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3 Thoughts on the New York Times Article on Adoption & Magical Thinking

While researching his book on magical thinking, Matthew Hutson interviewed a psychologist and one of his collaborators who had, in turn, interviewed 38 adoptive parents. “It turns out that most of the parents had told her that their children had been brought to them by destiny.”

Granted, 38 is not a very big sample. But the idea is worth exploring.

The resulting New York Times article, “Adoption, Destiny and Magical Thinking,” is causing quite a stir in the adoption community. In just two days, there are 139 comments and counting.

(And this post comes on the heels of my review of a Disney movie that epitomizes magical thinking. Coincidence? Oh, the irony.)

God, Winners and Losers

My first thought as I read the article, was, this reminds me of how I felt when Osama Bin Laden was killed.

Applying the same principle to adoption, a revised and way-too-long tweet might read, The problem with saying “Fortune brought my child to me” is that it also means that “Fate took me away from the people who created me” or “Destiny decreed that another person would call my child Mom.”

I  admit to magical thinking in my early days of being an adoptive mom. All roads led to me being parents to these two miracles, to us being a family. Our infertility intersecting so perfectly with their birth parents’ inability to parent at that time. How fortunate were we to experience such joy after enduring the despair of infertility! Such joy had to have been sent from heaven!

But then I began to listen. To first parents and to adult adoptees. I found that adoption is not always win-win, like I thought, like I had hoped. Often, especially during the Baby-Scoop Era of the 1940-1980s, adoption was win-lose. It makes sense to me, as I read the comments in the NYT article, that those on the Win side of an adoption are more likely to recognized destiny’s hand than those who feel they were on the Loss side.

Russian Roulette

My second thought was the way I used to begin teaching high school social studies classes each September:

You may think that history has nothing to do with you. That studying ancient Greece or the Middle Ages or World War I or the 1960s has absoLUTely nothing to do with you. You may think History is one gigantic yawn…that was then, this is now.

But! Do you realize that EVERY SINGLE THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED had to happen in order for you to be here? If just one person in ancient Greece had decide to take a different route home from the forum one day, if two people hadn’t met during the Middle Ages to beget their family, if one train had been one minute later or earlier during WWI, if one letter had been lost during the 1960s (or any other era), the ramifications would be your non-existence. You can only exist here, in this classroom, at this moment, because EVERYTHING YOU’RE ABOUT TO STUDY happened the way it happened.

My students would scoff, and I’d point out that each of them is one in a million. A trillion, maybe. Even a googleplex! (which leads to a whole other teaching moment). The fact that out of 300 million sperm, that one got to the egg (that egg!) first. The fact that each of their parents was also the product of 1 in 300 million. The odds that the parents, and grandparents and great-grandparents might never have met. It becomes mind-boggling to follow this line of thinking, and that it leads us to realize our connection to every single person in every single place across all time. (Not to mention every event that doesn’t have to do with human history.)

But was any of it pre-destined? Or is it all just a bunch of chance happenings that happened to happen  the way they did?

There were six couples in our Adoption School. A year after our three-day class on parenting in adoption (and, more specifically, open adoption), all six of us moms got together with all six of our new children. I remember, sitting around the table with my fellow newbie moms, having a thought about Russian Roulette. Had the divine spinner gone  just a bit differently, I might have ended up with THAT baby. And Tessa might be clinging to THAT mom.

Granted, it wasn’t a rational thought.

Was it?

Good News, Bad News, Who Knows?

My third thought was a Chinese proverb my spiritual teacher tells:

Once there was a poor farmer. He was able to grow just enough to feed his family. One day his horse ran away.

“Bad news!” the neighbors cried. “Now you won’t be able to work the fields.”

The farmer shrugged. “Good news, bad news — who knows?”

The next week the horse returned — with a mare.

“Good news!” the neighbors cried. “Now you’ll have many horses.”

The farmer shrugged. “Good news, bad news — who knows?”

Later, the farmer’s son was breaking the mare. He fell and broke his leg.

“Bad news!” the neighbors cried. “Your son will always have a limp.”

The farmer shrugged. “Good news, bad news — who knows?”

War came and all able-bodied young men were required to join the army.

“Good news!” the neighbors cried. “Your son is spared.”

The farmer shrugged. “Good news, bad news — who knows?”

I explained before how my children began to process their sense of destiny.

My son did ask the other day:  what if someone else had become his parents? While his sister sees the singular possibility of her biological parents raising her, Reed gets that he could have ended up with, well, just about anyone.

I don’t believe my children were destined to be mine. But they ARE mine ( I say that in the way of claiming rather than owning). I don’t believe they were destined to be separated from their birth families. But they WERE separated. I don’t believe that this is the ONLY way things could have turned out, with us as their parents and them as sister and brother. Yet they DID.

Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

It. Just. Is.


Addendum: I see that many in my sphere have written their reactions to this NYT article. I love having 1-stop access to these posts, so feel free to add your linky about this topic if you have a related post to share. Also, I encourage you to visit those who are listed below and listen. And comment thoughtfully.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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28 Responses

  1. This is a really fascinating post. I think it is human nature to believe in fate or destiny because we just NEED there to be a rhyme and reason to everything. We just NEED to grasp on to some kind of order in the universe and if you don’t believe G-d’s hand is guiding your life (because you don’t believe in G-d or you don’t believe He works that way), fate or destiny is the only thing that is left to hold on to. I don’t believe in fate myself, sometimes I want to but I try not to fall into those holes, because I don’t think they help me to get where I want to go in life.

    It is easy to think, oh, I’m so happy that I had my miscarriage because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have my daughter now, I’d have some other child. Of course, if I hadn’t had an ectopic pregnancy the first time, I’d have a different child, one I couldn’t imagine living without. Neither is better or worse than the other, they are just different, and it is just the way things worked out that I ended up with the daughter I got, and not the child from my first pregnancy (or a different child resulting from a different combination of sperm and egg). I don’t believe there is a REASON that she ended up with me, but I am very grateful that she did.

    And I think it is the same way with adoption. It’s true that all sorts of things had to happen to bring an adopted child together with his adoptive parents, but that doesn’t mean those things were destined to happen, they just did and the result was the family that exists today. Again, we want to find meaning there because the enormity of it, of the love we feel for our children, drives us to find a reason or a purpose for it, but it just is. They ended up in our lives and we love them.

    It is mind boggling to think of all the singular events that had to happen for any of us to be where we are today. It’s unfathomable to trace back all the decisions that were made by all the thousands of people that make up our histories. But to believe that there was some power or purpose guiding each of those decisions isn’t for me. It’s just not the way I see the world.

    I love that fable that you mentioned. I was just thinking about it the other day, as I contemplated the horrific school year I fear lays ahead of me. I thought, what would the wise man say, if someone said to him, oh, you have to teach five different preps, INCLUDING 8TH GRADE MATH! How horrible! He’d just say, Maybe with a little smile on his face, because who knows, maybe 8th grade math will be the best class he ever taught and then he’ll decide to teach math instead of Spanish and then he’ll get some amazing job somewhere and be happy teaching for the rest of his life. Or maybe he’ll just know for certain that math wasn’t what he was supposed to teach and he can go on teaching Spanish knowing in his heart that is a better fit for him than Math. Either way, he can’t know now, before it’s even started, and neither can I. 😉

  2. Added my linky…

    And of course…where do you think I got ‘It.Just.Is’ from??? 🙂

    Thank you for the work that you do, and have done, to broaden my horizons and make me think…about myself…and everyone in our story.

  3. Who knows, indeed.

    I have problems faulting magical thinking because I think for most people it’s just a way to explain the unexplainable. It might be better/kinder in the long run to give a thorough explanation of circumstances, but if you don’t feel articulate enough to do it properly, this is what you resort to, rather than saying the wrong thing. For others, maybe they feel that God has a Plan. Sometimes that plan involves painful experiences, but in the end it’s all for good. (I don’t really buy into that, but I know plenty who do)

    It’s a fascinating little article, and I’m sure it spawned much more interest than the author would have predicted.

  4. love this response.

    I’m not a true believer in the religious sense, and I certainly couldn’t embrace a deity that would cause such suffering as to preordain a child to be separated from his/her parents so as to fulfill some “grand plan” for the benefit of another. yet I understand the desire to place faith somewhere — either to help one through a difficult time or as an attempt to explain or make sense of something. it must be comforting to believe.

    it reminds me of a post I wrote a few years ago about how we came together with our daughter’s birth mother. I attributed it more to synergy than anything else — all the things that needed to happen according to certain timeframe for us to cross paths at such a critical point in all of our lives. but in the end I said, “it was only ‘meant’ to be because it happened.”

  5. Hey, Lori. Well, I normally try to stay out of these issues because people get so upset and ugly sometimes. But Adoptive Families Magazine had posed the question on FB asking if people thought their adoption was destiny and I was appalled at the replies. I was appalled as a believer in God and a follower of Christ by the people who tossed around the name of God in their replies, saying he ordained their adoption. It broke my heart that people who are not believers would read that and think that the same God I follow is the God they described. I’m sorry. I apologize for how offensive those comments were to birthparents. So I started writing a post to link here because I do believe God played a big part in our adoption but not in the way it has been portrayed. Not at all. And I feel the need to voice a different side of the issue. I hope to have it finished while you still have the link opened. I know you and I may not believe equally or agree all the time and you may not even understand my perspective on this issue. But I do know you are a safe space to presents all side and I also know that we have similar understandings of adoption, the good, the bad, and the ugly that can come with it. I hope I can get it done.

  6. I love the way you presented history to your students: one ancient Greek father tripping and having to take another route led to YOUR existence. This is why time travel freaks me out: the whole butterfly effect scares me too. That show HIMYM is basically completely dependent on destiny eventually delivering a meeting between Ted and the wife. If he left an umbrella in the wrong place, not gotten fired 4 years before he may have married the wrong woman. That show is actually as fatalistic as the Greek religion of yore. Yes, I said Yore. Really interesting post. I’m going to skip my usual analysis of the NYT’s wacky coverage of all things ALI 😉

  7. Thought-provoking post. It’s funny … I don’t really see a divine being intervening, but I do believe in the interconnected web of human existence, which is to say that one decision/action leads to a whold cascade of other actions/outcomes that we couldn’t change. And that web finds me here, which amazes me.

    1. Truly. I really love being in a place in which you can see the stars. It make me feel so miniscule and possibly meaningless in comparison.

      But I AM. And that makes me HUGELY important (and everyone else who beat the odds to exist.)

  8. I really loved this post. I believe we make our own magic out of what life hands us. Life happens to us, sometimes we guide it into place with a lot of hard work and striving towards a goal and sometimes it just falls upon us but in hindsight we make connections. We realize how extraordinary it was that this one event (or series of events) took place that changed the course of our lives to lead us to the place we are today and we call it magic, or luck, or bad luck, or fate, or destiny, or God. In reality, if things had taken a slightly different turn and we were living out an alternate life we would be making different connections and have a different set of events that we are thankful for, or that cause us pain. I believe we make order out of chaos and I love your take on this. I have heard that Chinese proverb before but had forgotten it. Thank you for the reminder.

  9. Love this post. It, in a sense, even relates to an interpretation of this week’s Time Warp Tuesday theme.

    What’s the flip side of magical thinking/ predestination? I can sit and trace cause and effect back and farther back, and marvel that do many seemingly unconnected things happened to result in what’s going on this minute. My husband and I talked about that last night, when he asked how he got so lucky, I replied that my mom took a test that said she’d be a good doctor so she went to medical school here. If there hadn’t been civil war in Granada my grandparents would have immigrated there. If we hadn’t had marital problems we wouldn’t have our daughter.

    I think it’s good to recognize and appreciate all the events, good and bad, that led to something positive, even just an objective recognition. I’ll never say I’m glad my husband had an affair, but every day I rejoice in the little girl that came from it. It didn’t happen because it was destiny, it happened because it happened, because that’s what every tiny choice led to. Any one decision made another way could have changed the entire outcome.

  10. I have been reading everyone’s posts on this topic, and when (if) I ever have an hour where I’m not catching up on work, I’ll be chiming in with a post too. I’m not so much a “magical thinker” or an absolute believer in predestination, but I am a “things happen for a reason” person. I’m not so self-absorbed that I think God intervened to take Miss E away from her parents and give her to us, but I do think that, things being what they were, He had a hand in where she ended up.

  11. Love this post Lori! I haven’t read the NYT article that prompted you to write this yet, but appreciate the discussion and points that you shared. I too really like how you introduced history to your students. In high school I didn’t understand why we had to learn about the past, instead of talking more about current events. Now I get it.

    As I have shared with you before I don’t believe (anymore) that things happen for a reason. I think most things just happen and what matters is what we do with what happens/what we are given/what we earn etc.

    I do believe in magical thinking though, at least in the sense of visualizing something you want to happen and doing your best to make it so. Obviously that doesn’t always work with family building. But a recent example from my life is BlogHer’12. I decided about a year ago that O wanted to go and even better, I wanted to speak there. I worked hard, connected with the *right* people, including you, and made it happen! I get that it could have not worked out that way for many reasons. But I am proud of the fact that it did, in part because I imagined and believed that it could.

    Lastly, that whole “Sliding Doors” (have you seem the movie,) concept fascinates me and boggles my mind. It both muses me and driveshaft crazy to think about.

    So thank you for this. As with so many things in life these days, I believe that people need to do “what works for them” and if believing things happen for a reason or in magical thinking works for them, more power to them, as long as that doesn’t hurt anyone in the process. Great post!

    1. As a direct beneficiary, I am SO glad you decided to manifest BlogHer12, and that it all came together so well.

      Need to investigate “Sliding Doors.” I’ve requested it from the library.

      And yes that people should be free to do what works for them. And I’m glad you like history now 🙂

  12. I know I’m REALLY late commenting, but I missed this original post. Sorry, Lori!

    All that aside, I DO believe in God, and I’m a birth mother. However, I do NOT believe that God caused/allowed me to get pregnant and then said, “Oops, I put that baby in the wrong woman’s belly. We’ll sort it out when the kid’s born.” That’s what the whole thought of “God meant for us to have this child” brings to mind for me. Yes, I believe God can use OUR (human) mistakes to create good things if we ask and allow Him to do so. But I do NOT believe He makes mistakes. That said, pre-destination or destiny or magical thinking of any sort when it comes to adoption just rubs me the wrong way. I think a person can feel blessed (by karma, magic, God, whatever) that they were in the specific time and place they were to end up parenting the child they’re parenting without thinking that .it was “meant” to happen the way it happened. Fine line and being picky, I know, but I agree with your sentiments and was providing a Christian point of view in a roundabout way. 🙂

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