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Years Later, Feeling Grateful For Being An Adopted Child

Diane Brown, Commentator

Along with the food and gift-giving, the holiday season is also a time for reflection and gratitude for all we have. The same holds true for commentator Diane Brown, but it took her a while to reach that point.

On its most basic level, gratitude involves expressing thankfulness. But, with adoption, the word has a much more complicated interpretation.

For me, as a Korean orphan adopted in the early 1960s, gratitude was intertwined with my brother and me being told that adoption saved us from fates as prostitutes and beggars. Clearly, if your parents saved you from such fates, it’s logical to be grateful to them.

But I rarely felt a sense of gratitude. 

Being told how I should feel made me resistant, and from my mother's perspective, I could never be grateful enough anyway. So why even try?

Still, I carried around a burden of inadequacy because I knew I never could repay my parents for saving my life.

My parents weren't unique in expecting gratitude from their adopted children. Other family members and even strangers do so as well. Friends of mine told me that when strangers tell them how lucky their daughter is for having been adopted, they respond that they are the lucky ones.

NPR's Scott Simon and his wife, Caroline, adopted two children from China, and he talked about this issue in his book, Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other.

"No matter how hurt or angry your children ever make you -- and they will -- you must never, never, never say, 'Don't you know what we saved you from?' That's a true obscenity,” Simon wrote. “It is a curse that could discourage the pushing back and outright rebellion that's necessary for children to grow ... We don't want a feeling of indebtedness to steer their lives."

The key word in Simon's statement is indebtedness, not gratitude.

Gratitude itself is a positive emotion, felt by people who choose to embrace appreciation. Indebtedness, on the other hand, has a negative implication. You feel obligated to repay the favor you have received.

By not understanding indebtedness was expected of me, I failed to grasp the true nature of gratitude.

Unfortunately, other adoptees, as well as adoptive parents, have made the same mistake I did by giving gratitude a negative connotation when forced upon the adopted child. The problem with this is that the “forced gratitude” model does not really exist – there’s either gratitude or indebtedness, period. 

Intellectually, I’ve always known how grateful I should be. Clearly, I had no real chance of a future under the circumstances in which I was born. Only after the death of my parents many years ago was I gradually able to separate my feelings of indebtedness from those of actual gratitude. There was no longer anyone to remind me of my “indebtedness.” I can now feel real gratitude toward my parents – and life in general – because I choose to do so.

As Scott Simon said, saddling your children with a sense of indebtedness restricts their emotional development.  However, teaching your children, by example, to embrace gratitude in general helps lay the foundation for the children's emotional maturity and growth.

Diane Brown is an attorney from Highland Village.