The world-famous primatologist discusses her new book, which is back on shelves after some controversy.
Writer Joyce Maynard has been very open with her readers about her life. When she adopted two girls from Ethiopia in 2010, she wrote about it in More magazine.
But two years later, she decided to give up the girls to another family. She speaks to Here & Now about that decision.
On deciding to adopt two children
“At the age of 55, with you can say either huge idealism or ignorance, I believed that I care for and make life okay for any child. And I missed doing that. My children were long gone and so I sought out an easily found two sisters who were of an age that was not going to make adoption easy for them. And I went to Ethiopia and I brought them home. And certainly did so with an utter, absolute resolution that I would be their mother forever.”
On the decision to give them up
“And very early on in the process I recognized that they were not in the place that they should be. But I certainly felt for a long time that I must make it okay, and for 14 months I abandoned pretty much everything else in my life to try and do that. But it wasn’t okay—it wasn’t okay for them. They needed something that I wasn’t giving them. Among other things, a father, other children, a more regulated home life and I came to realize, and it’s not a choice that a lot of people can understand, and I have been much judged for making it, but I am making it very clear that I made the right decision for them. That the most loving thing I could do for them was to find them the right home and say good-bye to them, which I did.
On how the girls responded
“And of all the people who didn’t understand, I think two who did were the girls, who I called my daughters for a long time. I sat them down—we were all in the tub together actually—and I said to them, ‘You know, when I went to Ethiopia to bring you home, I made a promise to all the people who left you there that I would make sure you have a good life in America, and I will make sure you have a good life in America … I think you need a dad.’ And they did not argue with that one.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And now, a very tender topic - not for children; we'll give you a second to adjust. It's a conversation with author Joyce Maynard about her decision to give up two adopted, older children. She'd announced the adoptions with tremendous happiness, in a magazine article in 2010. A little over a year later, she quietly announced on a website that despite some happy times, the adoption failed. She was vilified in social media and has been largely silent since. She's still very protective of the girls' identities, and the specifics of their problems as a family. But recently, when we were in the middle of another conversation, Joyce Maynard decided to talk about her decision.
It sounded stunning, at first, to people: How could someone send children away - you know, especially children who had already been, obviously, abandoned because they were being adopted. You say...
JOYCE MAYNARD: I, at the age of 55, with you can say either huge idealism or ignorance, I believed that I could care for, and make life OK, for any child. And I missed doing that; my children were long gone. And so I sought out - and easily found - two sisters who were of an age that was not going to make adoption easy for them. And I went to Ethiopia, and I brought them home and certainly, did so with an utter, absolute resolution that I would be their mother forever. And very early on in the process, I recognized that they were not in the place where they should be. But I certainly felt for a long time that I must make it OK.
And for 14 months, I abandoned pretty much everything else in my life to try and do that. But it wasn't OK. It wasn't OK for them. They needed something I wasn't giving them; among other things, a father, other children, a more regulated home life. And I came to realize - and it's not a choice that a lot of people can understand, and I have been much judged for making it, but I am very clear that I made the right decision for them - that I needed - that the most loving thing I could do for them was to find them the right home and say goodbye to them, which I did.
I - and, you know, of all the people who didn't understand, I think two who did were the girls who I called my daughters for a long time. I sat them down - we were all in the tub together, actually - and I said to them, you know, when I went to Ethiopia to bring you home, I made a promise to all the people who loved you there that I would make sure you have a good life in America. And I will make sure you have a good life in America, and I think you need - I kept it simple. I said to them, I think you need a dad. And they did not argue with that one.
It was absolutely the hardest thing in my life to do what I did, which was to - first of all, there's no website you go to find the right people for two girls who have experienced extraordinary, unimaginable loss and pain - and just physical hardship, hunger. But I found a family, the right family, I believe; a family very different from me. And that was good news, that they were very different - lots of children. And I went - I made a long, hard journey - one of my sons came with me - hardest day of my life and probably, to date, of his, and we said goodbye. And I do not see them, and I do not hear from them. And I expect one day, at a time of their choosing, we will meet again.
But right now - it's over two years now. Right now, the job is to let them grow and sink their roots. And I had to figure out why - how it was that I could have been so wrong, and so arrogant, as to suppose I could fix anything, do anything, make anything work. And I - it humbled me. It made me much less of a judging person myself - because I have been so judged for this.
YOUNG: Well, it sounds as if you're saying that part of fixing yourself was recognizing that you could not be the mother that you wanted to between - these two girls.
MAYNARD: I stopped - I let go of the idea that I could do everything, and it was a great move.
YOUNG: Well, tell us more because I am betting that there are ears to the radio right now - of people who felt the same way; that they would bring children into their lives - whether foster children or adoptive children - and it isn't going well, and they don't know how to admit that.
MAYNARD: You know, this is - I have to be very careful what I say here, and I will. I'm going to answer that question. But first, I want to say: I will never be a voice suggesting that adoption should not occur. I'm not...
YOUNG: Of course not. Yeah.
MAYNARD: I believe that there is - that there are children out in the world with - who will die if someone doesn't come and take care of them. And best of all, certainly, if it could be done in their culture and in their country, but sometimes it can't. But having said that, I will say that the way international adoption, particularly of older children - children who already have formed lives, language, relationships, culture - and you pick them up and bring them to wonderful America - and in my case, it was perfect Marin County - is an enormously complex experience for them that I don't think very many adoptive parents are fully prepared for.
And I hear from - I've now heard from hundreds of adoptive parents who are struggling, and whose children are struggling. And there needs to be, certainly, a different level of understanding before people embark on this. I thought I'd read the books and taken the classes. But how could I have supposed that a child who was 12 would come with such deep losses and hurt that were not going to be solved by, you know, the catchword - you know, now I'm your forever family.
I believe it is possible to heal deep, deep wounds. But the people who are equipped to do it had better have deep, deep reserves themselves to struggle through some hard times. And I've struggled through a lot of them. But I wasn't, finally, the person who was going to be able to bring them through. And I see my role as the person who got them to the people who can.
YOUNG: Could you tell if the girls felt betrayed?
MAYNARD: When I said goodbye to them, they could not even look at me anymore, and I do understand that because I'm a lot older than they are. And that's part of what I needed to recognize, that they had to absolutely let me go. And I needed to let them know that I loved and cared about them - it wasn't hard for me to say that - but not to keep that string connected that was only going to tug them back. You know, it is one of the hardest things to say about this, that this was the hardest thing that ever happened in my life, and I've had a few.
MAYNARD: This was not one of the 10 hardest things that happened in theirs. They were already girls who had lived through a lot of losses. And they needed to get on with building a new life where this wasn't going to happen anymore. I needed to absolutely find people who were rock-solid, going to be able to see this through. And I believe I did.
YOUNG: Joyce, thanks so much.
MAYNARD: It's always good to talk with you, Robin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: Author Joyce Maynard on giving up the two older Ethiopian girls she'd adopted because she felt it was better for them.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Robin, you have to applaud her honesty in dealing with the situation.
YOUNG: There's been a lot of reaction to her. And there have been calls for more supportive families adopting older children, which according to research, those adoptions are more likely to lead to what's called adoption disruption. So if you have thoughts on this, please share them at hereandnow.org.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.