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International adoptions a touchy topic

FemaelstromAlison Osius

At a recent dinner party here in Carbondale, two among the nine or 10 children looked a little different.”What’s up with those Benge boys?” joked one mom, Joslyn, about my sons. “They’re so pale!” The other kids were a rich array of sepia tones.It used to be rare to know parents who had adopted children from other countries. Now such families are everywhere: in the airport, at the museum, at school and at chess night and soccer, a natural part of the landscape. Among my friends alone, I list adoptions from: Cambodia (three families), the Marshall Islands (two), Russia, China (three), Colombia and Brazil. One friend just brought home twins from Guatemala, and another awaits a daughter from Nepal.Others make domestic adoptions of children who look unlike themselves. One day last summer, my brother, sister and I walked with our friend Michael along a Delaware boardwalk, while the two 3-year-old boys in our party forged ahead. My sister’s son, Sam, shot off, Lucy hurrying away after him. Michael’s son Jeffrey, African-American by birth, proceeded in orderly fashion 20 paces in front of us. People glanced at Jeffrey and then around in kind concern.”People look at him and look around, for his parents,” his father, Michael, Caucasian and a single father, said. “I guess it’s understandable.”Later, Lucy asked, “How long have you had Jeffrey?””Since the day he was born,” Michael said promptly.”Oh, do you have some contact with the birth mother?””That’s Jeffrey’s story,” Michael said politely but firmly. “When he’s older, he can decide if he wants to share it.”Lucy was abashed, though she probably did not need to be. A single parent herself (whose son happens to be half Latino), she had simply wondered if the birth mother had the option of open adoption.The designation of the “child’s story,” however, is a growing way of thinking within the adoptive community.My friend Joslyn doesn’t entirely agree; for the most part, she is glad to talk about her children’s Marshallese and Cambodian origins. Another gregarious friend, Lisa, whose daughters are from Cambodia, has been equally happy to discuss their extraordinary history from halfway around the world. People are interested, excited to learn. Yet even to these open-hearted women, the accumulation of questions can wear. In some ways their reactions have changed over time.What Lisa might once have been happy to discuss with a baby in a backpack, she might not now wish to belabor, while paying for groceries, in front of an alert 4-year old. Children are sensitive observers.What is OK to ask and what’s not so good?The best question, Lisa says, is: “I’m interested in your family – is it OK to ask questions now?” Which gives her a chance, if she or her child is tired, to say, “It isn’t a good time, thanks.”And while country of origin is usually a welcome question to proud adoptive parents, “Are they sisters?,” asked in innocence but rooted in biology, is irrelevant. The answer is, “Of course they’re sisters.”Another comment to ring hollow is: “You are so good to do this.” (I’ve even heard of a tiny girl being told in a store, “You’re lucky to be here.”)”Every adoptive parent I know,” Lisa says, “thinks we’ve received the greatest gift in the world.”Many parents went through a lot to get their children, and traveled far.The children relish their stories, ask to hear them again and again. In another case, a birth mother of a newborn received so many offers that she asked all prospective parents to write letters about why they wanted to adopt. Bill and his partner wrote that they wanted to give, to love a child and share their lives, and were chosen. Today the tale is the boy’s favorite bedtime story. “Tell me again,” he always says, “how my mother picked you.”Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached ataosius@hotmail.com (write GSPI as subject heading).


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