This conversation is long and so I’ll keep my comments VERY brief… I really appreciate the opportunities to talk with adoptive parents like Martha and David.
Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Martha, you live in NY, but you have strong MN connections. Why did you leave the great MN weather?
Martha: I grew up in Minnesota on Lake Minnetonka. My grandparents lived in Huntley Minnesota, and were farmers. When I was in college, my mother moved back to the family farm, and lived in that area until recently when she moved out here to Brooklyn. My brother and extended family still live in MN.
I, of course, first learned the word “adoption” in the Land of Gazillion Adoptees in 1970 when a white family across the lane explained that they had brought their Korean born daughter home from the airport.
I went to college in sunny Los Angeles, and then moved to NYC in my early 20’s. I’ve been here ever since. We have plenty of our own Brooklyn weather – hurricanes, nor’easters, and almost as many mosquitos.
LGA: David, how did a Jersey Boy end up with a Midwest Girl?
David: For the same reason many people from disparate backgrounds meet up here – including my Hungarian mother and my Greek father – because they fled/traveled to the big city seeking something. In my parents’ case, it was refuge and education. For Martha and me, we came to New York City as actors. In fact, we met in a play. Now we’re both grateful for the consistency and self-direction offered by our “second acts” as psychotherapists.
LGA: That was romantic until you said “psychotherapists.” Moving on. Martha and David, you’ve said that the adoptees featured in LGA speak truths that all adoptive parents need to hear. Would you mind elaborating?
Martha: As we were deciding if to adopt, and how to adopt, we, like many other APs, saw adoption agencies and other adoptive parents as our primary source of information about what our lives would be like as an adoptive family, what our children would need from us, and for data about the social environments and conditions which surrounded international adoption.
After becoming a family, we quickly felt that all of this just wasn’t enough, and that the information, “training,” and narrative that we had accepted felt too simplistic, superficial, and, for us, just insufficient. We wanted to understand more about what had caused our children to suffer such losses. We wanted real information about what their first mothers and first families had truly faced, and to be able to engage with any questions our kids had without flinching or avoiding.
We wanted to find more support in helping our kids negotiate life as being identified as “Asian” while being raised in white culture. We wanted more information about how to help our kids find healthy, personal connections to the Korean American community, and to forge close relationships with older Asian American role models with whom they could turn to for advice when confronted with challenges that we, as white, “born to” people have never had to face.
We were very lucky to find support, encouragement, information, and guidance from many sources – most valuable of which have been from adult adoptees. Listening, as best we could, to adult adoptees whose voices we first heard, too briefly, at an agency workshop. Later, learning and listening through forums, at conferences like KAAN, through organizations like Also-Known-As, on adoptee-centric on-line list-serves, and from the adult adoptee organizations in Korea were invaluable to us.
When my son said around 5 years old that he wanted an “adoption class with ONLY adopted people allowed in,” I had learned enough to understand that he was talking about a real need. We couldn’t find any adoptee-centric programming for kids his age. However, through the relationships we had forged, we were able to launch a group called All Together Now. The group provides playgroups for young adoptees 3 to 9. It’s facilitated entirely by adult and teen adoptee mentors, whom we try to reimburse for their efforts with small stipends. (We do not consider adult adoptees as “obligated” to help us raise our children.) Parents meet in their own group, which has always incorporated the presence and guidance of several very generous, and I think unbelievably patient adult adoptees.
We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to hear about the diverse and complex realities of life as internationally, transracially adopted people, even when it hurts, stings, and burns to listen. Hopefully, though, this will help us to listen more deeply, and not shy away from what our kids will require of us over the years.
David: For me, a big part of loving and parenting our kids well is to try to understand their experiences and to appreciate what we won’t be able to fully understand. I can still love my kids and try to provide positive parenting and experiences, while acknowledging: that they have endured a profound loss; that they will experience racism in ways that I, as a white person, will not; and that they’re caught between worlds in ways that I may never fully understand. I’d like our kids to feel as much as possible that we’re in their corner, that they can turn to us, and, just as importantly, that we will back whatever resources they turn to for support, understanding, and education, i.e, other adoptees, Korean or Korean-American friends, etc.
My simplistic analysis of how adoptive parents can go array is that they (we) feel threatened and act on that. My children’s ongoing search for meaning and identity must never be threatening to me.
LGA: Thank you for sharing all of that, Martha and David. Now onto a related topic. Mark Hagland informed me that your family is very much involved with the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN). What’s the appeal of the organization?
Martha: Mark was one of the first people I spoke to at our first KAAN Conference, although I’m sure he doesn’t remember. Our whole family feels lucky now to be able to call him a good friend.
We went to KAAN the first time about 5 years ago when our kids were around 4 and 3 years old. First of all, it was a crazily liberating experience to walk into a whole hotel filled with families, white parents, Korean adult adoptees and their elderly parents, and packs of teen adoptees. They all visually understood and recognized us instantly and we visually understood and recognized them! No one stared. No one tried to “figure us out” and clearly the kids felt this great relief as well. We were hooked. The kids loved it. They loved not having to explain themselves. They loved not having a narrative burden to carry for the weekend.
But, we also found that this was a place where adult adoptees voices were valued and where people were really wrestling with the multiple complexities of Korean adoption. No one seemed to be settling for a simple story. The forums and discussions, whether we agreed with all the participants or not, were looking at: the paradox of IA; what was beautiful and terrible about IA; what needed to change in IA; what hurt in the name of love; what was meaningful and important even in the face of pain; what parts of all of us are and are not defined and limited by race and by adoption status; and what love is good for and when it’s not enough.
For our family KAAN has become a place where we feel nurtured, mirrored, and cared for (or at least tolerated!). It has become a place where we can have hard conversations, ask humiliatingly stupid questions, be enlightened, agitated, embarrassed, and sometimes completely exasperated. The conference weekend is always too short, very intense, and leaves us with a lot to digest. The friendships we have formed there with adult adoptees and other AP’s with similar sensibilities and values, and the tight friendships our kids have formed with kids and adults have become some of the most cherished relationships.
I hope, for our kids’ sakes, that KAAN will make us more open, understanding, and respectful adoptive parents. Keeping my fingers crossed.
David: I think that KAAN helps me to be a better dad. Listening to adult adoptees talk about their personal experiences (what was hard, what helped, what matters, what they feel that their parents missed or misunderstood) provides a strange sense of relief. I say “strange” because, although the news isn’t always good (the stories can be painful, and the prospect of an idealized family life seems naive), I get a strong sense of guidance and grounding from the discussions and relationships.
I’m extremely glad that our kids have KAAN, too. It’s indescribable how deeply comfortable and happy they are each year when they reunite with KAAN friends. I hope these friendships will be lifelong relationships for both of our kids. Frankly, I can’t really understand why more families in our cohort don’t participate.
Simply put, KAAN is an invaluable community and resource for us. It’s changed how I think and I hope how I parent.
LGA: Word… And for you, dear reader, if you’re interested you can find out more about KAAN here.