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The Nuclear Family, Exploded


The van Schies home in Noho.  

It might seem odd that at the same moment that adoption has become increasingly open, common, and international, there has been such a discordant chord of suspicion about the status of these children—a note that sounds even more strongly in response to families that mix biological and adopted kids together. Tom Cruise’s two older children are eternally labeled his “adopted children” (as are all famous adopted children, no matter how old they get); when Katie Holmes gave birth to his first biological child, the photogenic Suri, the coverage implied that at last Cruise was truly a parent. After Madonna adopted her third child, David Banda, from Malawi, she hit a storm of contemptuous coverage, some focused on the fact that David still had a living father, but much insinuating that she was doing something shallowly hip, as if seeking out an exotic accessory. (Morrissey sneered that she’d soon be wearing David as a coat, having tired of him after fifteen minutes.)

But perhaps these reactions are not so surprising. After all, this wave of rhetoric comes at a time of stirring change for adoptive families in general, the climax of 50 years of change. Back in the fifties, adoption was a shameful, secretive experience for all points on the family triangle: Unable to conceive, a couple might quietly sign with an agency, spirit their new baby away from a hospital, and never, never, tell their child the story of the adoption (or at least, treat it as a taboo and dole out information gingerly). The same held true for biological mothers, who were told to forget the child they’d given up. Most parents sought infants who resembled them physically. The ideal adoption was the ultimate clean slate: wiping away the details not just of the birth family but of the adoption itself.

This began changing in the seventies, as advocates lobbied for open adoption records for both birth mothers and adopted children. A new ideal was evolving, one involving a fully transparent exchange of information between biological and adoptive parents, even, in many cases of domestic adoption, an ongoing relationship with the birth mother; in foreign adoptions, orphanage scandals led to parents’ seeking clarity about their children’s origins. (When Madonna adopted David, people were shocked that his father was still alive, but this is in fact not unusual with African adoptions: If the parents aren’t alive, a grandmother, aunts, or siblings may be.)

In addition, the demographics of adoption had shifted. Infertile couples had medical options; women were delaying birth and marrying later; abortion was legal and single motherhood a real option. Alternative structures—stepfamilies, gay families, interracial couples—enlarged the whole idea of family. Especially in urban centers like Manhattan, a new archetype has been forming: parents with one or two biological kids who decide to pursue adoption out of altruism as much as fertility issues.

But even as these changes have reshaped adoption, another shift was taking place: a cultural obsession with the heritability of just about everything. If a few decades ago, people romanticized the notion that children were clay squeezed freely by their caretakers, this idea has been replaced with one equally rigid and problematic, that we are, inevitably and only, our genes, blueprints building ourselves out of the womb. We live in a time in which parents have an enhanced expectation of control, fed by each prenatal test and a culture that analyzes each choice as a step on the path to optimum health, the best chance of success. Perhaps it’s no wonder that blended families raise such anxieties, making visible as they do that central tension of our time: What does it mean to be a parent?

Randi and Justin Fried, who live in West Orange, New Jersey, became friends with Tullis and Hubbell through their shared adoption agency. But unlike Tullis, who jokes that a third kid might break her, the Frieds have transformed, somewhat to their own astonishment, into the kind of complex, multisource family that startles outside observers—members of the Angelina Jolie club, in the Mia Farrow tradition. Their first adopted child, Chloe, 6, has Down syndrome. Their biological son, Kyle, 3, was a preemie; Randi gave birth to him after a difficult pregnancy, achieved with IVF. Two years later, they adopted Hana, 3, and Rebka, 8, sisters from Ethiopia. This fall, they will be welcoming the girls’ 15-year-old brother, Desalegn, who has lived in Ethiopia until now. “Mom to 5! When did that happen?!” Randi signs one e-mail.

In the Frieds’ large kitchen, a central island is piled with birthday cookies and crayons; the walls are nearly papier-mâchéd with Gandhi quotes and organizational charts. Kyle and Hana—“the twins,” Randi calls them, though one is white, one is black, one biological, one adopted—scribble pictures to my side as I frantically make notes, trying to sort out the huge cast of characters who crowd the room. Aside from the twins, there are Randi and Justin; Rebka and Chloe; Shana, Randi’s closest friend from childhood, and her two adopted Chinese girls; Beniam, a thirtyish Ethiopian friend who works at Shana’s school; and the Frieds’ teenage babysitter, who has come over this afternoon to teach Ethiopian dance—an extended set of kids, parents, helpers, and friends that mingle easily. I’m used to a Manhattan/Brooklyn mentality, one or two children planned like cautious investments. But the Fried household is more like an ever-expanding fan, revealing hidden capacities over time. (This is true of the Frieds’ crowded house, as well: The three girls share one bed, and Randi and Justin have cut a third off their master bedroom to create a private room for Desalegn.)


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