What’s the Matter, Goofy?

The fabulous Thanksgivingmom asked on an adoption forum whether other birthmoms ever hold back when they give their placed kids presents:

Do you ever worry about giving the “keepsake” gifts for fear that they won’t be kept and treasured the way you hope?

I have this (probably) irrational fear that I’m going to send something that means a lot to me or that’s in some way symbolic and that it won’t be received as such.

I answered her briefly there, but I want to talk about it in a little more detail here. At first, I thought of clothes—we gave a couple of things, I suspect that they were not at all liked by Ruth or Nora, and he didn’t (as I realized later I’d sort of expected) wear any of them on a visit—or at all, maybe. My feelings were a bit hurt by that, which is my own fault; I somewhere picked up the idea that if you get the gift of clothes, you send that person a picture or pictures of the baby in said clothes, even if you don’t like them. (My mother is going to love this rule. ;)) Okay, we won’t send clothes again, because at this point it would feel like setting myself up for possibly inappropriate disappointment. But then I thought of a much better example:


These are just two mediocre picture books, but I adored them as a little kid. I can still recite from memory Goofy’s song at the end of the book (“I paid the price of a friend’s advice and worked at jobs I did not like—but now I can work even harder! And be who I am: Goofy the Gardener!”) or Miss Mouse’s startled cry upon seeing her garden (“‘Oh my goodness,’ cried Miss Mouse, ‘My garden grew too much!’”). I loved those books with a deep and unreasoning love, and I still have the copies that were mine. I wouldn’t want to send those, of course, because they’re in lousy condition—but I certainly will get futurekid his or her own copies, and I would love to send the pair to Cricket. Except that I don’t think they would be special for his family. I am hesitant about suggesting that he has things in common with us. Oh, I’ll say things to Mr. Book—“He looks so much like us!” “He got your sweaty feet!”—but I’m very shy about it with his parents.

Ruth sent me an email this week talking about how she sees his personality resembling mine in some ways, which feels like a rare and fragile gift. It seems like the kind of thing that she can offer and I can’t reach for. It’s also a little strange because some of the things she described sound much more like my husband than like me, but they know him so little that she wouldn’t have any idea. So I did, in my reply, mention that something she mentioned sounded like Mr. Book—and then I felt a little conflicted, but I left it in.

The email overall felt very friendly, which I greatly appreciated. And, since it’s a new month and all, I spent my monthly allowance on baby/kid stuff. While I was browsing children’s books on amazon, I started to want very much to send a book to Cricket. I have a blanket-if-vague permission from Ruth and Nora to occasionally send something if I like as long as it doesn’t get to be too much or too weird, and a book probably wouldn’t cross that line. I want to send him books especially because I am a great reader and hoarder of books—I have, shoot, I’ve never counted but certainly more than hundreds of books. Hell, I probably have a hundred children’s books (if you count young adult books, most of which were bought for myself). But Ruth and Nora own very few books, preferring to rely almost entirely on the library. For me, a life not surrounded by my books sounds sad . . . so I want to surround Cricket with books a little bit. And then I started trying to figure out what kind of book would be appropriate: board books are out, because he’s not allowed to chew on them or treat them roughly (so what’s the point), I accidentally picked a book for Christmas that in hindsight seems super adoption-y and I am now a bit paranoid about that, I know that they don’t want to expose him to books that contain things they don’t do or agree with (for example, someone gave them Bedtime for Francis, but spanking is mentioned, so it’s out). . . . It’s not just me, right? This sounds hard?

So I narrowed it down to three books, worried about all three, and gave up. Maybe next month.


20 thoughts on “What’s the Matter, Goofy?

  1. I so related to this post, Susie, although in my case I’m the adoptive parent. At Christmas, I spent a lot of time agonizing over what to send my son’s first mom. I finally decided to send her some of his favorite books. I wrote her a letter describing how much he loves these books and why. I sent photos of him with the books and told her his favorite pages and pictures. She has other children and I said that I hoped that she and her children might enjoy the books.

    In my heart, I wanted her to *love* the books, because our son does — it just felt important to me, that she could get to know who he really is through these books. She’s not someone who is very open with her feelings, but the only response I got after sending the gift was “thanks.” Which is nice, but like you and the clothes for Cricket, I guess the gift had meaning to me and I wanted it to have some special meaning to her as well. I’m hoping that maybe it does, but she just isn’t expressing that to me.

    • I never thought about it working in the other direction–possibly because we don’t get gifts from Ruth and Nora–but that would have made me so sad. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had the same issue. 😦

  2. Only a few of my childhood books made it past my mother’s zealous purgings, so when I started having kids I went to eBay purchased my childhood favorites that I couldn’t find in print, or that had been re-illustrated with different art in recent editions. I wanted my kids to have the same ones I’d had.

    Sometimes they loved them as much as I did, sometimes they didn’t. It was disappointing to me that they didn’t see what I did in some of those favorites, and made me wonder about them. But when my middle daughter told me she loved one of my most treasured horse books, and what she loved about it, I literally felt like I could hear angels singing.

    I can empathize about choosing a book that in hindsight seemed super-adoptiony. I’ve been surprised a few times as I’m reading to my son that a story I’d read lots of times before to other children suddenly sounds different in the light of him being adopted.

    • Many of my favorites are out of print as well, but for me, that’s meant finding $0.01 copies in pretty good condition. Woo! If you don’t mind, what was the book you both loved?

      Some time I’m going to make a list of the children’s books that I’ve felt have stealth adoption content–it’s a long one. If anyone wants to contribute, maybe you can help me avoid future egg on my face!

      • The book my daughter made me so happy by loving was Silver Birch, by Dorothy Lyons, published in 1939. I don’t know where my mom found it in the late 1970’s, but I got it for my 11th birthday and I handed it to my middle daughter at around the same age. Oh, if all the problems in life could be solved as easily as those of the girls in Silver Birch!

        A picture book from my childhood that all my kids loved is Miss Lollipop’s Lion, by Judy Vargas. If I was as serious about things as Ruth & Nora with the Frances, I might have skipped giving it to my kids because of the whip-wielding and circus-animal scenes in the book (I’m totally against animals in circuses)but I felt like the overall message and delight of the book overrode that part.

    • Yeah, I thought so too. =/ Mia, I loved Miss Lollipop’s Lion when I was a kid! I plan to check out the other you mention–thanks so much.

  3. I just sent a package to Caroline (photos, chocolate) kind of for valentine’s day which falls just about a week after Saskia’s b’day. What I realized early on, say the xmas before Saskia was born was that *nothing* I can ever give her can match even vaguely what she gave us, Saskia. In a way, that thought was freeing. What I realize is that even though hard, I’ve also given her something important: the comfort that Saskia is loved & thriving in a great home. It is all so much more complicated than that. But that underlying sense that we actually did our big giving up front is helping me.

    I think you picked a great topic & I agree about the hidden adoption content. Are You My Mother? (Now, I cringe. but as a kid or even as a mother to others… okay & now I feel like Are you Kidding?)

    • I may be taking the stealth adoption content thing a bit too far, but I run down a mental list: Miss Suzy has a line about the main character taking care of some others “like she was their mother,” any book in which a pet joins the family, Curious George, Babar….

  4. 1) I felt very stressed by what to give Caroline for gifts b/c I felt she’d given me so much more than I could ever match (true: Saskia). The only thing that eased the dread was realizing that I also am giving something to her: a happy loved child in a home that feels right to C. It’s so much more complicated than that but there was a shift for me realizing we were both giving something (different somethings).

    2) books are always perfect. & even the board book thing could have a reason (we are more lax these days but given that my husband is an antiquarian book dealer we do try to teach the kids not to chew/bite/break/tear books).

    Frances rocks, spanking or no.

    3) Are you My Mother? Seriously, how did I ever like that book?

  5. Board books ARE meant to be eaten, savored and slobbered on! Lots of fiber :). All Woob’s books he’s gotten over time(which are now literally spilling out of his little bookcase in his room) are still with us and he likes to pull out some of the old ones and comment on the especially “eaten” ones. “When I was a baby, I ate this book. why did I eat it? I tasted good!” And for the record, torn books are what tape was made for! I don’t really care What it is that N. sends us as gifts, I will be keeping every one of them for Woob to do with as he chooses as he grows. He also knows which those things are. One thing I hope that Woob gains from us, well, two things–appreciation for reading/a love of books, and a sense of appreciation for gifts given simply because it shows someoen was thinking of you (not WHAT the gift was).

  6. As an adoptive mother, I love the keepsake gifts sent by our children’s birth family. I’ve purchased a special chest. All of these special gifts, plus cards and letters and photos go into the chest. (As a librarian, books will be saved and eventually go into it as well.) Right now they are too young for it to matter to them, but one day it will matter greatly and I want them to know that we honored these things that were sent.

    Gifts like generic toys & clothes just go into the rotation and will one day be donated or recycled or thrown away. We get so much of that from so many different sources that we forgot what came from whom.

  7. I totally agree that a lot of books that never caught my attention before now seem like they are about adoption. But I notice it even more in the juvenille fiction selections. I’ve been reading all the Roald Dahl books with my 6-year-old and pretty much in EVERY book, the main character has dead parents or parents who abandoned them or is being raised by a family member. I love Roald Dahl, but when I reached the end of Matilda this last time and her parents just drove off and left her with Miss Honey without a glance in the rearview mirror, I cringed imagining my youngest son (who joined our family through adoption) reading this. In other juvenille fiction, there is frequent reference to adoption (“I must be adopted” comments for example) and plenty of other books where the main character is adopted (usually under very sad circumstances or by very strange people). What to do?

    • I saw a list somewhere of every Disney animated feature’s hero and what had happened to his or her parents (e.g., Snow White: Dead mother, abusive stepparent; Penny (The Rescuers): Orphan, institutional life, then adopted by abusive single woman; Simba (Lion King): Dead mother, father dies, raised by two unmarried males)–no help there!

    • As a children’s librarian and someone who has studied children’s literature extensively I feel the need to comment.

      This is true of virtually all children’s literature. There is a saying in the children publishing world: “First you have to get rid of the parents.” The reason is that when parents are present in literature, children have very little autonomy. In order for them to have adventures or exert their independence or what have you, the parents need to either not be present or be very much in the background and hardly ever there.

      It is actually developmentally important for children to read about fictional children doing things without their parents. It helps them to take an imaginary step towards independence and adulthood. The process of growing up begins by imagining yourself in a position without someone telling you what you should do. Literature is a safe way to begin this developmental process.

      • I can certainly understand how adoption/dead parents/absent parents are a useful literary device. I mean, Matilda wouldn’t be very interesting if Matilda’s parents had been lovely caring people — they would never have let her go to Miss Trunchbull’s school and she would never have had need to develop her powers, much less use them cleverly against her parents!

        It is more that when I read a book where the main character is “adopted,” I wonder how my son will feel about this. Maybe for most kids this type of book allows them to “take an imaginary step towards independence,” but I wonder if my son will instead be reflecting on his personal history and what it means. I would imagine that these are the same concerns a parent might have if their child lost a parent — how does it feel to them to read about a main character who has “conveniently” lost a parent?

        I don’t think there is an answer — every kid is different. Maybe my son will grow up and read Matilda and really feel her abandonment and ruminate on how her story stacks up against his own, or maybe he’ll read Matilda and just appreciate it as a fun story and spend the evening trying to move objects with his eyes! But reading these books with my son in mind makes me pay more attention to the obvious and not so obvious adoption themes in them.

      • That makes perfect sense, and I certainly don’t worry about it for the kid/s I hope to raise–I just worry about seeming like I’m sending subliminal messages to Cricket and his parents.

  8. Talk about subliminal adoption messages in children’s books! I would be curious to know what people think of Horton Hatches the Egg – classic Dr. Seuss. My daughter really likes this book, but it makes me cringe!

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