The Immigrant's Song
The Immigrant's Song

The conversation began in my adoptive mother's kitchen on a sunny Sunday over a photo taken that previous Christmas. She was unhappy with the photo and when my mother is unhappy with something, she has the tendency to speak out. Normally, that would be more than fine with your humble narrator, who seeks truth and openness in all things. But her version of "speaking out" is more the type of commentary that leaves people startled and uncomfortable, scratching their heads and saying things like, "Did she really just say that?"

On this sunny May day, she was unhappy because she felt that I and my two teenaged children had not "dressed up" sufficiently for Christmas. My daughter and I were wearing, what we felt, were perfectly acceptable holiday-ish red sweaters and my son was wearing a dark green, long-sleeved polo. Casual maybe, but certainly not sloppy.

Now before we go further, you must understand that I am a Catholic in Recovery. I have long since discarded any belief, confidence or relationship I ever had in the Roman Catholic Church. My children have never been baptised, a fact that drives my mother to the brink of despair. However, I have exposed my children to all manner of religious beliefs and doctrines over the years — Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Wicca, non-denominational faiths, bible study groups, and general Christian youth groups. And I strongly believe that children should not have a spiritual belief system forced upon them. The spiritual path one follows should be a conscious, rational, adult choice.

And my adoptive mother knows all this. We've been down this road many times, painful and bumpy as it may be. So the fact that we were not well-dressed by her standards to commemorate a holiday in a Christian tradition that she knows we no longer accept or celebrate just makes her nuts, even beyond the fashion aspect of it all.

What followed her initial comment of displeasure at our appearance in this photo startled even me. She said, "You look like immigrants." Now, in fairness I concede that:

  1. Jessica was wearing a red bandana to hold her hair back, but that's a common enough teen fashion
  2. I am an immigrant

So I can understand and own her statement well enough. In fact, I answered with, "Well, I am an immigrant."

She sputtered and stammered for a few seconds and then shot back a statement that left me speechless for at least a minute:

"Oh, but you're not really an immigrant...not really. That's not what I meant."

So what the hell did she mean?

Let's look at this statement from a psychological perspective and take it as an opportunity to learn a little bit about the effects of intercountry adoption 45 years gone. This is a rare opportunity folks, and one I hope we can take advantage of. With intercountry adoption so much in the spotlight these days, there's a chorus of voices I'm not hearing. These are the voices of adults who have lived through the experience of being separated from their mothers, their homeland and their identity and shipped thousands of miles away to be adopted by largely white, mid- to upper-middle-class families who cannot biologically have children of their own.

We have heard the angry voices of parents who, for the most part, adopted for the right reasons and with the right intentions, and did so legally and ethically. They are angry with those of us trying to expose the slimy, ugly stuff under the rock that often occurs in intercountry adoption. These well-meaning people somehow believe we are tarring them with the same slimy brush, which is certainly not the case. The individuals calling in to radio programmes, writing letters to newspapers and so on are not the targets of our concern. We are concerned about those you will never hear on radio, or will never see write an Op Ed piece. They are certainly not going to expose themselves as callous monsters that sought to buy a child at any price from equally callous monsters who took advantage of a lucrative supply and demand in children. Or callous monsters that went through the process of obtaining a child, only to discover that said child didn't quite meet their expectations, and so they decide to call it off like a casual relationship after a few dates, or a dress that didn't fit, and send the poor child back.

All of this furor currently saturating the media revolves around the practises in place today and largely affects the welfare of small, or at least young, children. Yet no one seems to be clamoring for the advice or wisdom of adoption professionals who can speak from long experience with the phenomena of foreign adoption, or more importantly, for the wisdom of now-adults who have actually lived it.

And yes Virginia, they are adults now. Thousands of European WWII "orphans", US and Canadian "orphan train" victims, UK migrants, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and yes — even Irish — adopted people now vote, pay taxes, drive cars, raise children (and grandchildren) of their own. And they can now answer — with courage and conviction — the question of what it means to be a foreign, transracial or transcultural adopted person.

I am one of those adults. I am an immigrant. I am an adopted person. I was born in Ireland in 1960 and sent to the US for adoption in 1961, along with more than 2,000 other children, as part of a Church-led scheme that spanned the 1940's-1960's.

But am I really an immigrant? Merriam-Webster defines an immigrant as "a: a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence b: a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown."

I rather like the second definition! But I interpret the term as more of a voluntary option: people emiigrate because they want to, or at the very least, because oppression, poverty or other factors in their homeland drove them to seek better opportunities. My adoptive grandparents, from the west of Ireland, emigrated for those opportunities in the early 1920's.

But if a child is forcibly removed from its mother and homeland, do we consider the child an immigrant? Technically and legally speaking, I suppose so. Yet I believe many adoptive parents, in order to cement their new family, try to erase the fact that their child arrived from some other country and that adoption itself somehow magically erases the child's foreign status, just as it legally erases the child's identity and the "taint" of bastardy. And I believe my mother's comment and thesis follows this — in her mind, I'm "not really an immigrant" because I was adopted and assimilated into her family and her culture.

What a dangerous delusion to harbor. We know so much more today about infant and young child psychology, and know how much even newborns absorb of their surroundings and their mothers (however briefly they may have been with them). To believe that a baby or small child can be stuffed onto a plane and flown thousands of miles from everything and everyone he has ever known, and not be in some way traumatised by this event, is beyond reason.

Moreover, this same small child is now expected to rejoice along with his new family upon arrival. Of course they are celebrating the expansion of their family, and all the attendant relatives are joyously receiving the new child along with them. But do they consider that the child has not been permitted to grieve his loss, or give him time to adjust first? Many don't.

Of course I know there are adoptive parents who do understand this trauma and loss and who do actively support and maintain their child's cultural identity, and keep the child's sense of comfort and assimilation uppermost. But sadly, there are many that don't. And unless we shape the current practise of intercountry adoption by learning from past mistakes, we put yet another generation of adopted children at risk.

And as part of pulling up the rock and looking at its slimy underneath, we must also take a hard look at what makes children available for intercountry adoption.

The popular belief is that all children being placed for adoption, domestically or internationally, are orphaned, neglected or mistreated by uncaring or incapable natural families. That is simply often not the case. Mounting evidence now tells us that children have been outright stolen or kidnapped from their parents, removed from parents who simply lacked financial resources or state support, or taken from frightened, coerced women who faced societal or religious shame for bearing a child out of wedlock. I was the product of that last category in a repressed, cold, religiously-strangled Ireland. These are not reasons to sunder a child's bond with his natural family or to destroy his identity and heritage.

Adoption should always be about finding homes for children who truly need them, not finding children for homes that lack them. An adoption placement should only be sought when there are no other means of support within the child's own natural family, and that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other in-family placement. Adoption is still such a permanent, closed, secretive practise, one that erases the child's original identity as well as generally hides/seals all "trails" to his natural family. It therefore makes sense that alternatives like legal guardianship or financial sponsorship be sought — that is, if the couple who claim they want to make a difference in a child's life mean what they say. And this is supposed to be about the rights and welfare of the child, right?

The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption clearly defines those rights, as well as the strict guidelines, fees and general practise surrounding foreign adoption. Yet many countries have still not ratified this treaty. And many of these non-signatories to the Hague are countries from which we continue to accept children for adoption.

So what effect has intercountry adoption had on us "elder statesmen" who have experienced it?

Well, I'll use my own situation as a "best case" scenario. An upper-middle-class family from Philadelphia adopted me. My adoptive father owned a plumbing and heating contracting business and was a delightful, easy-going man (he passed away in 1990 at age 60). He was terrific with children and a very patient mentor/teacher. In short, I adored him and miss him, as did my younger (now deceased, sadly, from cancer at age 46) adoptive brother, also from Ireland. My mother was the eldest of two daughters of the previously mentioned immigrants from Mayo and Galway. There was also a son who did not survive birth, and there was an enormous sense of loss and bitterness there, I think, as a result. My aunt seemed to be the only one to escape it and maintain a vibrant, positive outlook. But this loss seems to have resonated throughout my grandmother's life, and was passed on to my adoptive mother.

No doubt my mother was under enormous pressure to marry and have children, especially since her 5-years-younger sister married the year before she did and quickly produced two boys in succession. Pressure also came from Irish American society of the 1950's — the ideal nuclear family, white picket fence and suburban Eden were all part and parcel of the American dream and if you didn't achieve them, there must be something wrong with you.

This is not the ideal fertile (pardon the pun) ground in which to seed an adoption plan.

So as a result, while I had a generally satisfactory upbringing — no physical abuse, no neglect or want — there were always niggling little moments that reminded me I just didn't quite fit in. My adoptive mother and I have always had a very arms-length relationship. We share very little in common, which is not the case between any of my children and me, or my natural mother. And it's simply very hard to develop a true bond or degree of trust when you have nothing, really, to build a relationship upon.

I do give my mother credit for trying. With a very small "tool box" and little support from agencies or professionals to help her along the road, she's managed to get me to adulthood. But she remains in denial over so many things, which is certainly not healthy, and unfortunately it spills over into my life.

On the positive side, the lesson many of us have learned as the product of intercountry adoption is how to become resilient, high achieving, compassionate and adaptable adults. But on the negative side, the level of trust, comfort and sense of self we develop is hugely impacted by our trauma and loss. No one ever told our adoptive parents to expect these issues, or what to do with a child once they're past the basic human needs of food, shelter, changing and so forth.

I am an immigrant. I am the daughter of another woman. I do have a past, a history — an identity that existed before I arrived in a New York airport in 1961. And no re-write of that history will make it go away. But there is much to learn from that history.

So rather than "shoot the messenger" for being the bearer of bad news on intercountry adoption practise, let's face that bad news and do what we can to correct it. No child should ever be treated as a possession or pawn, or a solution to infertility issues. And no couple wanting to do the right thing should ever be exploited by agencies, intermediaries or other black market operators.