The Voice of Adoptees

As November draws to a close, my hope is that the stories and lives of orphans in the US and elsewhere were illuminated in some way. It’s easy to sink into the comfortable couch of my life and turn a blind eye to those in less fortunate circumstances: orphans, foster children, the homeless, victims of human trafficking, etc. Similarly, with adoption, it’s easy to dust off our hands and see it as the happily-ever-after solution to orphan-dom. For so long, the story and struggle of adoptees was swept under the rug. It was only very recently that their unique challenges and pain have been heard.

The world likes to paint adoption a rosy hue, ignoring the hurt and loss that are part an adoptee’s story. The loss of a child’s birth family is very painful, no matter the child’s age at separation. For children separated from their mother at or near birth, their story as an adoptee used to be ignored because scientists believed these memories couldn’t possibly be retained. The psychological impact and sense of loss were thought to have minimal lasting impacts. For many years, individuals with this early separation story weren’t treated differently than any other child. One adoptee said that although she attended therapy in her twenties, it took two years of consistent sessions before she even thought to mention that she was adopted. She says she was conditioned to believe that it was irrelevant since she was adopted as an infant. Now psychologists know what a disproportionate and lasting impact events from early life have on brain and psychological development. In fact, one of the only parts of the brain that is fully developed at birth is the part that regulates the sympathetic nervous system which triggers a fight or flight response.

Adoptees desire a sense of belonging. Adoptees have spent years overhearing people say to their parents how lucky their adopted child is or what good people they must be for adopting. Many children resent the fact that our vernacular uses the same terminology for bringing a new pet home as adopting a child. Especially since, these pets are considered “rescues.” Adoptive parents will tell you that you can only save a child once, and after that it’s called good-old fashioned parenting. Nonetheless, these types of comments and analogies make adopted children feel guilty and a sense of indebtedness for their adoptive parents’ “good deed.” According to one adoptee, Lesli Johnson, she believes that adoptees deal with “shame, self-worth, control, and identify.” In response to this struggle, Lesli says that many adoptees develop a protective “false self” to cope.

Adoptees have complex and intricately beautiful stories. However, they also need a safe space to feel welcome to make sense of these stories. For many, counseling can help, and for others, they want a friend to lend an ear. As non-adoptees, we can’t pretend to understand what adoptees are feeling. Counseling and friends may help, but the most important ear that adoptees need is that of their adoptive families. Historically, many adoptive parents are offended or fearful of these conversations, and adoptees have picked up on the tension these conversations cause. As a result many adoptees chose to stay silent, so as not to hurt their parents. Adoptees want their parents to know that it doesn’t mean that they don’t love and need them. The unanimous feeling from almost all adoptees is that they desire open and supportive communication from their adoptive family on adoption struggles, possible re-union with birth family, etc. None of these desires diminish the importance of their adoptive family to the adoptee.

The voices of adoptees are finally being heard via the internet, talented speakers, and books. Blogs and social media groups give a voice to adoptees and provide online community support for adoptees to share their story and support one another.

Want to hear from adoptees? Their voices are the most important ones out there on this topic! There are a number of resources online and in print that help adoptive families and I believe, the friends of adoptees understand some of their struggles and challenges. Even if you have involvement with any ministry or organization that works with orphans (here or abroad), foster kids, or adoptees, I would highly recommend giving some of these a look!

Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge

The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, by Nancy Newton Verrier

Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, by David Brodzinsky

Not so Secret Life of an Adoptee: I am adopted, the blog

Band Back Together: Adult Adoptee Resources

How does it feel to be adopted: Facebook Group

Lost Daughters: Writing adoption from a place of empowerment and peace 

Shameless plug for an upcoming memoir from an adoptee and adoptive mother: Jillian Lauren’s Everything you Ever Wanted: A Memoir will be coming out late this year or early next year. She is honest, funny, and incredibly gifted. She wrote about her thoughts on adoption for the Huffington Post Parents this month as well.

Talking to Adoptive Families: Dos and Don’ts

While reading a funny article called “Ten Things you shouldn’t Say at the Thanksgiving Table – and what to say instead” by Debra Fine. I started thinking about this concept with regards to adoptive families. So I compiled some “don’ts” and alternatives based on what people in the know – adoptive parents, therapists, psychologists, and adoptees – have to say.

  1. Don’t compare the adoption process to pregnancy. In general this is dangerous. Many families have adopted as a result of infertility. They are painfully aware of the differences between the two, so rather than unintentionally hurt them, it is best to just ask, “How is the adoption process going?”
  2. Don’t say “Your kids look so similar. They look like they could be real brothers.” Do real brothers fight? Play together? Get into trouble together? Well, yes, then biologically related or not, they are real brothers.  More importantly this question reiterates to the brothers that something is wrong with their family – i.e. something is un-“real” about the way their family was formed. If you must comment, then choose phrases like “You have a beautiful family!” Or, “I can’t believe how big the boys have gotten!”
  3. Don’t say, “Now that you’ve adopted! You will definitely get pregnant.” I have never understood this one. Why does adopting equate to getting pregnant? I would love to see the stats that led to that logic.  Although, our adoption process isn’t anywhere near complete, even I have been told this. Couldn’t it be possible that the family is choosing adoption as their first choice? (I know my husband and I are.) Maybe there are some personal health concerns that make giving birth or pregnancy more dangerous? Maybe they are in fact struggling with fertility related problems, but why rub salt in their wounds with such an insensitive statement?  Again, default to “What a beautiful family!” or just as you would for a friend who had just given birth, “Let me bring you dinner! What sounds good?”
  4. Don’t ask, “Weren’t there any kids from the US that you could have adopted?” If you have ever felt inclined to ask this question, I will answer it for you. Most likely the most simplistic, one-word answer to this question is “yes.” However typically this question is asked by folks with very little knowledge of the actual inner-workings and intricacies of adoption. Let me tell you, there are many, many factors that go into deciding which route to take in an adoption process. Dare I say, there are so many factors it would make your head spin. Since the adoptive family is likely more knowledgeable that you, the question asker, you can probably assume that they explored all of their options prior to landing on what worked best for their family’s unique situation.

With that said, all of those nitty-gritty details pale in comparison to the bigger issue here. Kristin Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan says it best:

This question both angers and amuses me.  Amusing because it is so completely petty and almost always posed by people who are doing absolutely nothing about the “kids here in the US” that they are so indignant about. And angering because it is so ridiculous to assume that children born in other countries have less of a right to be adopted into a loving home than those born in the states….Anyways, as always, my response to the question of ‘why adopt from there when there are children here?’ is: Why don’t YOU?

I encourage you to read her whole post. She really hits the nail on the head. So, instead of asking this question, I recommend biting your tongue.

  1. Don’t ask, “You didn’t want any real kids?” No, I wanted marionettes. No, I wanted fake ones, but they gave me these guys. If you ask me this some day, be prepared for some really creative – read: mildly rude and completely annoyed – responses. There are a few things wrong with this question. The use of the word “real” here can do the same damage as it can in #2 above. It can also reiterate to the children that they weren’t your first choice or are some sort of consolation prize.

The other danger lies with hurting a mother who has struggled with infertility and truly desired to have biological children. Again, just avoid the question all together and stick with, “You have a beautiful family.”

  1. Asking, “Are your kids adopted?” is dangerous.  While this question may seem innocuous, certainly don’t ask it in front of the parent’s children.  Although, I won’t say that the question is off limits all together.  Adoption is more complicated than many people realize. Adoption is born out of loss for the child, so reiterating to a child that his or her family was formed differently can be both personal and painful. Some families might not mind this question one bit, while for others it reiterates to the kids that they don’t “fit.” If you are curious, ask this type of thing when the children aren’t around.
  2. Please avoid asking, “What happened to their real parents?” Again, adoption is born out of loss. This question is likely re-opening a very painful wound for the child or reinforcing how little the child knows about his or her past history and family history. It also reiterates to the parents that they aren’t the original parents of this child, which can actually be a very painful loss (with regards to time spent bonding with their child earlier in life or in the womb) for the parents as well as the child. Just stick with, “You have a beautiful family.”
  3. If you aren’t sure whether or not a question is potentially offensive or hurtful, try following this handy rule: “If you wouldn’t say if about a boob job…” don’t say it to an adoptive family.

Interesting Finds around the Web

Enjoy some interesting reads on adoption from around the web. If you read nothing else, please read Jillian Lauren’s piece in the Huffington Post. As an adoptee herself as well as an adoptive mother, she shares her experiences with such a poignant voice it is hard to discount her passion, love, and struggle. Love her! (By the way, if you need a scandalously good read, check out Lauren’s autobiographical memoir Some Girls about her time in the Sultan of Brunei’s Harem. Yes, it really happened)!

Why I Love Adoption – By Jillian Lauren, Huffington Post   “I am both an adult adoptee and an adoptive mother to a beautiful firebrand of a 6-year-old boy from Ethiopia. I love adoption. I love the whole messy, rich, textured, complex world it has given me. I do not love it because it is one long Disney happy ending. Rather, I love it for the way its struggles have defined my life and made me strong. I love it for the fascinating, crazy quilt of a family it has stitched together for me. My story began with my unwed birthmother stranded alone in a snow-blanketed Chicago….” Read More

Pittsburgh detective thinks outside the box to help Foster Kids

Adoption Day Celebrates Growing Michigan Families – By Martindale and Bouffard, The Detroit News   “Scores of Michigan families will have much to be grateful for Thanksgiving Day after finalizing the adoptions of about 100 children Tuesday during Michigan’s 12th annual Adoption Day…” Read more

‘I was 23 and a Vogue editor when I fostered and orphan Girl’ – By Lisa Lovatt-Smith, The Observer   “Twenty-three years ago, a child ran into my life. Her name was Sabrina, and I met her in Paris, when she was five and I was 23. I had been in Paris for two years. As the Paris editor of the Spanish Vogue group of magazines, I had a wonderful career, a cozy domesticity with my sloe-eyed actor boyfriend, Eric Adjani, and a killer wardrobe. It was a charmed time in my life, full of love and glamour. Flowers sent by Karl Lagerfeld, front-row seats at fashion shows, highbrow conversation about the newest trends – I loved it all. Becoming the guardian of a little girl wasn’t part of the plan…” Read More

Choosing Gratitude

In our world, I find it is so easy to get caught up in all of the things we wish were different about our lives, rather than all of the things we are blessed with. I love that we have a holiday dedicated to doing this. This year especially I am making a point of taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and looking at all of my blessings. I have so much to be thankful for….

Here are a few…

Annual photo of us being goofballs.... Note our best surprised face imitations of the statue character's perfectly square mouth.  Ha!
Annual photo of us being goofballs…. Note our best surprised face imitations of the statue character’s perfectly square mouth. Ha!

I am thankful for traditions. I love the predictability of the food, the conversation, and the chaos. While I won’t ever tell him, I love that every year my dad tries to turn our Thanksgiving dinner into “brunch” so that he can drive like a bat out of hell to go hunting in Idaho sooner. If he could find a way to convince the rest of us to eat a full turkey “dinner” at 9am, he would be thrilled! This year he even made a petition for Thanksgiving dinner to be held a day early. Sorry, Dad, not going to happen. So far, the rest of us are holding firm at noon for our meal, no earlier. Oh, how I love tradition.

Tim and our little June
Tim and our little June

I am thankful for my wonderful husband. He is a hardworking, talented, intelligent, manly-man of a sweetheart. He is one of those people that makes me feel completely safe, loved, and cherished at the same time. He puts up with my antics and balances my craziness. At times, I feel completely inadequate. He is so much more amazing and accomplished than I will ever be. He never stops amazing me.

I am thankful for my family. I love the unique characters that make up our little slice of happiness. We may challenge one another – which is a nice way of saying don’t always get along – but would all do absolutely anything for each other. I love, what my husband has dubbed, the “yammering” that happens when we get together. We hop from topic to topic as if they were hot potatoes and are apparently allergic to completing conversations. No sane person could follow the discussions, but lucky for us, none of us qualify as sane – except maybe my husband, who is baffled by the whole loud, chaotic interaction. We aren’t perfect but we have a complex and deep relationship that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I am thankful for God’s provision. I don’t only mean this financially, although I am so thankful for that as well! I am thankful that He provides guidance – and man, have we ever needed it this year! He doesn’t leave us to navigate alone. I am thankful that He has a plan and knows the answers, whether He reveals them in the form of closing one door to open another or slowly guiding my bumbling self to the right decisions.

The things I am grateful for to me are somewhat normal, even mundane: tradition, a loving husband, family. and a God who provides. I think their normalness makes them even more dangerous – easier to take them for granted…

For me, these things represent

stability,

consistency,

normalcy,

familiarity,

and love.

These are four things that I hold so dearly. Yet they are so easy for me, who has never truly known otherwise, to take them for granted. This year, I choose to remember that they are blessings.

For children in foster care, without a family, or even adopted children, the holidays can be a difficult time. For many, their life does not feel stable, consistent, normal, or familiar. They never forget that these things are not only blessings but also luxuries. These children may miss the holiday traditions that they once knew or just wish that they had traditions to identify with. Many adoptees find themselves wondering about their birth family over the holidays. “What are their traditions? Are they thinking about me, too?,” are common questions that may run through adoptees minds. The concepts of a great sense of loss and lack of belonging around the holidays have been well documented, studied, and confirmed by therapists specializing in adoptee and orphan psychology.

Can you imagine: What these children whose whole lives have been turned upside down must be feeling? Being torn away from your family – for reasons that you may not fully understand – and placed in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar traditions?

Can you imagine it? I can’t.

I pray for these children this holiday. I pray that they would find strength, resilience, and peace. And I pray that stability, consistency, normalcy, familiarity, and knowing they are loved are on the horizon.

For the blessings in my life, both the ones I listed and the ones I didn’t, I choose gratitude.

Go hug your loved ones a little tighter and don’t take anything for granted. Happy Thanksgiving!

What NOT to say to an Adoptive Family

People say all kinds of stupid things to transracial adoptive families. Kristin Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan and her friend, author Jillian Lauren, are both adoptive moms to black children. They teamed up with another pal to make this video of all of the ridiculous and insensitive things that people have actually said to them over the years.

Some of this makes me crack up but most of it makes me realize how nosy people can be. Please, everyone lets all stop making transracial adoptive families uncomfortable with our dumb questions. Deal? Because I’m pretty sure that the reproductive status of the mom in line at the grocery store is none of your business. And no, she does not want the name of your fertility doctor.

Multi-Racial Adoption: How colorblind are we really?

I was searching for something else, when I stumbled across an article titled, “Overseas adoptions rise – for black American children.” Huh? I was shocked. How can this be? I know families that have waited years to adopt domestically.

Overseas Adoptions Rise – For Black American Children

I thought for sure the article must be a fluke. So I dug a little deeper. Turns out, there are dozens of articles on the topic, all from reliable sources, all reporting the same basic storyline: America has a surplus of black, adoptable children.

Of adoptive families in the US, only 14% say that they will accept a black child. (Don’t you hate that terminology – accept?) By the way, over 90% of families say they will accept a white child. International adoption is not exempt from this trend either. Only 7% of international adoptees over the past 10 years are black. As a family currently adopting from an African country, every time I hear, “White people adopt black babies because it is trendy. Look at all the celebrities doing it,” I cringe. If only you knew how few families are open to adopting black children, I think to myself.

For families overseas (mostly from Western Europe and Canada) looking to adopt, many are told that if they want a fast and more predictable adoption process, without all of the governmental red tape and corruption, to adopt a child of African American decent from the US. For most of these nations, adopting a child of a different race has become an adoption norm. The result is a growing community of families in nations like the Netherlands who have adopted black children from the US.

While there is an alarming lack of openness to accepting a child of any race other than white in the US, in a handful of instances, the birth mother selected a family abroad to parent their black child because she felt that her child wouldn’t grow up experiencing the same levels of racism.

Being a multiracial adoptive family in the US certainly comes with a number of challenges. There is no hiding that you are an adoptive family so you are often subjected to nosy and inappropriate questions from others everywhere you go. You must teach your child about prejudices and stereotypes that you have never dealt with personally, as well as incorporate your child’s unique background into your family’s traditions. These are all valid challenges. However, some parents and apparently, states think these challenges are insurmountable. Did you know that even today some states maintain policies that have inhibited black children from being placed in homes with willing white families, even when no family of a “matching race” was available? This baffles me. The article below goes into more detail on these policies’ history and effects today. Why would anyone choose a discriminatory practice that ends up forcing most of these children to wait for a loving family? Is that really in the best interests of the child? Even from a financial standpoint, these policies don’t make sense. These children will end up in the state funded Foster Care system if they aren’t placed with an adoptive family.

America’s Unseen Export: Children, Most of Them Black

With so few families willing to accept black children and discriminatory placing practices active in some states, it is no wonder why there are so many black children in the US, some of them infants, waiting for adoptive homes.

Internationally, some of the countries with the highest per capita number of adoptable orphans are located in Africa. There certainly is an expensive price tag associated with all international adoptions. However the fact is, nations like Poland and the Ukraine’s adoption fees are over 65% more expensive than that of Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why? Adoptive nations pricing strategies are real life Economics 101 supply and demand models. A surplus of supply and insufficient demand equate to a lower price tag in African – read: black – nations. Only in this scenario, the supplied “product” is a living, breathing child without a family.

I will leave you with this: Just about any decent person will tell you that love makes a family, not skin color or genetics. So in our supposedly progressive and modern society, how are we so stuck on race?

The Life of a Foster Child

This year, I joined our church’s expanding Foster Care support ministry. They started our big kick-off meeting with a video depicting the life of a child who enters the foster care system and her journey. Some of you may have seen it as it floated around social media in the past years, but for those of you who haven’t, it is called “Removed.”

I can’t even imagine.

Shortly after the film, a beautiful, tall, blonde woman in her twenties walked up the microphone. She introduced herself as Shannon and began telling her story of entering the Foster Care system at the age of 9. She remembers being placed in more foster homes than she can count by the time she was 12, saying she stopped counting at around 40. She tells of moving from home to home with what little belongings she had in a black plastic bag (just like in the video). She recalls being embarrassed at the start of school each year for never having the supplies from the teachers’ lists and admits to layering everything in her closet to stay warm in the winter.

When Shannon was 12, she was placed in with a family who didn’t give up on her.  This family worked through all of her rebellion, self-protective behaviors, and tumultuous times rather than recommending another home placement to her caseworker. Although she was never legally adoptable (parental rights were never officially terminated by the State), she lived with this family through the age of 18. They helped to put her through college and are the family – and parents – she considers her own to this day. She is now married with two children and has just become licensed as a foster parent herself.  Shannon’s story is one of redemption, healing, and love, but for far too many children, this is not their experience.