"Wanting to Appear 'Normal'"

We chose to adopt from Russia because we wanted to adopt a child of our race. Six bittersweet years of raising a child with prenatal alcohol exposure have taught me to look beyond appearances.

One mother shares her experience after deciding to adopt internationally.

There are children everywhere who need loving homes and dedicated parents. Choices abound for those seeking to complete their families through adoption. Compared to Russia, many countries have lower rates of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, or offer their orphaned children better care. Since neither my husband nor I are of Russian descent, why did we choose to adopt from this country? The answer seems obvious. I wanted, and probably felt I needed, white children. Does this make me a racist?

When I think back on the decisions we made, a few worries stand out. I wanted a normal family (whatever that means). I wanted to be proud of our adoption status, but I didn’t want to wear it like a badge. I wanted to be able to talk about adoption at a dinner party, but not be badgered by questions at the mall. I wanted to go the zoo without seeing approving nods from strangers that meant, “We know you adopted those kids, and we think it’s wonderful!”

Why didn’t my husband, Pat, and I choose color-blindness when we began our adoption journey? I certainly didn’t believe it was wrong to look beyond your own race or ethnicity when building a family. But when it came time to make our decisions, I just didn’t feel comfortable adopting outside my race. I wanted all of us to have control over when, how, and whether people found out. I wanted to feel like a real mother, not a fake. Crossing racial lines simply required more strength and character than I could muster when it came to my own family.

Grasping for Control

Saying such things within adoption circles makes some gasp, though I’m not sure why. Most people marry or choose life partners of the same race or ethnicity. They expect to bear children who look like them. No one demands color-blindness in this context. Luckily, the reverse is becoming true: More people are choosing mates of a different race or ethnicity, raising families without regard to coloring or eye shape.

Societal norms don’t seem to hold in adoption. While it’s common for American whites to adopt non-white children, internationally or domestically, the opposite seldom occurs. In fact, it’s so rare that a black couple from Baltimore who adopted a young white girl made Newsweek magazine. Color matters in adoption. Many people, if not most, have strong feelings about it.

I doubt anyone would criticize me for marrying a man of my own race, but should I be judged because I wanted white children? If I were Hispanic, would I be criticized for preferring to adopt Hispanic children? I don’t know. Maybe I was grasping for control over a process that felt overwhelming and public. I didn’t want our family to represent “adoption” at every turn for the rest of our lives.

Our “Natural” Family

Pat and I stumbled and tripped our way through the labyrinth of international adoption. At the end of the process, we emerged, fatigued and somewhat bewildered, as the parents of two Russian toddlers.

We weren’t back in the States for two days when the inevitable comments about our similarities began. “Sophie looks just look you!” “Doesn’t Peter look just like his father?” We hear it all the time and it’s true, sort of. My daughter and I have blonde hair and fair skin, and my son’s brown hair and tan complexion match my husband’s Italian coloring. Although we didn’t specify our children’s matching hair and eye colors, we did choose a country whose people are predominantly white.

On the surface, I got what I asked for. Our family looks natural, even normal. Nobody would question whether or not my children are biologically mine. In fact, when Peter flails around the grocery store like a pinball, all eyes go to me, as if to say, “You’re his mother, make him stop.” But I can’t.

Peter, now eight, is permanently brain-damaged from the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, and his mind is further compromised by neglect, abuse, and the rigors of institutional care. I now spend the vast majority of my time working with or for the benefit of our son.

By choosing to be an inconspicuous, “normal” family, it seems we lost our chance for actual normalcy. How did we end up here? I ask myself this a lot.

If I Had Known…

The fears that informed my adoption decisions were ridiculous and wholly unfounded. I know that now. I never hesitate to share our adoption story. I’m proud of my children, my bouncy, bossy, seven-year-old daughter, and my loving, beautiful son with significant special needs. I’ve watched them grow, heal, grieve, and flourish over the past six years, and I’ll continue supporting them in every way possible forever.

How different, perhaps easier, would our lives be if I’d had the courage to adopt from a non-Caucasian country? Odds are that we wouldn’t be struggling with an alcohol-exposed child, and with the financial, emotional, and physical stress that this entails. I thought that adopting white children was less of a leap, but I was wrong.

Raising an alcohol-exposed child, who has attachment problems and other psycho-social, medical, and educational challenges, is no picnic. Yes, he’s white and handsome. But would I rather be parenting a healthy child whose skin color isn’t like mine? I can’t answer that question, because it’s no longer theoretical. I’m Peter’s mother. All I can say is that I wish he were whole, and that he had the advantages God intended rather than a compromised future, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, trade this boy who is my son.

In my quest for control, I wound up surrendering what little control I had left. But I have two amazing children, and I ache with longing whenever I’m apart from them for too long.

To those beginning their adoption journeys, I would say: Be honest with yourself, determine what you can handle and which risks you’re willing to bear, then let the cards fall where they may.

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