Guest post shared anonymously by one of ICAVs members and originally published in the Transracial Adoption Perspectives group which is setup to promote a greater understanding of transracial adoption for adoptive and prospective parents. An excellent resource and one of the safest spaces being managed on Facebook, for the triad.
Once again yesterday evening, I found myself in a nearly-all-white social space (the only people of color were myself and one Black/biracial woman). I was there for a very good reason, and have no regrets whatsoever, and everything went totally fine.
But every time I go into all-white or nearly-all-white social space now, it reminds me both of the lived experiences of my childhood, including the intense sense of social isolation and of differentness I experienced, and of why I chose to push myself into racial diversity and representation as soon as I could, as a young adult, and why I’ve now been living in vibrant racial diversity and representation in a major city for the majority of my adult years. Growing up in near-total whiteness was devastating for me, and it took me many years to “peel the layers of the onion” and to find myself as a person of color, to “place myself” as a POC, as it were, and to center myself in an environment that worked for me.
I had deeply loving parents, but honestly, no-one knew anything during that first wave of transracial and intercountry adoption in the late 1950s and the 1960s, and there were absolutely ZERO resources for adoptive parents back then–ZERO–and those of us in that first wave, suffered as a result. My parents did an incredible job with zero resources, but still, there were negative consequences.
So my wish for the littlest transracial and intercountry adoptees is that they not have to spend several decades of their lives finding their social place in the world, that they find their identities, voices, and social spaces, as people of color, decades before I did, that they grow up to be confident young adults of color. Indeed, one large element in my sense of mission in co-founding the group Transracial Adoption Perspectives, was to influence the white adoptive parents of the second decade of the 21st century to learn about and recognize some fundamental truths about the lived experiences of transracial adoptees, in order to help those littlest adoptees, who are their children now.
My journey into wholeness, integration, and self-confidence as a person of color has literally taken me several decades. My profoundest wish for the littlest adoptees is that they not have to struggle for several decades to get to their equivalent of the place where I am now, because taking several decades is just too long a journey, honestly.
I hope that adoptive parents around the world will be able to hear this, and will be able to do what it takes to support their children on their journeys. That would be an amazing thing, truly.
In any case, thank you for reading and considering this.
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 was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
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.
Most in the intercountry adoption arena are aware of the dramatic fall in intercountry adoptions around the world and the remaining smaller number of intercountry adoptions is mainly of older aged child (ie above 5 yrs of age), sibling groups, and children with special needs. It is important when people consider adopting internationally they truly think about the impact adoption has on the life of the child at all stages.
I would like to share my friend’s story who is adopted from Thailand because we rarely hear from the perspective of the person adopted at an older age and what it’s like to have clear memories throughout life and particularly the struggle during intial transition when adoption occurs. It is also nice to hear the voice of an adult Thai adoptee.
If we are to continue to internationally adopt older aged children, we need policy makers and adoption experts at all phases (pre adoption, at adoption handover, and post adoption) to be aware of the many issues that arise and to improve funding of and access to services for the family and adoptee to ensure positive outcomes.
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.