Why white adoptive parents shouldn’t dominate adoption narratives

Somebody's Child: Stories About Adoption, Bruce Gillespie and Lynne Van Luven, eds.

Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption, Bruce Gillespie and Lynne Van Luven, eds.

I’m really excited to have my friend Nikki as a guest contributor to AWH! Nikki is a transracial adoptee, born in the U.S. to Korean immigrant parents and adopted by white parents. She’s also a contributor to Somebody’s Child, an anthology of essays about adoption. This post was originally published at Irene’s Daughters. – G


Sometimes I kind of find myself wishing that adoptive parents would stop writing about adoption. Particularly if the subject is transracial adoption.

I realize that probably sounds a bit harsh. It’s not that an adoptive parent cannot have plenty of good, worthwhile things to say about adoption. But there is SO MUCH of THIS out there. And this, an NPR review of a new documentary about adopted Chinese-born teens, Somewhere Between:

…all four girls are thoughtful, moving and imaginative on the subject of their split identities. Haley thinks of herself as a “banana,” yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Describing herself as “stuck between two countries,” Fang laments that she’s always trying to compensate for the fact that she was abandoned because she’s a girl.

Watching the tears roll down Fang’s otherwise cheerful face, I wondered whether she’d be this sad if she wasn’t facing a camera. On the plus side, Somewhere Between is refreshingly free of the cloying, one-size-fits-all dogma that sometimes bedevils the adoption community. (I parted company with my chosen adoption listserv when I got tired of hearing about “the holes in all our daughters’ hearts.”)

Inevitably, though, the film makes it seem that these girls’ lives are dominated by worry about who they are and whether they’ll be emotionally crippled by conflicting allegiances. Adopted or not, few of us develop our identities in the abstract — least of all today’s adolescents, who try out their ever-shifting multiple selves with their friends in every social medium, and are far more nonchalant about racial difference, let alone adoption, than we boomers can ever be.

Oh, yes, because being “nonchalant about racial difference” should be the gold standard to which we all aspire. And why is Fang so sad? It’s awfully telling that journalist/adoptive mom Ella Taylor can’t bring herself to stay on her adoption listserv because they talk too much about adoption loss and grief and all that downer stuff.

Notice how, in this “review” of a documentary featuring the voices of adopted teenaged women of color, Taylor just can’t help but make the whole thing about her own feelings and opinions? It’s not that I think every adoption-related story needs to be written by an adopted individual or birthparent. I know some wonderful adoptive parents, and their perspectives are important, too. But the traditional adoption narrative in this country is so completely dominated by adoptive parents as a group — THEIR experiences, THEIR emotions, what THEY believe to be “the truth” about their children’s adoptions. And that is especially problematic when you have white people clearly looking to take the easy way out and not think about race too hard. Could NPR not have found, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese adult adoptee to write about this film? There are a ton of them out there. I’m sure they’ve got opinions.

Ella Taylor, meanwhile, sees the film — and the young women featured in it — through the filter of her own form of white adoptive-parent magical thinking, and makes it all about her:

My Chinese teen was bat mitzvahed last year; she celebrates the Jewish, Chinese and any other New Year that comes with a party. On Facebook, she brands herself as “Jew Crew,” “Asian, so deal with it” and a Yankee Brit, among others. Accustomed to a polyglot world, she takes it mostly in stride.

Her only visible adoption crisis came when she was about 8, just after we’d watched the excellent movie Stuart Little, about a mouse adopted into a loving family who nonetheless has an “empty space” in his heart. A couple of hours later, my ordinarily sunny, unflappable child burst into tears and asked piteously why her mommy had let her go.

Caught off guard, I opted for honesty and told her it made absolutely no sense to me, and who wouldn’t want to be the mother of a great kid like her? After a moment, she asked for her drawing materials and drew three female figures with Chinese features (“You, me, and my other Mommy”), then said firmly, “Okay, let’s play something else.”

First of all, why was she “caught off guard” when her child brought this up? Why hadn’t they discussed it before? Why hadn’t they been discussing it all along?  I can’t even tell you how much it bothers me that Taylor is so obviously relieved and almost triumphant about the fact that she and her daughter have only had the oneconversation about abandonment in her entire thirteen years. One conversation? ONE? Oh, good then, I guess you’re off the hook!

Often, adopted children talk about issues only if they feel safe doing so. Generally, adopted kids learn at a young age which adoption-related topics are “safe” in their adoptive families, and which are not. It is up to parents to create an environment in which everything is on the table. Adoptive parents can’t cringe and fluster or express zero empathy with placing birthparents or spout platitudes about how it all worked out great anyway, so there’s no reason to ever feel less than 100% positive about your adoption, honey. Adopted children need more than that. Because, at some time or another, and probably throughout their lives, they will feel more than that. Adoptive parents, like all parents, need to be able to admit when they aren’t enough.

I’m a parent, and I know how difficult it is to face the fact that you can’t meet your child’s every need every moment of the day. But I think it’s crucial to look ourselves squarely in the mirror, and really look at our children too, and see areas in which we may be ill-equipped or even totally helpless to fix a problem or answer a question or meet a deep-seated yearning. We can try, but it might not be enough. We can’t pretend to be their end-all and be-all, the answer to all their questions, the fulfillment of all their hopes, because their lives are not about us or filling some hole in our lives. At some point, they will need something we can’t provide. They might need to look elsewhere for it, and that doesn’t mean their bonds with us are any less important or strong.

I feel this point is often lost on adoptive parents, especially those who have waited a long time to become parents. They want so much to feel like the “real parents” and meet all comers, but there are things some adopted children face — such as not knowing anything about their family history; or being Asian but feeling/being treated as white — that adoptive parents cannot fix. And instead of facing that fact straight on and asking what they can do to walk alongside their children, even if they can’t take away a particular burden, they instead deny that it exists.

Taylor ends her “review” by expressing gratitude for the fact that her daughter is “lucky enough to live in a hybrid world,” and will, like the girls in the film, find a way “to make a virtue out of being somewhere between.” Never mind what her daughter might feel in the future, when she’s not eight or thirteen. Never mind if she doesn’t think of being “somewhere between” as a “virtue” all the time. She’ll just have to figure it out for herself. Her mother certainly considers the matter closed.

13 Comments

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  3. YES.

    This spring my husband and I became parents of a half-Caucasian, half-Colombian baby boy through domestic open adoption. (FYI to readers, “domestic” means “in the US”, and “open” means ongoing contact with birth family.)

    We were lucky to have an adoption facilitator who taught us about the importance of letting the child have all his feelings about adoption. She surmised that some adoptive families have not fully grieved their infertility so on some level they want to pretend the child is “just like” a biological child. But it is a *different* kind of relationship with different opportunities and blessings and losses. Not any less loving, but not identical. I grew up in a (closeted) lesbian family so I am all about family diversity — there shouldn’t be one “normal” with everyone else trying to pretend they resemble it.

    When the child gets the sense that the parents are uncomfortable with telling the adoption story, or acknowledging the ways that he is different from them, then he suffers in silence. I see adoption as an opportunity to acknowledge the truth that you expressed so well about parenting generally: we can’t be everything to our kids. In fact, when we recognize this and help them get support elsewhere, we teach them that the world can be a safe place and that their needs will be met even when they individuate away from us — they don’t have to look to Mommy forever as protector.

    The interracial angle, of course, adds another layer of difficult conversations. Our son could pass for white but we aren’t going to make that decision for him. We will learn Spanish together as a family, and educate ourselves about his birth country and generally make ourselves available to explore his Latino heritage in whatever way he takes an interest. It will probably fall on us to be proactive about it when he’s younger, because he wouldn’t know what to ask. This is the great thing about open adoption — we remain friends with his Colombian-American birthfather who can guide all of us in this area.

    • Congratulations on your adoption, Jendi. I’m always glad to hear that adoptive parents had positive experiences with the adoption professionals who helped them, whether they had a facilitator, an agency, an attorney, or some combination. I do believe that adoptive parent counseling and education has come a long way…it’s just impossible to know, on an individual level, how prepared people truly are for a transracial or any other kind of adoption placement. And even if the adoption professionals and social workers involved ARE stressing the important things from the child’s perspective, it’s all too easy for parents to nod along but not really seek to apply that wisdom in their actual lives with that child.

      So many adoptive parents (like Emma Taylor) seem to think they are off the hook if their child doesn’t seem to want to talk much about the adoption, or doesn’t express feelings of uncertainty/abandonment/being out of place, etc., and are relieved to let those important discussions fall by the wayside. In reality these are issues relevant to just about all of the adoptees I’ve ever encountered, but some of us weren’t really able to explore them until we were older and living independently of our parents. I love my parents, but some of the awkwardness between us could have been avoided, I think, through more early, frank, and frequent discussions of my adoption and identity issues.

      I think that no matter how much adoptive parents (or any parents, as I wrote in my post) want to be everything to their children and meet all of their needs and answer all of their questions, it’s important to understand and accept when that might not be possible. Even with the most supportive parents, the ones most comfortable discussing all issues in adoption, adoptees often feel the need at some point in their lives to talk with other adoptees — and/or counselors, or their birth families, or whoever. It doesn’t mean the adoptive parents have failed if this occurs. It’s natural to want and seek out more than one type of support as we get older and can appreciate more nuances. One thing I keep thinking when rereading Emma Taylor’s NPR article is that at least there are a whole lot of people, adoptees and others, that her daughter can one day talk with if she needs a more open and realistic source of understanding and support. It seems unlikely that her mother is going to be of much use in that regard, barring a real change of heart.

  4. Thank you to my great friend Grace for posting this here! I’m honored to be included here at AWH.

  5. The flip side of this issue is that I hope communities of color will be welcoming to white adoptive parents who are trying to give their nonwhite child a sense of his or her heritage. During our adoption research, we read a book about interracial adoption that included many stories of disrespect and exclusion (e.g. the Chinese parents at the immersion school refusing to socialize with the white one; the black moms making fun of the white mom trying to style her child’s hair, saying she should just let a black mom do it, instead of showing her how), which the authors seemed to think was just the price we had to pay for white racism. These communities wanted to include the kid but leave her adoptive parents behind. I’m sorry, I disagree. Deal with that elsewhere. For the child’s sake, don’t put her into a conflict of loyalties or undermine her parents’ authority.

    How have other folks on this blog seen this dynamic play out? Was this book extreme or accurate? Any advice for a smoother relationship? It freaked us out…

    • Can I ask which book this was? I might need to read it.

      I wouldn’t say it’s “the price [you] have to pay for white racism,” but I do think the mistrust of white people, even white adoptive parents, among communities of color is both understandable and somewhat unavoidable in many cases. Some proponents of transracial adoption (and I am not a detractor) like to hint or say outright that transracial adoption is like a magical cure for racism. Just as some people say the same thing about a future in which everyone has beige babies. But people can’t just create or demand trust because they have good and selfless intentions; it takes time and familiarity, as it should.

      I think one of the reasons transracial adoption IS such a challenge for many adoptees and their families is that it’s NOT easy — even with the best of intentions — to explore your child’s culture with her when you’re an outsider. And to some degree how easy or difficult it will be does depend on factors you can’t control, including availability and accessibility of those communities.

      I think about how much easier it is to ask questions and learn more about Korean American culture now that I’m close to my sister (raised by our Korean parents in a Korean community, and still somewhat involved in it through her church). Before that, even with close friends who were Korean, it was much more awkward trying to talk about it. Maybe I was too insecure or just felt inadequate or whatever, but I always worried that friends and others would think I was, I don’t know, trying to use them or something — just to get close to and try to figure out what it meant to own one’s Korean identity.

      I wonder about those exclusionary Chinese parents…I’m not trying to question the veracity of the essay/book/author in question, but while people of any ethnic group can of course be less than welcoming if they choose, it’s all too easy for language/cultural barriers to make meaningful interaction difficult. And I know you know that; I’m just saying — I feel my own lack in this regard, because my (Korean/Irish/Lebanese) daughter goes to school with a lot of kids of East and South Asian descent. Many of their families are recent immigrants. I’ve had a difficult time socializing with them — not because I’m not interested and not because they aren’t “welcoming,” but because many of them speak Mandarin as a first language and English as a distant second, and like it or not my ignorance of Mandarin is just going to be a barrier. I totally studied the wrong language in college.

  6. Nikki, thanks for sharing your insights. It was a tough question to ask because I know it’s a sensitive topic (as race is generally). I didn’t want to offend. The book was “Inside Transracial Adoption” by Gail Steinberg & Beth Hall. I agree that naive hopes for a post-racial society are not the solution. So glad this discussion is taking place on this blog.

    • Me, too. Definitely not offended; on the contrary, I’m happy to be discussing this with you. :) I am pretty much an open book when it comes to adoption, so feel free to ask me anything. We can take it off-blog if you would rather do so privately. Thanks Jendi!

  7. I’m not an adoptive mother, but my daughter is biracial and I’m white. Even so, I can relate to the feeling of inadequacy when it comes to how your child will feel about her/his culture and ethnicity that doesn’t correlate to your own. It’s hard. And I agree that the answer is all about being open to what your child wishes to discuss and letting them have their feelings about it. I still worry that I’m not getting it right all the time. But hey, that’s also just part of being a parent in general. I think with some adoptive parents, especially if they don’t have any bio children, often feel their inadequacies come because of the lack of biological similarities and it takes a little while to realize that all parents feel inadequate at some time or another.

    • Hey Martha, I’m sorry to just be seeing/responding to this comment now! I think openness and receptiveness are both important, obviously, and I also think that adoptive parents (and all parents, really) have to be prepared to start these conversations, instead of always waiting for their kids to start them and feeling relieved if that doesn’t happen. (I’m not saying that’s you — I’m saying, it’s some people.) I think adopted children NEED their parents to be the proactive ones sometime, not force it down their throats, but make it clear that they are eager to have these discussions and unafraid to begin them.

      I feel inadequate as a parent at least three times a day. And at times the task of raising two multiracial kids seems quite overwhelming to me, too. That said, I don’t want coddling, and I don’t need it — what I need are facts, and tools, and tough discussions that will actually help me think about and figure out how in the world I am going to do this. Knowing that it’s hard doesn’t make me wish I hadn’t done it in the first place. It makes me glad that I am thinking about the ways in which it will be challenging, and seeking out resources to help me.

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