Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Cautionary Tale for Adoptive Parents

The story of a search for identity, about Nisha, adopted as an infant from India, now 26 years old and going back to India to search for her birth mother -- a must-read for adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents who think the "same-as" narrative works, that all one need do is raise an adoptive child the same as a child born to you.

For adoptive parents who think “culture-keeping/heritage-teaching” isn’t worth the trouble:

“It used to be, regardless of their original culture or their skin colour, this child is truly yours,” says Kate Emery, the senior India programme coordinator for adoption agency MAPS Worldwide. But now, Nisha’s generation, adopted in the 1980s and 1990s, feels this was a mistake. “They need to know their culture,” says Emery.

It’s a thought that never occurred to Nisha’s parents. “I didn’t know any Indian people,” her father says. “And I guess I probably wouldn’t have known how to approach them even if I did. Would I say, ‘You know, my daughter’s Indian. Would you mind if she hangs out with you?’”

Though she didn’t realize it as a child, it bothered Nisha when she grew up and realized she had never been exposed to her own culture. She resented her parents for never trying to teach her about where she came from. The resentment bore down on her and when it was time to pick a college four years ago, she moved miles away from her family in Sacramento to San Diego. When she finally told her parents how she felt two years ago, they were shocked, unaware of how much pain the adoption had caused her.

. . . for adoptive parents who think color-blind works, that race doesn’t matter to their child, that knowing other "brown girls" isn't important:

Nisha, now a petite 26-year-old with a quick smile, was adopted from Goa by an all-white family at the age of six months and raised in “the white part of America”, as her father Randy puts it. The couple never taught Nisha anything about her birth country or culture, though they did retain her name and abided by one request the birth mother had made: never to cut Nisha’s hair. She didn’t cut it until she went to college. Stephanie says she figured “everyone would love each other” and that would be enough for Nisha to adjust to her adopted life in the US.

It wasn’t, though. . . . When she started searching for her own identity, as all young adults do, she struggled more than most. In her adoptive family she saw no answers, no history, not even a common physical appearance. Was she Indian or American? What tied her family together? What did it mean that she looked so different from her mother and sister and father? The questions left Nisha full of doubts about who she is and where she fits into the world around her. And, in her search to find herself, she pushed away the family that has so much to do with who she is.

* * *

When Nisha was 11, her family moved to a new neighbourhood in Sacramento. On her first day at gym, another student, Reena Ray, spotted her from across the room. “I remember seeing this girl,” Ray says, “and she was the darkest, littlest thing in the room, but she was wearing this T-shirt with strawberries on it and matching socks. And then out of her mouth comes the biggest valley girl voice ever.”

Nisha, who still has that distinct Californian accent, says she was instantly attracted to Ray—another small, dark-skinned girl. . . . Ray’s elder sister, Sharmila, became close to Nisha as well. The girls formed a multicultural group of friends. And suddenly, Nisha’s family — her mother, father and sister — felt left out and different. Randa [Nisha’s sister, biological child of her adoptive parents] says Nisha created her own family. She kept waiting for Nisha to come back to their family, but Nisha never did.

. . . for adoptive parents who don’t want to talk about birth family, who believe their children don’t think about birth family:

But Nisha still feels alone; missing a mother she could only imagine all her life, from bits she picked up from her parents’ stories. One particular thing Nisha clings to, a reason she thinks her birth mother would want to be found, is a letter that arrived at the Grayson home on Nisha’s first birthday. “My darling Nisha baby, I will always love you,” it began.

“From time to time over the years, I would find the card around the house, and I would know Nisha had been looking at it,” says Stephanie, who speaks with the wrenching love of a mother who can no longer protect her child from pain. She also speaks with the pain of knowing that no matter how good the intention, she caused some of that hurt. She tells me that Nisha’s birth mother lived at the orphanage before the birth and stayed with Nisha for some time after she was born.

When I ask Nisha about this story over coffee a few days later, she starts crying. “I never knew that!” she says. “Just the thought that she stayed, that she did really care for me, that it was hard for her, means a lot. I know she wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t have to, which is why I don’t hate her for it. But to think that she stayed. . . .”

* * *

She has got her mother’s name tattooed across her hip. “I want it to be a homage,” she says. And, perhaps, in a way, it’s a recognition that even if she never does find her birth mother, she can still answer the question of who she is herself.

Click here to read the whole thing.

This is in no way an indictment of Nisha's parents, who didn't have the advantage we do now of having heard from adult international/transracial adoptees about how these missing things affected them. We have no excuses.

Nor am I suggesting that if we only "do the right things" our children won't feel loss, grief, pain, that our children won't distance themselves from us in their search for identity, that we have somehow "failed" if our children search for birth family. I'm only suggesting that as adoptive parents we can help or we can hinder when our children search for identity, deal with adoption loss, grief, and pain, look for connections to birth family and birth culture/heritage. It is their search, their journey. But we shouldn't be the road blocks.


Joanne said...

I am actually going to print out this post ~ it's SO important to us to celebrate Mia's beautiful culture ~ I truly LOVED China and I know Mia will know how I feel just by seeing my face when I talk to her about China. It is just so hard not to be able to take away some of the hurt she will eventually experience ~ I have been making copies of documents for Mia's readoption and my heart has been SO heavy reading thru everything. I wish I could protect her and I want to say and do everything right! I know I cannot and your blog helps me (and I'm sure others) SO SO much -
thank you!

Jeff and Madeline said...

You hit it, we have no excuse.