It starts with Thanksgiving and it is all about family. The ultimate “Throwback Thursday,” Thanksgiving is a time when old family folklore is rehashed, new memories are made, clashes can explode and legacies are embedded into a family’s cultural DNA. This energy hangs over the ultimate reunion like the familiar yet unpredictable November sky.
The centerpiece is the turkey dinner but the connections and conversations around the table are what sustain us. Inevitably, the moments of relative comparison come, gosh Mackenzie, Kyle and Cooper look so much Dawn and Dawn looks so much like Grandma and Grandma looks so much like Great Grandma Ellie. These very basic, often unconscious moments are standard fare for biological families. For families created by adoption, specifically for some adopted people who were separated from their biological families and don’t look like anyone around the table, these moments can be subtle and at the same time otherworldly.
Born of one family, known within another, the adopted person straddles two worlds. Part of this family’s history, but not its origins, and also part of a mythic union, known or unknown; the adoptees’ ancestors hold back at the edges of the room, powerful in their anonymity.
So it’s already heavy, and then there are the 30 days leading up to the Christmas holiday. For many, these are the days of hustle, bustle and preparing to spend more time with those we love. As we approach December 25th, regardless of religious affiliation or belief, out come the images of a baby. Passing by a creche on church steps catapults an idea into the mind that is indelible from our culture’s reverence of a baby, swaddled, laying on straw, alone, fragile, in a cold world.
From Thanksgiving through Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanza, when family time is precious and plenty, the adoption experience can take on a particular level of poignancy when the world unfolds these images of a newborn infant.
Kings and shepherds traveled toward a birth. Nations quiet at midnight. Worldwide, people enter churches, kneel and worship the child King. No matter what your religion, the idea of the innocent baby entering the world is primal and powerful for many, and especially for parents (birth and adoptive) and adopted people.
According to the 2010 US Census, the number of adopted children under 18 was 1.5 million. With no single source for the total number of children adopted in the United States, and no straightforward way of determining the total number of adoptions it is hard to know exactly how many adopted people there are, but some estimates range at approximately 5 to 6 million in the U.S alone. This number does not take into account birth parents and their extended families, adoptive parents and their extended families, foster families and informal adoptions. Adoption has long expanded beyond a niche in society for predominately white, middle class, heterosexual married couples. Today, members of the adoption community represent a broad spectrum of diverse individuals numbering into the hundreds of millions.
Even less accurate, is the documentation around the number of birth parents, because the crisis of being separated from their baby is historically covered in secrecy and shame. But for the women and men who willingly or unwillingly, no longer have legal claim over their babies, the image of the nativity can prompt the silent grief.
The opposite could be true for some adoptive parents, who often experience magic and mysticism around receiving a baby. For most, there is a deep fusion of adoptive and biological children together, where many become one. With the understanding of the importance of openness in adoption gaining traction, the adults involved are required to interact with each other and their child in a way that challenges traditional ideas of parenting.
But it is the adopted child, passed from one to another, who has to knit together the known and the unknown, and manage the idea that possibly, somebody, somewhere, turned away from him or her; the opposite of family. It is such a large idea, it can take years, decades, to fully understand. Like all human beings, adopted people have a desire to know the story of their nativity. How we are given that story, and permission to love our birth parents, is a significant determining factor in understanding and loving all parts of who we are.
Today, fewer than half of U.S. states provide varying degrees of access to original birth certificates. These documents hold vital information, legally allowing birth families and adopted people to find each other. Many families now have the tools and access to be able to claim each other if they wish. DNA testing kits and their sophisticated technology offer an opportunity to understand who, if not why, am I.
The journey from transaction to transformation is slow, and requires that we keep moving in dialogue and action towards openness, diminishing secrecy and honoring the need to know and connect to original families. In 2012, the Donaldson Adoption Institute released a study stating that openness is now the norm, with “closed” infant adoptions shrinking to a tiny minority of about 5 percent, with 40 percent “mediated,” and 55 percent “open.” In addition, 95 percent of agencies now offer open adoptions.
Adoptive parents, birth parents and adopted persons in open adoptions, report these changes as positive experiences: more openness is also associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process. Women who have made an adoption plan/placed their baby for adoption – and then have ongoing contact with their children – report less grief, regret and worry, as well as more peace of mind. The primary beneficiaries of openness are the adopted persons – as children, and later in life – because of access to birth relatives, as well as to their own family and medical histories, reports DAI.
Today, part of the adoption experience is that many expectant parents considering adoption pick the new family for their baby, meeting prospective adoptive parents as part of that selection process.
As the prevailing wisdom to keep relationships open and channels clear among adoptees, birth families and adoptive parents grows, the idea can be utilized to extend past adoption, and be applied to all kinds of family structures where there is lack of knowledge or access: families formed via assisted reproductive technology, families experiencing divorce and remarriage and blended families.
Today’s adoption landscape includes a mix of venerable and new voices of the community, more research and efforts by professionals to update old models, in sum offering an opportunity to explore poignant themes related to the adoption experience. From our position as two adoption professionals, we hope that the conversation around such complicated realities can continue to evolve into new awakenings and understandings to inspire all of us to be bold, brave and continue to honor the adoption experience for all.
Almost twenty years ago, November was designated as National Adoption Month (NAM). Its core purpose was to focus on the needs of children in foster care who were awaiting the permanency of adoption. With over 100,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted at the end of 2014 and over 20,000 young adults exiting the foster care system without a permanent family connection, there is no doubt attention must be paid and more effort expended to eliminate any barrier that stands between a child or young person and a safe, healthy and permanent family connection.
The focus on foster care is absolutely critical, but as the adoption reform movement advances, NAM is taking on more dimensions. An expanded conversation is beginning to take shape, highlighting the many layers of the lifelong adoption experience. During this time of attention being paid to adoption, it is an opportunity to reframe some of the long-standing elements and ideals of adoption that have shaped perceptions, actions and experiences. When we start to unravel some of what has been hardwired within adoption and foster care adoption we can get closer to new ways of looking at things and hopefully, ultimately, new ways of transforming adoption to ensure the health and well-being of everyone in the extended family of adoption.
Often times, at the heart of challenges in adoption and foster care adoption are misperceptions about the realities of these experiences, and the stigmatizing effect they carry. In particular, the notion of rescuing a child through adoption, and the ‘luck’ this brings for the child, can burden those of us who are connected to adoption.
Designating adopted persons as ‘lucky’ simply for having been adopted is an unfortunate societal misperception that can burden the identity of adopted persons and their families in many ways. It assumes a first/birth family that would have been incapable of providing appropriate care, a fact that is not an element of every adoption experience. Parents through adoption are not left to authentically enjoy the experience of being a parent; instead they must fulfill the onerous role of ‘rescuer’. And for adopted persons, the ‘lucky’ script illustrates a life forever beholden to others. Within this narrative, adopted people are left to manage a debt of gratitude that is difficult, if not impossible, to repay, the greatest of which being an obligation of gratitude for their own existence.
While everyone’s experience is theirs to claim, the idea of the rescued, lucky child and the perceptions both obvious and nuanced that flow from this can be challenging. The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) recently conducted public opinion research that demonstrates clear stereotypes continue to exist within public perceptions of the adoption community, and many that hold them are largely unaware of the stigmas these misperceptions retain. Stereotype is at the root of comments such as “that’s so good of you”, following a couple announcing that they plan to adopt. It is interwoven in the fairy tale of the poor orphan turned princess after having been adopted. Stigma is at the heart of the belief that someone without financial means is better off ‘choosing’ adoption for their child. Some children, for whatever reason, cannot be safely raised by their first/birth family. But we must never mistake a lack of monetary resources as a sole indicator of potentially abusive or neglectful parenting. Rather, if we wish to understand the role of poverty in limiting family preservation, we need to first explore the roots of socioeconomic inequality, as well as our deficient social welfare system, and how these factors inhibit possibilities for so many. A person’s choices in life will always be dependent upon the context in which decisions are made.
We do not all begin the race from the same starting point.
The reality is, parenting is an intricate experience, filled with joy, heartache, laughter, and frustration, sometimes all at the same time. This is true whether a person births their child or becomes a parent through fostering, adoption or the blending of families. Adding the notion of ‘savior’ to this already complex role does not speak to the authentic relationships that need to be created in order for family bonding and cohesion to occur. Consider also the difficulty a child will have in believing they are unconditionally loved if they have to feel ‘forever’ grateful simply to have a ‘forever’ family. Being raised in a loving and nurturing environment is a basic need that adults are responsible for providing; not a privilege a child must work hard to sustain.
Many times parents express frustration when the ‘lucky’ comments are made in front of their children; it is important not to make excuses that people may be ‘well intentioned’ when they offer unevolved statements. The problem with ignorance is that it persists in the absence of correction. There are many ways to appropriately and assertively address the stigmatizing notion of ‘rescue’ in the adoption narrative; pointing out that you are happy to be a parent or that fostering and adoption has added to your life and family, is a way to remove the burden from the child and keep adoption and fostering decisions with adults where they belong. Following up with your child when they have overheard these comments is critical as many times children will not start a conversation about the comments they hear that absolutely do weigh on their minds, creating confusion and mixed emotions. Children thrive when they know they are unconditionally loved; it is hard to know that genuinely if you have to feel a heightened sense of gratitude for such a vital element of your life- your family.
For adopted persons, it is important that we have a voice in shifting the conversation away from the idea that through adoption, we are ‘better off’. Adoption undoubtedly changes us in many ways. However for many of us, we may not know enough about our families of origin to know whether or not we are ‘better off’ having been adopted, even if many of us are doing very well. Regardless of whether or not an adopted person would have been harmed remaining with their first/birth family, feeling grateful simply for being lovingly parented does not speak to the development of meaningful and authentic family relationships, or healthy personal identity. As adults, adopted persons can make an impact on the lives of youth when we correct assumptions that do not accurately reflect the adoption experience. Although difficult at times, it is critical that we empower ourselves as a community to reframe the conversation about the core of what it means to be adopted. There are many efforts currently going on in this realm, such as the #flipthescript campaign, which began last year as a way to ensure adopted voices are heard in this critical dialogue.
During the holiday season in particular, many of us are inspired to reflect on all we have. It is true that holiday festivities almost highlight the disparities that exist in the pain and suffering of those who go without. Some people go without material security; others suffer because of the absence of meaningful human connections in their lives. For those of us who have either, or both, it is always important to pause and acknowledge these blessings, to share with those who go without, and to give thanks for what we have. Gratitude in and of itself should always be realized and expressed where appropriate. But gratitude should not be mistaken for debt. The love and security of family, although always important to appreciate when it exists, must never leave anyone feeling as though they are obliged to ‘repay’ one of the most fundamental components of any life…unconditional love. It is our job as adults to reframe the conversation. We owe it to our children to do so.
This November, let’s be grateful for the opportunity we are taking to adopt something new- a new conversation that leads to new ways of understanding and taking progressive action for adoption reform.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) was excited to kick off our Let’s Adopt Reform National Tour with our first Town Hall event last week in NYC. Our panelists, who maintain both personal and professional expertise in the adoption and foster care adoption experience, and our moderator, award winning CNN New Day anchor Michaela Pereira, engaged in a robust dialogue surrounding many pressing issues in adoption and foster care adoption today. Our live and virtual audience, with a combined total of close to three hundred people, added meaningfully to this vital conversation with questions and commentary. All told, the evening was an inspirational start to a bold new conversation about adoption and foster care adoption that DAI is hoping to ignite throughout the country.
It is no coincidence that we chose November, dedicated almost twenty years ago as National Adoption Month, to begin a more modern conversation about adoption. Adoption makes its way into the media and discourse more frequently during this month, in a variety of ways, and it is important to harness these opportunities to educate as well as reframe some aspects of the adoption and foster care adoption experiences. At times though, not all voices are represented in the conversation. Other times, representations of adoption are polarized in a dramatic manner, positively or negatively, that exclude the “in between” experiences that more aptly depict adoption.
There have been a variety of efforts to include historically marginalized voices in the adoption discourse, such as the #flipthescript campaign which focuses on ensuring the world hears from adopted persons in these critical conversations. Movies such as Philomena highlight the experience of a first/birth mother who spent fifty years searching for her son. Television shows like The Fosters portray a modern family structure with many of the ups and downs characteristic of all parents as they navigate relationships with their children in a complex world.
Although at times we see a better balance, the reality is, misperceptions and stereotypes continue to surround the adoption experience. This fact was uncovered in DAI’s recent public opinion research, those who live the adoption experience can attest to this, and we see the stereotypes in many other spaces. The problem with these misrepresentations is that they make it all the more difficult to influence needed changes in policy and practice that would help keep families strong.
We just haven’t moved far enough or fast enough, and so, we are inspired to start a new conversation. Within this modern day dialogue, DAI hopes to unravel current perceptions and experiences in adoption in order to have the transformational conversations we need to move forward together and ultimately strengthen families. This is at the core of the Let’s Adopt Reform initiative-strengthening families. Because whatever our distinct family experience is, the idea of ensuring strong families, and the advocacy needed to reach that goal, is something that likely resonates with all of us.
We need every voice to participate as we strive to explore the issues that matter most to us, collectively brainstorm meaningful solutions, and actively advocate for policies and practices that strengthen families. Join us as we create new spaces for new conversations. Join us as we #adoptreform.
The first Let’s Adopt Reform Town Hall in New York City was an amazing success thanks to so many wonderful people who participated in this vital conversation.
CNN New Day Anchor Michaela Pereira led a thought provoking discussion on adoption in the 21st Century with panelists Amanda Baden, Gabriel Blau, Leslie Pate Mackinnon, Joyce Maguire Pavao and Nathan Ross.
Our New York City Town Hall premiered our groundbreaking public opinion research which revealed a broad consensus behind current policy issues that impact the adoption and foster care adoption community.
“We need to open up and get really comfortable with what adoption is actually about.” Said panelist Gabriel Blau.
Thank you to our participants and to all who took the time to join us in NYC as part of our live and virtual audiences!
For more pictures please click here.
To register for upcoming Town Halls, please click here.