody - a lot of people have had children but very few people have adopted children.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much. And we just got KJ Dell'Antonia back on the phone. We just have a few seconds left. But thanks very much for being with us. Very briefly, are you worried that your daughter will one day read this piece, "I Did Not Love My Adopted Child?"

Ms. DELL'ANTONIA: I certainly, absolutely have thought about that.

CONAN: And we lost her again. Well, we'll try to find an answer with her and get back to you in our letter segment next Tuesday on TALK OF THE NATION. And so we'll find out what the answer to that question is at that time.

KJ Dell'Antonia is a writer and a contributor to the online magazine Slate. There's a link to her story, "I Did Not Love My Adopted Child," at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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