The Gaze: Psychotherapy and Race in the Treatment of Transracially Adoptive Family Members.

This is an edited  transcript of a presentation by Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW  and Martha Crawford, LCSW for a psychoanalytic institute symposium on adoption. The annual symposium had a history of primarily white, non-adopted  presenters speaking to an audience of white, non-adopted psychotherapists and psychoanalysts  about adoption issues. This presentation was our attempt to assert a different paradigm for adoption competence: One that remains grounded in psychoanalytic theory, acknowledging the psychological and cultural impact of race and racism, and is centered on the perspectives of adoptees of color.

JOY: A composite case: Chelsea is a 30 year old, Asian American woman, working in a non-profit organization in Human Relations.  She is adopted from Korea and came home at 9 months of age to a family from Philadelphia.  She felt she grew up in a middle class family with little incorporation of Korean culture.  Once in a while her family would attend a local Korean Church that would invite adoptive families for a picnic.  She hated attending these events.  Her parents tried to send her to culture camp but by the time they found out about such a camp, she was 13 years old and she hated that too.  After college, she went to Korea and decided to stay for a year.  She met other adoptees who lived in Korea and felt a strong connection to the group.  She searched and found her birth mother who have decided to keep her a secret and not reveal their reunion to anyone in her current family.  She has a strained, tense relationship with her adoptive parents.  She does not discuss her search and reunion with her adoptive parents.  She socializes primarily with other Korean adoptees.  She would like to be in a relationship with a Korean American man, but finds herself consistently with White men.  I am her third therapist.  She went to therapy when she was 14 years old because her parents felt she needed to speak with someone.  She liked her therapist but felt that her therapist tried too hard to speak for her parents so she took to not participating openly and honestly.  This was for one year.  She decided to enter therapy when she was in college, because it was free.  She felt it went well but she again found herself not able to be open about her wishes to search and go to Korea.  Her therapist revealed that she was in the process of adopting and was very interested in Chelsea’s decision to search.  Chelsea felt uncomfortable with having to teach her therapist.  Frustrated, she stopped therapy.  Through her network of adoptee friends, she came to me because she wanted to work with someone who “got her” and she would not need to educate me about being adopted or being Korean.  She was very interested in “just how Korean was I?” She came to discuss her workaholic ways as she is realizing she uses work as a way to distance herself from meaningful relationships.  Having discussed much of the content of this overview in our first session, Chelsea visibly is agitated at the close of our first session.  As she stands up, she asks, I think I am going crazy.  Am I crazy, do you think I am?    

As I share this profile, I wonder what you heard, how you pictured this woman and where would you go with her?  How do you think she identifies herself?  Where does being a person of color impact the way she speaks about herself and her relationships?


In white culture,  people are taught NOT talk about race – in part because when we did talk about race, most of what we had to say was denigrating – Archie-Bunker-esque racism, those uncomfortable moments when an elderly family member busts out with a startlingly racist statement at Thanksgiving, and is met with polite silence. White people don’t talk about race, because when we have talked about it, most of what we have have to say is explicitly racist, stereotypical, and denigrating of others.

So white psychotherapists and white adoptive parents have learned to stay silent – and we too often believe that our silence is an anti-racist stance.

We never talk about our own race, or our own racial identities. Again, in part, because those who have talked about  Whiteness are usually promoting white supremacy, so we make no reference to our culturally informed inheritances, privileges, biases, and assumptions as white people.

If you ask many white people about their racial/ethnic/cultural identity – they will respond saying “I’m Nothing, regular, just American”

As  Reni Eddo-Lodge, a British, Black writer & feminist puts it:”It’s vitally important to name and identify whiteness- it’s so often invisible and posited as the ‘norm’ whilst people of colour are the ‘other'”

We believe this is vitally important in the psychotherapy office in generally, and absolutely essential when working with members of transracially adoptive families – including adoptive  parents, adopted children, and adults.

For the purposes of discussion: we thought we should review some of the terms we may use today, what we mean by them. They are by  no means final and there are many people, sociologists – etc, who have far more developed definitions than these.

MARTHA:  Racism vs Prejudice:

“Racism is the practice of discrimination and prejudice based on racial classification supported by the power to enforce that prejudice (Barndt, 1991; Garcia & Van Soest, 2006).”

This can be discriminatory acts of commission or omission – exclusionary behavior, hate crimes, gate-keeping, acts which assert white supremacy and dominance based on biases that assert that non-white populations are inferior.

Only the dominant culture, in this definition, can commit racist acts, as racism is a systemic form of oppression.

An example: Once, as I held my infant in front of him, a tall white male pediatrician  informed a very short Asian American woman resident that “Koreans are the largest of the Asian races” and that is why “Americans” liked adopting them. “Moreover” he continued “adoptive parents never need to feel guilty if the children end up incarcerated or alcoholic, or flunk out because it is all genetic.”

This was a prejudicial statement toward me, as an adoptive parent – and a racist communication about my son – but additionally  – it indicates the existence of  a professional  barrier for the intern trailing him, now explicitly devalued at the workplace, who must professionally contend with securing a review and recommendation from a white superior,  who sees “little Asians” as genetically inferior.

People of all different races can hold prejudices about other racial groups. Prejudices are sometimes individually hurtful. Racism enacted by dominant culture manifests in creating actual systemic barriers and very real emotional/psychological obstacles to negotiate for people of color.

JOY – Unconscious Racism & Microaggressions:

–       Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” Those who inflict racial microaggressions are often unaware that they have done anything to harm another person – Dr. DW Sue and colleagues

We seem to be in the deep waters of discussing this aspect of racism.  This is a positive movement toward a better understanding of the nuances of discussions of race and identity.  However, in international and transcultural/transracial adoptive families, we are still nowhere near where we could be.  In the intimacy of our families, I find our discomfort incredible and the strain of feeling betrayed by the ones we love and are supposed to be loved by mires us in having truly open dialogue.  Some examples I have heard, experienced and witnessed over the years:

–       When White adoptive parents speak about Blacks and Hispanics in derogatory terms in front of their Asian adopted child

–       Korean Culture Day Celebration – overhearing a White mother tell her Korean adopted child, looking at kimchee, and saying, “you won’t like that, it smells terrible”

–       Casual conversation with friends, “It must be because you were in an orphanage that makes you have such a “can do” attitude”


Institutionalized Racism. is something all white people benefit from. It is a statistically established advantage, and the accumulated result of the biases, preferences and “norms” created by all the conscious, unconscious racism of the predominantly white  individuals who design institutions, create laws, Even impoverished  white people receive advantages at negotiating governmental, medical, criminal, and academic institutions that people of color do not. White people are less likely to be stopped and frisked. People with names from white culture are more likely to be called in for job interviews. Our institutions are designed around specific socio-economic and cultural  assumptions that prefer and advantage white people.

JOY – Internalized Racism a method of viewing oneself, or members of ones own racial/ethnic group as a person of color, from the perspective of the dominant white culture.

We don’t like to talk about the racism we experience in our families, how we create our sense of self with a White mirror looking at us at all times.  It can feel a bit like the chicken and the egg situation.  How do we formulate a positive or negative sense of racial identity when we can often be given contradictory thoughts and feelings about us and our racial/ethnic tribe?

–                “I have had only positive things said of me…of course, I will be a doctor because I am so smart.  I believe because I am Korean, I was tracked.  Sure, I was smart, but I am not a genius.  I didn’t become a doctor, I am just an office worker at a financial company.  I feel like a failure, I have not lived up to their expectations.”

–                “I hate Korea, I can’t be there seeing the overtly objectification of women.  Sure we do the same thing in the United States, but it’s terrible what they do in Korea.”

–                “I would never date an Asian man, I just don’t find them attractive.”

MARTHA:  White privilege/White culture/Privilege – cultural beliefs assumptions, entitlements, accepted as universal, which derive from being the consistent beneficiary of institutional racism, as well as from being  exempt from having to negotiate the ongoing injury of explicit, unconscious and institutional racism.

JOY: the tricky bit is that as an adoptee of color, I do live in white privilege as I was taught to believe that what my parents didn’t have to negotiate, neither did I.  Social class and education has allowed me privilege to see others as others and not the same as me.  Feeling disenfranchised was more apparent when not in the company of my white parents.  Many of my clients, friends and colleagues talk to this as well.  We can be called Whitewashed or passing as White.  It takes conscious work for us to stay in that place being uncomfortable being judged by standards that are not our own and yet gain a sense of pride of seeing and experiencing the world through the lens our parents and White friends/colleagues are not always conscious of  – thereby allowing us to feel a sense of a greater social justice calling us to participate.  There is strength and pride in that too.

JOY:  Transracial – this term was historically  looked as only applying to a black child adopted by a white parent.  My only issue with this is that it is incredibly reductive and silos the adoptee’s experience unnecessarily, dividing our community.  My life experience calls for an understanding that “transracial” applies to any child of color adopted across racial lines to adoptive parents who are not of his/her same racial make-up.  When I made this statement in graduate school I was corrected by a Black professor who told me  I was inaccurate in defining myself as a transracial adoptee – “unconscious racism” or his “internalized racism”?

MARTHA:  The Gaze – Lacan & Foucault

So – The title of this presentation is “The Gaze” – and here we are discussing not only the voyeuristic guilt, and power implicit in sitting in the psychotherapists chair, but additionally, sitting in that chair, as a white psychotherapist – gazing at clients who live in transracially adoptive families: Who do we identify with easily? Who do we view as “other’?

For Lacan, this term refers both to the experience of looking and being looked at  – and the anxiety that is generated for both parties by an apparently “objective” gaze.

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan recounts a story:

In his early 20’s, Lacan, as a young intellectual, spent a summer laboring on a boat with a crew of working class fisherman. One of whom pointed out a sardine can shimmering in the sun – “You see that out there?” the fisherman said, as the bright sun glared into Lacan’s eyes off the shiny can – “You can see it, but it can’t see you…”

This experience activated a unique crisis of shame in Lacan, and called attention to Lacan’s  lurking political guilt at his own privileged position in relation to the working class fishermen. 

He began to elucidate on a special type of objectifying experience of looking and being looked at – The Gaze. The Gaze originates from a viewer with a privileged stance, objectifying those without the privilege who do not  have the status to return the gaze back  – and then when the privileged viewer recognizes the power differential in this voyeuristic transaction  – the anxiety of objectification  “reflects back” –  surprising the privileged  viewer.  Once that privilege  is recognized, it  “disturbs him (the viewer)  and reduces him to a feeling of shame”  

Michael Foucault elaborates further on Lacan’s construct by defining The Gaze as a relationship that exists across power differentials – and emphasizes the material, political, and biological effect on that the Gaze has upon those who are gazed upon.

In Foucault’s view – the Gaze of the dominant viewer claims the field, defining their own experience as “normal” as healthy, as baseline, as universal and unobservable –  and stands in their field  scrutinizing the Other, defining and describing the  Other, placing a narrative burden upon the Other to “explain” their differences and divergence from the “normal” position of the observer.  

This is reflected in all our language about race in the United States:

“My family is regular American  but  my African American son goes to school with several Chinese immigrant kids”  – is a very different statement than: I am a culturally White American, my child identifies himself, and is likely to be identified by others as Black although of course he is being raised in white culture as well  and there are many first-generation families who have recently moved from China at our school”

MARTHA: White people often cry racism whenever anyone speaks of race at all – in part because our culture never requires us to really THINK about our experience as our own cultural assumptions as racially bound up in Whiteness. White adoptive parents are often deeply distressed when their child of color asserts that the parents are indeed white. It is also fairly common for white parents to worry that an adoptee  “will be  prejudiced against white people” while happily and continuously introducing their child is a Chinese adoptee.

JOY: As an example – as an Asian adoptee being questioned about my loyalty to this country by those close to me. For clients, colleagues and friends, to be unfriended on Facebook by their White friends who feel they are no longer able to relate to their identification as a person of color.


So lets  examine  this transacted Gaze, and its impact on all  participants in the psychotherapy office:

~  transracial adoptees as objects of white culture’s Gaze and the special anxieties that emerge as adoptees negotiate the power differentials between themselves and their parents –

~   On white adoptive parents as Gazing members of the dominant culture and the unique shame filled crisis they may either face or retreat from when these privileges are called to their attention or they are forced, by circumstance or by their children to see this for themselves.

~ And of course, the Gaze of the  psychotherapist:

MARTHA:  White therapists –  who are working with transracially adoptive family members  -must contend with this reflected shame and anxiety in themselves, in order to be able to offer members of adoptive families support and mirroring.

JOY:  when the Gazing therapist is a person of color with a client of color, when the Gaze is mutual.  This can be an incredibly powerful experience for both client and clinician, where codeswitching is seamless and the fluidity of conversation deeper and more intimate. It does force the clinician to be more conscious of countertransference and transference, no two life experiences are the same.  But as both the client and the clinician, I have found the work to be intense, relieving with feelings erupting more vociferously.

The  Gaze  Bounces back  – THE CRISIS OF WHITENESS.

MARTHA: And what I would suggest is that, for transracially adoptive parents, and for transracial adoptees –  the unfolding and growing recognition  of the impact of the parent’s, and in some cases a therapist’s whiteness on the adoptee constitutes a kind of reflecting crisis of shame and anxiety – a parallel process between adoptive parent, adoptee and therapist.

– and it is important for psychotherapists to remember that it is at core a developmental and relational crisis:

A crisis akin to many of the kinds of crises of shame, development, guilt, remorse, concern, empathy and reparation that we are familiar with through contemporary psychoanalytic theory: 

And it is a healing, maturational crisis: expanding awareness that all parties can either forge through or retreat from.
A Lacanian crisis of shame and anxiety of the Gaze:  recognizing suddenly  what you cannot see about yourself as a parent and as a therapist – the impact of the white cultural Gaze upon transracial adoptees, what we cannot easily see about our own whiteness and unconscious bias.

JOY: Lacanian crisis for the adopted:   The adopted child/adult grows speaking the same language as her White parents by virtue of the shared family history.  Therefore, she speaks only within the context of White culture, ie.  Referring to other people of color as “them”, “special”, “unique”, “other”.  The adoptee then has limited vocabulary to describe the “other” and how they feel in the category of “other.”

What can happen when the adoptive parents do not acknowledge this difference is a feeling of betrayal by the adoptee when they realize that they are not White.  This can lead to a sense of shame for not being able to accurately know how to describe their feelings of being “other.”  Thus the adoptee thinks pathologically, she must crazy.

MARTHA-  A self-psychological crisis as white parents & white therapists experience their inability to serve as mirroring self-objects to adoptees of color  and the inevitable empathic failures that occur because of this –

JOY: This same self psychological crisis can exist for the adoptee when he knows he cannot walk in the same privilege as his White parents and extended family and friends.  For example, being a Latino adoptee raised on the upper east side of NYC by White parents.  Knowing that the real estate agent will be skeptical of him when he goes apartment shopping. This leads to a melancholia or an ambivalence about having to constantly choose and negotiate reactions and responses depending on the situation making the adopted feel like a chameleon.

MARTHA: A Winnicotian crisis of  inadequate parental holding as an adoptee matures into ever complex needs regarding their racial identity. When it comes to negotiating the realities of living in a racialized  world a “colorblind” parent is not prepared &  cannot accommodate or prepare  to their child’s  experiential reality. 

As a result ,  adoptees are  often pressed to create false-self  identities. While many many white parents say lovingly and confidently and explicitly  “I don’t see my child as Asian, Black,  Latino ” there is also an implicit unspoken:  “I see my child as White.” and the child constructs an accommodating   “white” false self for the family and a true self  is left to forge a racial identity alone, unparented.

JOY: For the adopted person, she then must go on the quest of realizing…acknowledging and then seeking affirmation that her adoptive parents cannot be a mirror. This would mean then, that the adoptee can feel forced to go outside of the family unit and seek others.  For some, they come to a therapist.  This can again feel like a betrayal of knowing that they must step out of a circle of trust and security to explore this “other” “True Self”  aspect of their identity.

MARTHA: An  intersubjective, relational crisis where white parents and white therapists are challenged in their unconscious subjective experience  of white privilege and believe their perceptions and experiences negotiating life as white people are normal, universal, useful and applicable to the the lives of transracially adopted people.

JOY: The intersubjective crisis for the adopted person? – We suggest then that the adopted person cannot negotiate the world as White person and so he must go through a new normative process of identity formation. As Fenton Moore, adoptee, therapist, adoptive parent presented, “There is nothing that describes us in a scientific way.  We don’t have a cultural adjustment disorder but rather, the adopted identity is a normative process and needs to be negotiated at every stage of life.”

JOY: The Therapist as holding the Gaze –

Because so much of adoption is personal, I would like to share with you some of my personal reflections of therapy and then as a therapist.

My first therapist:

  •    White
  •    Wonderful
  •    Normalized the various traumas of growing up in my adoptive family
  •    Allowed me to give voice to the abuse and negative experiences of my childhood
  •    But we rarely discussed race.  I brought it up and often, but while it was received and held by her, we didn’t discuss it
  •    I was conflicted and loyal and only stopped my work with her when I could no longer commute

My clinical supervisor:

  •    Korean American
  •    Learned that my impulses did not just come from adaptive behavior but also because I am a Korean American woman having lived in Korea for the first 6 years of my life
  •    She used words like – legitimate Korean/Asian woman
  •    As a supervisor and mentor, she knew the chaos in my life of being with a Korean American man, raising fully ethnically Korean children and living with my Korean birthmother and brother for a spell
  •    I was good with the adoption narrative, not so good at the “person of color” and multicultural aspects of my identity
  •    Encouraged me to see an Asian American therapist

My Asian American therapist:

  •    She gave me words
  •    She reminded me that I was not crazy
  •    She helped me to see my unique and varied coping mechanisms – some were Asian in style, some were from the adoptive family I grew up with, some were trauma based
  •    She looked like me, spoke like me (with no accent) and she was a seeker

This is all preface to mirror the journey of many of my clients who come specifically to see me based on my profile.

Odd because the therapist should not be the reason people come to therapy, but I have grown to appreciate they seek a mirror too.

JOY: Examples of engaging in therapy with therapists of color:

They come to me saying things like:

  •    I can tell you the exact day I realized I was not White and from that moment, my life has been hell
  •    I want to talk about this abandonment thing but I don’t want to talk about adoption
  •    I can’t understand what the importance of family is when I sit there with my adoptive family at Thanksgiving trying to eat all the foods I hate and don’t agree with me
  •    I can no longer spend time with my extended family sitting in the living room with the confederate flag up on the wall over the fireplace. I know they are good people, but how can they not see how offensive that is?
  •    And an 11 year old child said, I know I can talk to you about racism, I have no doubt you have experienced it, you speak my language

This goes back to the case composite I presented earlier:

  •    Chelsea’s narrative was within the normative experiences of the adopted person\

o              Little or no exploration of cultural identity as a child

o              College – awakening

o              Korea trip and search in her 20s

o              Struggles with intimate relationships

o              Her definition of family – compartmentalizing herself – adoptive family, adoptees, Koreans

Where it becomes really interesting though is when the Gaze from the client alters the dynamic between my client and me:

  •    My caseload has consistently been Asian adopted clients between the ages of 9 to adults.
  •    Invariably the questions become personal as they project their exploration of their ethnic identity – what foundation I use, who perms my hair, magazines I read, music I listen to, what dramas I watch, food do I cook, will I respond in Korean if they speak to me in Korean, how will I respond when prejudicial thoughts about Asians come out
  •    For some the kids I work with – same questions, but also want to sit closer to me, find excuses to touch my face, my hands
  •    My supervisor always reminds me to just let my clients drink me in

MARTHA: For white therapists working with transracial adoptees – it is important to realize that the conversation around race, and racial difference in relationships may have been largely silenced for the client.

 I don’t have a practice that specializes in adoption, and I don’t market myself as an adoption expert. So the adoptees that do find their way onto my caseload usually come to therapy for other reasons -work problems or difficulties in their romantic relationships –  rarely explicitly seeking support for “issues related to adoption.” That being said: consistently about a quarter of my caseload has been adopted teens or adults since beginning my practice.

A conglomerate case: I was contacted by a very kind, soft-spoken, somewhat introverted light-skinned African American woman, who was unhappy at work. She made no mention of adoption, even through my assessment of her family history – She described her mother, and  father – as school teacher and a lawyer, raised in upstate New York. Her brother – worked as a car mechanic.  I visualized all her family members as black, and it wasn’t until the second or third month – when she described her father walking through her  neighborhood “fearfully” that she mentioned that she felt protective of her father and how he would be seen as a white man in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I said: “I didn’t know you were raised in an interracial family – do you identify yourself as Black or biracial?”  “No”  she said.  “I’m black and so is my brother. Both my parents are white. I’m adopted.” and she changed the subject to her most recent job interview -in a manner which made it clear that this was not a tree she was planning to bark up with me.

At the end of that session, and several times afterwards – I made explicit invitations to talk about race in the therapy “Listen – if your parents are white, and you are now seeing white therapist – it seems to me like it might be an important opportunity for us to be aware of together about the way my being white may affect  what I can or cannot understand about your experience or what we talk about together and what we don’t. Or for example – you mentioned feeling protective of your father seeming vulnerable and out of his element. It may be, that at some point, you do or will feel similarly protective of me about parts of your experience  that you think I won’t understand, or that I can’t understand easily. I just want you to know, that it will be very helpful to me if you notice any dynamic like that – to bring it up”

On Tuesday July 16th 2013, she brought in this dream:

“I am in an airport parking lot somewhere in Florida. I have no idea why I am in Florida, I never would go there. But, so, I’m in Florida and I’m in this parking lot, and I am walking in between the cars – and I look in the window of this big white car – and there is this black baby trapped inside. And it’s hot. And the windows are all rolled up – and I can’t get to this baby. – and the baby is like, all sick. There is something wrong with the baby – like it might die – and at first I walk away like this has nothing to do with me – but then I think: No. This is the most important thing in the world – this is what I have to do – and I start screaming and screaming and screaming for someone to help me get this baby out of this car and get him some medicine or something – and I was so terrified that I woke up – shaking”

She claimed to have no idea what the dream was about.

“So lets start with Florida” I said, “since that is right there at the beginning.”

“I have a negative impression of Florida – but no other thoughts”

“Well, I have a thought, an association – can I share it?  As soon as you said it, I thought  about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case that was just handed down on Friday. Many many people, myself included, found it deeply distressing and disturbing.”

At first she said, shaking her head “I didn’t really didn’t track that case at all. It didn’t have anything to do with me”

“Those are the same words you said about the black baby in the white car….”

She looked stunned and then began to choke up and sob, stating that she didn’t know why she was crying. She spoke  about was like to be a black teen ager separating from her white  parents, incidents of humiliation, shame, harassment and disorientation and terror about the protocols of learning how to manage being seen “as black only” without her white parents privilege intervening  protecting her.

In subsequent sessions we explored the ways she compartmentalizes and splits off her awareness of herself as a Black woman when she is with her white parents, and the ways she, without awareness, felt the need to protect me from the reality of her experiences too.

White therapists – when the anxiety of their own Gaze bounces back –  too often encourage white parents to retreat from this crisis into the apparent safety of staying ensconced in white culture, by reassuring white adoptive parents that “love is enough” or diversity is schools and role models is not important to seek out. 

White therapists can also retreat from the anxieties of talking about race, about their own race blindness, or by making race based assumptions which help to silence adoptees of color, as I did.


Adoption/Racial/Cultural identity begins with the adoptive parents.

In order for the adopted to organize this multifaceted identity, she needs to be held by adoptive parents who have come to seek an understanding of their own white privilege and racial identity.

If an adoptive family comes to you, the therapist, then they need a therapist who has examined her own privilege, unconscious racism, and negotiated the anxiety, shame and discomfort that is reflected back at her.
In closing: I will share with you a series of 6 word essays  discussing race, a format commonly known as “the race card project”  shared by Asian American youth, adopted and non-adopted, written at a Korean culture camp that Martha and I both contribute our support to:

We are all people of color

Not one or the other, in-between

I eat with forks and chopsticks

Toast for breakfast, rice for dinner

Oriental is a cookie, not me

You know you have yellow fever

Race is only one broad term

Life is more complicated than speaking English

We are doctors but also patients

Korean-American is not Korean or American

I don’t eat cat or dog

I decide what shapes my identity

Race is nothing but a word

No, I can’t do your nails/laundry

Everyone has feelings, so be nice

Adoption is different, difference is pride

Color is just color, not identity

Guess what?  I suck at math

I do not bow like that

Not all of us are cousins

Asian doesn’t mean I am Chinese

I bet I’m a better driver

I don’t speak like Ching Chong

I do not love my calculator

I’m just as American as you

I heart my long Asian hair

I am a yellow rice love

I’m actually good at math

My parents actually loved me

I am not a rice farmer

I’m from Korea and I’m adopted

My heritage is who I am

Racism will last until the end


40 Developmental Assets List for Transracial Foster/Adopted Youth – Robert O’Connor, MSW, LGS

Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G, Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., & Equin, M. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. The American Psychologist , 62 (4) 271-286

Minority identity developmental model – atkinson, morten, sue – 1979

My internal racism as an Asian American woman is the only way for me to fix it

A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia – Shinhee Han, LCSW, Ph.D. and David Eng, Ph.D.

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model: A Theoretical Framework for Studying Transracial Adoptees by Amanda Baden & Robbie Steward – Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families, ed. Rafael A. Javier & Amanda L. Baden & Frank A. Biafora & Alina Camacho-Gingerich – Pub. date: 2007 | Online Pub. Date: June 22, 2009 | DOI: | Print ISBN: 9781412927512 | Online ISBN: 9781412976633 | Publisher:SAGE Publications, Inc.

Cultural Competence for Transracial Adoptive Parents.Author: Vonk, M. Elizabeth, Publication:  Name: Social Work Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 0037-8046 Issue:  Date: July, 2001 Source Volume: 46 Source Issue: 3

Available online

Difference, Development & Transracial Adoption

Recently, we were interviewed for a magazine article about transracial adoptive parenting and  we decided to offer our written response to the interviewers questions here in full:

It’s not the same or as if, it’s different. If we think from this perspective then everything in adoption is normal.

JOY: There is nothing simple about adoption. If we accept that understanding adoption, race and identity is on a developmental continuum over an adoptee’s entire lifetime, then we see that an adoptee’s work is never done but evolving. The concept of the perfect checklist for an adoptive parent is void. There is no one checklist on how to do these conversations “right”, just like there are no two adoptees who are the same, no two families that are the same. I believe it is important that non-adopted white adoptive parents and the larger community understand the essential and expectable path that many adoptees go through to understanding their whole self. Identity seeking, dealing with racism, seeking adoptee community and culture, birth family search processes are all typical and healthy milestones for the transcultural/transracial adoptee.

MARTHA: White adoptive parents are often deeply concerned about being either 1) being the only “real” set of parents to their children, or 2) worried about “doing it right.” Both are attempts to ensure that their adopted child won’t experience any challenges related to being a person of color, or related to being an adoptee. This is an absolutely unrealistic and impossible task.

There are processes related to racial identity formation and adoptee identity – that are inherent to adoption – that adoptive parents cannot psychologically “fix” or remove in any way (and adoptees vary widely in whether or not they think of themselves in need of “fixing” at all). In areas related to race and adoption identity – as an adoptive parent you can either be a supportive listener or an obstacle, a scaffold or a blockade. Adoptees, young and old, know more about what it means to live adoption than adoptive parents do. Transracial adoptees know far more about living as a person of color in the United States than white parent can ever understand.

This is why I do not ever write or speak of transracial adoptee’s experience, or speak publicly on adoption issues without being in active, supportive collaboration with an adopted colleague. I cannot speak about what I have not lived. I can only listen, learn and offer support. I hope, as an adoptive parent, to let my kids be the architects of their adoption experience and racial identity in collaboration with other transracially adopted people. It is, in my view, an adoptive parent’s job to be a sturdy scaffold for kids to do their own work from – not to tell them how to construct their identities.

JOY: I do think that my generation of adoptees who have chosen to become professionals in the field have done some great things to progress this thought. I credit them for making us “adults”. While I have found myself challenging the label “adult adoptee”, asking people to simple call me an adoptee or adopted person, I appreciate this transitional term as the beginning stages of people getting that we have our own narrative and our own opinions and perspectives on being adopted. However, we can now stop calling us adult adoptees. It continues to perpetuate the infantalization of adopted people, as if “adoptee” could only mean a baby or child.

The notion, that parents are “putting ideas” in adoptees head about race, I find false. It is a defensive posture and speaks to the discomfort of the parents. Adoptions across races have been going on for generations now, there so many more resources available to parents if they have the courage to listen, ask and try. I find myself feeling impatient when parents express no diversity in their friend network, in their neighborhood, in their schools. Adoptive parents who are not adopted themselves do not KNOW what it feels like. If they acknowledge this, they have the opportunity to seek support. This does not invalidate them as the parents, this validates their child has needs. There is nothing worse than a child who feels they have to hide, or ignore a part of who they are to the very people who have chosen to love them unconditionally. It feels like the worse kind of betrayal.

We cannot only talk about adopted children and adoptive parents. Adoption lasts a lifetime. If I am treated as an adult with my own narrative and experiences, my adoptive parents become part of the backdrop and become relevant to my choosing rather than the focal point of my story. Then the question is more about how I came to my identity rather than what my parents imparted or didn’t. It allows for the adopted person to be more complete and authentic to who and what served them well.

MARTHA: Yes, there is Healthy-Normal-Expectable for Transracial Adoption – which can be somewhat different, often more complex, than Healthy-Expectable for many kids who grow up with their genetic family. Black kids and other kids of color face different external challenges to self-identity formulation than white kids do. It’s not something that you can protect kids from without changing the whole world. It is the way things are. It is the present reality of being a transracial adoptee, and adoptive parents need to accept that in order to even begin to be supportive.

As an analogy (although it is by no means the same thing) kids whose parents are divorced also have their own developmental tasks and challenges but as a culture we rarely expect that we should “fix” kids of divorce or parent them in such a way so that they never think about what it means to grow up with separated parents. We accept that those kids are contending with something particular on their plate – and that a parent who did not grow up in a divorced home may not always know exactly how it feels. In adulthood – kids of divorced families are not asked constantly about what their parents did “right” or “wrong” to make them “the way they are” and we even accept that kids of divorce may have very different ideas about divorce and marriage over their lifetimes. As adults, we permit them to be their own person, and to no longer be defined by their parents’ choices and behaviors. There are distinct journeys with different developmental tasks.

JOY: Yes, a developmental differential for the adopted person. We can also pull the framework back a bit and think about parenting in general. If we think about walking WITH our children, their needs will become apparent in a very different way. If adoptive parents get stuck on the realness of their role as a parent, they are working off a false foundation. They are real, just not THE real parents. But their parenting and choosing to be parents is very real. I believe this is what makes adoptive parenting so distinct from parenting any other way.

Adoptive parents do parent with the very real notion that there are other parents in the life of their child, they were created by others. I can acknowledge this as a real fear.

But this fear can lead adoptees to sometimes feel a need to overcompensate, assuage, fix, change, challenge an intangible fear of belonging. I see too often, adoptees struggle with who they are supposed to be, not who they are. By seeing adoptees for who they are, you have to also see them as people of color, as people who seek a different tribe, having to negotiate life in a very different way. I encourage both adoptees and adoptive parents to steep themselves in many different kinds of adoptee narratives. By sharing and listening to other adoptees share their stories, we can begin the labor of putting a more real construct of what it means to be a person with the most unique perspective that is the adoptee. As in every other area of parenting, I think this should be a basic tenet.

MARTHA: Adoptive parents need to consistently demonstrate – to our kids and to the to adoptees who we hope will be a part of our support networks, that we are stalwart, respectful and unafraid in the face of the full spectrum of feelings that accompany the lived experiences of transracial adoption across their lifetime. No subject relating to adoption or race or privilege, no question or fantasy of fear or grief or anger posed by adoptees should be “out of bounds” for their adoptive parents.

I like to challenge adoptive parents practice this by, as Joy suggests, reading and learning and listening to adoptees of all ages. And we shouldn’t just seek out transracial adoptees that share the same political, religious, or adoption perspectives as our own,  or seek out young, callow adoptees. We need to face down and listen, without debating them, the narratives and the stances that scare, agitate and disorient us the most. As adoptive parents we should ask ourselves – “If/when my kid were to feel like this one day – because their feelings will shift over the course of their entire lives- what kind of parent do I want to be?” 

Part of “being a sturdy scaffold” as a white adoptive parent is building up a network of peers, teens, young adults, and adults – true family friends – adopted people and non-adopted people of color and people of the child’s birth community. So when your kid begins to struggle with racism or adoption loss, we can say,”Is there anyone else that we know or love that you would you like to talk to about this?” If not, “Let me know where you need me in this – should I do something? Or do you just need me to listen?” And then we have to be able get out of the way and let our kids confer with role models who have more experience than we do and begin to organize their own methods of coping with challenges that we, as white adoptive parents will never face ourselves.

JOY and MARTHA: Adoptive parents have a story too and if their developmental processes, achievements and failures on this journey to become adoptive parents over the course of their adult lives is unexamined, then the “problem” of adoption falls solely on the adoptee’s shoulders. Adoption was never actually only about the child historically, so perhaps our frustration is in that shift as well. Adoption has always been a transaction between adoptive parents needs and childrens’ needs – if rarely a  balanced one – and adoption as a process and an institution is driven in large part by adoptive parents needs. Acknowledging and examining this might help to bring parents into better alignment with the needs of adoptees

Privilege or Entitlement?


I literally woke up with this question in my head, so before I forget it, here it goes:

Did you always want to be a mom? More specifically, did you feel you were entitled to be a mom? Entitled to have a kid, was that a conscious thought or just an expectation once you met your love?
I struggle with entitlement. I never felt entitled to anything. I HAVE felt lucky, grateful but not entitled. I know what lucky and grateful is supposed to look like, but entitled always felt like a dirty word. I always think “why?” when I hear that I am entitled to have love, family, information.

Just a brain purge.
have you ever read the book, secret thoughts of an adoptive mother by jana wolff?


I did not always want to have kids.
And I did not think I HAD to have kids to be happy.

I thought, there are two parallel lives in front of me:

I can find meaningful ways to be generative and be happy and child-free.

Or, I can become a parent – I have skills that could be well applied to parenthood. Which could also be meaningful path.

I also had a foster sibling who was later adopted- and I have, since, met many biological offspring/siblings of adoptive parents/adopted siblings that become adoptive parents. Perhaps it is a way that we identify with our parents as adoptive parents, Perhaps it is a way that we identify with our siblings, perhaps it has something to do with living in an adoptive family that becomes part of your own identity.

Moreover, I actually thought, and still do in a weird way, that I was somehow, in ways that still cant quite articulate, better prepared to be an adoptive parent. That my own peculiar history and somewhat extreme losses made me better equipped to be an adoptive parent than a biological one.

I’m not offering this up as a rationale or a justification, nor am I even suggesting that these are or are not good reasons to adopt, or that there are good, or “better” reasons to adopt –
It is how I thought at the time. Usually when people ask about “why?” – Whether they are adoptees or people who have nothing to do with adoption – I feel a pressure – like I am expected to defend my choice – which I don’t want to do – as I accept the complexity of the ethical and political realities around international adoption -or I am expected to break down and confess that I regret bringing these children into my life – which, I can never do. I can’t regret it- it has transformed me too profoundly – and I love my kids with every piece of every cell in my body– although I can care about the effect that my choices had on them, and on others.

And – if Korea had said: you’ve had too much therapy (and they did because we were honest and they asked for additional documentation – and we expected to be turned down) or you are too old:

Or if we hadn’t found an adoption path or a program that had appeared (at the time) to be ethical, or a good fit for us, or had rejected us.

We would have been a little sad and we would have moved on and we would have had a fine life (with MUCH more international travel and disposable income I might add)

So- I didn’t have an internal MANDATE to parent that many do- and I didn’t feel: “I am internally entitled to adopt a from any country I choose for I am an American and how dare they make me take classes or jump through hoops” or some of the kinds of things I have heard prospective adoptive parents say.

But I did feel, and still do feel, and have always felt EQUIPPED to be an adoptive parent. Equipped to tolerate the paradoxes and to love a child who may struggle with similar paradoxes and ambivalences and losses.

Equipped to admit when I don’t know something and to shut up and listen.

I do think my kids are entitled to a family – and sometimes I think they are entitled to more that I can provide –
But entitlement doesn’t protect any of us from losing those entitlements.

I don’t feel entitled to the food we unintentionally waste and consume, when I know there are people within miles of me who do not have enough.. Or who live more effectively on less than I do with more.

Is this our next post? A discussion of entitlement?

I read the “secret thoughts” book years ago. Can’t remember it.
What are your thoughts about it?

yes, I am thinking the same thing…
keeping this dialogue going.

I am struck that perhaps the reason you are so free to explore your children’s inner feelings of identity and your own is that you did not have the same expectations so many other women talk about? The Secret Thoughts of An Adoptive Mother is a great example. I thought Jana was amazingly candid about her desire to be a mother. I thought what she said early on in her book was so key – no one ever dreams of being an adoptive mother.

At the same time, being in that place of not feeling like you HAD to have kids is a privilege of sorts, don’t you think?

I am struck by my own community of adoptee women – most of us really desired the physical connection to another like ourselves. But there are a fair number of adoptees who do not want kids at all. Neither position coming from a place of entitlement it seems. What is presumed to be a natural desire is not one that is a natural evolution in all of us.

Certainly my comfort being child-free grew out of my cultural inheritance of white privilege as a college educated, master-level White-American feminist – who could expect to earn a certain amount of income, who holds hyper-individuality as a value, who had my undergraduate education paid for etc –

I expected – as white women of my generation did – that there were in fact many different pathways to fulfillment available to me – and that I did not see dependency on traditional family structures or expectations as mandatory.

If I had less opportunity for educational and professional fulfillment, less sense of entitlement to autonomy from the expectations of my community, or encountered more significant – or insurmountable institutional or financial obstacles/barriers to professionalism – if other roads to fulfillment were more closed off – as they are, and have been for many other women – then motherhood might have been a more important internal imperative.

I felt myself to have an abundance of choice in the matter. In other words: Privilege.

I actually did usually imagine being an adoptive mother – in the very rare moments when I imagined having children at all – and not because I thought it was a “good thing to do to help a child” but because my inherited familial narrative required constantly that I make family for myself out of non-biological relationships – non-biological family felt more normal to me than biological family.

Conversely, I think that my familial/emotional/psychological inheritance also meant, that certain “normal” avenues to fulfillment – having a nuclear, biological family – felt closed off to me – because of the ways that my very complicated family history left me with my own narrative burden/expelled and out outside of the dominant “normal for white people” culture.

So- as always, for me, it is never just one thing – but probably simultaneously my combination of privilege – and the narrative burden I inherited which left me also feeling outside of the dominant narrative.

I do think that my being a “weirdo” among straight white adoptive parents – outside of the usual hetero-normative adoptive “infertility and/or save a child” motivations (in this – I often identify more comfortably with some gay adoptive parents) since I didn’t want to save anyone, and biological infertility wasn’t an issue -gives me a great deal of curiosity about what is going on in other adoptive families – I work to understand their context as I really don’t understand it automatically at all.

And maybe other “weirdness” about my history – (and here I am referring, to things that have nothing to do with having an adoptive sibling) helps me at times to identify – although not in any equal or exact way – with the kinds of challenges my kids might face, or at the very least – the kinds of empathy they might need from me regarding their own narrative burdens.

I could deduce, from the way that I had attached to clients, and the kids I saw in my therapeutic practice that I would certainly deeply attach to a child – but I could only really see myself as a Mother after I had become one.

How does your experience of entitlement – or lack of it – affect your relationship to the community of adoptees?
Mine puts me a little out of synch with the straight adoptive parent community much of the time so I’m curious?


As for my relationship with my fellow adoptees, I feel I have always been a bit stuck in the middle. My gratitude and objective appreciation for what growing up American has done for me will never allow me to be against adoption. My personal circumstances of how I was adopted and how I felt growing up makes me enraged at the system and the terrible choices certain adults made. My own therapist tells me that I am very black and white but perplexing in that I can stand comfortably in the grey. I think it is because I am always curious and have a burning desire to figure it out. I also love company, I don’t want to be a lone wolf. I want to be a part of a community. I find adoptees in general to be incredibly supportive. I am grateful for the group I met early on in life, they will grow old with me. They are family.

Having said that, I struggle with the level of entitlement that does pervade our conversation. Maybe entitlement is not the right word. I think it is privilege. I struggle with hearing the privilege and am troubled that others don’t see that they are. I believe that by virtue of our how we were raised, blindly in the white majority, we absorb some of that unspoken privilege. It comes out in the way we see our birth countries and our expectations of how things should change.

The Sense of Guilt and the Capacity for Concern in Adoptive Families.

This is a transcript of a presentation that Martha Crawford, LCSW and adoptive parent and Joy Leiberthal Rho, LCSW and Korean Adult Adoptee gave for AFCAF/NY (Adoptive Families with Children of African Heritage and Their Friends, NY) in collaboration withFCCNY (Families with Children from China Greater New York) and the Adoption Initiative of St. John’s University, New York:



The Sense of Guilt and the Capacity for Concern in Adoptive Families.



I am Martha Crawford, and I am a therapist with a generalist practice – who happens to be an adoptive parent.


I have had, before and since we adopted children – many clients, friends and colleagues who were adopted and who have taught me a great deal. I have also worked with, professionally and in the adoption community – a good number of adoptive parents – although in my view, far too few seek support for themselves on their own journey through the world of adoptive parenting, and seem, in general, to prefer to seek services to help their children and their children’s “adoption problems”.


I don’t by any means consider myself an “adoption therapist” or an “adoption expert” – and nor should anyone else – I do feel that through my profession, and my work in the adoption community that I have seen something about the special shape that guilt takes among adoptive parents.



I am Joy Lieberthal and I am social worker and after over 15 years working in the world of adoption, I have become more comfortable calling myself an expert in adoption, but still not an adoption therapist.  I have worked in adoption on the policy and agency side and now settled in post-adoption.  It is not lost on me that the majority of the clients who come to me come because of my personal adoption status, but I am glad to see they stay because I am able to support them through a wide variety of life issues as well.


I have been fortunate to have some amazing mentors, but it is one in particular who helped me round out my perspectives in adoption.  As a child development specialist, she helped me to put adoption into the context of typical child development and see how adoption complicates the journey of a child in creating a self identity.  So, I get to see clients who happen to be adopted, which is an important distinction to be made.



Together we will be looking at a model of guilt as a healthy developmental process on the path toward mature concern and empathy detailed by a psychoanalytical theorist named Donald Winnicott:

D. W. Winnicott  was a psychoanalyst and a pediatrician in England during and after WW2 – The Dr. Spock or T. Berry Brazelton of his era –.

In his book The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment –  he details the childhood developmental processes of guilt in two chapters: The Sense of Guilt, and The Capacity for Concern, which is essentially, empathy. In this same book, Winnicott is most famous for describing the construct of “the good enough mother” or primary caretaker



My rant on the concept of good enough stems really from registration packets of prospective adoptive parents while working at a private adoption agency.  We would receive packets of PAPs who fill out a questionnaire as to why they want to adopt, the type of child they want to parent, their past and current relationships, their finances, the meds they are taking, their drug history, their debt and any questionable episodes in their past.  The true meaning, as Martha will make abundantly clear, has been lost and in discussing these packets, we humans were designated to decide who would pass through, not or would need further conversation.  My frustration laid in that none of the information really told us how they would fare as a parent.  It set up adoptive parents in a way that superficially made them feel sure of their decision without getting to the root of how to care for their new charge.  Throughout the homestudy process, the pink flags of racism, insecure or unattached adult, intense fear and anxiety of birth parents are superficially addressed.  And the end statement of we just need them to be good enough always made my stomach sink.  I am hoping tonight we will begin the conversation I wish all parents and adoptees could have so our parents can be good enough to securely hold our children no matter their journey.



Winnicott’s good enough mother does not anxiously pursue perfection, nor do they collapse in shame at their inadequacy. They are parents who have come to terms and take on going responsibility for their failures.

This model – detailing the various forms of guilt and its healthy development into mature concern – is useful to us in understanding something about the healthy and unhealthy shapes that guilt can take in adoptive families, and especially in the development of our own identities as “good enough” adoptive parents.

First of all, in Winnicotts view, ‘The study of guilt is inherently the study of emotional growth. (Win pp. 15)’

The capacity to feel guilt is seen a desirable and important thing – yet, this healthy kind of guilt can be derailed along the way into manifestations of guilt – too much or too little  – unmodulated, obsessive, annihilating, or completely denied – which can be destructive for adoptive families.

None of us will ever have just the right amount of guilt at the right moment – and, in Winnicott’s view these are phases that we will all have to work through, over and over again, in different contexts, in different subjects, with different children, and as our children’s needs, demands and perceptions of us change over time.

Winnicott describes guilt as originating out of “anxiety mixed with a special quality – anxiety because of the conflict between love and hate”

What we love about being adoptive parents and what we hate about being adoptive parents – our positive associations to our children’s first families –and our fearful, threatened, angry, biased, or negative internal imaginings about them, the qualities that we see in our children that we find gratifying pride-inducing and those that make us embarrassed, uncomfortable, confused, or enraged, our wish that our love will be enough to soothe our children and our fear that their losses will cause them to reject us as “not-real” –  this is nature of the ambivalent mix of love and hate

For Winnicott, and for me as a psychoanalytically informed therapist – it is important to understand that we believe that we all hold within us a wide spectrum of mixed and contradictory feelings – whether we are conscious of it or not.

If you accept this view – this means that we have an Un-Conscious. It means, for purposes of this discussion, I am accepting as a premise, that we all, everyone of us, myself included, have feelings, beliefs, biases, hope, fears, shames, strengths and weaknesses that  –  what ever it is we think we know about ourselves – we are Not Conscious of.

Other people, and most often our children, know a great deal about what we dont  know – or don’t want to know about ourselves.

9 years ago:

I am holding my sleeping son in my lap, he has been home for two or three months. I have become viscerally, experientially aware, for the first time that having a child is an unfathomable blessing, unsurpassed joy, a flabbergasting boon. I did not, could not know this before.  I did not know what parenthood would feel like.

Simultaneously I am becoming aware, again, viscerally, experientially, not merely cognitively, that my extraordinary gain is his first mother’s loss, his mother country’s loss and is also his loss.  I know now, specifically, in an embodied way, what and who was lost and to whom.

I go online, to search for narratives from adult Korean adoptees, to try to find narratives that repair these losses. I find a site called Transracial Abduction – that equates all adoption with criminal kidnapping – and which terrorizes and shames me –

I am becoming aware that I have gained the greatest joy in my life at another woman’s and at my son’s expense –  I had likely considered this intellectually – but at this juncture, smelling, holding, completely falling for this baby, it is overwhelming.


I close the computer quickly – but my head spins for days. I do not search online again for a long time – as the unfathomable guilt and shame that was evoked feels as if it could disrupt my ability to bond with this amazing child. If I dwell on it, or become possessed by it, I will feel a villain, unworthy of caring for any child – and I know that neither of us can afford that.  I forget about it. Block it out.




In Winnicott’s view a mature healthy guilt-sense, which he calls Concern, requires that we be able to tolerate ambivalence, accepting responsibility for all the light and the darkness that emerge from our choices – that we be able to withstand contradictory and mixed feelings – without foreclosing, deadening, cauterizing or cutting off any of them –

It requires that we neither collapse in guilty self-flagellating despair nor deny culpability.

In some families, in some households  – the contemplation of adoptive parent guilt and culpability – is so threatening it remains forever unacknowledged, intolerable, un-experienced, and denied utterly.

Unconscious guilt is often made most conspicuous by its apparent absence.

Joy can speak further about the effect that such reflexive denial responses can have on adoptees…



Caveat:  I realize I am describing a small population of adopted people who come to seek counseling, seek adoptee groups for support.  But I would like to make clear that this number is not insignificant.  You just have to look at Facebook to see the sheer number of adoptees who are seeking a shared experience. 


So, once we get past 4 or 5 years old, the world opens up and what is not talked about at home will be no longer remain silent.  Like ALL children, adopted children will begin to see, measure up and contrast their own families to those of their peers and create a narrative of their own that may not reflect how their parents view their parenting or definition of family. 

Over the last 20 years, the memoirs and films of adult adoptees have spoken loudly to the confounding guilt adoptees feel about their sense of loyalty/love/connection to their adoptive parents.  This will further compound their guilt if their thinking of/wishing for/wanting their birthmother remains unchartered territory in their family.  I think the best way to describe this conflict would be when Deann Borshay says in her first film, First Person Plural, talking about my birthmother to my mother is like putting dirt in my mouth.I cant talk to my mother about my mother.  By not being allowed to explore her past throughout her life, she is caught in an impossible quagmire as she goes through her search for self as an adult, at times poisoning her relationship with her adoptive parents.


The memoirs and films are a reveal of what that silent conversation is like for many of us. 


It begins with the self pact that we dare not speak of what we truly desire.  The charade begins based on assumptions of what we think we should know about our adoption story.


In the children, young adults and adults I see in my practiceand in myself as well, is the fantasy story that we create to justify our place in our family.  Mix some insecure attachment and a conflagration of anxiety, perfectionism, and a chameleon-like behavior begins to emerge. Or as Martha says, a deadening, cutting off of that part of us that could potentially damage the relationship we hold so dear. 


The reality is that a child has no choice but to attach, to be loyal, to desire connection.


It is when this charade can no longer be held together that eruption occurs.  Adoption exacerbates the complicated typical adolescence or second adolescence (for my adult adoptees who held it together the first time). 


Underlying this intense sense of guilt is the resentment and anger in the lack of entitlement an adopted person feels to the information that every other person this world has to know who they were born from and from where they came. 


Case Examples:

 Anabel was adopted as an infant to a Christian family who felt they saved her, never acknowledged her birth culture or family.  Now in her 30s, she is discovering too late that she has a whole other identity and family in Korea.  At a younger age, she can recall her desire to be American and later when she realized she was not ever American.  In the understanding that being adopted means to have come from another family, she is struggling with making sense of her abandonment (why isnt my birthmother looking for me?) and the inherent racism of her adoptive parents (why didnt they save a white child, how did they not know I had a whole other life in Korea?)


What it looks like now is explosion upon explosion as she is furious with her adoptive parents tired of teaching them and asking them to reconsider their perceptions of what their motivations to adopt her were, jealous of other adoptees who are in reunion, exhausted trying to maintain a cohesive identity as she tries being Korean.


Lee, 15 year old, Asian adoptee, always felt different from her parents and beginning to realize her parents do not see her as a child of color.  Instead, they treat her like a trophy, keep her at bay and spoil her.  She admits that she is the one in control, rarely disciplined.  She rages and throws tantrums and while her parents understand this is not appropriate for their daughter at this age, they rarely do anything about it.  They believe it has something to do with her being adopted but fail to see how they are complicit in her thinking about her adoption as something to be fixed or mended rather than an integral part of her and her family identity.



Fast forward another 3 and a half years:

I am now the adoptive mother to a 4 year old son and a daughter almost 3. Early in the day, the children had asked about my work, and I had explained my job was to help people.

I am now tucking them in. The four year old asks me to read his life book, and asks me to read the parts about his birthmother. I read my own recently written words out loud:

“Every mother in the whole world needs someone to help them take care of a baby: they need a friend, or a daddy or an aunt or uncle or a grandma or grandpa or they need enough money to pay a babysitter or job with a childcare center. And when a woman has a baby inside her, and doesn’t have anyone to help…

The three year old cut me off.

“You help her!”


“Mommy helps people. You can help birth mommies keep the baby!”

No I don’t, I think. I didn’t.  I haven’t.

I stammer lamely about how I never met their first mommies so I didn’t know how to help them.



At this juncture I now have more practice, more strength, and deeper expectations of myself about who I am and how I see my job as an adoptive parent. I want to be someone my daughter would be proud of. I want to live up to her three year old idealized image of me. I want to respect and honor her loss, and her mother’s loss and lack of real choice – and I want to live out my own values in the face of this – not just pay them lip service.

I talk to my husband and I contact our adoption agency- asking if there is anyway for us to give designated funds to family preservation services to the agency Korea.

They have no idea.

No one has ever asked this question before.

We not only donate money – but I begin doing research on single mothers’s services and programs in Korea – I begin posting on our Korean adoption list serve, I begin talking to all the parents I know about the opportunity to give designated funds to support single mothers programs in Korea, to help other mothers have real choices.

I annoy people: most especially other adoptive parents.

Winnicott describes one form of unhealthy guilt as  becoming permanently trapped in obsessive/compulsive symptoms:  “always trying to put something right” – and obsessive thoughts as making every attempt to annul one idea with another. But nothing succeeds. The symptoms are an attempt to do the impossible. “The patient absurdly claims responsibility for the entire general disaster but in doing so avoids their personal destructiveness”

Some become stuck, for longer or shorter periods of time in obsessive undoing  – but with sufficient support, and awareness – some of the very behaviors that are driven by guilty compulsion can build up our acceptance of responsibility – (guilt matured into concern)  – through cycles of attempted reparation and restitution.

Reparation takes hundred’s of forms: Language classes, motherland country visits, forging personal and organizational relationships within your child’s birthright racial, ethnic, religious communities, birthparent searches on your child’s behalf, participation in adoption organizations, advocacy –



And attending adoption speaker series, and presenting at them too.



Martha, you really set the tone for this conversation, so much of what I have prepared is a reaction to your honesty as an adoptive parent with children who are of color. 


I am struck by a general developmental theme emerging.  As your children age and develop their own cognition of what adoption means to them, so too do you as their mother.  It strikes me that your thoughts and curiosity is an attempt to stay one step ahead of where your children might be.


If we stop at early childhood the idea of being stuck on ideas, obsessive, awareness of others, seeking and being curious to get concrete answers is very typical of all kids this age.  It is remarkable as to where you were in parenting your child who is developmentally the same age as you in understanding adoption.  If there is a privilege here is it on the part of the child.  At elementary school age, a child does not realize what they dont know, they are simply taking it in.  They have no choice.  So there is little guilt, only concrete reflections of what they are offered. 


However, I am thinking of the parent who has a child well past this developmental age and feeling guilty about not doing enough.  I think there is always room for reparation.  Self awareness has no timeline.


It goes back to being the good enough parent in the way Winnicott intended the job of the parent is to hold whether by comfort or by creating strong enough boundaries in order for the child to bounce off of. 


In this discovery, I would encourage a new dialogue with the adopted young adult or adult as too often, the adoptees I see are waiting for the opening to have this very challenging discussion with the only parents they know.  I am reminded of the 24 year old adoptee I met at the very first Gathering in 1999 when she tearfully said, if my mother had only said she didnt know or understand, the doors would have flung wide open for me to be closer to her.



I believe its extremely valuable, and actually a necessity for healthy adoptive families – for adoptive parents examine their OWN wide range of fantasies about their children’s first families.


So many reasons:

If you know what you are afraid of, what you hope for, what threatens  you, what you feel about the imagined, lost families that might have been – the family that was disrupted and that allowed  that your family to exist, that brought these specific children into your lives – you are less likely to project your issues onto your children,

You are more likely to be able to hear your child clearly.

You will be more likely to withstand, without flinching and without fear, the more complicated, painful, challenging aspects of your children’s experience – should they choose to share it with you.

If you have ownership of your fears and fantasies and limitations – then your child does not have to protect you from them.

If you can talk about your internal relationship to the lost family that created yours it gives your child permission, and language to talk about their own experience.

It’s also an awful lot to ask of  a young adoptee to develop insight and create vocabulary to expose their private fantasy life about their adoptions if parents haven’t found their own words, or are unaware of their own fantasies: concretely accepting their own narrative/privilege as adoptive parents as an empirical, universal, fact.


Here are some of the the birth mother archetypes and stereotypes  – that operate and lurk in the collective psyche, in the culture, and  in the back of adoptive parents brains –  and I will own them as ghosts in my own machine as well.


They operate in  our psyches much the same way that any unconscious fantasy, bias,  or any racist stereotype does in unexamined unconscious racism, effecting and guiding our behavior,  from the back of our brains,  outside of our awareness.


They also are active in all forms of adoption: open/closed, domestic/international, same race/transracial –


In open adoptions they take the form of projections on to the birthmother, (as well as the birthmother’s internalized cultural biases against herself  – as in internalized racism, homophobia, etc) making it difficult to see her clearly for who she is. In open adoptions these projected unconscious contents can drive and strain parental relationships.


In closed and international adoptions, these projections are unchallenged, cast upon a blank screen.

A wounded, grieving mother – her child lost or taken from her, who searches and mourns every day of her life.

A young woman in college making excruciating choices to preserve her own future

An angry, profoundly attachment disordered, mentally unstable, abusive or addicted woman, her capacity to love wounded beyond imagining, who will certainly emotionally destroy the child that she carries if she is allowed to keep it.

A woman pathologically attached to a domestically violent relationship.

A woman whose child is taken and sent away for adoption by extended family or defacto in-laws, following a divorce or to prevent an undesired marriage.

My ideal- twin, my sister-mother, the only other woman on the planet whose life, fate, and investment in our mutual children’s survival binding us together forever.

A woman, overwhelmed by crisis, trauma, poverty, fearful of her ability to even sustain her own survival, terrified of being unable to ensure the survival of the infant she carries, placing her child to save his/her life.

A woman trapped in sexually abusive, exploitative, or incestuous circumstances having carried and placed multiple  pregnancies,

A mature, married working woman, suddenly surprised by a “menopause” baby, choosing to place the newborn to preserve the future of her older children by chosen, welcome pregnancies.

A woman exactly like I was, from the age of 20-28 or so  if I had become pregnant: working as an unskilled laborer, uninsured, living in a tenement in a horrible neighborhood, with random, unreliable, roommates, rarely able to pay rent and utilities, with no familial support, who simply had no other choice. It wasn’t my fate, thank god, but it could have been. I could easily have been a birthmother. Easily.

A destructive, rejecting raging, shaming woman, who has already wounded a child by abandoning them, and will harm them again if contact is made, or who will selfishly manipulate our common child.

A high school student, in primitive denial of pregnancy, startled by the delivery of a baby, leaving the child she can barely comprehend that she carried, behind in a hospital.

A woman, beautiful, saintly, gifted with children, a fairy-woman, Snow-White really, her capacity to parent our common child disrupted unjustly by circumstances which dissolve quickly and easily and which would make her fully capable to parent our child just a few months or even hours after her child is irrevocably placed in my arms.

Who would NEVER for a moment  scream like a crazed harpy, freak out  or emotionally fail the child that now, is under my care – The woman who shames me and activates guilt for all the thousands of normative, everyday,  only barely “good enough”  – inattentive, preoccupied, thoughtless, intrusive, over-compensating, overwhelmed, strident, screechy, psycho-mommy moments that  make me actually ask my for my kids forgiveness….

and HUNDREDS of other private fantasies, good, bad, horrible, lovely, neutral, ambiguous, beautiful, distorted, realistic, idealistic…



I dont think an adoptees fantasies of birthmother is any different.  The only added layer of complexity is how these fantasies extend to the self. 

If she is a prostitute, a young girl, a promiscuous girlwhat does that say about me? 

If she was poor and uneducated and told to do as her elders say, do I have the right to have a voice? 

If she is educated and has a career or a lifepath in mind, was I a burden too costly to bear? 

If I was abandoned, does this mean I was forgotten and does it mean I even have a right to claim her as my mother? 

In my own personal case, if I was lost to her, do I have a right to be found by her and forge on as mother and daughter?

The narcissistic wound for us then is this incredible childlike response to the fantasy that never ages.  It then permeates in the future intimate relationships we have with our peers, our lovers and our children.



Obsessive, guilt driven behaviors – when the guilt is brought into conscious awareness – can become symbolically reparative gestures.

Reparative gestures are the behaviors which transform fresh overwhelming guilt into mature concern.

Reparative gestures do not actually repair what has been harmed, lost or destroyed, or disrupted for the Other. Disrupted birthrights, lost ancestry, severed families of origin, blank medical histories, racial disparities and disconnection, distant mother-lands can not be restored,  patched over, corrected or “undone.”

The attempt at “repair” is only symbolic, not literal.

Nor is it the adoptee or the birthmother that is repaired by the attempts…

As guilt, made conscious, begins to mature into Winnicottian Concern and attuned responsibility, symbolically reparative acts repair adoptive parents ability to emotionally withstand, have empathy for, and accept responsibility to those who have experienced harm or sustained losses that have resulted in our gain.

The attempts at reparation help the guilt-ridden to stay in open, active empathic relationship to those people who activate our guilt-sense (our children) and to all those who may have been injured -without resorting to defense, denial or collapse.

A month or so ago:

I asked my daughter permission to share this snippet of a bed-time conversation we had recently, whispering to each other in the dark: Her parameters – I could share nothing personal she said about her own adoption experience, just one 8 year old thought about adoption in general:

“So here is what I think:” she said, after we had talked at some length exploring reasons for an irritable mood she had been struggling with :

“I think that adoption is good for the parents, and maybe good for a just a few of the birthmothers who never wanted to be moms. But I think it doesn’t feel so good to the kids. Adoptive parents are the only really happy ones.”


This time:

Not merely guilt.

Or maybe guilt transformed into an ally, or maybe  something much more.

“Ohhh. I hear you honey. I think that what you are saying is important. And it is true. It has made me happy to love you and take care of you. And I know that it can be hard for you. I can see when it hurts you – sometimes more than others –  and you are right, that isn’t fair…“

“I’m glad I can tell you Mom”

“Me too honey, I’m glad I can listen”



If I had written the idea of creating an ideal scriptbut this is about as ideal as you can get here in the real world.


Where I see it translate as a child ages is ownership of this happiness to be created by the adoptee onto the adoptive parent.  I think about all these years we have wasted talking about how to get a child to connect/attach/bond making it a burden for a child.  My wise mentor Rita Taddonio at Spence always says, it is not the job of the child to attach to the parent.  If we work off that foundation, it gives the child room to grow, evolve into their own love/hate of their parents as human beings instead of spending all those years guessing how they should be in order for their parent to be reassured.


I find it interesting that we never expect such acts of compassion and understanding from people who remain in their family of origin.  I am questioned as to the nature of my relationship with my parents even now at 42 years of age.  But when I ask others, they think nothing of throwing their parents under the bus and think this quite normal.  The perception then is that good adoptee never individuates, never separates.  This is just not typical development, why is that the paradigm in adoption?


And when this standard is not met, the intense guilt that plays out well into adulthood is painful to witness. The internal sense of ambivalence is hard to rewire in an adult who is stuck

In conclusion, I am thinking of two very different things I have read recently.


Article in NY Times parent blog


Guilt gone amok


Parenting magazine, February 2013 issue had an article titled, The Replacements where the author Christina Vercelletto writes, So how do experts define family? Its people with secure attachment to your child, (Merry) Lambert says (family therapist).  A magazine found regularly on newsstands puts it so plainly what we have been saying.  In the security of adults, the child emerges attached with a sense of family and belonging.



In this model, the Motherlode article would describe an attempt at moving through guilt to concern, that becomes overwhelming, and regresses into denial of guilt, similar to the moment when I slammed my computer shut. But there is also something more, and frankly stranger here – Guilt at being the beneficiary of adoption loss becomes, for this Motherlode writer, some sort of evidence of her own of victimization, as she somehow equates, or even elevates Beneficiary Guilt as comparable with or more traumatic than adoption loss.

This is what a guilt-driven defense looks like in action.

And all adoptive parents need to face this dilemma find a undefended path through it, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of the adoptee.


And, yes, the Parenting magazine quote is lovely and straight to the point – adoptive parents must wade through the murky waters of their own internal lives to understand the ways that adoption guilt and unconscious fear and bias effects their abilities to attach securely to the adopted child.


If you’d like to join in the discussion – have questions or comments,

Feel free to join the Agitators and Allies Facebook page.

And follow Joy’s blog: Adoption Echoes at


We hope to continue the dialogue here – and plan, loosely and much more briefly  to discuss over the next month or so, the ways that this model of guilt/reparation/concern may or may not apply to  transracially adoptive families specifically and white adoptive parents capacities to examine white privilege and move from denial and colorblindness to allyship with their adopted children of color – and how those processes effect adoptees perceptions.