On July 31, 1959, I was put on an airplane bound for the United States along with more than 90 other babies who had been orphaned or abandoned as a result of the Korean War. When we arrived in Portland, Oregon, almost 20 hours later, we were given Western names, American parents, and new cultural identities in a country that was shocked by the practice of white parents raising Asian children.
Growing up as an interracial adoptee had a profound effect on who I am today. When my husband, Greg, and I decided to start our family three years ago, we chose to adopt our daughter, Eleanor, from Korea rather than give birth to a biological child.
There's much to be said for having the same DNA as your child, but the power of sharing such extraordinary life circumstances with my daughter has been an irreplaceable gift. Not only has it helped me make sense of my early losses of country, birth family, and racial identity, it has also given me an appreciation of how the success of those early Korean adoptions paved the way for thousands of children in more than 60 countries to find American homes of their own.
Today, international adoption is not only widely accepted in the United States, it's fueling one of the biggest adoption booms in U.S. history. In the past decade, the number of foreign adoptions has more than doubled -- last year more than 18,000 children were adopted from other countries, mainly Russia, China, South Korea, Guatemala, and Romania. International adoptions now account for well over half of all infant adoptions in America (excluding adoptions involving a child's stepparent or other relatives).
"I think our whole society is much more open to different kinds of families. These days everyone has a friend, neighbor, or coworker who has adopted internationally," says Jill Cole, director of international adoptions at the Spence-Chapin agency in New York City.
Still, parenting a child adopted from abroad -- especially if she's of another race or ethnicity -- is filled with challenges and rewards that aren't often experienced by biological parents. If you've ever wondered what it's like to adopt, and why international adoption has become an increasingly popular way to build a family, here's an inside look.
The overwhelming majority of would-be adoptive parents are white, married, and experiencing infertility, or single and over 30 -- and most of these folks prefer to parent a healthy infant. Since abortion became legal in the U.S. in the 1970s, the number of healthy white infants available for adoption has plummeted. America's growing acceptance of single motherhood has also prompted more young women faced with unplanned pregnancies to keep their babies. There are some healthy African-American, Hispanic, and mixed-race babies available for adoption in the U.S., but many of these children are adopted by same-race families or relatives of the birth parents. Foster care is another source of U.S.-born kids, but many of these children are older and are part of a system that can be bureaucratic and frustrating. All these factors combined have created a serious supply-and-demand problem for those seeking to adopt.
Most U.S. adoptions involving the few healthy white infants available are private and facilitated by attorneys (whereas foreign adoptions are mostly handled by licensed not-for-profit private adoption agencies). This means parents must deal with steep legal fees. They also have to cover the birth mother's medical and living expenses, adding up to costs as high as $50,000. In order to reach out to birth mothers considering adoption, it's also common for prospective adoptive parents to "market" themselves by creating flyers, placing ads, and mailing photo books. And many couples are frightened off by the risk of having a birth mother change her mind.
Lisa Hofmann of Milford, Ohio, made failed attempts at adopting four different U.S.-born babies before adopting her son, Hunter, from Korea. "We spent two years on an emotional roller coaster," Hofmann says. "I think domestic adoption agencies and attorneys need to do a better job of educating people about their options -- and the risks."
That's not to say that international adoption doesn't come with its own challenges, including a fairly hefty price. The cost varies by country, but the range is $15,000 to $30,000, which includes travel expenses. Adopting from another country also requires completing mounds of paperwork: I sometimes joke that pregnancy is a physical hassle and adoption is an administrative one. The paperwork is eventually compiled into a dossier and includes INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) forms; criminal clearances; medical certificates; letters of reference; financial statements; photos of you, your home, and your pets; and the all-important home study.
The home study incites fear and dread in many. It's a written document that's produced after a series of visits (or sometimes only one) with a social worker, who assesses your personal life, family background, family relationships, friends, habits, health, finances, education, employment, motivation, and expectations in order to determine what kind of adoptive parent you're likely to be.
"Since my husband and I were both married before, we were asked a lot of questions about our previous marriages, including why we believed they failed," says Roberta Rosenberg of Bowie, Maryland, who has a son and daughter adopted from Korea. "I didn't enjoy discussing the details. But I found the whole process was comparable to a series of prenatal exams -- uncomfortable but necessary."
Once the dossier is complete, it's sent abroad and you're matched to a child by either your adoption agency or the overseas agency that handles adoption for that country. Getting a child can take from one month to a year or more. After waiting four months, we were matched to our daughter by Holt Children's Service in Korea, the same agency I was adopted from. When we traveled to Korea I asked Miss Bae, the woman who had matched us with Eleanor, how the process worked. She said that she had chosen a girl for us because I was Korean and she wanted the child to identify racially with the same-gender parent. She also said Eleanor's birth mother was interested in having her child placed with an American family. Many adoptive families like to speculate about all the fateful aspects of this crucial coming together of souls. There is something special about the match, but in truth, I think it has much more to do with dumb luck and logistics. I sometimes meet children from Holt who arrived shortly before or after Eleanor and think, Had our paperwork landed on Miss Bae's desk a day sooner, little Kyra might've been my daughter instead of Eleanor.
When the match is made, each family is sent what's called a referral -- a grainy photo of your long-awaited child and a written description containing his or her history. How much information you're given can vary. In Korea you get information that's so detailed, you can practically track your baby's bowel habits. In other countries, you may not learn your child's real birth date or anything about the birth family's medical history. Once they receive their referral, most parents send it to a pediatrician for review and then decide whether or not to go forward.
Just about every adoptive mom will tell you that the parent-child bonding begins the minute you see that referral photo and accept the child as your own. Once your child has a face and a name, you begin to feel like a mother.
"The hardest part of the journey begins at this juncture," says Mary Lehr of Sioux City, Iowa, who has four adopted children and one birth child. "You know you have a child, and all you want to do is hold that baby in your arms and never let go. But you must wait and wait for the phone to ring."
What you're waiting for is the completion of the paperwork and notification that the child is ready to travel home. Adoptive parents refer to notification as "the call" (though "the call" can also refer to receiving the news of a match).
But sometimes, even at this stage, things don't work out. Lehr faced a heartbreaking loss when she accepted the referral of a little girl she named Jessica. A few weeks after Lehr received Jessica's information, the baby died in Korea.
"I had no idea how much I would grieve for this little person," says Lehr. "No one understood how I felt. It wasn't as if I had miscarried or lost a baby during childbirth. I felt so alone with this loss."
How and where you meet your child for the first time depends on the country you adopt from. Many countries, such as China and Vietnam, require that adoptive parents travel there to pick up their children and to finalize paperwork. Other countries, such as India and Korea, allow escorts to deliver children to the U.S., but parents also have the option to travel. I found that one of the most exciting parts of our adoption journey was traveling to Korea to meet our daughter. Parents who make the trip are at such an advantage: They can tell their children all about their birth country firsthand, and they get to meet the people who cared for them.
In our case, Eleanor's foster mom, Mrs. Kim, was a wonderful, loving woman who had cared for more than a dozen babies in her home from birth until they reached 4 to 5 months of age. When I went to her apartment to pick up my daughter, I asked her every question I could think of about Eleanor -- what her favorite toys were, what time she got up, how often she pooped, and what made her laugh and cry.
I didn't shed a tear until I brought Eleanor home to New York City, held her face up next to my own, and looked into the mirror. I stared at her chubby cheeks and the way her little Korean eyes turned up just like mine and thought to myself, My daughter looks so much like me. And inside -- the place and circumstances we come from are just the same! I cried because never before had I seen myself, and my history, mirrored back to me in another person's face.
Once our children arrive, life for adoptive families is not unlike that of parents who give birth. We wonder if our children will ever sleep through the night. We try to make distinctions between a cry for food and a cry for a clean diaper. Some of us have to schedule a few more visits with our social worker and file more paperwork, but once our children are home, we truly feel like the process known as adoption is over. Down the road we're sure to face questions and challenges related to our children being adopted, but for the most part we do what other parents do -- we forge ahead on our journey of becoming a family.
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