August 22, 2007

Helping teachers understand adoption

In response to my last post, several of you asked what kinds of things I included in my annual teacher packet. I’m happy to share that, and have a couple of other ideas, too.

My approach was to keep it simple – both because as a former teacher I knew that my children’s teachers would have limited time to spend reading the packet, but also (truth be told) because I didn’t get my best ideas until the kids were in high school.

My packet had two things in it: a copy of a little book, now out of print but available used, called When Friends Ask About Adoption by Linda Bothun. Adoption language has changed since this book first came out in 1989, but at that time (the year our son arrived) it was considered a good resource for helping others understand the adoption experience. I annotated my copies with notes clarifying how my family addressed many of the topics – openness, adoption language, etc. There are many new books available not that will accomplish the same thing, but what was nice about this one was its size – short and sweet. In the absence of something, you might scout the net for fact sheets that provide similar information and include them instead. There’s one on the Child Welfare Information Gateway: Explaining Adoption to Your Children, Family and Friends. It could be a good foundation for a personalized information sheet. I'm sure there are many more like this out there, too.

I also included another little booklet, A Teacher’s Guide to Adoption, also out of print. However, there are other excellent resources out there. The Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) has a terrific guide called S.A.F.E. at School, which can be purchased at their website. Based on five principles, Acceptance, Accuracy, Assignments, Assistance, and Advocacy, S.A.F.E. at School provides information that will help teachers create a respectful environment for our children.

If I had it to do over again, I would have added a few other things, too:

A list of adoption resources In the eighteen years since we adopted, the internet has exploded with information about adoption. Wading through it to find the good stuff is hard enough for those of us who are living adoption. Giving teachers links to reputable, ethical organizations and accurate information will help them find answers when they need them. So I would include a list of organizations, websites, books, etc. that my children’s teachers could keep handy, copy, and share.

A primer on family diversity In the U.S., we tend to think of diversity in terms of race. But there's diversity in every aspect of our lives, including family structure and history, adoption being just one of them. I would include something to heighten their awareness of this, including suggestions for alternative family history assignments. The Family Diversity Projects website offers articles, suggested books, and sample projects, and is a wonderful resource for all of us, not just educators.

One thing we DON'T want to do is give teachers the impression that individual children should be singled out for alternative assignments. New kinds of assignments that teach awareness and respect for diversity while teaching the lesson should be the goal.

By the way, Susan posted a wonderful account of her recent experience with the family tree at her husband’s family reunion this summer, be sure to read it!

The same explosion that has given us the current wealth of information about adoption on the internet has also given families many more ideas for addressing adoption at school. Look for an Open Mike later in the week to see what ideas you may have. The more we share, the more our children benefit!

August 20, 2007

Back to School with Confidence

Originally printed in the summer 2007 issue of in C.A.S.E., the newsletter of the Center for Adoption Support and Education. With so many of our children back at school or ready to go back, I thought some of you might find it useful, too.

Although the calendar and thermometer say it’s summer, the back-to-school ads on TV prove that summer’s days are numbered. Our thoughts are turning to school, and we parents are undoubtedly starting to wonder what this new school year has in store for our children.

Like all parents, we adoptive parents want our children to have the best possible school experience. We work to find good schools, we ensure that their teachers are giving them a quality education, and we monitor their friendships to ensure that they’re healthy. We do all we can to make sure our children’s educational, social and emotional needs are met. But making sure that schools meet their adoption needs is a different challenge altogether.

Our children’s educators may have had no formal training in adoption, and may themselves not understand adoption process, relationships, and emotional impacts correctly. Worse still, teachers and classmates alike may have formed their impressions of adoption from what they see in the media or in TV sitcoms. And although we like to believe that TV is catching up, I assure you it’s not. Just the other day, sitting in the kitchen watching a sitcom with my 16-year-old daughter, we heard one character insult another this way: “You’re adopted and Mom and Dad don’t love you!” I immediately turned to Mara, who feigned indifference. But her body language told me otherwise. It hurt.

We’ll never be able to control everything the world dishes out to our kids. But we can look ahead to the possible experiences they may encounter to smooth their paths. School gives us an excellent opportunity to do that. Our children will spend in the neighborhood of 17,000 hours of their young lives in school. The time we spend educating our children’s educators will be well worth the effort.

There’s no single right way to do this, but I can share some ideas taken from my family’s experience.

Know your child’s school Before our children ever set foot in their schools, we should visit to get to know the environment. Are the administrators and teachers welcoming? Do they show you around with pride? Are they willing to share test scores and demographic information, the latter of particular importance to transracial adoptive families? Will they be open to understanding the importance of adoption in our children’s lives? In short, do you get good vibes?

Know your child’s teachers Make an appointment to visit your child’s new teachers before the school year begins, even if it’s only for a few minutes to introduce yourself. Having been a teacher myself back in the day, I know the power of a visit from parents, and the great help it was to talk directly to them, one-on-one, about their children’s specific needs. The time for that discussion isn’t back-to-school night, it’s before the school year even begins, or as close to it as possible.

Be an educator Because we can’t presume to know a teacher’s perspective on adoption, it’s best for us to assume the role of adoption educator. My approach was to put a packet of adoption information together at the beginning of each school year for each of my children’s base teachers. I labeled it with the names of all of the teachers and counselors on that year’s team, and included a note asking them to read the material, pass it on, and to call me if they had any questions. This packet always came back to me with thank-yous, which told me that the information was helping raise awareness among the teachers. C.A.S.E.’s S.A.F.E. at School would be a great resource to include in such a packet.

Be vigilant Almost every adopted adult I know has told me that they never told their adoptive parents about instances of teasing or uncomfortable assignments for fear of hurting them – and that’s all the more reason for us to ask. Knowing about difficult projects well before they’re due will allow us to help our kids and their teachers adjust the projects or to find alternatives. Recognizing that teasing has occurred, even when our children want to handle the situations themselves, keeps the lines of communication open, and this alone may be enough to help our children through the inevitable rough patches.

Be creative Teachers work hard. A full day of teaching followed by an evening of grading papers and planning lessons can be exhausting. When we come to our children’s teachers looking for alternatives to emotionally-challenging assignments (like family trees or histories) we should bring along a few ideas. They’ll help our children and those who follow, too. If you can’t think of any idea to bring, take the time to meet with your child’s teacher to discuss your concerns and brainstorm alternatives together.

All of these really speak to being committed and involved. There’s really no way to predict exactly what adoption issues might or might not arise at school. Being ready to actively address them is the best support we can give our children.

I’m approaching this year’s return to school with a little more nostalgia than usual. Our son leaves for college in two weeks. Just as his thoughts are all in the future, mine are much in the past. I remember that first day of kindergarten so clearly – walking down the street to school with Paul in his new sneakers and backpack. Without question, the teachers and counselors who appreciated the educational importance of understanding adoption have helped him develop the confidence that will take him through college and into adult life.

August 17, 2007

More on Medical Records

My last post shared a recent experience The Boy had as he filled out his first medical record. Seeing his discomfort at having to check "unknown" for every item on the list raised an issue that has been bugging me for a long time - the lack of historical family information, medical and otherwise available to adoptees.

My point in raising this was not to suggest that this would be enough. Adoptees should have their histories, they should know who they are. But given the mish-mash of adoption laws and policies in the U.S. at the moment, getting there will take time. Filling in the medical blanks seems to me to be an easy, logical first step.

In my Korean adoption experience, no medical information was provided and none appears to be in our children's files. Ever-wise Suz's comment on that post pointed out that this might not be because their mothers didn't provide that information, for she indeed gave it. Whether or not it has reached her daughter, even her daughter's adoptive family, is another matter altogether.

Imagining for a moment that my children's mothers shared their family histories, both medical and otherwise, with our Korean agency, where is that information? We have walked through our childrens files with our children and a social worker from the agency, and saw nothing like this. It could have been there, of course, but untranslated. Or perhaps there's a separate file, one we have no access to, for our children's parents. I've never considered that the latter possibility, nor have I heard that separate parent files exist, so I tend to think this isn't the case.

I've heard more than once how important the smallest detail can be to an adoptee. Like the fact that artistic ability ran in the family of am adoptee artist. Or for another, the fact that the blanket in which she was found was blue. Insignificant? To those of us who know where we came from, perhaps they are. But to an adoptee, they could be the first brush of color on the blank canvas of the past.

August 16, 2007

Filling one gap

The Boy filled out a medical form for the first time yesterday in preparation for an appointment with our new eye doctor.

It asked for his medical history. And I could see the wheels turning in his head, the realization that there was a gap in his knowledge of himself, a gap he may try to ignore, but which will follow him through life.

I felt completely helpless. There was nothing I could do but tell him gently that this was something he would face pretty frequently, and that the answers to the questions would have to be “unknown.” He, in typical teen guy fashion, put on the “who cares?” face and body language, but I know him well enough to know that it hit a nerve.

This is one of the things about today's adoption practices that drives me up the wall. How could gathering a family medical history (at least to the extent that it's known), and thereby reducing a child's medical risks, possibly be a threat to anyone’s privacy? And how can withholding this information from an adoptee be justified in terms of the "best interests of the child?"

Most of all, in light of current focus on adoption ethics and reform, why haven’t adoption practitioners moved to change current practices?

It seems to me that it would be an easy thing to correct. Intake social workers would simply collect a page or two of medical history. The questions on The Boy's form yesterday weren't rocket science, they were straightforward "check the box" things - are their instances of cancer, heart disease, arthritis and the like in your family? Nothing elaborate, but so important in the framework of my children's lives and identities.

Plugging this gap would be a start, and could fill one hole, eliminate one pain, for future adoptees. Someone tell me why this couldn’t start right now!

August 11, 2007

Don't Misses 8-11-07 & Catching Up

There is no way at this point that I'll every catch up with two months of reading of over 200 blogs, so please let me know what's new with you and leave a link to any posts I might want to read!

And while I'm on the subject of catching up, read these: "The Face Of" Project
Everyone has an opinion. About their life, your life and their neighbor’s sister’s cousin’s dog’s life. We casually and sometimes passionately talk about politics, moral issues, parenting issues, and anything else that stumbles into our conversational path.

What concerns me is that while we all have an opinion; we rarely have the knowledge to go with it. We want to change policy and rules for all sorts of groups of people and rarely do we really know about the people those laws/rules/policies will affect. We may think we know them, but in all reality, usually what we think is based on a stereotype we’ve been handed over the course of our lifetime.

It is my desire to give faces to the people we so casually speak of. To show that for each group of people we wish to hypothesize on, there are a variety of people really living that life. In my own life I run into this when discussing Birth/firstmotherhood, Rape Survival, even the military. I hope to show that these are REAL people; they are all individuals and they each may surprise you in that they don’t fit that stereotype you always thought they did.

Visit the Face Of Project website or email NikkiJo for information on how to participate.

CARA Adoptee Rights Petition

Have you signed the petition to the Indian Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) for adoptee rights? If not, please do - and spread the word!

And for your reading and viewing pleasure, some articles and a YouTube link:

August 10, 2007

"Ms. Birthmother"

Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. Noam Chomsky
Adoption language has been on my agenda this week, in the form of a discussion on the term birthmother. Is it right? Is it wrong? Can the adoption community find a more generally-acceptable term? Some say this is an endeavor that's sure to fail, but the linguist in me disagrees.

Today's adoption language divides, but the divisions don't surprise me. In fact, they remind me of similar debate in the 70s when Ms. entered our vocabulary. Opponents and proponents were equally vocal, and it took very little time for Ms. to become a label rather than the simple title it was intended to be. Opponents (many of whom were men) viewed it as an unnecessary change that threatened the traditional role of wife and mother. Proponents saw it as a critical first step toward equality for women.

No one argues about whether it's appropriate to use Ms. anymore, in spite of the fact that there are certainly women who still prefer the titles Miss and Mrs. And I'd wager that young women today are far more likely to choose Ms. as their title rather than the alternatives, and probably don't give it or its history a second thought.

The ultimate evolution of whatever term replaces birthmother will be, in my opinion, not unlike that of Ms. The origin of birthmother is not entirely clear: some say it was coined purposefully by social workers in the 50s; others say it was first used by CUB (Concerned United Birthparents); and there are others, too. But regardless of which is accurate, it's clear that birthmother was always intended to be an alternative to something else - some say to mother, natural mother, or real mother; others say to biological mother; and still others to more pejorative names. No wonder it's controversial.

That controversy is the catalyst for identifying a more universally-acceptable term, though, just as the controversy of the 1970s feminist movement pushed Ms. into our vocabulary. And if that evolution is to deliver a less divisive term, first mothers and adoptees will need to identify it, not adoption professionals or adoptive parents - just as Ms. was claimed by women, not men.

Ms.'s journey to linguistic and cultural acceptance was swift - 35 years is a blink of an eye in the lives of language and culture. Whatever term today's mothers coin to replace birthmother will join our vocabulary in a similar blink - but to us that could still be years away. In the meantime, we have choices to make about the role we play in the current debate. Language is dynamic, and evolves to meet the needs of its time. Whatever term becomes the accepted norm, never doubt for a moment its impact on the way our culture and society perceive adoption and those it has touched, nor that we have the power to influence the changes.

How can we adoptive parents help? We can avoid using terms we know will wound and feed the flames of debate. And we can keep this discussion alive - here online, in our organizations, in adoption agencies, and among our friends. Just as Ms.'s acceptance followed years of heated debate, this needed change in adoption language will not come without pain. I look to the mothers who have lost their children through adoption, and to the adoptees who are those children, to own and lead the dialog.

August 8, 2007

Mindeulae: Korean Mothers Uniting

I found a new blog today started by Jane Jeong Trenka, called Mindeulae (민들레), which in Korean means dandelions. It appears to be the home of a new organization, also called MindeulaeJane has also posted a video sharing news of a recent protest by Mindeulae in Seoul - watch it here.

In spite of the paradigm shift this video and the many other changes underway in Korea and here signal, I found myself becoming despondent as I watched. The changes aren't likely to reach back to my children's parents, and with every passing day, the possibility of reunion and of knowing the women, and possibly the men, who gave my children life dims. It makes me really sad.

But I'll keep on hoping, and in the meantime there's lots of work to be done.

And on that note - please help spread the word about the Adoption Ethics and Accountability Conference, October 15th and 16th in Arlington, Virginia.
The list of speakers is growing every day, and is impressive. The topics and structure of the conference are even more so, for this isn't the kind of conference where a few speakers get the mike and everyone else listens. This conference will limit the time each speaker has to share their message, and then looks to all of the speakers and the conference participants to collaborate on the topics.

There's a "Meet the Bloggers" session planned, too - what better way to meet the bloggers you've gotten to know online?

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and Ethica, Inc. Adoption Ethics and Accountability Conference October 15 and 16, 2007, Arlington, VASo grab a button and spread the word! And come, this is one conference you won't want to miss!!

August 6, 2007

Anti-Racist Meme

Tagged by Anti-Racist Parent to do the Anti-Racist Parent Meme. Join in!

1. I am:
Croatian and Slovenian.

2. My kids are:
Korean; hubby is German.

3. I first started thinking more about race, culture, and identity when:
When I was very young, early elementary school. My earliest memories include family discussions of our ethnicity and my father’s fascination with the world. That juxtaposed against the incredible whiteness of my environment got the ball rolling.

I became more deeply aware of how race, culture, politics and behavior intertwined growing up in the 50s and 60s. The civil rights movement was a part of the news and classroom discussion, and triggered a deeper interest in things racial and cultural.

4. People think my name is:
French (maiden name) or Jewish (married name)

5. The family tradition I most want to pass on is:
Verbal communication – the art of talking, laughing, telling family stories.

6. The family tradition I least want to pass on is:
Our family has few real traditions, so I can't think of a specific one. If I could control it, I'd definitely like to stop the tradition of cancer and heart disease with my generation.

7. My child’s first word in English was:
Our son’s was ma-ma, and our daughter’s was da-da – pretty mundane stuff, I know, and I'm not sure they count but there you go.

8. My child’s first non-English word was:
I honestly don’t know, but they are likely to have been a German word learned from Dad, or a Korean word learned at home or a cultural event or maybe shopping at the Korean market.

9. The non-English word/phrase most used in my home is:
Hör auf, German for knock it off.

10. One thing I love about being a parent is:
Watching our children become the individuals they were meant to be.

11. One thing I hate about being a parent is:
When my children suffer and I can’t fix their pain.

12. To me, being an anti-racist parent means:
Being willing to learn about racism from people of color, who are the experts. Acknowledging that racism exists and calling it out when I see it. Ensuring that my children know I recognize that racism is a part of our world, and that although I cannot share what they will experience, I will fight it at their sides.

August 4, 2007

Carolina Dreamin'

Still here! Just in a self-induced, and VERY pleasant, beach haze. Here's what my world has looked like this past week, which I spent in Emerald Isle, NC.

View from the deck:

View from my beach chair at the water's edge:

View from the boardwalk leading from our house to the beach.

We didn't have internet, so I've got lots of catching up to do. But let me tell you, there is NOTHING like a week with your family without internet to distract the kids. We had the absolute best time.