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.