Friday, February 04, 2000

Get ’em while they're young

There's a certain school of adoption thought that says the younger you get 'em, the better. Mindful of the damage that years in a foreign orphanage or domestic foster care can cause, cautious adoptive parents figure to cut their risks of serious problems by choosing children who've had as little exposure to those institutions as possible--which is to say, newborns, infants, babies, clean little slates that have yet to be sullied by uncaring handlers.

I can't really quarrel with that. My own two kids, adopted from a Russian orphanage at ages four-and-a-half and two, are certainly living proof that institutions are not great places to grow up. I often wonder how much farther they would be in their development if they had been with us from birth, getting love and stimulation and therapy and hugs from day one instead of day 1,642 or day 730. They would be different kids--and that gives me pause, too, because I kind of like them the way they are. Their personalities were formed during those early years just as surely as their disabilities, and their personalities are pretty neat.

I've always thought that adopting an older child with identified special needs was the way to go--you get a fully formed little person with a personality, interests, abilities, and, if you're lucky, toilet-training skills, and a road map of where to start looking for problems and getting help for them. Adopting an infant seems to me like ordering one of those mystery-grab-bag packages from a catalog, a box with a big question mark on it. Who knows what it may hold? I prefer my gifts unwrapped, with lots of descriptive information attached. There are surprises enough even with that.

But if people want to go with the infant behind Curtain Number Three, well, again, I can't quarrel. We all have to decide what's right for us and our families. Some couples take it a step further and start a relationship with the birthmother before the birth, assuring she gets adequate prenatal care and gives the baby as much of a chance as possible to start life flaw-free. And I suppose that's prudent, and so I won't quarrel with them either.

But a recent item in Newsweek makes me worry a little for the way this obsession with youth may end up. It seems that, far from settling for a baby, you can now adopt an embryo. A couple in Florida has six embryos left over from infertility treatments, and wants to offer them for adoption to "good Christian people." Now, folks, I know it's tempting--bypassing the birthparent (geneparent?) altogether, getting a child fresh from the test tube, starting almost but not quite from scratch--so tempting that it might become the next big adoption front. But think about it: Can you imagine the awkwardness of those yearly reunions of six siblings born to different parents? The measuring up of which child is doing best, the judgments made on the parenting skills of those who are falling behind?

One good thing about adopting kids out of institutions--there's always somebody else to blame.

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