Our non-traditional family and why it matters

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The non-traditional part of our family

I forget about the unusual origins of my family until I am asked a question or view another family that shares some of our qualities. This happened three times this past week and became a good way to reflect on how far we have come as a society over the past 25 years – and how far we still have to go.

  1. South Dakota recently passed a bill and was signed by the governor that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples, single parents, mixed faith and inter-racial couples when it determines placement for children from the foster care system. Since there are many more children in the foster care system than there are prospective parents, this means that children will wait longer for permanent placement. Or, they may never find a forever family. Multiple studies have shown that children raised in non-traditional families function as well as those children raised in traditional families. South Dakota is sacrificing children’s futures due to religious beliefs.
  2. A woman who has acted as a surrogate parent for another couple questioned whether I had a difficult time separating  emotionally from my egg donor children. While I did have emotional moments when the children were young, they have been replaced by a thankfulness for the ability to connect with these three kids as teenagers/young adults. I see my current role as extended family, providing emotional support and fun times that a day-to-day parent is not afforded.
  3. One of my daughters classmates was featured in the local paper this week. His single mother died when he was in middle school and his extended family lived out-of-state. He was taken in by his best friend’s family, where he often lived during his mother’s illness. Over the past 4 years, this couple have become “Mom” and “Dad”.  The parents are white, the young man is black.

Our family is non-traditional: 2 white heterosexual parents, 3 biological children, 3 children via egg donation to another couple and 2 Asian adopted children. 25 years ago when my husband and I were first considering the idea of egg donation for a good friend, we decided that it was to be kept a secret from our extended family. Due to religious reasons, my friend’s family was also not made aware of the origin of a triplet pregnancy. As society changed and the children grew older, the story was explained to relatives and friends. By this time, both families were well established in 2 different communities separated by 5 states and the reactions were overwhelmingly positive.

Adoption stories have undergone the same transition over the years. Many children adopted domestically in the 1940’s thru 1960’s were not informed that they were adopted. As society changed and became more accepting of adoption, as well as the emotional damage that was noted when young adults discovered their hidden origins, adoption became more open and celebrated. Now you can make the cover of People magazine if you are a celebrity in your late 40’s who adopts a baby.

Early international adoptees were seldom connected to their original culture and parents were instructed to raise the children as if they were white and their biologic children. The trouble was that the outside world did not see them as “white” when they became adults, and these adoptees had to navigate the world between 2 cultures, one of which they had few connections to. Diversity training for potential adoptive parents is now part of the adoption process. The Asian culture camp that we attend each summer has many discussions about culture, identity and diversity.

The role of  mom/parent has been the most rewarding/difficult part of my adult life and one I would not trade for any other experience that I have had. Being able to offer that opportunity to a friend was an easy choice despite the knowledge that there may be bumps in the road as the children became older.  Providing a home to children born in another country was also an easy choice as I knew that love developed while caring for a child and was not necessarily automatic. Each of these choices was made available to me as a white heterosexual female married to a white male who shared a mainstream religion. We are not special and should not be any more privileged than a gay biracial couple who is able to meet the same requirements for providing a home for a child in need of a forever family. Religion, sexual orientation and skin color are only part of who we are as individuals. Loving children and providing them with a home and future should be open to all of us.

Traveling with an Immigrant

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Last weekend, we left Minneapolis for Seattle. At the time the plane departed, the 3 judge panel was still deliberating the enforcement of the travel ban imposed by President Trump. When we landed 4 hours later the news had changed. The judges had unanimously ruled against the travel ban and our country was now in legal limbo. I looked at my traveling companion, an immigrant to this country 17 years earlier, and thought about how differently her life would have been if she had not immigrated to this country. Her parents on both sides of the Pacific made financial and emotional sacrifices so that she would have education and life opportunities that were not available to her in her home country. This immigrant is my daughter, born in a Korean society that does not have social support for single, unwed mothers and their children. We were visiting a college in the Pacific Northwest, far from her home in Minnesota but closer to her birthplace both in terms of geography and culture. I hastily brushed away tears as we grabbed our luggage to exit the plane (those tears might be the reason I forgot the umbrella in the overhead compartment), thinking about stories of families in the news that had been denied entry to America earlier in the week and who would now be reunited with family members already here.

Unlike the immigrant families from the 7 banned countries, my daughter is the beneficiary of white privilege. My husband and I were able to afford the adoption fees because we had the advantage of college educations and professional jobs. She grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood and attended above average public schools. She has participated in extra curricular sports and activities, attended summer camps and traveled throughout the United States and internationally. A college education is expected by her parents and peers and she has many excellent choices. Her high school friends are multi-racial and from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the majority of this would not be possible if she happened to be from a Muslim majority culture. Why does the color of your skin in this country dictate what your future may hold? When will Americans be able to look past skin, hair and clothes for the qualities of the person underneath?

Today, February 16th, immigrants are trying to remind us of the contributions that they provide this country by staying home from work and school. Ethnic restaurants are closed, children are staying home from school and college and adults are staying home from work. Some service businesses will have a difficult time functioning, but isn’t that the point? Until we realize the contributions of immigrants in our daily lives, only then are we better able to understand how these new immigrants can benefit America.

I received a phone call from a friend this morning, torn between staying home with her husband and children in solidarity vs feeling guilty about her job that is difficult to fill on last-minute notice. She is a citizen of this country, born here to an immigrant mother. Her husband is a Dreamer, brought to this country illegally as a child by his parents. Despite multiple attempts to obtain citizenship, he has not been successful. He has worked full-time since his teen years, supporting his family and contributing to the American economy. These are the difficult stories behind the majority of immigrant families. They are not here to bring in drugs, commit crimes or spread terrorism. They are fleeing their home countries due to these problems, looking for a better life in a country that was founded by immigrants. What would this world look like if white privilege meant that those of us who are bestowed this advantage by birth use it to offer a helping hand to guide others as they ascend the mountain of life? That is the world that I would love to live in.

Working Together to Make a Better America

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November 2015. Paris Bombing by Islamist militants. The beginning of hatred and false rhetoric against Muslims. One year later and the presidential election is finished. The amount of hatred and falsehoods have only increased. Although I couldn’t have foretold the future, I am fortunate to be a person of action and reacted with an email one year ago. The email was sent to a local mosque and a few days later I was meeting the mosque’s youth director for coffee, discussing opportunities to partner with other women to form an interfaith group. At the same time a third woman from the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints community reached out and we soon had interest from many different faith communities. We branded ourselves as Tapestry – women promoting religious understanding and acceptance through dialogue between women and youth of many faiths while providing service to the community. Thru this group I have formed new friendships and learned the daily practices of various religions. We have been hosted by a mosque, compared eastern and western Christian traditions, heard from teen immigrants, studied genealogy and will be visiting a Jewish temple in January. Tapestry has coordinated an interfaith youth food drive, packed refugee health kits, donated used clothes to an inner city food shelf and educational toys to a refugee agency.

This week was our first meeting since the election and I was concerned about attendance. Would the members of Tapestry feel that the divide in America was too great and that the friendships that had been formed could not be sustained?  I had tears in my eyes when 40 women showed up for a planned service project at Feed My Starving Children. We competed with the youth from a local National Honor Society to pack meals for Cuba. Feed My Starving Children is a Christian organization and many of our non-Christian women had neither heard of it or were familiar with the concept. Packaging meals interspersed with conversation made 2 hours go by quickly. An added benefit was the example that we communicated to the youth – adults of many faiths and beliefs working together for the benefit of others.

Our email list has swelled to almost 150 women. Volunteers at local non-profits have increased dramatically since the election. While acts of division and hatred have increased, so have acts of kindness and inclusion. Tapestry has been my beacon of hope in the swirl of post-election fear and division.

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Parenthood: Wearing your heart on the outside of your body

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Often when I deliver a newborn, I joke with the parents that labor is the easy part of the upcoming lifelong journey; the teenage years can sometimes present much more difficult challenges. Having parented 5 children, three of whom are now young adults, I feel that I have some expertise in these matters. And then two occurrences this week put all of my parenting “knowledge” to shame.

The body of Jacob Wetterling, sexually molested and then killed 27 years ago at the age of 11, was found when his killer confessed. In the ensuing years after his abduction his parents have been influential in speaking out against child exploitation and worked to pass laws that would make children safer in their communities. I don’t know if I could be that brave and outward focused in the first weeks and months after my child has been abducted.  I worry that I may crawl inside a deep, dark place and not be available to my own family, much less the outside world. It takes an incredible amount of grace to use the death of your own child to advocate for other children. Each time I spoke out, I would need to relive that life-changing experience again and again.

27 years after Jacob was abducted, parents have a new worry. Our children are at risk of gun violence both at school and in public. Moms Demand Action is an advocacy group that is working to pass common sense gun laws. In honor of Jacob and his parents, I signed up to knock on doors this weekend to increase awareness of the need for background checks on all gun sales. We were paired up to role play before heading out on our assignments. My partner was a parent whose daughter had been killed 2 years previous when she answered a Craig’s list ad. He, like the Wetterling family, was trying to advocate for improved laws so that this awful deed may not happen to another family. And each time he voluntarily shared his story, he needed to relive the pain of that awful event.

Door knocking is completely outside my comfort zone, but it became easier after the first few encounters. Although some didn’t care to listen, they were polite in refusing. Others agreed with our positions and pledged to support gun sense candidates in the upcoming election. The statistics are stark – in those 18 states in the US that have passed mandatory background checks for all gun sales, gun related violence has decreased by 50%.

5 kids means that there is a lot of my heart being carried around outside my body. I will continue to knock doors, speak out and donate money to a cause that I hope will prevent both my children and yours from ever having to experience what those two families have had to live through and will continue to haunt them for eternity.

 

Adoption: Race Matters

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It has become all to apparent in the past few months that racial prejudices abound and are threatening to tear apart the wonderful diversity that makes up our country. A diversity that started as differences between Catholic and Protestant, German and Scandinavian has evolved to differences in skin color and Christian vs. Muslim. Many of us believed that the election of our first black President ushered in a new age of equality. Unfortunately, I believe it gave  voice to those who believed this country should be ruled by a white male majority.

As the mother of both white (biologic) and non-white (adopted) children, I have the unique perspective of my own social experiment. Many of the friendships I have made as a parent involve families that look like ours. Their stories add to my experiences. As our children have grown up, we have seen the evolution of how society views our children. When our non-white children first come into our homes, they were seen as adorable children with beautiful skin tones and lush dark hair. When seen in public, they were under the watchful eye of their white parent. Ignorant questions were usually whispered as an aside at the playground or in the grocery store line, out of the hearing of children. Questions such as, “Does she eat with chopsticks?”, “What language will she speak when she starts talking?”, “What mix is he?”. But kids grow up and become separate entities from their parents. We are not around when they venture out on their own in middle and high school. They are now seen and categorized by their skin color and facial features without regard to the fact that they were raised in a white family. The adorable baby with beautiful skin and a mass of dark hair cradled in his white father’s arms is now a Latino male strolling the mall with friends who may share his same features.

I have come to believe that  White America views some races more favorably than others. My daughters are Asian – they receive very few negative comments about their race and are seldom singled out for higher scrutiny. This is not as true of my friends’ children who are Latino or Black. A friend was recently traveling with her adopted sons, both with dark skin and still in elementary school, when the boys were pulled aside by TSA and questioned about the identity of the white woman (their mother) that was with them. Another friend’s son, who is Latino, has seen much different reactions when he is out with a group of white friends as compared to when he is seen with Latino friends. My daughters were part of a recent Korean culture camp and felt very uncomfortable when they ate at a  Chinese restaurant with a group of their friends, also Asian. All of the other diners in the restaurant, who were white, watched them as they ordered and ate their meals. And I don’t think they were looking for chopstick lessons!

When international adoption first started in the 1950’s, social workers told parents that race didn’t matter and you as a parent should just love the child as if they were your own. We are now aware that this can create harm as children quickly understand that they don’t resemble their parents or the rest of their extended family. Adoption advice now includes information on building self-esteem thru positive race specific role models, cultural events, art and food. Rather than ignoring race, celebrate it and the diversity that it brings to your family.

But how do I equate the celebration of diversity with the current headlines regarding restricting immigration, increased scrutiny of members of the Muslim faith and violence between police and members of the black communities?  Do my Asian kids that belong to white parents get a pass? Why doesn’t President Obama get a pass, as he was raised by white grandparents in a predominately white culture?

I have race prejudices that I acknowledge and probably some that I don’t. The way forward  is to start talking about our prejudices, both with those who agree and more importantly, those who don’t. Shouting at each other across the divide doesn’t work and never has. Open and honest discussions may help us to move forward, both as an individual and as a country.  This country was started by immigrants and has flourished because everyone  brought something different to the table. Let’s keep it that way