Monday, February 1, 2010

"Mama, what's an 'orphan?'"

That's the question that came from the car's backseat in Maya's piping-high voice. "Mama, what's an 'orphan?'"

I've blogged about that word 'orphan' many times -- about how it is misused to create more adoptable children, about how legislation can make it mean whatever we want it to mean, about the baggage that comes with that word (but no one has explained that baggage better than this quote at Resist Racism: “'Orphan' is about a relationship that begins with pity. Pity is a shitty place to start.")

Though I've answered another child's question about my children, "Are they orphans," I have not defined it for my own kids. Obviously, now was the time.

"An orphan is a child whose parents have died. . . . Why do you ask?"

Maya explains that in the movie "Meet the Robinsons," which she and Zoe watched with their teenage cousins at Mimi & Grandpa's house, a little boy is left by his mom at an orphanage, and they said he was an orphan (My bad. I usually either preview movies for the girls or watch with them -- this time I was in the next room and missed this part. And how did I miss that this movie had huge honkin' adoption themes in it?!).

Zoe chimed in, "But he wasn't an orphan because he had a birth mom and was looking for her."

I explained that sometimes people will say a child is an orphan when they don't know who or where the parents are. But I agreed with Zoe that a child isn't an orphan when he has parents, even if we don't know who the parents are (no, I didn't explain about legal definitions of orphan or about half-orphans (especially since my kids only have one legal parent, and according to some that makes them half-orphans! I just love the name of this orphan care organization -- the Fatherless Foundation. Sheesh!)).

Maya asked in a tiny voice, "So am I an orphan?"

I assured her, "No, I'm your mom, so you're not an orphan. Remember, an orphan is someone whose parents have died, someone who doesn't have any parents. You have me!"

Zoe isn't going to be so easily assuaged, "But WERE we orphans? Before you adopted us?"

"No," I said, "you have birth parents, and I think they are still alive. I adopted you not because you were orphans, but because your birth parents weren't able to take care of you the way a parent wants to. We've talked before about the grown-up reasons that your birth parents couldn't raise you. I don't think that being dead was one of those reasons. Sometimes kids are adopted because they are orphans, and sometimes kids are adopted because, for grownup reasons, their birth parents can't take care of them."

There was silence as the girls digested this, and then Zoe said, sounding guilty,"You know, sometimes I don't think about my birth parents. . . ." Ah, that divided loyalty from a different direction; this time, it isn't feeling disloyal to me by thinking of birth parents, it's feeling disloyal to birth parents by not thinking of them at all.

"You didn't think about your birth parents during this movie," I asked? "Not really," said Zoe.

"That seems pretty normal to me, Zoe. We know and love so many people whom we keep in our hearts, but they can't all be in our heads at the same time! When you're at school, concentrating on learning something new or playing with your friends, I bet you don't think about me every minute, do you?" A mumbled, "no." "And that doesn't mean you love me any less, and it doesn't mean you love your birth parents any less if you don't think about them every minute of every day! You were watching the movie and playing with Patrick and William at the same time, so your head was pretty busy."

Maya jumps in at this point, as usual trying to cheer up Zoe, "Yeah, I love you, Zoe, but I don't think of you when I'm playing with Connor (her latest crush)!"

Lots of kissy-kissy noises from the back seat, and the moment passed.


Victoria said...

We don't really know whether or not they are orphans though, do we? Chances are, they had living parents who could take care of them, but most of us AP-China parents don't really know. It hasn't come up directly in our household but when it does, I'm afraid the most honest answer to "Was I an orphan" is "I don't know".

kantmakm said...

I wonder whether adoptive parents of children who get placed into an orphanage in China because their parents really are deceased (think Xinran's Little Snow) are made aware of the fact that the child *is* a true orphan?

Anonymous said...

Chances are your adoptive Chinese daughter was not an orphan when she was placed in an orphanage. She has an older sibling who is a girls. Her parents wanted a boy after having a girl as their first born. The fine for breaking the single-child policy is so steep that they would only pay for it for a boy. So there they had a second girl born. What can they do? Give them away for adoptation. This has been the most common scenario that I have seen in China in the 80s.

Anonymous said...

I think we owe our kids honesty, with what information we do have when the questions arise. Dishonesty will close the door; kids can "smell" it. Keep talking.


Melissa P said...

J loves "Meet the Robinsons" and has played over and over again the part where the main character goes back in time and watches his birthmom place him on the orphanage steps. She listened carefully to his reasoning for not interrupting the scene to try to change his own history, and I think it resonated with her. For now. :)