November is National Adoption Awareness Month. You have probably been seeing the posts. People might be posting their “adoption day” photos or maybe they are encasing their profile pictures with the “Touched by adoption” filter. At any rate, adoption has touched many of us. It has changed my life four times over. Becoming a parent is the BEST thing, no doubt, to ever happen to me. But what about my kids?
My older daughters were already adopted by my wife when we met. So I am a stepmother of three girls. After we adopted our fourth child, I started a mission to find out how to best meet the unique needs of our kids. Each child has unique needs, but I knew that meeting the needs of four children of color who are living in the Midwest with two White women might present some different needs than any biological child we may have had. I didn’t want to just do this. I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want my children to have to assimilate into White spaces, White ideals and White opinions. That isn’t what their natural environment would have been. I wanted to give them as much of their birthright as I could, exposing them to people who looked like them, people who lived, loved and celebrated like their natural families would have. I wanted them to see Black and Brown faces in our books, in our movies, in our home, in our community. We already loved many people of color before our kids came along, so this wasn’t a tough transition. I wanted to raise them to be strong women of color; proud and confident in who they are. This is what I prepared for.
What I didn’t prepare for, however, was learning about the traumas of adoption. What I was shocked to find was that adoptees have a FOUR TIMES higher rate of suicide than persons raised with their biological parents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. I have to admit, I was tempted to not explore this topic because just seeing those words was extremely painful. What I wanted to do was dismiss this as “those were just kids with bad adoptive parents” and move on, thinking only sunshine and rainbows about adoption, it being “God’s plan” and all. But because my children’s well-being was more important to me than my comfort, I pressed on. I spent the next 2 years in constant contact with adoptees who are all grown up. I have read/listened to literally hundreds of adoptees, both transracial and those who grew up with parents of the same race. What I have learned from adoptees who were so gracious to share their stories could fill a large hardbound book. As adoptive parents, we don’t get to ignore these things. We don’t get to pretend it will be different for our kids. We need to listen and learn; NOW.
Every adoptee’s story is different. They all begin in loss. Even when a child loses the worst, most abusive, drug addicted parent in the world, it’s still a loss. Along with the parent/parents, they lose grandparents, cousins, uncles, every biological relative before them and since them, plus all of their history, both medical and familial. That’s a lot of loss. Then they spend the rest of their lives hearing how lucky they are. But are they? “Well, sure!” You say. “Their parents were horrible abusers. They would have died if we hadn’t adopted them.” That might well be true. But are these kids lucky that rather than being born to loving parents who would protect and provide for them, they were born to wicked abusers? Of course not. It doesn’t seem lucky that a kid is born to abusers and is taken away to find home with strangers. But this is exactly what happens. Adoptive parents, unless biologically related, are strangers. Of course, we don’t stay that way. Adoptive parents and adoptees can end up having amazing bonds and the adoptee can have a wonderful sense of belonging to their adoptive family. But expecting the child to be grateful is a little much, considering what they gave up to be where they are. Not just all their family ties but some give up their race, nationality, country and language in exchange for a “better life.” Many times, birth parents are amazing and good people who are in a temporarily desperate situation with no support. Much of the time they aren’t abusers, or addicts. They just find themselves with little support or resources and don’t know what else to do. We have four girls with two birth moms between them. Neither is an addict or an abuser. Adoption is a trade-off. Adoptive parents often do not realize this because we are too elated to be parents to imagine that our love won’t be enough to bring them to a happy and safe adulthood. If we hear about any adoptees who have committed suicide or have become addicted to drugs, we pass it off as strange circumstances; pitiful, yes. But not our child. We have a good family. Our children are happy to be adopted. They tell us all the time how thankful they are. Of course they do. Adoptees have told me they are programmed to “not rock the boat.” They don’t want to lose yet another family. They have a job and that job is to act as happy as possible so not to experience yet another abandonment.
Are there successful adoption stories? Are there adoptees who don’t feel this way? Of course. There are adoptees who report no real sense of loss. They feel a great belonging in their families have not really longed for their birth families. I personally know adoptees who claim to feel very little for their birth families and are super pro-adoption. But if you are an adoptive parent, do you want to take it for granted that your child will be one of those who feel no sense of loss or abandonment? Or do you want to gather your facts so you can better protect and support your child?
I don’t want this to seem like an article against adoption. With hundreds of filicides each year, we know there are people out there that have no business parenting. There are half a million kids in foster care. Kids need parents. I am an adoptive parent. I cannot imagine life without my kids. This is precisely why I have turned from adoptive parent to adoptee advocate; to raise my kids to a healthy adulthood I have to stop pretending like the abnormally high suicide and addiction rates for adoptees do not matter. I have to start finding out why these kids are hurting and do what I can to alleviate any pain that adoption has caused. I have to stop rolling the dice that “love will be enough.”
I can’t speak for adoptees. What I can do is share what they have taught me. While not every adoptee feels loss, it’s the consensus that it’s more common than not. When literally millions of non-adoptees are buying DNA tests to learn about their ancestry, can you imagine how the adoptee might feel? Non-adoptees are curious, too and we had our whole biological family to share all their stories and history! Can you imagine knowing very little to nothing? I feel like it would drive me crazy. Can you imagine feeling profound loss and sense of abandonment and instead of getting support for that, you are made to feel “ungrateful” or like you are betraying your adoptive family? Adoptees grow up having to worry about their parents’ feelings. Can you imagine the burden of a child who wants to learn, search and grieve the life they left behind but feels like they would be “betraying” their adoptive parents by sharing this grief, so they hold it in their whole lives? Not in my house.
Well if adoption is so traumatic, why is it so popular? In a word, money. Private adoption is a billion (with a B) dollar business. I am not speaking of adoption from foster care but the private adoption industry. The foster care system has problems of it’s own, as every foster parent and child out there could attest to. Anytime there is money to be made, there will be some corruption and coercion. Adoption can be good, adoption can be bad. Adoptive parents abuse their children and commit filicide just like biological parents do. One is not always better than the other.
But we know adoption can be necessary and it’s real, right? Some of you may be contemplating adoption or, like me, have already adopted. My wish is that your family is happy and healthy your whole lives through. I know my article will not set well with many in the adoption community and I am okay with that. I am not trying to make friends. I am trying to keep adoptees alive and healthy. I am trying to help other adoptive parents raise their kids up to a happy adulthood. I am an adoptee advocate and a mom on a mission. NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING, comes before my kids’ well-being. Like I said, what I have learned in two years of research could fill a large coffee-table book, but in the essence of time I will just share some highlights that seem to be the most pressing, according to grown ups who were adopted. I can’t do that without thanking them immensely for sharing what they know. The changes I have made in the last two years have had tremendous positive impact on my kids. My youngest isn’t yet aware but my older girls are happier, more settled, and feel much more peace that I understand what they have lost and do not take their grievances personally. Their longing for ties to their history and biology has nothing to do with how much they love me. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be my kid anymore. It means they truly landed in a safe place where ALL their feelings are valid, even the ones that make their parents sad. My recognizing this has made our bond much stronger. Taking your feelings out of it and doing what is best for your child is love. Love is an action and sometimes its uncomfortable. But they are our kids. Let’s do it.
- Always tell the truth. I hope there aren’t still people out there who try to pass adoptees off as their biological kids, thereby denying them even more of their history and possibly causing medical tragedies because they do not know the truth of their beginnings. Also, they will eventually discover they are adopted and this discovery will bring so much more pain when revealed later, as their foundation for anything truthful and trustworthy (their parents) will have crumbled. If you can’t trust the people who are supposed to protect you, how will you have trusting relationships with friends or spouses? You won’t. As Oprah Winfrey says, “The truth is where we end up, we might as well start there.” Tell your kids their adoption story and tell it early.
- Give their story to them and them only. We have often overshared information regarding our child’s adoption and birth families. We know better now, so we do better. Adoptees can feel pretty uncomfortable when a family friend says “Oh gosh, I heard about your birth mother, she was a real piece of work, I can’t believe she left you at home to go party and ended up on crack,” or “Man, you would have had it rough over in Africa since your family was so poor. I heard you were only 5 pounds when they found you. You are so lucky to be where you are now ” Really? I mean who wants to hear this from someone? Do adoptees need to constantly be reminded that not only were they adopted, but their birth family’s circumstances were less than ideal? It’s enough to deal with even when the whole world doesn’t know. Obviously your family members will know some details on the adoption, but be careful when sharing and if you are the extended family members of adoptees, please refrain from sharing the adoptee’s story with everyone you know. One of the best gifts we can give the adopted child is the power to choose who knows their adoption story. Please choose wisely when sharing.
- If you are White and your child is a different race than you, please do not pretend this doesn’t matter. It does. Different race adoptees need to see people who look like them. They need to know the history and the happenings of their people FROM THEIR PEOPLE, not explained by White folks. Race might seem to be a non-issue when your child is growing up. However, when they get older and are exploring their identities as an individual, it can be alarmingly clear that they aren’t White. The world sees this and they see it. How do we expect them to become comfortable with their peers of the same race and culture when we have never exposed them to it? If we have avoided all things Black or Hispanic (whether intentional or not) how will they feel loved by us as a person of color? If we don’t already love other people of color, how will we convince our children of color that we love them? If you are a White parent of a child of color, please do your research. Representation is important. Exposure is important. The way you treat people of color, in general, is EXTREMELY crucial. Support things that are important to people of color. Support their businesses. Show your kids you not only love them but you love them as beautiful persons of color and will always try to see life from their perspective. Put yourself in situations where you are the minority at times. Attend ethnic festivals. Go to conferences where a person of color is the headliner. Get out of your comfort zone so you can have a tiny inkling of what it is like to be the minority every where you go, EVERY DAMN DAY.
- Stop perpetuating the idea that you “saved” your kids. While it may be true that your child is safer with you than their biological parents, it puts a burden of gratitude on your child’s shoulders, the burden of being thankful. It’s hard to be a carefree kid when you are always having to express gratitude for something you had zero say in. It creates an idea that their feelings of loss or grief aren’t okay because they are so much better off. How many times do you say to a biological child “Oh my goodness, you are SO lucky your parents decided to have you. I bet you are so grateful to be where you are!” Never. Because a child shouldn’t feel have to feel grateful just for existing. Adoptees often lock up their feelings of grief or loss because of the guilt they feel for “betraying” the ones who “saved” them. What they will truly feel grateful for is parents who understand that adoption is complex and the feelings associated aren’t always happy and wonderful, and that is okay. Recognize that it won’t be easy for them to tell you about their feelings because they will already feel indebted to you and do not want to lose you, too. So tread gently and encourage openness.
- Speak up for your children. Let them know that it’s ok to not answer intrusive questions. Let other people know that your child’s story is theirs to tell. Don’t sit idly while people ask intrusively personal questions in front of your child like they aren’t even there. (I hate to admit I have done this). This is so highly disrespectful to your kids. Be on their side. Protect their privacy rather than the feelings of others. Kids want to be kids. Adopted kids just want to be like other kids. While being open within your immediate family is wonderful, being open to the rest of the world should always be the choice of the adoptee.
- Read about and understand adoption trauma. Consult adoptees on the adoptee experience. Ask how you can do things different. Better. Don’t ask the people who are profiting from adoption. Do not ask other adoptive parents who have never talked to any grown ups who were adopted or had never done research on adoption trauma. Don’t even heed my advice, if you don’t want to. But please, listen to the voices of adoptees. These are your children in 10, 20 years. My own daughter has become happier since being able to openly speak about her feelings of loss. Mind you, we were never opposed to hearing her feelings and it was still very hard for her to talk about them for fear of hurting us. It has been a process. It’s like she has a new level of comfort, where her parents support every single part of her, even the parts that miss her family, her language, her country; even the parts that sometimes wish she wasn’t adopted. We support it and we are okay. We don’t discount her love for us one bit. Acknowledging those feelings and validating them has made us closer. She needed her sad feelings about adoption to be okay.
- Support relationships with biological relatives when possible. You think this doesn’t matter but to some adoptees, it’s all they want in life. They want a connection to their people. They want to see someone who has their eyes or skin tone. They want to know if they need to worry about certain diseases they may be predisposed to or why they always rub their ears when they are tired. Things that are so simple and innate for a person who isn’t adopted are things the adoptee must actively search for. Get those pictures of the birth family out of boxes and hang them up. Why must we hide the people who have the same DNA as our babies? This creates shame in who our kids are at the core. Obviously there are the cases of abuse and neglect where the biological parents may not be a positive in the child’s life but what about bio siblings, grandparents, cousins? I am not advocating putting your child in any kind of danger but most adopted children will have at least one living biological relative who would be a positive connection for them to have. Find them. Adoption should be about the best home for the child, not erasing their whole history for the comfort of the adoptive parent.
I will close here. I know I have given you a lot to think about. I have probably angered some of you. That’s okay. I am angry, too. I am angry that our children are suffering. I am angry that kids like mine are dying in high numbers because of unresolved adoption trauma. But I am hopeful. We can move forward with the information we have been given and help our children feel whole and loved. I know there are adoptees out there that have completely different experiences than what I have spoken about here. There are adoptees who truly don’t want to search or do not feel loss. Those adoptees should be supported also. I don’t want to offend anyone or speak for anyone, least of all the adoptee. What I want to do is stop kids from dying. That is my one mission. Many times this information isn’t well-received when shared by adult who was adopted because people pass them off as angry and ungrateful. This is so unfortunate. Adoptee voices are so often silenced for the comfort of everyone else. Maybe this adoptive mom turned advocate can encourage you to start doing better today. I know that I have a long way to go. I am constantly evolving as a parent, the more I learn. I will never stop learning of ways to better raise my children into happy adults who have the tools they need to cope with their losses. National Adoption Awareness month. How aware are you willing to be for your kids?
Brook Sams Beach, Adoptive Mom and Adoptee Advocate