When I was adopted in 1946, the unrealistic expectations my adoptive parents were given by the adoption social worker were terribly unfair to them, but also pretty darned unfair to me, too.
Of course there are all the usual ones. Most egregious is the one we adoptees all know... the one that said, “If you do a really good job as a parent, she will never want to know anything about her birthparents.”
Then, hedging their bets I suppose, is the one that said, “If she ever does want any information about her birthparents, all you need to do is come to us and ask.” Not all she needs to do, notice, but all you need to do. My adoptive parents, in partnership with the social worker, were set up from the start as the sieve through which all my questions and the answers would be strained and filtered. I was not a part of that plan. But I digress.
The one really unrealistic expectation “my” social worker set up before my adoption was finalized was, “Her I.Q. is one point below genius, so she will be able to take advantage of every opportunity you will be able to offer her.”
I really wonder how the social worker knew this. I was a bit over a year old at the time and barely able to speak. If I had been older, I might have laughed out loud. But again, I digress.
Still, my adoptive parents were required to have me tested, at their own expense of course, sometime before the adoption was finalized. I needed to prove myself able to see and hear perfectly or I would not have been offered for adoption. I also needed to demonstrate my intelligence.
And the intelligence test I was given? My adoptive mother told me about it years later. The doctor had a large picture of some items that he held up for me. He said, “Show me the shoe.” It seems I had just received a new pair of shoes for the special occasion so, quite naturally, I stuck my newly-shod foot straight up and out. “Yes, that’s a very nice shoe,” he said, “but show me the shoe in the picture. “ The second time I barely missed hitting him in the face with the shoe... the one that was definitely not in the picture.
So... onward. No sense kicking a dead horse, or a lively doctor either.
The next task was to put the doll in the chair. The problem was that there was a piece of glass between the child with the doll (me) and the designated chair. The less gifted child would try to put the doll through the glass and into the chair. The “genius” would simply walk around the glass and install the doll safely in the chair. My response? I pulled the glass over and shattered it. But I did put the doll in the chair exactly as I had been instructed.
And so on it went. I can only wonder how the doctor managed to score his test... after he swept up the glass from his floor. Whatever dilemmas he must surely have dealt with, the score eventually did come back to the social worker and I was one I.Q. point below genius. Yeah! You bet!
My parents’ problem, especially my mother’s problem, was that I never managed to live up to my hype.
Yes, at first I got A or A+ in the school subjects, but my teachers wrote that I could do so much better if I would only apply myself, and they all staunchly refused to give me better than A- in effort.
My mother dissolved into tears when I eventually brought home a B+ in arithmetic. I clearly remember her sitting on the lid of the toilet seat sobbing, “Blessed Mother, where did I go wrong?”
Then I got my first D, in religion of all things. My own suspicion was that the grade was given in a fit of pique because I had, only recently, not stopped blowing my nose in class while Sister was giving the meditation. But that’s just my suspicion. My mother had her own suspicions. None of them boded well for me.
I was truly a mediocre student all the way through school. My mother had told me that she would send me to college to become something “respectable,” like a teacher or a nurse... but not an artist or a translator, which were my preferences. I took as many elective foreign language credits and art credits as I could manage, and those good grades actually helped save me from flunking out completely, but still I stuck with teaching. I really tried to please. Doggedly.
Then came a day that I remember especially well... the day before my adoptive mother died. I was barely twenty-one, and still needed her approval desperately, so I pointed out to her that I was finally a teacher, and that I was living on my own and able to support myself, and wasn’t she at least proud of me for that? Maybe that was the wrong time to ask. I don’t know. But her answer?
“No. I'm not proud of you. You could have done so much better.”
My mother died thinking that she had failed as a mother. But I had to live knowing that I had disappointed her in some basic way and truly not understanding how I could have done otherwise. All because of an unrealistic expectation... a lie actually, among many lies that need not have been told. I have long since forgiven my adoptive mother for believing them... and myself, for not living up to everyone's expectations. But I will never, ever forgive the social worker. Never.