Telling My Mother

Maria Heckinger today

I am Maria Heckinger and at age 66, I am one of the older adoptees posting on this site. I am honoured to be asked by Lynelle to share a couple of stories unique to my adoption.

First, a little history about the Greek adoptions. It was the early 1950’s and WWII had taken a huge toll on Europe, leaving no country unscathed. During the war, Greece was occupied by armies from three countries; Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. The Nazi Occupation was followed by a protracted Civil War, which left the Greek economy and infrastructure in ruins. Mass adoptions from Greece to the United States started as early as 1950. Then, in a humanitarian gesture, the United States passed more broadly conceived refugee relief legislation in 1953, allowing the immigration of European refugees and foreign adoptions to proceed. It is a little-known fact that Greece was the first nation in modern times to open its borders and allow intercountry adoptions.[1] And proceed they did, in remarkably large numbers.

Hariklea Voukelatos, my birth mother

In 1984, I was 30 and back in Greece for the first time since my 1956 adoption. While on that trip I found the orphanage where I spent my earliest years. Overlooking the coastal city of Patras, it was a massive building. Sitting in the director’s office, I did not expect to find such detailed records—or the director’s willingness to show them to me. All the notes, religious charms, and legal or informal documents left with babies were saved and were kept in big ledgers. When the director showed me the note written by my mother, and the declaration she filed at the local City Hall asking the orphanage to take over my care, I was left stunned. After the tour, I returned to Patras and, within two days, I found my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos. At 30 years of age, my life changed in an instant. I spent a joyous week with Hariklea and my half-sister, Katina. It was the beginning of a 36-year relationship that led to meeting uncles, aunts, and cousins. My elation at finding my birth family was tempered, however, by anxious thoughts of how to tell Ellen Pace, the only mother I knew and loved.

The following excerpt is from my book, Beyond the Third Door Based on a True Story. Vancouver, WA (2019).

I was happy my story had touched people so profoundly, but there was one person I worried about telling, Mom. Dad had passed away the year before, and she was alone after 43 years of marriage. I did not want to add to her pain. Having to tell Ellen about finding Hariklea was a scenario I never dreamed I would face. Ellen had wanted a child so badly I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful, disloyal, or she was losing me to my real Mom. Ellen was the most selfless person I knew, and I loved her more than anyone in the world. She had adopted and loved me unconditionally, and I would take this secret to my grave rather than hurt her.

Ellen Pace, my mom as a young woman

With my San Diego plans complete, the only thing left was to put my photographs into an album. Unlike Mom, who was motivated by love when she selected my album years before, my motivation was fear as I chose one with easily removable pages. I was still undecided on what to tell Mom, so it gave me options. Upon arrival, I picked up my car and headed to Mom’s home in San Diego’s backcountry. The baseball-sized knot in my stomach was a constant reminder of what lay ahead. I tried to ease my apprehension with thoughts of how receptive Mom had been about adoption – not just mine, but my three siblings as well. She had spent countless hours making scrapbooks filled with their adoption artifacts too. Richard Jr. and Deirdre’s albums even included their mother’s name. In the past month, I had found a mother and a sister, discoveries I was still processing. I was excited to know my new family, but I wanted to protect the one I had. It was a delicate balance I struggled to maintain. My fears of hurting Mom took on a life of their own and nearly blinded me from believing she could accept such a truth. With her house in sight, the knot in my stomach was now the size of a basketball. I pulled off the road and gathered myself before I continued. Mom knew I was on the way, so there was no turning back. With no guidebook on how to handle this type of situation, I had only one choice. Face the music and trust the Mother who loved and raised me. Pulling into her driveway, Mom came outside to greet me, and I hugged her a little longer than usual. Her arms around me felt like home; safe and familiar.

I was putting my luggage in the spare room when Mom came to the door and asked a question that stopped me cold. “So, did you meet any relatives while you were over there?” I busied myself with my suitcase, and after a long pause, I managed a weak, “Yes.” Her next question was the one I dreaded: “Who did you find?” My throat constricted and I could barely speak, so I deflected with a question of my own. “Mom, guess — the most unbelievable relative you can imagine?” “You found your mother, didn’t you?” I mumbled, “Yes.” “Oh my God, you found your mother? I want to hear all about it,” Mom proclaimed. Stunned, I stood there like a statue, unable to move or speak. The weeks of angst had been for naught, and my fear of hurting Ellen had consumed me unnecessarily. Mom’s questions made this more comfortable than I could have dreamed. Relaxing a bit, I wondered what had prompted her initial question. Had Mom suspected I was hiding something during our telephone conversations? Could she sense I was carrying an emotional burden? I knew it was now or never, so I went to the bedroom, grabbed the album, and set it on the kitchen table. I patted the chair next to me, invited Mom to sit, and began. The photos were invaluable as I led Mom through my two months in Greece. I moved through them at a deliberate pace, hoping we wouldn’t spend too much time on the pictures of Hariklea. As we neared the photographs of her, my fears returned, and I was overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal. I looked away and questioned my decision as Mom examined the woman who had given birth to “her” child. I hope Mom doesn’t think I look like Hariklea. Should I have included the photos with my arm around her? What about the pictures of Hariklea, Katina and me, arm in arm at the taverna? “She looks like a nice woman. What’s her name?” was all Mom asked. “Her name is Hariklea, and she is nice. The young woman is her daughter, Katina.” Mom was surprised Patras still had an orphanage with such good records, but she was bowled over when I described how we found Hariklea. I didn’t know much yet, but I shared what she had told me about her life. When I told Mom about my week in Hariklea’s home with Katina, she was happy for me and wanted details of our time together. Mom couldn’t imagine dining by the sea with your feet in the sand, but she laughed when I shared stories of Hariklea’s bossy personality. I concluded with a comment about her generosity but did not mention the soul-crushing guilt she still felt over losing me. Mom didn’t need to hear that. We finished looking at the album and enjoyed the meal she had prepared. After we washed the dishes, I went for a walk along the stream running by her house. I knew Mom needed some private time with her thoughts and the photo album. I was gone for a half-hour but returned to the back of the house so I could peek through a window and see if she was finished. There she was sitting at the table, hunched over the album and staring at the page. I knew which photos Mom was glued to, and I couldn’t imagine how she felt right now. Did she feel threatened by my birth mother? Was this the day Mom feared might come? Would she worry I loved her any less? I felt happy, sad, and vulnerable as I watched her study the photographs of Hariklea. Tears sprung from my eyes and ran down my cheeks as I quietly watched her. I wanted to give Mom all the time she needed, so I went for another walk. The second time around, I made a noisy entrance via the front door to announce my arrival.


[1] For more information on these early waves of international adoptions from Greece, see Van Steen, Gonda (2019). Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (U of Michigan Press), 77-78.

Orphanage photo of Maria Heckinger

About Maria

Adoptee Activism in America

Listen to Adoptee Voices

Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.

This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.

The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.

Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.

Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.

The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.

After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.

The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.

Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.

Hearing calls and support for “unregulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.

From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.

For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.

People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!

I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.

Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.

My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!

No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!

I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?

36E652A1-7EC8-4DF0-81CF-0B9F9BBED097

I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …

it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.

What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.

I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.

I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.

What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the birth mother representative who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.

Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!

Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.

Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.

Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.

Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.

JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.

Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.

Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.

Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.

Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.

Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.

Adoption: Neat & Tidy? Not So Much!

Hello everyone. My name is Jessica Davis. My husband and I adopted from Uganda in 2015.  I would like to share my thoughts regarding a memory that appeared on my facebook timeline.

If you are at all familiar with timehop on facebook you know that almost daily either a photo, video or post from your past will show up on your timeline giving you the opportunity to reflect and share.  Well, today this is the photo that popped up for me.

Davis Family.jpg

Four years ago today, we found out Namata’s visa was approved to come to America with us. As westerners, we tend to love pictures like this when it comes to adoption and in some ways that is understandable. If Namata had actually needed to be adopted, it would’ve definitely been a photo worth getting excited over!

The problem is that all too often, we want things to be just like this picture. Everyone smiling and things wrapped up neat and tidy. But real life, even in this moment pictured here, things aren’t always as they seem. Adam and I were definitely happy in this moment and ready to be home and begin our life together, and on the outside Namata was too. But on the inside, she was about to leave everything and everyone familiar to her, for reasons she was too overwhelmed by to even question. Thankfully, over the next year she was able to express to Adam and I her questions about how she ended up being adopted. Thankfully, Adam and I didn’t go looking for the answers we wanted to hear. We chose a road that was definitely filled with uncertainty, but one we hoped would lead us to the truth. Namata deserved that!

Intercountry adoption should never be about doing a good deed in the world or becoming a mom or dad. Yes, those reasons are normal and usually are the basis for beginning the process, but at the point when one begins the process to adopt, we need to recognize that those feelings are all about the adoptive parents and not the child or children we are hoping to adopt. Adoption for them stems from a complete loss of everything and everyone familiar to them. Recognizing this is vital to a healthy adoption process. I’m convinced we, as a society, have made adoption all about becoming a family. When we do this we tend to see adoption in this happy light that doesn’t allow the adoptee the freedom to express what adoption actually is for them — loss. There should be absolutely no focus on becoming “mom” or “dad”. While I do believe it can become a natural outcome through a healthy adoption scenario, I believe it needs to come when, and only if, the child feels that connection.

I often get asked how Adam and I did what we did when we chose to reunite Namata with her family in Uganda. While there are several factors that contributed to being able to do this, the main reason was that Adam and I had both committed to meeting the needs of Namata. Finding out that she had a loving mother and family that she was unlawfully taken from, made the decision for us. As a parent I could never have lived with myself knowing I was contributing to the Ugandan sized hole in Namata’s heart. Her family and culture should never have been taken away from her in the first place. I’m eternally grateful now looking back that even in the midst of our heartache in losing one of the most amazing little girls I’ve ever met, we were given the opportunity to make things right!

Currently, there is no legal precedent for situations like ours. There are kids here in America that have been kidnapped, their families lied to, and their adoptions produced from bribes and manipulation. There are families in Uganda, and all over the world that hope daily, just see their children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

One way to address this madness is by fighting for intercountry adoption laws to be reformed. Another way is to help change the narrative behind intercountry adoption. Within our churches, social circles and places of business, we need to recognize that intercountry adoption has become infiltrated with money and greed. When we read the statistics that say 80-90% of children in orphanages overseas have families, we need to be doing more to ensure we aren’t contributing to a system that is actually tearing families apart. There are many Facebook groups and websites that delve into the intricacies behind intercountry adoption. Join these groups and visit these pages to learn. Appeal to legislators for change and become a person that stands up against these horrible miscarriages of justice.

About Jessica

Understanding Adoption and Birth Country

Truth Knowledge Belief.png

Words from an intercountry adoptee living in Sweden, adopted from Colombia.

by Anonymous

For a very long time I was one of those people who had this view that adoption is the result of a social tragedy; a situation where the victim (i.e., the adopted person) has no say in the matter — but we are expected (of course) to feel very grateful even though we lost our roots and identity, we agree we got something “finer / better” in exchange.

The fact that I knew very little about adoption (international / intercountry) and my own story, was manifested in my assumption: that all adoptions are executed “correctly and ethically” and that adoption is automatically the best solution for all of us “lucky selected” orphans.

In my ignorance, I use to say things like:

“If I had lived in Colombia, I would probably have been a street child, had a very bad time, been poor and without opportunities”. I would say this despite the fact that I knew very little about my adoption and background situation. It never occurred to me that maybe I had relatives who wanted nothing more than to take care of me? I now know what the truth is, but I didn’t know when I was younger.

My misunderstanding that a happy life in Colombia was impossible for an orphaned person and that adoption is the only correct solution to a difficult situation, made me spread and reinforce false perceptions of Colombia as a bad country, where everyone is poor, suffering and unhappy. I reinforced the opinion that the obvious thing was to feel happiness and gratitude for not growing up with my Colombian family and that the loss of my roots was of no value.

Now I’ve grown old enough to find out more about adoption, how it works and what it actually means to me. I now understand that adoption is a million dollar business worldwide and the basis for an adoption can be as bizarre as the delusion that it is by default, automatically the best way forward for all orphans.

In Colombia, I helped a fellow adoptee find her roots and it was revealed that parts of her documents were invented (fabricated) and that her adoption was a result of a family feud with the children stuck in the middle. Maybe the children got a happier life here in Scandinavia than they would in Colombia, but maybe not. In any case, it was clear that the relatives I found were not poor. On the contrary, they were rich, wealthy and had a large house with an expensive car, and half the family never approved of the adoption, but it happened anyway.

What I’m trying to say is that if we know very little about our adoption and can’t say with 100 percent certainty what the situation was, maybe we should consider the possibility that adoption could be based on wrong doings — such as kidnapping, or jealousy by an individual with a quest for revenge / destruction on others in the family. I realise in hindsight that maybe my gratitude was conceived out of ignorance and mainstream expectations and that speaking negatively about my birth country and people, resulted from not knowing much about my country and why/how I became available for adoption.

From my own journey of growth, I encourage fellow adoptees to ask questions, search for the truths when you are ready, and don’t just blindly believe what you absorb about your adoption.

 

 

We have been Brought into a Place of Hate

Notes on becoming less human by Vicente Mollestad (Bolivian adoptee raised in Norway).

On 10 August 2019 in Bærum, Norway, a 22-year-old white male attacked a local mosque armed with shotguns. While failing to kill anyone at the mosque, the arrest and search of his house revealed the murder of his stepsister, an intercountry adoptee from China, only 17 years old.

Johanne Zhangjia

Upon our arrival, we were once told the laws of the new world, but the reality we inhabit speaks of ignorant wishes and in the worst case, fatal lies. They spoke about us as equals in this society, of us belonging to this country, neither as foreigners nor as immigrants. Words we repeated to ourselves.

But the idea of us as innocent, gullible, dream-fulfilling children became more complicated as we mutated into more hideous and unknown beings of puberty and adulthood. The hair grew long, black and unruly. The skin, dark and distinctly different. The body did no longer resemble the idea of a child but had the features of a stranger. A stranger to our surroundings, a stranger to ourselves, and sometimes even a stranger to those closest to us.

Boys eventually fit a media profile for the cause of violence and danger in society. Girls grew to become sexually desirable and fetishised. This dehumanisation leaves us vulnerable to the current state of the West as the threat of the foreign hangs over Europe as a ghost, a ghost conjured by its involvement in a bloody past. We became targets in the line of fire in a war that isn’t ours.

As intercountry adoptees we are being assimilated in the worst way, losing our languages, our biological families and our cultural roots. Meanwhile, we still carry the negative sides of not being assimilated at all. Because our physical traits are still those of an outsider, of the threat, of the barbarian. And that description and image of us makes us enemies for nationalists like Phillip Manshaus.

Even now, when our position is manifested in the worst way, the society and media at large fails to recognize or support our position and discourse. For us there will be no marches, no mention and no grievance. Even when we are so intertwined with the current state of affairs, we are not yet heard, we are not yet given platforms. If this country insists on bringing us into the place of hate, I suggest they at least give us a chance to speak our cause because I refuse to die at the hands of a white nationalist.

Rest in Peace

Rest in peace Johanne Zhangjia Ihle-Hansen.

ICAVs Intercountry Adoptee Memorials

Name

I give you a name

I call you my mom

You expect me to reach out

You expect me to call

 

The title I give you

Is one you didn’t earn

You didn’t give birth to me

You were not the first

 

I’m so angry at you

I’m not your mini-me

I’m not the child you wanted

But I pretend to be

 

My heart rages against you

Like a hurricane against the trees

You blow past my boundaries

Cutting me to my knees

 

You forsake me and

Oh how your words sting 

No, you’re not my mother

You’re the woman who raised me

 

We play this game

My move, then yours

Ping pong our relationship

Back and forth, back and forth

 

Strangers, you and I

Acquaintances at best

But you believe we’re closer

Every conversation like a test

 

So we dance very carefully

Around elephants in the room

Afraid to touch them

Afraid they’ll move

 

I get anxious and nervous

Every time we meet

The mask I wear around you

Makes me feel six foot deep

 

You say “I love you”

But I’m not sure you do

When asked what you love about me

You responded “Well, I know I love you.” 

 

I drown in your expectations

You criticize my every move

You say, “Care about your family.” 

Like it’s something I have to prove

 

You don’t know who I am now

And it’s like we are estranged

Because the more we talk about nothing

The more I see how much I’ve changed

 

I no longer call you my mom

Because you don’t act like it anymore

The name I give you is your first name

The one you were given when you were born

 
Written by Anonymous

The Cycle of Harm in Celebrity Adoptions

Adoption is not heroism.  It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.

Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity Adoptions.pngCelebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.

Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.

In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.

Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.

Adoption Falicy.jpg

Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.

As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).

But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.

I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.

In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.

This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.

The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?

The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate.  In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
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If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.

Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.

Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!

Celebrating Secrets and Sadness

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It’s early morning, I’ve only the birds for company for a few more hours. Until my favourite person wakes up. Across the world in the place I was born it’s already early afternoon on my birthday.

Birthdays are a strange, strange day for adoptees. The days preceding it are pensive and sad for completely different reasons to those who perhaps see only more candles on cake. It’s an odd day to celebrate given the anniversary of loss eclipsing that day.

My birthday is one of normalised secrets and mysteries, unspoken questions unanswered. Who was the woman to whom I was born on this day? How was my birth? Did she hold me at all, for how long, minutes, days, weeks, months? How was she feeling? Sad, relieved, resentful, frightened. Decisive?

Who were the other women who cared for me and brokered my adoption? Nuns convinced they were doing a God’s work. While from my perspective it seems more like a Handmaids Tale.

I know my mothers name, her age and that she was Indian and I have her ID number, assuming my birth certificate wasn’t falsified as many were in other parts of Asia. That’s all, except perhaps that she was likely Catholic. You would think a name and an ID card number might be enough to find her. But it’s another continent, another culture. One in which I have no sources, no allies or relationships and no sense of the unwritten rules and expectations.

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Her name now brings up an obituary listed in late 2016. A woman with this name died leaving behind a husband and a daughter. More mysteries, could it be my mother, and if so, is the daughter me, or a sister? Is her name common in Malaysia? Are those whom Google uncovers with this name, no more likely to be relatives than a Brown or a Smith? Or is it more rare? The first search reveals a young man, a journalist in Malaysia, a crime reporter. He’s on Twitter but he has only a handful of followers and very few tweets showing me who he is. Should I follow him, and see if he follows the clues back to me? Am I a random stranger whose profile of a Chindian Malaysian adoptee is only of passing interest or could it resonate with the possibilities of a shameful family secret? How does an adoptee reach out to people in these circumstances knowing the possible weight of consequences?

I could hire a detective – perhaps with this information it wouldn’t take a well connected expert long to find people and information. But I’m told it’s common practice to expect to bribe people for information. For my information. I’m resentful about how much it might cost me to find out what everyone else takes for granted. A history they’ve never even had to consider a human right. It just exists. Perhaps it’s even a little boring, the story of the day you were born, told again and again.

If I take my search to another level, there’ll be no going back once a certain line has been crossed. So much can unravel once it does in a family across the world, and in one here.

Only adoptees will really understand this, perhaps they will always mean more to me than family. They are mostly strangers across the world, they know intimate details about my adoption story and almost none about my day-to-day life. A kind of Adoptees Anonymous.

Today a call with my British adoptive parents will be unavoidable. There will be pseudo jollity. They’ll wish me a happy birthday, ask me about my day and presents, and no one will mention the secrets and mysteries of this day in 1972 in Malaysia.

Embracing our Origins

As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of  being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.

At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.

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Traditional Vietnamese Wedding Dress

A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.

An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.

Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.

 

 

 

 

Returning to Vietnam

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Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.

I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.

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It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back. 

We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!

Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search. 

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Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.

Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This  return trip has been a real growth journey for me.

I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.

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