Insights Into Adopting From Abroad

An adoptive mom and advocate opens up about her personal experience.

One Mom's Story

There are an estimated 1.5 million adopted children in the United States, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, and many are adopted from other countries. In fact, the number of international adoptions has more than doubled during the past 15 years.

International and transracial adoptions can be particularly challenging due to the unique demands of raising a child from a different culture. Facing prejudice and ethnic stereotyping is one of the more stressful aspects of assimilation, yet the topic is rarely addressed with prospective parents. With that in mind, we asked New York City-based freelance writer and Child reader Karen Moline to share her experiences with her 4-year-old Vietnamese-born son.

Q: Why did you decide to adopt from abroad, and how did you prepare?

A: The way much of domestic adoption is structured in this country, you have to be chosen. I thought, "If I was pregnant and giving up a child, would I choose a single woman in her mid-40s living in New York City?" I didn't think I could handle going through that. I also wanted a child as young as possible, and children adopted internationally tend to be younger than those adopted from foster care. So I attended an infertility and adoption conference in New York to learn more. The speaker had adopted from Vietnam, and I went with my instinct.

In terms of preparation, I didn't do nearly enough. I read a couple of books and completed a social worker home study, which every state requires. Adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry, yet there is little regulation. The amount of training that's required of adoptive parents in Australia and the United Kingdom is very intense, but in this country many people spend more time researching what kind of home computer to purchase than they do adoption agencies. Since you aren't given much guidance, you have to be proactive. But the process is overwhelming. There's so much paperwork -- police clearance, health forms, medical checkups, references -- it's easy to lose sight of the far more important mental preparation you need for understanding your future child's needs.

Q: What were you most unprepared for when you brought your son home from Vietnam?

A: The state of racism in this country. People are in complete denial. I thought my son would be slightly more immune because we live in New York City. But as a 2-year-old he asked me, "What color am I?" That came from hearing people talk about skin color and being aware at that age that his skin is different from some other kids'. At 2 1/2 he asked me how much he cost because he overheard some adults near him on the playground talking about adoption costs.

In this country, if you're a person of color, you will be judged automatically. And especially if you're the transracially adopted child of a white parent, you will never have privacy. That was something I could not viscerally understand until my baby was in my arms. People come up to me all the time and ask, "Who's his dad?" or "Where's he from?" They aren't asking what country he's from; they're asking how did he get here. It happens surprisingly often when we get on a subway, train, or airplane.

Q: How do you handle inappropriate comments, and how are you teaching your son to respond?

A: I simply smile and ask, "Why do you want to know?" If someone is truly interested in adopting, I will gladly give out my e-mail address or phone number. But to the rude people I say, "My family business is private," and walk away. Most of them get the message. I'm trying to teach my son that just because someone asks a question doesn't mean it has to be answered, that he doesn't owe anyone an explanation of his origins. Once a little girl of about 8 asked him, in a belligerent tone, "Are you adopted?" And my son replied, "Yes, are you?" He said it because he was genuinely curious, but the girl changed the subject very quickly. Learning to deflect politely is useful for any act of intrusiveness.

I encourage all parents to fight for diversity in their child's school and also to try to educate strangers -- in a gentle way and out of your child's earshot -- when they make unintentionally offensive remarks. Don't be silent. Open your eyes, open your ears, and do something about it. If everyone starts to make these ripples, it may turn into a flood.

Q: How have you learned to help your child adjust to his new life?

A: When I adopted my child, I also adopted Vietnam and his language and culture. If you're not interested in the country you're adopting from, why are you adopting from it? Some of the best advice I was ever given was to tell my child the story of his adoption as soon as I got him, and I must have told him 500 times before he could even talk. My son referred to Vietnam as his country at age 4. He knows he lived in an orphanage. I'm trying to get him comfortable with his history now so that when he's older and understands the facts surrounding his adoption he'll be better able to process them.

There is a phrase in adoption circles for the day you go home with your child: "gotcha day." But adoption is not about getting; it's about understanding your child's point of view. You need to acknowledge the loss of a country, a birth culture, and a biological family. It's not an insurmountable loss, but the happiness I have now as his mother is tempered by the knowledge of what he's given up and how I must help him deal with it.

This kind of work needs to start before the adoption. We need to have mandated education. That would require agencies to start discussing this hard and painful stuff with prospective parents. They don't because they think bringing it up will make them lose customers.

Q: Where can adoptive and interested parents turn for help?

A: Yahoo has an excellent online community called "International-Adopt-Talk." It's a safe forum for internationally adopted adults to guide parents bringing kids of a different race into this country. I figure the best way for me to understand how my son will feel as an 8-year-old is to hear from an adult adoptee who's lived through it. Another great Yahoo group is "Adoption Parenting," which is topic-driven and takes an in-depth look at specific issues and parenting strategies related to adoption. It's very helpful because adopting is not the same as having a biological child. [Another place parents can turn for support is child.com's Exploring Adoption & Raising Adopted Kids message board, moderated by expert Adam Pertman].

I'm so grateful these virtual communities exist; they've had a deep impact on me as a parent. I consider myself a student in parenting school. Adopting is a privilege, not a right. I owe it to my child and every other adopted child to remind myself of that.

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