Kith, Kin and Cuckoo

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

  • Lost Children: The Story of Adopted Children Searching for their Mothers by Polly Toynbee
    Hutchinson, 288 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 09 160440 0

In Lost Children Polly Toynbee has, for reasons she never makes clear, interviewed many – she does not say how many – adopted children who, after the Children’s Act of 1975 was passed, set out in search of their biological parents. Her book presents us with nine ‘case-studies’ of children who searched for and found their parents, not always with happy results. Whenever possible, she interviewed the biological parent in order to illuminate the reasons why women give children up and the toll this decision takes. Not surprisingly, she has discovered that women who gave their children up did so for good and pressing reasons and that many of them, even if they did not regret the decision, later lived with a feeling of loss. She also discovered that adopted children who searched for their biological parents had not, generally, been happy in their adoptive homes, and even those who had been happily placed had strong fantasies about who their natural mothers were and what they were like.

Is there anything in this that we do not already know? The family’s purpose is to raise children, and although it is to this task that parents devote most of their energies and ambitions for almost two decades, many children end by believing their parents have failed them, just as many parents believe they have failed their children. In literature as in life, Polly Toynbee notes, parents receive a pretty poor press from their children. Why, then, should she conclude that adopted children are particularly victimised by adoptive parents, when, listening to children complain about their childhood, we would be justified in concluding that all children would be better-off raised by creatures not of the human race: for example, storks.

Polly Toynbee, however, believes that all adopted children suffer from an unusually weak sense of identity. ‘The idea of the importance of blood ties and genes is common to most people,’ she says, ‘and they feel profoundly deracinated if brought up with no knowledge of their blood origins.’ If it is true that adopted children are destined to wander through life seeking themselves (like Oedipus, ‘that poor incestuous parricide’, who ‘might have avoided his fate if someone had told him he was adopted’ – as if Oedipus’s argument with Tiresias and the gods, and his punishment, were caused by separation from blood relations), then Polly Toynbee would be doing society a service by calling its attention to this problem. But she does not and cannot establish the validity of her claim by presenting nine interviews, several of them with children who were not adopted at birth. One of the interviewees was never adopted, never knew anything but institutions and foster care, and others were adopted, not at birth, but when they were old enough to retain shadowy memories of actual parents who cared for them before their adoptive parents, for excellent reasons, took charge of their lives. One interviewee insisted that the impact of the biological mother was non-existent: the newborn, she claimed, came complete with his own character and destiny, and nothing parents did, natural or adoptive, affected it. The interviews presented in Lost Children are too sparse and too equivocal to establish the premise that adopted children suffer a severe loss of identity.

This does not, however, deter Polly Toynbee from recommending that Britain, America, and all countries which permit an adoption order to sever the biological mother from its child, should abandon their current practices and institute forthwith ‘open adoption’ or ‘custodianship’:

Is eliminating the natural mother really in the child’s best interest? It would seem to me healthier for an adopted child to be brought up more like the child of a divorce. Unhappy circumstances have forced upon him a complicated family life – but it is not made easier by artificially cutting away part of that complexity. Just as in divorce, it does not help a child to lose his non-custodial parent, however difficult and painful visits might be, so I doubt whether an adopted child’s life is made easier or better by obliterating his parents and his roots. Wherever possible, the adopted child should keep some contact with his own mother. He should know exactly who she is, in order to know exactly who he is himself.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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