Friday, May 1, 2009

Shaped by Adoption

Here are Bardgirl's questions in an Open Call on Open Salon for Adoption Stories.

1. Was your experience as an adoptee or a parent of an adopted child positive or negative?

2. Do you know your/your child's birth history?

3. Did you meet you/your child's birth mother/father/siblings and are you still in contact?

4. Was finding out the adoption details comforting or disturbing?

5. Do you think that being adopted made you feel different from your peers?

I hope I answered all of them below, in no particular order.

First, let me say that I'll call my adoptive mom, "Mom" and my birthmom, "Athena."

I am an adoptee and an adoptive parent. The first as a result of fate, the second was planned, at least for the most part.


I’d say that my experience as an “adoptee” was positive. Although, life isn’t always positive, and sometimes the “adoptee” identity is hard to disentangle from the good and bad experiences that were the rest of my life.

I knew I was adopted, and under what circumstances (unwed mother), my ethnicity (Greek and Norwegian), and the OB/GYN that brokered my adoption (he knew and respected both of my moms, and I remember Mom telling me that he said, "Athena could make you feel like a King".) I even knew that my adoptive dad (Dad) was reticent about 'adopting a child that wasn't his,' which never caused me any angst because we had a love affair that weathered all and for the rest of his life, and I knew that he would have stood in a hailstorm of bullets for me. And yes, I found the information about my birthmother comforting. It was a part of knowing who I was.

As I look at what I’ve written, I have to say that it sounds a bit pat and simplistic. The rest of the story is that for the most part, life with Mom was intense. As a rule, during school days, it was just the two of us because Dad had a time consuming job. Mom could be very critical of me, mostly, in terms of my character. She didn’t focus on school performance, on popularity, or even very much on discipline or rules during my adolescent years. But she did expect me to be a saint. I was to be generous, thoughtful, not speak ill of others, protect and defend the downtrodden, watch my tone of voice, among thousands of other things. Plus, I had a rigorous schedule of responsibilities around the house.

You might think that her behavior was the product of having an adoptive child that she wanted to shape into someone more ‘like’ her. That was my analysis of our early relationship (from 0 to 18 years), but after having had children, adopted and biological, I find that to be overly facile. By nature, she was an anxiety ridden, perfectionist, that unfortunately for me had done a stint in the army as a nurse during WWII (which is where her natural inclination to be regimented was reinforced) that wanted to do the job of parenting as perfectly as possible in a situation where her husband was absent. I truly do not believe that she would have parented me differently if I were a biological child. My husband (not adopted) has your same theory about any children: they either try to be very like their parents or they try to be the opposite of them. He comes from a family of semi-slobs and is extremely neat, nitpicky and regimented, just like my mother.

So, do I feel different than my parents? Yes and no. I am much louder than they are, much more unconventional in my behavior, and attracted to the academy. On the other hand, I am as much of an advocate as both, have a yen for adventure like my mother, and could ultimately give a crap what others think of me, like my dad.

Do I feel different than my peers? Yes, being adopted for me is like being Swedish to someone else. It’s always been a part of my life, and the conversation about my life with peers, family or colleagues. I gravitate toward adoptees.

I met my birthmom, Athena and my full brother, Myron around 15 years ago, following a very rough period in my life, at a time when Mom found my birth certificate in an unused safe deposit box of my dad’s that had Athena’s full name on it. Finding them was like finding family, pure and simple. I feel the same way about my grandson. I already had a Mom, so Athena wasn’t replacing anyone or anything in my life. Finding Myron, on the other hand, was equal in experience to meeting my children for the first time. Myron and I had both been raised as only children, and having a sibling is stardust. I’m glad I didn’t have to forego it.

Our son:

We adopted our son Daniel from South Korea after my husband and I had been married for the minimum number of years to qualify to adopt (3). I would say that the litmus test for me finding my mate was if he would agree to adopt a child. I wanted to adopt because of ‘want’ not ‘need’ (45 year old couples ‘resorting’ to adoption of many times poor children in other countries bugged the crap out of me). My husband's baby sister was adopted. My husband’s mother always said that adoption “ran in the family.”

We didn’t choose a South Korean child, like you’d choose a baby doll off of a shelf at Toys R Us. The waiting period for adopting a child in the US was too long, well at least for adopting a Caucasian child. I exhaustively explored adopting a child of another race or ethnicity in the US, and to make a long story short, we were literally blocked or extremely discouraged from doing so. I could write a treatise on that issue, but will leave it for another time. After extensive research on adopting older children (Claudia Jewett has a great book on that topic) we decided that we were ready to adopt a healthy infant. We found ourselves at a specific adoption agency in Seattle that dealt with a specific agency in S. Korea because I felt that both agencies were excellent in terms of how they treated the birth parents, the children, and the adoptive parents. In fact, it was the only agency in that area at that time that I would have adopted through internationally. In truth, it was probably the only agency that would have had us: two relatively young, married individuals with little income and still in graduate school.

We requested a female child, because we were asked. But, for mysterious reasons our child was never ‘referred’ to us and while we were waiting, a picture of an infant boy was sent to me by our caseworker. He had various issues that made him unadoptable through regular channels, but we took one look at him and decided that he was ‘ours.’ It was fate. So much for our list of requirements.

Adopting Daniel was an adventure. It also wasn't always easy. We went to Korea to get him, and while there we were thoroughly versed on his short 3 months of life. There were photocopies of his adoption records that revealed intimate details about his birthparents, their pictures and addresses. All of that information has always been available to him. For example, the picture of his birthparents is in his “Daniel (adoption) Book.“ I don’t recall him ever being uncomfortable with his knowledge of his first family.

If you had problems being a redhead, then imagine the trouble our son had being an Asian in a Caucasian house. From the beginning, we raised him with a Korean nanny (family) and mainstreamed him into the Korean community. So, imagine us in Seattle, State College and Baton Rouge, the only White family sitting in on services at the Korean Church, being at birthday celebrations, or performing in talent contests. My parents were also there, which was really an interesting development considering that Dad was from the wheat farming community of Hepner, OR and Mom from a dairy farming Swedish immigrant family in Rosburg, WA, not exactly hotbeds of diversity. Whether or not we exacerbated his feelings of being different by being involved with the Korean community, you’ll have to ask him. Plenty of therapists discouraged us from raising him by what I call cultural mainstreaming. We basically ignored them. Daniel did go through a number of years very early on where he wanted to be White like us. Then there were a few years where he wanted us to be Korean like him. We were fortunate to have so many Korean friends that helped him and us through those periods. He will tell you now that he is comfortable being in his own skin.

For the record, I don’t think that those difficult times should infer that international adoptions don’t work or aren’t good for the children. Immersing him in the Korean community is probably the only parental decision we made where I think we got it exactly right.

We took Daniel back to S. Korea when he was 7 for a month-long homecoming, just because he wanted to go. I believe that we jumped on the chance because it came at a time when he was having issues with being Korean. At that time, he did not want to meet his birthparents, but did meet the three foster families that cared for him, the caseworkers that helped him on his way, and the doctor that delivered him. In later years he has discussed returning and meeting his birthparents, I think mostly due to his relationship with his significant other, and we would have facilitated him doing so, but our grandson came at about that time, and traveling became less attractive. However, at the time we took Daniel back to Korea we traveled with his 2 year old brother, so it can be done, although I wouldn’t recommend it for sane people. By the way, after that trip, I do not recall Daniel having another major crisis regarding his race.

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