Accounts of adoptees being "rehomed" are cropping up more and more often in the media these days, indication of a disturbing trend in adoption, but many people who see these stories jump to the wrong conclusions. (Leave aside those egregious cases where adoptees are abused by psychotic parents.) It sounds so awful. You adopt a child, then when he turns out not to be what you expected, you dump him on someone else. Birth mothers are praised for doing the selfless thing, the noble thing, by giving up their babies, but adoptive parents who are unable to provide adequately for their psychologically damaged children are excoriated.
I am a birth mother and have written about my experience elsewhere. I am also an adoptive mother, and I've wanted to write about that for the longest time but haven't been able to find the words. This is another attempt to try to understand what happened in my family and explain just how difficult adopting any child, but especially a foreign-born child, can be. The difficulty is not for the parents alone. Any adopted child will face issues of identity and abandonment, but a culturally displaced child has extraordinary obstacles to overcome.
When I was 27 years old, I had already lost a son to adoption and given birth to another, Tanner, a beautiful blond, blue-eyed boy with an easy-going temperament. Without going into all the intricacies of my emotional state at the time, I'll just say that being a mother was the most important thing in the world to me. I was bubbling over with maternal instincts. By the time Tanner was three, I was desperate for another baby. I was also moved by the plight of Vietnamese orphans and felt America owed those children left behind by our soldiers something pretty substantial. After all, it was because of the American presence in their country that they even existed.
My husband and I had little money. He was an artist, and I was teaching high school English in Indiana. We could barely make ends meet on my salary, but we were both confident that it was only a matter of time before Bob achieved success as a painter, if not fame. He had dreams of being on the cover of Art News, and I had dreams of a house filled with children--well, three or four at least. Infertility was not our problem, but I began to feel that my arms were empty without a baby in them. All I had to do was see the photo of a baby available for adoption in the Indianapolis newspaper and my pulse quickened. I remember one such picture of a black infant, "Mr. Curtis." He was so tiny, and my heart went out to him. We should adopt a black baby. I knew black and mixed-race children were the hardest to place, and I believed that integrated families would lead the way to an integrated society. We began our quest to find a child.
If you are paying attention, you will see that there are already plenty of red flags waving. My husband was unemployed (being a struggling artist with no income is essentially unemployment). We barely had enough money to support a family of three, even if Bob stayed home to look after the kids. Contrary to what many black social workers were saying at the time, we saw nothing wrong with placing a black child in a white family, in a white community, in a not-so-covertly racist state. This tiny baby, or one like him, would not be a cute infant forever. He would grow into a teenager with attitude, a black male with no one to teach him how to get along in an often hostile world. All I could imagine was holding a baby in a rocking chair, reading him bedtime stories, and filling my own emptiness. I didn't bother to think about what I'd need to do to raise a black, male child.
Ultimately, we signed on with Holt International, the first adoption agency in America to place Korean children with American families. Eventually Holt would bring children from all over the world, including, for a time, children from Vietnam. The war was a horror any way you look at it, but all I could see were those babies abandoned and orphaned and in desperate need. I admit it; I wanted to do something big. I wanted to redeem myself for giving up my own son. I'd given in to external pressures to relinquish him, and I had nothing left to lose. I didn't care about what people thought any longer. I knew what I believed, and having set aside my own instincts once, I wasn't about to do it again. Let people stare. Let people say, "I could never do what you've done." Let black social workers argue that race does matter in forming a child's identity. Perhaps I wanted to punish my mother, with her southern roots, for her role in the loss of my son. I didn't think this consciously, but subconsciously I was screaming, "I can't have my own baby? Well, then, how do you like this black one?" I feel a pain in my gut as I write that. Never until this moment have I allowed myself to face up to my own selfish motives, my own need for some kind of revenge. I would take my revenge and force my very conservative mother to accept a black grandchild, and as I did I would be praised by all the good liberal Christians who underwrote the whole thing.
In the early 'seventies there were no pre-pacement services, nothing to advise us about what to expect when you adopt a baby from half a world away. We were getting a baby, and that's all that mattered. He was half black and a boy, the hardest to place, and we felt lucky to have been chosen to be his parents. I knew enough to understand that the first year in a child's life is critical, but I didn't realize just how critical. No baby is a blank slate, and a nine-month old baby from a war zone has suffered more trauma than you can imagine. There were scars on his ankles where he'd been fed intravenously because of starvation. He screamed if put down and clung to Bob and me like a terrified monkey. His rage was overwhelming, and in frustration he would bang on his chin with his fist until I wondered if he were autistic. He suffered from chronic diarrhea that lasted for years. I didn't know that Asians are often lactose intolerant, and I kept pumping milk into him as fast as he kept splurting it out.
My son was intelligent and a survivor. Described by the orphanage he came from as a "relatively crying baby," he was obviously not one of those passive, listless infants often found in orphanages. This kid was going to get attention if he had to yell the place down. I can never know what went on in his mind because much of his trauma occurred before he had speech, so his memories, though undoubtedly vivid, were not accessible to him. He came to us a desperate, outraged child, and so he remained. As he grew older, his behavior followed a consistent path of defiance, acting out, theft, and lying. As a young child, he suffered from night terrors, when he would scream and flail and not be able to wake up. If all this sounds as if I'm blaming him, I'm not.
We did everything we could: had him evaluated by a psychologist, sought out family and individual counselling, and spent countless hours in conferences with his teachers. By age twelve, he was out of control, stealing cars, staying out late, and finally getting in trouble with the police. Thus began years of reform school, group homes, more counselling, and my marriage ended in divorce. Bob's alcoholism had not made our family situation any better, and, though I was unsure how I would manage with Dabbs and my two other children (by now I had a daughter) on my own, it had to be better than managing the three-ring circus my life had become. Never, at any point, did any counsellor or therapist address the issue of Dabbs's adoption. A couple of the "family-systems therapists" we saw insisted upon getting Dabbs to identify with members of our extended family, even those who were deceased. How on earth could a hyper-active, angry Black/Vietnamese boy identify with anyone in a family of middle-class white people? We were expected to adapt to the paradigm, no matter how ridiculous the fit.
Who or what is to blame for all this turmoil? I am, first of all. For whatever reasons, I took on a challenge that was beyond me. I like to think I did my best, but I'm too aware of my failures to let myself off the hook. But there are others who are answerable too, or should be. The social workers who did our home study were as naive as Bob and I were. We presented as a nice, educated couple, good parents to our little boy, so why wouldn't we be suitable adoptive parents? The red flags I mentioned earlier did not get their attention. In fact, the entire social-services enterprise was not yet ready to address the needs of adoptive families with foreign-born children, so it was a systemic failure. When a system is at fault, who can be held accountable?
Now we read accounts of disturbed children whose adoptive parents can't cope. I understand their desperation. I understand that they love their children but cannot allow their families to be torn apart. When parents have to lock their bedroom door, hide all the knives and hammers in the house, and sleep with one eye open, they might be forced to take steps that seem to others uncaring. I tried to get help for my son and me, and it was all thin gruel. As a teenager, Dabbs lived in five other places than with me: with his dad, in reform school (court ordered), two separate group homes (also court ordered), and with an earnest young couple who had befriended him during his stay at one of the homes. Many kind and dedicated people tried to help Dabbs, including a black counsellor at a group home who had been a soldier in Vietnam. Like so many others, this man took Dabbs under his wing, and like so many others he was ultimately let down. Those defenses and survival instincts Dabbs developed as an abandoned infant morphed into a pattern of behavior that persisted as he grew older and, for all I know, persist to this day. Every success was followed by a catastrophic event of Dabbs's own making. I've always believed that Dabbs can't tolerate success, and when things are going too well, he self-sabotages.
I don't want to rake over the past, but I have a few suggestions for social workers, adoption agencies, and prospective adoptive parents: Recognize that international adoption does not bring you a child who is a blank slate. Every child, no matter how young, who is adopted comes from circumstances of trauma and will be affected by them. When Dabbs was three years old, he told me he remembered soldiers coming into his house and killing his mother. He couldn't have been more than a couple of months old when he made it to the orphanage, so how could he possibly remember such a thing? Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't, but he believed he'd seen his mother murdered. How could such thoughts not have a profound effect on his concept of self?
Be aware that it takes a great deal of knowledge and a lot of patience to parent a hurting child. Professional training would not be amiss. People who might make perfectly marvelous moms and dads under normal circumstances may find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges their adopted child presents. The child should not be blamed but helped, and the parents shouldn't be blamed either. In many cases a different living situation is what all parties need. I am dismayed by comments like, "Well, you adopted him. Now you have to make the best of it." Each child has unique needs, adopted or not. Most parents of biological children have an intuitive understanding of each of their children, but the parents of adopted kids don't have that intuitive connection, which is at its root a physical matter of cells and genes. To blame desperate parents who can't cope with a traumatized child is as cruel as telling someone suffering from depression to snap out of it.
Americans think of poor little orphans and want to scoop them up, take them home, tuck them in bed at night, and keep them safe, but international adoptees come with baggage they often don't understand themselves and may try to hide. The best place for any baby is with his own mother, and every effort should be made to keep her there. Now adult adoptees, many of them Asian, are writing blogs, forming support groups, and challenging our notions of what child-rescue ought to mean. We need to heed their words and amend our ways. The best way to help children is to help families, as Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee who has returned to her homeland to advocate for single mothers and their children, is doing.
The entire adoption paradigm must be re-examined. No mother should be told to give up her baby; she should be asked what she needs in order to parent. Cultures in crisis should not be mined for their children so that American parents can satisfy their desires. Too often what passes for altruism is actually self-serving idealism. I know this not because I have seen it but because I am guilty of it. I don't blame adoptive families who already have children. They did the best they knew how. But we must wake up to our mistaken assumptions about what children, babies especially, need. Youth and poverty are not necessarily permanent conditions and should not be reasons for relinquishment. Temporary safe havens can see children through the crises of war and famine until better times arrive.
Adoption is not simple or straightforward, and my attempts to cover all bases are admittedly insufficient. Friends tell me that Dabbs is better off living in America than he would
have been if he'd remained in Vietnam. I don't doubt the truth of that, so why am I now arguing against international adoption? I
find this hard to answer. It would be unthinkable to send a
Korean-American or an Ethiopian-American kid back to where he came
from. Dabbs is thoroughly American and would be no more at home on the streets of Saigon than I would. But we should look at things the other way around, from the child's point of view. Imagine yourself as an infant, put on an airplane with strangers, looking for whichever caretaker you had last lived with and not finding her. Then imagine the magnitude of an American airport with strange-looking people who want to hold you and speak to you in bizarre accents. Imagine being given strange foods that make you sick. Imagine being a stranger in a strange land with no idea what's happening to you or why and no words to say what you need or to form memories you'll be able to access later. You world has become a nightmare of gigantic proportions that is terrifying but that you can't wake up from, so you cry yourself into exhaustion. You feel abandoned when left in a crib but not comforted when held by someone you don't recognize. You are a baby who is designed to feel and believe he is physically part of his mother, and this strange woman who keeps picking you up is not she, so you feel disconnected and adrift. This is a feeling that will never leave you, even after you acquire language and coping strategies. That dislocated, abandoned child is yours to keep forever. That child is you.
Adoption is ALWAYS about loss. To see it in any other way is to be emotionally and psychologically blind.