Adoptive Parent Decision Making in Intercountry Adoption

With the popularity of This is Us and the New York Times story about the black baby swapped out for a white one, it’s valuable to take a look at adoption’s portrayal in popular media.

In both my work-in-progress and on my blog, I take a retrospective look at the paucity of adoption resources – both professional and general – to paint a bigger picture of what led people to adopt a child outside their race and country. Today’s article focuses on how Russia and China’s portrayals in the media affected an adoptive parent’s decision to adopt.

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Framing Adoption:_The Media and Parental Decision Making
Heather Jacobson

Article Summary

Prospective parents perform research during the adoption process, often based on articles released by popular news media outlets. Jacobson revealed prospective parents’ reactions to these articles and how news stories impacted their decision to adopt.

Key Points

  • Russian mass-media stories are portrayed more negatively than Chinese ones
  • Russian adoption is reported on more frequently than Chinese
  • Negative Chinese adoption stories focused more on logistics than on the child’s potential mental health issues
  • Since the prospective parents interviewed for Jacobson’s study were coming to adoption after risky infertility situation, they showed a desire to avoid additional risk

Discussion

A certain amount of skepticism is healthy when approaching the decision to adopt a child not your own; after all, it is a huge decision, one impacting the life of a child who had no choice. The author found that, regardless of each news article’s overall tone, the general conclusion she made was that adopting a child into a loving home is fine, but prospective parents may be treading on dangerous political ground.

When adoption becomes politicized, there’s a tendency to dehumanize the child. The child is not a political pawn, some poor waif smuggled out of a war-torn country into a loving home. When media articles portray adoption this way, the child’s developing identity is negatively impacted by these prejudices. Not only may the adoptive parents, despite their best efforts, absorb these damaging viewpoints, but inevitably people less emotionally invested in the adoptee will undoubtedly, without any other frame of reference, use these articles as a way to formulate opinions on the topic of adoption.

Adoptive parents reported being influenced by these articles, some mentioning reports that Russian babies have more attachment issues than Chinese led them to adopting a Chinese baby. This is disturbing, because many adoptees are noted to have attachment issues; it’s not a country-based phenomenon. As Jacobson points out, “the majority of adoptees from both China and Russia have experienced institutionalization that can have serious consequences for child outcomes.”  Many of us adult intercountry adoptees reading this can attest to this reality.

Other intercountry adoptive parents used the articles they read, as justification against domestic adoption and in preference for intercountry adoption. They would read of stories featuring local biological parents looking for their child and wanting them back. As reported in the research, in their minds as adoptive parents, this would be intolerable as many experienced their own suffering via infertility or stillbirths.

The views expressed in Jacobson’s research reflect the adoptive parent-centric nature of adoption; the adoptive parents consume the media, the adoptive parents make the ultimate decision to adopt. Obviously adoptive parents need some way to inform their decisions, but slightly concerning is that racial features overrode Russian adoption risks. Adoptive parents persisted in Russian adoptions despite warnings, because they were eager to obtain a child bearing a closer racial resemblance to their own. We need to question that decision, because appearance cannot predict a child’s future outcome.

As transracial and intercountry adoptees, it’s our duty to remain alert to these news articles and ensure the mass media fairly portrays our struggles and political representation. If they don’t, it’s our responsibility to cut through the emotionally-driven bias toward adoption by producing articles that provide balanced accounts.

Intrusive Interactions

Being a South Korean adoptee in an all-white New Jersey town was tough. Racism was sandwiched between episodic public speculations like “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” and “What is your REAL name?”

Sara Docan-Morgan, professor at the University of Wisconsin, calls those awkward questions “intrusive interactions.” Today’s article scrutinizes these behaviors and their impact on an adoptee’s racial identity and sense of belonging.

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Korean Adoptees’ Retrospective Reports of Intrusive Interactions: Exploring Boundary Management in Adoptive Families
Sara Docan-Morgan

Article Summary

Visible racial differences between intercountry adoptees and their families sometimes invite unwanted “intrusive interactions,” those comments and inquiries that are uncomfortably invasive and question an adoptee’s race and personal history. Docan-Morgan identifies five categories of interactions and three response methods. The article suggests that intrusive interaction studies are necessary for rewriting the definition of family.

Key Points

  • Intrusive interactions question the legitimacy of an adoptee’s family role
  • Five types of intrusive interactions exist: relational comments/questions, compliments, stares, mistaken identities, and adoptee-only interactions
  • Labeling and explaining, defending, and joking were typical responses
  • Preparing prospective adoptive parents for these interactions can educate parents  pre-adoption

Discussion

Intercountry adoptees want to belong, but continuously addressing their race and family relationships destabilizes their sense of security. Five types of intrusive interactions were identified, with the most common being relational comments/questions. These are the ones best known as, “Is that your daughter?”, “Is that your real brother?” and “How much did she cost?” Since so many of us have encountered these questions, it’s reassuring to see that implications of such prying queries are being taken seriously.

I often bristled at these questions, only to be accused of being overly sensitive to people’s natural curiosity. However, if those same questions were posed to a biological or in-race child (“How was your pregnancy?” or “Did you have a water birth or hospital room?”) it would likely be viewed as inappropriate and wildly out of line. I wonder how appropriate it would be to ask about the couple’s fertility and its influence on adoption;  I’d cynically speculate some people are using the adoptee to get to this highly personal information.

For some reason though, an adoptee’s visible difference from their families makes them an acceptable target for misplaced curiosity. Compliments, a second type of intrusive interaction, objectify the adoptee and for Asian adoptees, keep them stuck as perpetual foreigners in the United States.

Stares were the only non-verbal intrusive interactions and more difficult for adoptees to address, since there was no appropriate way to confront the behavior. Ironically, adoptees were the ones peppered with inappropriate questions their entire lives, yet were too polite to speak up when it would have been warranted.

The most uncomfortable interactions were mistaken identity/relationships. Adoptees reported being mistaken for exchange students, hired help, or romantic partners (one adoptee was even greeted with a hearty, “Welcome to America!” while at a party). Not only were these interactions awkward for all involved, they “highlighted the discourse of the dependent nature of adoptive family members’ bonds. Rather than being unquestionable, these bonds were the source of others’ confusion and had to be reaffirmed through language.”

While some adoptees didn’t find the questioning to be intrusive (only annoying or merely curious), engaging in “boundary management” with strangers and even other adoptees caused understandable discomfort. Regardless of an adoptee’s reaction to the intrusive behaviors, it was common for adoptees to experience frustration at having to explain away their existence with the only family they’d ever known.

According to this limited study, adoptees interpreted these interactions differently depending on how the parents responded. If a parent responded in a joking way, it helped instill a sense of pride and belonging in the adoptee. Most adoptees reported some level of satisfaction with their family’s replies, but expressed an overall negative perception of themselves after each interaction.

Since this study relied on an adoptee’s memories, it is possible some of the memories become distorted or forgotten; however, I’d argue that these questions remain vividly woven into an adoptee’s history. Note the study focused only on Korean adoptees, whose political and historical presence in the United States differs from other intercountry and transracial adoptees. Despite these limitations, this is significant research since it provides prospective adoptive parents with a chance to preemptively address potential challenges.

Detailed demographics of the adoptees’ communities would be interesting for future studies. In a previous article, I discussed my own unfortunate experiences and several commenters mentioned that their communities were more diverse than mine, so future studies should take that into consideration. Still, this doesn’t discredit the histories of these adoptees, as their stories will help shape the future of adoption.

Your turn! Have you experienced intrusive interactions? How did you and/or your family respond? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Birth Country Cultural Immersion for Intercountry Adoptees

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When I was adopted over thirty years ago, there were significantly fewer outlets for a transracial adoptive parent (TRAp) to expose their child to his or her birth culture. Books, culture camps (of which I never attended), agency-sponsored gatherings, and other passive events formed the bulk of options available.

Today, in our information-rich climate, simply reading articles, watching videos, and listening to music counts only as superficial immersion for a transracial adoptee (TRAd). Online forums and other media provide a sense of community, but even still, socialization relies solely on the parent’s concentrated efforts.

In this post, I’ll be discussing a 2010 article by M. Elizabeth Vonk, Jaegoo Lee, and Josie Crolley-Simic about TRAps’ current cultural socialization efforts and my perspective on their research.

Cultural Socialization Practices in Domestic and International Transracial Adoption
Vonk, Lee, and Crolley-Simic

Article Summary

The authors sought to uncover the impact (if any) cultural socialization had on a transracial adoptive parent’s (TRAp) relationship with their child. Additional research is needed to concretely answer that question, but data uncovered during their investigation contributed fascinating insights into how race influenced a parent’s decision to incorporate their child’s ethnicity into their lives.

Key Points

  • Appearance may dictate how much emphasis parents put on cultural socialization
  • TRAps rarely associated with adults of their child’s ethnicity and frequently lived in undiversified areas
  • Cultural socialization efforts diminished as the child aged

Discussion

What’s interesting about these findings is how parents – all of whom identified as white – gravitated toward superficial cultural activities. Cooking ethnic food, reading books, and celebrating unique holidays were most common and I surmise it has to do with novelty and ease. These activities are the least threatening for white parents and can be undertaken in the privacy of their own homes, without criticism from authentic sources. Combined with the findings that white parents rarely socialized with adults of their child’s race, this makes sense.

Particularly damning is the parents’ failure to relocate their families to culturally diverse neighborhoods. My own family settled in a homogenous white farming community in New Jersey and refused to acknowledge that the demographics had profoundly negative repercussions on my development. Even after repeated incidents of school-based racism (at all levels), they couldn’t or wouldn’t consider changing to a diverse school.

The authors also found – sadly – that parents of European children engaged in cultural activities less frequently than those of Asian and black children. I find this ironic, since the shared background should make it less foreign to the parents. But if socialization is largely based on appearance, then race is no doubt a catalyst for how involved a parent feels they should be.

The authors muse that cultural socialization highlights the obvious differences between parent and child, making caregivers feel “inadequate.” They also wonder if cultural activities make them “realize their responsibility to their children and are unsure how to proceed.” I would argue that yes, this is likely what is happening, since confronting the reality of their complex situation may destroy their original expectations for the adoption.

My parents’ own ideas of “getting [me] cultured” included, early on, hosting Korean egg hunts and going to Korean Christmas parties. Nothing was uniquely Korean about these events. They were just a bunch of white families getting their adopted Korean kids together and celebrating Christian holidays. Ironically, we never acknowledged Korean events and – like the research suggested – these activities dwindled down to nothing after we all began elementary school.

Although my experiences occurred over the past several decades, this relatively recent article shows that – despite additional resources available – little real progress has been made in the practical application of cultural socialization. We’ll keep talking about this in future posts, since the goal is to help TRAps assist their child in developing a secure racial identity.

Your turn!

Do your experiences align with this article’s findings? If not, what do you think you or your parents did differently?

Please feel free to discuss in the comments!