Birth Country Connections For Families with International Adoption
There are many, many times when parenting adopted children is just ordinary, challenging, rewarding mothering or fathering. However, there are several aspects of adoptive parenting that are different, and one is the normal and necessary task of helping children make connections to their heritage.
Heritage is the legacy given to us through our biological roots. Adopted children—unless adopted by relatives—do not share genes and ancestors with their parents. They have their own unique heritage. Many children, especially those who have been adopted internationally, bring the additional gift of a different ethnic heritage, making their families multicultural. It is one of the great joys of international adoption, and one that can be celebrated proudly.
Parents look for ways to put their children in touch with their birth culture and country. They may buy books, attend festivals, search out music, art, cuisine, and friendships which can help incorporate their children’s ethnic heritage into the mix of heritages that already exist in the extended family.
As much as parent enjoy these connections, it is important to remember that they are essential for the children’s well-being. A strong sense of cultural identification and pride contributes to healthy self-esteem and adjustment. The foundations for this are set in early childhood, but are often relied on heavily in adolescence to boost youngsters into early adulthood with a sense of satisfaction about who they are, where they came from, and ultimately, where they are going.
Family and the Birth Country
Most parents who adopted internationally have no connections to their children’s birth families, although openness is certainly in the wind throughout the U.S. and it seems to be spreading to some countries abroad as well. In the absence of comprehensive information about birth families, most substitute their children’s birth country as the source of information about their heritage. This can be a positive, rewarding connection, but it can skew the emotional ties that their children feel toward the land and its people.
Parents should be aware that the birth country, serving as the birth mother in abstentia, may create a wide range of emotions, including pride, anger, love, hate, fantasy, and fear. Parents need to consider this when they measure their children’s expressed interest in learning about their birth country and when they try to determine what connections are best at what time.
Because of the birth country’s double layer of importance, parents also need to be particularly aware of how their children are learning and feeling about it. Children may be discussing the country in social studies or history, or current events may create a focus on one aspect of the country. Some people may express generalizations that are highly inaccurate or hurtful. Just as children’s concept of themselves as adoptees is greatly influenced by how adoption is viewed by those around them, their perception of their birth country, and consequently their birth family, can be impacted by the opinions and statements of others.
These complexities challenge parents to plan for long-term efforts to help their children learn about their birth countries. As children grow up, they can be helped to recognize that ALL countries have positive and negative aspects. They can learn how history, culture, language, and conflict have shaped the customs and beliefs held by the people in their country. Children will develop a greater regard for their birth country if they are helped to know it in depth, similar to the kind of knowledge they will gain about the U.S. by living here. They will be better equipped to understand their individual adoption stories, their identity, and their heritage if they can put these in the context of the culture of their birth country.
To help children gain this level of understanding, many parents consider returning to the children’s birth countries for a visit. What is right for THEIR family and THEIR child may not be right for the next family. There is no one size fits all, as children bring their own unique adoption story, memories, emotional resources, personality, and needs to each situation. The Center for Adoption Support & Education, Inc. has created the following questionnaire to help parents look at some of their many choices for connecting to the birth country, while considering what is best for each of their children and what is comfortable for their family.
PARENT CONSIDERING BIRTH COUNTRY CONNECTIONS
©The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc.
I. How has your family handled communication about adoption and your child’s adoption story up until this point?
- How much have you shared of what you know?
- How often does your child express interest in his story and curiosity to know more?
- How well does he understand his country? The culture? The differences? What is his opinion of them?
- Can you discuss sexuality openly with your child? Can you address any decisions, social mores, or political situations that led to placement? Does your child feel free to raise questions that he knows you find difficult to answer?
- Is your child interested? Would he feel more comfortable with the connections you plan if he could talk to someone about his feelings?
- Are your interests taking over? Is that a problem, or will your child become enthusiastic, too?
- Why do you think this is the right time to go?
- Assuming that any connections you make will help your child to learn more about the lives of other people in his country, what is the reality for those children? Is your child comfortable with that reality or does it bother him? Does he have a frame of reference in the United States, for example, will this be his first exposure to the “2nd world” or to poverty or obvious differences in how to handle social issues? How will he related to the conditions and ways of living in his country? What is his capacity for empathy?
- Does your child have fantasies about the country or the birth parents that could be very wrong and need to be discussed?
- Have you ever asked your child to update his birth parents, i.e., consider where they are today, some years after his birth, and help him to form a realistic picture of how they might live today?
- What is his temperament and ability to handle emotionally-laden experiences? Does he have fears about the trip that you know about?
- Does he share his true feelings with you, or hold them inside?
- If you travel to the birth country, will it be the first time that your family has been in another country recently? How well does your child travel?
- Can you handle unpredictable negatives and positives?
- How might your child regard your status as his parent when he sees others who appear more like him? How will he regard his status in his country?
- Is your child going through other stresses, at school or in peer relationships, that make him more vulnerable when new challenges are presented?
- How do siblings feel about a trip to your child’s country, for example? Consider some of the questions above in relation to your child’s siblings.
- If you have more than one child through adoption, how might the children compare their adoption stories, their birth countries? Will this rivalry be heightened by the connections you plan? How will you help your children with these feelings?
- How does your extended family feel about the connections you plan to make? Have you helped them to know how to talk with your child about those connections in ways that respect your child’s heritage and still claim him as part of your family, too?
- Will there be an experienced social worker on the trip that can help your child to process the roller coaster of emotions of reunion?
- Do YOU have a way to discuss choices or challenges that evolve from a reunion?
- Have you considered how to help sibling cope with the reunion, particularly if they are unable to have a reunion, as well?
- When you return to the United States, will there be support for your child regarding the reunion itself, as well as the ongoing relationship which may evolve?
Lists of all of these organizations are available through the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC) at http://www.childwelfare.gov or 888-251-0075.
Family dynamics such as relationships with parents and siblings and separation anxiety >>
The classroom and relationships with peers and role models>>
Identity, Heritage and Belonging>>
International adoption and siblings with different adoptive backgrounds>>