In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Rebecca Seung
When I was four months old, I was adopted from South Korea into a white, upper middle class family. We moved to Alabama when I was nine, where I remain to this day. They were a kind, loving, and well-intentioned family. They had three children already who were all white and all boys, but they wanted a girl and found me.
I know there are much more tragic stories of adoptees who were abused and neglected, either by their biological parents, their adoptive parents, foster parents, or some combination. But that is not my story.
My story is probably what most would consider a “success” story. I was embraced by this family, and I embraced them back for many years. They will never not be my family. But my understanding of this dynamic has changed since I was a child, first learning about my adoption and what that meant, and now as an adult and as a new mother with a child of my own.
You see, my adoptive parents believed, as many do, that adopting a child means that that child becomes their own, and in a legal sense, that is very true. The emotional and psychological sense is much more complicated, and I think it depends greatly on the individuals involved.
In my case, my adoptive parents assumed they were taking the place of my birth parents, and they were terrified that some woman would one day appear, claiming to be my birthmother and challenging their authority over me. They even went so far as to destroy the one letter from my birthmother, because they worried that it would upset me to read what she wrote about me. And they do not understand that this was hurtful.
I grew up being told that I should be grateful that I was adopted and brought to America because if I hadn't, I would have been forced to be submissive to my father and brothers and husband. That I wouldn't have gotten an education or a job because I was a woman. But their impression of South Korean culture is not accurate or based on any real research. They confuse Korean culture and history with China, Japan, and other Asian countries, because they don't know the difference. They never made any effort to learn about it or teach me about it, beyond these kinds of stereotypes and generalizations. And they do not understand that this was hurtful.
It is strange to grow up without a clear sense of identity. I was brought up in a very white society in the South, where I was often the only minority present, but I was allowed because my family was white. This, combined with comments from my adoptive parents, led to my rejection of my ethnic heritage for many years. In some ways, I feel more akin to white Southerners in terms of shared cultural experiences, and yet every time I walk into a gas station or an Asian market, someone tries to speak to me in an Asian language or asks me where I’m from. I then have to explain that I’m not really Asian. I’m adopted.
In this way, I do not inhabit my adoptive parents’ world, and their perspectives and life lessons that they tried to share with me did not translate--could not translate. As much as they will always be my family, they will never be my birth family, my blood relatives, my genetic heritage.
I will never look at them and see myself the way that I look at my son and so clearly see the pieces of me and my husband. And as much as they want to pretend that they are the only parents in my life, there will always be a shadow of the ones I will never know. And they do not understand that this will always be hurtful.
And so, I want to caution against the idea that adoption, even at its best, is the same as having a child of your own. It can be just as rewarding, but it will always be different. There tends to be a very cavalier attitude about adoption in this country.
For any who oppose abortion, or for those who are unable to get pregnant due to age or other medical reasons, adoption is touted as the easy and obvious answer. The number of times I've heard someone casually say, "if ____ happens, he/she/we can always adopt," and it reflects a lack of understanding of what being an adoptive parent really means.
When someone adopts a child, they cannot erase his/her history and bring home a blank slate. They can never change the fact that that child has birth parents who, for whatever reason, gave them up for adoption. Instead, they should, in my opinion at least, offer a loving and nurturing relationship that still acknowledges and respects that the child has his/her own background that is completely separate from their own.
This is not to say that I think adoption is a bad thing. But I think it is a thing that needs to be entered with more careful consideration, and that looks at not just how the process will affect the adoptive parents, but how it affects the adoptees as well.
I looked through adoption.net to see if they had any posts that dealt with the question, “should I adopt?” and there were alarmingly none. Their adoption advice focused on what to do after the decision had been made--on the legal and financial issues, on contact with the birthmother, on scams, on finding the right agency, and on what kind of baby to choose. Unfortunately, there was little attempt to educate potential adoptive parents about the very unique challenges that accompany raising an adopted child.
And yes, there are challenges for adoptive parents to adjust. It can be hard to explain to friends, coworkers, and even strangers that you adopted your child and why. For interracial adoptions, it can be hard to deal with the looks people give you and your family when they notice the difference in skin color or eye shape.
But if it is that hard for you as the willing adult in this arrangement to have patience with those who judge and make assumptions, whether out of ignorance or hatred, then how do you think it feels to your child?
We notice, and little by little, it erodes our sense of belonging, our sense of identity, and it reinforces our realization that we are not like you.
Rebecca Seung has spent time as a writer, photographer, designer, entrepreneur, and couchsurfer over the years, but for now, she is currently studying communications in the graduate school at Auburn University. She is a mother to a beautiful baby boy.
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