Adoption's complications

Adoption's complications

Clear and honest writing about adopting a child.

Jane Greer


When I was first considering adoption some ten years ago, I looked for books on the subject. At that time, the bookstore shelves were full of adoption how-tos and adoption memoirs, both of which I read avidly, searching for the message: You should adopt; yes, you! Encouraged, my husband and I finally decided to get off the fence. We adopted a little girl from China last year.

New questions arose even as we traveled to China to pick up Lia. In the ensuing months at home, I wondered not only about parenting but about the process of adoption itself and the way it impacted our family. After twenty-plus years as a couple, my husband and I were now three. Again, I turned to books.

I am happy to report that writing on adoption for the general reader has broadened and become more nuanced in the past several years. Instead of focusing on the adoption “before,” a growing number of books are dealing with the adoption “after”—and the issues facing not only adopted children but adoptive families. Women who have given children up for adoption as well as adoptees themselves are finally telling their stories. The whole process of international adoption is also being more closely scrutinized as countries and adoptive families consider the impact of allowing a nation’s children to emigrate.

Three recent books examine different aspects of adoption from the adoptive parent’s point of view. One is a review of the social, cultural, and economic factors at play in adoption from China. The second, an adoption memoir, includes an illuminating account of post-adoption life. The third, a book of wise advice, looks at what happens to families once an adopted child comes home. Each gave me a context to better understand the momentous change that had just happened in my family’s life. They’ll help the growing number of Unitarian Universalists and others who are seeking to adopt, too.

Sara K. Dorow, a sociologist at the University of Alberta, takes a step back from the microcosm of the individual family to look at the macrocosm of adoption from China. Her book, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship, is an ethnographic study of a process that involves a multitude of players including Chinese children, the Chinese government, Western adoptive families, adoption agencies, and Chinese adoption facilitators.

Dorow focuses especially on the time that adoptive families spend in China, meeting the children, discharging all of the governmental bureaucratic requirements involved in the adoption, and “performing as tourists.” The process is complex, involving both economic exchange and humanitarian concerns for the welfare of children.

In that process, the needs of both parties begin to affect one another. Dorow starts by looking at the Chinese orphanages that are supplying the children. Certain orphanages develop a reputation for supplying internationally adoptable children. Once this has happened, an orphanage can use the money gained through the adoptions to achieve and maintain a higher quality of care. The healthier the children, the happier the adoptive families—and the more desirable the orphanage becomes as a source of children.

Another example of Chinese orphanages changing to meet Western needs is the practice of naming. Dorow explains that many Chinese orphanages used to assign names that included a reference to the place where the child was found. Some orphanages changed this process to give children more attractive names so that the Western adoptive family would feel that their child had received individual and careful attention.

While this may be the case, I discovered that traces of bureaucracy linger. When we received Lia’s referral, we found a native speaker of Chinese who said that her given name, Yong E, meant “sing” and “beautiful.” Enchanted, we quickly decided to make this her middle name. However, when we arrived at our pre-travel meeting and met the rest of the group, we discovered that half of the referred babies in the room had a variation of the same name. I was disappointed, although at the time I didn’t understand why.

Dorow looks at the adoptive families and the way that these families are selected to meet the needs of the Chinese government. Because the costs of adopting from China are high, only those families with sufficient means are able to qualify, ensuring financial security for the children. Recent Chinese laws have also restricted adoption by single parents as a means of preventing placement with gay or lesbian parents. In general, the families adopting from China tend to be heterosexual, white, and middle-class.

Adoptive families, Dorow says, want Chinese children because they come without the messy attachments of a birth family. They are also perceived to be attractive, healthy, and smart—and racially flexible. Writes Dorow: “Chinese children were in some instances desirable because they could be imagined as neither white nor black—interesting without being so different that they would not ‘fit in.’”

Dorow’s book is written in academic language and can be a bit of a slog. But the investment of time is worth it. She presents a fascinating overview of Chinese adoption, looking at the migration of thousands of Chinese children and the institutions that facilitate and mediate this movement. Because the book is essentially an ethnographic study, it is in no way prescriptive. Perhaps its most glaring fault is that it attempts to cover too much ground in its mere seven chapters.

I was disappointed that Dorow, who spent some time as a volunteer at some of the orphanages furnishing Chinese babies for adoption, did not provide more insight into the women giving the children up. The birth mothers remain an unspoken presence in the lives of all of those touched by adoption from China, and I’d like to know more about them.

A clash of cultures in international adoption is inevitable. Westerners, who are spending large amounts of money to adopt a child and have invested equal amounts of emotional energy, feel a sense of entitlement. Orphanages, facing a chronic lack of funds and resources, are often situated in countries with unstable governments and irregular bureaucracies. Ideas differ about childrearing across the cultural divide, too.

Theresa Reid, a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, explores many of these issues in Two Little Girls: A Memoir of Adoption. Reid, an expert in the area of child maltreatment and former Executive Director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and her husband, a noted pediatrician, first adopt a little girl from Russia, a process blessed with few encumbrances.

The second adoption, from Ukraine, however, is fraught with problems right from the start. The family deals unsuccessfully with two adoption agencies, has to pass up a referral in Kazakhstan because of logistics, ages out of the Russia program, and eventually finds their child in Ukraine, only after weeks of unbelievable bureaucratic snafus. There are so many dead ends you have to wonder how they had the emotional and fiscal wherewithal to continue the process.

Reid’s account is distinguished by its candor. She writes about the choices that adoption requires: healthy child vs. special needs child, same race vs. transracial, international vs. domestic adoption. All of these questions require that the adoptive parent outline their desires for a child by describing what it is they don’t want. And sometimes what they don’t want—for example, a child with special needs, or a child of another race—is cause for discomfort. In her own case, Reid, and her husband, want a healthy Caucasian girl:

Uncomfortable as it was to admit that we wanted a child who looked like us, it was many times more difficult to assert that we wanted a perfectly healthy child. I have seen versions of this sheet several times now, the sheet with three columns: “Yes,” “Will Consider,” “No,” and a list of twenty-five or so possible afflictions that abandoned or orphaned children might suffer. Mental retardation. Crossed eyes. Clubfoot. Cleft palate. Cleft lip. Mother used drugs. Mother used alcohol. Born of rape. Born of incest. . . . This negative expression of our heart’s desire was one of the unexpectedly agonizing steps in adoption.

Reid and her husband are challenged more than once in this respect when they refuse the referral of a child who would likely develop severe neurological problems, and then accept the referral of a child whose health prognosis isn’t clear. Reid and her husband agonize about the decision. “What if this child is terribly sick, and all of our time and money and anxiety are taken up caring for her?” Reid writes. “What if she is deranged and does something awful? What if we all fall in love with her and she breaks our hearts by dying or being sick or crazy?”

I was delighted that Reid included an account of the family’s initial adjustment. The older child is jealous of the newer child. Both parents wonder when they will start loving the new child the way they do the elder child. Possible attachment problems, an important issue in any adoption, start to emerge in the newer child. Reid, herself, seems to be falling apart: “I feel like I am losing my mind,” she writes. “Or not so much my mind, as my self. . . . I am no longer funny, or pretty, or young, or happy, or sexy, or competent. . . . I am turning into a witch.” These are feelings that I’m sure any adoptive parent can relate to, and probably a whole lot of biological parents, as well.

Karen J. Foli and John R. Thompson, themselves adoptive parents, deal with the adjustment period in a family following an adoption in Post-Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption.

Often adoptive parents feel depressed once they get the child. After all the excitement and struggle of getting the child, which often involves mountains of paperwork, the drama of life-changing phone calls, and hours of daydreaming, they feel let down. The reality of childcare with dirty diapers and serious sleep deprivation comes as a shock no matter how well prepared they felt. On top of this, the child may have developmental delays. So in addition to adjusting to a new routine, there’s the fear that all parents have: Is there something wrong with my child?

One of the problems the book deals with is the difficulty that some parents have in loving their child at the beginning. While that love often comes later on, it’s frightening for a parent to realize that they feel little for the child they have just brought into the family. The child will inevitably affect the pre-existing family structure, whether that includes other siblings or not, and some adoptive parents find themselves longing for preadoption days.

Many adoptions also involve children who may arrive with emotional or developmental issues. Not only do parents have to deal with their own expectations of parenthood, but the expectations of others—friends, family, teachers, and medical professionals—many of whom can be less than supportive.

Throughout the book Foli and Thompson are reassuring. Their message “No, you aren’t alone in your feelings and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way,” is supported with numerous anecdotes from adoptive parents, adoption professionals, and adopted children. The book is full of suggestions and resources on the many ways to deal with the various stresses and challenges of adoptive parenting.

In those first months after our adoption of Lia, I struggled to adjust to the fact that I now had limited control over my life. I couldn’t do things when I wanted or even do them at all. While I understood that this was part of parenting, it still wasn’t an easy transition. Then there was my 22-year marriage that now needed to stretch to include a third person. Lia first bonded with my husband in China and still continues to prefer him in certain situations to me—a fact that has left me on occasion seething with jealousy.

Experiences like these aren’t unusual, and adoption, like any kind of parenting, brings frustration and confusion along with all the good stuff. But we rarely hear about it unless it’s one of those horror stories in magazines about a family adopting a child so disruptive that the adoption has to be terminated. There’s a lot of middle ground here, and I’m thrilled that someone is finally exploring it.

The appearance of books like these is a cause for celebration because of the honesty with which they explore their subjects. No one needs to persuade biological parents on the virtues of reproducing; yet, much adoption writing in the past has painted a glowing—and incomplete—picture of adoption. With the growing number of adoptive families, it’s clear that persuasion isn’t necessary; clear and honest writing is.

More adoption books

Adoptees and women who have given children up for adoption are now telling their stories, too. Here’s a small sampling of works written from their perspective. For more, visit Tapestry Books or the Adoptive Families magazine bookstore. —J.G.

I Wish for You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children. Ed. by Sara Dorow. Yeong & Yeong, 1999; $18.95. Letters from women at a home for unwed mothers in Seoul.

In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories. Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda. Columbia Univ., 2000; $27.50. Interviews with young adults of color adopted by white parents.

The Language of Blood: A Memoir. Jane Jeong Trenka. Graywolf Press, 2005; $15. A Korean adoptee growing up in rural Minnesota tells her story.

Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. Ed. by Julia Chinyere Oparah, Sun Yung Shin, and Jane Jeong Trenka. South End Press, 2006; $20. Transracial adoptees describe their experiences through essays, fiction, poetry, and art.

Related Resources


Update 2.4.07: Since this article was published in the Winter 2006 issue of UU World, the Chinese government has released new rules for families adopting from China to take effect May 1, 2007. The new policies limit adoption to couples only, limit the age range of couples qualified to adopt, establish new income requirements for adoptive families, and give priority to parents who meet certain qualifications for physical and mental health.

Correction 3.30.07: As originally published, this review incorrectly said that Sara Dorow is also the adoptive mother of a Chinese girl. She is not.