(R)Evolutions

Reflections on the KAAN 2013 conference and launch of Gazillion Voices Magazine

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Last weekend I attended the KAAN 2013 Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a somewhat spontaneous decision, meaning that I did not submit a proposal months ago when the call came out, and that spending the money to attend in a year when I have many other conferences to attend seemed out of the question. Another reason why I had no intention of attending is that many years ago I did attend some KAAN Conferences and I left both (2002 and 2004) with the impression that it definitely did not meet my own personal needs as an adult Korean adoptee.

But several things have happened over the almost decade span of time since I last attended KAAN. One important change involved the addition of some Korean adoptees I really respect and care about in leadership positions within the organization. Another was the general progressive shift in the purpose and “feel” of the conference mission. What seemed to me an over-reliance on the “feel-good/let’s not talk about anything difficult” goal of connecting Korean adoptive parents with other Korean adoptive parents, and Korean adopted children with other Korean adopted children and a “celebrate Korean heritage!” mentality in the organization has changed over time to an acknowledgement of race and white privilege in transracial adoption, and the importance of the full, lived experience of adopted individuals. Whereas before it seemed the goal was to show non-adopted Korean role models, a recognition of adopted Korean adult role models seemed to be evident. Also an earlier sense of only showing “positive” adult adoptee perspectives (i.e. those who were uncritical of Korean adoption) has been replaced by an acknowlegement that adoption is not always sunshine and rainbows, and that positioning adoptees as pro or anti adoption is unproductive and polarizing. I was told by several people that the current leadership was amazing to work with and really believed in the importance of adult adoptee leadership (and they were right!).

And then the most compelling reason of all – the chance to see some dear transracial adoptee friends who live scattered around the U.S. See, for many of us, it is these interactions with those whom we’ve cultivated deep friendships over time at adoption-related conferences that help us endure the long droughts of transracial adoption isolation and segregation we experience in our daily lives. In particular, it was the opportunity to attend panels led by adoptees and to have discussions at dinner or over drinks and stay up until the wee hours of the night critically deconstructing, sharing experiences, strategizing ways of coping and supporting and validating each other that compelled me to cold-call the organizers at KAAN and ask if I could still get involved.

This year KAAN did something I wouldn’t have seen a decade ago – they invited transracial adoptee speakers who are not Korean adoptees. And they (parents, adoptees) talked about commonalities among transracial and international adoptees, and about racism and white privilege. This is a welcomed change for me. In my own personal and professional work I have been spending less time with Korean adoptees and more time developing relationships among other adoptees. This is a reflection of my own growth, because I see my own adoption story and narrative as interconnected to other adoptees.

One of the greatest benefits of being privileged to attend graduate school has been the opportunity to really deepen my understanding and knowledge of the historical roots of child placement and adoption and look at the arc over time for how children have been conceptualized and how adoptions have changed and morphed in terms of practice and law (but ultimately with the same underlying theoretical basis, at least in the U.S.). When I learned about the orphan trains, about the Native American boarding schools, the Indian Adoption Project, when I read Regina Kunzel and Dorothy Roberts and Rickie Solinger – I realized how interconnected Korean adoption is with Native American Indian adoption and transracial adoption of African American children, and the immigrant Catholic children who were adopted to Scandinavian protestant farm families in the midwest through the orphan train movement, and the children adopted from Ethiopia and Haiti. Displacement, isolation, racism, cultural erasure, unaddressed grief and loss, these are all commonalities we adoptees have. We transracial adoptees also have many commonalities among “baby scoop” era white domestic adoptees from the maternity home generation.

In his keynote at KAAN, Dr. John Raible emphasized this point, our commonalities across race and situation, with a lot of passion and intensity. I’m sure there were some, adoptees and adoptive parents alike, who were taken aback at his bold challenges but I was heartened that John challenged the old paradigms about transracial adoption. John is not just about helping how we conceptualize transracial adoption evolve over time, his ideas are revolutionary.

Sometimes it seems that when it comes to adoption and child welfare, the pendulum swings back and forth from an emphasis on removal and placement to family presevation. At least in the U.S. that is what many child welfare professionals have said. But as I was recently reminded, it is perhaps not so much of a pendulum swing but a spiral – what seems to be a circular movement away from, then back to, a certain paradigm. But even when it seems like things are coming back to where we started, maybe in truth it has changed in fundamental ways so that even what looks like a circle from looking at it top-down is actually many degrees separated when looked at from the side view.

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Cover of August 2013 issue of Gazillion Voices

Yesterday, a project I am involved with, Gazillion Voices, launched its monthly online magazine. This is also revolutionary in that Gazillion Voices is the first ever adoptee-led publication. Unlike every other publications on adoption, this one does not relegate adoptees to the sidelines, in an “Ask the Adoptee” advice column or limited to one or two stories by an adoptee author. Gazillion Voices is challenging, provocative, and most importantly – led by adult adoptees and includes majority adult adoptee voices.

Kevin Vollmers, one of the editors of Gazillion Voices magazine, and I were debriefing the KAAN conference as we waited for our flight to take off back to Minnesota. We both agreed that it feels we are on the precipice of some incredibly big paradigm shift when it comes to adoption. I’ve been feeling it for about a year now, ever since the CCAI and the State Department (including Ambassador Jacobs) met with a grassroots group of us adult adoptees to hear our collective concerns  for the first time last July.

I am so proud to be part of a community of revolutionary adoptees. With social media platforms, it appears like this adoption revolution is new and those of us with blogs and websites can appear to be doing new and groundbreaking work. But we recognize we are not the first. We are incredibly grateful and humbled by the incredible work of so many adoptees who have been doing this work for decades, without much acknowlegement and very little fanfare. In fact, many adoptees have taken the hits for years on our behalf. Adoptees have been working in policy, advocacy, community organizing, research, academia, and very importantly through art for decades. We in this current generation of adoptee rebels are not taking their hard work for granted; no, we are trying to continue the work and will pay it forward – so that the next generation of transracial adoptee leaders can take it to the finish line.

 

 

Adoption is both/and, not either/or

A long time ago I wrote a post titled "Adoptee vs. Adoptee" outlining some of the challenges that critical adoptees receive from others – including adoptees – particularly those who think adoption should not be criticized or in any way challenged and adoptees who participate in the unproductive "pro-adoption/anti-adoption" dichotomy. 

Lately I've been involved in a similar situation but from the flip side, this time involving an adoptee who publicly shamed me for working with adoption organizations (and their leadership) the adoptee does not support. 

A few days ago I participated in some facebook conversations that brought me back to some of my earlier Harlow's Monkey posts and I had some nostalgic moments re-reading some of my archived articles. Life has sure changed for me since those early days in 2006 when I started the blog. As I re-read through, I thought it was interesting how my thoughts and beliefs about adoption (as well as my tone) have evolved over time. Back then the political stakes were low and I could just be a (mostly) anonymous, outspoken adoptee working with other adoptees and foster youth. Now I'm more public and work more in the arena of research, training and educating those who will work in the area of child welfare, permanency and adoption.

Perhaps the one thing that has remained constant, however, is the struggle to keep balanced on the tightrope. I am still navigating and negotiating and explaining myself to adoptees who are angry that I critique the adoption industrial complex and those who are angry that I seem to be supporting it. The only difference is that in some ways it feels there is more at stake and definitely more politics to navigate now than there was five years ago, but the level of mistrust and suspicion among adoptees is still ever present.

And that makes me wonder how much of this is just human nature, and how much of it is about the structures – politically, institutionally, etc. – that just keep us feuding with each other instead of focusing on working together to dismantle the oppressive institutions.

It is much easier to take all or nothing sides on an issue, but I won't participate in arguments that force me to choose from an either/or situation. Because for me it's never either/or, it's almost always both/and. 

Adoption is not either a family building issue or a big business, it's both/and. Adoption is not the solution or the problem, it's both/and. We can't be focused only on the child or the family, we must be mindful of both. And a child's best interests are not unilaterally separate from the family's and vice versa – the child's best interests can also include the family or community's best interests. Adoption should not be only thought of through the lens of children or through the lens of parents. Both matter.

Trying to reform adoption isn't the same as just moving a few parts around and calling it good to go, and neither is it eliminating the practice all together. There will always be children whose parents are unable, for whatever reason, to care for them. There will be some children who will fall through the cracks in their extended family and kin community. There will always be some parents who don't want to parent the children they have and will find way to not have to parent them. The problem is that adoption is still too often posed as an either/or solution – adoptive family vs. biological family – instead of both/and. Open adoptions are starting to change this paradigm, but we have a long ways to go. I'm not willing to call for a total end to adoption until all the reasons children are placed for adoption have been resolved.   

I've been thinking a lot about the either/or and both/and paradigm shift thing in terms of my profession a lot over the past several years. Social workers in particular grapple with the meaning of the work they do, because it often is positioned as either "helping individuals" or "advocating for social justice" and these two values are seen as dichotomous. I call this the starfish and the dragon dichotomy. We need to be doing both, of course. We can't just save the starfish and ignore the reason for why all the starfish are washing up on shore, neither can we just head off to slay the dragon and let people drown in the river. 

Adoption reform can happen through grass-roots organizing and it can happen through working within institutions to be an agent of changes and in my own opinion, change and reform happens most successfully when both occur at the same time.  

 

Repost: Choosing ethnicity, negotiating race

Another repost from my other blog that was written during my hiatus.

Originally written March 25, 2011.

When you are part of a small and specific population, you tend to be hyper-aware of representations of "your group." So when I heard about Mia Tuan and Jiannbin Lee Shiao's book, Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America, I immediately put out a query to my Korean American friends to see if anyone had heard of the authors or this book.

Since 2006, I have been keeping track of the "call for participants" for research on Korean adoptees that I've come across through different venues (most often list-serves and organization newsletters). Since I've started counting, there have been 23 calls specifically involving Korean adoptees and another five for transracial adoptees (ETA: that have put out widespread calls for participants- there have been several others I have been aware of that did not advertise or use the internet to find their sample).

Of those, 11 studies specifically involved looking at racial identity; 9 studies sought to understand the Korean adoptee "experience" and 4 were what I call "well-being" or "adjustment" studies. While I get that racial identity is a huge part of understanding the transracial/international/Korean-adoptee experience, I'm waiting for research that stops pathologizing us and am hopeful that more research like Eleana Kim's work will come out that centers the adoptee as the agent of change and action, not merely a passive subject of study.

There are many aspects of the Korean adoptee experience that are not being studied or researched. I swing between feeling that "my community" is saturated with research while at the same time acknowledging that there is so much more to be learned and understood. 

Tuan and Shiao seek to understand how and in what ways Korean Americans identify themselves and how their identity/identities "are chosen, discarded, or revised over time (p.12). So here are my thoughts about this book and how I, as the "subject" (not literally, I was not a participant in this study, but I am part of the population being studied) view the discussion.

I'm always pleased when I read articles/studies that focus on the adult adopted person's experience (although once again, our voices are mediated through outsiders so some aspects of their analysis will be limited). Because so much of adoption as a practice is focused on the adoption of a child, people tend to think of adoption as an event. But as others have stated, adoption isn't a single-time event (that would be the finalization of an adoption) – adoption is something that affects adopted persons, birth parents and adoptive parents throughout all of their lives. Traditional studies look at outcomes for children, often fairly soon after placement although there have been some notable exceptions, and rarely has there been the opportunity for longitudinal studies which could follow a cohort of adoptees for a long period of time – especially adulthood.

I bring this up because we're so focused on making sure the immediate benefits of adoption are studied that we haven't thoughtfully delved as much into how an adopted person makes sense of their adoption experiences in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. Other than Brodzinsky and his colleagues, not much research has been conducted on the whole life experiences of adopted persons. An experienced adoptive mom (I call adoptive parents whose children are now adults "experienced") I know shared with me that she often tells newbie adoptive parents that the majority of their lifelong relationship with their child will be as adults and that pre- or new adoptive parents are often taken aback at this statement.

One of the aspects of the study I was disappointed in was the sample. The authors describe that due to their proximity to the Holt adoption agency, they chose to solicit their sample from families that had adopted through Holt (the authors do acknowledge the limitations of their sample and recruitment, which I appreciated).

In addition to the ease of securing participants for the interviews, having access to Holt enabled the researchers to have case files. I was bothered by this for a few reasons. First, it was never clear to me why the researchers needed the case files and how information they gleaned from the files added to their research.

Second, without understanding why and in what ways information from the case file was considered important for the study adds another layer of concern from the point of view from an adopted person who is unable legally to have access to my adoption files. It is disconcerting to know that someone else, through permission of my adoption agency, can have access to that information without my consent.

[ETA 4/19/11: I received an email from Dr. Shaio, informing me that he and Dr. Tuan did not look at case files. In the book (p. 15) they wrote that Holt "provided access to its placement records" and I incorrectly interpreted that to mean case files. I am happy to stand corrected and to know that case files were not accessed for their study.]

As a researcher myself, this is something that I have struggled with. I have participated in research in which I have access to case files that the subject of the files are not allowed to see for themselves. I hope other researchers understand just how privileged they are to have access to such personal information that as the client, I/we can never have. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong in principle – but I am saying it is an ethical issue that researchers MUST think about. It's not the same thing as having one's medical records or case files used for research because when I go to the doctor I sign a form that gives consent for my records to be used in research. As an adopted person (or as a fostered alum would be) I am not given permission to withdraw my consent. I don't even get asked. Researchers go through the agency or the adoptive parent, not the adopted person.

The other thing I was sensitive to was that the researchers chose to contact the adult adoptees through their families. They sent out letters to adoptive parents, asking them to forward them on to the adoptee. This could only work if the adoptive parent and their adopted child were in contact and/or on speaking terms; and because not all adoptees ARE in contact with their adoptive parents (including some I know of personally who were adopted from Holt) this has the potential to skew the sample because it is dependent on the adoptive parent. Perhaps sending a call for participants through other means in addition to the adoptive parents that still have ties with Holt would have generated a sample that provided a more diverse voice. And once again, it is looking at the adoptee through the lens of the family (adoptive parents), even though the authors were quite clear it was the adult adoptees' voices they were seeking to understand. From my view, it appeared as though the authors chose not to engage with, or were unaware of, adult adoptee organizations who might have been able to help in soliciting participants.

Despite these concerns, overall I was pleased with much of the book. I especially appreciated that the authors problematized the adoptive parents' "colorblind" mentality about adopting a child of color – if that color were "yellow" and not "black." I really liked that the authors expanded David Kirk's theory of "shared fate" to analyze how adoptiveparents accept/reject racial difference in addition to adoption.

While the stories and words of the adopted Koreans that participated in this study rang familiar in terms of their descriptions of childhood experiences, their more recent discussions pertaining to race, culture, and constructing identity did not fully match the spectrum of adoptees. There was very little discussion of the networking (social and otherwise) of Korean adoptees around the world, which was interesting to me in light of the fact that Holt was the first to do adoptee camps and also have been big in organizing yearly "Motherland" tours. There was one mention of the Gatherings (1999, but not the 2004, 2007 ones), no mention of adoptee list-serves and blogs which have been around since the 1990s, and very little mention of books written by Korean adoptees (including memoirs, anthologies and scholarly work).

In the end I gave this book 3 1/2 stars out of 5. I think that the audience for this book is actually adoptive parents. There would be much for adoptive parents to learn, especially if they are not familiar with the concept of "shared fate" and I think the adoptee voices do, to a large part, mirror much of what I have heard from adult adoptees over the past 12 years I have been involved with the Korean adoptee community.

 

Interview at Rileys in Uganda blog

I did an interview with Keren Riley from the Riley's in Uganda blog. You can see the interview in full (and since I have so much to say it's pretty long) at Keren's blog.

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Riley's in Uganda blog

For those of you who may be interested in family reunification and orphan care and thinking about/problem solving child welfare issues in the African context, you should check out the facebook page the Rileys created, Alternative Care in Uganda.

Thank you Keren!

Repost: Inside the mind and heart of an internationally adopted child

This is another re-post from my other blog that was written while on hiatus from this blog. People sometimes have asked me about adoption-themed books for children and young readers. Honestly I think most are terrible. I agree with my friend and scholar of children's literature, Sarah Park Dahlen, that most of these children's books on adoption were written more to satisfy and soothe adoptive parents than adoptees themselves. That said, this was my review of the book, Betti on the Highwire, which is one of the few I can recommend. For more of my book suggestions, please see my recommended reading page here

 Originally posted May 11, 2011.

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This afternoon, a children's novel I ordered online arrived in my mailbox and a few short hours later I had devoured the book. Betti on the High Wire is the story of a young girl, Babo, living in an unnamed country devastated by war. Babo finds herself unexpectedly adopted by Americans (or "melons" as Babo refers to them because of their round, pink faces) and soon she is living in an unnamed town in the U.S. with a new name, new sister, new parents – and she vows to never "adapt" or forget where she came from.

Author Lisa Railsback was inspired to write the story from her work volunteering in a refugee camp. As a Korean adoptee, I am often skeptical about how international adoption is portrayed in novels, particularly the feelings and thoughts of the internationally adopted child themselves. Often I find children's books about international adoption to be largely about making adoptive parents feel better as much as they may be outwardly intended to reassure the internationally adopted child. Babo/Betti is a complex child and I found Railsback's conception of what Babo/Betti thinks and feels about her experience being adopted by Americans, and having to leave everything she has known and loved in her country – especially her chosen family there – to be the most realistic and complex portrayal that I have read.

Adoption books for children being what they are – that is typically all nicely resolved in the end, this book doesn't exactly challenge the dominant narrative about adoption. The unnamed country is, after all, portrayed in pretty stark terms, providing exactly the American-style justification for taking Babo away. Babo and the other children of course must be dirty, mostly illiterate, scavenging for food, etc., yet remain likable (i.e. not prone towards Reactive Attachment Disorder). And while Railsback does critique the consumerist, materialist and consumptive patterns of Americans to some extent, as well as portray how mean white American children can be towards children who are different, it is unlikely that a real internationally adopted child of this age would adapt as quickly as Betti does in the book. While the choice to make Babo able to speak some English helps the reader, it is pretty unrealistic in my opinion and serves more as a device to move the character through the story plot more quickly than it is realistic for most older, internationally adopted children (such as the little girl adopted in the movie Wo Ai  Ni Mommy, who would have been close to Babo's age in the story).

Even so, I recommend this book for its most nuanced portrayal of an internationally adopted child's inner thoughts and feelings that I've read so far. If I were an adoption agency, I would require all prospective adoptive parents to read this book before any child adopted internationally was placed in their home.

New report on the impact of the internet on adoption

Last week, lost amidst the horror of Friday's events, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute released a report, "Untangling the web: The internet's transformative impact on adoption." 

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I first heard about the report via this NPR story that came across my newsfeed. I gave the article my typical 5 raspberries on a scale of 1-5 for it's framing and ignoring adoptees and birth/first parents, which is typical since MPR simply can't seem to figure out that anyone other than adoptive parents matter in this transaction we call adoption. In addition, this particular story comes perilously close to sounding like baby-buying. 

The New York Times, which I often give at least 5 1/2 raspberries to for its poor framing and coverage of adoptees surprisingly began its story discussing how adoptees and birth/first families have used the internet to search and connect and find support (I wasn't surprised after learning who wrote the story, however, as I have spoken with reporter Ron Nixon and have found him to be incredibly more nuanced about adoption than most reporters). 

The Adoption Institute report covers both – how the internet and social media and social networks affect the pre-adoption process as well as the life-long impacts on adoptees and birth/first families that most people don't even consider in the emotional first days of an adoption placement. 

As the report states, "the internet is having a profound, permanent impact on modern adoption." It has had many beneficial effects on my life both personally and professionally, and yet I also see the many ways that the internet and use of social media and social networking sites have also harmed people.

Before I was blogging, I found online discussion groups and that is where I found my virtual community. Even though I grew up in a state that claims to have the highest per capita rate of Korean adoptees, growing up I didn't know they existed. Internet groups were my way of dipping my toes in the water, reaching out to meet others and learn that my experiences were similar to others.

And then I discovered blogs and adoptee bloggers and for a while there was a whole group of us. Sadly most of the others have quit. The blogs were also where I found adoptive parents, domestic adoptees, foster alum and birth/first parents. Blogs were an amazing way for me to get to know the other parts of the adoption constellation. 

As a county worker I used social media sites and the internet to look for family members, extended relatives and other former important people for the youth on my case load. The internet was a place where youth's profiles were sometimes uploaded as a tool for recruitment. The youth also could create Foster Club accounts and connect with others in foster care. 

There tends to be a lot of concern about the ethics of the internet in both pre-adoption recruitment and marketing, as well as in the post-adoption search and reunion areas. I agree that both of these areas are ripe for unethical and illegal activities – however I believe strongly that the internet is a tool, not a cause- and that the internet and social media sites are merely one more place where people behave, in both positive and negative ways. The instantaneous nature of the internet makes such behavior visible on a larger scale, to a larger number of people and harder to erase (which is itself practically impossible these days). 

Another issue I have is when adoptive parents over-share about their children, in particular the really negative stuff. There is one blog which I will not link to that several people over the past few months have told me to check out, where the adoptive parent gives great detail about her daughter's mental illness. While I fully support the intent to educate and find support, I think we need to remember that when talking about someone else's life, particularly a child's, we are adding vulnerability to an already vulnerable person. When a parent lays out their child's mental health problems, medical history, problem behaviors, it is out there for everyone. I think it's particularly hypocritical to be criticizing young people for sharing TMI on the internet when I see adoptive parents as being quite egregious in that department myself. Adoptive parents are not the only ones that share too much on the internet – adoption workers sometimes do as well. Agencies need to be thoughtful about what information about children is shared on the internet. Public profiles garner the page hits and inquiries, but may be violating the child's right to privacy. Just because a child is in foster care through no fault of their own is no reason to broadcast his or her information on the internet.

A few minor grievances: in the section about the internet's impact on information, support and affiliation for adoptees, the report perpetuates that adoptees are "young" by stating "[b]ecause they are by definition the youngest members of the adoption community…" (p.22). This is irritating since I am in my mid-forties and don't think adopted persons my age and older need to continue to be lumped together with children, youth and young adults – particularly since I am the same age or older as many adoptive parents and/or birth/first parents – so why are adopted persons always described as the youngest member of the triad? We are not children. Several of my adoptee friends are grandparents!

 I agree with the report's findings that key stakeholders need to come together to work on how best to safeguard children and families from unethical and illegal adoption practices and to craft a best-practices standard guide. However, the report lists stakeholders as "key organizations and experts in the fields of child welfare, foster care and adoption" (p. 53).  Last time I checked, adopted persons, first/birth parents and adoptive parents were both stakeholders and experts too and any best practice guide should also include those voices. 

For the whole report, see "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption" on the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute web page. You can also read the executive summary. 

 

ETA: 1:54 pm. I just learned today that Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, will be on NPR's Talk of the Nation discussing the report. I will link to it when it becomes available. 

4:27 pm. The link to the discussion is now available here. You can also listen to it here below.

MPR Talk of the Nation – Internet and Adoption

Spotlight – Andy Marra

Screen_shot_2012-03-15_at_8.53.47_PMaI was privileged to meet activist, Public Relations Manager for Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and one of the Advocate's Forty under 40 of 2012 Andy Marra a couple of years ago at an adult adoptee conference to celebrate AKA New York's 15th anniversary.

At the conference Andy shared parts of her story that are now public in her Huffington Post article, Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me The Courage To Transition. I was so excited to learn that Andy was going to share her story because it was one that I have thought about a lot since I first heard her speak. Go immediately and read it here.

Then, hear Andy on NPR

Have some Kleenex® handy. 

Parenting as Adoptees

 

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Mothering-and-Adoption-mock  A few years ago I stumbled across a call for submissions for a special issue for Demeter Press for essays about mothering and adoption. I was quickly disappointed, however, because in typical fashion the editors were only looking at how adoption impacts the birth/first mother and the adoptive mother. Nowhere in the call for submissions was there any acknowledgement that adoptees themselves may be mothers and that adoption deeply impacts adoptee's mothering. This is frustrating because Demeter Press is a feminist publisher that specializes in motherhood and alternative paradigms of motherhood. If Demeter Press doesn't even have the insight into how adoptees mother (and we haven't even discussed fathers yet) then it highlights that adoptees are further marginalized and considered perpetual children who never grow up. The finished issue of Adoption and Mothering is here.

At the time I had several conversations with adoptees that were also mothers and we often talked about how much being adopted impacted our parenting. This became more salient in the past five years because so many of my adoptee friends have become parents recently. My children are now in high school and college, so my new-parent friends were asking me questions such as "is it normal to burst into tears for weeks after my baby turned 6 months old, because that was the age I was when I was adopted? Or, "I was so worried I wouldn't be able to attach to my baby." Or, "I am so hypervigilant that I am constantly scared that something is going to happen to my baby." Or, "Is it normal to feel upset because my baby looks more like my partner than me? I have waited my whole life to have someone in my life who looked like me and I thought for sure my child would."

I talked to a few of my adoptee writer friends and I said, "why aren't we writing our own book?"

Well, apparently I wasn't the only one who had that idea. As with many of my intended projects that fell to the wayside when I began graduate school in 2008, I never got around to it. Fortunately, Kevin Vollmers and Adam Chau did – and they even asked me to be a part of it. The result is Parenting As Adoptees, a lovely book with 14 essays about being an adoptee and being a parent. With a beautiful cover by adoptee Kelly Brownlee, this book delves into the difficult terrain that can affect how one's adoption impacts one's parenting. 

My chapter focuses on the challenges of raising my children to have a strong racial and ethnic identity, to embrace the diversity of the human condition and to be social justice focused when I had no role models in my own life for how to parent in this way. Other chapters discuss loss, grief, attachment, the meaning of biological connections, adopting as an adoptee (several authors have also adopted), seeing yourself mirrored in your children and much more. 

This book was written to provide a meaningful resource for adoptees – both mothers and fathers - who find themselves thinking about how their own adoption may impact how they think, feel and perform parenting. But I truly hope that this book has a larger audience than just the adult adoptee population.

I hope that adoptive parents, social workers, therapists and counselors and partners of adoptees also read this book. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of adoptees. 

From the book description:

Through fourteen chapters, the authors of Parenting As Adoptees give readers a glimpse into a pivotal phase in life that touches the experiences of many domestic and international adoptees – that of parenting. The authors, who are all adoptees from various walks of life, intertwine their personal narratives and professional experiences, and the results of their efforts are insightful, emotive, and powerful. As Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW, LCPAA, PLLC, notes: “Rarely has the experience of parenting as an adopted person been laid to bare so candidly and vividly. The authors provide a provocative, touching and, at times visceral and unyielding, invitation into their lives as they unearth and piece together the magnitude of parenting when it is interwoven with their adoption narrative. It is a prolific piece that encapsulates the rawness that adoption can bring from unknown histories, abandonment, grief, and identity reconciliation which ultimately reveals the power of resiliency and self-determination as a universal hallmark in parenting.” Moreover, despite its topical focus, the book will interest individuals within and outside of the adoption community who are not parents. “Parenting As Adoptees,” writes Dr. Indigo Willing, “contributes and sits strongly alongside books by non-adoptees that look at issues to do with ‘the family’, race, ethnicity and migration. As such, this book should appeal to a broad audience interested in these various fields of inquiry.” Authors in the anthology include: Bert Ballard, Susan Branco Alvarado, Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Lorial Crowder, Shannon Gibney, Astrid Dabbeni, Mark Hagland, Hei Kyong Kim, JaeRan Kim, Jennifer Lauck, Mary Mason, Robert O’Connor, John Raible, and Sandy White Hawk. Edited By Adam Chau and Kevin Ost-Vollmers

You can read more reviews on the Parenting As Adoptees blog.

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To order a hard-bound paperback of the book through Amazon Create Space click here

 

More than the sum of our losses

"I suppressed any notion
of being Asian and just thought of myself as white." Suki Leith was
adopted by an American family in the 1960s, she tells the BBC why the
Korean government needs to change the laws regarding international
adoption.

Even though I study adoption and write about adoption and read countless media and academic articles about adoption; even though I read books and memoirs and watch films by adoptees and adoptive parents; even though my personal social circle is heavily populated with adoptees – domestic, transracial, international, same race – believe it or not, most of the time I do not sit around thinking about adoption losses.

Most days I get up and go to work, take care of the household chores, talk with my kids, take them to their activities, make dinner, take the dog for a walk, do the dishes and laundry, study and read and study and read, hang out with friends, and participate in numerous volunteer or community events. Most days I don't think about what I've lost by being a transnational, transracial adoptee.

But today, I am thinking about those losses. Several hundred adoptees like myself are in Seoul right now, attending the IKAA Gathering, and I am at home. There is both a sadness and a sense of relief of having to be stuck at home studying this August instead of being with many friends and fellow Korean adoptees at the conference.

I've been to the past two IKAA Gatherings and there is no way to adequately express what it feels like to be surrounded by 600+ others who have experienced the same life experience of being adopted out of our country of birth. 600 of us is a small number compared to the 200,000+ in South Korea's 50+ year history of adoption, and I am sure if it did not cost so much to travel to Korea, many more would be there. 

It is hard to convey what it feels like to know you don't have to explain why you are who you are – why you look Korean but don't speak the language, why you always have to explain how you fit in your family, and why you sit on the fence between a cultural identity you don't physical match and a racial identity you don't culturally match. Who else knows the frustration of being told constantly through our lives that we should be grateful for not growing up in this country where we are now spending lots of our hard-earned money so we can get a tourist's version, a "Korea 101-lite" and trinkets at the market to put up on our walls than someone else – in fact several hundred others – who have been there and done that.

And yet, being in Korea at the IKAA Gatherings sometimes makes me very angry. I get angry that the country that didn't want me and wouldn't provide for me now wants me to come back and put on a happy, smiley face. I get so damn frustrated when I meet adoptees from all ages and backgrounds who share how unprepared their adoptive parents were in dealing with racism, racial identity struggles and understanding adoption losses. 

There were times, when I was at past Gatherings, that being with 600+ other adoptees who all experienced this huge loss made me overwhelmingly sad. Looking around and seeing so many others who had lost their Korean families and had been adopted to mostly white European, American or Australian families – how could I not feel sadness, when basically, we were a room full of survivors – a room full of people abandoned, abused, neglected, rejected – who somehow found the means to find each other. It's basically one huge support group.

Most days, I don't think about these things. I don't want to think about these things. I don't want to feel the pain and sadness associated with being adopted. But then I listen to a documentary like this BBC report. I read and view an art installation, A Collection of One, that showcases the impact of all of us who have been adopted from South Korea. 

Or, I read something poignant by a fellow adoptee. Yesterday, another fellow adoptee posed on her facebook page the question,

A diagnosis is not a destiny. Or does it have to be? Once
called "at-risk & special needs" and more, I can testify that one
can out-do and out-live a diagnosis. At least to live a productive,
happy, and fulfilling life. But how often do people live up to the
expectations of a diagnosis, just because that's expected?

My response was this: "I think it's easier for some to live a self-fulfilling prophecy than to
spend our lives convincing both ourselves and others that we are more
than the sum of our childhood losses."

I rarely write about my personal feelings about my adoption experience, especially in the past several years. I also turn down any request for interviews with the media, like this BBC documentary, when I believe they want me to walk down that path of "do you get along with your adoptive parents?" or "how was your adoption experience?" I turn down such requests for a few reasons: first of all, my adoptive experience is much more complex and layered and nuanced than a sentence or two that is published in an interview can adequately express and it always ends up being framed as "good" or "bad." I hate that dichotomy, and I hate it when something that might be negative gets turned into a statement about my adoptive parents that portrays them as bad parents. So while I want to write about some of the not-so-great things about being a Korean adoptee, I don't want to be pathologized nor do I want people to judge and pathologize my adoptive parents.

Secondly, I tend to really want to focus on the larger structural issues that are at play in the adoption-industry machine and to always frame adoption as one family's story negates those larger structural problems and societal attitudes. As often as possible, I want to focus attention on the ocean, not on the individual starfish

But I'm going to be honest today, and admit that today, I'm feeling sad. I'm feeling loss and grief. Several years ago, my grandmother passed away. I was very close to my grandmother; she was the one person in my family that constantly made me feel that she was the lucky one to have me in her life. Last weekend I saw my grandfather and his new wife. While I think highly of my grandfather's wife and am very happy she is in our lives, every time I see her I can't help but feel sadness over the loss of my grandmother. It doesn't mean I don't love this person, it just means she is not my grandmother and I have the right to love the one without feeling guilty for having loved the other. And no one in the family has the expectation that we'll all forget about my grandmother because my grandfather remarried. It would be ridiculous.

I may have gained many things by being adopted to the U.S., but I've also suffered many losses. And while I believe I am much more than the sum of my childhood losses, there are days when sadness bubbles up and overwhelms me. Because it's hard. For many of us adoptees, it would be easier to just shove all those feelings of loss and grief way down deep, compartmentalize them, and throw away the key. For others, it is easier to let ourselves stay overwhelmed with grief. I totally understand why many adoptees don't make it. As difficult as it may be to believe, every time I hear about an adoptee who has killed themselves, I understand. For many adoptees it IS easier to live up to the expectation that we are no more than the sum of our losses and our "at-risk" and "special-needs" diagnoses. I've had to work hard to convince myself that I am more than the sum of my childhood losses – and having to constantly prove to greater society as well takes a heavy toll.

My adoptive parents were great parents and I'm fortunate that we still have a good relationship. However, having a good adoptive home did not erase the losses I've suffered. There is nothing that my American, middle-class upbringing could have done to erase the loss of my Korean family and culture and language. I am tired of this prevailing assumption that as long as the adoptive parents are "good" ones, the adoptee won't ever feel loss and grief. I'm really exasperated at this notion that a "well-adjusted adoptee" is one who never questions adoption loss, who never feels sadness or grief, or who never goes through an identity crisis over who s/he is and where s/he belongs. I hate that we are constantly told that we should "get over it."

I'm not going to defend adoption – in any manner, shape, or form – today. I'm not going to add a caveat that "it's better than an orphanage" or "it's better than lingering in foster care." I'm not going to be "balanced" in my analysis. Because this isn't an analysis. This is about feelings. Which I, and every other adoptee, is allowed to have, without justification and without a parenthetical about how of course we love our adoptive parents. I'm not going to accept comments on this post either, because this isn't about anyone else but how I'm feeling right now, right here, and I don't want advice on how to "get over it" or suggestions that I get therapy or any of the things that we adoptees are often told.

Recently I heard one adoption "expert" (not an adoptee, of course) state that despite the losses involved in adoption, as an institutional child welfare practice, "adoption is still the best intervention we have for children who are parentless." Every generation of adoptive parents think they're doing a better job
than the ones before, and some are downright glib and smug about
it. Get over it. As an "intervention" adoption gave me a home and a family but it did not "cure" the losses that caused me to be in need of a home and a family. Adoption is not a cure, it's a treatment that – if the adoptee is lucky and it's done well – potentially helps makes the sorrow manageable.

An art installation in Korea

I am one of 200,000.*

From one of the artists behind this piece:

The art installation we’ve been working on the past month is to illustrate the relationship between the number 1 and 200,000. We lose sense of the impact of our actions when we allow ourselves to look at only the number right in front of us. The reality is that 200,000 is almost unfathomable. This is an attempt at showing what one looks like, 200,000 times. One adoptee at a time, processed in the perpetual motion machine that is international adoption.

This was installed last month, but the video has just been uploaded to YouTube. For more information about the story behind the art, click here.

*I participated in this art installation by sending my photo to be included.