by Mark Hagland, adopted from Korea to the USA, Co-Founder of Transracial Adoption Perspectives(a FB group for prospective and adoptive parents).Mark originally wrote this for his Transracial Adoption Perspectives group.
I had an absolutely wonderful, hour-long phone conversation today with a fellow person of color (POC) with whom I connected some months ago via Facebook. We had originally connected in a very “Facebook” way–through friends of friends of friends–you know, that Facebook way of connecting.
In order to protect her privacy, I’ll just call her “X.” X is a Black-biracial woman who’s close to my age (I’m 60); we’ve connected very strongly around racial justice and political issues. She’s an absolute delight. We’d love to meet in person someday soon (we live quite far away from each other), and we talked about a wide range of subjects, including racial justice and politics, but also about our lived experiences as people of color; and I shared with her about some of what I do in the transracial adoption world. She was extremely supportive and encouraging. And that prompted her to share some deeply personal experiences around racism, colorism, and challenges as a biracial person specifically.
I’m sharing this here because I want to share about the fact that, growing up in near-total whiteness, I was essentially disabled intellectually and culturally when I first entered young adulthood, in terms of connecting with fellow people of color of all non-white races. I absolutely knew that I needed to connect with fellow POC, but it was difficult at first, because I had been raised in near-total whiteness and absolutely inside white culture–even though white people had never allowed me to “be” white. In other words, I only knew how to connect to my fellow POC in a very “white” way, and it showed.
So it took me years to “break into” POC society. Over time, I was introduced to more and more people, and I acquired cultural fluency with individuals from the various non-white racial groups. Of course, every single person on earth is an individual; that goes without saying. But the ability for a transracial adoptee raised in whiteness to break out of learned whiteness is far from an automatic thing. Indeed, a young-adult transracial adoptee raised in whiteness can inadvertently send signals to individuals of color that can make them hesitant to engage, if one presents oneself as not understanding fellow POC; but it’s like anything else in life–until one has certain kinds of experiences, one lacks the fluency needed to pursue those experiences.
My conversation today brought something to mind for me. For several years, I privately and confidentially advised a particular white transracially adoptive mom. I’ll call her “Y.” She and her husband had raised two Black children, one male, one female; I’ll call her daughter “Z.” Y and her husband raised their children in near-total whiteness in a smallish Midwestern city (around 100,000), and when Z moved to a large city to try to integrate with fellow young Black adults, she was devastated by the rejection she experienced. She was so culturally white that people mocked her and dismissed her out of hand. She had several years of painful experiences before she was able to reach a level at which she was socially and culturally accepted. She’s OK now, but she had a rocky several years (which is why her mom had reached out to me for advice).
One of the biggest stumbles I see happening over and over again in transracially adoptive parenting is what happened with “Y” and “Z.” The parents in that family were loving and supportive of their children, but their daughter hit a wall when she tried to penetrate birth culture as a young adult, and was emotionally devastated by the initial non-acceptance and dismissal that she experienced. But it doesn’t have to be that way. White transracially adoptive parents need to prepare their children to try to integrate with their birth culture and also to become adept at interacting with people of color of all races. It took me a while, but I’ve been so happy to be able to interact with people of color of all non-white races, and to be accepted by them as a fellow POC. And no, that’s not automatic at all. I can tell you that I’ve had countless experiences with Black, Black/biracial, Latinx, Native, and Asian (East, South, Southeast) individuals, in which they saw and affirmed my POC-ness. And I want to make it absolutely clear that my referencing that fact is in no way a boast; instead, is simply my reporting that it is absolutely possible for transracial adoptees to be able to navigate society in ways in which other people of color perceive them as POC and interact accordingly.
Some of this is a bit nuanced and difficult to explain, but I can assure you that there are subtextual communications going on all the time, and there’s a world of difference between interacting with fellow POC as a POC and interacting with fellow POC when they’re putting you at arm’s length. I’ve experienced both, and know the difference.
In any case, if your child of color is not seeing daily mirrors of her/himself in adults and children of their specific race as well as adults and children of all non-white races, and if your child is not actually interacting with POC on a daily basis, it will be far harder for them to begin to integrate with people from their birth race and with people of all non-white races, as they approach adulthood. Please absolutely make sure that early adulthood doesn’t come as a terrible shock, as it did to “Z.” They’ll definitely blame you for leaving them in the lurch in this crucial area. Don’t make them have to figure all of this out by themselves; begin building the needed bridges when they’re young children, so that the connections happen fluidly and organically, and so that their competence evolves forward fluidly and organically as well. It’s a huge element in their lifelong journey, and cannot be ignored. Surrounding your child with media and culture that reflect them is essential, but so is helping your child to be able to interact easily and naturally with members of their race and all non-white races. Both are incredibly important.
In any case, thank you for reading and considering this.
I’m very excited and feeling hopeful after hearing Belgium’s recent news, that their Minister has announced his intention to ask Parliament to suspend all adoptions for the next 2 years as a result of their investigation into intercountry adoptions.
Surrounded by incredible adoptee leaders around the world, I know how much effort has gone into getting intercountry adoptee rights to where we are today. News like this does not in any way solve or fix the issues we face but it is at least the beginning of having recognition of the wrongs done — with governments and authorities stepping up to confront the truth that we’ve been talking about for decades. Acknowledgement is the first step of many!
Belgium isn’t the first adoptive country to do so. The Netherlands announced their moratorium on all intercountry adoptions earlier this year in February and published their report. Switzerland announced their report from investigating past practices relating to Sri Lankan adoptions and they are being urged to provide reparation to the victims. Sweden also announced their intention to investigate their illegal intercountry adoptions. And yesterday, the Belgium Minister announced his recommendations to be considered by Parliament. You can read here the full Expert Panel report.
But for some countries we still have work to do
It seems that finally some governments are listening to our lived experience and have decided to no longer turn a blind eye. But even though these 4 have listened, I want to also remind you that there has been much work and years of effort gone into other countries who still haven’t come to the “acknowledgement table”. In France, the adoptees there have had huge support in their petition to have the French Parliament conduct an investigation into their historic intercountry adoptions. In Denmark, the adoptees from Chile have been working with the government to have their adoptions investigated.
In my adoptive country Australia, I have been speaking out and advocating for supports for impacted adoptees and families and for recognition of the abuses in Australia for many years. In fact, it’s been over a decade already and I remember in my early years representing adoptees at NICAAG where Julia Rollings (adoptive mum) and I tabled this issue at the beginning in 2008 and asked that the issue be addressed. More recently, I have also presented a small group of 8 impacted adoptees to meet with our Central Authority, DSS in 2017 asking for very specific supports. However, to this day, those adoptees have still been ignored and dismissed. Despite having very clear cases of illegal activity where perpetrators have been criminally convicted and jailed (e.g., the Julie Chu cohort in image below from Taiwan), nothing has been offered for the adoptees or their families to help them deal with the extra complexities of their illegal adoptions. It’s as if these impacted adoptees don’t exist and Australia hopes the problem will fade away while they face far more important issues, like COVID-19 or an upcoming election.
It is time authorities around the world step up and take responsibility for the processes and structures that ruptured our lives via adoption – for good and for bad.
Intercountry adoption has followed the path of domestic adoption
In intercountry adoption, we are seeing the same pattern where country after country the governments are acknowledging the wrongs in their domestic adoptions. Canada leads the way by providing financial compensation to their victims of the Sixties Scoop. Australia has already provided a formal apology for the women and babies who were impacted under the Forced Adoption era — but are still as yet to be offered any form of compensation. Australia also just announced their compensation for the Indigenous Aboriginals who were forcibly removed and placed into white families under the Stolen Generation. It is interesting that the Australian government can acknowledge these past practices but doesn’t recognise the very close similarities with our historic intercountry adoptions. Ireland as a government has only this year recognised the wrongs and provided a formal apology to the mothers and children who suffered in Babies Homes from forced adoptions. Ireland is also baulking at offering compensation.
What about our birth countries?
Very few of our birth countries involved in our illicit and illegal adoptions have taken any action either. Guatemala, Ethiopia and Russia are the main ones that come to my memory where they stopped all intercountry adoptions because of irregularities — but they too have failed to provide impacted adoptees with services or compensation to recognise the wrongs done to them. Some of them have sentenced perpetrators but their sentence rarely ever matches the depths of their crime.
Let’s have a quick overview at how perpetrators have been sentenced to date:
That the majority of perpetrators in intercountry adoption get away with mild convictions demonstrates the lack of legal framework to protect us. And despite the fact that very few perpetrators in intercountry adoption are ever caught, let alone sentenced, one still has to ask, where is the support for the victims?
The American Samoan Adoptees Restitution Trust is the ONLY restorative justice program I’ve come across, establishing a fund provided by the perpetrators to facilitate connection to birth family and country. But the funds provided have been extremely limiting considering how many people are impacted and out of those impacted adoptees, only 1 was enabled to return to their natural family. Have governments even considered whether intercountry adoptees wish to be repatriated back to their birth country?
What level of responsibility should governments bear?
Many articles have been written about the problems in intercountry adoption via the irregularities in processing us for intercountry adoption, but the most critical issue that governments need to respond to, is our right to identity.
“Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) notes that a child has a right to identity including a name, a nationality and family relations. Whenever a child is deprived of one of these elements, States have an obligation to restore the child’s identity speedily. At the heart of any intercountry adoption (ICA) is the modification of a child’s identity given at birth.” — CHIP
In summary our report explains what the majority of us want. We each independently submitted our thoughts without knowing what the other was submitting. Here are the top 3 suggestions we raised :
A change to intercountry adoption laws to ensure a legal framework exists for which illicit practices can be prosecuted against. Currently there is none.
An independent investigative body so we aren’t expecting the governments and adoption authorities to “investigate” themselves. Currently that’s what happens.
Fully funded support services for victims. Currently there are huge gaps in general post adoption supports let alone supports specific to being trafficked. Not one country in the world currently provides any sort of trafficking support for adoptees or their families — both adoptive and natural, but especially for natural families who rarely have a voice on the global arena.
I observe the Netherlands who are still working on their National Centre of Expertise might be including support services specific to trafficking victims, so too it appears from the Belgium report they are trying. But supports for trafficking victims needs to be comprehensive not just a DNA or a general counselling service. In our report, we list in full what this support needs to include: legal aid; counselling; financial aid; funded lived experience support groups; family tracing; DNA testing and professional genealogy services; travel support; language classes; translation services; mediation services; culture and heritage supports.
Why can’t adoption be a “happily ever after” story?
People mistakenly think that intercountry adoptees have to be unhappy in their adoption to want to fight for justice. It is not true.
We can be happy in our adoptive life and country but also be unhappy with how our adoptions were conducted and rightfully expect that everything be done to restore our original identities and help us to reconnect with our natural families who have lost us via intercountry adoption.
Our voices have been fighting for decades for our right to origins, to make amends for our lost identity, to have the illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions recognised for what they are – the commodification of children. We need this crazy system to stop, it’s been going on for too long. We are not a small number, estimates vary but we definitely are in the hundreds of thousands globally and possibly a few million.
It’s time for the truth and hopefully long term, we might see some reparative and restorative justice for us and our families. In the meantime, myself and fellow adoptee leaders continue to work hard for our communities globally! Onward and upward! I hope one day to be able to write about our “happily ever after” story, once we get justice and recognition for the wrongs done.
To know your parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents …
To know your medical history; whether your mother died of cancer, your father suffered heart problems, whether your grandmother had diabetes …
To know who you look like, where your traits come from, whether your face in the mirror is a reflection of someone else ..
To know your birth story, date, time, season of the year, what hospital you were born in …
To know your country of birth, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion …
To be surrounded by people who look like you racially …
To know your origins is a privilege!
These are the things I don’t take for granted because I didn’t have any of these whilst growing up. I was born in one country, adopted to another, by a family of different race. I’m a transracial intercountry adoptee. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life wondering, searching, trying to learn about my origins.
In my community of intercountry adoptees – to know your origins is definitely a privilege!
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
by Mary Cardaras, adopted from Greece to the USA; Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay.
This has been an incredible couple of years but, especially, in the very year of a global pandemic. It was in this year that I found my voice as an adoptee. Seemed like the stars aligned. Meant to be at this time, in this space. I have found people, or maybe it is they who found me, who have brought me out to my community of fellow adoptees, birth mothers, activists and supporters.
It all began after the death of my adoptive mother in 2018. (My father had died 18 years prior.) Her death was one of the saddest times of my life. Left again, I felt. She and I had grown so close over the years and spent much time together, but her leaving also provided the space I needed to consider life before her. And there was a life before her, however brief it may have been. Even my tiny self had a past. It was buried, though. Obscured. In many ways, erased.
What did it matter? How could it matter?
My adoption, which I had put to the side, had been front and center my entire growing up as a child and as a teenager. I didn’t put it there. Everyone else put it there. A label. A tag. My identity was imposed. Sometimes it stigmatized me. And it definitely made me an outsider looking in to a life that I lived, but one that I couldn’t really lay claim to. As mine. From where I actually came.
What brought me to this day and what is the reason that I can now write about it?
In 2018, I wanted to come closer to my roots as a Greek-born adoptee. I signed up for Greek language lessons at a church in Oakland, California. I went to class on my way home to Sonoma every Monday evening coming from the university where I taught. Those lessons re-connected me with my culture. It was an absolute joy to hear the language, learn to speak it, and revel in its complexity with my fellow students all, at least, partially Greek, but fully Greek in their love for it.
It was during this class that I was asked, από που είσαι? From where are you? Είμαι Ελληνίδα, I could proudly say with certainty. I am a Greek. Γεννήθηκα στην Αθήνα. I was born in Athens. Υιοθετήθηκα. I was adopted. I am adopted. Like the recitation of a mantra. Those two things identify me and they are the only two things I know for certain, as I have noted in my writing before.
My classmate, Kathy, mentioned, “I have a cousin who was adopted, Mary, who was also from Greece, too.” I was immediately intrigued. There was someone else who was from where I was and who was branded the same as me?!
“She has an incredible story, Mary,” Kathy said. “You need to meet her and, in fact, you will. She is coming to visit and I will bring her to class.” Kathy told me the story that day and with every sentence she uttered my eyes got wider and I kept repeating the words: No. Are you kidding? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What? That is incredible!
Within a week or two of Kathy telling me her implausible story, Dena Poulias came to class. A pretty, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, shy and quiet, she came with her cousin to hear our lesson. Did she want to participate, the teacher asked her? No, she demurred. She was only there to listen and to meet us.
After class I introduced myself more fully and told her I had heard her story. I am a writer, I told Dena. I would be honored to write your story. She told me she had been wanting to write her own story for years, but she hadn’t gotten around to it. She wasn’t a writer, she said. I gave her my number and my email address. I think I reached out once, but she wasn’t ready. Hers was a heavy, painful story. It just couldn’t have happened I tried to convince myself.
Weeks later, Dena wrote and said she was ready to talk. She decided she wanted me to tell her story and so over the course of about a year, in intervals of two days here, one week there, the next month we would talk. Well, she would talk and there was so much she couldn’t remember exactly. But her husband was her memory. So was her cousin, Kathy. And her sister. And her mother and father. The story, unlike anything else I had ever written, flowed out of me. I am a journalist and so wrote news and documentaries. This was different. Literary nonfiction. I was recreating scenes and dialogues told to me by first person sources. It was visual in scope. Many who read previews said it was cinematic. Whatever it was, it was all true. Dena, finally, was telling her own story to someone and I was inspired by her finally getting it out there.
In the course of writing, I needed some important information. I was about to implicate a respected Greek organization in some scandalous adoption practices during the 1950’s. Even poking around on my own on social media and asking questions brought some pretty hateful online comments. When I contacted the organization itself, it predictably denied any wrong doing. The president literally said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Come look through our files in Washington, D.C., he said. “We have nothing of the kind and no such history.”
Enter one Gonda Van Steen, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in modern Greek studies. In my research, I had come across her new book entitled Adoption, Memory and Cold War Greece: Kid Pro Quo?I wrote to her out of the blue, introduced myself, told her I was a reporter, and asked about this particular organization. Did she know it? Was it involved in the trade and, in some cases, in the “selling” of babies?
The organization was indeed involved in these unethical adoption practices. It was certainly part of Dena’s story. Gonda had said, in the course of our conversations, that the story I was writing sounded awfully familiar. In fact, Dena Poulias appears on pages 202 and 203 of her book and was one of the cases she had followed and chronicled. She said it had been one of the more “moving” stories that she had encountered. Gonda began to fill my head with history and put my own adoption in context.
I kept writing.
In early 2021, about the time I finished Dena’s story, I read another incredible book about adoption called American Baby, written by the brilliant, best-selling author, Gabrielle Glaser. I could not put it down and was transfixed by yet another incredible, unbelievable adoption story that was similar to Dena’s. This book is focused on domestic adoptions, which were just as horrific as what was happening on the international scene. Glaser’s writing both broke my heart and shook it awake somehow.
I decided, after consultation with Gonda, to collect stories from Greek born adoptees and put them into an anthology. This group of adoptees, “the lost children of Greece,” had never been heard from before! During conversations about approaching authors, Gonda suggested, you know, Mary, you should reach out to Gabrielle Glaser and ask her if she would write the Forward. On one hand, I thought that was a crazy idea. I mean, right. Gabrielle Glaser?! Really? Then I thought, well, why not? I wrote to her as I had written to Gonda. Cold. But she was there. She answered. She was lovely. And today we are friends. Her book also made me re-evaluate adoption itself. Including my own.
As I explained in a recent online forum about adoption, I felt like the Lion who found his courage, the Scarecrow, who found his brain, and the Tin Man who found his heart all at once. Dena gave me courage. Gonda made me think about what happened to me and thousands like me. And Gabrielle helped me to feel the beating of my own heart.
Through them I found my way to Greg Luce and Lynelle Long and Shawna Hodgson and so, so many others far too many to name. I stand now with them and our allies, talking and writing and advocating for adoptee rights.
That is how I came to this point. But why do I write here and now?
The sharing of my own adoption story has roused feelings and thoughts in others about me. They wonder. Why and how do I feel the way I do? Why didn’t I share before? My feelings make them sad. They thought I was happy. They simply don’t understand. And you know what? They may never. Understand. And that’s ok. I can’t and I won’t defend my feelings, which are real, however foreign and unreasonable they may seem to others.
I don’t have thoughts about whether or not I should have been adopted. I don’t have thoughts about whether my life in Greece would have been better. I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me and how it happened. I can’t go back and have a do-over with the people who were doing whatever they were doing. I do know they were making decisions that they thought, at the time, were in my best interests.
They didn’t realize that my birth mother was suffering. That she had a family, who had abandoned HER because she was a teenage, unwed mother. She was cast aside and she was relegated unimportant in the story of my life. How can that be? She and I were once one. She was promised by a proxy, that no one would “bother” her ever again. Has she ever recovered from the shame imposed on her? And from our separation? She needed support and love in order to make a sober decision about her baby, her own flesh and blood. I don’t care if she was 14 or 24. She needed help.
I have recently learned the number I was assigned when I was placed in the Athens Foundling Home on January 11, 1955. It is 44488. This means thousands of children came before me, all relegated to numbers. The number, cold as it is, can unlock some information I want and need. I checked some old letters back and forth from the social service agency that handled my case. One letter says there are two people listed on the papers when I entered that orphanage. A mother and a father. I have her name. I want his. Who am I? From where did I come? And what happened? Fundamental to every person’s wholeness is knowledge about their past.
Think of this. If you were not adopted, as you grew up you heard your own story, perhaps over and over again. It was sweet and sentimental as you listened to the story of your own birth and early days. You were conceived under a certain set of circumstances. You were born under a certain set of circumstances. Your parents remember that day. They tell you about that day, what you did, what they did, how you looked, what you weighed, what it was like when they brought you home, what kind of a baby you were. In sum, you had a story that people shared with you. My story started the minute I came into the arms of another family that was not my own. There was something, however brief, before, and I do not know it. That is the point.
I was placed with wonderful adoptive parents and into a large, loving Greek-American family. I did not lose my language or my culture. My parents were incredibly loving and I cannot describe the depth of my love for them and for my grandparents. I appreciate the life they gave me. I appreciate my family and my friends. I was a happy kid and an even happier adult. Those who know me would likely describe my love of life and laughter and my level of commitment to the things and people I care about.
BUT this has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with what came before. These are two separate things. The adoptees I know strive to become complete human beings. That means they had a past and need to know fully about it. They deserve open adoption records, original birth certificates and citizenship of origin, if they want it. Adoptees are entitled to these and we are also entitled to our feelings and thoughts about our own lives. As one adoptee recently explained, meeting a birth parent enables you to cut the emotional umbilical cord. We invite others to ask questions because they care about understanding us, but please don’t put us on the defensive. We don’t have to explain. We are tired of explaining. We are just thinking through our own, personal experiences, which are all different.
I crave connection. Deep, unmistakable connection to others. You know it when you feel it with another human being. Maybe you feel it so completely that you feel like you have known them all your life or in another life. You know what I am talking about. For me, that connection is almost something divine. I run toward the light and hold that little flame like a precious, fragile flower. I take care of it. Nurture it. I love to feel like I belong and sometimes that feeling, so beautiful, is elusive in the mind and heart of an adoptee.
This adoptee is also gay. So, there are two points of difference that I have had to navigate.
I have been with the same woman for nearly 30 years. Fifteen years or so ago I adopted her sons from a previous marriage. There is no easy way to say this, but their father abandoned them when they were small. I was every bit a parent with her from the time the boys were 2 and 3 years old. They could not have been more “my children.” Our friends recognized my place in their lives, of course, but there were others who never could and never did.
My partner was the “real” parent. Those were “her” boys, not mine, never mine in the eyes of some. I was not a part of their family, but merely an outsider. This was incredibly painful. In fact, just recently the boys (now men) were introduced as her sons while I was standing right there.
What meaning does adoption hold? No, I am serious. Hell, I don’t even know and I was adopted and have adopted!
I was able to re-establish my Greek citizenship years ago and I am happy for it, grateful for it.
Being able to attain it has been the exception to the rule, I have learned. It was, in many ways, a humiliating experience trying to prove over and over again who I was, where I was born and to whom. There was the problem of an altered birth certificate, which never should have happened and it certainly didn’t help, but that’s another story.
My partner is fully Greek (American). The children are fully Greek (American). My partner got her Greek citizenship through her parents (who were born in Greece) and we wanted the boys, too, to also have their Greek citizenship in case, in the future, they someday wanted to work in Greece or within the EU. It was going to be an uphill battle to prove the Greek connection through their maternal grandparents and then also through their own Greek father and his parents, with whom they are no longer in contact. But wait! I was their legal parent and also born Greek. A citizen! They could get citizenship through me, a legal parent. Couldn’t they? Easy, no? But just hold on!
This was not to be. Because I was not a birth parent, lacking that biological connection, it was not allowed. People are getting Greek citizenship through parents and grandparents. Others are being granted Greek citizenship because they are famous scholars or actors or authors, having no biological connection to the people of the country. But me, a Greek-born adoptee, who happened to adopt two Greek-American boys, could not establish citizenship for my sons. Are they less my sons because we are not biologically related? Are they not my sons at all?
You see why we feel the way we do. It is complicated and it often means little in the eyes of some. There remains a stigma. There is discrimination. Still.
Blood is thicker than water. You enjoy the company of some families almost as an honored guest, but often not as a bona fide member. You’re out there of someone else, but not fully theirs.
I don’t blame anyone. I’m not angry. But this is my reality. I own it all and I’m ok with it. I have to be. But to all friends and family of adoptees, please understand that not only are we entitled to all our records. We are also entitled to our experiences and our feelings. They do not reflect on you. They’re not about you. Let us have them. Let us own our cause. And please try to listen first.
Mary holds a Ph.D. in Public and International Affairs and is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication where she teaches Political Communication, Journalism and Documentary Film at California State University, East Bay. Mary is currently compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories and has 13 contributors for the collection with the working title “Voices of the Lost Children of Greece”, to be published by Anthem Press in 2022. If you would like to participate, please contact Mary.
by Dilsah de Rham adopted from Sri Lanka to Switzerland.
Ink, Watercolours, Pastel
This is also about the dilemma of the dualities in life faced by adoptees in general. The feeling of the blind unconsciousness – the sad, overwhelmed feelings when we are not aware, the awareness about our identity, feeling in-between the white and biological cultures we belong to as intercountry adoptees.
It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only is diversity alone not working but in fact it’s a tactic being used to immunise organisations against the charge of racism or marginalisation. Here in the UK, the Conservative politicians who lead the most anti-immigration policies are people of colour. They don’t represent the groups from which they came from instead they snuggle up to power by reciting the tired old Tory tropes, perhaps pining to belong to the in-group they’ve always been outside of, and always will be because they chose an intolerant in-group.
We see this time and time again, a single minority group is represented and held up to be an example of why there isn’t racism/ablism/sexism etc. Conveniently they proselytise the voice of the status quo with passion and heady conviction. When the dominant group is accused of inequity they wheel out one or two of the said minority group as a way of denying the charge and go back to making decisions to the disadvantage of minorities. Over the decades an increasing awareness and demand for representation has led organisations, Hollywood and governments to create an illusion of diversity without inclusion, without meaningfully addressing power dynamics of majority groups and social hierarchies so power remains firmly in the same hands. We’re often represented as a homogenous group if there’s one person of colour, or a gay white man, a box may have been ticked but meaningful representation hasn’t been achieved.
I see this in how we as adoptees are working as advocates. There’s an awareness in society but a lack of comfort with the idea that adoptees are the experts. As such there’s a performance of inclusion, adoptees are often at the forefront of adoption promo campaigns if they espouse how beautiful it is. Even if they talk to the complexity of our experiences they remain comforting voices to those who see adoption as doing good and the only way to resolve family crisis in which a child needs support.
I’ve noticed that I’m rarely invited to give my opinion in policy or best practice within organisations who could reform it. And when I am, the comfort of the majority group has been significantly favoured. Representation doesn’t give us power if we’re outnumbered, on someone else’s territory and way down the hierarchy. I believe this to be largely unconscious, but always leveraged. Those in the majority rarely have to consider the factors that create equity of power or more regularly inequity.
Adoptees have very little representation across the world. In the UK alone, there’s not a single adoptee led group, which covers the wide range of experiences of adoptees here. Instead we’re disparate unfunded mutual aid groups trying to help each other and ourselves however we can. I’ve observed the frequent ways in which many adoptees burn out from advocating. Having been invited to conferences and policy events many have disappeared from view because of the traumatic nature of those events. They’re traumatic because as a minority our voices are discounted, denied, argued with and often aggressively silenced. This group is largely there at those tables because we’re so vulnerable, and so in need of change, our community has high levels of suicide, depression, addiction and more.
If I’m going to continue my work as an advocate I need to set myself and fellow adoptees up for success in these spaces where we can find ourselves enduring dangerous levels of stress. So I think it’s important to name the power dynamics in play so that we can ensure we can address those problems in how we set up our boundaries, and have the language to name issues when they occur. So I’ve created a simple infographic which names the power dynamics and offers solutions for those genuinely interested in social justice.
by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA, MSW.
I have lost two people in my life to suicide, the father of my children who was also my ex-husband and my mom. The father of my children was adopted and my mom was impacted by adoption because she lost me to adoption. Both of them sadly fit the statistics. Adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. I would argue that moms (first mothers, original mothers, natural moms) also have high suicide attempt rates.
I am a transracial and intercountry adoptee who was adopted from Bogota, Colombia and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan in the United States. Suicide loss is a death like no other. It is not like a car accident, heart attack, or cancer where there is a clear explanation of how someone died. People who die by suicide are struggling immensely. There is no closure with this death. Suicide is also highly stigmatised, people do not want to talk about it, and many judge the death. Suicide loss for us as adoptees is further compounded and amplified with all of the loss and grief that we have already experienced and it can trigger many of the issues we suffer with related to adoption.
If you are reading this and have lost someone to suicide, I want you to know that you are not alone and that I am so sorry you are experiencing this horrendously painful loss. I also want you to know that it is not your fault. There is nothing you could have done or should have done. The person who died was in so much pain. You may also be reading this and have been shocked by the person’s death because you had no idea that they were suffering and maybe they seemed happy and like everything was okay. It is still not your fault. Please do not blame yourself or hold onto any guilt. It is extremely painful to know or learn that our loved one was suffering so much.
One thing that I have learned is that some days are harder than others. It has helped me to know that I can break up my days and I can take it moment to moment, minute to minute or hour to hour or one day at a time as the famous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan says. The first year for me was a complete blur. It seemed to drag on forever and I was in a hurry to put it all behind me because it was so painful and difficult. Honestly, I cannot remember much because I was in so much shock. Please be patient, kind and gentle with yourself if you have experienced a suicide loss. Suicide loss is such a painful and life changing loss. The first year of loss was really hard because everything becomes a first without them.
Some of the hardest days for me are, the person’s birthday, anniversary of their death and the holidays. I have learned to sit with my emotions and feel them. I give myself permission to cry and mourn if that is what needs to happen. If something was too hard, then I created a new tradition or decided not to do it. Then there are times where I just break down because something triggered me and I am back to feeling my grief. Grief is a journey, it ebbs and it flows. It is not linear and there is no expiration date. Please do not let anyone tell you differently or push you to get over it or heal in a certain amount of time. We all grieve differently and grief is not a one size fits all thing experience.
It has been a real journey for me to figure out ways to cope and begin to heal. Suicide loss has really changed the way that I have looked at life. I now see that life is short and fleeting and that each day is not promised. I have chosen to use the loss of my mother as momentum to help me live my life in honor of her. I strive to turn my pain into purpose, a path, and power. There have been many ways that I have found to help me cope which I want to share with you.
For me, sitting with my feelings and truly feeling them has been so helpful. Crying, bawling and literally losing my breath sobbing and having that deep soul cry have helped my grieve and mourn. Therapy has also been instrumental for me. It is really helpful to have a safe and non judgemental space that is just for me. It is important to find a therapist who works solely with trauma and ideally someone who is adoption competent. Many therapists honestly have not studied adoption so it is hard for them to truly understand us.
I am an avid reader and for me reading and researching gave me answers and helped me gain understanding. I threw myself into reading and researching suicide. For me it was important to understand suicide so that I could make sense of things. I read a lot from other suicide loss survivors which was really essential because I could relate to what they were saying and I could learn how they coped and healed. The other group that was really important to read and listen to was, suicide attempt survivors. It helped me to be able to gain a deeper understanding of suicide and mental health struggles. It also gave me insight into how I can help people who are suffering from suicidal ideations.
I joined a grief support group and a suicide survivor loss support group. Both of these groups allowed me to connect with other people who were experiencing the same things as me and I did not need to explain myself. I made friends, I cried, I laughed but most of all I realized that I was not alone and I felt seen, heard and validated. I also attend an adoption group which has been helpful because many adoptees are also dealing with suicide loss. It has been helpful to talk with other adoptees about suicide loss. You can look for a group online and accessibility should be easier now that most groups are being done virtually.
Attending events such as walks that raise money for suicide prevention or attending International Suicide Survivor Loss Day which is in November have also very helpful. Again, I was able to realise that I am not not alone and I felt like part of a bigger piece. It is inspiring to see money being raised to help prevent suicide, fund research, and also cathartic.
Movement such as running, biking, walking, and yoga have also helped me cope because they are an outlet where I can release and channel my emotions. Meditation has been great because it has allowed me to slow down and be present in my body. Journaling and writing have been my creative outlet for processing and coping with suicide loss. Making sure that I am eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient sleep has also been really beneficial. The self care piece is really important and it will look different for everyone. Please do something for yourself that you enjoy doing.
Social media is also a great way to connect with other survivors of suicide loss. There are many groups and organizations that one can join. There are also many blogs, podcasts and articles on mental health issues that discuss suicide which are great resources.
It has been almost 7 years since my first suicide loss and just over 2 from the death of my mom so it has been a decent amount of time and not a long period of time. I am at a place where I want to share my story whether it be to one on one, to a group, or through writing. This is not something I could have done early on as it was so painful and I was still processing everything. I find now that sharing my story has really helped me cope and be able to help others.
I have made an effort to incorporate the people that have been lost into my everyday life. I have purchased ornaments in honour of them for my Christmas tree, framed pictures of them for my house, I purchase flowers regularly in honour of my mom, I light candles, and make their favourite food on holidays or any other time. I am thinking about getting a tattoo in honour of my mom so that she is always symbolically there with me. It has been soothing for me to incorporate them into my daily life. Some other ideas I have thought of are, planting a tree or plant for the person, you can set a place for them at the table, you can buy or create some kind of art that can be in honour of them, you could buy or make a scarf or something to wear that symbolises them.
I want you to remember that the suicide of your loved one is not your fault. You are not alone in losing someone to suicide.
Please take care of yourself and remember there are resources to help you cope. Be kind and gentle with yourself.
by Niels Ernest Lam, transracially adopted in the Netherlands with African and Dutch heritage; adoption / lgbti / life coach at Simply Niels and with AFC.
At the end of March, I attended the first edition of Men Only Online. This was created by Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) because more and more adopted men are open to deepening in terms of relinquishment and adoption. Olv. Hilbrand Westra (정운석) and Sandor Penninga met with a number of domestic and foreign adoptees.
I must confess that I was quite tense beforehand because until recently I have not previously talked to only men about my relinquishment and adoption. Previously, I always participated in groups that mainly include women. And I also found it exciting because because of my homosexuality I didn’t know how the group would react to it. My assumption is that women accept this easier than “real” men. However, the tension, created by myself, soon disappeared like snow through the sun. The openness and vulnerability of all the men present made me feel no less or different from the rest. My sexual orientation didn’t matter at all.
The morning flew by, a lot was discussed. There was recognition in everyone’s story. That made for the connection.
Once again, I would like to thank the men who were there for who they are. And for what they contributed to this morning.
Original post in Dutch
Door, Niels Ernest Lam
Afgelopen zaterdag was de eerste editie van Men Only Online. Dit is in het leven geroepen omdat steeds meer geadopteerde mannen openstaan voor verdieping op het gebied van afstand en adoptie. olv. Hilbrand Westra (정운석) en Sandor Penninga ging een aantal binnen- en buitenlands geadopteerde met elkaar in gesprek.
Ik moet bekennen dat ik van tevoren best gespannen was omdat ik tot voor kort niet eerder met alleen maar mannen over mijn afstand en adoptie heb gepraat. Voorheen nam ik altijd deel aan groepen waar voornamelijk vrouwen bij zitten. En ook vond ik het spannend omdat ik vanwege mijn homoseksualiteit niet wist hoe de groep erop zou reageren. Mijn aanname is dat vrouwen dit makkelijke accepteren dan ‘echte’ mannen. De spanning, door mijzelf gecreëerd, verdween echter al gauw als sneeuw door de zon. De openheid en kwetsbaarheid van alle aanwezige mannen maakten dat ik mij niet minder of anders dan de rest voelde. Mijn seksuele geaardheid speelde helemaal geen rol.
De ochtend voorbijvloog, is er veel besproken. Er was herkenning in een ieders verhaal. Dat zorgde voor de verbinding.
Ik wil nogmaals de mannen, die erbij waren, bedanken voor wie ze zijn. En voor wat ze hebben bijgedragen aan deze ochtend.
by Yung Fierens adopted from South Korea to Belgium.
This is Lee Keun Soon, my mother.
In 1976 and at the age of 26, Lee Keun Soon was trapped in an unhappy marriage with a violent husband and she was a mother of two little girls. She was bullied on a daily basis by a dominating and spiteful mother-in-law and according to local tradition, had to live with her to serve and obey as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
Right after the birth of her youngest child, she couldn’t cope any longer with the abuse, beatings and cheating of her husband, so she ran away.
It wasn’t only an act of desperation, influenced by probably postpartum depression and exhaustion right after giving birth, but foremost it was seen as an act of open rebellion. Such disobedience wasn’t only slightly frowned upon in a paternalistic and hierarchical society, it needed to be punished in the most severe way possible.
After a family council, led by the child’s grandmother, it was decided that the baby girl should be taken to an orphanage and be put up for adoption. When Lee Keun Soon returned home, they told her little Yoo Hee had died due to her mother leaving her behind. Broken by guilt and shame she resigned into being the dutiful and submissive wife and mother society expected her to be and had two more children.
Thirty years later, her dying mother-in-law admitted the sick baby she left behind was living somewhere in a country far away, probably given a different identity.
Lee Keun Soon left her husband, this time for good and started searching for her lost daughter.
At the same time, a girl somewhere in Belgium, was testing out this new thing called “the internet” and sent an email to the orphanage she came from. The email was just to say, “Hi.” She hadn’t any other expectation as she was led to believe she was an orphan.
Fast forward a year later, mother and daughter finally met at Seoul airport.
This isn’t just a rare story that happened decades ago in some poor backward country with little means or infrastructure. It’s not a slight blip in the history of a country that prides itself on respectful, spotless and impeccable behaviour towards others.
Jung Yoo Hee, who by then went through life known as Tamara Fierens (that’s me!), visited the same orphanage her grandmother relinquished her at. In this orphanage she counted 25 little babies, amongst them one tiny premature girl still in an incubator. These babies were all waiting to be shipped abroad to live a new life with adoptive parents.
Their nurse told me that 20 of them were delivered to the orphanage by family members of the birthmother; mainly fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers.
When I asked her if the birthmothers had given their consent for the child’s adoption, she remained silent and changed the subject. The date was 20 December 2007.