Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas gift

"Now those boots are for more heavy-duty hiking," the REI salesman said, "and backpacking, especially if you are carrying 30 pounds or more. They weigh a lot for use in lighter hiking." He grinned at me. "I don't want you to buy the wrong ones and come back here mad at me!"

"Okay -" I made a show of reading his name tag, "Lorenzo. I am going to hold you personally accountable!" We both laughed.

It was December 24th and I had to admit I was impressed by the casual and relaxed attitude of the staff at the suburban REI store my dad had taken me to. Andrew and I were out doing our traditional shopping-with-Dad-for-our-own-presents, which is one of my favorite days of Christmas. All of the PNW had been hit by a snowstorm, a major event for a region where the temperature rarely drops below 40, and my father arrived just in time from California in his four wheel drive to save the day. He had been ferrying my brother and I to work, taking my pregnant sister-in-law to doctor appointments, and outfitting all of his kids with proper snow gear. REI was pretty much our last stop, and the place had obviously been ransacked. We weren't the only people who suddenly thought it might be a good idea to have a backup pair of waterproof boots.

"What do you think, Dad?" I asked. "I don't know that I'm going to be backpacking anytime soon."

"I don't know," step-mom Nancy replied for him. "You're going to be carrying a baby around sometime soon, and they get pretty big eventually." She was a fan of the heavy boots.

This is an interesting part of being an expectant mother who isn't pregnant. While I'm hardly a delicate flower, I'd like to think I don't appear with child. But we talk about expecting a baby often, and publicly. At Nancy's comment Lorenzo the salesperson tactfully avoided glancing at my tummy, and kept a smile fixed on his face. "We're adopting a baby sometime in the next year," I explained. I knew I wasn't obliged to explain something that personal to this stranger, but I like being open about it.

"Oh, congratulations!" Lorenzo's face lit up. "That's so wonderful, really great." He seemed quite enthusiastic, and immediately engaged me in a discussion over which boots would be best for walking around with a kid. We ended up deciding to try the lighter ones, and he fetched them from the back room.

"Where, do you mind if I ask, where is your baby coming from?" He came back as I was lacing up the boots, despite having several other customers he could have been waiting on. Huh, I thought, nice of him to take an interest I guess.

"We're adopting domestically," I said.

"I came from Mississippi." He said shyly. "My parents got me when I was three days old, and my sister - not my biological sister, but you know, adopted - when she was just one day old." I was momentarily speechless, and felt a bit shy myself. I immediately wondered what he was thinking of us, and of all the questions I wanted to ask him. Did he regret it? Did he love his adopted parents? Did he know his bio parents? He seemed to be a well adjusted young person, but was he?

"That's great," I stammered. " I mean, is it...do you...um. Are you glad?" Argh! I was not very smooth.

"Oh yeah!" He replied quickly, smiling. "I love my parents! It's not really all that different, I was talking about it the other day with some of my friends who are adopted, too. It's about who raises you, you know?" I nodded energetically. He continued, "Anyways, I think it's really great when people adopt. It's really great that you're adopting, congrats again."

I thanked him, and we made our way to the long check-out line with my fancy new waterproof hiking boots.

I think one of the greatest fears I have going forward is that somehow adoption will screw our kid up. Which is a normal fear, I think, for any parent to have. Most parents worry about doing something that permanently scars their children, or prevents them from having a healthy and productive adult life. In all my reading about the process adopted kids go through there is a lot of focus on their grief, their challenges, their loss. Meeting Lorenzo, despite knowing nothing at all about him aside from the fact that he works at REI and smiles with his eyes, was a little reminder to me that for the most part it's not really all that different. The differences are important, and need to be respected. But 90+ percent of our experience as parents, and our child's experience as our son or daughter will be a lot like what most of humanity who isn't adopted goes through on the paths of life. And it's entirely possible to raise an adopted child who thinks it's great to be adopted, who thinks that "it's really great when people adopt."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Good Grief.

Andrew and I looked at the class schedule for the day with a decided lack of enthusiasm. It was our second day of the mandatory training weekend that is part of our agency's homestudy requirements. The list was grim: Grief and Loss in Adoption, Attachment in Adoption, Transracial Issues for the Adopted Child -and that just took us through to the lunch break.

The social worker who was teaching the first class seemed a little apologetic. Here we were, a roomful of mostly white, mostly heterosexual, mostly couples, all fired up from learning about homestudy paperwork and the different adoption programs WACAP offers. The day before had been all about our process right now: homestudies, adoption programs, costs and fees. And today? Today was apparently going to start with the cheery topic of "Grief and Loss in Adoption." Well, I thought to myself, we've already all paid our homestudy fee. I guess we can't back out now no matter how grim a picture they paint for us.

"I know this is not the most fun way to start the day," the social worker began. "But understanding what is lost and grieved in adoption is the first step towards a successful adoption." She wrote three words on the board and underlined them, making three columns. They were entitled Birth Parent, Child, Adoptive Parent. This, she told us, is the Adoption Triad, and every one of these parties experiences loss, and needs to grieve as part of the adoption process. We commenced with brainstorming what those losses might be for each party.

The first two seemed pretty easy. No child is in a position to be adopted without there being some significant losses. The biological parents are losing their child, the chance to raise that child with thier particular family history, to be involved in the day to day stuff of life as that child grows. It is a loss that I cannot begin to understand. For some parents the loss might be even more stark - for children adopted internationally especially, the birth parents might have lost thier own lives. And wherever these parents live, there is a stigma associated with bearing a child in an unstable situation, regardless of the amount of control that parent has over their own stability.

As for the child, this also seemed obvious. Everyone in our class was planning to adopt transracially, so that was one obvious loss. We were a group of white folk (plus one Pacific Islander) all looking at adoptions either from Ethiopia or the African American Infant program. So, our children will start out losing connections to their biological family and their racial and ethnic heritage. Try as we might, we won't be able to re-create exactly the experience of growing up in a home where everyone's skin is the same color, where our child can look in the mirror and see the same pair of eyes that her mommy has, or be told that he looks just like Daddy did when he was small. Again, these are losses that I cannot begin to understand. Since the class I have been putting together our profile book, the book that will be shown to birth mothers who are making their adoption plan, or considering one. As I look through our family pictures I see so many people who look like me. I can't give this to my adopted child, and I can't pretend that the lack of it won't be real to him or her.

But the class seemed stumped when we came to the third column on the board, Adoptive Parents. What are our losses? We were sitting there hoping to become parents, how is that a loss? People threw a few half-hearted suggestions out there "Sleep" was popular, as well as "personal freedom!"

"No," our instructor gently pointed out, "every parent loses those things." She asked us to think harder, noting that our bafflement was pretty normal for where we were in the process. "You are all so excited you can't think of what could possibly be a loss for you."

"Infertility?" I could tell from the subtle nods that the woman who said it wasn't the only person in our class who knew something about that sort of loss. But no, our instructor wouldn't take that either.

"If you are here, we expect that you've dealt with your grief about infertility, or that you have mechanisms to do so," she said. "Adoption is not a way to deal with infertility, it is its own separate process." This shut us all up.

"Privacy." I didn't notice who said it, but immediately my ears perked up. Our social worker smiled and wrote it on the board under all three columns. That made sense. We're choosing to build a family that won't blend in with the vast majority of other families in the world. Everywhere we go together, people who see us with our child will know something sort of private about us - how we came to be a family. This is something that we will feel, and that eventually our children will feel. And our loss of privacy isn't confined to after we get our baby. By choosing adoption we are also choosing to involve a lot of people we don't know in the intimate details of our marriage, of our family life. Andrew and I have filled out forms about our finances, answered detailed and lengthy questions about our childhoods, courtship, and our own life together. We've sent our fingerprints to the FBI and given out our social security numbers. We scrubbed our house from top to bottom and had it inspected by a social worker with the power to yay or nay our hopes for becoming parents.

Adoptive parents also lose the illusion of being able to provide everything their child needs. Our child will need to know things about his or her biological family, mentoring on how to be a member of his or her racial community, and adult role models from that community. S/he will have a markedly different experience of the world than I do, and while parents of biological children might be able to fantasize that they will hold all the answers, and be able to provide for all of what their children need to grow up strong, centered, and healthy in the world, adoptive parents lose that fantasy.

The Grief and Loss class, and the materials I've been reading since then, were a good wake-up call about some of the less idyllic realities of adoption. So the question we're left with is this: How do we grieve these losses, and help our child grieve his or hers? What does it mean to start our family this way, in the midst of inevitable grief and loss?

I'm sure we'll discover answers to these questions, as we live through them. Going forward now I just remind myself that all families experience grief and loss. Choosing to love anyone means losing some part of yourself to be invested in their life. Choosing to parent a child means that, and more. Adoptive parenting means that in order to be responsible we will need to face these harsh realities, and more, we will need to teach our child how to face them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Welcome to A+A adopt a Baby!

I suppose introductions are in order. This is the blog of one white couple as we go through the process of adopting our first child. We're adopting through WACAP, see the link section, through their domestic African-American Infant adoption program. Since this is the very first post there are actually no Frequently Asked Questions, but we did just finish a homestudy process, and I'll do what I can to summarize what I feel are the most FAQ's we had to answer through that process, and so far as we've started talking about adopting with friends and family.

Who is A+A?
Our names are Alissa and Andrew, hence the A+A acronym. Without the + we end up getting confused with Alcoholics Anonymous. Alissa is the main blogger here, and since I don't intend to phrase every entry using "we" or to speak of myself in the third person it is safe to assume that I'm the one writing unless stated otherwise. I work for a major state university, and am also in training to become an Episcopal Priest. Andrew is a musician, ex-electrician, future respiratory therapist and current movie expert. We live in a multicultural urban neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.

Why are you adopting?
Like any prospective adoptive parents, our reasons for adopting are fairly straightforward and can be boiled down to this: we want to be parents! We've always wanted adoption to be one of the ways we build our family.

Why are you adopting domestically/transracially?
There are a number of reasons we're going the route that we are. Some are practical: international adoption is out of our price range, for example. Some are ideological: we want to provide our child with an open adoption and a real connection to his or her biological heritage, we want to adopt a child who really needs us, and there are more children of color needing homes than white children. And some of our reasons are private.

What is WACAP's African American Infant Adoption Program?
I've put a link to the information web page for the program here on the blog. Basically the way this program works is that our agency (WACAP) pools together prospective adoptive parents who are hoping/willing to adopt an infant of color. They do their best to find parents of color, but the fact of the matter is that there are more white people in a position to adopt. WACAP trains these parents, helps them put together profiles, and then provides these profiles to a number of adoption agencies around the country who do not have enough prospective parents for non-white children. This way when a woman comes in to those agencies looking to make an adoption plan for her non-white baby she can have as many profiles to choose from as a mother of a white baby would.

Are you worried about raising a child who is of a different race than you?
In short, yes. Anyone who is realistic about this sort of adoption should be worried! We know that we're embarking on something unpredictable, something that will be impossible to prepare for. But - so is everyone who becomes a parent! It is our hope that through constantly educating ourselves and our child we will be able to provide a strong, good, loving, and sensitive home for our child. One of the advantages of adopting transracially, at least from my point of view here at the very beginning of the process, is that we already know what some of the huge challenges will be. Maybe people who have a biological child can harbor fantasies about a perfect family and perfect home life. Adoption by definition starts with a loss - someone loses a child, and someone loses a biological parent, and someone loses the experience of having a biological connection the child they raise. Since we know from the start that our family won't fit in to a lot of the models out there for the "perfect" family, we can work on being the family that we are, instead.

Okay - those are the FAQ's for now! Feel free to add more in the comments!