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