Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories –  Real Parents, Real Children (1993)

Source: Gulden, Holly Van, and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb. Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child. New York: Crossroad, 1993.

Micki McGee, Self-help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (Oxford 2005) p. 200


“I am adopted,” I have said many times to friends, strangers, anyone with whom the subject came up.

“Oh. Where is your real mom?” my companion would ask 95% of the time.

“Here. My mom– the one you know– the one who raised me– Karen. She is my “real” mom. Do you mean to ask about my birth mom?”

The above exchange is all too common in the lives of people who have been adopted or who have adopted children. In their 1993 book Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child, Holly Van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb (both adoption counselors and authors of many books on the subject of adoption) address the problematic notion of “real” parents and “real” children and what that popular contemporary point of view meant for adoptive parents in the 1990s and beyond as they looked into adopting and raising adopted children. Gulden and Bartels-Rabb say, “Parenting an adopted child is, for the most part, the same as parenting any other child… As adoptive parents we feel the need to assert that these are our children: We are not second best or second rate. We are our children’s real parents and they are our real children” (3).

Gulden and Bartels-Rabb throughout their book emphasize, however, the reality of the fact that adopted children are separated from their genetic past– and how that has very real effects on the later success of adoptive families. One of the authors’ keys to successfully navigating this challenge is, among other things, “accepting the child’s unique genetic endowment and the lack of a genetic connection to ourselves” (4).

Karen Duffy, in her 2016 interview, demonstrated a healthy view of this necessity in her comments that, because she was not genetically related to her two oldest children she wasn’t armed with family traditions on “ how to fix Maddie’s curly hair or treat her stomach issues,” (it was not until Maddie was 18 years old and had an African-american college roommate that she learned to manage her curly hair) or “ A more instinctive way of handling Steve’s ADD,” instead, Mrs. Duffy had to ‘play it by ear’, so to speak– which she acknowledges made parenting more difficult than she imagines it would have been for her children’s birth parents.

Gulden and Bartels-Rabb assert that A healthy parent/child relationship is a “three-legged stool” composed of “trust, usually referred to as the bond; positive interaction; and claiming and belonging” (16).

The Question of Bonding

Real Parents, Real Children describes a school of thought that gained popularity in the 1890s claiming children can only truly bond with their birth parents. “The theory stems from the work of Bourguignon and Watson, who define bonding as ‘the unique tie between child and biological parent, primarily the mother’… (1987, After Adoption, 12)” (19). Gulden and Bartels-Rabb find this philosophy very problematic– as do I. They say on page nineteen (bold added for emphasis),

“to say with accuracy that a child can never truly bond with adoptive parents depends on how you define bond. There is a ‘prenatal bond’ between birth child and parent, but this is an enhancer to attachment and the child’s identity formation, not a basis for bonding. If the womb experience were the primary foundation for bonding, then birth fathers, too, could never truly bond with their children. It would also leave us seeking to explain how birth mothers can fail to bond with their babies. What makes the bonding cycle work and what can cause it to deteriorate are the same for mothers and fathers, for genetically related and adoptive parents.”

Holly Van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb’s book Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child is, from a historical standpoint, an example of early 1990s adoption and parenting theory. Real Parents, Real Children presents timeless issues in parenting adoptive children in a true-to-the-times way– using what was for them cutting edge research to produce a book that was part of the self-help boom between 1972 and 2000 (McGee).


2 thoughts on “Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories –  Real Parents, Real Children (1993)

  1. I have come across situations where people are asked who their mother is, and then who their birth mother is. I believe that a mother isn’t established by blood, but by who fulfilled the motherhood position in their life. My husband does not see his blood father as he dad, but his step father as his dad. He feels like his step father did a better job being a father to him, then his real dad did.


    1. My Dad has a similar story. He actually ended up being sealed in the temple to his step dad, rather than to his biological father (who wasn’t a super great guy). It is interesting how people do, on the other hand, sometimes rank blood over everything else. My uncle (Dad’s older brother) is still bitter toward my dad for “replacing” their father and picking their step-dad “over” their “real” dad. It is still a pretty substantial source of conflict– twenty years later.


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