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.

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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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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.

Family, Culture and Food

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This is Korean Culture Kamp Week, otherwise known as “Stuff your face with Korean Food Week”. I have been attending this camp with my daughters for 11 years and each year come away with a different reflection on how important this experience is for them. As I was eating lunch today (spicy green beans, jap chae, roasted vegetables, rice and kimchi, crispy chicken wings and marinated cucumbers), I realized how important the food is to our memories of Kamp. The first time we walk into the building at the beginning of the week, we are greeted with the familiar scents of sesame oil, soy sauce and kimchi. The kids eagerly wait to hear the menu of the day, announced at 9 am family time. Many of the kids compete during lunch to see who can eat the most squid. Kimchi is eaten by the gallon containers. Mandu or dumplings, the crowning glory to the last meal of the week, requires all hands onboard for last-minute construction and frying.

They love this food, but more importantly, their fellow kampers love the food equally as much. There is no teasing about being Asian and eating rice, because everyone is too busy inhaling the food so that they can get back in line for seconds. This is not food they could easily share with their friends at home, without worrying about the response to a mouthful of kimchi.

Food is a powerful reminder of home, whether we are born in a different culture or are returning home after a long absence to a home cooked meal. It has been shown that the sense of smell is closely linked with memory and can invoke memories that have been previously forgotten. For any of you who have had the pleasure to smell sesame oil or kimchi, I think you will agree with me that Koreans have a fragrance advantage with their food.

Food is only one of the reasons why this week is relished by all of us. Both the girls and I can relate to others differently during the week. They are able to spend time with friends who “get it” regarding biculturism, and I am able to spend time with other parents who also “get it”. No other parent cares about my “adoption story”  because they have repeated their story far too many times. If one of the Kampers has been struggling in school or emotionally, there is no judgment about adoption vs. birth child, just support and encouragement.

Food and companionship are such a part of Culture Kamp, that each year adoptees that have attended Kamp in the past, along with their parents, friends, spouses and children, return to eat lunch and reminisce.  What better endorsement is there than people traveling hundreds of miles just to share a meal.

Keeping Moms and Children Together in Haiti: The best Mother’s Day Gift

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Mother’s Day brings a feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the many mothers in my life – the mother that raised me, the mother that raised my fabulous husband, the mother of my 3 children created thru egg donation  and the Korean and Chinese mothers that gave birth to my daughters and then made the difficult decision to place them for adoption. I have always imagined what their life would have been if,  instead of completing reams of paperwork and writing checks for large sums of money, we had worked to provide for their original families so that they would have been able to be raised in their country of origin. That venture is much more difficult and involves a more long-term world view than a short-term individualistic approach. But that is exactly what the founders of Second Mile Haiti are trying to achieve. We were fortunate to spend a few hours touring their expanding facility on our last day in Haiti.

The founders of Second Mile Haiti are Jenn Schenk and Amy Syres, two young women who had a vision to create a sustainable option for families who were previously relinquishing their malnourished children to care centers, where the children were  either placed for international adoption or reunified back into their impoverished families after their malnutrition was corrected. ” It didn’t seem right that the only available way to help these families was to take their kids from them. We really had to ask ourselves if there wasn’t some sort of alternative” says Amy, regarding the experiences that led the co-founders to start Second Mile Haiti.

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The alternative that they have created is flourishing. Severly malnourished children are referred to their program from nearby hospitals. Each child is admitted with a caregiver, usually their mother, and spends 4-6 weeks in the program slowly being nourished back to health. Caregivers are taught what causes malnutrition and how it can be prevented. They are part of the team that works to improve their child’s malnutrition. Second Mile also offers daily business, literacy and home gardening classes so that the caregivers can participate in sustainable small business projects. At the end of each caregivers stay, she is given instructions and goals for her child in follow-up. Providing these goals are met, which they almost always are, the caregiver is given the goods she will need to begin a small business that will continue to provide for her family, preventing the recurrence of malnutrition in addition to empowering her to become a leader in her community and share her knowledge with others.

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Currently, the facility has room for 12 moms and children. Construction of a second building to house another 12 caregivers and their children was in full swing on the day of our visit. An additional 30-40 Haitians were employed in the building project. The gardener proudly showed off the 4 acres of produce that is used to feed the caregivers, children and staff. A large mango tree in the middle of the property supplies the mango jam that flavors the newly made goat yogurt. These are the ingredients that help to break the cycle of poverty and undernutrition. The benefits extend beyond the walls of the compound – each person that Second Mile touches with their program, whether it be a caregiver or employee, amplifies the effect in the community with information and salaries.

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Mother’s Day is everyday for these fortunate women, as they are able to continue to care for their children and provide them with adequate nutrition. The cost of this program is far less than housing a “relinquished child” and then trying to reintegrate them back into Haitian society. A United Nations Grant is funding the expansion project and will hopefully replicate this program in other parts of the developing world.