Birthdays and Adoptees: Finding Power in Both

My sons were adopted as babies; my twin daughters at six years old. When they were little, we had the mad abundance of birthday parties, at the pool, the soccer field, the grandparents’ front yard. The parties were full of presents, friends, family, ice cream, and cake.

Who was missing at these birthday celebrations? The women who gave birth to the children. The people (fathers, siblings, grandparents) who are biologically related to them.

I can’t help but wonder what those birth days were like for those family members.

Birthday parties evolve over time. Some adoptees have a rough time on their birthdays. In our family, we have all grown in our understanding of how a child’s beginnings can affect the child, and how powerful memories can be. We have seen how longing for what is not conscious can be quite deep. We have lived watching the ways that trust can be broken and losses felt, and how hard it is to heal that broken trust. My children’s birthdays are still celebrated, of course: they can count on receiving socks every year. And other stuff too. But they are in their late 20’s now. Still very young, but hardly children–except in the sense that they are always my children.

They are also the children–always–of their first families. Each child has had a different approach to connecting with their family of birth, and those stories are theirs alone to tell.

Today is the 27th birthday of my twin daughters, Adanech and Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia in 1994. Aselefech has been actively involved with the adoptee community. She wrote a wonderful post today at Lost Daughters, a writing collective of women adopted in the US or internationally as children. In it, she celebrates her connections with other Ethiopian adoptees whose hearts are in the country of their birth, their mother land, their home country. These young people, part of the diaspora, are actively working to help their younger selves in Ethiopia: children who witness their mothers die, children who are deeply loved but whose families are horrifically impoverished, children who beg on the streets, children who are unable to walk or to see, children who never go to school.

Happy Birth Day. May all children know safety, love, education, and hope. May these adoptees bring light and healing to each other and to the children. May all the voices be heard.

My daughters, my granddaughter, and me. © Maureen McCauley Evans

So Much More Than A Halloween Costume

Halloween costumes have taken on a whole new level of complexity. Some call it political correctness, or over-sensitivity: just lighten up. I admit to being puzzled about where to draw the line. Blackface and sexualization of children via costumes are clearly wrong, but sometimes the mingling of what is racist, what the intent was, and who is wearing the costume creates confusion and misunderstanding. I learn from the insight of others’ hard-earned experience.

My own take is to listen and learn, to do my best to let go of my own stereotypes and biases. I’m a middle-aged white woman who has benefited from white privilege, and who has raised children of color and seen (but not lived) their struggles in a racist world. I’ve had various experiences of being “other:” as the only girl in a classroom of all boys during my high school years, as the only white person in the stands at a middle school basketball game, as a white woman being photographed unasked in Korea because of my blue eyes, as a white American in Ethiopia being asked multiple times in front of my granddaughter if I was adopting her. But those experiences were interesting or annoying, not painful and scarring. I could (and did) walk back into my safe and privileged world, a nice enough place to be.

When our eyes and hearts have been opened by those we love, when we make an intentional effort to let go of stereotypes and biases, when we look through the lenses of those who we admire and respect–well, we see things differently, and that truly is a gift. Unsettling sometimes, not necessarily the gift we wanted, and exactly right.

Imagine an essay by a West Point graduate who served as an engineer in the US army, writing to a friend about a white woman dressed as a geisha for Halloween.

Imagine an essay by a Korean adoptee, who is also an adoptive mom, writing to her friend about the same issue.

Turns out the West Point grad, the US Army veteran, the Korean adoptee, the mom: they are all the same person, Soojung Jo.

Here’s are excerpts from Soojung’s essay, “What the Fog Took: A Halloween Story,” at Lost Daughters:

“I was nervous as I rehearsed the conversation in my mind.  There were so many ways to say it, and most of them felt wrong – overly sensitive, accusing, weak. I knew I had to approach one of my dearest friends with caution, because matters of race always seem to get volatile.

I checked the photo again, just to be sure of my position. One of my closest friends (we’ll call her April) had posted pictures from a Halloween party. In them, April’s husband (we’ll call him Mark) wore my husband’s old Army uniform, with my married name embroidered above the left breast pocket. April wore a silky kimono, a black wig, and her face painted chalky white (she is not Asian). The photo was captioned ‘Geisha?  Or mail order bride?'”

Soojung wrote a letter to her friend April that included this:

“…That kind of stereotype supports racism – maybe not racial discrimination, but rather the kind that gets my kids made fun of in school. It would be an insult and hurtful if a kid called one of my kids a ‘geisha girl’ which is the same as calling them sluts or hookers, but with a worse, racial connotation. I’m not angry or complaining, just being honest with you and because we’re friends we owe each other that kind of honesty.”

And…

“The backlash was terrible but predictable.  It started with simple disagreement. It escalated to accusations that I was the jerk,that I was accusing April and Mark of racism. I was told it’s ‘people like you’ who take the fun out of Halloween.  I questioned myself, was I really being too sensitive?  Was I overreacting?  Was I throwing the race card, which sensible, mainstream minorities should never, ever throw?  Or was I simply asking for acknowledgement from a close friend that something she had done made me feel extremely uncomfortable with the stereotypes it reinforced for both myself and my daughters?”

Read Soojung’s whole powerful and important essay here.

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Photo by Maureen Evans; San Juan Island, WA.

 

 

 

That Viral Adoptive Parent Video: Who’s Laughing Loudest?

A video went viral recently. You know, the one by an adoptive dad about asking intrusive questions to adoptive parents about adoption, or more specifically about their adopted children. “If you wouldn’t ask it about a boob job, don’t ask it about adoption.” Hilarious and helpful, right? Jesse Butterworth, a Christian pastor, created it with his wife, and included their 2-year-old Ethiopian daughter in it.

Alongside the Internet tidal wave of laughter and elbow-poking (adoptive parents nudging each other: So true! Incredibly funny! Can’t wait to share!), there is a small, quiet, reflective pool of thought that says, “Um no, not really all that funny.”

One reflection was a roundtable discussion by several adopted adults who participate on the thoughtful, powerful Lost Daughters site. Please take a look at their insights here.

The almost visceral response to any criticism of the video: “Lighten up!” “Where’s your sense of humor?” “It’s a great way to get a point across, with laughter.”  “Jeez. Why are you so negative?”

Oh those negative adoptees.

The video was posted on dozens (probably hundreds) of adoptive parent blogs and Facebook sites. The roundtable discussion was on far fewer.

Here’s an exchange that reflects typical responses to the video and the Lost Daughters’ response, from an adoptive parent Facebook group:

(Parent 1): My three adopted daughters watched the video and they all thought it was hilarious!!!!

(Parent 2): Thanks for sharing that. I think sometimes the outspokenly negative adult adoptees can sometimes steal the spotlight from other, more reasonable adoptees.

I don’t think we have to avoid saying/writing anything that could possibly offend any adoptee, birth mom, etc, because that would be pretty much impossible, IMO. Adoptive parents do have a right to be heard as well.

(Parent 3): I laughed at the video and though it was made with the best of intentions, but I am glad someone posted the link to this (Lost Daughters) article. It is a perspective I had not thought about.

In re Parent 1: I don’t know how old her daughters are. Maybe they are all adults. And I know there are adopted adults who also found the video funny.

In re Parent 2: Gak. The outspokenly negative adoptees stealing the spotlight. Kind of like the negative thinkers/speakers in many a civil rights/human rights movement stealing the spotlight from those who weren’t speaking out.

Adoptive parents, in my humble opinion as an adoptive parent, do not struggle with being heard. Look at any adoption agency: their staff, their clients, their policies. Look at the huge Christian evangelical orphan movement: adoptive parents. Look at legislators in adoption policy on a local, state, and federal level: if not adoptive parents themselves, they are heavily influenced and lobbied by adoptive parents. We adoptive parents may have a few problems, but being heard isn’t one of them.

In re Parent 3: There is a hard, real truth: an adoptive parent acknowledging that the perspective of adult adoptees–that the video could be seen as marginalizing or thoughtless–had never occurred to her. I give her credit for saying that. I believe she is not alone in that perspective.

There’s a sea change going on in adoption right now. Adult adoptees are finally being heard. More US adoptees are gaining access to their original birth certificates, a basic civil right denied to no other group except adopted people. Adopted adults are asking for a place at the table of policy and progress: not an unreasonable request.

At the same time, as in any other social change, adopted adults are not always welcomed, especially when they are critical of adoption policies. Lighten up, they are told. Sure, remember how we used to laugh about “women drivers”? Stop being so negative. Sure, remember the word “uppity”? Let’s all just take a deep breath and relax. Let’s be “reasonable.”

No. Let’s not.

I remember being asked all those questions in the video about my own transracial adoptive family, especially when the kids were little. It’s not news. And having a sense of humor is absolutely important in dealing with hard subjects. It’s all that gets us through the day sometimes.

But that said, let’s not lose a tremendously important reality and perspective here. It gets hard to keep smiling through tears sometimes.

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Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees?

We adoptive parents are often taught (and teach) that adoption is win-win: a child who needs a family gets one, and an adoptive family who wants a child gets one. And that’s often true. My own family was formed through adoption, and I love my children more than I  can say.

The story goes on, though, and this is where it gets complicated. For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.

That’s a painful reality for adoptive parents to face. It’s even harder, I would guess, for adoptees and for first parents.

Mila Konomos, a Korean adult adoptee (who loves and is loved by her adoptive family), has written a powerful, insightful essay about the loss, the complexity of it all. It’s called “I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother.”

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Adoption, Mila writes, too often suggests that adopted children are supposed to never look back. “I was supposed to be so grateful to have a family that losing my family was supposed to be a negligible event with very little effect on my life or identity.”

Adoption, she continues, “is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together.”

She challenges us adoptive parents: “If the bond of one’s own flesh and blood ultimately doesn’t matter, then how much less of a bond, of a commitment, does friendship or marriage carry with it?”

Take time to contemplate that, as it is a hard-won and very real insight.

It’s a painful one for adoptive parents to consider. We go through a lot to adopt a child, we prepare to love them before they arrive, and we do our best to love them deeply when they are in our family. (Most do. I recognize this is not a universal truth.) It’s hard to think that we became parents of a beloved child because someone else had to give that child up. And it’s so important that we think long and hard about that truth.

Yes, of course, there are cases where the first parents were abusive toward, neglectful of, or dangerous to their children. I’m not arguing that adoption plans aren’t needed in this world. I’m joining Mila on the journey of acknowledging that adoption is rooted in loss.

I’m reading with eyes wide open her statement that “If you believe that…your role in a relationship is disposable, then you behave in such a way that those friendships and relationships don’t last, which you then use to confirm that indeed relationships do not last and that you ultimately do not matter.”

For some (not all) adoptees, that’s a complicated, lifelong challenge. I think of a baby who at four months learned to stop crying to have needs met, because those needs were not met in a loving way. I’ve seen this challenge manifest in an adult adoptee who, while charismatic, bright, and loved, often pushes his adult relationships to a messy end, in a self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling effort to prove that relationships don’t last. I’ve known adult adoptees who struggle with trusting that others will love them and not leave, who choose not to love so they can avoid being left, avoid being replaced.  Again.

Mila concludes her essay by saying that adoption has taught her “that family is inconsequentially interchangeable and replaceable. I’ve had to spend my adult life trying to unlearn this lesson and its implications, because I realize that ultimately (was) wrong. I realize now that flesh and blood connections absolutely matter, and when they are severed, there are serious psychological and social consequences.”

What’s the takeaway from all this? To me, as an adoptive parent, it’s this:

Listen to adopted children, and let them grieve the loss of their first family, in all the manifestations that grief can take. Talk about, wonder about, write letters to, connect with their first parents in whatever ways are appropriate for your family. I remember how one of my children used to weep hot tears on Mother’s Day, not being able to recall deeply important memories. We can’t always remove the pain, and it’s hard knowing that our actions are intertwined with the pain. Sometimes our best help is to let those tears flow, and not try to make them disappear right away.

Listen to adult adoptees, whether they are in your own family or they are writing and speaking out in various forums. Mila speaks of her struggles, and also of the love of her husband and the joys of her two young children. There’s a big picture here. It’s valuable.

As adoptive parents, may we revel in the joy of parenting, and become comfortable with the reality of loss and grief. But not too comfortable. May we be willing to lead or to follow, as needed, to help our children–whether 10 years old, or 16, or 30–understand who they are, where they came from, why they may feel replaceable, even as we could never replace them.

Adoption is not an end. It’s merely a part of a path that can be alternately convoluted and smooth, with very few signs to guide us. We can’t change the past, and we must not deny its realities. We must keep moving forward, together: adopted persons, adoptive parents, and first parents. That is the only way that we can effectively improve adoption policy and practice, and outcomes for children. Adopted children grow up! May we adoptive parents be their allies, always.

Please read Mila’s post carefully, wherever you are in adoption. This video of her reunion with her Korean mother is also evocative and valuable. Many thanks to Mila, and to other adoptees who share their journeys with open hearts.

 

 

 

When Adoptees Become Mothers

Often, when we think about adoption, we think only of babies or little children. Adoptees, of course, grow up. They are parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The fact of being adopted or having been adopted has not changed, though the way they look at adoption–its meaning, its value, its power–may well have changed through the years.

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Lost Daughters posted this writing prompt this morning:

The prompt: In what way, if any, has your experience as an adoptee affected the way you parent? Does your adoptedness impact your children and/or your relationship with them? When you consider the choices you have made or might make in the future regarding reproduction, does adoptedness play a role?

Already there have been several thoughtful responses. I hope to read more, and encourage everyone to send this link on to anyone they know who is adopted and is a mom or grandma. I’m sending this on to my daughter; when she gave birth to her daughter almost 7 years ago, her perspective on being adopted took a whole new journey.

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Here is information about the (wonderful, powerful, amazing) Lost Daughters site:

Lost Daughters is an independent collaborative writing project founded in 2011.  It is edited and authored by adult women who were adopted as children.  Our name was chosen in the spirit of BJ Lifton’s concept of one’s Self becoming “lost” and “found” throughout the experience of being adopted.

Our mission is to bring readers the perspectives and narratives of adopted women, and to highlight their strength, resiliency, and wisdom.  We aim to critically discuss the positives and negatives of the institution of adoption from a place of empowerment and peace.

Strength, resiliency, wisdom, empowerment, and peace.

Not always the first words we associate with adoption, but consider the possibilities if we did. May we continue to listen, to speak out, and to learn.