Monday, September 24, 2012

The difficult language of adoption

Me and Mekdes, in her orphanage, looking at photos of our family.
I've spoken before about how I feel as if I'm on the outside of adoption culture itself, in spite of personally having four adopted children.  I find I don't primarily identify myself as an "adoptive mom" (although I am), nor do I typically seek out other adoptive parents in an effort to find community or solidarity.  This is perhaps in part because some of my dearest friends are adoptive parents, so maybe I've already found "my people."  But it's also probably because adoptive parents vary as much as anyone else does in terms of worldview, values, philosophies on raising children and the like.

Even being on the outside, I am still part of the adoption world.  I read the written-by-an-expert-articles and the popular blogposts and observe the assorted controversies.  From afar.  And, it does not escape my notice that certain words or phrases are accepted in some circles, while rejected in others.  One of these words that I've been thinking about lately is the r-word: "rescued."  Some adoptive parents prefer to focus on how they "saved" their child in adopting them, while others vehemently reject this paradigm and insist that the child has blessed them more than the other way around, and that it's not much different from having birthed the child themselves.

For a long time I was 100% in the latter camp.  I hated to see the mentality that presented adoptive parents as having done a great and selfless deed by giving a hurting child a home.  And I still do, to some degree.  But having been an adoptive mom now for nearly seven years, and having visited my kids' orphanage three different times within that seven years, and after meeting each and every one of my childrens' birth mothers, I have a more nuanced view of adoption in general.  Which basically amounts to, "it's complicated."  This grid through which to view adoption hinges primarily on the fact that it's not really an understanding at all, but more an acknowledgement of the complex web of struggles and issues surrounding the relinquishment and subsequent classification of a child as an orphan.

I've come to see that orphans are vulnerable, whether they are two-parent orphans or not, and whether they live in a child-headed household, in a sewer, with a relative, or in an orphanage.  And this is precisely where the compulsion to talk about saving a child comes in.  Because removing a precious soul, no matter how old, from a situation where they have been exposed to the risk of sexual abuse, neglect, and intimidation is in a very real sense rescuing that child.  On the other hand, be it far from me to take any credit for giving any of my adopted children a fairytale ending to a traumatic start in life--because that beginning remains a part of them, and no child who has lost their birth parents and culture, who has potentially been exploited and hurt, ought to feel indebted to anyone for doing what should have been done in the first place: protecting them.

So like with many things, I find myself hanging out in the tension of knowing my children are fortunate in one sense, to have been given a safe place to land and an opportunity for a future, and unlucky in another because they lost their first parents due to horrible circumstances.  And they will of course live with some of those scars.  On a day to day basis, I tend towards focusing more on the fact that they are simply children who had an unideal beginning.  I don't think much about the big-picture of how my husband and I factored into their story.  Nor do I use the word "rescued" when referring to my kids.  Ever.

But then, sometimes, the gravity of what it means to be an orphan (in any culture--including our own) hits me.  Generally it's when I hear a story or read something like thisAnd the first thing that runs through my mind is, good grief, these kids need to be rescued.  Yep, I used the r-word.  It's mind-numbing to consider such precious children with broken souls and frail bodies.  I find myself thinking that they need an advocate, a hero, someone who will charge headlong into the world of undiagnosed syndromes and cerebral palsy and autism and malnourishment.  It doesn't have to be a saint or The Best Parent in the World.  Just someone open to raising a child with some extra challenges.  And it's no small feat, but it's doable. 

I find my mind wandering to the what ifs...

What if each and every church rose up and encouraged just one couple in their midst, who felt called to adoption, to take one of these children?  What if each and every faithful Catholic took it upon themselves to examine the meaning of openness to life in this context?

And it is at this point when I typically start getting scared, because oh my goodness I'm starting to sound like one of those people that talks about rescuing kids, and suddenly I'm morphing into an obnoxious adoption cheerleader while ignoring that complex web of issues that I oh-so-cooly referenced earlier.

And what about my own adopted children, who deserved to be raised by their biological parents, who I refuse to acknowledge needed saving?

All of that flies out the window when I look into the faces of starving and drugged fourteen-year-olds that weigh 15 pounds.  I start to forget all about the statistics and the proper language and the socially acceptable way to refer to things.  Because all that seems to run through my head is, "This is crap."  These boys and girls, being systematically tortured and neglected while dying a slow, excruciating death in a place that more closely resembles a horrific psychological experiment than a home for abandoned children.  It is darkness, and it is evil.  It is sin in one of its purest manifestations.

I know of course that I cannot fix it.  I know that I am not being called upon at this time to pursue the adoption of one of these children, because I am presently needed by my own little ones, to a degree that prevents me from taking more on right now.  And, I also know that it is a complex web of issues.  Or something.  Okay I don't really know anything except that these kids are not being treated with the dignity they deserve, which is of course true of many people around the globe, but it seems particularly horrible in the case of a teenager who is confined to a crib for years and years.

Of course I can advocate for these children, encourage others to consider whether adoption might be a part of their family landscape, and use my small voice to express a big injustice.  But in the end, I must also simply believe that God is present in these places, that He is grieved by what is happening and that His mercy is unending.  Even for these seemingly forgotten children.

As for me, I live in the here and now, and so this adoption thing is a tightrope act for us, in how we conceptualize and discuss the whole matter.  My kids are not charity cases, they are not the luckiest people in the world, and we are not heroes.  At the same time, they are fortunate to be out of an orphanage where known perpetrators of abuse also lived.  They are fortunate to have landed at that orphanage, period.  They now have the potential for a long life that they simply did not have before, not as orphans in a developing country.  My two daughters with Down syndrome in particular have a shot at a safety within the confines of a family who loves and protects them.  They are extra vulnerable and will continue to be over the course of their respective lives.

And yet I still am not comfortable with the word "rescue" in reference to my kids--at the end of the day, I think that children deserve to kids, not kids that we pity or who owe us something.  But I'll probably talk that way sometimes about the many orphans still living without families, who are being drugged, abused, neglected or deposited into mental asylums to die.  Surely they need to be rescued.  And I understand why parents do elect to speak that way about their kids, if they wish, because in a sense it is absolutely true.  One of my kids' birthmothers in particular saw it as such.  Which was awful and humbling, but it's how she perceived the matter.

The language of adoption is difficult.  I am convinced that the ultimate reason why is that we are attempting to give words to ideas and situations that are painful, laced with brokenness, and rooted in the tragic reality of what happens when the fundamental building block of any society, the family, deteriorates.  The protectors lose the ability to protect, the marriage union (if ever it existed) is torn apart by death or poverty or divorce, and children are left vulnerable and alone.  Is it any wonder then that we grasp to articulate the situation?  Should we be surprised that there is no simple or ideal way to describe our child's plight?

As adoptive parents, we of course don't have the luxury of turning off the TV or computer and returning to sweet and simple daily life where the words flow easily.  We must instead continue muddling through that complex web of issues I keep talking about, even if our own family is presently free of death, disease and dissolution.  Because those things remain part of our child's story, and as such are now part of our daily vocabulary.  Even if we fail to find just the right words to describe it all.


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