Caught in the Middle

by Katya Reach, adopted from Ukraine to the USA.

“All over social media, I see people posting either the Ukrainian or Russian flag. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to share either one.

There are no clear words to convey my deep sorrow and grief over this crisis. My heart goes out to the citizens of Ukraine and citizens of Russia because all are paying a price, and for many, this is something they never asked for. I have connections with people from Ukraine, people in the separatist regions, and people from Russia. The pendulum of understanding from all sides swings drastically, meanwhile, daily I try to process new information and be of support and encouragement to others.

All my life, as a Ukrainian adoptee, I grew up believing I was Ukrainian and I was proud of these roots. After reuniting with my birth family nearly three years ago, I learned that my birth family has strong Russian roots. The Ukrainian soil I walked on as a child became a pro-Russian separatist held region of Ukraine.

I look to my left and mourn the suffering of the internally displaced Ukrainian people who I have personal connections with. Yet I’m amazed at the support and generosity of neighboring countries to welcome so many Ukrainian refugees and bring humanitarian relief.

I look to my right and see my very own birth family also suffering and hiding for dear life in bomb shelters and basements, remaining in the land they call home; a land that has suffered 8 years of conflict up to this point. They are clinging to hope that this will be the final breakthrough.

Meanwhile, I also have friends who are Russian citizens and are feeling ashamed of their roots. This crisis in Ukraine is utterly devistating and sickening just to witness, let alone live through.

I have moments of feeling so overwhelmed and emotions cycle. I try not to let every new detail alter my perspective. My family is so patient with me as I process and seek clarity. Daily life continues on through this imbalance. And while this is a major aspect of my life, it is still only one of many other aspects. It’s been crucial for me to make space for myself and even space for laughter and enjoyment in these heavy times.

While my deepest connection to this crisis is my birth family living in it, I also understand there is a much bigger picture that impacts our world and the ramifications of this crisis will last far longer than any news highlight.

I know my role in this is so much more than just a spectator. I am praying for the world to see miracles of God through all this. In the midst of the chaos all around me, I’m reminded of the Lord’s faithfulness in an abundance of peace within my soul that is beyond understanding as I learn to trust God with what is out of my control. His grace is sufficient. I pray for this same peace to Indwell in the distressed hearts of many others. While there is great division in our world, crises like these have a unique way of unifying individuals as well. Very meaningful conversations have come about as people have been so kind to reach out in support. Continued prayers and support for all who are impacted.”

Adoption: Not a Default Setting

by Mary Cardaras, adopted from Greece to the USA.

The legal right to an abortion in the United States tilts once again precariously on the precipice toward the great dark abyss. And once again, because these debates intersect and often are paired, adoption is back to the point of a rolling boil in social media circles, in newspapers and on television. This is because U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, mother of seven, two of whom are adopted from Haiti, sashayed her way into the question of adoption while hearing a case from Mississippi about abortion. She asked whether “adoption rather than abortion would ‘relieve the burden of parenting.’” In this question she seems to have fully revealed her hand. She has also managed to stir great passions among the adoptee community, far and wide, about adoption itself and our regard for it.

Abortion is a legal option for women and should remain so. But adoption is not a default setting to abortion. Neither should it be regarded as an automatic, fail-safe, fix-all alternative to any question about how to assume responsibility for a child. We need to permanently adjust what ails the practice and narrative of adoption, which happens to be a lot.

The reality is adoption has actually harmed millions of children over decades because children have been treated as commodities and experiments. We infantilized birth parents. We’ve villainized them in some cases. And we’ve decided that the white establishment, who work in and manage the lives of children in organizations and institutional settings all over the world, affecting numerous ethnic, racial and indigenous communities, know better. They don’t.

We know; we, the great, vast diaspora of adoptees, me included, know that the lives of children and their futures are still being compromised and mishandled without a thought for both the child and the birth mother. The mother is often rendered “incapable.” The children lack agency. And as for those who believe that adoption is always a selfless gesture, a love-induced solution to a problem, they have no clear understanding about the repercussions and consequences of the decision to give up a baby. Thank you to writer Gabrielle Glaser and her groundbreaking book, American Baby, for bringing the nefarious side of adoption, through one gut wrenching story, from the darkness and shame, to the light of day. That book and that author have changed the conversation and we need to keep talking. 

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.” This iconic quote by Ernest Hemingway from For Whom the Bell Tolls cuts me to the quick as I consider my own teenage birth mother at the very moment, at that very second when she made the decision that would forever alter her young life and mine. With hand to pen and paper, she signed me away, whether by encouragement or force or emotional surrender and sheer exhaustion, she never was given the chance nor any honest and open conversation about her choice and what the unintended consequences of her decision might be.

Adoptees have, over and over, heard both the “you had a good life” argument and the cheery “you were so lucky” rote sentiment. Both of these may be true for many of us, but they have nothing, whatsoever, to do with a mother who makes the profound and painful decision to hand over her flesh and blood to strangers. And they have nothing to do with an adopted child who grows to be an adopted adult and feels in varying degrees, for different reasons, and at different times, severed from their past, however brief it may have been, and about which they deserve to know fully. Who we come from and why is vitally important and necessary for our growth, development, and psychological well-being in the long term.

I was one of 4,000 Greek-born adoptees who were exported from our country of origin between 1948 and 1970. Some of us were politically-motivated adoptions. Some were legal adoptions. Many were done by proxy. Some of us were stolen babies. Some of us were sold and commodified by doctors and lawyers and priests who acted as intermediaries. Some were separated from siblings. Some of us were ripped from twins and identical twins. All of us were taken from our mothers. Some of us were taken from both parents.

No one ever thought about us, until now; about what happened to us, why it happened to us, and what we feel and think about it. Thank you to Gonda Van Steen and her book Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro Quo? for bringing us out of the shadows. This book is creating ripples that will turn into waves for change in Greece and maybe for all international adoptions. 

Compared to adoptee communities from China, South Korea, Viet Nam, Guatemala, and other countries around the world, we were among the first (likely even the very first) and oldest ethnic communities that provided children, en masse, to childless couples; to Jews after the war, who could not find Jewish children after the Holocaust, to Greeks who wanted Greek babies and to non-Greeks, who knew that there was a glut of children in Greece, after two wars, for the taking.

We are a small group, but now a mighty group that is aging and becoming more vocal and mobilized about what happened to us. In most of our cases, our adoptive parents have died. And now time is running out for us; for reunions, to meet birth parents and family who remembered us, who loved us, who missed us, who remembered what happened, and can recount our stories. We seek restorative justice in all matters of identity, which means easy and open access to our birth certificates, all our records, our personal histories, and we want our citizenship, in our case, to Greece, restored because it was stripped from us.

We were stripped, too, from our mothers, from their embrace after emerging from the very well of their beings, underneath their hearts, completely dependent on them for life itself. And in an act of cruelty, we were quite literally stripped from their breasts, often immediately after birth, which were filled with the warm, sweet milk that was individually meant and created for each of us. We were weaned too soon. Should we have been weaned at all? And if so, how so?

After weeks of speaking publicly about adoption, and on television and in print interviews, writing about it, too, in Greece, I got to thinking about CJ, my beautiful, loving, and troubled golden retriever. I “get” her. I understand her to my core. She is one of my best friends and a constant companion. She was and is emotional, she was difficult to understand, and it was a struggle to raise up my puppy into the calmer and more peaceful adult dog she is today.

I chose her from a litter of nine. When I met her, she was tiny, adorable, and pudgy, the way golden babies tend to be. A ball of fur, just weeks old, she tumbled around on stubby, tiny legs, fighting like her brothers and sisters to get to Mama’s nipples. They needed their mother. They needed her for sustenance. They needed her to teach them right from wrong as she carried them around by the scruff of the neck, a low-pitched rumbling growl when they got out of line, a snap at them to pipe down when there was too much whining and yelping and crying. She was there for them until she wasn’t anymore, taken from her pups after just five weeks.

CJ was weaned too soon and it took months to get her right. She was incorrigible. Difficult. Obstinate. Ask anyone who tried to work with her. When was this puppy weaned, one of the best trainers in northern California asked me? At five weeks, I answered. Way, way too soon he said, shaking his head. It was no wonder she struggled. Our previous golden, Sedona, was weaned after three months. What a difference in disposition and confidence!

Further, it occurs to me how we treat puppies. For those who adopt purebred dogs, we get their papers. We know who their mother and father are. We know their dispositions and whether they were “champions.” We know the kennel they came from and the condition of the kennel. We know the breeder. In fact, there is a long interview and discussion with them. They interview you about the home and then there’s a questionnaire about whether you will be suitable. For a dog. The same is true for those animals that come from shelters. There is a lengthy process and sometimes the dog comes to “test” the home and other animals they may be cohabitating with. If it doesn’t work, there is no placement. The point is there is an awful lot of consideration for the animal.

Don’t you see that we handle the separation of animals from their mothers better than we do with human babies and their human mothers?  Infants tend to be immediately ferreted off from the person who created them, from the person who carried them, nourished them before they even laid eyes on them, held them? How cruel it is to take a tiny human being from the mother who could feed and tenderly cuddle their offspring until and unless there is an informed uncoerced solution, that comes from the mother herself, who may realize she has to do something else. And then to prepare for it, to prepare the baby for it and to counsel that child as it grows about where they came from, how they came to be, and why they were placed with new parents. And wouldn’t it be great if birth parents were fully involved in that process in order to give the child the best chance at life and at growing to understand why their life was altered? This needn’t be confusing and we must take more time than we do to solve the problem, stigma, and often heartbreak caused by adoption.

I have explained, over and over again, that my adoptive family (which was wonderful by the way) and my birth family are not mutually exclusive. They are separate, but the continuum of one to another has comprised my identity, which is still not fully formed, and I am in my 60’s. Will I ever know? Further, I just learned that my birth mother died last year after I searched for her my whole life, wanting a reunion of some kind, mostly just to talk, to get answers, to see for the first time who I came from, and to finally know someone who looks like me. My sadness about that is real and cannot be overstated.

She, my birth mother deserves my attention and care, even though she can’t see me or hear me. Never will. Why? Because in her name I have to advocate for those other mothers who will come after her. Abortion couldn’t have been an option for her. Adoption was her only alternative and since it was, she needed care. She needed love. She needed support and a place for she and her baby to figure it out. In the end, she may have made the same decision, but her decision could have involved the strangers her baby was going to. She did not deserve to be shooed away from her offspring at a critical time when her offspring needed her most and in every way.

In the case of my mother, she was shamed to the point of changing her name and her identity. And when I was born, no one could stomach dealing with a teenage mother and her child who was “exogamo,” born outside of marriage. She wouldn’t be able to handle it, they told her, and so the state would, except that it didn’t.

The answer for so many adoptions, like mine, was to marginalize the birth mother for life, and to ship the children off; stripped of their culture, their language, their religion, their identities, and in thousands of cases, their race. This happened to millions of us. And birth mothers and their children, are not necessarily better off for it.

When it comes to adoption, social workers and lawyers and doctors and those who run agencies that care for mothers and children need to take direction from those who have lived the experience and have managed the consequences. It is not fair that pronouncements about adoption come from on high and down to us, the great unwashed. We’ve had enough of those “well meaning” people who want to make decisions for us because it makes them feel better about “solving a problem,” which they know absolutely nothing about. Adoption still carries a stigma. We need to both adjust the narrative around adoption and speak about the people who are, differently.  

Why?

Because that day will be just one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come depends on what we do on that one day. The lives of so many mothers and their children deserve the wisdom of that sentiment and the respect of a fighting chance to make decisions that do no harm.

Mary Cardaras is a documentary film producer, a writer and an Associate Professor in Communication at California State University, East Bay. She is a proud Greek, an adoptee and adoptee advocate fighting for universal restorative identity justice for all adoptees around the world and for those children born through anonymous sperm donation. She is the author of Ripped at the Root. Her forthcoming book, Voices of the Lost Children of Greece: Oral Histories of International Adoption, 1948-1964 will be published by Anthem Press in 2022.   

The Dehumanisation of an Adoptee

by Kayla Zheng adopted from China to the USA.

I would be so bold to say that the vast majority of, if not all, adoptions are the selfish act of those wanting to, or having already adopted. The result of adoption leaves the adoptee in a perpetual state of dehumanisation. If we look at the word dehumanisation defined by  the Oxford Dictionary, it means “the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities.” For the public and individuals who are not well versed in adoption, the adoption industrial complex, and its practices, this can be quite confusing and the representation of adoption and adoptees have, for the most part, been a glamorised sensational plot twist or form of character development. Yet, here lies one of the many ways adoptees, both on-screen and off, are dehumanised and portrayed as void of any critical thought or experience. 

Adoption, as portrayed by social media and film, consistently shows adoptive parents (who are often white) as selfless philanthropic couples whose only intentions are to dote and shower love on a poor child (who are often BIPOC), ever pushing the narrative of white saviours. The consistent and inherent goodness and altruistic nature of whiteness by default shifts both power and racial dynamics in favour of whiteness and the dependent, in need of saving, is helpless without the all-powerful and knowing whiteness bestowed onto the child of colour. When these patterns of adoption become representative and up for societal consumption, it dehumanises the adoptee to be merely a puppet without inherent positive attributes on their own. Any potential is tied and associated to the people who adopted them, leaving the adoptee as a hollow shell used to narrow in the spotlight on the adoptive parents. Through film and TV, adoption is the stripping away of an adoptee (again, predominantly BIPOC), the illumination of adoptive parents (and, again, predominately white), how can society possibly see us as humans when we live in the shadows of those who adopted us? How can we be seen with inherent potential, with the successes of our ancestors running through our blood, and dreams reflecting our truest selves when we are constantly being shown that we are nothing without adoption? That we are nothing without whiteness?

In the continual film and TV portrayal of adoption and adoptees, adoptees are always pitted against one another. When you think of some of your favourite films or characters that are adoptees, who are they? Do they happen to be Loki, Frodo Baggins, Black Widow, Batman, The Joker, Lord Voldemort? The paradox of society’s fascination and indifference for orphans is destructive, the demand for adoptees (and thus, adoption) is binary and forces adoptees to fill the dual desire to save adoptees/orphans and villainize an adoptee/orphan. The loss of biological connection and identity loss is fantasised to create a more contextualised storyline. The need for adoption to contribute trauma and fantasy for character build-up is highly sought after. This is the double dehumanisation of adoptees through film and TV.

The danger with artificial and weak backstories is that it boxes adoptees and orphans into narrow forms and compounds the stigma and expectations surrounding our existence. This forced role of villain or hero does not provide a realistic experience of cohesively incorporating mountainous rage, burdening grief, exuding joy, and love. What Hollywood and the media project of “bad” or “good” adoptees/orphans limits and strips them of their individuality, autonomy, and humanness. The “damaged and broken” adoptee or “overcomer and hero” orphan are roles that are inaccurate and are a weak reality that is far from the nuanced life an adoptee/orphan lives that requires a burden too heavy to carry. Film and TV strips away our humanity and adoptees do not get the privilege to exist as ourselves. We are only for consumption and the limited space provided for us in the binary tropes romanticises our trauma, confines our capabilities, and diminishes us to fit a consumer’s palate. We never belong to ourselves. If we cannot have ownership over our own stories and lives, are we even able to be fully human? 

In my experience, the greatest form of dehumanisation occurs for an adoptee within the church. Growing up in an all-white environment and heavily involved in a white church that preached white Christianity, I had to survive in an ecosystem of whiteness that demanded gratitude to the good white Christians who saved me from big, bad, heathen, communist China. I would find myself, more than once, being paraded around as a token of Christian and white goodness. Of how “the Lord works in miraculous ways” and gave lil ol’ me the “opportunity and privilege to be adopted by a Christian family in a Christian country where I learned about Christ.” What that told me loud and clear was that China was irredeemable unless under the power of the white Christian church or through adoption by whiteness. In other words, I did not possess inherent potential and positive traits without the white man liberating me and providing me access to success under the guidance of white Christianity. 

The dehumanisation continued, as in my early years during conferences I would be brought in front of a congregation or made to stand onstage alongside my adoptive parents, and they would discuss how adoption was a beautiful gift that touched their life. Other times, youth leaders would openly discuss how my adoption is a metaphor for how Christians are “adopted” into the family of Christ. And how my adoption gave me a new father – we have a new father through Jesus! Different variations and versions of these scenarios have plagued my youth and further trivialised my existence into a metaphor that others could benefit from. Not once did anyone question if adoption was a gift to me, if being taken away from my homeland touched my life in a beautiful way or not, or being uprooted twice before the age of three with a group of white strangers benefited me or could replace a sense of family for me.

To have your story told through a white lens as a person of colour that protects the white man while diminishing your autonomy and the multifaceted complexities of your existence, is one of the most dehumanising grievances that can happen. Adoption through mainstream media and the church gave little room for me to feel human but instead made every space feel like an advertisement that others could project their value onto, for their own benefit. Winners have the privilege to write history or speak about it on stage. Losers, those who are not given the same chance to speak their own story, those who are bought…are dehumanised. 

Kayla’s most popular articles: Decolonizing Moses & Atlanta Consequences

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