You know how Jane Brown famously said that internationally adoptive parents are a fifth best choice? (And I’ll assume that domestic transcultural adoptive parents are a fourth best choice.)
The first, she believes, is for children to remain with their birthparents; second-best is for a child to be adopted by, or remain with, a member of the extended family; third-best is to be raised by people of the same race in the country of one’s birth, and fourth-best is to be raised by members of the same race outside the country of one’s birth.
(quoted from The Pain of Adoption)
What she’s talking about are the levels of adoption loss — the loss of a biological connection and then the loss of a cultural connection. If we adopt transracially/transculturally, our children become biracial/bicultural regardless of their biological roots. A Birth Project wrote about this several years ago.
(Note: I know that it’s hard for adoptive parents to read a quote like Jane’s above and I include it not to make transracially/transculturally adoptive parents feel bad but to galvanize them to confront the unique challenges their children face. Information is power and I believe in empowering parents so that they can make their own best decisions.)
The transracially adoptive parent’s goal can’t be to do “as good a job” at nurturing her child’s birth culture in in the same way that a parent who shares that birth culture could because that would be an impossible goal. We can’t understand the nuances of that culture the way we could if we had grown up there. We can read, we can visit (as an observer, as a tourist) but we can’t live it.
It’s kind of the same thing when people say that doing a white child’s hair is as difficult or as important as doing a black child’s hair. No, it isn’t. Even if the two children have the exact same hair texture, if one child has pink skin and one has brown, the state of their hair has different cultural connotations. There’s an extra layer to the discussion. We can exchange hair tips, talk conditioner, and trade beads and baubles but when we send our kids out into the world, they bear a different weight in their curls.
There are a lot of challenges in being a transcultural parent (and I include bio parents who are transculturally parenting — especially if they do not have a co-parent who reps the culture of the child) and one challenge is trying to make sense of when our values are more or less important than the values of the child’s birth culture.
This is ongoing work and it will look different for different families and different at different time in our children’s lives.
I was thinking about this quote because a few weeks ago I spent an afternoon talking about open adoption with a group of people looking for more education on the topic. One attendee was expressing her concern that adoptive parents might feel hurt if their children “choose” their birth parents and it’s true that some adoptive parents can feel insecure or afraid in open adoptions and in reunions, too. But love truly is infinite and when we give our children that experience of infinite love, we can know that they will reflect this back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I’m excited to be hosting a discussion-centric workshop next month in my Worthington office for adoptive parents who want help with starting adoption conversations with their kids. I’m keeping the group small to give everyone a chance to talk, ask questions and get support from the other parents and hopeful parents who will attend. I’ll be sharing lots of hand-outs, information about child development and how it relates to adoption and research about communicative openness (how parents talk to their kids) to help families have these important conversations with confidence.
You can learn more about the class by going here and register for it by going here. If you’re interested in the workshop but can’t make it this time, please subscribe to my newsletter to learn when I’ll be offering the next one. (The newsletter sign up is over there in the sidebar.)
Please let me know if you have any questions. And if you’d like individual support, you can always make an appointment to talk with me (I’m happy to offer one or two appointments with parents who just want to get some extra guidance but don’t need to enter into an official counseling relationship).
Adoption Network Cleveland‘s Executive Director and founder, Betsie Norris, has been working on legislation for all Ohio-born adoptees to gain access to their original birth certificates for years. Ohio has a wacky three tier system that has allowed adoptees born before 1963 and those after September 1996 to get copies of their original birth certificates but all other adoptees were left in the dark. That’s all about to change thanks to the tireless efforts of Betsie and her team of volunteers, which includes Kate Livingston, founder of the Ohio Birth Parent Group.
This is their press release in its entirety:
Governor is Scheduled to Sign Adoptee Rights Bill — Affecting 400,000 Adoptee Records
Columbus, OH – Governor John Kasich is scheduled to sign Substitute Senate Bill 23 into law on Thursday, December 19th in a private event. Once enacted, this new law will allow 400,000 adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
Adoption Network Cleveland founder and Executive Director Betsie Norris has been working tirelessly on this cause since founding the organization in 1988. This is the sixth bill in 25 years that has attempted to address this issue in Ohio. Norris stated, “We are grateful that Governor John Kasich has decided to act quickly to sign this bill into law. With the stroke of his pen, he is positively impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands Ohio adoptees.”
The bill passed the Ohio House on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 with a vote of 91-2. The bill had passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday, December 4, 2013. Senators Bill Beagle (R) and Dave Burke (R) sponsored the bill. An identical bill was sponsored in the House by Representatives Dorothy Pelanda (R) and Nickie Antonio (D).
The bill allows Ohio’s most disenfranchised adoptees, those adopted between 1964 and 1996 who currently have no direct mechanism to access their original birth certificates, access to this important personal document upon request. It also creates a mechanism for birthparents from that era to have a voice and indicate their preference regarding contact from their adult child. In addition, an amendment to the bill also allows birthparents a one-year window during implementation during which they can request that their name be redacted from the version of the birth certificate given to the adoptee. If they do so, they must provide a detailed medical history. Based on experience in other states, it is anticipated that very few if any birthparents will seek to remove their name.
After a 90-day enactment period, the bill has a one-year waiting period before any records will be released, therefore “opening day” will be in March 2015.
Original birth certificates in Ohio adoptions prior to 1964 are already available to those adult adoptees under current law. In September 1996, Ohio law changed to allow adoptees adopted from that date forward access to their birth certificates upon reaching age 21, or to their adoptive parents when the adoptee reaches age 18, unless the birthparent has asked not to be identified. The current legislation does not affect the laws governing these other time periods.
Equal access to original birth certificates has been a public policy goal of Adoption Network Cleveland since its founding in 1988. The Cleveland Foundation provided grant support to Adoption Network Cleveland for its work on this public policy initiative.
Adoptees and birthparents affected by this new law are available for interviews upon request.
ABOUT ADOPTION NETWORK CLEVELAND
Adoption Network Cleveland, a non-profit organization, provides support, education and advocacy for adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, foster youth and parents, foster care alumni and professionals. Founded in 1988, Adoption Network Cleveland recognizes adoption as a complex, lifelong and intergenerational journey for all those whose lives are touched by it. www.AdoptionNetwork.org. Adoption Network Cleveland is a member of Greater Cleveland Community Shares. www.communityshares.org.
I wanted to pull something out that Catana said in her comments to my last post because I thought it was really important:
When the teen years begin the issue becomes more difficult because, in addition to everything else, they wonder what their parent’s sexual behavior was and whether they will ultimately end up like them – unmarried and pregnant, and/or irresponsible adults. Teens need a confidante, typically not the adoptive family.
Catana is an adult adoptee so her words should hold extra resonance for those of us raising adopted children.
I think this is a piece that can be very difficult for adoptive parents to understand, especially those adoptive parents who have real reason to feel angry or critical about their children’s birth parents actions (such as in the case of foster-to-adopt when terrible abuse or neglect is what led the child into the system).
It is absolutely understandable that adoptive parents would feel very angry and resentful towards those birth parents who were abusive and neglectful but it is not appropriate to express that anger and resentment to the child without caveats. It is hugely important that adoptive parents make it clear that their criticism is directed to the birth parents behavior and not to the birth parents themselves.
This can get tricky.
An adoptive parent should never say, “Your birth mom was just an evil person. Your birth dad was always a loser.”
An adoptive parent can say, “I feel so angry that your birth mom hurt you; I wish she’d known how to be a better mom. I am so sad that your birth dad didn’t know how to be a good parent; he’s missing out on a really great kid.”
Again, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate to be angry and resentful about the behavior; it can be therapeutically important for the adoptive parents to express negative emotions for all that their children have gone through or are going through. But at the same time, it’s vital that adoptive parents remember that even if their children have been deeply hurt by their biological parents, they are still of them.
It’s the same thing we talk about when we talk about divorced parents not bad-mouthing their child’s other parent (even when that other parent deserves it). We need to keep our feelings our feelings and if we can’t do that, we need to talk to an understanding professional who can give you space to get it all out and then put it back together in the best way possible for our children.
Many adopted children certainly will wonder if they will make the same mistakes or struggle with the same demons. And in fact, they might. They need to know that you will love and cherish them anyway and — most importantly — that you will do everything you can to support them no matter what happens. They need to know that even if mental illness or addiction or what-have-you is in their biological heritage that this doesn’t need to dictate the trajectory of their lives.
I don’t want to chastise adoptive parents who are struggling or make them feel guilty for their ugly feelings towards birth parents who have harmed their children but I do want to encourage them to figure out a way to rise above it for the sake of their kids. To be able to do this for your child you need to be able to do it for yourself. If you’re holding onto fears that your child will head down the same path or you find yourself obsessed with anger towards your child’s birth parents, get some help from an understanding (and adoption competent) professional to figure it out.
In my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:
The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins
I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.
The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.
They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.
So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?
- Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
- Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
- This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
- Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
- If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
- Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.