Why National Adoption Month Is Complicated

Noted:  There are times when this post seems to speak directly and specifically to white people and that’s probably true.  I write from the heart and to the people I feel need to hear this most.  In my personal life, that’s usually white people.  But take care: these messages are NOT just for white people.  These issues can and DO exist with people of ALL races (I have witnessed it even though I am most exposed to it in my life by way of white people); and are important no matter what race, ethnicity or culture you are.

Everything about adoption is bittersweet. We recently noted the anniversary of the day our daughter lost her birth family and the majority of her birth culture and became part of our family. We are thrilled that she is ours and love her beyond measure; but we will always respect and honor her loss. We will always give her the room to grieve without having people tell her that “she’s so lucky” or point out the very many wonderful things she gained through adoption as if this somehow replaces the family she will never know–and never know why she wasn’t kept (in her case, this is a reality of the circumstances of her case). We won’t put her in a position to feel guilty about having those very natural feelings. We know that it has nothing to do with us or how she feels about us or her life with us.

If you are going to adopt, I strongly suggest that you do the legwork now to look beyond what your agency is giving you in the way of training and really understand that it is not just about making you a family. It is about being able to put your needs aside to deal with the very real emotions these children may have (younger than you think it can happen) and not taking it as a personal attack of not loving you, or ungratefulness on their part.

It means understanding that MANY, MANY children adopted out of foster care had first families that loved them and had no problems with drugs or abuse.  The stories are complex and varied.  I may not have understood how children get removed otherwise if I had not been their foster parents.  But it’s sad and it’s heartbreaking and there is nothing but love there even if the state believes these parents weren’t fit to parent their children.  It means never saying that a birthparent “didn’t deserve” to parent this child as if they simply decided haphazardly not to.  It means realizing that if you can’t acknowledge and share your adoptive child’s history with their first family or you need to demonize their birth parents, you need to seek some counseling–because you clearly feel threatened by the fact that the first family exists and they might be good people with a bad set of problems or circumstances.

It means learning how to speak differently… because “given up” or “abandoned” or “removed” are some of the most insensitive verbiage you can use to talk about adoption and those words mold your adoptee’s sense of who they are and what they came from.  Your children, at some point, are “placed for adoption”.  It means not letting people talk about how lucky your kids are or how much better off they are to be with you as if any amount of opportunity or relative wealth could replace the complete loss of who they were supposed to be had they been able to stay with their birth families.  And that wording matters.  And there is a lot more wording that matters.  Lots of it.  Not just for the adoptees sake, but learning to deal with the things people will say to you.  I’ve been asked how much my daughter cost and if I adopted her because I couldn’t have any “real” children (she is very real, tyvm) or any “children of my own” (again, she is very much my own).  These are just a few…

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#truth

If you are adopting by mandate of your faith, it means understanding that using verbiage that says “God meant you to be with us” effectively tells your child that God meant for their first families to be lost to them–that God saddled them with that incredible loss; or if you follow the Free Will sentiment, you are telling your child that God rewarded you with the adoption of this child and punished their birth families by taking the child away.  If you actually believe that, you shouldn’t be adopting.  It means realizing that what you say about your beliefs as they relate to adoption have deep and lasting impact.  It doesn’t mean you cannot discuss them in the same conversation, but it DOES mean you need to think very deeply about how it comes across… which is a good segue to…

Intent vs. impact.  This means that what you INTENDED is less relevant than the impact it made on who you said it to.  In the case of our children, what is being said and your intention in saying it is less important than the impact it had on that child.  Children want to please adults–if only to secure their continued safety.  Even if they felt comfortable enough to share those feelings with you, they may not be able to identify their “big feelings” let alone be capable of articulating such very complex things.  The onus is on you to research the living hell out of your own actions and language, and take the responsibility to find out if your behaviors are likely to have unintended impact BEFORE you say or do those things.  You’re the adult.

It means you have some work to do.  Because there’s more.  And it means that you may not like what comes with it.  It also means that your relationships may change, but so will the quality of your relationships.  With everyone.  And it can simultaneously be a good thing but it can sometimes be a devastating thing.

If you are adopting a child that is a different race or culture than you are, it means learning about racism and that systemic racism exists and it’s not just about Black people.  Every race has it’s negative labels and stereotypes that render them somehow “someone I can’t identify with”.  That perceived inability to identify with them makes them someone that doesn’t get chosen to be involved in something or approved to attend somewhere or hired because “they just wouldn’t fit in”.  It means that all the times you, your family or your friends say derogatory things about a race or ethnicity and follow it with “I’m just kidding” or “I didn’t mean it” or “But not YOU”, it matters–because your child is fodder for humor and/or their core identity is washed away.

It means understanding that police killings of Black people DO happen even if they act respectfully when pulled over and/or approached by police (this applies to multiple minorities, but Blacks are the highest percentage).  It means actually reading accounts by Black people of their lived experiences and trying to empathize instead of writing them off to “just another angry black person”.  They’re angry for a reason.  And that could be your woefully unprepared adoptive child someday–because they are somewhere outside of your protective white community where someone doesn’t realize that they’re “not just another Black/Latino kid”–that they were raised in a “good (white) home”.  It means actually reading the accounts of the killings.  It means not responding to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter.  DUH!!  All lives SHOULD matter, but until Black lives matter–all lives do NOT matter.

It means realizing that you can support and respect individual police officers and still believe that our police forces need reform so that they can respond to and de-escalate situations rather than shoot first and ask questions later and say that they did it because they felt threatened.  Go do some research on these cases.  You can start with Walter Scott or Eric Garner.  Or Samuel Dubose.  Editing on Nov. 24, 2015 to add Laquan McDonald.  It means understanding that if someone believes that someone of a different race than them is more dangerous than their own race–they are going to be more on edge and more worried about a poor outcome.  That’s undoubtedly going to affect how they handle the situation.

It means not allowing yourself, friends or families to see drug dealers and gang bangers as representative of the majority or the whole of minorities… because I have plenty of minority friends who don’t fit that profile.  Likewise, I have minority friends that are Asian but not rocket scientists.   Many of my friends have never in their lifetime fit those stereotypes.  It also means not telling my middle class minority friends that “they’re different” as if they shouldn’t be associated with the less than ideal people of their race or culture.  You’re effectively telling them they have been promoted out of their race because they don’t fit the stereotype you have about their race–because you can’t see that people of their race can be regular people like you.

How would you like it if you were part of a faith (or group or race or ethnicity) and you were in a room full of people who had a complete misunderstanding of that group you belonged to.  They disparaged it no matter what you said.  How would you feel if you tried to explain the misunderstandings to a these people that felt they knew your group and it’s motives or purpose better than you–who have been part of that group your whole life.  And when you try to make them see, they pat you on the head and say “It’s okay–we won’t hold it against you that you are from that group” but then you get excluded from things they assume you wouldn’t relate to.  I think you’d be angry.  Especially if it happened everywhere you turn.

If you are white, it means that you have privilege even if you grew up on welfare–and equating “privilege” to “wealth” is misunderstanding what privilege actually is.  It means your children will not have privilege just because they are adopted into your home and grew up with opportunities you don’t believe exist for minorities.    It means that having a minority spouse or in-law or adopting minority children or working in and among minorities doesn’t give you a pass–you could still have a very racist and privileged worldview.

It means learning about what it truly means to become a transracial family.  It means learning that your adoptive minority children need to feel like they are not alone and that means seeing people like them regularly in their community.  It could mean moving to a place you, the parents, aren’t comfortable with.  It means realizing that you wouldn’t do that because of your discomfort but you’d put your child through that same discomfort by staying in a community that may undermine their sense of self.

It means learning another language, cooking new food, honoring different customs and struggling to reconcile your own beliefs with the beliefs commonly held by those of your child’s race or culture–figuring out how to balance them instead of overriding them.

Adoption is complex. That doesn’t make it miserable and it doesn’t make it all rainbows.  That’s really the point: it’s not that it’s an unhappy thing, but it is regularly portrayed as only a happy thing.  It is marketed as a happy thing–“making families”.  These children had “first families”.  These children have an identity outside of you and your household.  These children are capable of great love and great things.  But these children need parents that understand what they are getting into who will be willing to learn.  Because these children could just as well go to another family that will honor them as the humans they are instead of the ideas you may be looking for them to fulfill.

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4 thoughts on “Why National Adoption Month Is Complicated

  1. Thank you so much for posting about how complex adoption can be! I have adopted three children from birth mothers who placed their children for adoption. Each of my children come from different cultures and we definitely use National Adoption Month to help them remember where they came from. However, two of my children are part African American and part white. Do you think that children who are bi-racial experience the same lack of privilege as my other child who is fully black within their adoption circumstance? Also, I would be interested in knowing more about how I can help my children to feel completely a part of our very transracial family.

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    1. I think all children that are not clearly white experience various problems and all of them experience lack of privilege. I had a mixed black and white half-brother who wasn’t adopted and above and beyond privilege issues, he felt that both blacks and whites seemed to view him with suspect just because he was clearly partially of a race they deemed suspect to begin with (those were his words–not mine).

      Is there a pecking order with privilege based on race? I think there is, but that is really only based on how I see other white people regard various races. I obviously don’t have the lived experience of a Person of Color (POC). The best advice I ever got about adopting a child of another race is that you adopt the race as your own. For myself, I am heavily immersed in multiple transracial groups. Those include groups that give privilege to transracial adoptees to speak their mind and that is entirely for my benefit to hear. But I am also involved in a number of groups that are deeply steeped in navigating the issues of race and white privilege. Some of these groups are definitely not for beginners and as a beginner, they can be incredibly uncomfortable. But they are necessary to help my daughter and myself be better aware of her world and what she will experience. Hearing the many adult transracial adoptee voices and their experiences can be hard (especially in the beginning) and people often want to say “Not in my family/home/neighborhood”. White people get defensive quickly. It’s called “white fragility” and that would be the first barrier to break down in terms of trying to truly integrate into being a transracial family. So maybe start the journey there. ❤

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      1. I completely agree that it is important to adopt the child’s race as your own and I really am hoping to do that with my children better. In fact, your post encouraged me to search out the options that I had regarding connecting my children with their racial background and I was able to find a group in California whose purpose is to connect adopted black youth with their culture. I’m not sure if there is one like that near me, but I think that it would be nice to start one. Racial identity is very important and I definitely do not want to disregard that with my kids.

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