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.