Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Cheri Register

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Cheri Register, the mother of two daughters adopted from Korea, first wrote about international adoption in her book, Are Those Kids Yours? Her latest book, Beyond Good Intentions: A Mother Reflects on Raising Internationally Adopted Children, is a series of essays about her experiences as the mother of internationally adopted children. Register, also the author of Packinghouse Daughter, writes and teaches creative nonfiction in Minneapolis. In an interview with freelance writer Lisa MB Simons, Cheri discusses international adoption, the ideas behind the books, and the art of the essay.

Lisa MB Simons: What sparked the idea for your first adoption book, Are Those Kids Yours?

Cheri Register: I had been asking a lot of questions all through the process of adopting my daughters. In orientation meetings and the pre-adoptive counseling, I asked why there were so many kids coming from Korea, Colombia, India, and certain other countries. What was going on in those countries that made it necessary for them to be sent abroad for adoption? I also wanted to discuss the ethics, especially about what it meant for us, as rich Westerners, to be adopting children from poor countries. That conversation was just not part of the pre-adoptive counseling at that time. Nobody provided answers to those questions. We talked about how we would handle certain things, like racial differences, but we didn't talk about the ethics of it. Once my kids got to elementary school and I had time to think about it, I thought it was about time that someone made the ethics of international adoption a public discussion.

LS: Fifteen years later, you wrote Beyond Good Intentions. How did the idea for this book originate?

CR: This book had a couple different origins. First, I had become involved in an informal group we just call The Moms. We're a small group of women, mothers of teenage or adult children adopted from Korea, who meet for breakfast every two weeks. We found there was a lot in common to our kids' experiences and to our families' experiences that didn't get covered in the adoption literature.

The other thing that instigated the writing of the book was my experience at the Korean Adoptee and Adoptive Family Network's annual national conference here in Minneapolis in 2002. I was invited to do a workshop that would be a retrospective on Are Those Kids Yours? Almost immediately after I arrived, I sensed a tension in the room between the adult adoptees and some of the adoptive parents. I was really surprised. The adoptive parents didn't like what they were hearing from the adult adoptees. If there was any criticism of how they were raised, if there was any criticism of adoption, the parents as a group would get very defensive. Also, the adult adoptees had scheduled some sessions that were open to adoptees only, because they wanted to talk to each other about their own concerns without parents present. Being excluded from those sessions aggravated some of the parents. Young adults think independently, they see the world differently from the way you see it, and that's what was happening there. All these children were leaving these parents behind.

Parents of younger children who felt defensive said, "You know, we're doing things the right way. Why are you mad at us? If you don't like what we're doing, then tell us how to do it better. If you won't let us into your sessions, we can't learn anything from you." At that point, I decided there needed to be some discussion of these same issues that the adult adoptees were raising, but in a parental voice speaking to parents, so that the conversation didn't just become divisive.

LS: What makes your book different from other adoption books?

CR: It's not a book of advice, which is frustrating to some parents who read it; they want simple answers on how to do this. I wrote it, instead, as essays where I raise the questions and try to generate a discussion about them without coming up with answers. I raise questions about some of the given truths on how to raise adopted kids. There are some lessons that we learn through the process of adopting and beyond, that can easily get simplified. We talk, for instance, about how we have to give our children a sense of their cultural heritage, but we don't talk about the fact that we can't really do that. It's impossible because it's not our cultural heritage. What do we do to make up for that? How do we enable the children to learn about their cultural heritage without always getting in the way and interpreting and misinterpreting it for them? I wanted to take those simple truths and make them complex again and stir people to think about them.

LS: What has been the response of the international adoption community to your book?

CR: It's too early to say, I think. It gets fairly polarized responses. People either really welcome it and say, "Oh, I'm so glad this is here. Everybody needs to read this." Or they receive it in a very negative way; they think that I'm belittling adoptive parents. I've seen some serious misreading of the book. I think the negativity is mostly from people who are right in the thick of it, or especially people whose kids haven't hit adolescence yet, because when that happens, these issues get much larger.

The book has been well received by many social workers and adoption agency workers who say they needed this book and they'd like to hand it out to parents. They are aware, however, that some of the parents will just close it, or they'll read it very selectively. I understand that. When I was going through the process, there were things that I would ignore. For one thing, I thought I was really knowledgeable about race because I had come of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and I was involved in that. I thought, I can take care of this. I didn't know how ignorant I was, especially about how racism affects Asian-Americans, so I had a lot to learn. If somebody had told me that, I would've thought, "Oh, no, I've got it."

LS: How do your daughters feel about this book?

CR: They read the manuscript and had the opportunity to veto anything, which they didn't do. I was careful not to tell stories that would expose them or reveal a lot of personal information about them. But they don't want to be on tour with the book or be interviewed about it. It's a standard writer-family sort of thing -- when you're writing about personal material, you've got to be accountable to yourself and not expect your family to be involved in it all.

LS: Have they ever talked about writing a book from their point of view?

CR: Only when they were little. Then they realized writing was not going to provide much of a living, and they had better do something else! There are plenty of other adoptees writing books who are speaking for themselves and speaking for the whole group.

LS: Do you feel, then, that you are speaking for all the adoptive parents?

CR: I'm just one voice. What I'm actually trying to do is get the adoptive parents to speak. What I want to happen is a larger conversation, with more voices in it, especially the parents whose kids have grown up, because we tend to disappear. There are support groups and camps and chat groups online that involve parents of younger kids. But as our kids get older, and as they move away from adoption-related or cultural-related activities to do whatever it is they want individually, the older parents tend to disappear. This is an attempt to gather them back and hear what they have to say.

LS: What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading your book?

CR: I want them to be provoked to think more about what they're experiencing. I want them to come forward with the challenges, speak openly about where they feel inadequate to address the challenges, and get support. The big message I keep underlining all the way through is that we need to let go of our attempts to control the family's experience. We need to listen to our kids and their testimony, because they know things we could never intuit for ourselves. We need to take what they say seriously.

I also want people to know that adoption is paradoxical and complicated, and there is nothing we can do that will erase that fact. We can talk about adoption being a wonderful thing, that kids' lives get saved, that we have just the family we want, that we all love each other. Despite all that, it is still a paradox. There is both joy and tragedy in it. And that will always be the case. That's true even of domestic adoption.

LS: How did structuring this book as a series of personal essays instead of straightforward advice make it unique?

CR: I want to emphasize, because I think it can be confusing for readers, that these are essays. They need to be read differently from the standard sort of adoption book. People come to adoption books looking for the ultimate, expert, infallible advice, something in the self-help mode or, say, a psychology text: how to live, how to think. Essay does not do that. Essay is open-ended. Primarily my book is made of personal essays that draw on my experiences and observations, but I don't claim to be all-knowing about this subject matter. For people who don't read a lot, who turn to adoption literature because they want something specific but are not in the habit of reading a lot of creative nonfiction, the essay form may seem strange. It was how it came to me. It's just what I do.

Lisa MB Simons is an elementary English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, writer, and mother of eight-year-old twins. Her review of Beyond Good Intentions currently appears on Literary Mama. Her writing is featured in Minnesota Moments and Minnesota Monthly and her book reviews, essays, articles and interviews have been published in A View from the Loft, The Big Ugly Review, Kalliope and Calyx. Simons writes a monthly column “On the Bookshelf” for the Faribault Daily News.

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