November 17, 2010

“Adoption processing” and adoptive parenting

Von asked, and I’m also interested, in what "adoptees have to process adoption in some awful, painful way in order to be healthy” (seen in a forum comment) actually means.

For the record, I will tell you a little about my mental and physical approach adoption and parenting. We are just one family, and our kids are unique individuals. Their needs differ from your kids’ needs, so don’t presume that my approach could work for you. But overall it has worked for us.

We treat adoption as a fact of our children’s lives, not as God’s plan: Our family views God’s plan as what you do with your life, not what life has done to you. We do not sugar-coat the circumstances of our children’s adoptions. We neither speak of their mothers and fathers as victims nor ourselves as saviors. Adoption is simply a part of our children and their lives, and we deal with it in that way.

We speak of our children’s Korean families in the present tense: My children’s mothers, fathers, siblings and extended families are part of ours, in spite of the fact that they’re in Korea and we have never met them. We have no family ceremonies to honor them (I know, for example, that some adoptive families may remember their children’s first parents in special ways on Mother’s Day), we just talk about them in the same way we talk about the relatives they know. I’m not sure if this is actually a good thing or not, but my gut tells me it is, so I share it with you. Certainly it has helped our kids keep their first families present in their lives.

Adoption is and always has been an open subject in our family: It is not, however, a frequent subject, nor one that the kids sought out much. (In The Boy’s case that would be “ever.”) We have not made lifebooks for our kids. We do not discuss life’s events in terms of adoption. Frankly, we don’t really talk about adoption much at all. It’s just a part of who we are, and all of it is open for discussion.

We use the “pebble” approach to encouraging adoption conversation: Instead of forcing discussion of adoption, from time to time (I’m talking a few times a year here) we toss out adoption-related questions to see if the kids would like to talk about it. These have not been of the I wonder what your mother in Korea is thinking about you right now variety, but more along the lines of Have you been thinking about your Korean family lately? Do any of your friends ever ask you about adoption? Sometimes they bite, sometimes they don’t.

We take advantage of adoption support in our area: We are fortunate to have several decent adoption agencies and adoption support organizations in our area with adoptee programs. I made sure we were plugged into their networks, and we occasionally (but not frequently) attended their events. The kids both were pretty clear that they weren’t interested in adoption-specific activities that had no Korean connection, so we didn’t go to many programs of this kind. One I am glad we attended was the C.A.S.E.’s WiseUp class, which helped the kids learn ways they could control how to respond to questions. Invaluable.

We make Korean American and Korean adoption community connections: Korean Focus and KAAN have played an important role in creating a strong community for my kids, and in their ability to develop strong Korean American and adoptee identities. Even when they themselves chose not to join in, I continued and still am involved. Now, and in different ways, the kids are coming into their own in the adoption, Korean American and Korean adoption communities. It’s really good to see.

We acknowledge the existence of racism and work to end it: I don’t believe in the notion of color-blindness. I do believe in white privilege, and also believe that racism is alive and well. Part of my parenting job has been to make sure my kids see that I understand this, so they recognize they are living in a home that doesn’t tolerate racism of any sort. We call it out when we see it and take action against it.

We acknowledge the existence of adoptism and work to end it: I define adoptism as anything that challenges the equality of my children or their place in our family, their original families or society. From tasteless jokes about adoptees, to original birth certificate secrecy laws, to policies that push single parents to adoption – these all factor into adoptism. Just as I see it as my job to actively work to end racism, I see it as my job to actively work to stop the injustices that are part of adoption.

I paid considerable attention to how adoption might come up at school: Adoption will come up at school in good ways and bad, whether we like it or not. I took a two-pronged approach to keeping on top of this.

First, while the kids were in elementary school, I would put a package of adoption information together for their teachers. It included a couple of very short booklets about adoption, annotated with a little information about our family’s attitudes toward the topics discussed. I did NOT include any information about our children’s adoptions or their first families. The information was intended to a) clue the teacher in that adoption was a part of our children’s lives, and b) help them understand how they might impact our kids as they taught (think projects, and sexual and family life education).

Second, we made the kids aware of the fact that they might hear about adoption in school in ways they understood and didn’t understand, and that the best thing they could do is tell mom and dad. They actually never brought anything home, but have told me as adults that friends would ask questions and they would answer. I’m glad they had the tools to do that.

Our children know that we support their decisions around search and reunion, and that the decision is theirs: Search is such a difficult area for adoptive parents. On the one hand, if we ourselves believe in our kids have a right to be connected with their families, we might push them in the direction of search. On the other hand, if we have been listening to the adoptees, we know that this is an intensely personal decision and experience. I’m not so confident of my parenting in this area. Have we pushed too much or too little? Whatever they decide, will we be able to provide the right kind of support? Only time will tell.

That’s pretty much it.

When I look at my young adult kids, I know that the lion’s share of who they are comes from within themselves. But I also know that Third Dad and I have helped them learn to navigate life as Korean adoptees in a racist, adoptist society. Our parenting choices have given our kids the tools they need to face what life is bound to throw at them, without robbing them of their self-confidence and self-esteem. I’m proud of the job we have done.

But I’m prouder of the kids. And I love them more than I could ever put into words.

November 9, 2010

Love, respect and adoptive parenting

I worry sometimes that all my ranting about adoption might give people the impression that my relationship with my kids is somehow damaged or distorted. This simply isn’t the case. Yet I know that when I visit some prospective adoptive parent blogs or talk to those who know where I write, their comments tell me they’re concerned that being outspoken might be a sign of trouble on the home front.

I assure you, dear readers, it is not. The relationship Third Dad and I have with the kids is like that of any other parent-child relationship. There has been smooth sailing and stormy weather, but it’s all tied together with shared experiences.

It’s easy, I think, to say we love our kids. What’s harder, at least from my point of view, is to respect them as whole people. Having never parented a child born to me, I can’t say what it’s like in that relationship. But I’ve been a child born to my parents, and I can remember the sting of feeling my individuality dismissed. I know my parents meant no disrespect, but it hurt all the same. I think they had an image of their kids that reflected their images of themselves, and it was just plain hard for them to see my brothers and me through any other lens.

It was impossible for my husband and me to seek such a reflection in The Boy and The Girl. They’re unrelated to us by blood and race, so perhaps strangely, I sought our differences as eagerly as I sought the parallels. And those differences became my treasures.

The slight downward dip of my daughter’s beautiful eyes, which I would trace as she slept, imagining the dreams behind them. Her long, slender fingers, which as a toddler would gently pat us awake in the middle of the night as she sought our company. Her gorgeous hair, long and thick, enough for three people, her stylist says.

My son’s full lips, which even as a baby were often pursed as he pondered the world around him. His earlobes, which in the very first photo we received of him struck me as the most perfectly formed ears I had ever seen. His eyes, dark and direct, the kind of eyes that force your attention and honesty.
When they were babies and toddlers, still willing to let mom hug and hold, I would trace their eyes and ears, hold their hands and stroke their hair, and think about the people on the other side of the planet who shared them. I imagined their mothers most of all, but fathers, too, and grandparents, siblings, cousins. I imagined whole families of people who looked like my beautiful children, entire villages of relatives with those long fingers, perfect ears, and beautiful eyes.

And I loved them. I loved the entire army of them, and love them still. Because even though reality may differ from these imagined families, they exist as my children’s history and heritage, and that of their future children and grandchildren. From Korea through the centuries, to the here and now, and on into the future, they exist. And because they exist, and have existed, it has never been possible for me to graft my children onto my family tree or my husband’s. To do that would deny what is uniquely them and theirs.

What builds family is respect, support and love – not ownership. My kids know that they are family; they know it because my husband and I are, always have been and always will be there for them. That’s not something you talk about, it’s something you do.

You just do it. And you know what? Suddenly twenty years have gone by, and your children are grown and have become strong and independent. Although you never forced them to choose, they are here, still a part of your family. You frustrate them, you amuse them, you help and guide them, just like every other parent does for their children. They in turn amaze you and make you love them more and more with every passing day.

We humans love to complicate things, you know? I think adoption is one of those areas that we’ve complicated to the point of lunacy. It’s a shame, because it really is pretty simple.

Love your kids. Love who and where they come from. Empower them to own their past, present and future. And then let them go out into the world with your support and respect to make their way.

This is what parenting is all about.