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Imagining Another Life

As adolescents become capable of abstract thinking, they begin to wonder about the family and the country left behind—and the road not taken.By Lois Melina

Children who were adopted must find a way to come to terms with the reasons their birthparents decided to place them for adoption. Children adopted internationally have the additional task of understanding why no one in the country where they were born took them into their family.

Just as adoptees may conclude that they were somehow undesirable to their birthparents, internationally adopted children may conclude that there was something universally unappealing about them. How else to explain why they had to leave their home country to find a family? One adoptee told me that the most moving part of a conference for Korean adoptees she’d attended a few years ago was a reception at the home of the Korean ambassador to the United States. By symbolically opening his home to those who had had to leave Korea to find families, he helped heal the sense of global rejection this adoptee felt while growing up.

Explanations for international adoption that include widespread poverty, alcoholism, or other socio-economic problems leave some adoptees feeling guilty that they were able to escape such an environment and worried about the fate of their birthfamilies. And if the exposure children have to their country of origin is limited to tasty foods, quaint customs, and folk tales, they may have a difficult time making sense of their origins when they are faced with more troub-ling images.

As children move toward the preteen years—around ages 10, 11, and 12—they can begin to make sense of conflicting images. Just as adoptive parents should not encourage their children either to idealize or to criticize their birthparents, they should also lead their children to a genuine awareness of the way of life in their countries of origin, one that includes both positive and negative realities.

This means that adoptive parents must delve below the surface to understand the political, religious, and social conditions that have contributed to sending children abroad to be adopted. And parents have to find ways to communicate their own values to their children without being judgmental about the values of others.

Greater Cultural Awareness
Some countries, such as Korea, became sources for international adoption because of cultural mores. Children born out of wedlock could not be added to the family registry of their biologic father and, therefore, could not be full members of society. The importance of blood ties made legal adoption unknown in Korea for most of its history.

It is tempting to be critical of a culture that made no allowances for the welfare of children born into circumstances beyond their control. However, these practices were not judgments of children born out of wedlock, but simply traditions. When out-of-wedlock births became more common, and international opinion pressured Korea to take care of its children domestically, these practices began to change.

Parents trying to explain Korea’s lack of legal adoption, China’s “one-child” policy, or other cultural differences can simply say, “That’s not how we would do things, but, even if we don’t understand it, there may be a good reason for why they do it that way.” Parents who have lived in their child’s country of origin have an advantage in explaining the subtleties of cultural practices and socioeconomic conditions. However, that is not a realistic option for many people. The value of a short visit to a country depends entirely on how willing the visitor is to experience the way of life there.

Parents can develop relationships with individuals from their child’s country of origin by hosting an international college student or participating in international programs or exchanges. English-language publications exist that give a more complete view of other countries than can generally be found in mainstream U.S. news media. The goal is for parents to learn enough to help their children develop a balanced, realistic view of their country of origin.

Feeling Guilty

Not every child adopted from a developing country was relinquished due to poverty or war. In looking beyond these stereotypes, parents may learn that other factors contributed to their child’s placement for adoption.

In some countries, unmarried middle- or upper-class women relinquish a child for adoption because their families or their society doesn’t accept single parenthood. Sometimes widows relinquish children to enhance their ability to remarry—and remarriage may be their only hope for a stable existence. Poverty is just one of many reasons that may contribute to a birthparent’s making an adoption plan.

If poverty, disease, war, or other crises contributed to the child’s relinquishment, he or she may feel guilty or worried about the birthfamily. As adolescence approaches, an adoptee who begins to express a renewed concern about her birthmother’s well-being is probably beginning to imagine her in a new light, as a real person.  As the adolescent clarifies her own identity, she may  struggle to identify with a birthmother from a different culture and very different socioeconomic conditions. Finally, her concern may also   reveal straightforward curiosity about the details of her birthfamily’s life, curiosity that she may feel is unacceptable socially and possibly even threatening to her parents.

Adolescents are capable of abstract thinking. They can imagine things as they might have been, so they are able to realize that, had they not been placed for adoption, they might be living in poverty, in the midst of war, or in other circumstances less advantageous than in their adoptive family and adopted country.

By exploring the circumstances of their birthfamily, they may be exercising this new cognitive ability. They may also, however, have real concern—part of the grief adoptees feel at having been separated from biologic, historical, and cultural roots. This can be as confusing to them as to someone else. Why grieve for a life of difficulty? Obviously, it’s more than that. A sense of grief may represent a desire to identify with the birthfamily, or it may be part of the “bargaining” phase of grieving, in which an individual believes that if she can change the circumstances that led to the loss, she can reverse it.

The adoptee may also wonder why she was spared the difficulty. As adolescents ponder the future, the question of why they were “saved” by international adoption may affect how they view their purpose in the world. They may believe they must make an extraordinary contribution to justify their “rescue.” They may be feeling they are not contributing “enough” rather than feeling guilty that they aren’t poor.

Countering Victimization
Parents need to be careful not to imply that their children should be grateful for adoption, or that they were “rescued” from a less desirable existence. A child who feels powerless, or who believes that she needed to be “rescued,” may have a lower sense of worth.

Most important, parents need to listen as their child talks about her country of origin and her birthfamily, so they understand how the child is framing her adoption story. It may be tempting to contradict the child or to try to persuade her that her feelings are unwarranted, but it’s important to realize that there are many layers to a child’s experience. By actively listening to our children’s feelings—even if they don’t make sense to us—we help them work them through to resolution.  There are no short cuts in this journey: our child will arrive in her own good time.

Lois Melina’s Adopted Child newsletter, published since 1981, has gained an international reputation as a trusted resource for adoptive parents.
We are pleased that
Adopted Child is now published exclusively in Adoptive Families.

Copyright 2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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