Adoption Is Not A Fairy Tale. It is Real Life.

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.

By Amy Wiegert

And there it was. An email from an adoption agency. A day or two earlier I had filled in the “contact us” form on their website and now, here was the reply. Yes, it said, we could get some information and would I please call when I returned from vacation so that he could answer our questions?

And that’s how it started, our wonderful process to become a transracial family through adoption. Adoption is fancy. Or at least I’ve named it so. In a conversation with a friend a few years ago, as I was reeling off the most recent set of documents that we’d put together, she remarked, “wow! That’s a lot to do.” I remember saying, “yep, adoption is fancy. Actually it’s pretty long process and most days are pretty boring.” But I still say it, tongue in cheek sort of. So there it is. Adoption is fancy.

It’s who we are. It’s who we’re becoming. It’s the only way we know to be family. Some days we get noticed. Most days we’re just being family, two parents that work, me a pastor, my husband a nonprofit manager, our daughter a student, aspiring standup comic and dancing queen, and our son, a ball of energy who loves everyone and has not met a ball or dog he doesn’t like to play with.

Do we get looks? Yes. Do we get questions? Absolutely. We’ve learned some folks are nosy. Some are not. Some point and stare. Many others smile. Before we brought our daughter home at age 4 ½, I wondered if becoming parents would change us.

I wondered if we could BE parental: provide love, care, and appropriate discipline. It turns out we can.   It turns out that along the way we’re still learning how to be this family, two races, and two cultures. My husband and I -- who at least once a month decide to move to West Africa. My daughter who decides she’s African AND American but not African-American. She’s also not sure how she will last one more week if we don’t buy her an iPod Touch this moment. Right this moment! This seems to be one of the defining statements of being an all-American child.

We are who we are. Grateful for the family we have. Impatient at not being the family of four we’ve envisioned and dreamed for ourselves (yet). Working for peace and justice in the world, working to create a level playing field for all of God’s children. Frustrated and angry at continued racial segregation and discrimination in our city and our country. Amazed at our family’s journey that has, in so many ways, been carried forward on prayers and hope.

We are a family. A family that tries to eat dinner together a few times a week. A scream- at- the- TV football-watching family. A family that talks about how we don’t match. A family that understands grief and loss don’t have an expiration date. A family that screams, cries, and sometimes swears (the swearing parts come mostly from the pastor in the family).

We are not the only one for sure. But some days it feels like we are.

In many ways we are your neighbors, your work colleagues, your child’s classmates. In these pages I hope you find truth. I hope you see our reality and see how very different it is from yours. I hope you see our reality and find how little it’s different from yours.

The funny thing is that who we thought we would become is not who we’ve become. It’s hardly ever like that in real life. We’re becoming a family that on many days, identifies more with the African American community than the white community. We use the phrase “people of white” as we do “people of color.” We say beautiful brown skin more than we say black. We are picky about where we live because we’d like to be in a diverse neighborhood because of who we are. We are painfully aware that we are able to be picky about where we live too.

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Adoption is not a fairy tale. There are a variety of stories, movies, and books that feature an orphan as the central figure. Think Annie, Oliver Twist!, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Harry Potter. The stories focus on a child who has lost everything, and then focus our attention on the obstacles (almost always painful and sometimes even a bit hilarious) that the child must overcome to reach the new life that awaits them, with better food, better clothes, and usually, parents.

There are Biblical stories as well, that may or may not be as familiar in popular culture. The story of Esther, a double orphan (both of her birth parents had died) who was adopted by her uncle, Samuel, and Moses, who was picked up out of the stream from his handmade basket by the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own.

These stories somehow pull us in, making us believe that there is a better life for a child who has lost so much. These stories are classics for a reason- they make us believe that something better will come for the little person who has gotten a raw deal out of life so far. They make us want something better to happen for a little person who doesn’t have physical or emotional safety, possessions, family attachments or a place to call home.

Orphans in the real life make up millions of children around the world who have experienced the death of one or both birth parents.

It is no fairy tale. It is real life for them. The word “orphan” can conjure up ideas of dirty or poor or both. Orphan conjures up ideas about kids in care centers (old word: orphanages) and foster care homes. Orphans are real.

I’m reminded of Wenchat and her family. Their story is chronicled in “Girl, Adopted” -- the PBS documentary which first aired in September 2013. Wenchat was adopted from Ethiopia and came home to her family in the middle of the United States. She is together with them, and still alone in so many ways. No one at school or home has her skin tone, her hair type, her accent. She has a family and her parents wonder and hope that that is enough.

At one point in the film, Wenchat’s father says out loud, “Folks who want to adopt someone to rescue a person, well, they need to rethink their ideas. It’s not about rescuing. It’s about that person being your child.” A colleague and adoptive mom herself says about adoption “just remember, that kid is in your house, every day, forever. Every day. And they don’t pick up their shoes.”

In Annie and Oliver and so many other stories, there is usually some resolution to the tale and usually some sweeping musical number that can make most adults teary-eyed at the end. Adoption doesn’t have sweeping musical numbers in it, unless of course, you insert them yourself. There are certainly highlights for our family as an internationally adoptive family: court day, and the final arrival at the family’s home or arrival at the airport and stamps in a passport by US immigration officials.

Then there is re-entry. The waiting time and the ‘we’re really close it’s almost happened’ time can feel eternal. But re-entry is another thing altogether.

We spent six weeks in a small, third-floor hotel room in Accra, Ghana. We didn’t actually spend the six weeks only in the room, but that’s where we stayed. We took day trips but never wanted to be too far away from the hotel, never too far away from the embassy awaiting word as to when we’d have an appointment to be interviewed and our paperwork to be processed.

We spent six weeks together. As a family. The first for all three of us. And while we were “stuck”, unable to leave the country, unable to come home together, looking back -- those six weeks were precious time. Our daughter named that for us again just the other week. “Do you remember that time? We played and blew bubbles and laughed and read. We took long walks in town in the hot sun, we went to the café just because. We ate pizza. That was all new and kind of scary and it was also really, really nice.”

Re-entry meant coming home again, and for the first time with a child. Everything was new again. Our daughter noticed everything from the three-foot tall perspective. She also mourned loud and long her losses: no porridge in the morning, daddy goes to work every day, no birth auntie or care center director (affectionately and forever known as Madame). Fewer folks with brown skin. No one who spoke her language.

A friend witnessed my daughter’s tantrum one day, and responded by tears and laughter. I asked about his response. He replied, “That’s how I felt when I came to the States. But it is not acceptable to lay down on the floor and cry when you are an adult.” I tell him that if he doesn’t tell anyone I am lying down on the floor crying, there is no problem. There is still, and always will be, loss.

Adoption is not a fairy tale. Orphanhood and adoption in person are not like it is in books or movies. We would be well served to move some of our language about adoption. We would be well served to move away from using adoption language with animals or with sections of highways. People are people, not animals or highways. Other words can be used- words like “sponsor”, “raise,” “take care of,”   “attend to.” Adoption is about people. Adoption is not for everyone.

There is a strong and growing Christian movement to encourage folks to adopt because it’s the right thing to do, because there is biblical basis and their faith tells them they should. The desire is to be able to save someone from their circumstances.

My critique is that this movement calls folks into adoption, but stops short. Adoption is much different than parenthood. And parenthood is not about saving someone. When folks hear of or meet a child who’s been adopted, they often respond, “Oh they are so lucky to be in your family, to have you as parents.” Actually, that’s sort of backwards, I think. The parents are the lucky ones!

Let’s go back to Wenchat and her family – and her dad’s thought that adoption is not for everyone. It is not about feeling good. It is the gift of a child in your family. It is the gift of a child in your home. And yes, there are shoes (and socks, and stray pencils, and headphones) lying around our house too. And it’s my husband and I who are the lucky ones.

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Bio:  Amy Wiegert lives with her family on Chicago’s southside.  She is a pastor but she swears a little sometimes. Amy's recent published work includes:

Living Lutheran    https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/02/celebrating-diversity/
The Christian Century   https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-06/reversal
Embodied Faith   https://embodiedfaith.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/May-2017-Body-Talk-Strong-and-Brave-and-Beautiful-Rev.-Amy-Wiegert.pdf

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie's blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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