Today I’m hosting the second day of three-part series examining how we can apply the concepts of openness to international adoption. Parenting the adopted child is where I focus so when I was asked to team up with Laura Dennis, author of Adopted Reality, A Memoir and Lori Holden, author (with Chrystal Hass) of The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, I was thrilled.
Parenting is the most difficult job (yes, and, hopefully, wonderful!) we’ll ever have, and this can be even more so when parenting the adopted child. Parents are often charged with addressing the child’s emotional needs stemming from difficult circumstances and the inherent core issues arising from them. Are they equipped to do so? Are they open to doing so, and also focusing on the whole child?
Laura – Being White and American, it can sometimes be hard for me to remember that I do have a culture, I do have an ethnicity.
I’ve heard adoptive parents say that they don’t “see” the color of their transracially adoptive child’s skin. To me, this colorblindness negates the rich heritage of an adoptee’s past, his birthright.
How can the ideas from your book, An Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, apply to respecting differences of race, ethnicity and culture?
Lori – I do believe that parents in a transracial adoption must see in color, for that will likely be their child’s experience – to be seen in color. Let me share an excerpt from my book. Granted, we’re talking about hair color here rather than skin color, but the principles can be extrapolated to race, ethnicity and culture:
Reed had clearly noticed that I had brown hair and he had blond hair. I could not have told him otherwise and been believed. I could not have told him that hair color doesn’t matter and remained believable – someone had just noticed we looked different. What I could do was be comfortable myself with the fact that we don’t share the same hair color and simply ask Reed questions to find out if I sensed anything for him to process.
Clearly, there can be a bigger charge to race, ethnicity and culture than there is to hair color. But I think this speaks to the idea that color is noticed, and to pretend it isn’t noticed is to deny your child’s actual experience.
We should not deny our child’s actual experience. We should instead do what we can to understand our child’s experience, to get as close as we can to walking in their shoes. That requires listening and opening our hearts to what may be going on at any moment.
Judy – Yep; I’ve heard this from family and friends. I do feel some people are so afraid of sounding/being viewed as racist they turn the “blind eye”—which can be just as damaging. I’ve had to help my “homegrown” son address his blindness, which sprang forth from unconditional love for his three adopted siblings. My family is multiracial—white, Asian, Hispanic. We talk about complexion and color a ton. We have ebb-and-flow discussions about differences, similarities, race, ethnicity, culture, and racism. Dinner at our house is full of lively discussion, and not for the timid…
We all see differences, unless we are blind, and everyone needs to acknowledge color and differences. I can’t stress enough how important this is. To not see difference is to ignore a vital part to a person’s identity:
On several occasions my daughters have shared incidents where an adult couldn’t tell them apart when they were together, the adult falling back on, “I get you girls mixed up; you look exactly alike.” (My daughters look nothing alike, other than they are Asian.)
My daughters’ response? “Mom, people think we Asians all look alike!” My daughters are not happy when this occurs, when they are not seen for who they are as individuals but lumped into the “whole.”
Most importantly colorblindness can place the transracially-adopted child at risk. Parents who do not see “in color” do not do a good job of deliberate social racialization—preparing their kids for bias, helping them to understand and embrace who they are and how they are “seen” and treated by others based on their ethnic/racial identity. Parents must respect and honor their child’s rich heritage—all of it.
Laura – I think it’s okay and even good for adoptive parents to raise their children with their own personal belief and value systems. However, it’s hard for me to imagine the grief and loss experienced by international adoptees who, in addition to culture and ethnicity, lose their language and potentially their original religion.
What can adoptive parents do to help heal this split when it comes to international and transracial adoptees?
Lori – I think we could take a Both/And approach in international adoption, in which adoptive parents are encouraged to provide opportunities for the adoptee’s genetic mirroring, even if that doesn’t mean contact with birth family. Adoptive parents can teach their children their own religion and heritage, and it doesn’t have to conflict with the adoptee’s heritage. For example, parents could seek out Korean Christian church services, Chinese school, or activities for African-Americans in their community. It’s important to find areas for the child to have a sense of belonging so that he doesn’t feel that his otherness is something to be hidden, to ignore, or to be ashamed of.
In my book I quoted Judy’s brilliant post about adoptive parents raising an Ugly Duckling (who is really a swan). It’s a must-read for anyone parenting in adoption, whether of the transnational or the transfamilial type.
Judy – What a great question, Laura (and thanks, Lori!). I believe that much more is required of adoptive parents due to the nature of adoption and its vast inherent issues. Parents are called upon to be mindful of their children’s original roots (always) while growing new roots within their cultures and families. Parents also are charged with:
- Being cognizant of their child’s specific needs, which can be multiple. Many adopted children come from hard places, have missed out on being parented over their short lifetimes, and are often underdeveloped. For example, a child adopted at the age of four will likely be emotionally, mentally, physically, and socially behind a four-year-old raised in his biological family. (This is not necessarily permanent.)
- Becoming “star students” about their child’s culture of origin and family history, if known. Only the facts, not what is surmised, should be embraced and appreciated—all of it—the good, the bad and the ugly. Why? This is the child’s story and as such he or she is entitled to it.
- Exposing their children to and involving them with people (children and adults) who resemble them, preferably people who share the same ethnicity, race and culture of origin (deliberate racial socialization). Parents should begin seeking out authentic relationships and role models long before their children arrive home. Possible ideas for connection are endless: babysitters, physicians, barbers, hairstylists, festivals, music, food, etc. Parents do need to be mindful of going overboard. Balance deliberate racial socialization with children who have been adopted, adoptive families that “look” like yours, and your family culture. Claim their children. Internationally and/or transracially adopted children need to be able to navigate both worlds and can be successful when they understand and appreciate both and how they fit.
Laura – I like what you said about noticing differences, and that we have to deal with “What Actually Is.” Can expand on this further?
Lori – We must live in our world as it is, even while we attempt to change it. We must not lose sight of our world as it is while we attempt to change it, for that weakens our change efforts. It’s like putting your fingers in your ears and singing, “La la la!” when confronted with something unpleasant.
I have observed that sometimes I get so fixated on how I wish things were, on the direction I am heading, on pursuing my goals that I completely miss What Actually Is.
So if I’m not mindful, this is what could happen, for instance: I’m so intent on my children growing up whole (that’s the subtitle of my book, and I’ve staked a lot on it) that I miss cues when one of them is struggling with something adoption-related.
While I’m reaching for What Will Be, I try to also stay grounded in What Is. It’s a Both/And thing.
Judy – It comes down to balance, but to achieve that parents need embrace the mindset of openness. Adoption doesn’t occur in a vacuum, or it shouldn’t. Adopting and adoptive parents should have “have their houses in order” while striving to make changes. Parents can focus on the present with appreciation for the past and its lessons, with an eye on the future. “What Actually Is” impacts “What Will Be,” because in a sense they overlap.
Parents, what are your goals in raising your children? How do you envision your children as adults? What character traits will they have? How will you help them succeed in attaining these goals?
Throughout this series the three of us have tackled some topics that bear further discussion and introspection. Please visit Laura’s site (Part 1) and Lori’s site (Part 3) to read the other questions, answers and comments. We invite you to join in. It’s all about the child…
Laura Dennis was born and adopted in New Jersey and raised in Maryland, but she learned how to be a (sane) person in California, where she lost her mind and found it again in 2001. She is a former professional modern dancer and medical device sales director (I know, right? Strange combo). Laura currently lives in Belgrade, Serbia with her young family. She is the author of Adopted Reality, a Memoir and blogs at Expat (Adoptee) Mommy. Connect with Laura on Facebook and @LauraDennisCA.
Lori Holden writes regularly at LavenderLuz.com and is on Twitter as @LavLuz. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, written with her daughter’s birth mom, is available through your favorite online bookseller. She lives in Denver with her husband Roger, and tweens Tessa and Reed and she practices her Both/And technique with red wine and dark chocolate.