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 While I did have emotional moments when the children were young, they have been replaced by a thankfulness for the ability to connect with these three kids as teenagers/young adults.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.

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

The blurred lines of International Adoption

 

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When my husband and I make the choice to pursue International Adoption, we also made a commitment that we would try as best we could to expose our daughters to their birth culture. Culture camps, Chinese and Korean restaurants and musical performances have all come and gone over the intervening years since they came home. These are the activities that are relatively easy to arrange. A week-long trip returning to a birth country can be a different matter.

We had returned to Korea, the birthplace of our oldest daughter, in 2009. The trip was memorable for many reasons; some good, some not so good. Trying to herd 5 children thru the busy Korean subway and returning with the same 5 children as we started with is probably by best/worst memory. The following two pictures sum up the best memories for our kids.

 

A return trip to China, the birthplace of daughter #2,  has been more difficult to organize as our children became older, went off to college and the business of a girl’s social life. The stars finally aligned last month and we were off to China with our daughter and a close friend,  who is also a Chinese  adoptee. I was reminded of the Korean subway experience all over again when I easily lost track of the girls whenever we were in a crowd of Asians – which was frequently.  They enjoyed the anonymity and I panicked when I couldn’t pick them out of the thousands in Tienanmen Square.

The sights and sounds of China will have to wait for another post, as my most memorable experience from this trip was a book that I read while in China and a second book that was waiting for me when I arrived home.  “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman has been on my “to read” list for over a year. It was uncanny how appropriate it was for this trip. The story involves a childless couple who find a child in a boat and decide to claim the child as their own. Two years later, they discover the circumstances surrounding  the child’s abandonment and that the birth mother continues to grieve for a child that she believes is lost. The characters in the story realize that there is no right answer to who should claim this child and justice for one person is another’s tragic loss. If similar circumstances had come to light regarding either of my daughter’s adoptions and I found that their birth families had not relinquished them voluntarily, would I have the principle or justice to allow them to return to their families of birth? At what point in time could I claim that they had lost their birth culture and were now better served by remaining in their adoptive home? Does the privilege and advantage of Western culture they are afforded trump the supposed hardship circumstances of their birth? Just as the characters in the book struggled with these questions, so would I.

Chinese adoptees and their parents have always known that a search for birth family is near impossible, as they are abandoned anonymously due to government restrictions on adoption . The research I did at the time of our daughter’s adoption in 2002 cited the one child policy and need for a son in the family as the primary reason for these abandonments. If a Chinese couple had a daughter first, they were usually allowed to have another child in order to secure a son for their family name. When this second child was a girl, she may have been relinquished by placing her in a public park, train station or at the gates of an orphanage, so that the family could try again for a son. Second daughters were thought to encompass the majority of healthy girls in Chinese orphanages.

This was a different story than the circumstances surrounding Korean adoptions. In Korea, birth outside of marriage is socially unacceptable and the majority of children placed for adoption were by single women who felt that they had no choice in raising their child. Most children were turned over to social service agencies shortly after birth and although the circumstances surrounding the placement may not have always been recorded correctly,  the birth mother had to sign papers relinquishing her parental rights before an adoption could be pursued. Abandoning your child in Korean does not make them eligible for adoption, either domestic or international, and these children spend their life growing up in an orphanage.

What I thought I knew about Chinese adoptions was radically changed when I returned home. I had ordered a copy of “China’s Hidden Children” by Kay Ann Johnson before the trip, intending to read it while in China. I am glad that it arrived when it did as it would have made the trip more difficult from a psychological perspective if I had spent my evenings reading the anguished stories of Chinese families who had not willingly relinquished their children for adoption. It seems that only a minority of families fit the previously cited “second daughter” construct. Couples wanted daughters and often had a second pregnancy after a son to try for a daughter (a second pregnancy is only allowed after a daughter, not a son), either hiding their second child or paying a steep fine. The Chinese government requires each person to be registered with a hukou or household registration system, similar to our social security number. The lack of a hukou is the  limiting factor in the advancement of these children thru the school system and eventually the ability to secure a job. You may be able to hide your child from village family planning authorities for a few years but that child would be unable to enroll in school. Families often hoped to pay large bribes or penalties to lenient officials after the child was born and a few years of age or they hid the child with relatives until the laws periodically became relaxed. When these options didn’t work out was when children were relinquished – either forcefully by being removed by government officials or “abandoned” in public places. These girls were very much wanted – unfortunately they couldn’t be kept.

International adoption was a convenient escape that brought in larger sums of money than domestic adoption. Couples adopting from abroad were required to travel and stay in China for two weeks, adding to the local economy. They also paid higher fees to the orphanage. Orphanages were plentiful and it seems that some children may have been placed in the orphanage “temporarily” by the family until they were able to afford the fine imposed by having a second child. When the family returned with the money saved, the child had been placed into an international adoption.

Those adorable Chinese babies and toddlers are now teens and young adults. Although they may not have had a voice in their origins, they do have a say in their futures and the rest of their story. Knowing what I now know, I would advocate for an attempt at finding my daughter’s birth family and reassuring them that their daughter is loved and thriving in her adopted culture. But this is her story now and her choice. I cannot change the policy of the Chinese government that created the need for adoptive families. Given the current imbalance in male:female ratios and the rapidly aging population demographic in China, the country has repercussions far beyond our family story.