The First Thirteen, by Jana Wolff

This post was originally published on on March 26, 2010. Republished here with permission.

lovelikenootherbookBack in January, I wrote a review of the book A Love Like No Other. In it, I said I disliked the essay “The First Thirteen”, by Jana Wolff. Ms. Wolff actually emailed me about it, in a very classy way, I might add.

My dislike of the essay stems from the fact that I dislike assumptions, especially when those assumptions are about parenting versus adoptive parenting.

In the second paragraph, Wolff writes, “[W]e couldn’t assume, as biological parents do, that we’d love what we made.” Not all biological parents do assume that they’ll love their babies. There are articles, essays, and even books about that. I personally know people who weren’t quite sure what they’d do or how they’d feel when the baby arrived. They figured it all out and are doing just fine, but there was worry and doubt.

The essay starts out with an assumption, which colored my perception of the next few pages. Then, Wolff discusses nurture versus nature in earnest. She writes:

We’re quick to attribute native talents and good looks to our children’s birth families, but even quicker to ascribe aberrant behavior to them. Fragile mental health gets blamed on biological families; good mental health gets credited to adoptive families.

Personally, I find this insulting. Granted, my child is four, not fourteen. By then, it’s possible I will blame any defiance on S and her “ornery” ways.* But I know that right now, there’s not one negative trait that I blame on S or on Jack’s birth father. I fully expect to shoulder half of the blame for whatever “goes wrong” with my son. The other half goes on my husband. (I love you honey!)

I’ve always had a lot of issues with nature versus nurture. Frankly, I think parenting has far more of an effect on a person’s behavior than genetics does. Do I have any scientific proof to back this up? Nope. Just my family. I think I saw my mother blame her mother for everything that ever went wrong in her life, and I have no desire to do that on Jack’s behalf. Granted, I do blame my mother for a few of my more negative traits, but those traits are based on parenting skills, not genes. (OK, I also blame her for the fact that I have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight and that I have respiratory-based allergies.)

We don’t solely credit S with the good traits either. Specifically, we attribute Jack’s love of music and his tendency to burst into song to S singing to him during her pregnancy and to my talent of almost knowing a song about almost everything. Similarly, Jack’s math prowess (he can count to 120 and do some basic addition and subtraction) is credited to S’s love of the subject, and also to my husband’s determination that our child will not be as mathematically-challenged as I am.

Now that I’m reading the essay for the fourth time, I find that I do like more of it than I dislike. I just reacted so strongly to the two pages about the influence of biology that it was all I could remember.

I especially like one particular phrase, “Honestly, the more I know about adoption, the less of a know-it-all I become.” So true. And probably worthy if its own post.

So, I owe Ms. Wolff an apology. It turns out that I don’t dislike the essay. I dislike two or three pages of the essay, and therefore almost wrote off the rest. Upon reflection, I think that there’s a lot in there for parents of older children,  as well as a lesson or two for all adoptive parents. I’ll leave you with one of them:

Because unlike a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces lock into place and fit together neatly, adoption is messy and three-dimensional: populated not only with people and experiences you know but also with people and experiences you could have known.

* Jackson’s 14 now. I don’t blame any of his faults on S.

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