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.