Lessons learned at Culture Camp

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I just completed my last year of Korean culture camp after attending with my daughters every summer for the past 14 years. We started attending the week-long family camp, Kamp Kimchee, when they were 4 and 5 years old. Initially I had two reasons that I thought the camp would be beneficial to our family: 1. Provide friendships for my husband and I with families that looked like ours.  2. Allow my biological children ( 3 sons) a chance to understand what it was like to be a minority.  As an afterthought, I considered that my Asian daughters might find a few friends to re-connect with each year. Once again, I have found that parenting wisdom is often replaced with a reality that we couldn’t imagine … and often a reality that is better than we ever dreamed.

Regarding the adult friendships I wanted to establish. Some of these moms have become my best friends in a way that others are not. They “get it” about how the outside world views our family, they don’t judge parenting styles and they are only a phone call or text away when I need to vent. My husband and I reconnected with a college friend and have had children from both families attend our alma mater.

Exposing my bio children to a predominately Asian mix of kids didn’t work so well as they were teens when we started camp and didn’t connect with the kids that had formed friendships over the previous years. I would like to think it expanded their culinary horizons as they love Korean food and know the distinct smell of kimchee.

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Korean lunch served daily at Kamp

The lessons learned at camp that have been the most important were those that I didn’t have the ability to imagine when my daughters were young. Society views our internationally adopted children quite differently when they are part of a family that includes two Caucasian parents as compared to how they are viewed when they move out into the world on their own. Racism is alive and well in our country, particularly since the election in 2016. What Americans think, is now coming out of their mouths without the filter of human decency intervening. Here are a few examples shared by both kids and adults during camp.

  1. An elementary school child was being bullied by a classmate, teased about his eyes and kicked in the back during passing time. After his family discovered a large bruise on his back, they brought their concerns of racial targeting to the principal, who chose to downplay the behavior until surveillance video proved the Asian child’s story.
  2. A teenager was walking in his hometown parade passing out literature about a local politician. Someone yelled at him, “Go back to where you came from.”
  3. Our kids are told that their English language skills are very good, asked “Where did you really come from?” and “Why did your parents abandon you?”

Lessons on white privilege don’t need to be taught – we as parents live them in the eyes of our children as they move into the world away from us. When my children left Korea and China, they lost a culture and a connection to a birth family. When they leave the security of our home, they are losing the advantages that our white skin has provided them. My daughters will need supplemental skills that I can’t teach them, as I don’t understand what they encounter every day. These are the skills that those who went before them are able to convey. Those friendships that they have nurtured over the years outside the boundaries of camp are the most important part of the past fourteen years. These are the friends who understand a simple text and get the nuance behind the frustration. They understand makeup uncertainties, haircut dilemmas, lactose intolerance, difficulty with glasses that won’t stay on your face and finding clothes to fit.

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The graduating senior class this year condensed all of the above into a video that will be used to tell the story of Kamp Kimchee as well as to recruit new families to attend. It is important to them that culture camp is there in the future so that other families will benefit as well as allowing them to return to share some great food and mentor younger campers.

 

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Families are changing… and so should their Physicians

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As an ob/gyn in practice for 27 years, I have been present for the creation of thousands of families. In the beginning of my career, the vast majority of those families involved a mom, dad and their biological children. However, over the years family structure has been changing and I have had to change my understanding of family in order to support my patients both during pregnancy and after childbirth. This change became very evident over the past few months as I had the privilege to be present at the beginning of some unique families.

Many of our patients are first generation immigrants with their extended family living abroad. I have had to understand the visa process so that I am able to complete paperwork allowing grandparents to share in the joy of a new grandchild.  Frequently, these grandparents extend their stay for the first year of a child’s life while the mother returns to her job. The stress of living and working in a foreign country can often be exacerbated by the lack of extended family for support.

A patient that we had cared for during her last two pregnancies chose to become a surrogate for a gay couple that resided outside of the US. Each of the men donated sperm that was used to fertilize a donors eggs (not our patient) and the fertilized embryos placed within her uterus to grow into a boy and girl. Seeing the smiles and tears on the fathers faces as they were each handed a baby was a reminder that love is found in many places. Their ongoing concern for the woman who had carried their babies, allowing her to hold and visit the babies during the next months as the paperwork was completed to allow them to take their children home, was a testament to humanity. My patients post-partum visit involved a conversation about loss as well as gratitude for her help in creating a new family.

Pregnancy is not always a risk-free venture. Two years ago one of our patients had an uncomplicated pregnancy followed by a severe post-partum hemorrhage that resulted in a hysterectomy in order to save her life. She and her husband wanted a second child to complete their family and were matched with a local woman to carry their biologic child. The surrogate also happened to be our patient and antepartum visits are scheduled so that both of the women can be there. It was a full house at the time of the 20 week ultrasound appointment when both husbands were also present. The plan is for the surrogate, her husband and their children to remain as extended family after the child is born.

At the time of her annual exam last year, one of my long-term patients that I had seen during the birth of her child 5 years earlier and a subsequent divorce, lamented the fact that her son would not have a sibling and her vision of a family with two children was quickly fading as she approached the age of 40. We discussed other ways to create the family that she wanted and one year later she delivered a healthy daughter that was created with artificial insemination using donor sperm. Along the way she had extended her “village” of support to include men who would provide nurturing to both of her children.

A same-sex female couple also chose artificial insemination with donor sperm but found the selection process for the donor more difficult as the couple wanted the donor to reflect their mixed race relationship. Their beautiful olive-skinned child will be born at the end of the summer.

I always enjoy visiting with my patients at their annual exams, especially when I have a special bond having delivered their children many years earlier. A bittersweet moment happened a few weeks ago as a patient in her late 50’s broke down in tears describing the mental health issues of her son that I had delivered early in my career. Those tears ended in smiles as she showed me pictures of his 3-year-old son that she and her husband are adopting and will raise with the help of their son. Instead of retirement plans, she is making plans for kindergarten.
The unique structure of my own family enables me to understand that the social structure of our patient’s families affect their physical and mental health. After giving birth to three sons, my husband and I adopted two daughters from Korea and China. When a friend experienced premature ovarian failure, I offered to donate eggs so that she and her husband could create a family. Raising children of color in a predominately white society requires discussions about racism and intentional relationships with other cultures. We have developed a “cousin” relationship with my egg donor children that has both challenges and rewards. All of these struggles have enriched our family, but not without the need for some difficult conversations. Part of our job as a physician is to recognize these same familial relationships with our patients so that we can better understand their health care needs.

I can understand the grief of immigrant kids; My daughter was that same toddler 16 years ago

2UBRJBO6VMY67MUDKJSZAO7GOYThis picture of an immigrant toddler on the Texas border has helped to galvanize opposition to the current administration policy of separating children from their parents who are seeking asylum. When I first saw this picture, I was reminded of a similar toddler who had been removed from her caregivers and placed into a strangers arms without much explanation. That stranger was me and the toddler was our 25 month old Chinese daughter.

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But the similarities in these two situations ended there. By all reports, children removed from their asylum seeking parents are placed into large facilities and cared for by a rotating list of individuals.  Our daughter had 2 parents and 4 siblings who devoted themselves to her care and adjustment. She never left my side during the 2 weeks we were in China, sleeping with me and sitting next to me as she ate. We walked the hallways at night as she grieved for her foster parents before bedtime. The grief she experienced was heart-retching but I knew she would adjust over time with love and stability at home.

The children that our government is taking away from their parents don’t have that assurance. They don’t have a single caregiver to hold them, lay with them at night or walk with them when they can’t fall asleep. Many are too young to understand what has happened to their parents. They don’t have permanence in their holding facility. I can’t even imagine the horror that their parents are experiencing. One father has gone so far as to commit suicide.

My immigrant Chinese daughter is now a thriving 18-year-old who just graduated from high school with honors. Our country will be a better place due to her empathy and experiences.  I hope we can say the same in 15 years about the thousands of children that we have cruelly detained because of a “campaign promise” and are using as a negotiating tool for immigration reform.

Birth vs. Adoption; Child vs Animal

 

15 years ago this month I was agonizing over the delay in travel plans to China where we would meet our soon to be 2-year-old daughter for the first time. Fast forward to last week when that same daughter, now 17, lamented that the rescue puppy we were adopting was getting older without her. Although we have had 3 dogs over the past 29 years, this is the first dog that we have obtained thru a rescue agency. I am impressed with the thoroughness that is provided to make sure that each dog goes to a home where they will be loved and well taken care of.  I am saddened that we as a society do not do as good of a job with children – both those who are born into a family and those who are adopted. Over the past month we have been made aware of the family in California who kept their children hostages in their own home while using  home-school as the cover and the father in Texas who disciplined his newly adopted daughter so severely that she died.  I was struck with the similarities between adoption of an animal and a child and believe that we would make lives better for our country’s children if we borrowed some of the same guidelines.

  1. Home Study – Thankfully we passed both the child and dog home study. Slightly different requirements each time. We didn’t need a fenced in yard for a child, but did for a dog. All family members required an interview for the child but not the dog. Fifteen years ago the house was large enough to add a fifth child; today the house is too empty and we are adding a dog. In contrast, no home study was required when I became pregnant with each of our first three children. In my job as an ob/gyn,  I often recite a silent prayer when discharging infants to a parent that I feel is living in a dangerous situation or has had difficulty taking care of  herself during pregnancy. The lives of many children could be remarkably improved if we were proactive in helping families provide a safe living situation.
  2. Cost – The cost of a child adoption, whether domestic or international, is something that many families are not able to afford or need to take on additional debt to accomplish.  The cost of a rescue dog adoption is considerably less but still significant.  Creating a child is free. I wish there was a warning before conception similar to the one on the rescue dog webpage. “If you don’t think you can afford the adoption fee, you probably shouldn’t consider adopting a dog”.  Access to free birth control and improved contraceptive education would help to reduce the incidence of unplanned human pregnancies – currently at 50%.  And when you plan a pregnancy, you are much more likely to be able to afford the costs of raising a child.
  3. Parenting – As part of the child adoption classes we attended, we heard from parenting counselors about problem solving and resources for seeking help. We agreed to puppy obedience classes as part of the dog adoption and were instructed in how to perform redirection type of discipline. No formal parenting training was provided for my birth children. I quickly learned with boys that parenting is similar to dog training – short, repetitive commands with frequent redirection and lots of love. We could help break the cycle of child abuse if we required basic parenting classes of both birth moms and dads and resources for follow-up support.
  4. Healthcare –  We needed proof of medical insurance with the adoption of a child and were encouraged to purchase pet insurance for the puppy adoption. Many children in this country don’t have health insurance because their parents can’t afford it. Needed childhood immunizations and check-ups are put off, only to incur greater healthcare costs later in life. This is only one of the litany of reasons why our healthcare system needs to change.
  5. Food – The multitude of choices for puppy chow is overwhelming – organic, high protein, vitamin supplemented, minimally processed.  We were instructed in portion control and not overfeeding.  Putting a priority on feeding children similar quality food in appropriate amounts would pay dividends in reducing the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. If I wouldn’t give my dog a Happy Meal with a Coke, why should I feed it to my children?

Our puppy has now been home a week and has settled into a routine. That process took much longer for the Chinese 2-year-old. Different language, food, smells and faces, in addition to grieving for her foster family, required 3-4 months to produce a child who slept thru the night and allowed her dad to hold her. Giving her wings this fall as she moves on to college will likely dredge up memories of those first few months; sleeping beside her so she could fall off to sleep, sharing a meal @ 3am as she recovered from jet lag, listening as she lost her Cantonese language and formed a new vocabulary in English. Tears will be shed on that day – mine for sending off the last child to college, hers for missing her dog.  But she has assured us she will facetime weekly – if only to see her dog.

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Our Exotic Zoo Family

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One of my favorite TV shows growing up was The Waltons, the story of a large multigenerational family during the depression in a rural area of the SE US. Growing up in a rural part of  Minnesota, I could relate to the small town setting as well as the plight of the oldest son, who is the first in his family to leave the farm and go off to college. We never know what childhood experiences drive our adult decisions, but I think the relationships within this family of seven children may have something to do with my motivation to create a large family of my own.

My five children have slightly different takes than myself on what it means to be part of a large family at a time when most families consist of two children. My experiences drove the decision to create this family, but they are the ones who have lived it daily. This became even more apparent when I read my sr daughters college essay. She compared our family to a zoo of exotic animals that gets more than the average attention and has ever-changing relationships and dynamics. This may get her notice during the college application process, but made me step back and consider the dynamics of who we are and how we have changed with the addition of each child.

  1. Our first child was born in 1990, when parenting books were all the rage. We tried out the more permissive parenting routines, but with the addition of a second son threw away the books and used common sense. My child’s self-esteem became secondary to harmony between sibs and our ability to get out the door on time.
  2. We may live in Minnesota, which has cold weather for 4-5 months each year, but my kids were made to go outside and entertain themselves almost daily. It is much easier to tolerate yelling, shouting and crying when 4 walls don’t amplify the noise. I was that mom pulling a wagon full of toys and kids while trailing after boys skateboarding down the hill to the park.
  3. By child number 3, I had adopted the dog owner style of parenting. This involves using short, repeated commands to get your kids to do what you want. No explanations about why you need to get dressed in the morning, just do it. I could care less who started a fight between sibs, just stop hitting.
  4. Natural consequences. If you decide not to take a coat to school, you may need to sit in from recess because the teacher thinks you will be too cold (my kids were never cold).
  5. We are a multicultural family so our family was required to attend ethnic events. I agree that Chinese music can be shrill and grating, but we would have never learned that until we sat thru an hour-long performance. And the food is always better at these events than a typical Midwest potluck.
  6. When you have 4 siblings there are always changing alliances, just as with world nations. The older brother who always bossed you around can become the driver who gets you to your friend’s house. When you are on the outs with one sibling, there is always another in the wings waiting.
  7. Vacation memories are a kaleidoscope of stories. Everyone seems to remember different variations of a trip, even though we were all in the same place at the same time.
  8. There will always be one child who is not happy. Family harmony as depicted on social media never happened in our house. Most group pictures of my kids have one child pouting or standing off to the side not wanting to be there. Now these are my most treasured photos as they tell the real story of our lives. It was a hard lesson for me to learn – that it is not my job to make everyone happy.
  9. There is never a dull moment. The kids and their friends who frequented our house found this to be enjoyable – the parents could have sometimes used a break in the action.
  10. With two working parents our kids were called into action early on. Chore lists were the dreaded weekend routine and male/female roles were frequently shuffled. Girls can mow the lawn and boys can dust and vacuum.
  11. Meals were a one size fits all approach. No separate tastes allowed or individualized meals. If you didn’t like this meal, there was always tomorrow.
  12. With 5 kids within 10 years and 2 of those children being Asian, we always garnered stares and comments when out in public. Some of the kids loved the attention but not all. Over the years I have chosen to share less and less with strangers about our origins as I feel that it is time for the kids to take on that burden. It is their story now, not mine.

Our house will be a much quieter place by this time next year. I relish the memories of our zoo and hope that there will be some baby animals to care for in the future.

The Parental Bond – birth vs adoption

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This past weekend I fulfilled a promise that I had made to my oldest daughter on the first day 18 years ago that I saw her olive skin and almond eyes in the far away land of Korea. We were traveling west to move her in for her first year of college 1600 miles away. Just like that first trip, my nerves were on edge for the entire time – anxious about having her so far away and excited for her sense of adventure and for the incredible experiences that she would have.  Remembering the first time that we held her, I was reminded of that long ago promise – to raise her for 18 years, pay for her college and then she would move out of our life.  Memories have a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. What a difference those 18 years have made.

Bonding to an infant or child is different for everyone. Sometimes it is instant and other times it takes days and months of care giving. When my biological children were born, I never thought too deeply about bonding. Nursing was a time when I allowed myself to slow down and focus on my love for their tiny bodies and connect thru their eyes. Bonding with an adopted child is a bit different – not bad, but different. They have already had time to be fed by someone else, to form a personality separate from their adoptive parent. Some adoptive parents bond instantly.  That was not me.

I realized when I first saw my daughter that we may have completed this adoption for the wrong reasons. Was wanting a daughter to complete our family of 3 boys an adequate reason to take a child out of her homeland of Korea and raise her in a predominately white culture?  Was I qualified to parent an Asian child? Was I doing a dis-service to my three boys by creating a family that would forever be viewed as different? And amidst all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I made the promise out of fear. Fear of the future. Fear of walking out of the room and telling everyone this had been a mistake and I was not up for the challenge. I thought I could fake the “bonding” for 18 years and then go back to my normal life. As we all know, life doesn’t work like that.

The process of caring for someone unrelated to you but who is wholly dependent on you for food and shelter eventually creates a bond just as strong as birth. I was able to fake being a loving parent for a few days and gradually the fear went away and was replaced by a steadily growing love. It may have taken a bit longer than a biological child but the eventual bond was no different. Now I have the same hopes, dreams and worries for my adopted children that I do for my biological children.

Within a day of leaving my daughter at college, she had her first stab of homesickness and questioning whether she had made the right choice by moving so far from home. I reminded her of my promise 18 years previous and how our lives would have been so different if I had decided to walk away from the unknowns. Now it was her turn to “fake it” for a few days or weeks or months until she grew to like this new phase of her life.

 

My Gifts from Korea and China

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Since the adoption of our children 14 and 17 years ago, I have been told repeatedly how lucky my daughters are and that they are a gift to our family. The definition of a gift is something that is given freely. Although I am not exactly sure of the reasons their birth families chose not to raise them, I don’t think it was a choice that was freely made.  In Korea there is no social or familial support of unwed mothers and in China the pressure from the family is to produce a son to carry on the family name.  Circumstances prevented their mothers from making a free choice.

This week is Kamp Kimchee, a camp for Korean adoptees in northern MN, and a time when I get away from our hectic daily lives to  reflect on how adoption has changed our family and changed my perspectives. And this is when I hear from many of the older Korean adoptees that have been thinking about this from a personal viewpoint for much longer than I and that are brave enough to share their stories with adoptive parents. The reality is that in order for the gift of adoption to benefit my family, parents in another part of the world lost their child and our daughters lost a culture. Our fortune is built on others misfortune.

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Lee and Whitney Frisk, Korean adult adoptees who are married and live in Tennessee, shared their stories with us this week and provided some insight into what our kids may face as they venture beyond their home nests. The gifts that were adorable Asian toddlers  will be seen as “not white” or foreign when they venture out into the world in young adulthood. Having been seen as Asian within a Caucasian family, they will now be viewed as Asian with a non-Asian sounding name. They will be repeatedly asked, “Where are you really from?”. They will need to look at the part of the country where they receive job offers to determine if they are brave enough to face discrimination on a daily basis. Living in a part of the southern US, they have seen a sharp rise in the amount of racism directed their way since the election. In this era of globalization, our children  will need to determine if they ever want to return to their home country and search for birth parents or learn more about their origins.

As a white parent with white privilege I can never fully understand how all of this will make my daughters feel. In the words of another adoptive parent, Martha Crawford, I am an invited guest to the adoptive experience and my job is to support, always love and accept who they become. Not that much different from a bio parent but with the possibility of another family a world away becoming part of our extended family if a birth family search is started and successful.

But the unexpected gift that no one told me about all those years ago when we attended our first adoption meeting is the wonderful friends we would make thru this experience. Our week at Kamp is when I get to reconnect with many of these friends from other parts of MN and share both joys and sorrows, laugh and cry together. Because only these special people understand the slight curves in the road that an adoption journey can bring. My daughters have allowed me the privilege to be a part of their cultures, share their fabulous food and art and only ask that I pay for a few melon bars at the end of each day.

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