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.