Monday, December 21, 2009

The Places That Scare Us

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

A few more thoughts on "Find My Family" and a holiday wish.

On tonight's episode of Find My Family, Tina said she just wanted to know if her birth son was happy and healthy. When she learned he's in his twenties and doing fine, she said, "I could be done right now."

Of course on this ABC show she wasn't done. Tina went on to meet her son Tim. Whether those of us watching Find My Family are birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents, or not part of the adoption triad, we know such cathartic moments often lead to disappointment.

Yet that doesn't make the intensity any less true. I've come to believe that celebrating such moments matters.

Not every adoptive family is a happy one; not every birth parent wants to be found; not every adoptee is "lucky" or traumatized by loss. We all come to this issue with our own loads of baggage.

But most of us are able to handle many conflicting feelings. We can love more than one mother or father. Love is not an on-off switch or the simplistic binary of Hollywood movies or the National Enquirer. What's most transformative about adoption is the way it allows us to extend the boundaries of love; it validates the rich complexity of life.

For me, it's ironic that a reality show like Find My Family presents more emotional nuance than you'll see almost anywhere else on TV. I admit, I was on the defensive when I watched the first episode, after reading dire warnings from other adoptive parents on sites like Rainbowkids. The soapy formula, the tearful hosts, the relentless happy endings put me off before I'd experienced a second of it.

But after the first episode, I felt divided. Artificial as the format seemed—and that glowing "family tree" on a heavenly hillside is still hard to take—it couldn't squelch the feelings of the participants.

As a result, I sought other responses to the show from different perspectives in the triad. The range of reactions to these Adopt-a-tude posts has made for a bracing conversation. It hasn't been an easy discussion for an adoptive parent like me. But it's a necessary one, I think, and I find that my frame of reference has changed.

I'm still concerned about the show's melodramatic pitch and telling edits. Yet despite its flaws, I'm drawn to the undeniable gut impact of these stories. (Click here for my reaction on Open Salon: "Find My Family: Why Reality TV Sometimes Works.")

I want to thank fellow adoptive parent Lisa for her honesty in sharing how she grapples with these issues. I recognize myself in her. I thank Claudia, a birth mother, and David, an adult adoptee, for their passionate defense of the show. The journey I've gone on is nothing to compare with the walk up the hill of those previously lost souls David speaks of in his review; that's something I can only imagine—yet I am able to imagine it now, an unexpected gift.

My wish? That we carry this conversation forward. That we hear each other's pain and accept it. That we form alliances.

"What is it that allows our goodwill to expand and our prejudice and anger to decrease?" asks Pema Chödron in The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.

We may not want to train as "warrior-bodhisattvas," in the words of this Buddhist nun, but recognizing how interconnected we are—"to grow in understanding that when we harm another, we are harming ourselves"—makes sense to me. As Chödron writes,
"Our personal attempts to live humanely in this world are never wasted. Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger just might be what it takes to save the planet from extinction.... So we train in recognizing our uptightness. We train in seeing that others are not so different from ourselves. We train in opening our hearts and minds in increasingly difficult situations."
I thank you all for stopping by Adopt-a-tude and helping this op-ed-zine to thrive. May the new year be illuminating, too.

Friday, December 18, 2009

No More Lost Souls: An Adopted Person’s Response to “Find My Family”

By David Biddle for Adopt-a-tude

This is Adopt-a-tude's concluding review in a series about the ABC reality show Find My Family, which first aired in the United States this past November. Each episode involves the reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parents. Click here to watch recent episodes.

Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. These differences emerged in the comments to adoptive parent Lisa's post this past Monday. In our second post on the topic, Claudia spoke about the show from a birth parent's perspective. Now David weighs in as an adult adoptee.

We'd like to invite the whole adoption community to keep talking and debating together about the issues raised by this show.

What I hate about reality shows is that the stories are often contrived and artificial. You name it, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Longest Race, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, reality and the human experience give way to gross-out, gamesmanship, and goofiness.

Find My Family is different. There’s real human drama on display here. There’s no question that the footage of adoptees and birth parents learning the truth about long-lost kin is one-take, real stuff.

I can only imagine what watching this show feels like for the millions of adoptees out there still searching for—or at least wondering about—their birth parents. As a successful searcher (we found my birth mother six years ago), I think watching Find My Family does a good job of getting across to viewers the deep emotional issues that adoptees confront as adults in the world.

It has a simple premise: the hosts introduce adopted adults, interview them about their need to find their birth families, and then perform a search for the long lost. Once the object of the search is located, the hosts interview that person as well. The final meeting between the two lost souls—and, believe me, you get a hefty dose of what it means to be a real-life lost soul when you watch this show—is then filmed. Let the hugs begin.

Find My Family is definitely a full box-of-tissues tear-jerker. You cry when you listen to the story of why the adoptee finally decided to begin a search; you cry when you understand how frustrating a search can be with all the dead ends; you cry when the show’s hosts, Tim Green and Lisa Joyner (adoptees themselves), deliver bad news and good news; you cry—sometimes uncontrollably—in the reunion scenes; and you cry during the final scenes as the adopted cavort with newly found siblings and parents in lush parks or quaint middle-class American kitchens.

I may be biased, but in my opinion the adoptees and their birth parents in Find My Family are capable of showing natural emotion on a level that makes even the best actors look like they’re getting paid millions of dollars to be fakes.

Without a doubt, placing the reunion search detective story—that’s exactly what it is—on prime time is an interesting move for a major network like ABC. And it comes at a perfect moment in history for those of us adoptees who believe that we should have more rights to identifying information and our original birth records.

Groups like Bastard Nation and Adoptee Rights are growing more and more militant as states continue to control access to information that might lead adoptees to their birth families. It is very likely that this issue is going to be highly charged in 2010. Adoptee Rights is organizing a national demonstration set for July in Kentucky at the Annual Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There is no question that the stars of this show are the adult adoptees. Their birth parents are also heroes. The defining moments of the hour come when the adoptees walk up a special hill towards the “Family Tree,” a real tree under which the birth parents (or a sibling) wait. Watching that lost soul climb a long hill towards the answer to life-long questions is powerful, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy.

One quibble I have is that adopting parents don’t have a very big part to play in these tales. We get to meet some of them, but they certainly don’t get center stage. It’s easy to see why, since the drama and existential struggle of adoptees and the parents who had to let them go is so profound.

But still, I’d like to hear at the end what the adopting mom or dad thinks when the child they raised and loved all those years has found a new mom, dad, brother, or sister. Adopting parents are often as emotionally invested in the reunion search as their adopted children.

Obviously there’s some contrivance built into how the hosts tell these stories. Details are sometimes dropped in for dramatic effect. The settings tend to be highly beatific; the film crew is definitely looking for a Hallmark™ feel to scenes (and, not surprisingly, Hallmark is an advertiser on the website). The show’s participants are often perfectly coiffed, wearing heavy makeup.

I only bring this up because what is so appealing about Find My Family is that the producers can’t choose actors or even attractive amateurs. There are only so many people who are adopted and willing to have their stories told to the world on TV. As such, the “stars” are completely real people—your neighbors, co-workers, or classmates.

This is important, because the identity issues adoptees go through are really not that much different than what anyone goes through: Who am I really? Where did I come from? Why do I feel all alone?

In many ways, all people are orphans in the world. We grow up. We leave home. We have to deal with life as solitary agents. Adoptees just have to face that their entire lives.

Find My Family, of course, portrays only the successful and positive stories of reunion searches. For every wonderful, loving re-connection the show depicts there are at least as many—and probably more—searches that don’t end well. I’ve heard too many tales of weird scenes with birth families, and sometimes the trail can lead to graveyards, mental institutions, and other depressing conclusions. Perhaps Fox should one-up ABC and consider offering something along those lines in 2010.

But despite the flaws, Find My Family does an excellent job of getting across to America what it’s like to be an adult adoptee. Here are some recognizable statements in the first few episodes from my own life and the lives of my adopted peers: “I’ve always had to deal with abandonment issues.” “I felt trashed.” “This is the look of Complete!” “Oh my God, he looks like me! This is so weird.”

In the end, this show is going to empower a lot of adopted folks and at least their birth moms to stand up and be counted as examples of fortitude and grace. In this age of high-profile divorces, celebrity adoptions, and philandering heroes, Find My Family is an antidote to the cynicism and edge that continue to seep into our lives.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to let TV enter my life, I’m more interested in plot and character development than I am in being entertained. I’ll take hugs, kisses, crying for joy, and everyday people pouring out their hearts on camera any day over people who make fools of themselves pretending they’re important.

TV should be an adjunct to our individual quests to figure out what life is all about, not an escape hole. Find My Family admirably provides the former, and in this way is truly life-affirming.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Birth Mother’s View of “Find My Family”: The Best Thing to Happen to Adoption

Guest Post by Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy for Adopt-a-tude

This is Adopt-a-tude's second post in a series about the ABC reality show Find My Family, which first aired in the United States this past November. Each episode involves the reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parents. Click here to watch recent episodes.

Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. These differences emerged in the comments to adoptive parent Lisa's post this past Monday. We'd like to invite the adoption community to keep talking about this together. 

Claudia began posting about Find My Family on her own blog when the show first aired and agreed to do another take for us. A post by an adult adoptee will follow later this week.

After watching the pilot episode of ABC's new reality show Find My Family, as a birth mother, I was truly surprised by my reactions. I had expected to find aspects of the show to be scripted and hokey. I’d expected to feel a sense of "happily ever after" that doesn't always correlate with adoption reunions. I’d expected to be annoyed that ABC glossed over the fight for adoption records and adoptee civil rights.

What I didn’t expect is that the network would pull off the show as well as it has.

I really do think that Find My Family is the best thing to happen to adoption since...well, I don't know since what! Even Madonna being called a "baby stealer" in the tabloids pales in comparison.

After Episode #2 of Find My Family
Now I’m even more convinced that the show provides the public with a much-needed public education in terms of the reality of being adopted and the truth of how adoption can affect lives.

When I watched the pilot episode, I tweeted and crowd-sourced the reactions. Of course, ABC knew it had a built-in audience based on its Extreme Home Makeover series; people eat up those feel-good sob stories. All they really needed was a Ty Pennington-type dude who came with an adoptee pedigree. Tim Green was bred for the job.

On Twitter, it was obvious that ABC had hit gold. I could almost see the tears pour out as America's collective heartstrings were not merely pulled but yanked. I had expected I would not be able to escape tears. After all, as a birth mother, I don't have to imagine feeling the emotions portrayed in the 23 noncommercial minutes per adoption tale; I’ve lived it since I was 19.

But to realize that others could feel the pain and joy, and see how it was often bittersweet, hokey or not…it won me over.

ABC's Neatly Wrapped Emotional Bomb
The adoption community was all abuzz about Find My Family, but our reactions are expected. Even with many adoptive parents feeling put out by the name of the show and the implication that ABC was devaluing their role—and real concerns that it doesn’t accurately show the difficulties in adoption reunions, that it has an almost rushed feel that goes with a lack of preparation, and other cries of emotional exploitation by ABC to make a buck—there’s a truth to Find My Family that cannot be dismissed.

The people who do go forth and let the cameras into one of the most emotional and intimate times of their lives are real. What they feel and how deeply they feel it cannot be faked, and it shows.

What I hear the "contestants" on Find My Family express are the same sentences I have heard word for word many, many times in the last ten years as I’ve deeply involved myself in learning from the lives of other adoptees, birth parents, and even adoptive parents.

What's more, I know it's real. I have experienced it myself throughout the adoption separation from my infant son and the search and subsequent reunion with him and my family. These quotes from the show ring true to me:
  • "That is where I always belonged"
  • "I have thought about you every day for my whole life"
  • "I don't want to find her, I need to find her"
  • "It's my legacy"
  • "I don't know who I am"
  • "I just want to know"
Oh, I still feel strongly that ABC has an obligation to educate people about the fight for adoptee rights currently happening in this country. I was happy to hear it at least alluded to in Episode 2 when Ashley says "the laws are against me." Maybe with time, the producers will speak the truth about how it is only archaic and unjust legislation sitting on the books that keeps our 6 million adult adoptees from having the choice to find their families.

But even if that does not ever happen, Find My Family is still a very great thing for adoption and adoptee rights.

Show Normalizes the Desire to Search
For too long, the mantra about adoption has been that "so many babies are unwanted and need homes" with a "so many people who deserve to be parents can't" sprinkled in for good measure.

The end result is that we have a society wearing blinders. Many people assume that no matter how you slice it, adoption is a good thing; anyone who feels otherwise is easily dismissed as angry or is accused of having had a "bad experience.” Few who make such assumptions have had true experience with adoption besides what’s trickled down to them through media stories.

Or they’ve had no real, truthful, open dialogue with adult adoptees or birth mothers. I cannot count how many times I have heard, "Well, my cousin's sister's uncle was adopted to a wonderful family, and he has no desire to search, ever."

I know. I get that not every adoptee suffers a primal wound and not everyone has that burning need to search all their lives. But can you guarantee that you all really know what lurks in the deepest recesses of every adopted person's and their birth families' hearts?

Not everyone spills out his or her most private thoughts over eggnog at a tree-lighting celebration. I have told some pretty bland versions of my adoption experience when I haven't felt like exposing myself so emotionally to even the dearest of friends and family.

Find My Family Finds a Truth
But now, with this pithy, scripted, should-be-sponsored-by-Kleenex show, Find My Family is letting America not only see inside what it is like to have adoption loss and separation but also the pure joy in a journey to repair those rifts.

By showing the same happily-ever-after formula weekly to Americans and by making them cry vicariously on their couches, ABC is building sympathy for the struggles of adoptees and their biological families. Find My Family is proving a means for more communication, openness, and understanding.

Adoption is such an isolating experience. All too frequently, we go on a personal journey, often not of our own choosing, but we feel that no one else has lived it. Because there are so many different variables—personal situations, emotional make-up, the overall outcome of the experience, others involved, even where one is on the timeline of life—our feelings differ a lot.

Yet Find My Family validates what so many folks do feel but are afraid to say. It provides positive role models for the whole adoption-reunion experience. We see families accepting whole branches of severed family trees with open arms. We see tears of fear and joy. We see acceptance and understanding. We see that the desire to search is human and the need to know universal.

Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy spends her life online. When she is not running social-media campaigns at her job, she is writing about adoption issues, the need for adoption reform, birth mother's informed consent, adoptee rights, and anything else that could be covered in life as a birth mother. The best places to catch her are on her blog Musings of the Lame or Twitter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Find My Family": An Adoptive Parent Responds

By Lisa at Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

The ABC reality show Find My Family first aired in the United States this past November. Each episode involves the reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parents. Emotions run high. Tears flow on-screen and off. In other words, it's great television—but does that make it a good depiction of adoption?

Click here to watch recent episodes.

From the literal "family tree" on a sunny hillside to the earnest hosts, Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. Even some mainstream TV reviewers have called the show "grotesque." When it was first picked up by ABC (it's based on successful "relationship reality" programming in Holland and Australia), Variety ran this headline: "ABC adopts 'Find My Family' show."

But clearly not everyone in the adoption community feels the same way. The "grotesque" remark from a TV critic doesn't account for why reunions really are emotional and difficult to pull off. At Adopt-a-tude, we'll be running responses to the show from different angles. We'd like to invite the adoption community to talk about this together.

First up is adoptive parent Lisa, the Caucasian mother of a Chinese-born daughter. Posts by an adult adoptee and a birth mother will follow this week.

I came to Find My Family already grappling with a whirlwind of emotions. A recent discussion on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog opened my eyes to the very real pain adult adoptees may experience. Watching the December 7 episode of Find My Family last week, I felt I understood the emotions expressed by adult adoptees Kari Spencer and Jennifer Curtis—and that's not just because of the recent discussion on Motherlode

I've seen some of these same feelings reflected in my 9-year-old daughter's eyes, if not her words. The sense of abandonment. Of feeling tossed aside without explanation. The potential for all that to gnaw away at one's sense of self worth.

I understood too the longing: "I deserve to see where I came from." And sadly, as a single mom raising a daughter who's an only child, I've spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying whether my daughter will feel "alone in the world"—as more than one adoptee on the show articulated. In truth, the show made me long all the more for the possibility that my daughter might someday find and connect with her Chinese kin.

So, on the one hand, the show made me question again the wisdom of closed adoptions. The bottom line is blood relations are family. You don't cease being "family" just because you're not there. Adopted or not, we all have far-flung family members. Is there a draw there? The possibility for that sense of kindred connection? I'd be lying if I said no.

The truth, for me personally, is that I think if I were Kari Spencer's adoptive mother in the first story aired on last Monday's show, and Kari Spencer's birth mother had—as she claims—returned within those first, very early (three) months and demonstrated that she and her husband had both the desire and means to raise Kari, wrenching as it would have been, I think I’d have wanted to give Kari the chance to be with her biological mother.

The American Adoption Congress highlights the issue this way:
“The AAC believes that all children have the same core of basic needs, and that these needs can be met most easily when children can grow up in the family into which they were born. Every effort should be made to preserve the integrity of this family. When birth families are unable to meet the ongoing needs of children born to them, however, we believe that adoption provides the best alternative—provided the adoptions are humane, honest, and rooted in the understanding that adoption does not erase a child's connections to the family into which they were born. We believe that those who have lived the adoption experience are in the best position to articulate the importance of these conditions and to bring about an adoption system that is based on them.”
I think the AAC’s focus and priorities make sense. That said, there's a broad range of adoptee experiences and opinions. While it's clear there are a number of adult adoptees who are active, vocal, and angry, I’m curious to know how broadly representative their opinions are. I’d love to see a broad-based, statistically meaningful study that represents the full range of adoptee experiences to date.

In the meantime, as much as I feel sympathetic to the pain articulated by the adult adoptees and birth mothers in Find My Family, I'm also an adoptive parent and—I’m human. So while I understand the deep-seated need to discover the connection and sense of belonging that comes from blood ties, from the sense of having been molded from the same clay, there is another part of me, in my head, in my heart, that feels there are things about Find My Family that are one-sided, superficial, and potentially exploitative.

What individual—adopted or otherwise—doesn’t fantasize about the perfect family, the one that's truly attuned and connected to who we are on a cellular level?

Family is in part based on DNA. But that's the raw material, and it's just the beginning. Family, particularly the intense job of parenting, being the mom or the dad, is about being there, day in and day out, year in and year out, through the good, the bad, the sick, the rebellious, and ugly. It’s a commitment, a bond that grows in the heart and in the wiring that develops in the brain. It comes from living and breathing as a family unit, so much so that you unconsciously share the same gestures, the same manner of speech, the same quirky sense of humor.

It's about the emotional equity, the sweat equity, and, at the risk of sounding crass, the financial equity as well. It's about paying the emergency room bills, the annual doctor's bills, the dental and orthodontic bills. It's about putting money aside each year for college. It's about the puppy in the window, the school ski trip, the camping adventure, and presents under the tree each year at Christmas.

It's not just a climb and a hug on a sunlit hill thirty years later.  

So I’ll admit that when the Find My Family hosts and adoptees kept saying, "That's your mother" and "We found your mother" and "We found your family"—as if these adoptees were still orphaned and alone in the world—I couldn't help but cringe. I wondered what the adoptive parents were feeling as they viewed this footage. Yes. This was the birth mother who had clearly struggled and grieved her lost children. But what about the woman who was there all those years doing all the actual...mothering. Who was she? The babysitter?

I know how subjective and biased I sound as I read what I've written. I think it's the sweat equity talking. But I don't honestly know how, or if I can, disengage from that. The bottom line for me is that, as an adoptive parent, the show made me feel incredibly invisible.

If, broadly speaking and in actuality, adoptive families form a “triad,” the show should try to represent the reality, not just a selective slice, a single fairytale moment in time. Include the full triad. I know this can be sticky. But that’s in part the point—and the reality.

Within my own family, among myself and my cousins, we have more than seven examples of adoption to draw from. They include two international adoptions, two open adoptions, two closed adoptions, and a foster parent who became an adoptive parent. In the case of the foster parent, she only moved to adopt her daughter after four or five years of waiting for the birth mother to overcome her addictions and provide for her daughter. When the birth mother proved unable, she relinquished her claim to “mother” her daughter.

In the case of our family's two open adoptions, sadly, the adoptive parents pursued and tried to maintain the originally agreed-on connection. In both instances, to varying degrees, despite ongoing efforts, the birth mothers dropped away. This isn't to say open adoption is a mistake or a bad idea. It's just to say every adoptive circumstance is different. Families fracture. Pain can result any number of ways. The question is, what "family" will be there to pick up the pieces?

I'll be interested to see what kind of follow-up occurs on Find My Family. Will they choose only those stories that offer a happy ending? I'm sure there will be many wonderful, heart-warming connections and re-connections established. These are wonderful to see. But what will they do if, over time, some of the romance in these newly discovered relationships fades? Real families inevitably entail real conflict.

As an adoptive parent in the trenches dealing with the grit and grind of everyday life, the challenge I grapple with is the everpresent threat of the phantom perfect parent—as much as I know we're all human and that birth parents undoubtedly have their struggles. I’m wondering what Find My Family will do with those stories where the birth parents are found and the adoptee is confronted, God forbid, with a second rejection? This is real life as well. It happens. But then this raises another issue.  Is this really appropriate material for prime-time television?

I'm wary of an opportunistic prime-time reality show competing for ratings that paints a one-dimensional, overly romantic view of adoptees and birth families when the picture is, in reality—like most real-life families—far more complex.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ah-ha Moments at Adoption Conferences—an Adoptee’s View

From adopting a child to being an adopted child

Guest Post by Gian M. Schauer for Adopt-a-tude

I’ve had a couple of epiphanies at past adoption conferences. One led me to a husband. The other still has me searching.

I am adopted. I am interested in adopting an older child. I had contemplated giving up my birth daughter for adoption back in the ‘80s. I’ve been a foster parent. I could pretty much sit in on any talk at an adoption conference and find something that resonated with me.

It was the stuff that didn’t resonate that brought on my “ah-ha” moments.

My first moment of clarity came during a break at a Single Parent Adoption conference. I had been in presentations and break-out sessions listening to people talk about the joys of adoption and the struggles of parenting an adopted child. Their tales all sounded familiar, even though I didn’t have an adopted child.

Then it hit me. I’d had the same struggles parenting my birth daughter, not because she was adopted but because I was parenting alone. If I continued down this path of single-parent adoption, I thought, I would be telling these same stories of time management, depleted energy levels, and the frustration of facing decisions alone.

What I was longing for was not just another child—I already had a wonderful one. I wanted someone with which to share another child. 

With new clarity, I left the conference and got busy. I talked it out with my shrink and increased my dating search. A couple of years later, I got married on a boat in the Caribbean.

That’s not the end of my story.

I had also been attending general adoption conferences, not just those for single parents. Other conferences offered many different topics, depending on your interests. As I sat in rooms full of adoptive parents discussing their issues with their adopted children, I stopped hearing the voices of the parents and starting thinking about my own voice as an adopted child. 

That’s when I had “ah-ha” moment number two. 

I didn’t need to learn anything more about adopting someone else right now. I needed to learn more about the adoption of me.

I’m not talking about the usual stuff like who my birth mother was or if I had any half-siblings. Not yet. What I needed to address was what it meant to me to be an adopted child.

I listened to experts and other adopted people talk about things like “The Primal Wound” and “always looking for your people.” Those things didn’t ring true for me. I turned protective of the adopted children in stories. I got frustrated with my shrink when she said perhaps I was experiencing things in a certain way because I was adopted. I researched attachment disorder in adults to figure out my relationship problems. I stopped reading studies about older children in the foster-care system or fetal alcohol effects and started thinking about my own birth and adoption circumstances.

Being adopted is a part of me. But is it a bigger part of me than growing up in a small town in the Midwest, having freckles, or being tall? I wasn’t comfortable with the generalization that all adopted kids were more difficult as adolescents anymore than everyone with freckles is a class clown. I didn’t go around in life searching for someone who looked like me or someone who could understand me anymore than my friends who weren’t adopted searched for those things. 

So what was I curious about? I wasn’t sure about starting a search for my birth mom. I understood what she must have gone through to give me up, but I didn’t need to see her, touch her, connect with her.

Or did I?  I tiptoed around the subject, reading online stories of how people found birth parents but never starting my own search. I didn’t talk with anyone about this, either.  Instead I just quietly sat in small groups at these conferences, thinking about the circumstances behind my own adoption and wondering about the life path of my birth mother. My curiosity took me from wondering about adopting a child to wondering about being an adopted adult.  

I have stopped planning and searching for a child to adopt. I have started searching for my inner adopted child. Maybe one day when I sort out the imprint that adoption has left on me, I will move my attention towards finding my birth family. And maybe after that, I will be interested in adopting a child with my husband.

For now, I’m not attending any more adoption conferences.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

National Adoption Month, Day, Whatever...

By David Biddle for Adopt-a-tude

As part of National Adoption Month, today, Saturday, is NATIONAL ADOPTION DAY. Normally, I hate the idea of honoring something important (like mothers, fathers, the earth, even our country’s independence and the love we celebrate every February) with a single day. Obviously, every day should be a day we honor our parents, the earth we live on, the freedom past generations fought to protect for us, and love itself. But National Adoption Day actually carries with it a level of celebratory activity that goes far beyond ritual and Hallmark cards.

Check out the web site for National Adoption Day and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Since 2000 when it was initiated, 25,000 kids have been adopted on National Adoption Day. Last year 4,000 adoption applications were processed on this day. Today as many as 6,700 applications will be filed.

According to adoption spokesperson, the actress and adopting mom Nia Vardalos (the star of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding), most of these adoptions are of foster kids, but the really impressive aspect of this day is that judges, lawyers, social workers, counselors, and other professionals give their time for free in order to make foster care and adoption in general more affordable for families and kids. There is no question that for 6,700 kids out there today (and probably 12,000 or more adults longing to become parents or extend their capacity to love), November 21, 2009 is a profound day of celebration. As someone adopted 51 years ago, I join you all in this celebration.

All that said, as a writer here at Adopt-a-Tude, and a resident adoptee (who is working diligently on getting some serious atteetude), let me provide an observation that I don’t see at many mainstream adoption web sites: adoption as a social phenomenon is only just now finding a purchase in this culture.

For years the focus has been on normalizing life for adopting families and adoptees. These days, a lot of adoptees are getting kind of uppity. We’re sort of proud of that. Check out some of the web sites referenced here to the right at Adopt-a-Tude. I particularly like Harlow’s Monkey. Also, you don’t have to agree with them, but the folks at Bastard Nation are probably the best source of information about leading edge adoption-oriented media and cultural offerings. Check out their reference to a transracial adoption film festival that just ended last week in Minneapolis (our bad for not reporting on this earlier). Also, pay close attention to the work being done at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Research in this field is spotty at best, but exceedingly important to pay attention to.

Finally, I want to leave you with two references that I came across this week well worth the time. The first is an article called “Shotgun Adoption” published by The Nation back in August. It details some pretty scary things about crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that maybe the media doesn’t report on enough because the plight of unwed, young birthmothers is something most people don’t want to think about (although us adoptees can’t help ourselves…for obvious reasons).

The second reference I offer in all fun and jest, but as a final statement from an adoptee in identity flux (there are many of us, trust me). Alison Larkin is taking the adoption reunion situation to new heights with her comedy and writing. For a special treat, check her out at YouTube singing about that mysteriously important component of adult personality in The DNA Song.

Happy Adoption Day and may the rest of your holiday season be joyous, thought provoking, and self-transcending.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is My Son Lucky?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

He’s so lucky to have a parent like you.

She’s lucky to be here.

Every adoptive parent hears the “lucky” comment at some point, especially if a child was born in a developing country like Vietnam, as my son was. Most of us have ready-made responses: No, I’m the lucky one or We all feel lucky to be a family.

If you haven’t adopted internationally or spent time with adult adoptees, it’s probably hard to imagine the mix of guilt, irritation, and confusion the “lucky” comment sparks. I’ve heard it from extended family members, strangers on the street, friends, even from a security worker at the Phú Quốc airport last December.

I’m never sure if people say it because they think it will make me feel good, because they think it’s what I want to hear, or because they simply don't know what else to say. In the case of the Vietnamese airport worker, I think she really believed it.

Talking about my lucky son doesn’t make me feel better, however. More than anything, the notion of luck emphasizes the randomness of life and the fact that a child I dearly love might not ever have crossed my path. How could that be? The thought scares me; I’m also deeply grateful. I’m all too aware of the cognitive dissonance I experience as an adoptive parent: I'm thrilled we are a family; at the same time, I know my gain is another woman's loss—and possibly a loss for my son as well.

When Mei-Ling Hopgood titled her terrific memoir Lucky Girl, I’m sure she was invoking cognitive dissonance, too, as an adult adoptee. A child’s understanding of luck changes over time. It’s not a simple notion, particularly if you’re grappling with what luck means in two different cultures and the way that has shaped who you’ve become.

Talking about adoptees as "lucky" makes them sound like charity cases. This construction of international adoption was foisted on an earlier generation from Korea and Vietnam, including those adopted through the infamous or humanitarian (depending on your point of view) Operation Babylift in the mid-1970s.

There’s been plenty of criticism of this humanitarian approach, much of it justified. Yet now the pendulum has swung the other way, with many current adoptive parents claiming they were motivated by a desire for a family rather than by charitable impulses. Critics snap back that we’re buying babies. Celebrity international adoptions and ethical violations put us on the defensive even more.

In recent discussions on blogs like Racialicious and Harlow’s Monkey, there are bracing comments about the “selfishness” of international adoption and the havoc it wreaks for children of color. These are well worth a read; they make clear that mainstream media representations of adoption and the debate about it are misleading at best.

But if you extend this reasoning—as some more hyperbolic commenters do, especially when railing again Madonna—no international adoptees are lucky. They’ve been torn from their birth families and cultures; they are saddled with unresolvable grief and identity confusion.

So, when a well-meaning person beams at my charming seven-year-old and says, “He’s so lucky,” I’m extremely uncomfortable. Knowing the sharp criticism of some adult adoptees, how can I not squirm?

Nevertheless, there really are millions of children who need homes now. Not in some distant future when all sending countries have completely overhauled their systems and the U.N. is satisfied—now.

In this way, I think my son is lucky. I don’t believe he would have been better off in an orphanage. He’s lucky to have escaped an institutionalized existence or life on the streets.

Like so many adoptive parents, I’ve been tempted by the idea that fate brought this child to my husband and me. Our being together just feels right. But if I’m honest, luck makes more sense than fate. I can’t pass off a decision I made—and the resources I have to carry it out—on God or the Universe. I’m responsible for it, for good or ill. And I'm an American, after all, who believes we make our own luck.

At the moment, my son is going on eight years old and confused about what his luck means. He still clings to me whenever he gets worried that we aren’t a “real” family. Yet close to a year after we took a return trip together to Vietnam, my son’s understanding of his own situation also seems to be deepening.

He tells me lately that he feels sad, as if he left a part of himself in Vietnam.

“You did,” I say, because it's the truth.

This post originally appeared in WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog for the Women's Review of Books. Read Martha’s review of Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood and Culture Keeping by Heather Jacobson in WRB 's September/October 2009 issue.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why Do the Russians Make It So Tough to Adopt?

Guest Post by Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, Fran Cronin’s family was featured in the Adopt-a-tude piece “Attachment: ‘Love Is Just a Starting Point.’” The struggles of Fran and her son with attachment issues were highlighted there. Now Fran describes how she came to adopt from Russia and why institutional care can profoundly hurt children.

When you are 46 and want to have a baby but biology is no longer on your side, the answer to what you want is adoption.

In 1998, when my husband and I decided to pursue adoption, we had been living in Moscow for almost four years. Our biological daughter was almost three, and we were eager to expand our family.  But as a breast-cancer survivor, living in Yeltsin-era Moscow, the farthest I got with fertility enhancement was taking little purple pills prescribed by a doctor in Helsinki, accompanied by lots of unspontaneous sex.

“We are living in the land of adoption,” my weary husband finally said. He was alluding to what we called Plan B in the family-planning manual. 

That year, the adoption of Russian babies by foreign nationals was almost epidemic. During 1998, Americans alone adopted 4,432 Russian babies, more than 12 adoptions a day. On our frequent travels back and forth between Moscow and New York, there would invariably be several families returning with their newly adopted children. The trend peaked in 2004 with the adoption of 5,865 Russian children by American families.  The following year, the Russians tightened the rules for accrediting adoption agencies, and since then the number of Russian children adopted by Americans has been in decline.  The most recent report from the U.S. Department of State revealed numbers had dropped to 1,861 in 2008.

We were familiar with adoptions, but those we knew of in our wide circle of aging-out parents were not of babies; they were all of young toddlers, ranging in age from fourteen months to three years.

Although Russian institutions were bursting with abandoned or unwanted children, the bureaucracies of both the U.S. and Russia made arduous, repeated, and capricious demands on us. (No one challenges your intent when you birth a baby.)

The U.S. Embassy lost our fingerprints. The Russians made us scramble for their coveted brightly colored (and costly) ribbons and seals. For nine months, I cleaned our apartment in preparation for home visits, crisscrossed unfamiliar and congested streets in search of obscure notaries, bought dozens of baby outfits and baby toys.

Although we made clear to every so-called adoption expert available to us in Moscow—especially those in the lucrative position of helping us identify a baby—that we wanted to adopt an infant, we were told we were misguided. What we really wanted, they insisted, was a girl at least three years old. This would safeguard us against “boy trouble” and unknown ills lurking beneath the cuddly cuteness of an infant.

We countered that there are no givens, even with a biological child. We never wanted a guarantee. The driving force was our desire for a child. Our thinking was—and I believe this even more strongly today—that in places where infants are at risk, adopting a baby as young as possible allows adoptive parents to ameliorate the wrongs of early care.

Up until we began our own adoption process, I had assumed that living in Moscow would be an advantage. I had contacts, knew the bureaucratic ropes, and felt I could facilitate an independent adoption without the hassle and pandering of a stateside agency. 

I had spent two years on the board of a nonprofit organization (ARC or Action for Russia’s Children) that actively supported alternatives to institutional care of children abandoned, abused, or relinquished at birth due to obvious physical defects. Many of these defects could have been easily ameliorated if proper medical care had been available. But warehousing children with either physical or neurological disabilities was the assumed norm. (I never once saw a wheel chair anywhere in the city.)

For example, my Russian tutor, a woman in her late thirties, revealed to me that she had a brother born with a severely low IQ. Her parents hadn’t wanted to give him up at birth. But fearing reprisals from nosy neighbors, they shuttered him in their two-room apartment rather than risk public ridicule and ostracization. Her brother’s existence wasn’t revealed until a man interested in marrying my tutor came over to meet her parents. The suitor left and never returned.

Actual numbers for any of this are hard to obtain. But the government and medical community’s rampant collusion in keeping “undesirables” out of the public eye is well known. More recently, legal introduction of parental-rights termination due to poverty, alcoholism, and out-of-wedlock birth has further swollen the institutional population. Unicef estimates that in 2002 at least a half million (or two out of every hundred) Russian children were in institutional care. Other organizations estimate the number to be as high as 800,000 and growing.

In the late nineties, although warehousing of young adults and placement of infants and young children in detsky domes (children’s homes) was a tremendous drain on scarce resources, it was simultaneously a venue for bureaucratic power. The figurative turnkey to required adoption permits lay buried deep in the tightly bound bosom of a woman who presided as the Minister of Education. It was in her windowless basement office that I presented my multi-sealed and stamped dossier.
At the time, Russian law required that babies be available for domestic adoption up to the age of four months. The wait has since doubled and is now eight months. This waiting period was thought to be a window of opportunity for family members, or other Russian citizens in that oblast (region), to come forward and adopt. The reality was they never did.

Testing at the age of two was institutionalized as a way to categorize state-dependent children. If a child was diagnosed as an idiot, then the services provided would be marginal: no formal education or life-skills training, large warehouse-type housing, release to the streets by the age of sixteen or so.

Of course, babies reared in stimulus- or nurture-void environments will invariably test poorly. Denied the comfort of being held, the satisfaction of good nutrition, or the opportunity to bond and form human attachments, these babies grow solitary and listless. Or, as in the case of my son—who was only five months old when we adopted him—lose the desire to cry.

Leading up to our adoption, we first viewed him, on video, as a chubby two-month-old in the arms of caretakers. We then visited him at three-and-a-half months, loaded with stimulus toys and presents of simple clothing for him and other babies in the orphan ward of the hospital in southern Russia where he lived.

Six weeks later, we returned with our daughter, carrying more presents and envelopes stuffed with cash, to attend the local oblast hearing and complete our adoption. In the short span between our two visits, our son had physically deteriorated from a plump, animated, alert baby to a drawn, gray-pallored, and muscularly low-toned infant. All the toys we had given him—mirrors and soft toys with bright colors and sound—were gone.

On pick-up day, we received him bound and swaddled in a tight-fitting cloth that rendered him unable to move.

I got the baby boy I wanted; at five months, my son remains the youngest Russian adoption I know about. Yet the emotional scars of his early deficits go deep. I can’t make up for what he was denied before me.

Which raises many questions, including why do the Russians make it so tough to adopt?  They clearly are not invested in raising unwanted children—so why don’t they provide the education and access necessary for women to have control over conception? (It is not uncommon for a Russian woman to have multiple abortions as well as children they give up for adoption.) If the government does not want to release these babies into families who will care for and love them, then why don’t they provide the support necessary to help them mature into productive citizens?

Today, at age eleven, despite all the love my 115-pound body and well-educated mind can give, my son continues to need lots of care to help him feel happy and whole. For him, every day is a struggle against misread social cues; slow processing of multiple instructions; and a chronic need for attention, love, and approval.

I used to get seeing-red mad. If only someone had cared for my son, perhaps much of what dogs him and makes him fearful of his world might have slipped away.

But shaking my past at the past does not aright so many multiple wrongs. The reality is that we are here, and ever grateful together, mother and son. I don’t know what the future will bring, but as this boy’s mother, I can guarantee I will do whatever it takes for him to realize all the happiness he deserves. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Seeing in Color: Two Takes on Race and Adoption

By Lisa at Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, I attended a viewing of the Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." The showing was organized by a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization. The film, produced in 2003, has proven controversial.

The majority of the footage focuses on an adult adoptee, Jen Fero, a 32-year-old Korean-born woman who was adopted and raised in a small Oregon town in the late '70s and '80s by a loving Euro American family. Jen describes in painful detail her long struggles with the loss of her birth family, her connection with her adoptive family, her tenuous sense of belonging.

She raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive parents but for all adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds:
• Do white adoptive parents really understand the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption?

• Can white adoptive parents overcome their own losses and vulnerabilities in order to acknowledge and embrace the whole child—her race, her birth country, her birth family—including the painful loss of that first family?

• Are white adoptive parents willing to stretch beyond their comfort zones and help children of color navigate life as minorities in a predominantly white world?
The trailer shows Jen trying to explain her struggles to her mother, who in the film battles a terminal illness.

Jen's story is enough to keep any parent of a transracially adopted child awake—long into the night. To be fair, I’m guessing Jen's parents followed the accepted beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if she or he were—and had always been—your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or difference. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy that the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole.

Thirty years ago, families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption, or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen continue to teach us the price of this denial.

As difficult as it was to watch, "Adopted" heightened my own awareness. As an adoptive parent to a child of a different race—my daughter was born in China—an essential part of my job is to acknowledge and address the challenges that come with being a mixed-race family.

Thankfully, in my wanderings and search to learn more, I've also come across another video that offers both insight and inspiration. Judy and Aaron Stigger's story is a different take on the transracial conundrum, one with a far happier outcome. That's not to discount Jen Fero's story. But Aaron Stigger's perspective on his dual identity makes me smile and gives me hope.

This four-minute video was originally aired on MSNBC in October 2008 as part of "Growing Up Black in a White Family." [Correction made 10/26/09.] It was then posted by Adoption Learning Partners (ALP), an educational organization whose primary goal is to have a "positive measurable impact on adoption outcomes." ALP offers a variety of web-based courses for adoptive parents and professionals, but there's also a wealth of free information and other resources if you dig about on its site and "Community" page.

I love the message that adoptive mother and son offer in this video. Perhaps just as important as what they say is their body language, which reveals the clear, easy affection between Judy and Aaron Stigger.

Judy, by the way, was one of ALP's founders (which officially makes me a fan.)

Judy and Aaron also did an earlier interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, back in July 2007, sharing their experiences and insights on transracial adoption. There's a great summary of the interview on the NPR website. Better still, you can listen to the interview or read the transcript. (NPR has done a number of pieces on transracial adoptions, and there are several terrific links on this site.)

In the on-air interview, Judy shares one of the ways she used to respond to the classically intrusive comments adoptive families so often encounter: "People would say, 'Do you have any real children?'" She'd turn to Aaron and say, "No, I just have this plastic one."

Aaron, playing along, would hold out his arms and sing, "Ta-da!"

Judy taught her son by example, defusing an otherwise potentially awkward moment with humor while also communicating the idiocy of the question. Aaron describes his memories of growing up, of not wanting to stick out, not wanting to be different. He says he appreciated the opportunities he had to make friends with other kids and people of color.

This prompts Steve Inskeep to turn to Judy and ask how much thought she put into transracial parenting. Judy credits one experience with her daughter (also adopted, also biracial) as being an ah-ha moment:

"When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we'd gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face [sic], and said, 'Mom, was I supposed to be white?' And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it. And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive."

In time, Judy began sending holiday cards to family and friends featuring people of color. One day, her daughter received an Easter card from Judy's mother. Her daughter took the card up to her room to read it in private—but returned, flying down the stairs, holding the card out in front of her for her mother to see. The card showed a risen Christ, black, muscled, with dreadlocks. Judy's daughter declared, "My grandma loves me!"

Further on in the interview, Judy describes another moment of heightened awareness. She’d gone to attend one of Aaron's performances when he was part of a black theater group his freshman year in college. Walking into the theater, Judy realized she was one of the few white people in the audience. She realized how she stuck out, how exposed she felt—and then she thought this is how her children must feel, as minorities, living, moving, and breathing in a predominantly white world.

At this point in the interview, Aaron can't jump in fast enough. He explains, eagerly, emphatically, that this is an issue for all transracially adopted kids—for that matter, for all minorities.

"Thank you! Thank you!" He exhales. "That right there needs to be on every program nationwide!"

The message from both Judy and Aaron is that no child growing up likes or wants to be different. Children of color need friends, neighbors, and role models of color, both in their immediate world and in the imagery that surrounds them. As white parents with children of color, we need to support them, to be as inclusive as we can. We can't limit ourselves to the world of white privilege.

As Judy Stigger puts it: "You need to see the world in color."

So, I'm curious: If you're reading this, and you're a white adoptive parent with a child of color—what things do you do to support your child and see the world in color?

This post was adapted from several pieces that originally appeared on the blog Pack of Three.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Introducing a Lucky One

By David Biddle for Adopt-a-tude

I'd like to introduce myself. My name is David Biddle and I will be posting occasionally to Adopt-a-tude. At one time in my life I had a different name. My original name was Anthony Tobias Black. I had that name for about two weeks. It's a great name, but I also like the name David Biddle.

My perspective on adoption will hopefully be somewhat unique here at Adopt-a-tude. I was adopted back in 1958 in Richmond, Indiana. I've got a lot of experience thinking about this adoption thing. For the first 20 years or so of my life I tried to ignore what it meant to me. But beginning in college, gradually, piece by piece, issues and questions that I'd refused to think about began to surface that I couldn't ignore.

My adoption situation was made all the more interesting and poignant because I have tan skin. When I was born, so-called white families weren't interested in me because I was too dark, and so-called black families felt I was too light. The story was that I was mixed race, but no one could tell me the mix or my heritage. Folks don't talk about this kind of thing very much even today, but there are many of us out there who grew up without a clue what our DNA is composed of. In the end I wasn't adopted by white or black people. I was adopted by nice people. I love my parents Bruce and Ellen Biddle. And they loved me.

Finally, I am one of those lucky ones you read about every so often. At the age of 45 and with the help of my wife and kids, we went looking for my birth mother. I needed to know what my heritage is. Most importantly, I needed my sons to know what their heritage is. By luck, I was born in Ohio, a state that allows adoptees to petition for their original birth certificate. Once I received that I at least had my birth mother's maiden name -- and my first name, Anthony Tobias Black.

We left our home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in August of 2002, found our way to Richmond, Indiana where I'd been adopted, and did the classic town hall research thing looking at marriage records, birth records, divorce records.

I am one of the lucky ones because I found my birth mother. She is successful in life, happy, and above all was overjoyed to finally meet me. At the age of 18 she'd been forced to give me up for adoption. We have had a growing relationship now for more than seven years. I've visited for extended periods with my family twice now and I know my story. It's good enough to be a book, that story, which I've written and am now trying to get published. I have three half-brothers as well. The oldest of them and I get along like, well, brothers. It's very weird.

I hope, then, to bring to this web log a lifelong practitioner's perspective on what it's like to be adopted. You're adopted all your life, not just when you're living with your parents. And the idea of adoption and being adopted changes and morphs over time. I don't think I had an intellectual thought about my adoption until I had my own kids (see the photo). One has red hair and green eyes; another brown hair and brown eyes; and the youngest is blond with blue eyes. I think I felt like an orphan in the world until these three guys came along. I think a lot of adoptees feel like orphans in one way or another, but we work hard to ignore this. It's cool to be an orphan though these days. Harry Potter is an orphan. So was Batman, Superman, Cinderella, and Tom Sawyer. (If you have any other examples of orphans, let us know in the comments section).

The story of moving from being an orphan to being loved and part of a family can make every adoptee strong, well-adjusted, and a force to be reckoned with in the world. Each of us is different of course. I can only give you my experience and my perspective. Hopefully it will be useful or at least entertaining. If you're curious about anything, don't be afraid to ask. I love answering people's questions. I don't think I belong there, but I really believe there should be an Adoption Hall of Fame. I'd put my birth mother in there for sure. I'd put my mom in too. She was absolutely the greatest mom anyone could ever have. If any of you are interested in this concept, get back to me. I've got no money, but a lot of ideas.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Who Here's from Vietnam?"

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

This past summer, my seven-year-old son told me he asked one of his day-camp counselors when the Vietnam War started.

“Who here’s from Vietnam?” another camper jumped in. The girl and her twin sister carefully studied his face. “No one!”

My son reported that they all laughed. When I asked him why it was funny, he shrugged. “Mom. Obviously I’m from Vietnam.”

“They didn’t understand that," I said. "Or were they just kidding?”

“No. But it’s obvious I’m from Vietnam.”

He seemed perplexed. Silly Mom. She's always getting stuff wrong.

Two months later, I'm still wondering about the best way to direct these conversations with children. It's an opportunity to reflect on another person's perspective—in this case, two girls who probably didn't know that my son was adopted—which, in turn, helps children to see that not everybody believes the same things they do. This is great for encouraging moral development. But it can take on interesting twists if your adoptive child was born in another country and is of another race, as mine is.

Should parents just step back and listen?

As always, it depends on the situation, but I have no ready answers. In this case, I was pretty certain the girls thought Vietnam was too exotic for a fellow camper. They'd likely already stuck my son in a descriptive box: "little Chinese kid." It may have been the first time they'd heard of Vietnam and made the connection with the "Vietnam War," a phrase they might have picked up from adult conversation.

But of course I don't know any of this for certain. I may be bringing my own biases to the story. Once my son dismissed all my earnest questioning as irrelevant, I stopped pushing.

It's heartening that he believes his Vietnamese heritage is so obvious. It's a basic part of who he is. But at seven, he's just beginning to grapple with how people judge one another. He and the twins—who must also feel constantly judged by their identical faces—are on a long road to understanding that not everybody understands.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Attachment: “Love Is Just a Starting Point”

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

Attachment disorder is a big bugaboo in the adoption community. In one post on, a writer wonders what the difference is between “attachment disorder” and “reactive attachment disorder”:
“I have seen this on several different discussion groups,” she writes, “and it’s been bothering me. Parents are willing to accept that their child has attachment issues, but when it is diagnosed as “full blown RAD”, then they panic.”
Sometimes there's no reason for the panic. The first night I spent with our son in Vietnam, he was strangely quiet for a five-month-old baby. My husband and I managed to coax a few smiles from him, but we also videoed his difficulties rolling over to show to doctors back home. Two months later, by the time we were on an airplane heading to the United States, he'd perked up and started crawling.

He wasn't a crier—such a good baby! the uninitiated would coo—but our little guy let loose a wail when we first stepped into the foggy cold outside the San Francisco Airport. A friend with us, an experienced dad, reassured me there was nothing wrong: "He's just pissed." Looking back, I can see that my boy's angry sobs were a very good sign.

Still, after our first weeks together, I only felt like his favorite nanny. I was not yet mom. I arranged for a social worker from the Early Intervention Program to come for a visit in order to evaluate our "attachment issues." Within moments of observing us together in our house, she laughed. "Every time you talk or move, his eyes follow you," she said. "His attachment is fine."

And she was right. But bonding with a child is a process, not a button-push.

How often do adoptees or foster children end up with a clinical diagnosis of attachment disorder, reactive or otherwise? Traditional psychiatric sources cite its prevalence as 1% of the general population of kids under five but claim that attachment disorder is far more common among orphaned children. How common is the question.

Available government statistics about adoption disruptions and dissolutions—one measure, theoretically, of attachment problems—put the rate at anywhere in the United States from 25% among older children at the time of adoption to 5% of planned adoptions from foster care. But sampling varies widely from state to state, as do the populations studied. In any case, little research has been carried out to determine how well adoptees with this diagnosis ultimately adjust.

Like so many aspects of adoption, there's scant evidence to clarify what's going on. Adoption industry experts offer soothing claims about the infrequency of attachment problems, but most parents can tell tales, often in hushed tones, about some kid who's emotionally checked out, unresponsive to touch, or prone to violent outbursts.

These anecdotes are scary. Add a highly charged piece about a terminated adoption like Anita Tedaldi’s “My Adopted Son” in a recent New York Times’s blog, and fear and loathing tend to rule the debate. Tedaldi bravely details her own inability to bond with her son, but she leaves hanging the question of whether this might not have happened, even with all his manifold problems, if he'd been her biological child (she already had five biological daughters at the time of the adoption).

Sometimes personal stories are the only things that convey a complicated set of decisions or events. Yet the knee-jerk response to attachment disorder can obscure the ways families actually live with it. The media misrepresents the fear, too, because attachment disorder is not only suffered by adoptees in Chinese or Romanian orphanages or said “orphans” in Hollywood movies. Children raised in their biological families can also suffer from it, especially in traumatic circumstances.

I’m grateful to a former student of mine, Fran Cronin, for allowing me to tell a piece of her family’s story. I believe a more complex view of attachment disorder—and an honest discussion of the challenges faced by adoptees with this diagnosis—are more helpful for children than the overly rosy version promoted by the adoption industry.

Cronin, a widowed single mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two kids—one a teenage biological daughter, the other an eleven-year-old son adopted from Russia—says she began the adoption process by thinking, “if I love my child enough, all will be right with his world.” As she’s since discovered, “the love is just a starting point.”

Cronin’s son was only five months old when he joined her family, but he made no sounds until a whimper at seven months. More weeks passed before he finally cried. She describes a testing process now with her son, who has been diagnosed with attachment issues, learning disabilities, and a shifting series of labels that indicates how hard it is to pin down what's due to post-traumatic stress and what's organic.

Whenever he throws things or swears at her, she thinks he’s actually asking, “If I’m really bad, are you going to give me up, too?”

For Cronin, getting professional help with her son—and for herself—has been a life-saver. She’s had to learn to stay calm and to not argue back. Otherwise, she kept getting “sucked into his same angry world,” she says.

Yet this same “tough child” has also learned empathy. His grandmother, Paula Cronin, says she believes much of his bad behavior is driven by fear. It’s an emotion he knows so well that when she herself has felt “seriously frightened…, [he] was instantly at my side, holding me tight, staying with me and talking to me until I calmed down.”

Perhaps attachment disorder isn’t a single, monolithic diagnosis but a state of being for children. Such a child might feel too frightened at times to reach out to anybody; at others, his empathy might fill an ocean. That doesn’t make it easy. But a son like Fran Cronin’s isn’t lost to human society or a victim of circumstance or stuck with a label.

“I didn’t raise you to go to jail!” She admits to yelling at him in heated moments. Yet such emotional engagement—offering backrubs and screaming frustration, as Cronin does—probably seems more genuine to her son than pretending sweet perfection.

So here are some questions for readers: What do you think about attachment disorder? How do you feel about the challenges for adoptive families—and the misperceptions about attachment disorder in the adoption community and media? Most especially, do you have a complex family story of your own to share?

For those struggling with these issues, check out the website for ATTACh, the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Birth Mothers Lose Again: The Media Storm Over Aimee Louise Sword

Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

This just in, from Salacious News Service, Inc.: A 35-year-old woman had sex with the son she gave up for adoption ten years before. The boy's age and name have not been released, but we assume he's a young teenager. Maybe really young. Some of our seasoned investigative reporters have asserted that he was ten years old at the time. Others have called it a "summer romance." And oh, by the way: she stalked him on the Internet, even though the adoption agreement she'd signed stipulated only minimal contact with her birth son. Some experts say the boy may be emotionally scarred for life.

Aimee Louise Sword was, in fact, arrested at the end of April in Waterford Township, Michigan, on one count of third-degree criminal sexual assault (two other counts have since been dropped). She is now out out on bail. You can read variations of the story via the links above, with some sites hyping either the incorrect "mother has sex with a ten-year-old son" angle (Coed Magazine) or using the word "raped" in the headline (Fox News).

When the story is portrayed this way, it's gross, it's awful—what else can be said? But in yet another sensational and virally spread news story about adoption, we get way too much information about whack-job Aimee's MySpace status updates—where her mood is "strong"—and her quotes of Lil' Kim. (Earlier on Saturday, September 12, the link to her MySpace page, under Aimee Pope, still functioned; now it gets you "This user has either cancelled their membership, or their account has been deleted.")

Almost nobody's saying, hey, wait a minute, does this have anything to do with the typical birth-parent-reunion? There are almost no qualifications in the early news accounts along the lines of "Sword by no means represents the vast majority of birth parents." And last but not least: what about all the missing details and reasons for why Sword might have done what she did?

Something is very off about this story, and I don't mean just an age-old taboo being broken. There's a long hike between "summer romance" and "rape." Most of the early news reports said nothing about the boy's adoption situation or his adoptive parents. Far too many online outlets made what seem to be deliberate errors about the boy's age and omitted other key facts.

A commentary from the site You Can't Make This Up sticks up for Sword, noting that the son was 15 and that a social worker representing his adoptive family "asked his permission to find her, because he was getting unmanageable at home and they hoped his real mother might be able to set him straight."

For the moment, let's put aside the baggage of "real mother" and the thinking that implies about the magic touch of biological parents in helping disturbed youth. This piece calls Sword's son a "gangbanger" who may well have coerced his birth mother into having sex, not the other way around. She supposedly complied "partly due to guilt, partly out of fear of losing contact with her son forever and last but not least, partly because she was asked by his adoptive parents, the social workers and her son’s shrink to make an attempt to bring him to his senses – or he would face juvenile detention."

So which version of the story is true? The answer is likely a mix of the "facts" used to spin this sordid tale one way or another. The problem with truth in news these days, especially as it does the rounds on the Internet, is that the first kneejerk versions stick in readers' heads. And when it comes to an attractive woman, a teenage boy, and incest, the kneejerkers are rarely feminists or adoption advocates.

The sources of information in You Can't Make This Up at aren't stated, although comments from one of the first reports of the story in the Oakland Press, a local Michigan paper, do appear. There's also a link to another report in ("Metro Detroit Local News & Talk") about some commenters coming to Sword's defense.

The real point is that this awful story, which involves at least one disturbed woman and child, not to mention all sorts of shadowy circumstances, has been circulated far and wide. In the days ahead, maybe some reporters will interview other birth mothers condemning Sword. Maybe a few writers will look closely at the complicated position of birth mothers in American society. At the very least, I'd like to point out that such stories do a grave disservice to birth parents, especially because we hear far less from them than we do from adoptive parents and adult adoptees.

But for now, with this turn of the stereotype wheel, it's birth mothers as sexually depraved, because why else would they give up their babies? And the follow-on: domestic adoptees all turn into gangbangers. Another turn, another celebrity, and we'll be back to those grasping adoptive parents who choose the cutest baby that money can buy.

Or, if they don't like the child, maybe they'll just murder the kid. Salacious News Service has brought us a number of recent stories about adoptive moms killing their children, including a nine year-old quadriplegic, whose body was found stuffed in a storage bin.

Aimee Louise Sword is quite the MILF (her MySpace photos have been circulated widely, too), and she's stirred up an Oedipal storm. But she's just one more for the collection of Adoption Freaks, which occupy the chair next to Octomom in the current media free-for-all.

This post also appears on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog as "Sex with a Birth Son: The Storm Over Aimee Louise Sword."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Twisted Angelina: How the Media Gets Adoption Wrong

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

I love Angelina Jolie. She's the unapologetic mom of a mixed brood of adoptees and bio-kids. She's not married to her partner (yet), and she's a poster gal for humanitarian aid. She's the hottest adoptive mom around.

The problem? The media, of course, and all the heat and light journalists bring to adoption—especially international adoption—because celebrities are involved. Much as I admire Angie's chutzpah and Brad Pitt's weary saintliness, the Brangelina enterprise offers a very skewed picture of how adoptions come about and what life is like for the average adoptive family.

This is not news to anyone in the adoption community. But I'm continually amazed by the misconceptions pumped by the press.

First off: International adoption is in sharp decline, and the number of people adopting from other countries is small. Last year, immigrant orphan visas processed by the U.S. State Department plummeted by 24 percent from the peak in 2004. Talk to any adoption expert—agency heads, academics, editors at Adoptive Families magazine—and that person will say the international numbers are going down, down, down.

Yet on “Why Did You Opt for an International Adoption?”, a call-in show on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last April, host Neal Conan didn't lead with the dwindling numbers and only made a passing reference to the downward trend at the very end of the show. [Correction made on 9/5/09] Why adoptive parents adopt internationally instead of domestically remains a good question, but this show revealed little about the difficulties of adopting through public social services. No mention was made of private domestic adoptions.

This is NPR, mind you. A recent article in the UK's Daily Mail showed a grinning Emma Thompson with her "adopted refugee son" Tindyebwa at his university graduation. Much was made of her family's selflessness in helping Tindy, a former child-soldier from Rwanda. Then the reporter writes, "Adopting Tindy also helped the actress, who had tried and failed to have more children after undergoing IVF to conceive daughter Gaia, now eight years old."

Apparently Thompson would never have contemplated this if she didn't have infertility troubles. In this scenario, the pain of losing one's family in Rwanda somehow equals failed IVFs. And the reporter focuses on Thompson the celebrity rather than the adoptee who has a far more dramatic story to tell. (See the blog Harlow's Monkey for an honest take on what it means to be a transracial adoptee.)

Adoptive families occupy a strange niche in the public imagination—no question—one that has more hot-button energy than our numbers warrant. But the strangeness of it all is stoked by journalistic laziness, which stokes the stereotypes, which stokes the movies.

Even in sweet little Away We Go, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's indie movie about prospective parents on the road, there's a scene with a big adoptive family that looks like the Rainbow Coalition. The adoptive parents are mid-thirties max; so how did they get all these kids so fast? Are they foster parents?

Most of this movie is played for gentle laughs; I wouldn't expect a treatise on contemporary adoption policy in something so feather-light. It's the unexamined stereotype from the McSweeney's folks I question—oh, that multiculti, fantabulous brood!—especially when juxtaposed with the revelation that this adoptive mom is still deeply grieving her last miscarriage.

So all those kids are just second-best compensations, huh?

I’d like to think the fascination with adoption is not just about Madonna’s latest ethical screw-up. I'm hopeful that the media focus, misguided as it can be, also represents our expanding sense of what it means to be a family. Adoption offers so many transformative possibilities: men can be mommies, too, without the fiction of biology to keep women barefoot and breastfeeding. Families can be as variegated as a garden.

But I suspect the non-adoption public is curious about all those China dolls and at-risk Tindys for less noble reasons: Can parents ever love a child who looks so different?

In "A Woman in Full," Vanity Fair writer Rich Cohen interviews Angelina Jolie and offers her answer to that: "I asked if there is a special bond between a mother and a child she has carried as opposed to a child she has adopted. She said, “No,” thought a moment, then added, “I had a C-section and I found it fascinating. I didn’t find it a sacrifice and I didn’t find it a painful experience. I found it a fascinating miracle of what a body can do.”

If you haven't been touched by adoption, as we like to say in the adoption community, do you believe Angie? Really?

I do. I love my son, who was born in Vietnam, with such intensity that I know the mom hard-wiring has kicked in. More miracles: The bonding that happens between child and parent, the utter normality of it.

This post originally appeared on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog.