Reading Adoption: Family Difference in Fiction and Drama

Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama by Marianne Novy

A literary scholar who is an adult adoptee delves into one of the enduring themes of literature—the child raised by other parents

Marianne Novy is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is author or editor of numerous books, including Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture.

Survivor’s Guilt

I have just spent
the weekend with family. People who, as much as they might annoy me,
will still have my back if I need them. Who love me, even as the flawed
human being that I am. Who, despite my flaws, ultimately believe in the
best parts of me.

I think about the kids I work with who don’t have this soft landing
called a family. Or, they do but their families are too lost in their
own problems that they can’t or aren’t willing to care about them. So
they’re in substitute places; institutions like residential treatment,
or shelter, or group homes, or with foster families who never fail to
treat them like second-hand people.

Some days I feel it’s wrong for me to have anything good in my life,
when there are so many others who don’t. It’s survivor’s guilt. It’s
the trauma of having been one of the "lucky" ones through none of my own doing. For having been adopted to a family who treated me with kindness and love instead of being adopted by a family who abused and neglected me.

I know too many kids who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their families of origin. But I also know too many adults who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their adoptive families.

Some days I have a hard time being able to say adoption is a good thing when I know so many people for whom it wasn’t. Yet, I don’t believe it’s better to grow up without family either. And some days it’s
terribly difficult to look in the mirror and be thankful for the
blessings you feel you don’t deserve. After all, only the luck of a
draw separates you from them.

Holiday Links

1. Paula at Heart, Mind and Seoul has a fantastic post that turns the tables on adoption adjustment and bonding. Instead of asking why the children aren’t "fitting in" with their adoptive parents, Paula writes,

"Yes, people may argue that both stories are extreme cases and that they certainly aren’t reflective of most adoptions – especially international adoption.  But in reading each story, I couldn’t help but identify a common theme that I gleaned throughout both tragedies, particularly in the case of the Poeterays.  It’s an overarching theme that within contains several notions that are alluded to and present in several of the adoption stories that I personally know of and/or have read about.  It’s a mentality that I believe is much more pervasive than people would like to acknowledge in adoption and a belief that I feel is indicative of why in many adoptions, adoptees are set up to fail well before they even join their new families.  It is the notion that there is a certain set of criteria that an adopted child must achieve in order to be worthy of being characterized as a "good" adopted kid.  The notion that if an adopted child does not meet or exceed an adoptive parent’s preconceived expectations of who they want or need that child to be, that somehow the adoptee is at fault, even if partially. The notion that suggests that the adoptee must bear the burden of having to prove him or herself to others by exhibiting certain behaviors or risk being called difficult, hard to manage, temperamental, obstinate, maladjusted or worse.  Simply put, the notion that the adoptee is the one who is deficient and lacking and ultimately the one to blame when things don’t turn out as others expected them to.

In the past year since I started blogging, I have read literally hundreds of narratives from the adoptive parent point of view.  And you know, never once have I come across an adoptive parent who has said, "Why can’t we just try and be more like our child?" Instead, often times what I hear and read about are the perceived failures of the adoptee simply because he or she isn’t more like the adoptive parents or the rest of the family. The failure to adapt.  The failure to adjust.  The failure to comply and conform to the degree which is expected.  The failure to just fit in already.  The failure to exhibit the characteristics and personality traits that others so desperately want to see reflected back to them. The failure to successfully acclimate, both emotionally and physically, to the myriad of implicit and explicit expectations set forth by the adoptive parents."

Read the rest of this excellent post. It was hard for me to choose a few excerpts because I felt they were all so poignant and right on!

2. If you haven’t read Sumeia William’s essay, "Well Adjusted" then head there right now. It’s one of the essays that seems to have been taken from the unspoken swirling thoughts in my mind, written so beautifully that I felt she was writing about my life when she writes,

"Technically, I was a “functioning” adult — a stay-at-home-mom who cooked, cleaned, took care of her children like most of my friends. I wasn’t prone to depression though there were times when I would go deep into thought. I laughed and cried, felt joy and anger like most people I knew. The difference was that I had a dirty little secret. I was actually thinking about my adoption and its effects on me."

3. Professor Rich Lee has this fascinating post about international adoption trends in 2007.

4. The holidays are chock full of movies about orphans and adoptees. Elf, about a trans-"species" adopted human, will be on my list but I’ll skip The Family Holiday, in which Full House alum Dave Coulier plays a hustler who "hires two orphaned runaways and an unwitting nanny to pose as an instant family" in order to receive $10 million. Kind of on the same note, I saw "Juno" on Friday night and I will share some thoughts in a later post.

Being a single mother in Korea

From KoreAm Journal editor Corinna Knoll

Motherhood: Being Single and a Mom in the Korean American Community

KoreAm Journal, NCM Award Winner, Corina Knoll, Posted: Jan 30, 2006

There was a time when she would count the minutes like they were dollars, back when the days died too early and she was stretched paper thin, working a full-time job and raising two kids on her own.

The after-school program her daughters attended charged parents for every minute they were late. So each day she left her paralegal job, she faced a no-win battle on the jammed freeways of Los Angeles. Often, she would break down in tears amid the rush hour traffic, thinking about the money she would lose with every passing minute. She wondered how she had become a woman who cried in her car.

This wasn’t in her master plan. For a while, her life had played out the way she thought it was supposed to. She was married at 24 to a successful businessman and gave birth to daughters, Liah and Sarah. She didn’t worry about money, drove various luxury cars and shopped on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She worked occasionally at home for her husband’s company, did housework and watched over her daughters’ schooling and extracurricular activities.

Jessica Hong laces her story with sighs and laughs. It’s been seven years since her divorce, and while recounting the trials of her marriage and the period after it ended is tiresome, it is also a source of pride for her because it doesn’t end tragically.

Read the rest of the article here

(relative) choices

I thought it was incredibly brave for all the people who contributed to the Relative Choices blog to share their stories in such a public space, and especially to endure the slew of comments (many of which were incredibly insensitive or downright stupid). Although I disagreed with the sentiments of several of the articles, in a way I’m pleased that the blog was created, however flawed the execution and management.

As presented by the New York Times editor who created the blog, the
title "Relative Choices" comes across to me as particularly
pro-American, pro-neo-liberal, very pro-adoptive parent and
pro-international Asian adoption.I hated the title, "Relative Choices." From my own perspective and bias I agreed with the others who commented on how misleading the name "Relative Choices" was for those of us who had little or no true "choice." In re-constructing the title of the blog in a new frame, however, I think it ended up being accidentally perfect.

Many others asked the questions I had – where were the adult African American adoptees? The adoptive parents who chose domestic foster care? The adults or youth who were adopted from foster care? The adults who were adopted through a domestic infant program? I was surprised at the "relative" lack of diversity represented in the choice of contributors. Of the 11 contributors,

  • 3 are adoptive parents and all had adopted children from Asia
  • 5 of the 6 "adoptee" contributors are Asian
  • 1 birth mother

So, I don’t see this series as being about the kinds of choices adoptive parents make about creating their families and choosing their relatives; that is, "relative" defined as a noun as being "a person connected to another by blood or marriage (or adoption)". 

I see the series as one in which "relative" is an adjective, as in "something dependent on something else; comparative; proportional." As in, for those of us with a connection to adoption our choices are "relative." As in, some of us had relatively few choices. While some of us had no choices at all.

I think the term "choice" is also misleading. And one of the arguments that is often presented to adoptees is that biological children don’t have a choice about who their parents are either. That’s true. But biological children don’t have to question their futures in terms of "would they be better off lingering in foster care/languishing in an orphanage" as if we had a choice about it. Biological children do not have a choice in being born but their position in a family is not necessarily dependent upon alternative options.

I wish that the blog series had more diversity in their contributors, rather than looking for people with high profile names (several were authors or "experts") and I think it would have clarified for all us readers if the editor(s) had written an introduction of the purpose of the blog and perhaps explained how they chose their contributors. All said, I was disappointed in the series. I’m disappointed in the New York Times and I’m very disappointed by the editors of the series.

I am all the more grateful that free blog hosting services are available, and that a whole variety of voices are out there – not just those cherry picked by some neo-liberal editor who can’t quite seem to admit that his own bias as an adoptive parent prejudiced the tone of a high profile opinion series.

Small Size, Big Voice

by Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
December 14, 2007

Larger view
Mayda Miller is a St. Paul pop rocker with a new cd, "Stereotype." (Photo courtesy of Michael Bland, Sonic Matrimony)

If you’re a songwriter, being a Korean adoptee, a woman and only four-feet-ten inches tall gives you a lot to talk about. St. Paul musician Mayda’s big sound belies her diminutive size.

St. Paul, Minn. — In a crowd, it’s easy to overlook Mayda. But on stage, it is hard not to notice her. "Just look at me," she says. "There’s not a whole lotta Korean artists out there playing and writing their own material. And I’m teeny."

Listen to the podcast and read the rest of the transcript here.

Mayda’s myspace page here.


Tragedy for a Korean adoptee

From the IndyStar.

Sheridan woman, 28, charged in adopted baby’s death

December 15, 2007
by James A. Gillaspy

SHERIDAN, Ind. — Rebecca Kyrie always dreamed of adopting a child. Six months after her dream came true, she is accused of killing the Korean baby in a fit of rage.

Friday, the 28-year-old Sheridan woman appeared in Hamilton Superior Court in Noblesville to face charges of murder, battery resulting in death, neglect of a dependent resulting in death and aggravated battery.

The charges stem from the Sept. 4 death of Hei Min Chung, a 13-month-old girl being adopted by Kyrie and her husband, David.

Medical and police authorities claim Kyrie shook the girl so violently that the baby suffered fatal brain injuries.

You can read the rest of the article here.

It’s not too late to take action, even after 40 years

People all over the world are talking about the return of an adopted Korean child by a Dutch diplomat and his wife. I’ve written about disruptions and dissolutions before, namely here and here. I think one of the aspects of this case that is alarming people is the fact that the girl was 4 months old at the time of the adoption and had lived with her adoptive parents for 7 years.

A disruption is when the child is returned before the adoption is finalized. Disruptions often happen after a child is placed in the home a few months, but sometimes in the case of international adoption, it can occur when the family meets the child and decides not to go through with the adoption.

Once an adoption has been finalized, if the parents "return" a child it is called a dissolution. Dissolutions always occur after the legal status of parent and child has been established in a court of law. In the United States, for parents to dissolve an adoption they have to voluntarily terminate their parental rights in court.

We often think of disruptions or dissolutions as being something that happens fairly soon after the adoption, perhaps within months or a few years. It’s rare that we hear about an adoption dissolving 7 years later. But in my line of work, that’s not unusual. I have on my case load two siblings who were in foster care, adopted, and re-entered care six years after the finalization. We hear about the disruptions that happen in China or Guatemala because with other prospective families traveling in groups together, it’s going to be known. I want to know how many kids were adopted internationally and then years later when kids turn into teenagers (and normally get ornery and rebel), how many of those families dissolve with no one watching?

One of my frustrations has always been finding reliable statistical data on disruptions and dissolutions. In my earlier post "And even more about adoption disruptions and dissolutions" I asked for anyone who had reliable numbers to contact me. It turns out that the Department of Health and Human Services actually did keep track of the number of international adoption "disruptions" in 2006. According to this Newsweek article, "When Adoption Goes Wrong" there were 81 international adoption disruptions or dissolutions from 14 different states last year. Of course, we still don’t know how many international adoptions have dissolved over the 50+ years of international adoption to the United States. Anecdotally, I know of several adult Korean adoptees who spent time in foster care.

The return of Jade seems especially egregious because from the news reports out there, the reasons seem highly superficial; that Jade’s parents Raymond and Meta Poeteray had two biological children after thinking they were infertile, or blaming Jade’s issue with being a picky eater. My guess is that neither of these issues were the real reason Jade was abandoned.

Jade’s parents probably believed that adopting a child would make their lives complete and never thought much about the reality of having an adopted child. There is speculation that their status as a high ranking diplomat, wealthy and educated and with many connections, helped them adopt Jade. Whether or not it’s true, perhaps they just felt incredibly entitled to have what they wanted and at the time they wanted Jade. But whatever reasons they had for adopting, it seems they never really truly claimed her as their child. They didn’t obtain citizenship for her so now Jade is a girl without a county. They didn’t attach to a child they had at 4 months old. I wonder how much pre-adoptive training this couple had. Or were they too "privileged" to have to go through training?

The Poeteray’s blame Jade for the dissolution, but my guess is they were unprepared to deal with their own emotional baggage in terms of adopting transracially and internationally. Unfortunately there are a lot of adoptive parents out there who have the same misconceptions, and a lot of adoption agencies who will allow them to sit in merry little la-la land.

But it’s not just about assigning blame. Agencies get a terrible rap for misleading clients and withholding information and for not properly training them about all the needs these kids have. And yet – we also get a ton of negative feedback for being too "harsh" and "negative" and focused on the awful behaviors. Not to defend agencies, but is it really the agency’s fault that pre-adoptive parents don’t want to hear anything negative? In September, I spoke on a panel with two other adult transracial adoptees and we received negative feedback. The difficult part of all this is balancing our responsibilities to be honest and tell the truth while not scaring away prospective families for the children we have who need adoptive homes.

Sometimes I think we’ve gone about this whole thing all wrong. The kids who are in need of adoptive homes – are NOT ordinary people. They have, in their young lives, gone through enough loss and sorrow to render them extraordinary. My profession likes to call these kids "special needs."

So why do social workers look so hard for "ordinary" parents. Maybe we need to look for "extraordinary" parents. Maybe average parents aren’t good enough and we should be looking for parents with "special abilities" to parent "special needs." And by average parents, I mean that being white, middle class, and having a house with a picket fence and a two car garage just isn’t enough to entitle someone to adopt a child.

And I certainly don’t mean that having lots of money or connections is good enough either.

Some of the best adoptive parents I’ve met have very, very modest means. They don’t have the cleanest houses, the wooden play set in the back yard, or a nice minivan with sliding side doors. Their living quarters are cramped, cluttered and chaotic. And they’re perfect for parenting kids whose lives have been messy emotionally and mentally. They don’t expect their adopted children to be some perfect living doll up on a shelf. They know their kids will be messy for years to come. And instead of being upset that these kids don’t live up to their expectations, they’ll be right there in the mess with them.

There is just no way to predict how prospective adoptive parents are going to be as real-time parents after the finalization occurs. Just as there’s no way to really predict how the children are going to be. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the children who seem like quiet little angels and once home turn into abusive, antisocial, reactive-attachment-disordered hellions. This is why prospective adoptive families must do their homework. It’s just not going to be excusable to be naive any more. Too many people are getting hurt.

So what does an adoptive parent do if they feel they were wronged by adoption and their child turned out not to be the lovely little doll promised by the agency? Good thing there’s this guy. He’ll help you get your justice – even after 40 years, it’s not too late to take action against a wrongful adoption.

Of course, what recourse does the child have, if she was unlucky enough to have parents who misled her into believing that they would be her "forever family?" Ah, she’ll just get relegated as a "bitter" adoptee.

Thanks to Ungrateful Little Bastard for providing many of the links for this post.

Mother Jones: “International Adoption, It’s a One-Way Dialogue”

A new Op/Ed Piece in Mother Jones about the New York Time’s "Relative Choices" blog by Elizabeth Larson is now on their web site.

In "International Adoption, It’s a One-Way Dialogue" Elizabeth writes,

I think when it comes to adoption, American adoptive parents (myself
included) steer the discourse. We direct adoption agencies and think
tanks. We write the home studies of prospective adoptive parents. We
are policy experts and doctors and academics and journalists. We are
passionate about adoption—an institution that has given us so much—and
therein lies the problem: In our passion, we sometimes shield ourselves
from larger discussions about the toll that adoption can take, a
discussion that is in fact gaining traction across the globe. And in
doing so, we are preventing adoption from evolving.

Read the rest of Elizabeth’s article here.