Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


"Nearly 60% of Americans are personally connected to someone who is either adopted, has adopted, or has relinquished a child to be adopted."
-- Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

I read this statistic, which runs at the end of Barb Lee's documentary, Adopted (2008), and started counting in my head: ten cousins, two college roommates, one graduate school friend and two colleagues who are adopted, plus four other friends who have adopted children themselves. Two of my sons' four cousins are adopted. Yes, indeed, I am one of that 60%, and my life is certainly richer for it, but watching Adopted made me think that perhaps I take these riches too lightly.

Adopted tells the story of two families. First we meet Jennifer Fero, a thirty-two year old Korean woman adopted as an infant by an Oregon couple who experienced secondary infertility after having a son; the second storyline follows John and Jacqui Trainer, a New Hampshire couple who decide to adopt from China after their own long struggle with infertility. The two families are at opposite ends of their adoption journeys. Jennifer is finally confronting the grief she has felt her entire life over being given up for adoption, and is pushing her elderly parents to recognize her complicated mix of feelings: gratitude for the family they gave her, sorrow at the family she lost. The Trainers, meanwhile, overflow with optimism as they receive their referral and journey to China to claim their daughter. They acknowledge the losses she has already suffered (first her birth mother, then her Chinese foster mother) but life with their toddler is still simple; "if she has an underlying issue," John Trainer says, "she's not making it known."

It's not hard to like the Trainers. They're earnest and loving, somewhat rueful that they couldn't have biological children -- "I thought we'd make great babies," says Jacqui; "Awesome babies," amends her husband -- but they're ready to move on. Jacqui was studying up on adoption regulations in different countries, weighing the pros and cons of each, when, Jacqui recalls, John said, "'Let's do China,' and I said, 'OK.' It just felt right." Jacqui is excited but anxious before they travel to China; she feels sad for the birth mother, and acknowledges that her child's birthday will always be a grieving day for the birth mother. But everything goes well in China, and their daughter, whom they name Roma XinPei, adjusts so well to life in New Hampshire that Jacqui's collection of books on attachment issues gathers dust: "she's made it so easy." Both John and Jacqui acknowledge that more difficult days may come, that she may well face racism in her homogeneous community, that she may still grieve for China, but are confident in how to manage it: "the thing we can do is just give her as much love as possible."

Jennifer Fero asserts that love is not enough. Her parents, like the Trainers, are well-meaning and kind, and they describe their decision to adopt as lightly as the Trainers chose their adoption country. As Judy tells it, her husband said, "'Let's get a baby girl from Holtz [the adoption agency]' and [she] said, 'Sounds great!'" Judy still remembers picking their daughter up at the airport more vividly than birthing her son. She sighs, "We're just a family. After about the first three or four days, she was so much a part of us and has always been, and I never thought of her as anything else but my daughter." But Jennifer isn't satisfied with her family's easy acceptance because, to her, it glosses over the question -- one a biological child never has to consider -- of why she had to be accepted in the first place. Now faced with Judy's imminent death from cancer, she's struggling to deepen their connection.

We see that Jennifer Fero is well-loved; her older brother teases her fondly but also pulls her into a hug and tells the filmmaker, "That's far enough for her today," when an interview gets difficult. We see her enveloped in big family gatherings, where she offers her bemused uncle some squid salad, and says lightly, "It's the food of my people!" And we see that she loves her family deeply, too; she has taken leave from her job to live with her frail parents, cleaning their house and adjusting what she cooks depending on the answer to the question, "How's your stomach, Mom?" Love isn't at issue here; it's never in doubt. As Jennifer says, "People keep asking me what I want in these conversations that people don't want to have. I want my whole identity, my whole life. It is not rejection of the family, it's just being authentic and real." It's what we all want for ourselves, of course, and while I don't think Jennifer would claim that adoption makes this impossible, adoption can make this trickier. "Everyone has a birth story, and my birth story starts at the Seattle Airport. My life began before that; why haven't we talked about that before?" She regrets that the little girl she was didn't have the words to express her confusion about her adoption, but now she's grown and articulate, ready to talk. It's a conversation the Trainers anticipate having with their little girl whenever she is ready.

The couple is full of optimism about what the future holds, yet they can't help but look a little naive after we're exposed to Jennifer Fero's smart, searching questions. It's unfortunate -- we're all naive about the challenges parenting brings (I don't think any of us would become parents otherwise!) -- but perhaps it's unavoidable. The film doesn't emphasize the contrast between the two families, though, and I felt equally compassionate toward them both. So Jennifer remarks of her parents' reaction to her probing, "They've started their journey; they just don't know it's their journey yet." And then the film cuts to the Trainers packing for their quite literal journey, trying to figure out how to fit so much clothing and food into the bags they're bringing to China. Yet even this act is a little fraught, as Jacqui frets that the clothes won't fit her daughter, her mother-knowledge "not intimate yet."

Jennifer's parents, both suffering from cancer and increasingly frail, allow both the filmmaker's camera and their daughter to seek this intimacy. Judy Fero, although grateful to Jennifer's birth mother, doesn't particularly want to think about her, and admits to no curiosity about her life: "I don't want to be curious about it," she finally says, exasperated, "I want you all to myself." "You'll actually get more of me," Jennifer responds, articulating each word slowly and carefully, "if you imagine that I was connected to someone else at one time." It's hard to sympathize with Jennifer in scenes like this; her mother is dying and still she pushes. But in the same moment I think, her mother is dying, and she wants to connect. My ambivalence moves me toward more sympathy.

Adopted has made me think differently, more sensitively, about my adoption connections. Before I met my adopted cousins, my family lived in Japan, where I was born, and when my older brother and I squabbled, the worst thing he could say to me was, "We didn't have you when we came to this country; I'm not sure we're taking you home." I would look at his fair hair and delicate features, which, I now see, resemble our grandfather, and would say the meanest thing I could imagine in response: "You don't look like the rest of us; I think you're adopted." I cringe now at the four-year-old version of me who said that; I wonder what stew of fairy tales and Disney even put this negative impression of adoption in my head. When I was a bit older, I "knew better" -- I didn't mention the fact of their adoption with my cousins; most of the time, honestly, I didn't think about it. But now I realize that wasn't quite the right response, either. I think about nine year-old Jennifer Fero, who had questions she couldn't articulate, and little Roma XinPei Trainer, who might grow into some questions of her own, and am grateful for a film that doesn't try to offer any easy answers, but shows a couple of close families who keep themselves open to whatever questions may come.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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For a useful theological perspective on all this, it's worth noting that St. Paul insists that Christians are able to call God "Father" because they have been adopted through baptism (cf. Romans 8:13 & 23, 9:4, Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5). We are not children of God by nature, but by adoption - but that means we didn't just happen; we were chosen. In the same way, adopted children have an edge over those not adopted, that they have been deliberately chosen to be objects of parental love.
Many adoptions involve domestic, rather than overseas arrangements, yet they may be just as random and fraught with identity crises. We became foster parents while raising four bio children. In our pre-licensing training, social services clearly separated "pre-adoptive" from "temporary" caregivers, warning us temps not to look for a "back door to adoption." Yet over 25 years, we fostered 37 children, and adopted 8 of them. As theologians say, "circumstances alter cases." My anthropologist husband insists that we maintain connections between the children and their birth parents. (In some cases, vistation was mandated for several years until adoptions became final.) "It would be a terrible thing to hate your mother," he says, even as plans for reunification failed, lifestyles clashed, siblings were born and placed elsewhere. As they grow, each child learns to live in our family and in a parallel universe of relatives who we see or hear from on birthdays and holidays. It isn't easy, but fate and doubts are diminished, and our lives are richer for it.
Only 60%? I thought it would be a lot higher. I wonder if it's because adoptions used to be less talked about 40 years ago so older generations might not know that they are acquainted with people who have been a part of the adoption process.
To Chris who posted lovingly about all children of God being adopted, I would ask that you embrace the FULL essence of adoption. Adopted children may be chosen from the perspective of their adoptive parents, but from THEIR perspective...well, Jen Fero's final thought says it best. She says, "You can sugarcoat the adoption story about how much you wanted her, or how much you paid for her, but you only got her because she was ABANDONED. And she knows that at a younger age than you can ever imagine." If you do not concede the irreparable grief and pain that adoptees endure, you will never have a truly intimate relationship with an adopted child - especially one your own. Please Chris, tell the good along with the sad in adoption stories. It's the only way to build trust and intimacy with those of us who had to lose so much to have a shot at something better.
Ditto what Barb said to Chris. In order to be "deliberately chosen," one must first be "deliberately UNchosen," or relinquished, and to leave that part of the story out is to do a disservice to the deep complexity that adoption is.
I haven't yet seen this film, but it is interesting to me that there was no mention of the birthparent perspective being included, perhaps because it is about adoptions where there isn't much information on their locations. I am a birthmom and would like to just add that I have not ever forgotten the birth of my daughter, and I am not living in a foreign country. Often times it seems that no one really wants to think about us, perhaps because it is just too sad. There is loss in every adoption, whether or not people want to think about it. I lost my daughter because I was young and didn't have the resources to parent her. Most likely,the women (and men) in China or Korea lost their children because of poverty. It is a difficult truth to acknowledge that loss for both the birthparents and the adoptees who are missing a vital part of their identity.
Amy, I wish we did know the perspective of Roma's birthparent, but in her situation, she was abandoned and there is no record of who her parents were or why they abandoned her. The closest we are able to peer into Roma's life prior to her adoption is our correspondence with Roma's foster mom; a wonderful, caring woman from Nanning. As Roma's birthday quickly approaches, Jacqui and I are thinking about her birthparents and who they are, are they celebrating the birth of the most incredible little girl I have ever known, and are they grieving over the loss of someone they may never see again.
As a single woman who is seriously considering adoption, I really appreciated the insights that this documentary gave me into transracial/transcultural adoption. I can see how important it would be to ask the difficult questions and be open to the painful answers from your child after watching this documentary. I wish Jennifer had had more time to express herself to her parents and hope she has found some peace.
to the Trainers: We adopted from Nanning in 1999, and today our daughter J is 18yo. I just saw the film (1st time) tonight, and may ask her to sit and watch it with me. Sadly, J seems to have very little capacity or interest in understanding her own adoptive history. She is perhaps the least reflective person I know (in all areas) which concerns me greatly for her future. But we hope to see emotional growth in her as she enters young adulthood, and plan to take a trip with her to Guangxi in the next few years. Trust Roma (and sibling?) are doing well! R in SL
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