I just returned recently from a trip to Orange Co. I stayed with one of my best friends who adopted a 15-month old little girl from China in 1997. Her daughter is now 15 years old, the same age as my own daughter. We had some interesting discussions on adoption. I realized during our conversations that my views on adoption have evolved since I first learned of my true ethnic identity, reunited with my birth family in Taiwan and dug into the psychology of adoption. I talked to my friend about the documentary, “Struggle for Identity,” which neither she, nor her husband, had heard of. In this post, I wanted to share some more insights from the film on an important topic discussed: what adoptive parents should know… I know you may have read articles and books pertaining to this very topic, but I think that the more it’s discussed, the more awareness will be brought to the importance of this matter.
This portion of the DVD was especially candid, which I totally appreciated. Michelle, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, addresses the the topic of “what adoptive parents should know” in this way:
“What parents have to understand is that this is a painful process, a very hurtful process. In many cases, there are going to be issues at every stage of this child’s life that are painful, and you’re going to have to be able to deal with that– a lot of rejection, not necessarily of you, but of your culture and the microcosm of a racist culture.”
Michelle does not mince words. She’s forthright, and I like that about her. What she shares comes from a place of honesty and experience. As difficult as it may be for some to hear her perspective, I agree with her. It’s not that adoption can’t be successful. The fact remains, however, that adoption can be a painful and hurtful process for all within the adoption triad: birth mother, adoptee and adoptive parents. I read somewhere that adoption is a process where all involved suffer loss, whether it’s due to infertility or separation trauma. Likewise, it’s important to understand that adopted kids do not develop in the same way biological kids do even if they are raised by the most loving, stable, well intentioned parents. Identity formation is one such area where development is complex. When I was studying to become a social worker, I wrote a research paper on “Racial and Ethnic Identity in Asian-American Adoptees.” There have been numerous studies conducted in the U.S. over the years. Researchers, Huh and Reid, studied 40 school-aged Korean adoptees (Intercountry, transracial adoption and ethnic identity: A Korean example, International Social Work, 2000). Based on their research, they devised a four-stage model related to age as a framework for understanding ethnic identity development. Although I think it’s hard to “fit every child into the same mold,” I thought their research was interesting and informative. Click on this link to read the entire article: intercultural transracial adoption. Another researcher, Vonk, approached racial and ethnic identity formation in transracial adoptees by exploring and defining the concept of cultural competence as it applies to the role of parenting. She devised a three-part definition of cultural competence for adoptive parents: 1) racial awareness, 2) multicultural family planning, and 3) survival skills (Cultural Competence for transracial adoptive parents, Social Work, 2001). Click here to read the article. I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of research and statistics, but I think it’s evident that raising a transracially adopted child is different from raising a biological one in many ways.
Beth, a white adoptive mom of two domestically adopted children, one bi-racial and the other African-American, comments,“You have to look at your family and decide your family is not a Caucasian family…” She also says:
“I think that as the adult, you have to be willing to change. I don’t think it’s the children who have to change, it’s you. When you show the changes in the way you’re dealing with things, your kids will do the same thing that you do.”
I found her point that adoptive parents must adapt and be willing to change for their adopted child profound. After all, adopted kids have not only suffered the trauma of being separated from their birth mothers (which is far too frequently minimized), but cross-culturally adopted kids are also coming from a different culture, often country, and rarely speak or understand English. It seems logical that just as transracial adoptees must adapt and assimilate into a new culture, so must adoptive parents adapt and adopt their child’s country of origin in a very deliberate and demonstrative way.
John, a bi-racial adoptee, poses this thought for adoptive parents:
“Before they adopt, parents need to think about why they want to adopt a child of another race. How will they answer that question at different stages of the child’s life?…when your kid totally rejects you and goes back to their culture of origin? What is your motivation, which is really significant?”
Perhaps not all tranracially adopted kids/adults will totally reject their adoptive parents and go back to their culture of origin, or at least not forever if it occurs. More to the point– are adoptive parents willing to think long and hard about these questions? Are they prepared to face the reality that their adopted children will struggle with identity, and will they be equipped to help them?
Michelle’s sister, who is also an adoptive mom, comments on the role of parenting a transracially adopted child:
“One useful strategy is humility, which is to say, I’m not going to be able to do all of these things myself. Some of these things I’m going to have to provide the child with from other places that they can find coping strategies.”
In my opinion, adoptive parents do not receive enough education, support and counseling pre- and post-adoption. I have a good friend who has a son adopted from Korea and an older daughter adopted from China. She and her husband are both white. We’ve had a few discussions on adoption, and she agrees that after the child is adopted, there are not enough services or follow up provided to help adoptive parents, especially if the adoptee is experiencing difficulties (with anger, bonding and attachment, and grief, etc.). It’s crucial that adoptive parents recognize that their adopted child will have challenges at some point. What’s important is identifying the problem and getting help through a support network or an adoption-competent therapist who specializes in child development and works with adoptive families. I believe that every adoptive family should seek out therapy from an adoption-competent therapist for the child — even at a young age, especially if the child is showing signs of developmental delay, behavioral and/or emotional issues, distress or grief.
By writing this post, I’m hoping to inform. As an adult transracial adoptee, I’m sharing my own views from what I’ve experienced and from what I’ve observed some of my friends who are adoptive parents experience.
For more information on the film documentary, or to purchase “Struggle for Identity” and “Struggle for Identity: A Conversation 10 Years Later,” follow this link.