November is a busy month for child-advocacy related issues! As well as Multiple Birth Awareness and Premature Birth Awareness, November is the month for increasing our “global family’s” knowledge of and sensitivity towards adoption. There are many different kinds of adoption: domestic adoption (within one country); inter-country adoption and extended family adoption (as in the Maori tradition of “whangai”, where a child is adopted by his or her biological grandparents, aunties and uncles or other extended family members).
Since the dawn of time, people have been expressing strong opinions about the pros and cons involved in raising a child who has different DNA from our own. In some countries and cultures, there are strong taboos against it, with “blood lines” being held up as being vitally important. As a result, children who are orphaned, abandoned or for whatever reason left without parents or extended family networks who are prepared to raise and care for them, can end up spending their childhoods in institutions or worse, on the streets.
Generations of “closed adoptions” and the resulting grief to the adopted child when he or she discovered that the people they knew as “Mum and Dad” were not their biological parents, plus the disappointment and heart break which sometimes accompanied a first meeting with a long fantasised about “birth parent” have led to more openness and honesty surrounding adoption.
I was recently very proud of my nine year old son, when were talking about adoption and fostering and different situations that arise. My son said, referring to the “family wall” (set of family photographs going back generations which hang in our hall), “if a foster or adopted brother or sister came to live with us, we’d have to get and put up pictures of their ancestors for them.” He had a real sense of the reality of the situation: that a fostered or adopted child would be his sibling, but that he or she would also have their own, different, whakapapa (family tree) which would deserve respect and acknowledgement in the same way as his own. (For an article about children and ancestry, see “Tree and Leaf, A Child’s Place in Family and Social History”, also in this blog).
People still debate over whether adoption is “the best thing?”. In cases of inter-cultural or inter-racial adoption, there are those who would argue that the adopted child will have a crisis of identity, as a result of being removed from his or her own language and culture. Stories of insensitive comments abound, such as the mother who had adopted two young children from Sri Lanka being stopped in a supermarket by another mother who asked, “where did you get those?” The prompt reply was, “I adopted my children from Sri Lanka. Where did you get yours, were they vaginal delivery or c-section?” (In most cases people are not so ill-mannered as in this example!) People’s intentions in asking questions about adopted children are often not bad and sometimes an expression of interest or an honest desire to be open. One adoptive couple I spoke to said they were given a list of “curly questions” they were likely to be asked, which helped them a lot. We should treat one another with sensitivity when asking about any specifics of family details, as these are matters close to all our hearts. In cases where children are present and may be listening to a conversation, we should be mindful of the fact that we are discussing their lives and their stories and consider how it would feel through their eyes.
I spoke recently with two adoptive parents who were kind enough to share their stories.
Sam’s Story (Domestic adoption within NZ)
We were told it wouldn’t be easy to adopt, as New Zealand has a large number of children in “Home for Life” (permanent foster care) situations, which are more common. The birth mother or birth parents have to specifically say they want their child to be adopted out. Those wishing to adopt have to submit a profile and it’s then up to the child’s biological family whether or not they choose your profile. I was so excited then, when CYFS called only a few weeks later and said that a baby girl had come into their care whose birth parents liked our profile and wanted us to adopt her. The first thing I did was rush off to the shops: we didn’t have anything for a baby! We visited our daughter in the foster home where she had temporarily been placed until the adoption papers went through. I thought she was the most beautiful wee thing I had ever seen and formed a bond with her by sitting bottle feeding, playing with her, changing and cuddling her. I kept telling her she was coming “home” with us soon.
I was still working at the time and the day after our daughter moved home with us, I proudly took her with me to work. I hadn’t told anyone anything previously, we were scared that something might be changed at the last minute and didn’t want to jinx the adoption. My colleagues’ jaws dropped when they saw me with the baby.
“Whose baby is that?” one of them asked.
“This is my new daughter,” I replied. “We’ve adopted her.”
“Oh,” was the reply. “Can’t you guys have kids of your own?”
In retrospect, perhaps I should have mentally prepared them for the situation. But it still hurt, just one “congratulations” might have been nice!
When we adopted our second daughter, I had a sense that having one child already helped our case. Her birth mother loved that she would have a big sister.
In the beginning we went through a stage of pretty much telling everyone we met that our girls were adopted. Part of it was that we were just so excited– like any new parents– and we were trying to do our best and be honest and real. After a while though, I felt sick of hearing myself telling people: it was all becoming about me and it was the kids’ story. Now I’m more cautious. We’re honest with the girls about the fact that they’re adopted, but we don’t jump in and tell new acquaintances unless it happens to come up somehow.
We have had contact with both biological parents of our elder daughter and with our younger daughter’s birth mother. In both cases the adoptions were “open” and in the early days we had contact by e-mail. I particularly felt for the biological mother of our younger daughter. She cried on some of her visits: that made me cry too. Earlier on there were several visits by the biological families of our daughters. I made a point of sending photos every six months or so– I felt that we had been so blessed and, if the situation were the other way round, that’s what I would have wanted. There hasn’t been so much contact in recent years though. I realised, at one point, that the contact was mainly from my side and pulled back a little: perhaps constant reminders of how the children were thriving was not a good thing? In my attempts at being kind, maybe I’d been causing them further pain and reminding them of their loss. It’s hard to know. Perhaps they will choose to resume more regular contact again sometime in the future.
The girls are still young, they haven’t asked many questions yet. I love them so much, sometimes I wish I could tell them that they came from us– it feels as though they have. I worry sometimes about how they’ll feel in the future, when they’re old enough to really get what adoption means. We hope to raise them so they don’t see it as a “mysterious” or negative thing.
*Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children and families involved.
Helen’s Story: (Inter-Country Adoption and “Home for Life” within NZ)
Helen* and her husband adopted a brother and sister from Russia. At the time, the children were 5 and 3 years old. They also have a “Home for Life” foster son and a biological daughter.
Adoption has been one of the most positive and fulfilling things we’ve ever done. Being separated from biological family is always going to be traumatic, it’s not the ideal situation. But the child didn’t ask to be put in that position. It’s worth putting in extra time, energy, love and understanding for adopted children, foster children or any children. And if a child can’t be raised by his or her birth parents, isn’t the next best option for them to be raised within another, loving family?
Initially, when we adopted our two eldest children from Russia, there were language and cultural issues. We didn’t want to broadcast the fact that they were adopted, but we also had to be honest with people about it if the need arose. The kids had to grapple with a new language. It’s true that young children pick up languages quickly, but during the process there’s still the inevitable frustration involved with trying to make yourself understood.
We felt well supported by ICANZ (Inter-Country Adoption New Zealand). They prepared us for how people might react to our special new family and their workshops and information were invaluable. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about adoption and, as with anything, you often hear the worst case scenarios. ICANZ were great in linking us with people who had adopted children from other countries and cultures themselves. I really do believe that the most honest and real information and advice comes from those who have experienced a situation personally. When people heard that we had adopted the kids from a Russian orphanage we got questions like, “are they true orphans? What do you know about their background and parents? How deprived was their situation? Did you get the background on why their biological parents abandoned them?” I don’t think anyone intended to hurt us or the children, but I sometimes wish people had been more careful with their comments… as the children’s language developed, some things were said within their hearing that shouldn’t have been. We do know things about the children’s background, we made a point of learning as much as we could. But it’s their story and for them to tell when and as they feel in safe and trusting enough relationships in which to do so.
We changed our son and daughter’s names and kept their Russian names as their middle names. I know some people would disagree with this and say that a first name, given by a birth parent, is an integral link to an adopted child’s history and culture. While this is true, our daughter’s name sounded like something very unpleasant in English (which wouldn’t have stood her in good stead at school!) and our son’s name was very difficult for English speakers to pronounce. We felt it was important to keep their Russian names as middle names, out of respect to their birth parents, country and culture, but we also wanted to give them our own “gift of a name”, linking them to our family and to Aotearoa/ New Zealand.
Both children (who are biological brother and sister) were adopted from the same Russian orphanage. As our daughter was five, she still has memories of it. I don’t believe they were ill-treated in the orphanage, the carers did their best. The major problems were a lack of resources and a lack of enough care workers to be able to give the children the time, nurturing, input and stimulation all young children require. When we first brought them to live with us, our daughter in particular still had vivid memories of orphanage life. She seemed to adapt and thrive during the day, but when it came to bed time did not want to be left to go to sleep. In the orphanage carers had changed during the night, so the children had woken up each morning to find a different adult with them than the one who had put them to bed. I realised our daughter was afraid we might somehow disappear in the night– based on her life’s experience so far, this was not an irrational fear. For several nights I sat holding and rocking her through the night, quietly reassuring her that she was “at home” with us now and we would still be there for her in the morning. As well as helping to ground and reassure our daughter, this was a bonding experience for us both.
I feel very positive about adoption, I have seen with my own eyes, when we visited Russia, what a large number of children there are out there who are in need of a loving family and a sense of “home”. When Russian kids are adopted out to foreigners, all options have been exhausted for them within their own country. The Russian authorities (like those of New Zealand and many other countries) try three steps in this order to have these children cared for: 1) to have their birth family (extended family, if parents are unable) to care for them; 2) to have them adopted, wherever possible, by local, Russian families; 3) If these first two options fail, they then try to have them adopted into families from other countries. Unfortunately in Russia, as in many countries around the world, adoption is not popular among the local population. Indeed, it can be frowned upon to such a degree that couples choosing to adopt can be “ousted” by their extended family members. This makes setting up adoption by local families, with the possibility of maintaining the child’s language and cultural heritage, very difficult. Children in Russia who are not adopted (and their chances of being adopted by anyone plummet dramatically after the age of five) are only permitted to stay in the orphanages until age fifteen… that’s what we were told when we went there to do our adoption… after that they are out on their own (as space is needed for other, younger children and babies who are coming into care).
The kids are both in their early teens now and doing well in NZ High School. Occasionally adoption crops up. Kids here in NZ do their “mihi mihi” [family history introduction in Te Reo Maori] from quite a young age and my daughter said to me one day, “I wish I’d just been born here like everyone else and didn’t have to explain all the Russian stuff.” I don’t think this was about feeling ashamed of her background, but more about a teenage desire to be “the same” as her peers. We try to be positive about Russia and Russian culture: it’s not always easy if negative stuff crops up in the news. We try to keep things upbeat and to speak favourably about our time in Russia when we went there to adopt the kids. We haven’t had an opportunity to return to Russia yet and, to be honest, I don’t think either our son or daughter would be ready for that. They were both old enough when they were adopted that sights, sounds and smells there would stir up emotions from their lives before NZ: their experience in their early years was largely of neglect, so the emotions would probably be quite overwhelming. My sense is that they need to grow up and become who they are going to be as adults before a return to Russia would be a good idea. Probably a trip in their early to mid twenties would be good. This might not be true for all young people adopted from overseas, but I sense that for our kids it is: to go now would be too soon for them.
“Home for Life” is a bit different from adoption. We have a “Home for Life” foster son who came to us from 13 months old. I knew the family he was staying with in respite care and met him through them. In the “Home for Life” situation there is still regular contact with the birth family of the child you are fostering. At the time that he came into our home, our son had been with another family for five months and another before that. Even by the tender age of one, he had learned about keeping emotional distance. I remember reading stories to him and he used to sit a little apart from us, not wanting to get too close. If we tried to draw him nearer, his little body would stiffen and he would pull back. It took him a long time to trust us. I do believe that if you want a child to bond with you, you have to put in the time and energy required and be patient: different children come to it in different time frames. I remember how tears welled up in my eyes the first time our foster son’s body molded naturally into mine while reading to him one night: his barriers had come down. At times he has displayed challenging behaviour, but we have seen him come so far. And we really do love him. It is important to continue loving them– any child– through the tougher times and for non-biological children to not be labelled as “the fostered one” or “the adopted one” by those looking in at difficult behaviour.
Our extended family on both sides have been very accepting of the “different” way in which we have created our family unit. They love all the kids. My biological daughter said to me once that her brother, our foster son, was lucky, because he has “two Mums, how come I only have one?” I think it really is all about it taking a village to raise a child.
I believe, in the case of adoption, and with anything, it’s important to treat everybody nicely– you never know what’s going on in their life. Encourage people you know who have adopted or fostered children. Be supportive rather than nosy or judgmental: these couples and families are doing their best for the children in their care and the situations are never the kids’ fault.