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Monthly Columnist Shelise Gieseke Responds To: “As someone who has learned to be reflective about the adoptee experience, what would you tell adoptive parents who want very, very much to be the best parents we can possibly be to our children?”

A college friend, now a transracial adoptive parent, asked me this question:

“As someone who has learned to be reflective about the adoptee experience, what would you tell adoptive parents who want very, very much to be the best parents we can possibly be to our children?”

Since this question was posed to me, I’ve thought of 100 different answers; each of them important in their own right and no one comprehensive enough to thoroughly answer the question. The truth is that I don’t really have the answer. No single person does, but I do believe that those of us crazy enough to immerse ourselves in the adoption experience on a daily basis are working to find answers to this question and others like it. So, first, I ask that parents pay attention and be open to the ideas of adoptees who are talking about adoption, not just because the adoptees themselves have been adopted, but because they are adoptees who are examining adoption outside of their own personal experience and working to enlighten and improve the adoption experience for all those involved.

Something that repeatedly has come to mind in relation to the question posed is this: As a parent, you are the role model. You demonstrate to your children how to live and experience their lives. Recognizing and processing the emotions connected to the adoption experience is not intuitive. If parents don’t talk about loss or grief or birth families, how will their children ever know how to talk about these things? How will they ever feel like it is normal or okay to bring these subjects up with their parents?

Further, if you have children of color and want them to develop into confident adults of color, you have to show them the way. This is your responsibility. Too often, I see parents relying on their children to figure out the complicated world of race on their own. Not because the parents intend for their kids to struggle, but because they are afraid to or unaware of the commitments and sacrifices that must be made on behalf of their kids. Commitments like moving to or regularly traveling to diverse populations. A commitment to frequently step outside of their own comfort zones, so the parents are the “only” or “other” and not their children. Adopted children of color are often heralded as the bridges between cultures or races. I, personally, feel that is too big of a responsibility to place on young people. I see parents as the bridges for their children. Their parents are the ones to guide them to the people who can help them form healthy identities. How can a child feel comfortable reaching out to their racial or ethnic community if they do not see their parents doing the same? Sure, this may be awkward for parents at first and parent often speak of feeling like they disingenuously form relationships with people based solely on their race, but parents are adults. Adults have the faculties and resources to figure out how to navigate the complications of these situations. In turn, their kids learn to do the same.

It is clear to me that adoptive parenting isn’t easy. There is no one way to do things and things that work for one family may not work for another. Ask me this question again next and I’m sure I’ll have a completely different answer, but today my advice is for parents to be the people they want their children to become.

9 Comments on Monthly Columnist Shelise Gieseke Responds To: “As someone who has learned to be reflective about the adoptee experience, what would you tell adoptive parents who want very, very much to be the best parents we can possibly be to our children?”

  1. Eloquent and friendly. 🙂

  2. Excellent advice. I’d like to add, before you even figure out which small humans you will be parenting, please be well-informed about the sources of internationally adoptable babies. Even if a country complies w/ internationally-recognized standards for the wellbeing of children and families, how uniform and procedurally fair are its family separation and child placement practices? Are there open records? What resources does it have for returning adult adoptees? As prospective parents to children from other countries, it is also your responsibility to work for family justice within those countries, and between the U.S. and those countries. This is so important for adoptees doing birth family searches.

    • Excellent point, Caitlin. There is no shortage of stories of fraud, especially in transnational adoption. Do you think adoptive parents should begin a search of their child’s birth parents (if they do not have information about said parents at the time of adopting)?

      • Yes. First of all, because it is so much more difficult to do birth family searches decades later than at the time of adoption, adoptive parents should at least make their contact information available to birth families. (And personally, I think parents should actually actively search, not just leave their contact info at the sending country’s agency). It is up to the adoptive parents whether to share anything they find when their child is still young, but as the adoptee grows up s/he should definitely have a choice in terms of what to do with that information. Adoptees who were placed in second (or third) families as infants never had a choice in who their families were, so giving them this choice as adults is both crucial and respectful.

        Secondly, because there are so many examples of child-stealing, coercion, etc. even in Hague-compliant countries, I think adoptive parents should require that all possible methods of locating their prospective child’s birth family be exhausted before they accept that the child they are procuring is, in fact, an orphan. If adoptive parents put pressure on “sending” countries to use proper protocols and make family histories traceable, this will support birth families’ rights to keep their children (if they wish), and will also support adoptive parents in their decision to acquire a particular new family member. They will know that they made the right choice, and that their new family member belongs most with them.

  3. To clarify, as a [transnational] adoptive parent you must show your children that you care about their origins – the causes of their existence. And to do that, you must see the transnational adoption phenomenon comprehensively, with all its flaws, and work to correct those flaws. If they are stuck in an American racial no-man’s-land, if their lifelong adoption experience has bumps, they will want to know why. And there should be a good reason – that this life was the very best life for them. And that won’t be true unless you can tell them that you checked it out. That you care for your children and their first parents. Then you will have started on the right track to being the very best parents you can be. 🙂

    • Caitlin, I agree. The burden of due diligence surrounding their children should fall on adoptive parents. As more and more news stories pop up about fraud, I think it is safe to suggest that prospective APs that they shouldn’t rely solely on their agencies re: the background of their child.

  4. “Too often, I see parents relying on their children to figure out the complicated world of race on their own.”

    That absolutely nails what I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for a long time. Thank you for this post.

    • Margie, thanks and you are welcome. I think when parents leave race to their children, the kids often don’t fully address race in childhood (as much as kids can) and consequently, their identity until closer to adulthood. Potentially (and not always), what these young people discover in their individual discoveries could result in a feeling of distance or estrangement from their parents. In my own life, there is distance between my family and I regarding issues of race. Just because we love each other and call each other family, doesn’t help us untangle complications of race.

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