Using adoption as a threat

The other day I was working at a coffee shop while my son was at his karate practice. A family of three, including a mom, dad and what appeared to be their four-year old, were getting ready to leave. The little girl was stalling, as little girls are wont to do, and as the parents began the familiar negotiation of trying to get a child to cooperate, Mom says to her daughter, “If you don’t get your coat on, we’re going to leave you here, and you’ll be adopted by strangers. I don’t know who they will be, but you’re going to have to live with them. Look, your dad is leaving. Better hurry up or you’ll have to live with strangers.”

I immediately posted this on my Twitter and Facebook page, resulting in a very interesting conversation on Facebook. Almost immediately several adoptee friends responded with comments like, “oh hell no!” and the expected chorus of “What the…”, etc. But one of the details I held back for a few minutes was the race and ethnicity of the family, because I had a feeling it was a detail that mattered.

Threatening to put a child up for adoption if they don’t behave or cooperate is not a new phenomenon and I think it’s probably uttered from parents who have absolutely no intention of ever following through. As a coercive parenting strategy it is, of course to many of us who were adopted or have adopted, extremely offensive and I wondered aloud if it was a particular cultural parenting strategy.

The family in this story, from my observation, appeared to be South Asian Indian. Both parents had heavy accents, their daughter did not. I might assume (incorrectly perhaps) that the parents were first generation or 1.5 generation immigrants because of the accent, although I know that is not reliable evidence. I have heard from other children of immigrant parents similar threats of abandonment.

That this threat works is telling – as one friend on Facebook said, “Is it possible that such a threat would be used by an immigrant family because the risk of being taken and “adopted by strangers” is or was real in their country? In that context it might have been a true warning at one time that, over time, has become colloquial. This isn’t to say it’s an appropriate phrase to use to admonish a child, rather to find a rational reason someone might say it.” I also wondered about that, it was my first reaction.

A few friends who are children of immigrant families chimed in and I thought their comments were really worth thinking more in depth. They talked about cultural contexts for these threats. One said, “I think it is to remind a child to understand the value of parents and to use shame to enforce attachment. In certain cultural context, it is not as horrid as it sounds to American ears. I’m not saying that I would ever say to my kids but I think context is important, particularly individualistic vs collectivistic cultures.” Another responded, “this is a common threat among immigrant families. My parents did not say this to me (at least I don’t remember hearing it) but as an immigrant child growing up around other immigrant families I did hear this from time to time…the difference is context.”

Regardless of the reasons the threat of leaving a child to be adopted by strangers (or a more active threat of “putting you up for adoption”) is uttered to a child, or the race or culture of the person saying it, I think this threat says a lot about how we have constructed adoption; that adoption is the child’s fault and that adoption is a bad thing. There is also an acknowledgment in this comment that there is nothing that could be worse for a child than to have to live with strangers away from the comfort and love of his biological parents. How deep these thoughts are embedded in our cultures! What are the differences between cultural groups and in which cultures might this be seen as acceptable and which are not? Are there differences across socioeconomic class as well? Some friends said they’ve heard this from white families too and that it’s not just immigrant families. I recall hearing the phrase “sold to Gypsies” as a threat back in my childhood too – do people still say that?

I have known adoptees whose adoptive parents have threatened to “send them back” and as we know all too well, there are some who have followed through and literally “returned” their adopted children a la Torry Hansen. If anything, this threat is effective because it gets to a fundamental fear of abandonment. As someone who was adopted, it hits way too close to home.


Parenting as Adoptees



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.

To order the book for Amazon Kindle click here.

To order the book for Barnes & Noble Nook click here.

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


I’m tired of adoptive parent confessionals

Several folks have sent me links about the Slate article, "I did not love my adopted child" and the companion piece on NPR.

I hadn't written about it here because frankly sometimes it just seems too much. And because I'm trying to finish writing 3 research papers! 🙂

But I finally had to take the time to at least jot down a few thoughts:

  • I give her a few points because at least to some degree she recognizes that the typical "happy-happy-joy-joy" adoption narrative serves to hurt everyone involved who does NOT experience a smooth transition, a good "fit" between adoptive parent and child, post-adoption depression on the part of adoptive parents, post-adoption grieving on the part of the child and all the ways in which adoption is nothing less than this perfect way to "grow a family"
  • The author does clearly state what I think a lot of us have said in the past – prospective adoptive parents often think they're more prepared for the difficulties of adopting than they really are. It's easy, I think, for prospective adoptive parents to think, "not me, not my child."
  • To some degree I can even appreciate the "there- but-for-[fill in saving grace here]-go-I" sentiment, which I think all of us who claim to have an ounce of compassion often say

But –

  • I truly hope that the author is using a pseudonym. For the child's sake. I can't even imagine some day that child g00gling her adoptive mother's name some day and finding this article in which her mom confesses to not loving her
  • Is it not completely clear in this article that the child was TRAUMATIZED by being adopted? Being adopted as a toddler (3 years old in this case, which I really relate to because I was the same age when I was adopted) is considered by many to be one of the WORST times a child can be adopted. 
  • There seems to be a total lack of empathy for what the child went through being pulled from her foster parents to a strange white family in a strange country where EVERYTHING – language, food, sleeping, parenting, noise, environment, people – was different.

In general this was another adoptive parent's "I did it to help other adoptive parents" self-confessional, a la Tedaldi, but it once again attempts to elicit sympathy for just how hard it is for adoptive parents who have to struggle with pathologically ill-behaved adoptive children (or in other words, kids who did not live up to the adoptive parent's expectations of being so happy to attach to a new caregiver -  i.e. them). For parents who claim this is about the best interest of the child, whose interest is truly valued in these articles?

Where is the acknowledgment of the adoptee's perspective? Why do these articles merely continue to pathologize adopted children without really recognizing the trauma of the adoption experience itself? Lots of attention seems to be spent on the pre-adoption trauma – the triple bad boys of pre-adoption experiences (abandonment, institutional life, pre-abandonment abuse or neglect). What about the trauma of ripping a child away from the only people this child knew and placing them in a foreign country? What would Dell'Antonia have wanted for her biological son if he had to have been taken away from her and sent to China to an adoptive family who wanted to "grow their family?" Would she have recognized the trauma her son would have felt in that scenario? My guess is yes. My guess is she never recognized that the fact her adopted child was so attached to her foster parents was in many ways a good thing – it meant her daughter had the capacity to love someone. My guess is that it didn't really matter. It was more about her daughter's lack of attachment to her. Which is ridiculous, right? I mean, you don't expect to go on a first date with someone and immediately fall in love. Why would you expect that from a child?

Sweet 16.

Happy 16th birthday to my dear sweet daughter. You are the first person I have ever recognized myself in. You were the first person who shared my blood, my DNA, my heritage. Because of you I was able to understand the sacrifices my own mothers made. It has been a privilege to stand by your side and watch you grow into such a wonderful young woman. I can't wait to see what you are going to do as you move into the future.



New York Times article about single mothers in Korea

Group Resists Korean Stigma For Mothers On Their Own
 by Choe Sang-Hun
Published: October 7, 2009

Ms. Choi and other women in her situation are trying to set up the
country’s first unwed mothers association to defend their right to
raise their own children. It is a small but unusual first step in a
society that ostracizes unmarried mothers to such an extent that
Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to “an
unmarried woman seeking an excuse to give birth.”The fledgling
group of women — only 40 are involved so far — is striking at one of
the great ironies of South Korea. The government and commentators fret
over the country’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, and deplore
South Korea’s international reputation as a baby exporter for foreign

Read the article here.

Babies as young as 6 months discriminate based on race

From Newsweek, a fascinating article about how children as young as six months old recognize racial differences.

What is remarkable about this study, and the excellent book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin, is that there is evidence that young children DO understand a lot more about race and racism that adults want to believe.

From the article:

The goal of Vittrup's study was to learn if typical children's videos
with multicultural storylines have any beneficial effect on children's
racial attitudes.

…Vittrup's first test of the kids revealed they weren't colorblind at
all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly
answered, "Almost none." Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered,
"Some," or "A lot." Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the
questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also
asked all the kids a very blunt question: "Do your parents like black
people?" Fourteen percent said outright, "No, my parents don't like
black people"; 38 percent of the kids answered, "I don't know." In this
supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to
improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to
their parents.


…To Vittrup's complete surprise, the three groups of children were
statistically the same—none, as a group, had budged very much in their
racial attitudes. At first glance, the study was a failure.

through the parents' study diaries, Vittrup realized why. Diary after
diary revealed that the parents barely mentioned the checklist items.
Many just couldn't talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the
vague "Everybody's equal" phrasing.

Of all those
Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six
families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children
dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking
about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, Vittrup
said, "A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just
didn't know what to say to their kids, and they didn't want the wrong
thing coming out of the mouth of their kids."

Why is this article important for white adoptive parents who have adopted children transracially and internationally?

Minority parents are more likely to help their children develop a
racial identity from a young age. April Harris-Britt, a clinical
psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, found that all minority parents at some point tell their
children that discrimination is out there, but they shouldn't let it
stop them. Is this good for them? Harris-Britt found that some
preparation for bias was beneficial, and it was necessary—94 percent of
African-American eighth graders reported to Harris-Britt that they'd
felt discriminated against in the prior three months.

Preparation for bias is not, however, the only way minorities talk to
their children about race. The other broad category of conversation, in
Harris-Britt's analysis, is ethnic pride. From a very young age,
minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She
found that this was exceedingly good for children's self-confidence; in
one study, black children who'd heard messages of ethnic pride were
more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to
their effort and ability.

So the point? Parents – even liberal, "color-blind", "we are all part of the human race," parents, even those who live in the "diverse" areas but are waiting for their kids to bring up racism – need to talk about race and racism from day one.

Please read the article in full here. Also, read Resist Racism's excellent analysis of the article here, which points out the very skewed way the writers approached this article, and why so many of us parents of color felt like, "well, duh."

Will Michael Jackson’s kids be in a transracial placement?

I have a lot to say about the custody of Michael Jackson's children, but haven't quite sorted out what I want to say. So in the meantime, here is an article in which a friend of mine, Robert O'Connor, was quoted.

From ABC News: How will Michael Jackson's White kids get along with Black family?

In the coming months and years, 11-year-old Paris and her two brothers,
Michael Joseph Jr., 12, and Prince Michael II, 7, will have many
adjustments to make without their famous father — not the least of
which may be growing up in a family in which their fair skin will
noticeably set them apart.

There's nothing unusual about black families
taking in their kin. Historically, they have often done so, but when
the children look more white than black, eyebrows — and stereotypes —
get raised.

Even with trans-racial adoptions on the rise, it's still far more common to see white parents with adopted Asian or black children
n the reverse. Steve Martin made a joke out of being adopted by
black parents in the movie "The Jerk," but all kidding aside, it's
still extremely rare for black parents to adopt a non-black child.

"It's much less of a two-way street," said Robert O'Connor, an
assistant professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul,
Minn., who studies trans-racial adoptions.

Since we don't know if MJ was the biological father of these children, we don't know if they are actually biracial or monoracial. If they were White and MJ is not the biological father, then they were already in a transracial family – not really recognized because MJ's skin was so fair – so their living with the Jackson family isn't changing that. And if MJ was their biological father, then again, despite MJ's skin color they were still used to their extended family being Black. It appears that these children have long had a relationship with the Jackson family.

Anyway, it is intriguing. The article in full is here.

Opening the gates

The other day I posted a link to an article about some families who discovered the children they adopted from Ethiopia had not been orphaned as their adoption agencies had told them. When I read the article and the comments that followed, I was truly disgusted by the completely awful comments directed towards the families profiled in the story. Most of the worst offenders – no, I should say almost ALL of the worst offenders – were from other adoptive parents. My heart was breaking for the families in their stories. Not only are they dealing with one of the worst imagined scenarios – that their child might have been fraudulently placed for adoption – but then their own community turns on them.

This article has generated a lot of hits on the blog and I've been following some of the thoughts adoptive parents are expressing on their blogs and forums. One thing I saw really struck at me.

An AP blogger wrote about how reading this article made her look at her own daughter (adopted from Ethiopia) and made her realize that she hadn't been really dealing with the reality of her birth story. That she had fallen so in love with her child that she sometimes forgot that she hadn't given birth to her. That she realizes the pitfalls that being an internationally and transracially adopted child will affect her daughter and she's scared. Yet, despite the fears, she was going to face them head on and, as she wrote, "open the floodgates."

I was really heartened to read this.  I felt like this made everything I do worthwhile. And since I have so many adoptive parent readers, I wanted to pose a challenge and some future scenarios.

The fears are often: What if:

  • my child resents being adopted?
  • my child grows up to be critical about adoption?
  • my child grows up and doesn't love me or consider me her "real" parent?
  • my child rejects me
  • my child has a life of pain because of the adoption

These fears are often what makes adoptive parents cling tighter to living in dichotomies, burying their heads in the sand, and putting on the blindfolds. Which can be easier to do when they're younger.

But what if you think of things less in terms of what you can control in order to shelter and hide the truth from yourself and your adopted child and to avoid the pain for right now, and more in terms of what you can begin to discover together now that might strengthen the relationship in the future? Plants don't bloom when they're suffocated and sheltered. Especially when they've been re-potted or re-planted to a different place. It takes a lot more work to take a plant native to Zone 2 and have them successfully thrive in Zone 4.

I've said it many times before but I think it's always worth repeating. Adult adoptees eventually find out if their parents hid the truth from them or tried to shelter them from the truth about their histories. We also learn pretty quick when parents can't deal with racism. That makes us wonder why in the heck we were adopted if our parents were so afraid to deal with racism and issues of birth families and birth countries. I think it's pretty clear that a relationship that seems built on lies does not bode well for the future.

Think of it this way. You are emotionally investing in your future relationship with your child. Be honest with them. Don't hide information. Deal with the ugliness that comes with adoption. One of the things that bums me out the most is how much our society just can't deal with the truth that adoption is about LOSS, LOSS, LOSS. That doesn't mean all adopted people are emotional wrecks. But it does mean that the child's first family was torn apart for some reason and everyone involved will have to deal with the ramifications of that.

Most parents are so overwhelmed and focused with the day-to-day parenting issues that it's convenient to leave these big ethical issues pushed to the side.

I'm challenging you to push them back in.

Don't just nickel-and-dime your way into these issues. Remember, you are investing in a more honest and healthy relationship with your child, who some day might stand there, arms on hips, staring you down, demanding answers. Invest now so that those answers are about why you won't let them borrow the car on a Friday night, rather than why you lied to them about their adoption  history or why you didn't deal with racism.

I rarely comment on adoptive parent blogs, but in this case I did. I encouraged the parent to open those floodgates. She was worried about all the scary things that might come with that; but then again, I saw it differently. I saw it as a way to open the gates to more honest and trusting relationship in the future.

If any of you were wondering, I did not link to the blog I mentioned because I did not want to inundate her with hits on her personal blog.