Monday, December 7, 2009

Gingerbread Envy

Sometimes it really does seem as though the gods are trying to tell me something.

Last Tuesday, I wrote and posted a piece about true mother love and the lengths we sometimes go to.  It was a piece about my Herculean battle to construct a basic, pre-cooked, pre-packaged, gingerbread house for my daughter to decorate.  Over the weekend, my cousin (who doesn't follow my blog) happened to post a photo on Facebook highlighting his two sons' recent efforts . 

They didn't just design, bake, and build a Gingerbread house from scratch.  Oh no...  They built Westminster Abbey!

Think I'm kidding? 

Check it out:

Humbling.  Very, very humbling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gingerbread Love

(Note:  Often I write about adoption issues.  I write about life as an adoptive parent, life as a single parent, and sometimes, simply parenting -- and the lengths we go to.  This is one of those times.)

The turkey’s bones are barely cold, but already my daughter is thinking ahead to Christmas. She wants to do another gingerbread house. I laugh thinking back to last year's debacle. How did I ever get in so deep?

* * * * *

We were standing before a Christmas display at the local grocery store and my daughter was looking at me with Bambi eyes. In less time than it takes to utter a merry "Ho! Ho! Ho!" I knew I was sunk.

We'd just come from the hospital. Another third grader had drop-kicked a ball on the playground and my daughter had stopped it at close range. With her face. I'd received the call from school explaining: a bloody nose, a gusher going strong after 20 minutes. The woman recommended a trip to the hospital. I was in the middle of a big project I'd been hoping to finish that day so, for a split second, I thought, Okay. Sure. Where do I sign? After a brief, awkward silence, I realized the woman’s point was that I was supposed to come and retrieve my daughter.

"Oh! Of course!" I replied. "I'll be right there!"

I arrived at the school office to see my sweet daughter rise from her seat clutching an enormous, bloodied wad of paper towel tight about her nose. With her eyes barely visible, she greeted me with a brave, if somewhat nasal, sheepish, "Hi Mo-b." Sure, I was worried -- but by the time we got a chance to see the doctor at the hospital, it was clear she was bruised, but unbowed. I figured she could handle a stop at the grocery store on our way home.

So there we were, only a few steps in, beyond the sliding doors, when I heard her gasp "Oh! Mom!" I turned and saw her staring at the pre-packaged gingerbread house kits with longing. My little craft-challenged heart tightened. My first reaction was not one I'm proud of:

Drat! It's that time of year again.

Now, I love Christmas. But while I can decorate our plastic, plug-in tree, deck the holly, and hang a wreath faster than you can say "Santa," the gingerbread house is, has always been, my nemesis. My sitter started this tradition with my daughter. But my sitter was gone and now it was up to me.

My daughter stood before me, hands clasped together with rapture. "Please Mom... Couldn't we please get a gingerbread house?"

She'd been such a good sport. And I had to admit I was grateful she was okay.  I crumbled.

"Sure honey. You were a trooper today."

She jumped up and down with elation.  This made me nervous.

"Now wait." I warned. "I can't promise you I can start on this tonight." I was thinking about my project. I still hoped to get back to it and make some headway after she was in bed. "You'll have to be patient."

"Oh Mom! That's okay. I can be patient. Maybe we could work on it this weekend?!"

"You'll have to be patient." I repeated as I picked out one of the sparkly, cellophane packages. It was surprisingly heavy. "The first step is to glue the walls together. Then you have to add the roof. It’s tricky. It all has to dry and harden -- or it will collapse."

"I know! I can be patient, Mom. I can be patient."

Yeah. Yeah. I thought.

We got home and unloaded the groceries. I noticed her eyes danced, her feet tapped, her body twitched, every time she looked at the package. It sat there on the counter, beckoning her, taunting me.

I softened again. Once we ate dinner, I cleared the dishes off by the sink, pulled out a large cookie sheet, spread aluminum foil across the bottom, and broke open the kit.

My daughter practically scaled the counter, leaning halfway across it in eager anticipation.

I held up my hands as if to ward off a tidal wave. "Let me glue it first." I said. "It's delicate."

"I know Mom. I know. Here's the glue!" she said, pulling out the bag of pre-mixed confectioners' sugar and water.

Pre-mixed, huh? It seemed watery. That should have been my first clue. But I figured the folks making these kits surely knew what they were doing.

I started with two sides of the house and applied the "glue" along the edges. Then I pressed two wall edges together.

"Now we wait." I said to my daughter.

"How long?" she asked.

"I don't know. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes." Ha. The optimism of the un-initiated.

I finished the dishes, then we checked our handiwork. The two walls held steady. So I took a gamble and glued the third side. My daughter noticed the problem first.

"Uh... Mom... Something's wrong ..."

I turned and saw all three walls listing to one side.

"Uuuurgh!" I mumbled.

I applied more glue. But this only seemed to make the whole thing more slick. My fingers were now a white, goo-ey mess. The walls fell over. "Shit!" I mumbled.

"What, Mom?"

"Don't talk to me now." I muttered.

"You shouldn't swear Mom!"

"Look! I'm trying to get this stupid Gingerbread house to stand up! Don't push me!"

"Sorry Mom. ....Can I help?"


She retreated. "Maybe this was a bad idea...."

"No, no, no..." I tried reassuring her. "It's okay. Really. Just give me a moment."

I looked up. The look of wonder and joy that once suffused her face had vanished, replaced with a wall of worry. My heart sank.

I suck… I thought.

I took a deep breath and re-grouped. "It's okay honey. Mom's just frustrated. I'll get it. You'll see. Then you can decorate it however you want."

She was quiet. Bambi eyes.

I struggled some more and swore -- very quietly -- beneath my breath. Finally, finally, using all the glue left in the bag and props that included drinking glasses, salt and pepper shakers, and the mustard, I got all four walls standing. There was still the roof, the two heaviest pieces. But for now, I had four walls glued and standing and that was progress.

As we climbed the stairs for my daughter to get ready for bed, I promised once the walls were dry, I'd set the roof.  We were close I told her. Really close. And maybe, just maybe, I thought to myself, with the roof glued, I'll have time to get to my project!

My daughter washed up, then brushed her teeth and hair.  I tucked her into bed and sat down beside her. I told her I was glad her nose was okay. That I was proud of how she'd handled herself. That she might consider ducking next time. We chuckled together, then I kissed her good night and headed downstairs  renewed, recharged, ready for battle.

The four walls were still standing!  Gaining confidence, I threw together a quick homegrown mix of confectioners sugar and a teaspoon of water.  I glued on the roof.


Sponging down the counters, my thoughts turned with relish to the final details of my project. I turned to admire my handiwork and, as if to punish my hubris, as if the gods were lying in wait, as if in slow motion, the walls, the roof, all six pieces in tandem, at will, folded in on themselves.

I wanted to cry.

But I remembered my daughter's face and I thought, If it takes me all night, if I only get four walls standing, I will do this.

Going in to battle was clearly the wrong metaphor. I reset my expectations and assumed a Zen-like posture.  Oooohhhhhhm....

I turned on the tv, selected a reality show, and slowly, carefully rebuilt our storybook structure. By the time I finished, my neck and shoulders hurt, my feet, my back, my whole body, ached. But the walls were up and the roof was in place. I turned the kitchen lights out and retreated beaten and bruised to the living room.

Wow... I thought. I'm a wreck. Over a gingerbread house? I'll just sit and chill for a bit.

I thought back to my daughter's face in the grocery store. The joy, the anticipation when I gave her the nod. My mind wandered. She was safe. I was grateful... How I loved that kid...

Through the blur of my thoughts, I heard something in the kitchen. A faint: "Tink. Tink... tink."

What next?  I thought blearily.  Mice perhaps?

I was too tired to check. But then the phone rang so, reluctantly, I rose. I returned to the kitchen, flicked on the lights, and answered the call, a friend checking in.

"How are you?" he asked.

I stood there mute, staring in disbelief at the gingerbread house. All six pieces, the roof, the walls, lay flat -- in a single, sugary heap -- in the center of my tin foil covered cookie sheet.

I let out a slow: "Merry $#%*&! Christmas!"

I tried to explain I was in the midst of a crisis, enduring a new, totally original form of torture: death by gingerbread. Soon though I was laughing through my tears as I explained how things had gone from bad to worse. Mice? What was I thinking?! 

I vowed I'd never eat gingerbread anything, ever again.

I hung up the phone, and -- fleetingly -- pined for plumbers' cement. I fantasized about super glue and industrial strength epoxy. But, lacking any of these, I returned with stoic resolve. Pulling the last of the confectioners' sugar from the shelf, I added the tiniest amount of water, drop by drop.

I was up past midnight. But, by the following morning, lo and behold, my daughter had her gingerbread house. We celebrated, brainstorming all the ways she might decorate. Her face, once again, was suffused with joy.

So this year, my daughter is asking, "Can we do another gingerbread house, Mom?!"

I smile knowingly. All I can think is, Ho, ho, ho....

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Daughter from China Ponders the Question: "Where Were You Born?"

My daughter's innocence recedes with each passing day. 

It seems only a short while ago she and I were riding about town in the family wagon, talking about the trip we would someday take to China.  At the thought of it, she'd thrown up her arms and burst out:

"Everyone will be there to greet me!"  

She is, most certainly, surrounded with love and affirmation in our protected little pocket of life here in the U.S.  So it wasn't totally surprising she'd developed a rather optimistic view both of life, and herself.  But though I loved the ebullience of her outlook and her expectations, I knew too her view of China had become a bit... inflated.

This is no longer the case, in part, because I have worked to help her develop a more balanced, more complete view, not only of our country, but of her birth country.  Certainly, no place is perfect.  After confronting the hard facts of her abandonment last spring and grieving her losses, she knows this.  But she appears to have weathered the worst of it -- and come out the other side.  The result?  My nine year old has developed a sense of humor tinged with irony.

Driving home together from school last Thursday, she mentioned one of her friends had been born at a local, neighborhood hospital.  The topic had come up at school and friends had launched into a full discussion of who was born at which hospital.  Inevitably, the question was posed to my daughter.  As I drove the last few blocks to our house, she relayed the ensuing exchange in a punchy, sassy tone with an implied sub-text:  Were y'all raised in a barn? Don't you know families struggled in China?

"They asked me which hospital I was born at, Mom.  I said, 'What do you mean which hospital?!  Where was I born?  I don't know!  I probably wasn't born in a hospital.  I was probably born... on the floor!'"

Her timing was so keen, her phrasing so pithy, I burst out laughing. 

I meant to follow-up and check in with her, but we pulled in front of the house and groceries, dinner, the dog, the demands of homework, and the flow of a busy weeknight evening carried us straight through to bedtime.  Of course, as with most unfinished business, it all came back to me the next morning -- at 2am.  The conversation echoed in my brain and I wondered if I'd missed my cue and been hugely insensitive, if this was something eating at her self-esteem.  I made a mental note to check in with her in a quiet moment the next day, when we could sit face to face, when I could see her expression.

"Remember the conversation you shared with me about your friends, about where you were born?" I ask.  "Were you upset about this?  Was it bothering you?" I pause, then wince a little, "Should I not have laughed?"

She looks straight at me and an enormous grin spreads over her face. 

"I was joking Mom." 

She was having fun with them.  She was having fun with me. 

It's patently clear she's in command of her story and how she will frame it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity in Adoption"

It's interesting timing given my focus in recent weeks and my post from this afternoon, (I wish I could claim to be clairvoyant but that would be pushing it) but there's very interesting news, just out today, for the entire adoption community.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute just released a new, ground-breaking study entitled, "Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity in Adoption." According to the authors, the study offers the most extensive look to-date at identity development in adoptees. It incorporates decades of research while also drawing on extensive interviews with "White" as well as transracial (primarily Korean American) adult adoptees. The study explores and identifies experiences and strategies that promote positive identity development in adoptees.

Here are highlights or the "central findings," as cited in the study's Executive Summary:

(1) Adoption is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for adopted people as they age, and remains so even when they are adults.

(2) Race/ethnicity is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for those adopted across color and culture.

(3) Coping with discrimination is an important aspect of coming to terms with racial/ethnic identity for adoptees of color.

(4) Discrimination based on adoption is a reality, but more so for White adoptees – who also report being somewhat less comfortable with their adoptive identity as adults than do their Korean counterparts.

(5) Most transracial adoptees considered themselves White or wanted to be White as children.

(6) Positive racial/ethnic identity development is most effectively facilitated by “lived” experiences, such as travel to a native country, attending racially diverse schools, and having role models of their own race/ethnicity.

(7) Contact with birth relatives, according to the White respondents, is the most helpful factor in achieving a positive adoptive identity.

(8) Different factors predict comfort with adoptive and racial/ethnic identity for
Korean and White adoptees.

The findings and publication of this study is very good news for our community -- assuming it helps foster further discussion and thinking as to how we, as parents, can best help our children develop a stronger, more positive sense of themselves.

I don't know about you, but I need all the help I can get.

Transracial Adoption: Identity & Images in the Media

My daughter clears her dinner dish and skips over to the fruit bowl to pick out a banana. Cracking the tip, she slowly draws back the peel, section by section, then stops to study the flowering banana. She looks up at me and an impish smile spreads across her face. Lifting a dangling piece of peel between thumb and forefinger, she holds it out . Turning her head to one side, tilting her nose up, she commences to waltz about the kitchen – with her banana.

She can’t not dance.

She’s in constant motion these days. Everything seems a cause for celebration. She’s testing her wings, discovering new gifts in every direction.

She loves school, math, science, humanities, art, music and of course, best of all, recess, and friends. Last year she joined her school soccer team but merely danced and bobbed at a healthy distance away from the ball while her teammates scrambled. But this year, she’s scrambling, scrimmaging, kicking, and scoring. She also plays goalie. Two weeks ago, an attacker broke free and raced down the field. My daughter calmly planted her feet and stared at the girl. When the shot came, it hit my daughter square in the chest. Her arms wrapped reflexively about the ball. She looked stunned, but then broke into a grin, rocked back on her heels, and drummed the ball with her fingers as if to say, No worries my pretty. She then proceeded to strut up and back in front of the goal, cradling her prize, pumping her fist.

The ref had to remind her to throw the ball back in play.

She’s developing a sense of herself, her power, her abilities. She’s feeling good and yet, I know, challenges await.

Since viewing Adopted, I’ve been reading. I read Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, and Yell-Oh Girls by Vickie Nam. I’ve begun following blogs like AdoptionTalk, Adopt-a-tude, Harlow’s Monkey, Anti-Racist Parent, and Angry Asian Man.

I understand all too well now there will be those who will try to write my daughter’s narrative for her, pegging her as the smart minority, the geeky minority, the exotic female, the unwanted daughter, the perpetual foreigner, or worse, the spy. I’ve read the stories. I’ve heard the comments.

My goal now is to equip my daughter as best as I can. To bolster her self esteem. To give her a strong -- dare I say, rock solid? -- sense of herself and her rightful place in the world.

It’s not enough to connect her with her heritage through books, holidays, language, art, and dance. She needs to connect and identify with other Asian American (as well as Euro-American) friends, kids, adoptees, and adults. She needs healthy role models. She also needs positive images reflected back at her from the mix of media around her.

I conduct a silent audit.

We live in a city with a relatively healthy Asian American population. We’re surrounded by numerous, varied, highly accomplished Asian Americans, civic leaders, journalists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics, legislators, and politicians. 20% of my daughter’s 4th grade class is Asian American. Within a quarter mile radius of our home, we know no less than 6 Chinese daughters, born in China, adopted and growing up here, full-fledged American citizens. Our city enjoys a thriving, active, organized group of Families with Children from China. My daughter’s best neighborhood friend – through pure serendipity – is Japanese American. The girl's parents are distinguished physicians and academics. My daughter's dentist, orthodontist, one of her teachers, one of her coaches, are or, have also been, of Asian descent. It’s not something I’ve focused on falsely or deliberately, but we also know and are friends with a number of mixed race families, some by marriage, some by adoption, some by both.

At least in our friendships, our community, and the broader world in which we circulate, my girl has a relatively varied view before her. But, what about images in the media? In the books we read? In the films we watch?

When she was a toddler, we had a wealth of picture books to draw from that reflected our world, her heritage, or parts of our story.

But now, my daughter’s at a different age, with different needs. She needs youthful heroines she can relate to. She reads a lot and we watch the occasional movie, though she’s always been highly sensitive. So much so, that most of Hollywood’s fare has proven too violent. Over the years, we’ve taken refuge in the "classics." The books I grew up with. But, how well do these classics reflect a healthy reality for her? I survey my daughter’s bookcase along with our video and DVD collection.

It's a wake-up call.

How many white, English, blond, or red-headed heroines can my daughter take? You know.. the girls with the alabaster skin, apple-colored cheeks, lush golden, or auburn colored curls, or worse, the stereotypically large, round eyes, that blaze blue as sapphires? There’s a brunette in there but, please... how many of us look like Elizabeth Taylor?

The results of my audit propel me to action. I scour Blockbuster for a movie with a young Asian heroine -- but find nothing. I find a small, retro, independent rental store with a broader, deeper selection of American as well as foreign and old movies. It takes me 40 minutes to find a single reason to hope. I vaguely remember seeing Not One Less from my pre-parenting days. I sign it out and take it home.

Not One Less is the story of a 13 year old girl from China’s countryside who’s recruited to serve as a substitute teacher in a crude one room classroom. When one of her many unruly charges is sent to the big city to earn a wage for his family, she goes to heroic lengths to rescue him off the streets. The scenery is breath-taking. The characters, inspiring.

My daughter doesn’t even balk at the sub-titles. Instead, she exclaims, “I can make out some of the Chinese words, Mom!”

More noticeable still is her chatty, open reaction to the characters.

"Look Mom! Isn't she beautiful?!"
"Isn’t she pretty?!” "Oh! The kids are so cute!"
“Wow, she’s really determined. I can be determined like that.”
"I love this film, Mom. Can we do more movies like this?"

As I shut off the DVD player, I direct my daughter to head upstairs and get ready for bed while I finish up in the kitchen. When I turn to make my ascent up the stairs, I find my daughter waiting for me, standing at the top of the landing.

“That movie was a TEN, Mom!”

Wow. I think. Note to self... I need to find more movies like this one.

I go to bed with a small sense of victory. The next day, I sign up for Netflix and spend time digging about for movies like Not One Less.

A few days later my daughter arrives home from school and I show her the red envelope containing: The Road Home.

She gushes. “Oh Mom! If it’s a Chinese film, it’s got to be good!”

She can’t wait to watch it and indeed the movie proves beautiful. Epic, allegorical, and tragic -- in a gentle, romantic, kind of way -- it's the story of a country girl who falls deeply in love with a newly arrived young teacher. Accused of "Rightest" tendencies, he is summoned away to the city. The country girl waits stoically in the freezing cold snow, hour after hour, day after day, anticipating his return. But he is detained and she falls desperately ill. Word reaches the teacher and he sneaks back to be by her side only to be punished by the authorities. The two must wait several more years while he is further detained in the city.

The movie stars the luminous Zhang Ziyi, and the strikingly handsome Zheng Hao, and it's all shot against a backdrop of sweeping mountain scenery, deep in the Chinese hinterland.
My daughter loves it.

Next we try The King of Masks, a story of poverty and struggle from the 1930’s. An old magician street performer bemoans his fate in having no son to whom he can pass on his ancient art. He buys a child on the black market. But the child is a girl disguised as a boy. The man and girl develop a bond, but her secret is exposed and there are tragic results. The characters face loss, destitution, abuse, and a brush with death before finally realizing they can make a life together.

The story is difficult. Too difficult. I press the mute button a lot but we’re both unsettled and in tears over the heart wrenching drama. I apologize. Together, we agree the choice wasn't the best.


I scan the Chinese section in Netflix once more but there are so many films filled with martial arts, swords, daggers, and bloodshed. And then there’s the porn. Lots of porn, portraying Asian women as exotic …er… um… play things.

Time for a documentary, maybe?

My efforts here prove fruitful. I discover the BBC’s 2008 production, Wild China. The two disk series offers more than 6 hours of National Geographic-like footage of China. It’s an incredible survey of China’s vast, unique landscapes, it's remote mountains, rivers, flood plains, and deserts. It features some of China’s most amazing, most unusual wildlife, and includes the story of several local peoples, traditions, and cultures.

The documentary is a hit. We share several nights curled up under a blanket “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” over China’s riches.

Now, when we’re not viewing an installment of Wild China, my daughter and I curl up together to read and enjoy another new favorite: “Tales of a Chinese Grandmother,” a book I found rummaging about our local Chinatown. In the meantime, our “Netflix Queue” has grown. It now includes not only tales and documentaries from China, but children’s stories from around the world.

Are my efforts making a difference? I think so. I hope so.

A few months ago, we discovered my daughter is lactose intolerant. The other day, as she helped entertain a friend and serve up some lunch, she offered, “Sorry. We don’t have milk at our house any more. Would you like some water?” Her friend was unfazed by the news, but my daughter seemed eager to explain: “I’m lactose intolerant.”

It sounded like she was boasting -- which puzzled me. Until she added:

“It’s really a common thing you know. Among Asians. I’m Asian.”

Got any film or book recommendations to share?  I'd love it if you shared them.  Just click on the "comments" link below.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Adoption Reunion: Aliens in America

I've been thinking a lot and reading a lot lately about the issues Jen Fero raised in the documentary film Adopted which I wrote about recently. As a parent in general but also, as an adoptive parent, I feel a responsibility to learn and do all I can, to pay attention, to stay attuned, and help my Chinese born daughter feel at home in her adopted home, culture, and country. At the same time, I know the risk: it's easy to become hyper-vigilant, to second guess every exchange, and make oneself just a teeny bit ...stir crazy.

I'm thinking back to an exchange I had with my daughter this past summer.

It was the last weekend in August and my 9 year old daughter and I drove 3 hours south to join the annual reunion of 10 or so adoptive families who traveled together and bonded, 8 long years ago, on our journey to China to adopt our beloved daughters.

This year was the first time, since making this trek, since my daughter understood the significance of this gathering, since she'd struggled with the losses in her story this past spring, that my daughter was excited to go.

The reunion is typically hosted at one very generous family's home. We all contribute different dishes and share in a potluck dinner. We visit. We feast. We celebrate.

As parents, it's our hope our girls will develop and share a life-long bond. As parents, we already share a special bond, remembering that singular morning we gathered together in the lobby of the Liang hotel in Wuhan to meet our toddlers, each and every child looking pale, worried, tearful, and uncertain. We share the bond too of knowing, in a crazy-making-kind-of-way, that any one of our daughters -- the lanky girl running across the garden, the stocky girl sneaking an extra helping of noodles, the girl seated shyly at the table -- could just as easily have been our daughter. None of us will ever know, or be able to divine, the thinking (or even if there was much thinking) that went into the effort to match each girl with each family. It happened thousands of miles away, in a small sterile office, at the China Center for Adoption Affairs, in Beijing. The end result? No music, no fanfare. Just a letter and a crude photo mailed, special delivery, to homes across the US, a single envelope that would change the trajectory of each of our lives.

With the start of the reunion this year, the girls took a little time to warm to each other. But soon enough they embraced each other and the traditional party-like atmosphere. In prior years, one of the dad's had rigged a hose to a giant, jerry-rigged slip'n slide. Another year, the girls had partied on an enormous outdoor trampoline. This year the girls piled like puppies on to a hammock, swinging and tumbling. Then they disappeared to the basement to test their skills at Wii Karaoke and some kind of rock band fantasy. But the big hit, by the end of the evening, was an improvised i-spy, hide and seek game staged in and out of the garden and throughout the house.

It was stunning to see the difference the years have made. The girls seemed especially happy, as if they'd come into their own. They were healthy, strong, boisterous, sassy, and happy, hanging on us parents with an easy sense of entitlement. We might as well have been door posts planted for their pleasure. They rammed, tugged, poked, pulled, and punched at us playfully. We smiled back, caressing a head, stroking an arm, patting a bottom, exercising a parent's prerogative.

It was late in the evening by the time we said our good byes and thanked everyone. My daughter had been running non-stop, laughing, popping in and out of our host's house, clustered together with the gang of girls. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed. She was either coming down with swine flu -- or she'd had a good time. On the drive back to our hotel, I checked in:

"Did you enjoy the reunion?"

"Yeah Mom. It was great. It was awesome!"

"Awesome, huh? Well, that's good news. I'm glad we came."

"Yeah. Me too. And, guess what Mom?" She whispered: "I'm not supposed to tell you this -- so don't say a word to the other parents -- but I just have to tell you --"

(What mom doesn't love this?)

"What's that honey?"

"We were aliens! We decided to pretend all the Chinese girls were aliens. And, we were hiding and spying on the parents!"

"Nooo way. Too funny."

We talked on, sharing impressions of the night. Nostalgia got the better of me and I shared a confession, dead certain the other moms felt exactly the same way -- and would have felt the same way again, even if the match between girls and parents had somehow played out differently.

"You know honey... I love each and every one of you girls. We're all family in a sense. Our lives are connected. But I feel blessed cause somehow I had the amazing good fortune of becoming your mom. I love being your mom."

She was quiet a moment. "But you know.... you're not my mom."

My heart lurched and froze for a nanosecond. Did the reunion trigger something? Were we headed back to the exchanges of last spring?

"No..?" I asked weakly. I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw her raising her palms upward. She looked at me -- like I was slow.

"I just TOLD you! I'm an ALIEN!"

I laughed. Apologized. And resumed breathing.

Sometimes, just sometimes, an alien is just an alien.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Transracial Adoption: Learning to See a World Full of Color

My last post offered a description of one adult adoptee's struggles with family, with her sense of belonging, with identity. The film trailer for "Adopted" shows Jen trying to explain her struggles to her mother who, in the film, battles a terminal illness.

Jen's story is enough to keep any parent of a transracially adopted child awake at night. But, as difficult as it is to watch, "Adopted" heightened my awareness. As an adoptive parent to a child of a minority race, an essential part of my job is to acknowledge and address the challenges that come with being a mixed race family.

Thankfully, in my search to learn more, after viewing “Adopted,” I came across another video.

Judy and Aaron Stigger share a very different story -- one with a far happier outcome. This isn't to discount Jen Fero's story. But stories like Aaron Stigger's are also important. To make us smile. To help us further understand. To give us hope.

This 4 minute video was originally posted back in January 2009 by Adoption Learning Partners (ALP), an educational organization whose primary goal is to have a "positive measurable impact on adoption outcomes." ALP offers a variety of web-based courses for adoptive parents and professionals, but there's also a wealth of free information and other resources if you dig about on their site and check out their "Community" page.

I love the message in this video that mother and son, Judy and Aaron Stigger, have to offer. Perhaps just as important as the verbal message is the body language, the clear, easy affection you see between mother and son.

Judy Stigger, by the way, was one of ALP's founders (which officially makes me a fan.) Judy and Aaron also did an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, back in July 2007, sharing their experiences and insights on transracial adoption. There's a great summary write-up of the interview on the NPR website, or better still, you can listen to the interview, or read the transcript. (NPR has done a number of pieces on transracial adoptions and there are several terrific links on this site.)

In the on-air interview, Judy shares one of the ways she used to respond to the classically intrusive comments adoptive families so often encounter: "People would say, 'Do you have any real children?" She'd turn to her son, Aaron, and say, "No, I just have this plastic one." Aaron, playing along, would in turn hold out his arms and sing, "Ta-da!" Judy taught her son by example, defusing an otherwise potentially awkward moment with humor -- while also communicating the thoughtlessness of the question.

Aaron, also present for the interview, describes his memories of growing up, of not wanting to stick out, not wanting to be different, appreciating the opportunities he had to know, and make friends with other kids, other people, of color. This prompts Steve Inskeep to turn to Judy and ask how much thought she put into this. Judy credits a moment she experienced with her daughter (also adopted, also bi-racial):

"When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we'd gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face, and said, 'Mom, was I supposed to be white?' And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it. And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive."

In time, Judy began sending holiday cards to family and friends featuring people of color. One day, her daughter received an Easter card from Judy's mother. Her daughter took the card up to her room to read it in private -- but returned, flying down the stairs, holding the card out in front of her for her mother to see. The card showed a risen Christ, black, muscled, with dreadlocks. Judy's daughter said, "My grandma loves me!"

Further on in the interview Judy describes another moment of heightened awareness. She’d gone to attend one of Aaron's performances when he was part of a black theater group his freshman year in college. Walking into the theater, Judy realized she was one of the few white people in the audience. She realized how she stuck out, how exposed she felt -- and then she thought this is how her children must feel, as minorities, living, moving, and breathing in a predominantly white world. At this point, Aaron can't jump in fast enough. He explains, eagerly, emphatically, that this is an issue for all transracially adopted kids, for that matter, for all minorities. "Thank you! Thank you!" he exhales. "That right there needs to be on every program nation-wide!"

The message from both Judy and Aaron (and Jen as well) is that no child growing up likes or wants to stick out or be different. Children of color need friends, neighbors, and role models of color -- both in their immediate world and in the imagery, the media, that surround them. As caucasian parents with children of color, we need to support our children, to be as inclusive as we can. We can't limit ourselves to a world of white privilege.

As Judy puts it: "You need to see the world in color."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Finding Home, Feeling at Home -- An Adult Adoptee's Painful Story

Nine year old tidbit for the day:

"Hey Mom! Did you know if you whisper --" she drops her voice a notch below audible and, with exaggerated precision, mouths: "'E-le-phant shoes,' -- people think you're saying 'I love you!'"

This pleases her.

My daughter is full of good humor and snappy comebacks these days while I've been scrambling to launch her back into the school year and launch myself, full force, back into the job hunt. We've had a lot going on. Last week, the stress got the better of me. Out of patience, I launched into a lecture and told her if she couldn't learn to help around the house and clean up the trail of mess she leaves behind -- in the front hall, on the couch, on the dining room table, all over the kitchen counter -- and find a home for each and every one of her belongings, I'd have to assume they were leftovers. Trash. Oh, yes. The 18 origami cranes that lay for the past two days littered about the piano bench like leaves in the yard? Trash. Obviously trash.

She stammered, looking for the right response. "But, but... they're not trash! That, that... that is their home! It... it's... it's a display, Mom."

The corners of her mouth twitch and a wry smile escapes at this unexpected flash of creativity. I too am taken by surprise, and explode with a belly laugh. The cranes earn a reprieve and she quickly sweeps them into a nearby drawer.

We are back to innocent, happy days once more. But, in my off hours here and there, I continue the adoptive parents' journey in due diligence. Two weeks ago, a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization sponsored the showing of Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." And so it was, thanks to an invitation and prompting from one my blog readers (Thank you Laura) I found myself with a gathering of 15 or so other adoptive parents in a well lit church basement one Tuesday evening.

According to the Point Made Films' web site, "'Adopted' reveals the grit rather than the glamor of transracial adoption."

The film is controversial and it's easy to see why.

We meet John and Jacqui Trainer of New Hampshire. They are just beginning their adoption journey and they're filled with great hope and joy at the prospect of becoming parents. They want to do the right thing by their child. There's no doubt they're completely committed and will love their daughter deeply. At the same time, it's clear they have no concept of the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption. These issues and challenges are highlighted by Jen Fero, a 32 year old Korean born woman, adopted and raised in the late 70's and early 80's by a loving Euro American family in a small Oregon town.

Jen is the dominant voice in the film and, as she looks back, sharing her experience, she raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive, now terminally ill parents -- but for other adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds. Jen narrates her story and shares how early on she came to put on a game face, to present herself to her family, to the broader world, as the happy, funny, affectionate daughter she thought her family wanted.
Underneath this veneer, she struggled.

As a child, Jen heard again and again from people in her community what a "lucky" girl she was. But Jen didn't feel lucky. As much as she loved her adoptive parents, she felt loss and sadness over her abandonment by her Korean family. Jen's adoptive family emphasized their love and sense of good fortune in having her as their daughter -- but her losses were never referenced or acknowledged. Jen feared disappointing her parents, contradicting their joy. She felt she ought to be happy. Unable to discuss or explore the possible reasons behind her abandonment, Jen was left with a nagging vulnerability. What if she failed to please her adoptive family? She assumed a kind of vigilance, striving to please and placate her family. She learned to deny her more challenging, difficult feelings.

Growing up in a white family and predominantly white community, Jen identified with those around her. Since Jen's parents believed love was more important than race, they chose not to discuss racial differences. But -- if there's an elephant in the room and no one mentions the elephant -- will the elephant disappear? Jen was left to wrestle with the differences that announced themselves in the mirror each morning. The image of her own uniquely Asian face, her eyes, her nose, her skin tone, created a dissonance within her. When she was out in the neighborhood, in the school yard, on the playground, other children saw these differences too and they teased and taunted her. Jen felt ashamed. Lacking any kind of dialog at home, she had no words, no language, no safe harbor, place, or person to confide her troubles.

Remarks not only from other children but from others, elsewhere, over the years, made Jen aware there were people who didn't view her as fully American. Jen yearned to return "home" to Korea. But when she traveled to Korea, she found she was far more American than Korean -- and Koreans saw this too. When Jen moved away from her hometown to a larger city for work, she struggled to feel fully accepted within white communities -- but also had difficulty feeling a sense of belonging with other Korean Americans.

In the film, Jen makes an earnest effort to communicate her struggles and bridge the connection with her terminally ill parents. But the message they have failed her is too much and perhaps, too late, and too painful for them to take in. They don't understand and Jen feels even more alone. She succombs to anti-depressants and pain killers and is forced to leave her terminally ill parents to commit to her own self care, to enter a rehabillitation program.

Watching "Adopted," I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge witnessing the slow parade of ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. I remembered the dark moment Scrooge stood perched at the edge of what would prove to be his grave, afraid to peer over and confront the worst.

Was Jen's fate my daughter's fate? Our fate? There was still time. What more could I, can I do, here in the present, to re-cast our future?

I'm being a tad melodramatic. But there's no denying Jen's story is tragic. By all appearances, her parents were loving, well meaning people. It took great courage for Jen as well as her parents to allow the film makers into their home, to share their story, and offer the seeds of hard-won wisdom.

I think there were two distinctly different issues at stake for Jen.

The first problem was that Jen was never encouraged or given the opportunity to recognize her own unique story -- and losses -- as a separate, legitimate reality apart from her adoptive parents' story -- their journey and joy in adopting and raising their daughter. Jen sensed her sadness and grief at losing her birth parents posed a threat or, at the very least, would prove hurtful to her parents. So she bottled up her sadness. As she grew older, as the pain persisted, she tried to numb it, then medicate it away.

As a community, as adoptive parents, we've learned how important it is to help our children own and process their stories -- including their losses. We live with the irony that our children's greatest loss is the basis for our joy: their presence in our lives. As threatening as that may feel, we have to support our children, to help them grieve one family so they are free to celebrate the next. Jen's experience is, in part, a desperate cry for this recognition and validation.

The second issue Jen wrestled with is, I think, even more complex.

Jen’s well meaning parents failed to recognize and address the challenges that come with being a mixed race family. To be fair, I think the Feros followed the beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if s/he were -- had always been -- your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or differences. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole. So families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption -- or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen have taught us the price of this denial.

Listening to Jen, I couldn’t help wondering if her struggle to fit in was unique to her experience as a transracial adoptee – or part of the broader experience of persons of color, of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in this country. Friends of mine raised by immigrant parents, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Russian, have shared childhood memories of not fitting in, of being the outsider, living betwixt and between two cultures, the culture of their parents' generation versus that of the American school yard and the media. Those of my friends who were happiest seemed to have found a way to mix and move comfortably in both worlds, having made their peace, even taking pride in a hybrid identity.

Is it possible Jens’ struggles to fit in were more authentically Korean American, or Asian American, than she realized?

As for adoptive parents, how many of us truly acknowledge, or understand that, when we adopt a child of another race, we become a family of color?

When I first made my decision to adopt my daughter, I threw myself into reading and learning everything I could about China. I developed a deep, one could argue na├»vely romantic fascination for its difficult history, politics, and people. Now, as much as I know it’s helpful to give my daughter a sense of pride in her birth country, I see there are many more layers to my job.

White adoptive parents have only known the world of white privilege. We have no idea what it feels like to walk about in someone else’s skin, to enter a classroom, apply for a job, shop at the local mall or museum, wander a city street and greet the world with a face that isn’t Euro American -- but is Asian American, Latin American, or African American.

We are blind and yet, we need to learn more, read more, reach out more, if we are to help our children feel at home, with a mix of faces, in a variety of places.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"What's My Heritage: International Adoptions & the Culture Debate"

First, an apology. I am woefully overdue in posting here at Pack of Three. The good news is that all is well with our happy pack. In fact, as much as the past school year had its challenges, the summer seems to have delivered -- in direct opposition and proportion to the school year -- more than its share of joys. My daughter's favorite t-shirt and personal motto these days? Life is Good.

I have to concur. I'm not immune to a hormonal moment or two, but the truth is, its all too easy to forget and take for granted just how blessed we are.

Until the school year is well underway (and mom makes more progress on the job front,) I won't have a lot of time for blog posts. Nevertheless, I had to check in and share a link to a wonderfully insightful, honest, thought-provoking article written by Martha Nichols, published this summer in BRAIN, CHILD: "What's My Heritage: International Adoptions and the Culture Debate."

Martha and her husband adopted their son Nicholas from Vietnam in 2003. She writes about Nicholas' ambivalence toward his birth country and culture and, more specifically, writes about her own struggle to find the right balance in helping acquaint her son (and family) with Nicholas' birth country and culture, addressing thorny issues of race and identity.

How much should we do as parents? How far do you take it -- or push it?

It's a balancing act most parents of internationally adopted children struggle with. We know, based on the overwhelming evidence shared by previous generations of Korean-American adoptees, that we ignore these questions of race and culture at our child's peril. But Nichols raises another interesting question: Has the current generation of parents of internationally adopted children really figured out the best or healthiest way to address these issues? The options -- and pitfalls -- are many.

Some families purchase cheese-y costumes and trinkets. Others enroll their children in a myriad of dance classes, language classes, craft classes, caligraphy classes, even martial arts classes. Others drop in once a year for a token New Year's or other celebration. These efforts are all made in earnest. But Nichols asks the uncomfortable question if culture is really a matter of consuming a couple of commercial pre-packaged trinkets, if its a series of classes, a one-time event, or an annual weekend retreat.

How many of us reach for these things as quick, easy answers so, in busy, overscheduled lives, we can assuage a guilty conscience and check off the "culture" box? Nichols calls it "Culture-lite."

My guess is most adoptive parents sense, like Nichols, that culture and identity tend to be something both more subtle -- and more elusive, something that's woven into everyday life. It's the language we speak, the foods we eat, the faces we see, the little day in and day out, or seasonal, rituals.

So how do we as parents capture something as elusive as this and make it accessible to our children, especially when that second culture may be as foreign to us as it is to our children?

Nichols acknowledges that an imperfect effort is far better than no effort. And then, its important to look for those opportunities to make that culture -- in one form or another -- a more natural part of everyday life. Beyond that, for every child, for every family, the answers will be different. In the end, as parents, its our job to try and help our children bridge the gap and navigate a story that produces that mixed sense of identity and belonging.

At the very least, it takes a lot of listening, a lot of loving, along with a willingness to stretch beyond our normal comfort zone.

Nichols does a wonderful, thoughtful job exploring these issues.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Born in China, Adopted & Raised in America: Betwixt and Between?

I was thinking these were halcyon days.

My daughter has been in such a happy place of late and, like many parents, when my child is happy, I am happy. I've already had a few, fleeting moments foreshadowing what's to come in the teen years but for now, we're back to the ebullient innocence of earlier times. Given a quick peek at what's to come, I fantasize and think:

Can't I just hit the pause button now?

I want to pickle and preserve these precious moments. Catch them, bottle them.

It's been a busy, social start to summer. Visiting with friends, my daughter discovered a newfound passion: Monopoly. She loves to be the banker and now, even when there's no one to play, she sits and counts the money.

We staged a lemonade stand on two different days. The first, a sunny Saturday, she and a mutually determined friend set up shop. They sat outside on our street corner, hawking their wares from 11am to 5pm, determined to stay till the last Tollhouse cookie, the last drop of lemonade, was gone. They brought in a whopping $71 and decided (completely on their own) to keep $10 each -- and donate the remaining $51 to the Humane Society (...boasts a proud mom.) The second time around, the day was hotter, the traffic slower, her friend, a little less motivated. Still after 2+ hours minding the store, they earned $30, kept $1.50 a piece, and reserved $27 for the Audubon Society. (My daughter feels a strong affinity for the animal world.)

We've gone on more and more bike rides and, last week, biked to and from her basketball camp.

This week is soccer camp. Along with the beautiful weather, we've enjoyed watermelon fests, hula hooping contests, cookie bakes, swim parties, potlucks, and sleepovers. On rainy days and lazy nights, we've drunk in films like Anne of Green Gables (check out the Kevin O'Sullivan production, it's wonderful) The Heart of the Game (yes, a girls' basketball film) and even some old classics. On deck from the library? Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

This past Saturday, for the 4th of July, we enjoyed various visits with friends, then biked to a local park to take in the fireworks. My daughter chose to dress in red, white, and blue. (If you count my underwear, Mom.)

An all-American childhood, right? Halcyon days, right?

So why did I wake up at 5:30am late last week with this nagging, unsettled feeling?

I've got to stop reading the New York Times and the other blogs and groups I follow just before bed.

I'd been tracking the Adoptionparenting group on Yahoo. The current topic (there's a new one every two weeks) has sparked a lively debate. The subject is "On Culture and Belonging." As the debate unfolded, parents argued, some quite adamantly, that no matter what we do, as multi-racial families, we -- our kids -- will always straddle two worlds. Many argued, with increasing passion, that, as parents, we have a responsibility to acquaint, even immerse, our children in their birth culture, giving them a sense of connection and belonging to combat the day they run into the inevitable confusion, questions, or push back as to where or what group they rightly belong.

Now, my daughter and I attend FCC (Families with Children from China) celebrations. She is learning Mandarin, and we have friends (happenstance -- not calculation) of various ethnic groups, races, and religions. The problem is, short of moving to China, I am -- like a huge percentage of adoptive American parents of Chinese children -- Caucasian. I lack the kind of deep familiarity with Chinese culture that might help me pass the culture on to my child in a way that's both layered and authentic. I realize too, as much as she's of Chinese birth and descent, she is now deeply American.

The argument made by the folks in this discussion group is that, if history is any kind of yardstick, our children will end up with no clear sense of belonging, or worse, rejected, at risk, betwixt and between.


Perhaps naively, a part of me thought, given this country's changing, increasingly varied demographic, Aren't we all, in one way or another, to varying degrees, betwixt and between? And, don't we have more and more examples of individuals showing it's possible to be of a different, or mixed, racial, or ethnic origin -- and still belong? Perhaps, even lead? (I'm thinking of our President for one.)

I was struggling with this question in my head and then, late Thursday, another wrinkle:

David Brooks published his latest New York Times column titled, "Chinese Fireworks Display." Brooks recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival (Does he have a cool job or what?) Niall Ferguson, a Harvard history professor, had presented his views on the changing state of the world. China and the US, quite recently, enjoyed a happy, "symbiotic" relationship. From 1995 to 2005, "China did the making, ...the US did the buying." We spent. China prospered, and saved. The Chinese invested their savings in the safest place available: with the US government. They loaned us back the money we spent. We chose to spend and spend again. The Chinese savings rate rose from 30% to 45%, The US savings rate declined from 5% -- to zero.

Our country is now going bankrupt (okay, strike "going") while the Chinese recognize they can no longer rely on us either to fuel their growth -- or provide a secure place to invest their savings. China is forging its own way and looking to decrease its reliance on the US. According to Ferguson, "The frictions are building and will lead to divorce, conflict, and potential catastrophe..." Worse, "Chinese nationalism is also on the rise... The Chinese are acquiring resources all around the world and with them, willy-nilly, an overseas empire that threatens US interests... "

Ferguson compares China to Kaiser Wilhem's Germany in the years preceding World War I: "a growing, aggressive, nationalistic power whose ambitions will tear through pre-existing commercial ties and historic friendships." The US, on the other hand, appears unable to change and rein in its profligate ways. (Think: Rome its waning days.)

It's a frightening scenario. Certainly, there are others (Brooks writes about them too) who expect and paint a more positive picture. But it's the first one that haunts me. In the past year alone, China has clearly been flexing its muscle with a brutal crackdown against the Tibetans, an aggressive media black-out on the 20th anniversary of Tiananman Square or, just today, with another violent crackdown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

If our two countries are on a collision course, where will this leave America's Chinese born daughters?

Adolescence, it seems, may be the least of my worries.

Pickle, anyone?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wrestling with the Daddy Issue

Even as I was making my decision to adopt my daughter from China, I pondered if it was fair to adopt a child when I couldn't offer the complete package, both a mom and a dad.

Friends argued a loving mother, a warm, stable home life, and extended family and friends were better than the alternative, institutional life, or nothing at all. I bought into their arguments and, at the same time, told myself there was always the possibility I might still meet someone wonderful. I had the issue neatly and rationally sorted out in my mind -- until I viewed the question from the other side.

In those first few days and weeks, as I held my daughter in my arms, as I looked into her innocent, cherubic-like face, as I felt the weight of her body, the rhythm of her breath, and smelled her powdery, baby-like scent, the reality of what I'd done sank in -- in a different, decidedly more visceral way. This little bundle of life was mine. All mine. Her life, her health, her most basic needs, her happiness, now lay in my hands. As the days unfolded, a powerful new instinct flooded my veins and, as it did, one of the more troubling thoughts that creeped back into my mind was:

Have I done something really selfish?

In my more vulnerable moments, the question haunted me. Could I really be all she needed me to be? But then reality, the relentless demands of everyday life with a baby, prevailed. The flow of her life merged with mine in a single, unending blur of her sleeping, waking, eating, peeing, pooping and sleeping . We played, we laughed, and my daughter blossomed.

It wasn't till several years later, when I was driving her home from pre-school one day, that she first raised the issue herself. It seemed to come out of nowhere. One moment the car was quiet. The next moment, she said it:

I wish I had a Dad.

The blood drained from my fingers while my grip on the steering wheel tightened. My body went cold and I proceeded to flood my daughter with empathy, reflections, ideas, and suggestions. I babbled on for a good five minutes -- till I glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed my daughter looking out the window, watching the scenery, humming. She was three, maybe four. My words had washed right past her.

I'd overlaid an innocent comment, devoid of deeper meaning, with the backlog of my own emotional baggage. I replayed our exchange and it occurred to me -- with respect to dads everywhere -- that in that particular moment, she could have just as easily said, I wish I had a Barbie doll.

I realized I needed to dump the baggage, listen more carefully, take a deep breath, ask more questions, and try and respond to the place my daughter was coming from.

We've been through several stages of the Daddy Issue since.

At first she wanted a dad because she figured this was something other kids had. Then, she wanted a dad because she didn't want to be different. She grew tired of the same question over and over (You don't have a dad?!) At one point, she tried telling a pre-school friend she actually had a dad. But, as quickly as she created him, she killed him off. (Oh, but he died.)

It's only been in more recent years that my daughter -- through stories, books, observation, time with family and friends -- has truly come to understand what having a dad is, or can be, about.

Having a dad, I think, in whole, or in part, means having an adult male in your family, in your life, who loves you, who's there for you, who makes you feel special, who talks with you, spends time with you, teaches you, flirts with you, even wrestles with you. He takes you on special outings and buys you the treats your mother won't. He watches movies, plays pool, or pinball, or other silly games with you. He hugs you, cheers for you, roots for you, and is, generally speaking, crazy for you.

Miraculously, in the same time period that marked my daughter's growing awareness and need, my brother stepped into the void.

He's a free-wheeling bachelor and lives less than a mile away. He's a software guy, an engineer-type, a fix-anything, project-manage, tech-savvy kind of guy. He's a skier, a scrambler, a camper, a climber and, yes -- a bit of a bar-fly. But, in my book, he's just a hair's notch below God. He's become a surrogate dad to my daughter. He's not here at the house every day, but we see him most every week. He stops by for dinner, for brunch, or simply to "hang." He's known my daughter since she first came home but it's really, in the past few years, they've grown increasingly close. He helped teach her how to ride a two-wheeler and now, takes her out biking, canoeing, swimming and skiing. They cook together, carve Halloween pumpkins together, go to street fairs and movies together. He's there at Christmas and on Father's Day, and for special school performances. If work takes him to Mexico, India, or China, he returns home with posters, trinkets, and toys, with flowing paisley patterned skirts, even embroidered blouses.

My daughter is not a natural hugger. She likes her physical space. But when her uncle arrives, she flies toward the door and into his arms. He scoops her up, lifts her high to the ceiling, then hugs her tight. He's her hero and rightly so. I get sappy and sentimental when I try to thank him, to tell him just what that means to me, to her, that he loves her, that he's there for her. He just tells me, Oh, stop. You're wet. And he's right. But, in recognition of Father's Day, I'd like to honor not only the dads out there (mine included,) but all the cool surrogate dads, the brothers, uncles, and incredible friends, who step into the void to help a child feel loved and special and all the more whole.

And, to one very special uncle, with a clear, dry-eye, I offer a huge, humble, heartfelt:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

When I Told My Parents I Planned To Adopt

Broad beams of sunlight streamed in through the front windows of the house washing over the living room, creating a sense of light, airy openness. It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of ‘99. I was wandering about my living room running my hand over the familiar, well-loved contents and contours of my home while, phone pressed to my ear, I chatted with my parents. They live on the East coast. I’m on the West coast. I don’t remember the range of subjects we covered, but as the conversation wound down, it occurred to me it might be wise to let my parents in on the recent drift in my thinking.

Hey Mom, Dad,… you know I’ve talked about adopting a little girl from China. I stopped, sat down on the couch, leaned forward, and rested my elbows onto my knees. Well... I probably should tell you… I think I’m ready. I’m going to do it.

They knew I’d been thinking about it, but up to this point, it had only been an idea. One of many vague possibilities out in the ether.

The line was quiet for a moment. My father spoke first, slowly and thoughtfully. Well, this is your decision. Whatever you decide, you know we love you. We’re proud of you. And we support you.

I was forty and this was my father’s answer to most things. Love, acceptance, support. He saw my sister, brother, and me as adults. He expected us to make morally sound, responsible choices, but our lives were our own.

My mother was a little different, a little more vested in our decisions, a little more outspoken. This could be a double-edged sword. I waited for her to speak now, and when she did, it was with uncharacteristic restraint. Her voice sounded deeper, as if her throat had gone tight. Her words came in short, measured increments. Which is a little like imagining Niagra Falls slowing. To a drip.

Yes. Well. That sounds… Good. Sweetheart. It’s your life.

The women in my family are a boisterous, opinionated tribe and no one is more so than my mother. We’re all fully capable of shooting first, thinking second, and apologizing – on occasion -- third. I knew she was trying hard to be respectful and careful, and not say something she’d regret. That alone told me how seriously she took this.

I’d opened myself up to my parents, precisely because I wanted to see what their reaction would be. And, more importantly, what my reaction to their reaction would be. I was testing myself. If I was going to run into a cold, granite wall of resistance, I needed to know sooner rather than later. Would they support me? And, if they didn’t or couldn’t, Could I handle it?

My mother’s response wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But, she also hadn’t slammed the door in my face either. I’d been spared one of her many classic, flip put-downs or comebacks, the kind she’d launched in years past, often after a man had crossed the threshold and stood in her crosshairs.

What d' you think of him, Mom?

It’s your life … to ruin if you want to.

She was my biggest fan -- and toughest critic, a master at the cavalier question or back-handed compliment. (You’re wearing THAT to dinner?) She was fiercely proud of me. She just had a funny way of showing it sometimes, as if she were fatally allergic to showing the slightest shred of sentimentality. If I called and caught her in one of her more exuberant moments, she’d greet me with one of her many, favorite terms of endearment: What’s on your small mind, Peabrain?

To know my mother is to love her – but her particular brand of love is not for the faint of heart. Which is why I needed to test the waters. If she was really against the idea: single motherhood, adoption, etc., I needed to be like a general preparing for battle, sizing up the opposition, assessing how many fronts I’d be fighting.

I took her response in now and could tell she was trying but also that she was withholding. My mother can only withhold for so long. So I decided to wait, not to push. To give her the time to absorb the news. I hung up the phone and thought, We’re not finished. We’ve only begun.

The next morning, the phone rang. Early.


Are you up?


It’s Mom.

I gathered.

I had a thought!


Listen. Don’t say anything. I have a question for you. Just hear me out. Will you?


What about a sperm bank? Have you considered a sperm bank?! (She asked the question with the kind of enthusiasm a friend might exude on discovering you’d been to their favorite restaurant: Have you tried the chocolate cake?!)

Uh…. That’s an interesting question… I said, surprised, hesitating. It was, to be frank, not a proposal I’d expected from my mother. But again, this wasn’t anyone’s mother. She was different.

Did you.. would you.. consider it? I could hear the eagerness in her voice.

Well… I have a friend who did it.

You wouldn’t consider it? I could swear, she was ready to bargain.

Well… I guess I always figured if I carried and bore a child, the child would be a product of me and a man I knew and loved. Not some stranger. That feels weird to me.

I didn’t mind exploring the question. Yes, I was surprised she’d raised it. But I was glad she had. Better to explore all the possibilities now and be sure, rather than look back and wonder.

The idea of going through a pregnancy and labor alone felt lonely to me. And I couldn’t imagine trying to recover from giving birth while also managing a newborn. Then too, I thought about all those girls in China, girls who needed families, love, and a home. And me? I’d always wanted a girl. It all made sense. I also knew if I went to a sperm bank, I could just as easily end up with a boy. And while, to me, two, happy, healthy, parents was, or is, the ideal, I felt, at a minimum, if I had the choice, providing a child with a same sex role model was important. I couldn't be a dad to a boy.

The more I pondered my mother’s question, the more it confirmed my thinking. She was quiet again while I explained how I felt. Finally, I realized I should explore the root of her question. What made you think of a sperm bank?

She hesitated. I heard her suck in her breath. Then she blurted it out: It’s just you have such good genes!

I burst out laughing. Even now, as I think back on this moment, it makes me smile.

We are, at the root of it, despite our rough edges, a loving, loyal family whose worst sin perhaps is we’re rather fond of ourselves. We have our strengths. If you go back far enough or search broadly enough, we have our share of achievements… leaders, lawyers, politicians, academics, engineers, writers, business executives, even philanthropists. But we have, in equal measure, our imperfections, physical failings, as well as some blind spots. If you study the family tree with a cold, clear eye, we have our challenges: high blood pressure, heart disease, ALS, Aspergers, asthma, addiction, Parkinsons, divorce, diabetes, dyslexia, depression, and suicide.

My mother has lived a charmed life and she knows it. She was, and is, deep down to her boots, a risk averse soul. In that moment, in that call, as she shared her thoughts and I processed mine, I realized she was afraid. In her gut, on this first pass, she clung to the familiar.

There were no guarantees with adoption but I had some sense of my limits. I wasn’t planning to apply for a special needs child. My hope was to work with an agency to find a healthy child who might be a good match for me, who had the potential to thrive in my care. It was a leap of faith but I knew, I’d seen, that bearing a biological child was no less of a leap of faith. I’d run into a high school friend only two years earlier. Neither he, nor his wife, had any history of cancer in their families. Yet, his seven year old daughter battled a deadly brain tumor.

My mother wasn't quite there with me. But, God bless her, she wasn’t running flat out in the other direction either. And, turning back to that same family tree, we both knew adoption was happily threaded through it.

I saw if I wanted to do this badly enough, if I was really ready, I’d have to step out in front, take the lead, and show her the way. I had my fears and there were many unknowns. But our call only confirmed my decision.