November is National Adoption Month. I was going to write something about being a transracial and transnational adoptee, but when I looked closer at the context of this advocacy effort, I started to question its focus and overall value.
National Adoption Month is funded by the Children’s Bureau, which is under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is made possible by a partnership with AdoptUSKids and Child Welfare Information Gateway. According to the National Adoption Month’s website, the goal of National Adoption Month is to “increase national awareness and bring attention to the need for permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system.”
This mission statement is laudable and sufficient … if the only people you care about are foster children and potential permanent families in the U.S. But if you are a transnational adoptee like myself, hell, any adoptee, then you are excluded. Why? Because you’re supposedly already taken care of? As if once a child is adopted, they, and their family, no longer need help in the form of resources, networks, and other support from national organizations, especially if they live in rural areas like mine did? As if everyone adapts to their redefined family starting on day one and seamlessly continues to do so for the rest of their lives?
Due to their proximity in the foster and adoption process, the entities behind National Adoption Month should know that adoption is about more than placing foster children in permanent homes; that it isn’t just a process with start and end dates; that it’s complex, multi-layered, and saturated with emotional and psychological dilemmas that can last a lifetime for everyone involved, especially the adoptee; and that limiting and reducing a month-long spotlight on such a complicated journey to one of the most nascent points along that path is as confounding as it is provocative.
Maybe the explanation is that those who are behind National Adoption Month aren’t interested in the full picture of adoption, which would be contradictory because it’s hard to promote adoption while excluding adoptees; and yet they do. If I’m wrong and National Adoption Month’s sponsors include adoptees in their support, then the mission statement doesn’t show it, and until that changes, National Adoption Month is suspect. With an entire month at their disposal, the people behind this project could and should be doing more to support adoptees and their families. They should start by overhauling the mission statement to include adoptees; otherwise, National Adoption Month is a ruse and should be dismantled.
A campaign aimed at convincing people to adopt is not enough because the discrete act of adopting is not enough. By having the objective statement focus solely on getting prospective parents to say yes to adoption suggests that the individuals behind National Adoption Month are only interested in increasing the number of adoptions, as if this is merely a supply-and-demand problem. By ignoring other aspects about adoption, the assumption behind the limited mission statement is that once the adoption is finalized, there is nothing else to be worked out, and that any lingering issues, such as identity struggles, will resolve themselves so effortlessly that they aren’t worth mentioning. In reality, however, those things may take a lifetime to get resolved, and sometimes they never do.
For example, transracial adoptions require parents to reframe their thinking about race and adoption in ways that many will be learning for the first time. This paradigmatic shift does not happen only during the adoption process; it continues, hopefully, for years. The best-case scenario is if the adoptee and their family can get help from multiple sources and learn as they go without doing irreparable harm to each other.
On the other end of the scale, there are too many families to count who have abused (physically, sexually, and psychologically), neglected, or otherwise mistreated the children they have adopted. This means that those children have much heavier burdens to bear because in addition to figuring out their identity as adoptees and possibly as members of other marginalized groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, survivors of assault or other trauma), they must somehow take care of their basic needs as well.
In my experience, society-at-large is ill-equipped to think about and discuss adoption because many people have no connection to it. I’m reminded of the numerous times when a friend or colleague joked about someone being adopted because they looked or acted unlike their parents or siblings. While not the most offensive comment, it illustrates how casually some people make remarks about something they don’t understand. When they find out that they joked about adoption to an adoptee, sometimes they awkwardly apologize (which means sometimes they don’t) before they quickly change the subject. Their reaction tells me that at some level, they understand that adoption should be treated with more care than they showed, but the fact that they laughed about it signals that they are not yet able to regard the topic and the people who have lived-experience with respect.
Resolving the issue about what is appropriate language when talking about adoption usually requires the adoptee to open up the topic with the offender. It’s often impossible, and more often unjustified, for the wronged person to be the one who takes the first step toward educating, training, and reconciling, and who then must carry the majority of the emotional burden for both parties. A larger conversation, led by a coalition of adoptee-focused advocates, should take place to provide adoptees with the tools to lead difficult and delicate conversations with the people who marginalize them. If it is a true ally, and if fundamental and positive changes have occurred, then the forces behind National Adoption Month could be part of that effort. That said, I can’t think of a good reason why they are not already leading or coordinating with others on this because they should be.
Another area that National Adoption Month could pursue is helping people understand adoptees better. This goes further than merely accepting that adoption exists and acknowledging that we should talk about it using inclusive language. This should be a thorough attempt to provide an open space for adoptees to verbalize all of their thoughts and not be judged. Many of the people who would benefit the most are those who are connected to the adoptee: immediate and extended family members, friends, and colleagues, i.e., people who may think they understand adoptees, but don’t. Some of them, such as colleagues, may not even realize they know an adoptee.
One thing that I’ve heard adoptees say they wished would change, among family, others they know, and strangers is the belief that many have about adoption being an act of extreme charity and that the adoptee should be “grateful” for being “rescued.” Even absent of these egregious behaviors, certain assumptions and word choices can make adoptees feel othered, often on a regular basis, because their perspective as an adoptee is often ignored.
It might be difficult to capture all of the nuances of something as complex as adoption into a tidy mission statement, but the current one for National Adoption Month is not enough; it’s narrow in scope for only focusing on the U.S. foster child care system and myopic for not including adoptees at all. Regardless of your views about adoption, it is the reality for many people, which is why more conversations, education, and training are crucial for adoptees, their contacts, and the public to understand and communicate the issues and challenges that adoptees face.
I expect that ultimately it will be up to adoptees to take the lead because they are the most affected by adoption and its challenges, but it should not be their responsibility to educate and train others about something which they (the adoptee) had no say; that responsibility lies with those who made the adoption happen. National Adoption Month’s mission statement shows they are interested in adoption, but only up to a point, the day of adoption; after that, the adoptee, despite being placed in a permanent family, is once again on their own.