One of the most memorable moments, forever ingrained in my memory, is the birth of my son. I remember the anxious months waiting for my beautiful son, developing inside his mother’s womb – feeling his small frame kicking about and waiting to be born. I remember staring at the ultrasound pictures and wondering who he would look like. Would he look like me? His mother?
I remember rushing my wife to the hospital and the miracle of birth as he brought into the world. I felt scared and excited at the same time as I stood in the delivery room, watching the nurse wipe him clean and cut his umbilical cord. I was in awe, wonder and amazement as he suckled at his mother’s breast. I witnessed a miracle of life and entered the realm of fatherhood. I wanted to give my son a life that I never had: to give him happy memories, a sound education and the best things I could afford. But little did I realize my son would give me something in return, far more than anything I could ever do for him.
It wasn’t until years later when I sat with other adoptees and shared the memories of my son’s birth and they too shared how they were overcome with a flood of deep love and extreme emotions at the birth of their children. For many of us adoptees, with our constant issues of abandonment and loss, I wonder whether the birth of our child is far more meaningful and overpowering than to the non adopted person? I believe there are several reasons why I think the birth of our child is more overwhelming to us:
For many intercountry adoptees, the chances of finding biological family is literally one in a million. Our birth papers are often forged, misplaced or incomplete. The birth of our child could be the first person we meet who is biologically related to us.
We grow up hearing strangers and family members talk about having a relative’s eyes, nose or other body features. I have been curious about my physical features and who I inherited mine from. I am no longer jealous of other people because now I see my traits passed onto another human being and I can experience what it is to share genetic features, gestures, and traits.
A new Respect for my Birth Mother
I watched my wife suffer from morning sickness, frequent trips to the bathroom, and fatigue. Motherhood changes the body and hormones – the kicks of the fetus, the need to eat unusual foods, the thousand other quirky things that happen to a woman during pregnancy. I could not help but imagine what my mother experienced with me during her pregnancy and realize it’s a life-changing event that one cannot forget or dismiss.
As a Parent, understanding what it means to Sacrifice
For an overwhelming number of adoptions, a large number of mothers were either single or the family was placed in a financially precarious position and forced to relinquish their child. Despite the hardships, the mother’s still carried their child to full term. As a father, this was the first time I had to routinely place the needs of someone else above my own. I now understand what it means to sacrifice as a parent – even if it means the smallest person in the household gets the last cookie.
My Life became Fuller
Having a child changed my social life dramatically. I ended up shuttling little people to lessons, classes, and clubs. I gained an appreciation for silence. I tried new things I never dreamt I would do. Children tested my patience and expanded my ability to accept things I could not tolerate before. It’s because of these experiences that my life became richer and fuller.
First time I understood “Longstanding Love“
The Greeks believe there are six types of love. Many of them I felt within my first relationships. I had experienced Eros, the sexual passion. Also, Philia, the deep friendship with those we are really close to. But the first time I felt Pragma, the longstanding love, was when I had children. Pragma is where I am willing to give love rather than just receiving it. If you had asked my younger self whether I would love sitting on the couch watching Dora with my daughter, enjoy playing tea or spend hundreds of dollars finding an Asian version of “American Girl” doll with matching outfits for her – that younger me would be in disbelief!
Closure and Peace
I once felt as though I were an empty vessel. Relationships, commendations and achievements could not fill this void. I’ve worked hard. I’ve traveled to dozens of foreign countries to fill my mind with the sights and sounds. I’ve spent thousands of hours searching for my biological family and looked for things that could give me closure with my adoption experience. Nothing seemed to help until I had children of my own. They gave me the love and satisfaction to be myself and gain the closure I needed, to move on with my life.
I have met individuals who have rushed into having a child, mistakenly thinking it would resolve relationship issues. I am not recommending that at all. I think that is a wrong motive to have a child and could actually lead to a repeat of what happened to our birth mothers who lost their child to adoption. This happened to my biological sibling who was raised with me in our adoptive family. Sadly she lost the custody of her children. I saw her fall into despair and into the deep abyss of depression and denial.
For me having a child changed me forever and helped me to re-connect with the world and bring meaning to my life. I could say my child was the catalyst that helped me to start living a better life. Becoming a parent forced me to change for the better. It was the catalyst for me to accept my adoption journey and helped me to find closure with the issues that once bothered me.
Sharing: Have you experienced similar things as an adoptee when you became a parent? Would you recommend single adoptees get pregnant if they decide to stay single forever and want a child? How did having a child change your life?
I had no idea that I had a deep need to see my children feeling happy. I realise now how negatively I viewed anger and frustration. I hadn’t realised that when I set out to adopt a child, part of it was about fixing a broken child. I had so much love to give, and I thought I could love a baby until he was whole again. p94
LIONHEART: The Real Life Guide for Adoptive Families is a book written by what I would term awesomely switched on adoptive parents. If all adoptive parents were as embracing of our traumatic beginnings as these 3 couples, with the efforts they’ve clearly gone to to deal with the complexities involved, my guesstimate is – we would see far less tragic and negative outcomes from intercountry adoption worldwide.
This book needs to be read by prospective adoptive parents in every receiving country! In America alone, this book would make a HUGE impact to the necessary and truthful education that should be provided to prospective parents about the reality of the task they are taking on via intercountry adoption.
This book is the best hands-on manual I’ve read that comprehensively gives prospective and adoptive parents a relevant guide to handle the challenges we inevitably bring as adopted people. From the go-start, the authors make it clear this is not a book for the faint hearted, hence the title Lionheart. The authors outline the reality which I’ve also experienced as an intercountry adoptee, raised in the same type of family as represented in their book i.e., of being an intercountry adopted child amongst adoptive parent’s biological children.
I related to this book on a few levels. Firstly as an adult intercountry adoptee I saw myself through the journey’s of their adopted children – struggling to feel secure, behaving in many of the same ways in childhood, wanting to develop trust but afraid, confronting many of the same challenges, etc.
” … parenting a baby who was both desperately ill and emotionally scarred is different in a lot of ways. I am a biological and adoptive parent, and I can tell you from first hand experience, they are not the same.” p90
Secondly, as a parent to my own biological child with additional needs, this book was a reflection of my own parenting across the past 11 years! I could totally relate to the sensory issues, the challenging behaviours, the search for answers and therapies, the exhaustion of trying desperately to find something that works, and the differences in parenting a child with no additional needs versus one with many, etc. The authors correctly make the connection, that adopting a child is literally the same as having a child with additional needs.
Much of the standard advice for parenting children with a mental illness applies to adoptive families. p102
Thirdly, these 3 families came together to form their own support network because they realised they were in a unique situation and that support was crucial to their survival in adoption. This book came about as a result of their friendship, from supporting each other and realising the lessons learnt could be valuable to others. So too, I have built a support network with my fellow adult intercountry adoptees, and we have produced many great papers, books and resources that are of value to others.
The one area this book doesn’t cover at all, which I would recommend any prospective and adoptive parents investigate, are the big picture ethical, political, social, and human rights questions and dilemmas within intercountry adoption. My personal adoption journey is a lifelong one and what I’ve noticed particularly after having children of my own, is I’ve slowly opened my eyes to the bigger picture of intercountry adoption. This stage includes asking questions my adoptive parents never asked but which sit deep within and eventually rise to the surface.
Questions such as: was my relinquishment and hence adoption legitimate, was money exchanged and was it equivalent to what it would cost to process the adoption or was money made from the transaction, who gained from that money, how many children are sent from my birth country each year and why, what happens for the birth families and how do they cope after losing their child, what if they didn’t have to loose their child and how can we empower that option?
Human rights questions like: what did my birth country do to try and help keep me with my family, my extended family, my community, my country, before I was intercountry adopted out? How did my adoptive parents participate in this trade/business? Was it willingly or blindly? Does it make any difference? Is intercountry adoption as black and white as generally portrayed in media? Were there other outcomes I as an adoptee might have lived, if I had not been adopted in an adoption industry fuelled by money?
Maturing in my understanding of adoption, I’ve realised it is not what it first appears and we need to prepare adopted children at age appropriate stages for the big picture questions. The book had a couple of intersections where this could have been explored but was not. For example, the death of a child allocated to one adoptive family and later because of the grief and feelings of loss, the parents changed country and agency to adopt from. Then in a different chapter, one adopted child asks (what is termed a “strange” question), “can you buy a child?” I pondered how can it be that we adoptees clearly see the connection but not adoptive parents. In our simple view, if you choose and select a child from whatever country you wish, or change because it doesn’t suit any longer, pay some money to process the transaction, how is this not akin to shopping i.e., buying a child? Is the question really that strange? It’s a powerful reality we adoptees eventually come to question and reflects just one aspect of the social-political-economic-gender complexities which all adoptive parents would be wise to consider and discuss openly as adopted children grow up.
Within ICAV, I can vouch we DO think and discuss these higher level complex issues. We also write extensively about how intercountry adoption is facilitated, by whom, whether the cycle is perpetuated by demand (prospective parents), and why we have no legal rights – clearly apparent when our adoptions break down, we are trafficked or have falsified documents, or suffer abuse or deportation.
Perhaps the authors of the book have yet to reach this stage with their children and that could possibly explain why it is absent. If so, I would love to see them write in years to come, a longitudinal book covering the later stages of adoptive parenting as their children grow to my age and beyond.
Regardless of the omission of big picture questions, I’d highly recommend this book to all prospective parents because it’s certainly a massive head start from the help adoptive parents from my generation received.
This book provides a no-punches spared, honest account of what REALLY happens when you adopt a child from a foreign country. The premise of the parenting advice comes from a trauma informed and attached parenting perspective. In my opinion as an intercountry adoptee, this is a true account of the emotional baggage we come with regardless of whether we are adopted as infants or not. I have written before we are not blank slates. If prospective parents are NOT prepared to take on the realities as presented in this amazing resource written by experienced adoptive parents, then I suggest intercountry adopting a child may not be for you. But if they are willing to embrace what this book has to offer, plus be open to discuss the bigger picture of intercountry adoption, I believe this will enable your family, the best chance of better outcomes.
To clarify, for those who are reading the misinformation spread about me personally and ICAV’s position since June this year, with regards to a stance on UNCRC and Hague Convention on ICA:-
As stated to the entity spreading the misinformation, as the Founder of ICAV, I have always supported the UNCRC and it’s position with regards to intercountry adoption. I have tried to openly educate adoptees and the adopted community about it. I have continually encouraged people to understand the Hague Convention and it’s pitfalls in intercountry adoption. I have pointed out for US based intercountry adoptees, it’s harder to fight for what the UNCRC represents because their adopted country hasn’t even been a signatory and therefore not legally bound – so their first and foremost guidance on intercountry adoption is the Hague Convention on ICA. Of course, it would be awesome if the US were ever to become a signatory to UNCRC and why this isn’t the case? I’m sure is another essay in itself and I am no expert on that!
Personally, I believe the Hague & UNCRC fails to protect us intercountry adoptees for fundamental key reasons:
1. We are never checked up on (protected) for more than the minimum timeframe (sometimes specified by our birth country) once the adoption transaction occurs. The post placement report is provided by the adoptive parents but no followup is ever done by the adoptee themselves at an age where they can give a true account at a mature age. Intercountry adoption cannot be argued to be a child protection measure as compared to foster care, permanent care or any other alternative form of care where the child is still within the State’s control and care. No receiving country even gathers statistics on how our adoptions turn out.
2. We have NO rights – legally or economically – for any representation or help if our adoption turns out to be a failure (either from abusive families, deportation, lack of citizenship, falsification of papers, and being rehomed), or if we are lost or stolen for intercountry adoption. We are left to the whims of whichever country has taken us in, whether they be merciful or not. What message is given by the world’s largest receiving country who actively allows the deportation of adoptees back and treats them as “less than” citizens. Not to mention birth countries who receive the deported adoptee back AND continues to send more of it’s children after this occurs.The Hague and UNCRC both remain toothless tigers for there exists no entity or process to investigate any questionable actions by signatories.
3. Money is still unregulated and involved in our adoptions. Personally, I believe most intercountry adoptions as they are conducted today, cannot be said to be ethical while money is still involved and uncapped. While money is the driving force behind most baby scammers, agencies or lawyers involved in both countries, one cannot guarantee a market will not follow. Too much evidence exists showing that families in our birth countries are tricked or coerced to relinquish, or that the birth country fails to provide social welfare to support single mothers/families who are struggling or have conceived a child with a disability.
I also don’t believe “special needs” intercountry adoption is any more ethical than non-special needs children – because we should be encouraging our sending countries to develop the supports necessary to help the less abled child grow up in their own country. Just because one is born with “additional needs” doesn’t mean it is a ticket to being “shipped out” and stripped of one’s rights to origin and family. Material well being is only one factor in life and definitely 1st worlds can offer more to a special needs child than less developed countries. Not sure why the 1st world economies are still adopting their children out via intercountry adoption then?! But why couldn’t this help be in the form of flying the child out and providing the medical services necessary but without having to “adopt” the child. Keep the child with their family of origin, assist them with medical and special needs; help their societies understand that additional needs people can have just as much to offer society as any abled bodied person. I personally have a special needs son myself and I would hate to consider him being intercountry adopted out just because he was born with this extra need because I didn’t have the means or services to support him or us as a family!
I don’t believe immediately obliterating all types and forms of adoption (domestic and intercountry) is the answer either. Simple adoption as practiced in France remains a form of adoption that allows a child to retain their identity. Clearly every country in the world struggles with what to do with their most vulnerable children and families! If there was one simple answer other than adoption, foster care, and alternative care models, countries would all be doing it by now. One cannot deny that some children now adults, wished for and are glad to be given a safer more permanent family to support them. We cannot deny that some biological families of intercountry adoptees might still choose intercountry adoption even if presented with other choices. We cannot fix the underlying belief systems in other cultures overnight that creates the shame for why some biological parents choose to give up their children. Perhaps we’ve gotten to this state of being because of the breakdown in families, villages and communities. Our society remains so fragmented and isolated as individuals. There is little place to turn for people who are struggling to exist.
I aim for respectful discussion from stakeholders in all arenas on the topic. I especially aim to help us hear of the real impacts of adoption from adoptive families, adoptees and biological families, hoping that current adoption as practised today may one day be removed and replaced with something better. Perhaps we also need to change the word so the old associations with the pitfalls of adoption as it has been practiced domestically and internationally are removed? Whatever the answer may be, it needs to be one where children first and foremost have a right to be with their original family; secondly, where if for complex reasons a child has to be removed from their family, then we are empowering birth countries to develop as many welfare and social support systems as possible to keep children in their home countries with kin; and as worse case scenario, if we have to be adopted to another country or within our country, that any form of giving us to another family that’s not kin, allows us to retain our birth identity if we wish, and doesn’t annul our identities without our consent.
With future generations of adoptees growing up and speaking out and as we start to hear the experiences of our biological families, these inputs might change again how we think of intercountry adoption. As it is, one cannot ignore the huge pitfalls of intercountry adoption. Turning a blind eye is not going to fix the problems. Loudly proclaiming all adoption should be eliminated won’t fix the fundamental underlying complex issues either. Somewhere in the middle is where I search for the answers because I don’t proclaim to have THE answer to such complex problems.
I believe we need to critically look at what we’ve done in the past 60+ years of modern intercountry adoption and at least learn the lessons offered. This is why I choose to build relationships and work with various organisations (government and non government) around the world.
So, in case you have questions as to what my personal position is, or what ICAV is about, please feel free to message me. I like to be open and transparent and I know that some want to do damage to the work and reputation of ICAV, which has been around now for almost 20 years. I stand true to who I am and what I do. I try and make it better somehow for other intercountry adoptees who are already adopted and I speak out against how adoption is currently practiced, to prevent the same historical problems being perpetuated for future vulnerable children who need care.
Note: I also believe adoptees and adoptee groups are entitled to their own opinions. If they differ to mine, I have no issue with this. Adoption is such a personal experience and everyone has their own unique journey.
On Monday 7 December, I met in Sydney with Federal Minister Christian Porter who looks after Australian Social Services portfolio, which includes adoption. I presented him with a copy of the book The Color of Difference: Journeys in Transracial Adoptionand DVD The Girl in the Mirror (huge thank you NSW Post Adoption Resource Centre, Benevolent Society who donated the copies!) The book was instrumental in ICAV’s early beginnings and my own experience of the power of “group” i.e. sense of belonging with people who shared a common experience – and it is uniquely Australia’s first collation of intercountry adoptee’s sharing about the experiences of being adopted.
Our meeting went for only 30mins (cos he’s a very busy fellow!) He started by making note that this was highly unusual to meet face to face with an organisation not receiving Federal Funding.
Next, Minister Porter referred to the success of migrants who are allowed to enter Australia and assimilate well and become quite prosperous if they work hard – I think his inference was that this happens also with intercountry adoptees. He also mentioned he has Korean adoptees in his extended family who have done quite well for themselves! He asked how many intercountry adoptees are in Australia and when it was at its peak in terms of children arriving. I provided estimates based on my recall of Peter Selman’s statistics.
At his asking, I shared with him the following:
our beginnings of loss and how adoption is a lifelong journey and that at different stages various issues can come up (he asked for further details on these issues so we talked about race, identity, feelings of difference to our adoptive families and I dropped in Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound as a reference). I asked him to imagine how he’d feel being the only white person in a black family.
the biggest issue for adoptees (domestic and international) is that our identities and inheritance rights get obliterated in the process of adoption because we get given a new or false identity.
we need lifelong support systems in place and as per research (eg Swedish) international adoptees can suffer more from mental health, depression, suicide, imprisonment rates than the non adoptee population.
Sth Korean adoptees worldwide are leading the way in pushing for changes to their sending country to ensure better supports and options are in place for our biological families.
He asked specifically about our views on the push for adoptions to be faster and with less red tape – I told him this might all be happening but the reality is worldwide international adoptions are on the decline and it is in the hands of sending countries who are now finding more local solutions first, which is in the interests of the child. I also said as per United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adoption should never be the first resort.
I also spoke about some of the pitfalls of intercountry adoption, namely that the 1993 Hague Convention on InterCountry Adoption allows the exchange of unlimited amounts of money for a child and that this, together with the lack of legal framework to prosecute any wrongdoing, except for falsifying documents which has minimal consequences, allows the very dark sides of international adoption to occur ie trafficking.
He asked specifically had I met with AdoptChange and Deborra Lee Furness, when I said yes he asked what my views were. I mentioned we clashed because I raised the issue that their name at the time “Orphan Angels” was a one sided view of adoption ie not taking into account the experiences of adoptees and our sensitiveness to spreading the impression of us (the orphans) needing to be “rescued” by white wealthy westerners (the angels). I said the organisation needed to embrace political sensitiveness around including all people’s experiences of adoption, not only adoptees but also biological families and the truths about adoption i.e. that it is about serving the interests of the adoptive parents just as much as serving the interests of the child in need.
Minister Porter made mention that it was good ICAV was not too extreme on either end of the spectrum because it makes it easier for Govt to work with us and find commonalities on how to tackle issues.
He ended by making it known that there was an open door for us to himself and his Chief of Staff, Danielle Donegan, who was present and Paula Gelo (who ICAV met in previous Federal meeting) and that he was impressed by our work to date with Federal Govt.
He spoke about the need for reform giving example of how so many children in WA were in out of home care but only 3 adopted but acknowledged the pendulum can swing too far on each extreme and that it was about finding a balance. I mentioned the huge number of domestic adoptees in Australia who would also like to be consulted with to share their views on Australian adoption policy.
I asked what his intentions were for intercountry adoption and he noted he wasn’t going to get involved or change the current direction or mechanisms in place. I spoke about how we have had a 45 year history of intercountry adoptions in Australia and that we hope to work with Government to focus on improving things for adoptees and families involved. I stressed that if Government wants to keep costs to a minimum long term, we need the right supports in place to ensure positive outcomes. I also mentioned how Post Adoption Support for current adult adoptees continues to fall between the gaps of responsibility in the Australian Commonwealth-State Agreement.
All in all, I felt it was largely positive given the Minister requested the meeting. I feel the efforts over the past 17 years of building our adoptee networks and pushing for adult intercountry adoptees to be recognised in their own right to be consulted with by Government in policy is bearing fruit. It’s also a breath of fresh air from the previous Abbott Govt to see current Federal Government actively consulting those who are involved and impacted the most!
Many thanks go to Flora Carapellucci who recommended ICAV to the Minister for his second round of meetings on Intercountry Adoption!!
Sometimes in the media we read stories of the adopted child who was murdered at the hands of their adoptive parents. Most will judge and know that situations like this are wrong but even with murder as the worst case scenario, most will do nothing to demand from Governments and Adoption Agencies that something be done to fix what is obviously a problem. Unless there is an advocate for that child, no-one will hold anyone truly accountable for such terrible actions.
Not all adoptees get killed physically. I want to propose that some adoptees get killed emotionally and live to struggle to make sense of their adoption, their life, and why they have to live and face their awful situation compounded by the actions of those who supposedly “have their best interests” at heart.
I want to share the reality of two people adopted from Vietnam who are identical twins. Their experience highlights how so many people blindly assume adoption is “in the best interests of the child” and that we “gain” from being raised in a white Western world … but the twin’s reality will hopefully challenge these assumptions and help us to question and ask ourselves, at what point is international adoption not in the best interests of the child? The truth is, being allocated adoptive parents who are going to be a positive influence in an adoptee’s life is like a random lottery. There are many good wonderful adoptive parents but there are far too many who are the opposite!
The twins experience makes me angry, as it should you! Where is the accountability of their adoptive parents, the agency Holt who facilitated and vetted these adoptive parents, and the two Governments in questions – Vietnam and the USA for not only allowing these girls to be adopted internationally but for doing nothing after the fact to ensure their best interests were indeed being met? Why do Govt and Agencies see adoption as ending at handover to the adoptive family? Why is it that intercountry adoptions have been going on for over 50 plus years and yet we still do very little to stop and change the way adoption occurs (or even have a process to check to know whether an adoption should be stopped) and to at least hold people accountable for further damaging the lives of those who are most vulnerable?!
Why do we speak about ensuring “the best interests of the child” and yet do nothing to actually put in the necessary steps to check and recheck or even attempt to measure whether these are attained? How can we consciously continue to go on with intercountry adoptions with no changes affected when so many of these types of realities are occurring? And please, don’t tell me that this is a one off case … that is just denial! You only have to read on Pound Pup Legacy‘s website the names of those international adoptees who have already been murdered by their adoptive families – but it doesn’t list the names of adoptees who have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused by their adoptive families or extended families, and still live to face the ramifications!
I’ve met through Social Media and face to face hundreds of intercountry adoptees and there are too many who have had to face extra complications, extra hurts, and extra pains at the hands of our adoptive families and those who have facilitated our adoptions. We receive little to no help at all to cope and we certainly receive little support because the blind thoughtless viewpoint is that we should be grateful and happy to be given what most wrongly assume is “a better life”. Often when we do share these harsh realities, we get gunned down by opponents who like to gloss over the full kaleidoscope of adoption experiences and tell us we are just “ungrateful, angry adoptees” who represent a small percent of the overall. So does this then justify our terrible reality because for the large majority – they have gained a better life?!
I hope this story makes you as angry as I and that you help demand from your Governments an end to adoptions as we have done in the past and if they can’t put laws and processes in place to protect innocent vulnerable children, then we really should be questioning why we are allowing international adoptions to occur in the first place! There is no legal recourse for adoptees like this .. or at least there hasn’t been enough legal precedents with negative consequences to reduce damaging adoptions like this from occurring! I hope during my lifetime we will see a change on this!
Note: I’m not denying that many adoptees can and do flourish in intercountry adoption as my many previous posts and articles will attest to. What I’m bringing to attention is the voiceless adoptees who DO suffer and for whom, there is nothing done to improve international adoptions to ensure we at least learn from the past and try to prevent lives being damaged in the same ways into the future.
Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views. I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”
1. Tell us a little about your life. How old were you when adopted by your Australian family? What was this process? Where you old enough to understand what was going on?
2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?
3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?
4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?
5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?
6. Why do people participate in ICAV?
7. How is your work in ICAV?
Here are my answers.
I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months. My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War. Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way. So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973. To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.
For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing. The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family. I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes. What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.
So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”? Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not. At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family. So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent. But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice. It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either. If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam. To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.
I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s. Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues. Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up. I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam. It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said. This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!” And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on. In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before. It was healing in itself.
For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself. My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support. In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path. So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity. For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives. I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease. What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.
The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question! I applaud anyone who can ask this. I wish more Governments would ask this question. If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers. In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values. This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam. Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.
In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty. If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption. The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage. This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications). As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country. The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world. There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption. There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents. Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child. There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families. There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.
Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business. I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption. This is when adoption is not the best option.
Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option. Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with. Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”. Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.
So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option? When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future. The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish. There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.
Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view. Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.
The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path. I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world. I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more. I love my work in ICAV. I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.
I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger. I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.
I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.
I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.
As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.
The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.
I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.
Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.
Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.
As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.
The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.
The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.
My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.
Someone recently asked if I could provide a short statement on these questions:
What does it mean to be adopted?
How does it feel?
And what is it like not knowing who your mother (parents) is?
I struggled to contain my answer in one paragraph but did … and then I decided I’d share the long version because at its essence, this is what we adoptees struggle with and wish others could understand better.
For me, being adopted has meant that I was once abandoned for whatever reason. Mine was in the context of the Vietnam War so I can almost cognitively accept there was a valid reason – perhaps my mother died in the war during childbirth or perhaps my whole family got blown up in a bomb. I still vividly remember watching Heaven and Earth – a film about a Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War and I had a strong empathy for the atrocities many Vietnamese women went through, especially the ones who’s babies were cut out of their mothers stomachs and the women raped by soldiers. My heart ached for whether that might have been my mother’s situation and I overcame my sadness of why I might have been given up with the reality that – perhaps my mother went through more trauma and loss than I did.
The possibilities of why I was given up are endless and almost comforting to know she probably didn’t give me up because of being pregnant out of wedlock as in Korea or because of a 1-child-policy as in China. Perhaps it was poverty as is the case in many other sending countries like Ethiopia. But at the end of the day, I can rationally see children do get abandoned and some are legitimate orphans … and in a war torn situation like mine, domestic adoption, foster care or other alternatives were just not possible at the time due to everything being in chaos with no stable government to ensure the citizens of that country get looked after.
I do believe when we are old enough to understand the political and economic situations surrounding our adoptions – it impacts how we adoptees view intercountry adoption. For me, I’ve never seen myself as against all forms of adoption because of my situation where in a war torn country there’s almost a legitimate reason for why intercountry adoption was needed. I do question aspects of the Operation Babylift concept which occurred after I was adopted – in particular the speed at which it happened, the lack of clarification of the children who were sent abroad as to their real status, how they were selected, and the politics involved – I dare say if Operation Babylift were done today it would be seen as mass Child Trafficking and receive huge criticism by Child’s Rights activists around the world! Indeed Operation Babylift was controversial in an era were intercountry adoption was in its infancy.
For the Korean adoptees today from a Western mindset, seeing generations of babies being sent abroad because of stigma against single unwed women, one can understand why as a Korean adoptee you would become fiercely critical of adoption! The same will apply for the generations of Chinese adoptees being sent abroad to solve their country’s population problem via intercountry adoption. Adult adoptees from these sending countries will inevitably grow up to ask the question – what did the Government do to assist these babies to be kept in their birth country rather than being conveniently shipped off via intercountry adoption where millions of dollars are saved from having to find a solution in-house? What about the Rights of The Child? In countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, and Ethiopia families have been ripped apart from the corruption and greed of baby sellers under the guise of intercountry adoption – of course these adopted children will grow up to have an opinion of what happened on a massive scale and question why the governments of their own birth country and receiving country did little, early enough, to stop more adoptions when there were plenty of indicators that children were being adopted out without any proper oversight or ensuring they were legitimate orphans.
So the question of what does it mean to be adopted starts with the abandonment concept but then depending on which sending country we come from, gets layered with other social, political and economic issues about why our birth countries allow us to be adopted, layered yet again with how our adoption into another family and culture really turns out, and in the minority of cases, layered again if we can be reunited. Complications arise naturally from the actual adoption in whether we are lucky enough to be placed in an appropriate family with support, empathy and help to navigate the complexities of our life at different stages of development – e.g. were we raised in a multicultural setting to allow us to assimilate and not feel like racially isolated; was adoption openly talked about; was it acceptable to express our feelings of grief and not knowing about our first families; were we allowed to be ourselves or were we subconsciously having to live the life our adoptive parents wanted and meeting their subconscious needs; were we supported in returning to our country of origin and wanting to search for information?
Some of us are not so lucky in obtaining the “awesome adoptive parent” lottery ticket and so our being adopted takes centre stage in trying to understand why we deserved mistreatment and hurt (intentional or not) from our adoptive families and only serves to add to our vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness from being abandoned. For those of us who have fantastic adoptive families, I dare say we can move quicker through the minefield of trying to understand what being adopted means because we received the love and nurturing that is necessary to flourish and develop healthy self esteem and racial identity – but it’s still not an easy journey even with the best of parents.
So essentially how does it feel to be adopted? The best analogy I could come up with as an adult adoptee now in my 40s, is it’s like peeling away layers of an onion.
You move thru’ life wonderfully for a while and then hit a new layer that stings the eyes and heart.
It takes time to absorb the meaning of one’s abandonment and loss at each new layer and level, and our identity evolves slowly over time.
As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away and escape them. Once we get to understand this, we are able to move through these layers with less disruption to the whole of our lives. For me, adoption has become less of an issue the older I get because I’ve slowly been able to integrate all these facets and complications into my sense of who I am and why I am.
It’s such a complicated thing to try and explain what it is like to not ever know one’s first mother and father. There’s the not knowing in terms of facts – their names, histories, race, and language. Then there’s the gut feelings of sadness and grief and the why’s of “why we aren’t with them?” Then there’s the “well – who am I then” without being able to answer any factual questions.
When I was younger and before I learnt to stop running from the feelings of grief and loss, I would long for my mother. I recall looking into the starry sky at night and wonder if my mother ever thought of me or missed me as much as I did her. I would dream of her leaving me on a dusty road and me crying out, “wait!” I realise now I was full of grief in my years under 10.
I missed a mother I couldn’t put a face to, but one to whom I felt innately severed from.
There is no doubt in my mind and after reading The Primal Woundand watching documentaries likeIn Utero, that it is true – we do bond in utero with our mothers and we feel disconnected if we never hear her voice or feel her around us again. I couldn’t really come to allow myself to trust my new mother (my adoptive mum) and I see now as an adult how hard this must have been for her. In my child mind, if mother can disappear than I’d better learn to be self reliant and not trust any other mother. I know my adoptive mum tried to show me she loved me but it’s just I couldn’t psychologically let her in. When did it change? I think it wasn’t until in my mid 20s when I did some therapy with an amazing woman (yes, I knew I had to find a female therapist to assist me in my unhealed “mother” work)! I finally learnt to trust a woman and allow my buried grief to surface – to share that very real and deep pain of being separated from one’s mother – with another “mother figure”. It was really only then I could totally embrace my adoptive mother, allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid I’d lose myself or somehow be disloyal to my first mother, and understand the three of us were connected.
The not knowing is just my reality. I haven’t known any different. Its like everyone else gets given a cup that’s full of water but my cup is empty and I need to have a drink. Its a basic biological fundamental that our bodies need water! But how do I fill the empty cup and even if I figure it out, will it be enough to satiate the thirst? Normally water quenches the thirst just like having knowledge of our parents and our family heritage gives us the basis/starting point for our identity.
For adoptees like myself who have no facts to go by, the not knowing is like starting to write a book or film without doing any research to ascertain the history in order to create the setting/scene. It just begins with us and it can feel like we are adrift in a huge ocean. There is nothing to shelter against and no other life lines we can connect to to stop us drifting and getting washed around. I had many moments during my life where I felt like I might get toppled over and disappear forever beneath the huge waves. I honestly don’t know what I hung onto to survive – maybe sheer will power, maybe some resoluteness within me to find the answers and make sense of it all. Maybe it’s what still drives me today – to find meaning to my solitary existence. But the reality today is, I realise I’m not alone at all. There are many of us, thousands, sitting alone on our ocean amongst the waves … by connecting each individual together with the bigger picture, it helps make collective sense to our meaning and purpose and what we can achieve.