The Boy went back to college yesterday. I always feel melancholy when he heads back, although he has become downright blasé about it. I think this means he’s growing up. I also think it means I've got a case of early-onset empty-nest syndrome.
We had a little tiff on Sunday that got me thinking about the issue of gratitude in adoption. Third Dad and The Girl were out of town this weekend, and since they weren’t returning until very late Sunday night, I thought it would be nice for The Boy and me to go out for dinner. He was good with that. When he woke up on Sunday morning, I reminded him, and we decided to go to Mass at 5 and dinner afterward. I asked him to pick a restaurant, and figured between noon (he’s a late riser) and 5, he would.
On the way out of the church parking lot after Mass, I asked him again where we were going. “I don’t know,” he replied. So I started throwing out suggestions, and one after the other they were declined. Pretty soon “sit down restaurants” were categorically dismissed, then “fast food.” Um, what’s left after that?
“I’m not hungry and I really don’t want to eat anything” came next. “What’s the big deal about going out to dinner anyway?” “It’s your last night home for several months and I wanted to treat you,” I replied. And off we went.
At one point I found myself retreating to the argument that, even though going out was no big deal to him, it was to me – the reasons being that I wanted him to have a nice meal that night, that I would miss him when he was gone, and also that I’d made no plans for dinner and frankly didn’t want to cook. “You know,” I told him, “I work hard all week so you and The Girl can have and do what you want. Would it have killed you to pick a restaurant and spend an hour with me before you went back?”
Although I didn’t use the g-word, I was clearly talking about gratitude. Adoption wasn’t in the mix at all – this was a plain old “look at everything I do for you” guilt trip. But if you are an adoptee struggling to find your identity, a parental guilt trip like the one I laid on The Boy could look and feel very different, like a string attached to your adoption. And adoption should have no strings attached.
Now, if you’re a hard-working parent, ANYTHING that might motivate your kids to help a little more and be a little more attentive to your efforts may seem like a good thing. So a little motivation-by-guilt may seem like a good idea from time to time. But at what cost?
Think of a time when someone made you feel you should be grateful for something you didn’t ask for or didn’t like. I can think of a good example, brought to me by one of my husband’s friends. She’s a lovely Korean American woman who enjoys cooking, but has no one to cook for. Her husband’s health prevents him from eating her specialties and her daughter doesn’t live at home. So she’s started giving Third Dad the fruits of her labors. Sometimes she gives him things no one in our family likes; sometimes she just gives him too much. He eats what he likes and ignores the rest, so I have to figure out where to store it and what to do with the leftovers. I feel terrible that I’m not grateful, and frustrated that we’ve been forced to throw some of it away. It’s a lousy feeling.
Now, what if the cause of that lousy feeling was your family and your adoption, neither of which you asked for? Even when you love your parents, it has to be very hard not to share the mainstream view that you were chosen, or you’ve been blessed, and you therefore should be grateful for each and every thing your parents provide, whether wanted or not.
A lousy feeling indeed. Writing this, I realize how deeply the desire to avoid this feeling could permeate an adoptee's relationships. I think I understand better what adoptees mean when they say they won't pursue a search because they don't want to hurt their parents, and how this decision may be influenced as much, or maybe even more, by society's expectations of gratitude than it is by anything the adoptive parents may have said.
Adoptive parents hold much, if not all, of the power in adoption. We therefore have to set those who talk about adoption in terms of gratitude straight. We also have to avoid taking our kids on guilt trips. I failed miserably on Sunday, but God bless The Boy for forgiving me.
Although the stinker really could have gone out for a burger with me, it wouldn't have killed him.