Guilt, Empathy, and Inauthenticity: (My) Transracial Adoptive Parenting

I’ve been thinking about parenting a lot lately, and adoptive parenting in particular.  What qualities make for a good parent?  What qualities does a good adoptive parent possess?  What additional qualities are required if the adoption is transracial or cultural?  Well I can’t even begin to represent that I have it all figured out, or that I think that G and I actually possess all the requisite good qualities.  I’d like to think I’m a “good parent,” whatever that means, but Bug will have to judge that for herself when she’s grown.  For now, I think the best I can do is talk about the three main qualities that seem to inform my parenting at this point:  guilt, empathy, and inauthenticity.

The first component, and probably one that overrides all the others for me, is guilt.  That’s got to sound odd at first glance, especially since I love being Bug’s mom and wouldn’t change that for the world.  But here’s the thing.  When you first start the adoption process from the adoptive parent perspective, it’s all about you.  That’s not because PAPs are bad people– it’s just the only perspective you know.  When we went into the process we were assured that we were adopting for the right reasons, and we tried to go about things as ethically as possible.  For instance, we only wanted to adopt a child who really needed adopting.  We wanted to make sure we were prepared for Bug’s attachment and health needs.  We read up on transracial adoption and issues related to being an Asian in America.  We did all we were supposed to do.

Thing is, it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough, which we figured out the first day we had Bug.  Bug was terrified.  She had been ripped from the only family she knew — her beloved foster family — thrown on a train, and then dumped in the arms of two white strangers who were going to take her away from the only culture and family she’d ever known.  The guilt was immediate. I remember crying and looking over Bug as she slept that night and asking G what we had done.  We felt like kidnappers.  And so the guilt began.

Now when I’ve recounted that overwhelming feeling of guilt over the years people have tried to make me feel better.  They tell me that Bug was in need of a permanent placement, and that China would never have allowed her to stay permanently with her foster family.  [True; confirmed by her foster family for us.]  They tell me that once Bug was slated for international adoption by China she would have been adopted by a family somewhere outside of China, whether it was G and me or not.  [True.]  I still can’t get over the guilt, though.  If we hadn’t contributed to the demand for children from China, would she have ever even been slated for international adoption?  Of course we’ll never know.  But those true facts remain, and don’t assuage the guilt.

Don’t assume that this guilt is a bad thing or that we inappropriately wallow in it.  I actually think the guilt is a good thing.  This guilt is the first step to the next quality I want to discuss — empathy.  Without the guilt, the understanding of what we’ve done to Bug by taking her away from China, we couldn’t develop the kind of empathy necessary to respond to Bug where she is.  I read posts of adoptive parents on web forums and on blogs, and I’m often struck by the utter lack of empathy for their children.  No understanding of the trauma they’ve endured by being separated from birth parents.  No understanding of how that trauma was compounded by taking our children from their country and culture of birth.  No understanding of how hard it can be to stick out like a sore thumb in their family– to have no privacy, because everyone can tell at first glance you are adopted.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For some of our kids, the empathy is critical on a day-to-day basis.  With Bug, for example, extra empathy is needed because of her developmental trauma and PTSD.  These are not uncommon issues for international adoptees, and in fact, I’m convinced it’s more common than agencies and other APs want to let on.  A parent absolutely has  to understand that background and have empathy in order to effectively parent her.  Without empathy, you’d be up a creek.  Unfortunately I see that lacking in so many adoptive parents.  It saddens me, and it makes me wish I could do something about it.

In sum, my guilt drives me to be the best parent I can to Bug, and I try to achieve that through empathy.  I’m not perfect by any means, but my guilt keeps me striving forward.

The last quality, inauthenticity, is also tied to guilt.  Inauthenticity is tied to the racial and cultural element of a transracial adoption.  I’m a white American.  I will never be anything other than a white American.  My child is Asian, a Chinese girl born in China and transplanted without consent to the U.S.  Because of our choice to adopt her and bring her here (the guilt again), she will never fully fit into the Asian American community, and she will never fit wholly back into Chinese culture should she wish to move back as an adult.  [For what it’s worth, I can easily see my Bug making the choice to live in China as an adult.]    I can put her into language classes, take her back to China regularly, participate in cultural activities, and do any number of things APs do to try to “keep culture alive.”  The reality is, though, all of these things will be inauthentic compared to what Bug would have had in China, or what she would have if she were being raised in an Asian American family.  At a certain level, I as a white AP have to accept the inauthenticity  because there’s no going back.  I already made the choice to become Bug’s mom.  Does that mean I give up?  No– the guilt won’t let me.  I will still make efforts to help her keep her language and culture and will take her to China regularly.  In fact, I’m going to do a presentation on Lunar New Year at Bug’s school next week.  But I have to do all of this with no illusion that any of these activities are authentic, and that’s something all APs have to come to grips with.

So, my transracial adoptive parenting is probably fairly summed up as a mix of guilt, empathy and inauthenticity.  I know that sounds negative and depressing, but it’s not.  Our life is full of joy, but we have to deal with reality, and that’s our reality.

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About mad momma moogacat

I am a 40-year old mother, wife, lawyer and pop culture fiend who is looking for some beauty and meaning in life. I write about parenting, adoption, mental health, work-life balance, and pop culture. Hope you enjoy!
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13 Responses to Guilt, Empathy, and Inauthenticity: (My) Transracial Adoptive Parenting

  1. TAO says:

    Dealing with the reality sums up your concerns of other parents – they choose not to deal with reality.

    Your honesty actually is another important aspect of how Bug will do throughout her life – if you can be this honest on-line where everyone else is trying to show how absolutely awesome adoption is and how awesome they are – well – she has a mom who can walk along side her when/if she wants it. That’s big and it really helps more than you can ever imagine.

  2. Delana says:

    I can greatly relate to what you have shared. I shared many of the same thoughts in my book Nine Year Pregnancy about our journey. I’m not sure about your child, but my child would not have had a normal life in her Asian homeland…she would have been raised in a special needs’ orphanage (even though her special need was very minor). She would have had orphanage life…and then gone out into the world in her country and still not have “belonged.” But I do understand…
    In a related story, my husband and I took our three biological sons to grow up overseas in other cultures. They were white Americans growing up in a different language and culture. Now that they are going to college and readjusting to life in America they often feel like they don’t belong. People think they look American…but there is so much about who they are and how they think that is so very different. they struggle with it…and they didn’t have a choice…it was a choice we as parents made for them. I like how some who have been raised in a third culture have called it. It is like their parents are blue, the country they were raised in is yellow, and they are green. Naturally, they have found that the people they relate the closest too are others who are green. The children you and I have adopted belong to a culture all their own…transracially adopted kids. They will be most at home with others who have traveled similar journeys in their lives.

    I am glad you have joy in your life. We can look back as parents (whether we adopt or have kids biologically) and second guess decisions we have made and feel bad about some of them. Or, we can look to today and be the best parent, spouse, friend today. Best wishes on your parenting journey!
    Delana

    • I definitely think that transracially adopted kids are a culture unto themselves. I try to keep Bug tied in to the adoptee community, but I do worry about how she’ll fit into the Asian American community once she leaves home and goes to college. I know a lot of adult Korean adoptees have strugged with this, and though I can’t give her a true “Asian American” upbringing since I’m white, I need to do the best to give her the tools to navigate that world.

      The best to you on your parenting journey as well!

  3. adoptionista says:

    The inauthenticity thing is really something…I finally “really got” that our kids (black, from Africa, raised by white parents) have their own unique culture. Not quite African, because despite any and every attempt we make to teach them about their culture, they were adopted as infants, and we’ll never really be able to match the experience of growing up in Africa. Not Black American either, because they’re also not raised in that. I’ve come to think of their culture as “black child adopted by white parents.” It’s clear as day when we’re around other multiracial adoptive families. They’re the same. Not black. Not white. Not African. It’s really been a push for us to associate with other adoptive families.

  4. Delana says:

    HI Again, I wanted to encourage you with something I read in a great article by Jen Hatmaker. She says: “Is adoption easy? No it is not. Is this simple? Nope. Complicated and long-term. Will bonding be immediate and seamless? Maybe, but probably not. Will you struggle with guilt and fear that first year? Yes, but you shouldn’t. You’ve agreed to partner with God in some difficult, heart-wrenching work, and it’s no kum-by-yah party. Give grace to yourself; God already has.” You can read her whole article here–http://jenhatmaker.com/blog/2012/08/21/the-truth-about-adoption-one-year-later.
    Blessings,
    Delana

  5. Thanks for this post. I am the mother of 3 with the last 2 coming to me from S Korea and China. I get the guilt I feel it most days even while I know that neither girl could stay in their birth country. I do the best I can even knowing I fall short. I’ve met families that are all Chinese and they have sought me out for conversation but we don’t fit in that groove either. While they have been nice they don’t truly embrace us.

  6. Awesome. Real. True for me. Words like GUILT – though we visit so often with birth family, though she was removed from their care- BECAUSE we adopted her, she is forever different and will never quite fully fit- there are no CLUBS for biracial Black/CC girls, with too much ‘family’ to explain, parents old enough to be her grandparents, siblings that don’t look the same or share a name, who were hurt in ways that take a lifetime to heal.
    – what SHE knows and feels about all of that, even at 8, is that it’s ALL MY FAULT. And as any mom- it’s a pair of work boots you put on and trudge through this mud from time to time throughout their lives.
    Another child of mine, a teen, feels so strongly right now that she was TAKEN BY me, FROM everything she thinks is missing and that she might have, could have had…and it’s heart-breaking that it’s not true- she was literally ‘left’, had no time to make any memories with her birthmom, didn’t ask to go to orphanage, the US, a family, another family, an RTC and be ‘left’ over and over- SHE didn’t ask for ANY of that, but because we ended up together- it’s ALL MY fault.
    And because I’m seasoned and worn a bit through older children who also- for NO traumatic reasons at all- claimed it was ALL MY fault- I’m cool with it. It’s a bit hard on me but none of it can EVER compare to how hard it is on them.
    I’m safe. No matter what happens today, I’ll get up and love them all over again tomorrow for my lifetime- and it’s heart-breaking because THAT STILL will NEVER be ENOUGH.
    This kind of shouldering the bad stuff must bring empathy to all our family members or our relationship and child may not survive.
    And despite ALL the therapy, talks and efforts- I WILL NEVER KNOW how it feels to have managed the challenges in their lives that would break most adults to bits!
    But like the author said SO WELL, that guilt keeps me trying. Overflowing with empathy, though I don’t know if my empathy ALONE could possibly heal them. They NEED empathy from the WORLD- and I can’t make that happen fast enough:(

  7. Noelle Brown says:

    I know I come to this post a bit late, but I found myself wandering down an internet rabbit hole this evening, and here I am. The concept of belonging to two worlds but being keenly aware that you belong to neither has been on my mind quite a lot in the last few years. I didn’t have words for it, and I didn’t have anyone that could help me identify what exactly it is I’m searching for.

    My very kind, very white Southern parents adopted me as an infant from a Costa Rican woman. I never lived in Costa Rica. The woman flew to Atlanta and gave birth to me, then flew home again. I was raised to be white, but I wasn’t. I was given no real understanding of my heritage, and my mother went out of her way to learn NOTHING about my birth family so that she wouldn’t have the image of my birth mother skewing her perspective of me belonging entirely to her. My body developed to have stereotypically latin hips and a wider nose than my very anglo family and community; my eyes are shaped differently, my lips are fuller, my skin tone distinctly a dark olive. I thought I was ugly and fat. I still get asked where I’m from, now that I’m an adult, and people look at me strangely when I say Georgia. “No, originally,” they’ll say.

    In my 20’s I found an issue of Latina magazine, and I sat down with tears on my cheeks: here were women who looked like me being portrayed as beautiful! I was amazed–I was inspired. It sparked a quest that I have to fight to stay on. I find myself attempting to identify with this world that I never knew. My mother wouldn’t so much as identify me as hispanic on medical documents when I was a child, so I struggle to feel that I even deserve to understand my hispanic heritage.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love my parents dearly. I say all this because I wanted you to know how much someone out here appreciates what you’re doing for your daughter–from the perspective of a child of a transracial adoption. You’re stronger woman than my mother was. You didn’t try to erase Bug’s history. No matter how inauthentic you may feel your attempts are, you’re giving Bug a priceless connection to who she is. I find myself feeling completely disconnected from either world; you gave her roots in both.

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