transracial adoption: how can we ever get it right?

This post is a little off-the-cuff today and started as a Twitter thread, so apologies for lack of editing!

I’m often asked if getting transracial adoption “right” is possible. My response is always, “This isn’t a science, but by reaching out and talking to transracial adoptees with diverse and uncomfortable experiences, you’re on the right path.”

I know speaking critically of a practice sometimes leaves little room for hope. With transracial adoption, hope means a parent’s ability to confront unfamiliar racial conversations and barriers remains at the forefront of their parenting journey. I relate my experience as extreme circumstances, although having an openly racist family isn’t as unusual as you’d think. Even still, much can be learned from extreme positive or negative experiences, since examining both will help land on a more favorable outcome.

I still don’t proclaim myself an expert on anything but my own life. Biases and emotional attachments trap me, too. But in order to help transracial adoptees and their open-minded parents–and ultimately, myself–I frequently question and confront my own potential prejudices and must remind myself to stay open-minded.

Doing transracial adoption “right” doesn’t require uncovering a super-secret checklist of things that definitely won’t f*ck up your child. I wish there was one I could offer, but like my mom said, “You figure it out as you go.”

Figuring it out in transracial adoption, though, does require more digging than what typical parenting might. First, there’s the obvious cultural and heritage loss. Second, your relationship ultimately began with traumatic separations chosen not by your child but strangers. Third, your child’s race will play a significant role in his identity and it can’t be hand-waved with camps, holiday celebrations, food, or even language classes.

I’m aware this leaves little room for a parent to succeed. Perhaps it’s not about success, since I view parenting as an ongoing duty, one in which I’m constantly forced to challenge my emotions and preexisting values. So, what’s a transracial parent to do, once they realize love is not enough?

One, acknowledging our racialized society before transracially adopting is crucial. This means understanding you are considered privileged and by adopting transracially, you’re in a privileged position to “take” or “obtain” a non-white child. This will be uncomfortable for some, while others will view this as an act of bravery. It’s more helpful to review white saviorism and, while you may not subscribe to that believe, transracial adoption stems from that mentality and should be understood.

If you’re feeling defensive right now, that’s fine. Sit with it and be mad, but think not of yourself as the accused but consider the society that grew these issues.

Next, start exposing yourself to POC’s books, music, movies, news outlets, etc. Get a Twitter and see what #BlackTwitter and #AsianTwitter, etc., are saying. Read their struggles and observe how you are feeling when you encounter them. Stay out of the adoptive parents’ groups for now and start following the transracial adoptees’ feeds, because they are POC, too.  Don’t filter out the stuff that speaks against white people or white parents; if it hurts, keep going.

Hopefully this makes you realize no matter how hard you try, the color gap between you and your transracially adopted child will never close. Families of color struggle with colorism within their own environments, so transracial adoptive families will undoubtedly experience conflicts.

Then, when you’re ready, ask questions. Not to other transracial adoptive parents right now; ask the adoptees. Many of you who are already doing that–and taking time to listen and consider our experiences/advice–are light years ahead of everyone else which is why I love you all. By getting uncomfortable, by questioning your parenting ability, by thinking about your situation–those are signs you ARE putting your child first.

Look, there won’t be any easy answers for getting transracial adoption right. There will always be holes, there will always be loss, there will always be inner and external barriers and anger. Instead of focusing on doing it perfectly (or thinking you already are…), focus on reaching out to the transracial adoptee community.

Set aside your judgments and fears so you can give your child the best possible future, even if adoption mucks things up a bit. That’s the nature of adoption; it’s a complex thing, and it’s why so many adoptees dislike the “adoption is beautiful” myth because it overlooks the many ways it isn’t. You are experiencing parenting hardship by stepping outside your comfort zone, but the adoptee will forever live with some level of confusion. As a community, we can help mitigate that loss and work together to build from it instead of make it worse.

PS–Adoptees get offended by the cutesy adoption videos and photos because when we see those, we can’t comprehend how one person’s excitement is based on another person’s loss. As a mother, I understand the excitement over a new family member, but please remember how adoptees began their lives.

PS again–No, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you’re bad for adopting transracially, but yes there are pockets out there who might but not everyone does so please don’t let that discourage you.

PS YET AGAIN–always remember this:

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Please reach out any time to chat!

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!

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“AFWM,” the online debate all Asian adoptees should know about

There’s an incendiary topic burning with both racial pride and community outrage and it’s one my fellow transracial Asian adoptees and their families should acknowledge. I’ve refrained from speaking on it because the Asian internet’s reactions range from ambivalent to enraged, but I no longer want adoptees–already suffering racial identity crises–unaware of what possibly awaits them.

Many transracial adoptees and their white parents seek Asian communities to mitigate cultural and heritage loss. They do this throughout the adoptee’s lifetime, or later when the adoptee becomes an independent adult. Most adoptees hesitantly approach Asian online communities and in-person gatherings, fearing “not being Asian enough” or confronting–sometimes for the first time–groups of people who “look like them.”

What an adoptee might find is not a welcoming brother or sisterhood, but one who offers acceptance based on two nuanced things:

  1. If the Asian adoptee is dating or married, their partner’s race, and,

  2. If the Asian adoptee–due to a proximity to whiteness they didn’t choose–is Asian enough to speak as a member of that race.

The dominant Asian community isn’t issuing such superficial judgments, but if someone’s Google search takes them far enough, it might dishearten them when uncovering such hatred lurking among a tiny vocal percentage. Deemed Asian Female/White Male (or AFWM/WMAF), it’s a divisive topic claiming any Asian woman dating or married to a white person is self-hating, suffering from internalized racism, anti-Asian male, anti-Asian, or, in extreme cases, fair targets for hate mail and death threats.

I tried addressing this from an academic and fairly neutral perspective, framing it within the narrow confines of transracial adoption. I tried exploring partner selection from a cultural perspective, citing studies examining how a white family’s influence over a person of color’s identity more related to unconscious absorption of family values and general attitudes toward race, not self-hate. I also say:

When examined through a…lens where Asianness isn’t so much denied as casually accepted and maybe feared, a child will be less likely to attach to their outward racial presentation.

For this perplexing AFWM debate, I suspect that even Asians who were “raised Asian” in diverse communities take away the media’s portrayal of the white standard and shape definitions of attractiveness. While this isn’t excusable and more ethnically diverse media representation is necessary, this theory doesn’t imply self-hate as a catalyst for partner choice.

My informal and brief analysis was predictably met with scorn, because how could I, an Asian adoptee raised by whites, be anything but brainwashed into internalized racism and a strong desire to emasculate Asian males? Also, I am married to a white man but not because I worship my white parents (actually, for anyone following my work, it’s the complete opposite)–I married him because I am an independent-minded, grown adult who lived with racists, so why would I allow that into my life once again?

The AFWM argument insults an Asian woman’s ability to perceive racism. It implies there couldn’t be any other reason, aside from Asian hate, a woman could ever marry outside her race. The notion itself implies ethnocentrism, something minorities have spent decades overcoming. Yes, it’s true some Asian women excuse white male racist behavior but as humans, we’re all saddled with the same insecurities, racial confusion, guilt, low self-esteem, and other personal issues as any other race. To paint an entire community of couples, including their half-Asian children, as hateful forces ourselves back into oppression instead of forward into truth-seeking.

For adoptees, this hurts when we discovering this mostly online battle, as some of us were conditioned into internalized racism from the very people expected to love us. For others, it’s simply a matter of partner availability. Relocating to a more Asian region isn’t always realistic or feasible. Doing so while confronting their own conflicted racial identities and ensuring they choose a racially appropriate partner is even harder. Adoptees are especially sensitive to such isolation as it wasn’t self-imposed (though many anti-WMAF members imply it is) since our parents–like many parents of minors–controlled the majority of our life choices.

Any person of any race can racially “marry up” and not tarnish the reputations of every other person who dates interracially; those outliers exist everywhere and aren’t reflective of an entire group. People will worship whiteness while others campaign against such toxic behaviors, but adoptees must understand their proximity to whiteness isn’t automatic white worship or negative. We have enough identity issues; who we pick as partners should be our least concern. It also doesn’t mean we’re intending to emasculate Asian males or supporting any negative portrayal of them.

The second issue, that Asian adoptees aren’t “Asian enough” to campaign for our rights or activism, implies our losses exclude us because we haven’t enough lived Asian experience. But we still experience racism, we experience prejudice, we experience identity issues–and we do it completely without, for the most part, any support from the Asian community. We lost a heritage, the heritage non-adoptees have that we desperately seek, while living alongside the dominant racial group. Absorbing those white values wasn’t a choice, but we have the ability to make room for and care about our group’s causes. Perhaps because of our parallel lives we’re more powerful than we think because we have lived in two worlds and are ready to share our experiences.

One interesting related note is female Asian adoptees reporting accusations of “not being Asian enough” to date Asian men. One Chinese adoptee pursued an Asian partner, but because of her background and his strong cultural connection, he rejected her. This scenario is worth considering, as it involves being turned away once again, potentially driving some Asians to white (or other races). Again, it’s not assumed to be the situation in every case, but it questions why a person may date interracially (and why is this even a bad thing nowadays?).

Transracial adoptees, please know that many of us are working hard to raise our voices and your partner choice doesn’t diminish your value as an Asian or a person. But know this dispute exists, and know our warm receptions into the community may be absent from a small sector of people. Still, we will keep talking about this and adding our perspectives, so we can transcend hate, whether self-directed or external. We must unite against racism and fear. As blogger Eliza Romero says:

“While people in interracial relationships obviously shouldn’t be the only voice for a community, their voices and opinions should be heard because there is plenty of valuable insight to be offered.”

my mission, examined

I’ve always been transparent and believe in disclosing my work and reasons for why I started this blog, and how I intend to continue.

I didn’t set out to be a writer. That was a profession revealed to me through your support. Initially, my goal–as it remains–was to compile an autoethnography of transracial adoption, using my life as the basis for a critical text on race, adoption, and the American family. I still intend to complete that book, one day. But it would seem, like any well-intentioned plan, my mission has slightly transformed.

I briefly put on hold my larger project, choosing instead to focus on building an audience (perhaps to prove to myself that people really do care?) so that, should I ever approach an agent or large publishing house for consideration, I could say, “Yes, people are reading this stuff!” In my quest to build a presence, I found instead a community rife with anger, misplaced blame, and desperation to be heard. Though my online interactions remained secondary to writing, I discovered my scholarly research would fit comfortably alongside this social discovery of truth.

At some point, I realized that I was an expert only on myself. I still had little working insight into the system still creating adoptees and their traumas; to remedy this gap, I recalled a book called I Speak for this Child, by Gay Courter. I read this several years ago, before my unfortunate hospitalization but after my slow awakening to adoption’s more sinister side effects. It described a woman’s experience as a Guardian ad Litem, or what is called in New Jersey and other jurisdictions a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA):

CASA/GAL volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. For many abused children, their CASA/GAL volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.

Volunteering would be my next step to legitimizing my work, so I applied, went through training, and am now a CASA with an active case. (And yes, I know more about the child welfare system than before and I’m encouraged to only work harder.)

Throughout this time, I made and continuing to make new connections with the Asian American community. Although this wasn’t part of my initial strategy, I certainly welcomed these friendships and I’m thrilled at the relationships I’ve formed. It’s through these connections that I’ve cautiously re-examined my role as an Asian woman, questioning–finally–if my discomfort with my race was my fault, or taught. As I continue therapy and forging connections, I’m strongly leaning toward the latter.

What I’ve discovered is non-White community’s need for transracial adoptee voices, something I suspected before setting out on this mission but am content my hunches were confirmed. After all, transracial adoptees spent our lives entangled with Whiteness, not by our choice but by theirs, so the more reflective of us will understand our unique insight into power, privilege, and how both of those aren’t necessarily passed on to us.

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Despite this forward momentum, I realized I hadn’t shared my reason for being here, and it’s possibly because I wasn’t exactly sure.

Because of the work I’m doing and the voices speaking up, I see a different future now.

I see a future where those separated from their original families, their rightful heritages, and their intimate histories will link arms while shouting a unified cry for change, rallying for a peace we never experienced.

I see us all, those adopted ones, rising upwards out of grief’s relentless torment, leaving our losses not behind but standing on them to build a stronger future for anyone following our tumultuous paths.

I see us casting stones, finally, at the windows that allowed others to only gaze in at us, trapping us with unrealistic expectations and toxic values, while we–the begotten–see the true weakness in those lies.

I see us gazing outward for the first time in our lives, strengthened by the comfort in our own truths. For once, we’ll stare directly at the policies and legalities and structures directly, seeing clearly they weren’t made for us, but about us.

And I see those who long since watched us emerge from a biology unknown listening as we proclaim ourselves no longer the world’s begotten children, the poor waifs, the needy.

I see them stopping to hear us, not as an angry spiteful mob but a chorus built by fearlessness; they will see us, not as victims of a broken system but as survivors whose towering strength demand they listen.

I see us finally fulfilling not someone else’s dreams but our own, working together with those who long since imagined themselves our keepers. And as we at last come to this victory, we will chant

We belong,
We belong,
We belong.


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Perhaps this is idealism. Maybe, but I draw this confidence from you, the one who speaks up and the one who is forcing yourself to listen.

For me, I see myself one day standing together with my son, gazing toward a future where his generation and the ones after will be the instigators of a great empathy we ourselves still do not know. I hope one day my words and your words and those of so many others will coalesce into an apex of bravery, so our work will finally create a future revised.

And that, my friends, is why I do what I do. I will relentlessly pursue this work so our lives will matter to those who want to forget us. I will never soften a painful truth because if I survived it, those listening should survive its telling. I enjoy what I do, and I do it for myself, for you, and for those who will inevitably come next.

adoption’s other stolen motherhood

On Father’s Day weekend, my husband and son took a trip out to see some family, planning on staying overnight so they could attend a Sunday baseball game. I went out to the car to say goodbye to Liam and as I pulled away from his sticky preschool boy hug, he said

Mommy, please come!

For many mothers, this is a standard, heartwarming child’s plea: “Mommy,” our children urge, “don’t go!”

Another example: At Liam’s end of school year party, he refused to participate in his class’s end of year show. Once he sees Mommy, he breaks down completely. He’s always the group’s only child unable to join in when Mommy’s around, needing me instead of his friends. This is a habit formed since he was two years old.

For adoptees-turned-mothers, these events are harsh skips in our daily soundtrack, forcing us not into the quiet reverie of motherhood but into that complicated place called abandonment. What, I wonder, have I done to reveal my life’s secret anxiety?

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I consider all of this in context of not just my own personal history, but the history of the many adoptees who become parents. Is our heightened sense of loss, our prescient understanding that at some point our children will grow into adults who may or may not reflect our parental failings, so tightly wound into our interactions that we pass it on to our children?

I can’t speak for others, but to me, it’s a fascinatingly painful fear. My son’s innocent pleadings for a Mommy he never realizes could leave both confound me and, somewhat embarrasingly, generate a deep sense of envy toward my own son. Because of my simple decision to not give up on him, I’ve constructed for him a foundation unshakeable–unless, of course, I walk away.

Seeing its utter simplicity, seeing just how easy it could have been for my life to not be marred by adoption’s persistent complications, repulses me. I know for a birth mother, adoption isn’t easy.

Still, when I consider this notion of presence equaling simplicity, my memories rewind themselves like a tape playing backwards. School plays and insults and Christmases and harsh words and smiles become garbled together in frenzied reversal. As I begin with my birth–the only thing my son and I have in common is that we were born–I start my life over, trying to replace my son’s experience with my own. Eventually I give up, unable to write a story that never existed.

At that point, I wonder: Is being a “a good mother” one who merely sticks around? Does that mean I get a pass to be as mediocre or terrible as possible, simply because I know that no matter what, a child almost always wants nothing but his birth parents–regardless of skill?

Obviously, parenting takes far more effort than just described. As an adoptee, however, the innocence of motherhood–the innocence allowing moms to make mistakes and forgive ourselves–was taken from us when we ourselves were taken away.

Like other parents, we know how carefully children watch their parents. But unlike the unadopted, we have a full appreciation of the long-reaching impact our presence has on a child. Adoption ends the childhood innocence of believing our parents will never stop wanting us. It destroys the myth of family as safe haven. Adoptees, unfortunately, know how untrue that can be, how carefully we tread the line between good and bad parents. Despite it not being an easy choice to walk away (I wouldn’t–ever), I don’t think we can ever fully believe that, since it happened to us.

Because of adoption, the joy of motherhood–one I’m owed–has been destroyed.

As Liam grows older, articulating his desire for Mommy’s closeness is becoming stronger and more frequent. With his developing sense of self and familial bond–that of which I still struggle to experience–he unintentionally and continuously highlights a permanent space between us. I actively work on closing it while remaining aware of our life’s distinct path, a path chosen not by either of us but by those who swore to love us forever.

who owns an adoptee’s story? overshare versus pride in adoption

Do a search for adoption in the news (human adoption–NOT pet adoption; Google likes to lump those two together) and you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of adoption “journey” stories told not by adoptees, but by adoptive parents.

Sandra Bullock, these random white parents of a transracial adoptee, and yet another white woman’s story of adopting a Chinese baby do make for compelling blog posts and articles. We’ve got the fuzzy-feels of saving a child, helping a child, and of course, lots of tears.

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But that’s not all! Countless books have been written on what it’s like to adopt, from the financial hardships, the invasive home studies, the marriage strain, and the pseudo-enwokening of transracial adoptive parents. Most conclude with a happy tale of a family formed, love gained, and a child destined for greatness.

Why is this a problem?

For adoptees, these parent-centric narratives have several unintended consequences:

  • Parents’ voice overrides the child’s before the child can articulate their side
  • By the time the child can speak up, the community’s already defined the kid’s  life, so any adoptee-generated criticism is automatically discounted
  • Weird photos and personal details of a kid’s life are shared without the child’s permission
  • The kid will be a CHILD FOREVER, based on their early portrayal
  • Traps kid in state of forced gratitude forever

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By selling or sharing these stories–undoubtedly coming from a place of parental pride–I wonder if this borders on exploitation.

As a mother, I’m hesitant to share my son’s um, birth journey. I guess the biological kid equivalent would be his story starting from conception to the push out the womb and all the details in between.

First of all, sharing that would be awkward. Second, he’s going to grow up one day and probably direct teenage angst at me for a zillion reasons and my oversharing of his trip from being the sperm that won to a disgruntled teenager doesn’t need to be complicated by my inability to keep my mouth shut.

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This goes for ANY relationship. You know if you’re guilty, so don’t get mad.

Why is that any different for adoptees?

Being adopted, I get the process of obtaining me was fraught with complications, paperwork, stress, and probably heartache. Sharing that over several decades ago, however, was limited to conversations over wall-mounted corded phones and maybe a Christmas card. Today, I get that instant Facebook likes and blog post shares offer a validation more addicting than those provided by an adoptive-parent support group.

However.

We get you love your adopted child.

We understand the process was difficult.

And we acknowledge infertility sucks.

But please remember your child will inevitably become an adult.  An adult who, upon reflection, will want freedom of expression without being chained to their parents’ pre-existing portrayal and public back-pats.

There’s one other less obvious side effect of these stories and that’s the continuation of adoption as a practice without consideration of an adoptee’s experience.  The sunshine-and-roses narrative–while realistic for some adoptive families–means prospective adoptive parents will use these articles as mirrors for their own experiences, leading to potential horror and disillusion when their child grows up and doesn’t fulfill these pre-existing stereotypes.

To borrow a slightly cliched and Biblical saying, pride comes before a fall. In this case, I ask adoptive parents to restrain themselves a bit for their child’s sake, remembering their kid grows up and deserves to tell their adoption story themselves. Adoptees own their adoptions story. You don’t need the validation of thousands of strangers to justify your decision to adopt your child.

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I’m always hesitant to share so-called unsourced proverbs, but this is totally appropriate here.

 

when i lost my mother, i found myself

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When I was just about to turn 26, the ovarian cancer savaging my mother’s tired internal organs finally completed its violent mission. My mother died on Thursday, July 15, 2010, after a three-year fight she knew she’d lose.

It was a humid summer day and my room was a mess.  My brother–or was it my aunt?–knocked on my door that morning, to tell me my mom was gone. Several hours later, I was told there was something left for me on her nightstand. It was a card, addressed to me, while her body still lay in her bed and the hand that penned the message still and limp.

It took me several moments to open the card, but when I did, the message was clear. Full of love and persistent motherly concern. In a shaky hand, she gently urged me to

Find out why you’re so angry all the time.

Before she died, my mother would hug me gently, a body wrapping me in the medicinal scent of chemotherapy drugs and holistic remedies. She’d whisper

I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.

It’s been many years since I received that card, a memento framed and hanging in my hallway outside of my son’s bedroom. It’s displayed in its angel-fronted glory, in a custom frame underneath my son’s first foot and handprints and a portrait of my mother as a preschooler.

Back then, I took her message as a sign that yes, I was angry and her efforts to help had failed. I still attributed my anger to overall jealousy and discontent with the world–I hadn’t yet discovered my rage related to a lifelong history of abuse, racism, and adoption.

The most difficult thing in re-reading her inscription–so lovingly writ!–is acknowledging that she, as well as my father, was a source of that anger. That her choices in adopting me, her inability to progress and open her mind to color, and her inadvertant support of my father’s racist-abusive behavior caused my problems. That my mother, to whom I experienced an unhealthy over-attachment as compensation for adoption-related attachment issues, wasn’t the innocent, well-meaning idol I knew.

A disheartening reality, one most people who lose their parents young must face: Confronting the possibility that your parents weren’t perfect, but unknowingly failed you in many ways.

It’s a complicated love. I love my mother and wish she were still here, playing with her grandson and existing not as a playground ghost  but my friend and mom. But realizing her errors and her misconception that my anger was due to anything but her actions cements the wound adoption wove into our relationship.

She died believing she did right, which I suppose is the best way to go. But with her absence, I’ve slowly unfurled her imperfections, not out of disrespect to her but in an effort to free myself from a life chained to grief.

Her memory influences my adoption reflections. I’ve written of our racial differences in Through Her Mirror: What my white mother’s view on makeup taught me as a Korean adoptee and her fundamental misunderstanding of adoption and race in A journey through space, a journey divided. I shared her racial ignorance in Shut Up and Smile. None of this was done maliciously. It’s all part of our story together. The journey she took me on is ultimately one we’d never conclude together, and while honoring her through unflattering memories might not seem loving, it’s a testament to the complex nature of transracial adoption and a mother-daughter relationship.

Perhaps this article’s title is misleading. I have yet to “find myself.” Actually, I dislike generic terminology. Maybe a better way frame this, for myself and other adoptees suffering through loss without their mothers, is

When I Lost My Mother, I Found Freedom

adoptive mom returns children; i respond

In case you missed it, I wrote an article in response to a white woman who kept her adopted children for four months–and then returned them.

Here’s an excerpt:

Dear Every Adoptive Parent Who Thinks This Is Okay,

You promised to love your adopted children like your own, thinking adoption was the solution to whatever inability you had to bear your own biological children.

You underwent the process to obtain someone’s children, tiny human beings with souls already marked by uncertainty and insecurity. Children who, from birth, were subject to separations no being should ever consider humane.

For a short moment in these children’s lives, you provided hope and excitement. Even at young ages, children learn vulnerability is a liability and don’t offer it easily. But with their adoption, they believed they’d found a home.

But after only four months, for whatever reason — but my guess is that it was the side effects of their trauma and unstable upbringings — they were actually given back.

Read the rest.

to survive or thrive

I love gardening. I love waking up and walking outside to my suburban yard each morning and seeing what sprouted up overnight, checking if any tiny tender green leaves cut their way through my sandy South Jersey soil.

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I’m an impatient gardener, though, getting down on my hands and knees several times a day, inspecting the dirt while the morning’s moisture seeps through the knees of my pants.

Recently and at my urging, my husband and I moved a knockout rose bush from our shady front yard to a super-sunny spot in the backyard, knowing it’d bloom tremendously with the sun’s uninterrupted light. In its previous location, it was a woody and awkward thing–bordering on an eyesore–producing only one or two tiny roses each season but never anything more.

It was surviving out front, sure. But was it thriving? No.

Any plant will survive in imperfect conditions, as long as it has the absolute minimum requirements to keep itself going. But if it’s a flowering species, it likely won’t offer blooms, only green leafy stems and foliage but never reaching its true potential.

Like that rose bush, many adoptees simply survive. We move forward using grit and adrenaline, pulling through abuse and racism and second-class status and hurt and loss, and we become functional adults with lives built on, again, survival.

But we’re not thriving.

I think about what happened with that rose bush and what happened to me and plenty of adoptees like me. Taken from uncertain circumstances in mysterious greenhouse incubators, plunked down in an environment offering life’s basics and maybe even a little “more,” yet still unable to reach our full potential. We fail to thrive. Or, using my gardening example, maybe we notice a struggling little patch of grass attempting to set seed, give it water, and walk away, wondering why isn’t it growing?

But this is what’s happening:

After we got my dog, after my husband attended therapy with me, and after I slowly discovered that what adoption and racism did to me wasn’t healthy, did I find myself just like the plants outside. Because when I was young, after growing not into the docile Asian daughter promised by the adoption agency, but instead a headstrong girl with her own personality, genetic code, and needs, I was transformed into my family’s ungrateful wench. The miserable bitch who started arguments with my parents and just couldn’t be happy.

My family was full of homecoming queens and prom kings and sports stars. I was anti-social, a bookworm, and hung out with losers (even though I had few friends). I frequently lost friends due to my jealousy and difficulty trusting people. None of this was attributed to adoption or my insecure attachments. Instead, it was my status as my family’s outcast that simply explained it all.

I was difficult, yes. But like many adoptees (especially transracial ones adopted in the early days), emphasis was placed on my problems being due to lack of gratitude and severe personality defects. None of it was attributed to my environment or stuff like this:

or this:

I’m not perfect. I absolutely had an attitude problem, but like my rose bush, in the wrong environment–even with the minimal requirements needed to live–an adoptee or wounded child won’t grow into a happy teen and contented adult.  For many years, I blamed myself for being different. I lashed out at anyone white, anyone thin, anyone better than me because there was always something wrong with meWithout understanding or compassion, there’s no way to safely move from survival mode to thriving. So we shift into fight mode, unable to take flight until we’re able to detach ourselves from that environment and rebuild our lives.

I don’t blame my family or my community. By stepping back and observing life’s strange landscapes, I’m able to see that we all had a responsibility to each other and somewhere, something failed us. And maybe that’s why I’ve spent years trying to perfect my plants. Seeing life take shape from my best efforts rewards me by providing a living metaphor for life.

I am so happy to have found support and space to thrive. Learning to trust this environment–one I’m building entirely on my own with a few special folks (and you) along the way–is terrifying. But my hope is that we all tell our stories and are given equal representation in the media and the safety to explore our histories. We aren’t perfect, but we aren’t to be shunned for our depression or rage or challenging behavior. No child deserves to be labeled by their own family, but as my time in my garden illustrates, thriving is possible once you find an environment that allows you to bloom.

getting help, giving help: my husband attended my adoption therapy session

We’re alone, we’re isolated, we feel defeated. Adoptees express a stomach-tightening terror at sharing their perspectives with others, fearing immediate judgment and blame if their adoption experience does not line up with typical societal expectations.

But yesterday, after many months of putting him off, I finally allowed my husband (Jason) to attend a counseling session with me. He was more than willing to come with me, carving out precious time in his work schedule every other Wednesday, tentatively asking each week: Do you want me to keep it on my calendar? I will move a meeting for you.

I put him off because I wasn’t ready to let him into my space. He understood. But he was anxious to attend, as he’d admitted his ignorance to burden of pain I carry, a load filled with trauma and abuse and abandonment and racism. Our arguments frequently centered around those issues. My jealousy of his comparatively typical upbringing led us to ugly fights and triggered (I hate that overused word) intense blistering rage in me, forcing him into first a defensive mode and finally, for his emotional survival, offensive.

This wasn’t healthy, but it’s not surprising given my relationship with adoption and his only tangenital exposure to it. It’s a plight many adoptees face when in intimate relations with others.

But letting him attend yesterday was a hugely positive experience and this is why.

  1. We talked freely with a mediator. Neither of us was allowed to veer off into angerland.
  2. Sharlene (my therapist) would interject if it appeared one of us was not hearing the other.
  3. If one of us wasn’t effectively communicating, Sharlene would stop us and re-interpret.
  4. We left with a tangible plan of how to handle large issues, based on an agreed upon strategy. Small steps, though.

My goal is to get Jason to understand the depth of my pain, something he won’t always be able to properly respond to or comprehend. But the idea is I want him to just acknowledge what I carry each day and if he can, then true healing can begin.

What we had to do was learn that we can validate each other’s experiences without invalidating our own. This is hard for adoptees, because many of us have such polarized thinking that if someone isn’t fully with us, they’re fully against us (like we’re either kept or given up; no in-between). We also need to respect each other’s emotions because there’s no good trying to change either a feeling or an opinion.

And one thing I constantly tried to do was seek apologies. But seeking apologies only asks for someone to be a bad guy and someone to be a good guy, another hallmark trait of an abandonment and abuse mindset. So instead, we look more to addressing that we’ve been triggered, give ourselves a time-out, and move forward.

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I’m sharing this because it is possible to make it through this adoption mess with someone, but it’s okay to do it on your time. It took me years before I allowed him into my therapy session. It’s a risk, just like any part of our adoption journey. I am thrilled he’s so willing to help me, for our family’s sake and my own, and I want you to know it can be done.

Be good to yourself and never settle for anyone or anything less than what you feel is right for you. Before Jason, I’d played into the evils that were fed to me from my family and community, dating only those who were not good for me because I didn’t feel I was good enough in general. Good enough for a quality partner, good enough to be a friend, good enough to be a child worth keeping; the only position I’d ever believed I properly held was second best. I worry this is a chronic issue in adoptees. Since we were left by our first caregiver, why should be good enough for anyone else? 

I don’t expect anything to happen quickly, though. Sharlene emphasized patience. And for the first time in my life, I have patience, for myself and someone else. I think we owe it to ourselves as adoptees to allow ourselves the space to heal, to not rush ourselves this time. After all, so much has been taken away from us, but this time, we can use our path to healing as the first step in regaining control over a life that we never chose.

“we family”: a message on adoption trauma, from my son

monica-gozalo-138999-unsplashPeople who don’t believe in adoption trauma didn’t see my three-and-a-half year old’s son reaction when I angrily told him

I’m leaving.

I’m ashamed, I am. It was an unusually difficult day, with him home from school sick with the sort of illness that spontaneously resolves an hour after drop-off. I’d hopefully began my day, intending to write and do the other invisible things mothers do while children are busy growing.

By evening and before my writing workshop, I’d had it with L’s* “failure to listen.” He, along with the dog, ran sprints around my first floor, screaming and barking in a way that made it difficult to determine which noise was coming from what temporary monstrosity. My husband was almost home and I was putting on my coat so I could escape.

L lunged down the narrow hallway, screaming a preschooler’s typical gibberish. I screamroared

Mommy’s leaving you because you never listen.

L stopped.

The dog stopped.

The air in the house, previously made of shaking atoms and vibrating sound waves, became a paralytic poison.

L’s face held none of the smiling glee from the seconds before I swiped at his confidence. He looked at me with a primal vulnerability. He considered my threat and said

You can’t leave. We family.

And in that moment I realized exactly what I said and what adoption trauma did to me. It transformed mothering into an option, a threat, a weapon. A powerful tool to wield at misbehaving children because I believed myself unwanted. A five-second declaration laid bare my fractured attitude toward family.

I share this shameful moment as proof of a child’s awareness of a mother’s presence. And that a threat to leave—not just to leave to run errands but to leave, forever—is understood in a child’s abstract way. My voice, a tool used for sharing my own adoption trauma, issued forth the same threat adoptees received from their relinquishments.

I hope readers struggling to accept the reality of adoption trauma read my words and finally believe. Believe babies and children are equipped with survival instincts so heightened that those intuitions remain at the forefront of their innocent defense; and, believe, for once, this trauma manifests itself throughout an adoptee’s lifetime.

I am not proud of my behavior. I am working conscientiously to correct my words and understand my actions. I have since apologized to my sweet son, but I want my example to ring forth as a warning:

Adoption trauma exists. Overcoming trauma takes years of dedicated work. Adults possess a power over children that deserves mindful awareness. Please remember: Children are listening.

*Name abbreviated to protect the (literal) innocent. And to prevent him from, years from now, yelling “MOOOMMM!” when he finds my writings.