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The Nuclear Family, Exploded

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Alexandra van Schie with Tana and Huck.  

Back in Park Slope, Malcolm bonded with his new sister, bringing her into school for show-and-tell and sharing silly private jokes. Tullis took longer—but then, in retrospect, she believes she’d gone into adoption itself with a certain amount of naïveté as well as an expectation that her maternal feelings would be there from the beginning. “I think that when I thought about these children with a gaping need for a family, the love would be automatic, that you would just respond to this child who was so needy and needed you. In fact, I found that it’s something that needs to grow, and that didn’t happen for me automatically. I read a lot about adoption, about behavioral issues. But they didn’t talk about the parents. So in spite of the reading, I hadn’t considered my own reaction.”

Hubbell, Tullis tells me, handled the transition better than she has: He was at once more patient and more realistic in his expectations. “He didn’t get quite so weepy at all the stories of ‘Oooh, these children! They have no families! They’re beautiful!’”

“Maybe I’m more pessimistic in general,” says Hubbell with a laugh when I describe Tullis’s praise. “You can’t prepare, because every child has such a singular experience. If you have a family with four kids who adopt a baby, that’s different than two people with one child who is totally the center of the universe.” Hubbell was fascinated by the larger blended families they’d met during the international adoption process, which tends to throw together two demographics that might otherwise never meet: liberal urbanites seeking a sibling and sprawling born-again-Christian families operating from a sense of mission. Perhaps these more established families had learned to tolerate and even embrace the risks of a complex family structure, Hubbell mused—to understand intuitively that their lives were not so subject to control. “So whatever difficulties happen, they tend to be accepted.” For a hyperanalytical New York family like his own, he told me, whatever the differences in their beliefs, this community might offer a useful model of what a family could be: “a guidebook to raise a kid.”

When Angelina Jolie gave birth to her first biological child, Shiloh, after having adopted two children from Cambodia and Ethiopia, the media attention was, as with everything regarding Jolie, Talmudic in its intensity. Was she too thin or too fat? (The only two options.) Would she have a C-section? Breast-feeding: yea or nay? But the greatest attention focused on the fact that the baby was Jolie’s genetic progeny; here, at last, the tabloids implied, was the one true child of Brangelina. Much of this media attention veered, tropistically, toward one central, titillating question: Would Angelina love this baby more? Was Shiloh more genuine, somehow, than those others, the ones with the mohawks and the sad orphan histories? Or, perversely, would she love this baby less—was Angelina unnatural, ideological, focusing her love on her traumatized foreign children, immune to the call of her own blood?

This speculation—a brittle shell of admiration barely concealing a slab of sneer—was only fed by a candid interview in which Jolie, after some prompting by the reporter, referred to her newborn as a “blob.” Though she was merely describing the difference between caring for an older baby versus a wobbly-necked newborn, the remark was interpreted as a slight to Shiloh, especially when considered alongside Jolie’s acknowledgment that the contrast between her adopted children’s difficult backgrounds and Shiloh’s privilege shaded the way she bonded with them. All in all, many observers seemed to conclude, there was something perverse about Jolie’s nature as a mother: the unwieldy mix of children, the family’s caravan style of world travel, that arm tattoo listing the longitude and latitude of her children’s birthplaces.

And Jolie is only the most prominent target for the questions being raised about adoption—many of them aimed at famous families, that safe staging ground for people’s most stinging analyses. Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s strutting, estranged postfeminist daughter, managed to whack that sensitive point hard with her recent book, Baby Love. In the memoir, she claimed that having a biological child had lent her a magical epiphany, especially in comparison with her previous experience, co-parenting the son of her former lesbian partner, singer Meshell Ndegeocello. “It’s not the same,” she wrote in Baby Love. “I don’t care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your nonbiological child isn’t the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood … Yes, I would do anything for my first son, within reason. But I would do anything at all for my second child, without reason, without a doubt.”


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