One of the questions I often get asked when a family is considering international adoption is “where is the need greatest?” accompanied by “how do we decide where to adopt from?” My usual answer is another question – “where is your heart leading you?” The reason for this is because the “greatest need” is not really an issue. There are always multitudes of children in need around the world and families can only affect one or a couple of children at a time. Any child who is waiting for parents and a loving family could easily feel that their need is the greatest. Adopting is not about “rescuing” children, although that does happen in a strict interpretation of the word. Adopting is not temporary foster care or disaster relief where children are rescued from terrible situations but do not have a permanent relationship. Adopting is about creating and enlarging families and parenting and grand-parenting and great-grand-parenting those family members for generations.
The question about “where your heart is leading you” comes because every person has personal preferences. It is important to avoid trying to put a round peg in a square hole. The adoptive family becomes a trans-racial family or trans-cultural family (if the race is the same) forever. If members of a family, for example, love to eat Chinese food and are drawn to Asian art, adopting a child from China would make it easier for them to encourage their child’s appreciation of his or her ethnic and cultural background than if they hate Chinese food. A family who appreciates their own Orthodox Christian heritage may be eager to communicate to an Ethiopian child their appreciation of the history and culture of that land. Those are just a couple of small examples, but ultimately a family has to embrace the background of their child because this is now part of “their” background as well. This does not mean wearing rose colored glasses or editing out the negative aspects of a child’s historical heritage but it does require an overall positive perspective.
Why is this important? You, the parent, will be the prime information source for your child. A child of another race even adopted as an infant will notice racial differences fairly early and will notice that you look different from them. This is not only because comments from others will highlight it, but because they are smart and observant and can see the differences themselves. This will raise a variety of questions. It is the parents’ job to communicate that they too recognize the differences, but that those differences are appreciated. Different doesn’t mean better or worse, just different. It’s important that the child know that the parents like their child exactly as they are with their unique genetic heritage. It is the parents’ job to communicate that the birth family is a vital part of the child’s life and it is OK to miss and/or love them. Adoptive parents have to encourage their child to face the challenging parts of adoption conversations without themselves feeling threatened. Parents adopt a child, but the child brings with them their heritage.
No parent in America can duplicate what would have been their child’s original cultural experience. There is no expectation that they should do so. The child will be an American child raised in our Western culture. BUT the child will develop their own self awareness and internal image based on their experiences inside and outside of their family. What they need to know is that their parents value what they bring to the family and support them as they learn about their background. Children know when parents are comfortable and when they are not and that is why it is important that from the beginning the parents’ hearts lead them to the place from where they adopt.
Kathy L, MA
14 years experience in adoption
22 years as parent by domestic adoption