Archive for January, 2013

Our adoption peeps

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

One of the best parts of writing a book about adoption is that I get to meet a lot of people connected to adoption. Two years ago at Heritage Camp in Colorado, I met my now-friend, Caroline, who said she, like me, lived in the Bay Area, and would I be interested in attending a meeting of her adoption-group book club to discuss Mamalita?

Naturally, I accepted. (And by the way, if you live anywhere remotely close and would like me to talk with your book club, please send an email because of course I will!)

When I arrived, the most lovely, smart, and interesting array of women welcomed me into their fold for an afternoon chat-fest. The conversation started with my book, but soon drifted to their stories and journeys; feelings about parenthood, children and families; and our lives now. You know how, occasionally, you meet someone and you just ”get” each other? This rarely happens for me. When it does, I pounce.

“Are you accepting new members?” I asked. “Because if you are, I’m in.”

Tim, Olivia, Mateo, and I have been meeting with the organization for more than a year now, once a month, usually at someone’s home. Everyone brings food to share. We mingle, nosh, and catch up for about an hour while our children run around, then a small band of hardy souls—Dads, mostly, but also Moms–herd the kids to a backyard or playground for another two hours while the book club dissects the latest selection. Afterwards, we re-assemble for dessert.

The absolute best part of belonging to the group is watching our children’s friendships develop. Both Olivia and Mateo love to play with the other girls and boys, not only because they’re all adopted from Central America, although that’s a wonderful benefit, but because they have fun.

Last Saturday, one of our number, Michele, hosted our big annual gathering at her family’s church. Another member, Dara, constructed a homemade pinata to represent a Guatemalan bus, and everyone brought food, crafts, and good cheer. Our fearless leader, Sheryl, organized.

Wherever you live, find a community! If one doesn’t exist, create one. That’s what my friend Cindy Swatek did in Missouri, with her fantastic MOGUATE. Trust me: the effort, schedule reshuffling, and travel time will be forgotten as you sink into the comfort that comes from being among people who share the specific experience of being touched by adoption.




Nature girl

Monday, January 28th, 2013

For years, I’ve known that my daughter Olivia, more than the average kid, loves bugs, flowers, birds, and trees. My husband appreciates nature, too, but his interest veers toward the scientific— “How much sun exposure do we need to optimize our strawberries, raspberries, lemons, and tomatoes? What level of water?”—while, I alas, remain hopelessly suburban: the one who hikes on the marked trail that ends at the warming hut, and opts for the cabin instead of the tent.

No, Olivia’s love of nature is DNA-deep. It comes from her biological family. On one of our first visits with Olivia’s birth mom and grandma, I watched with delight as three generations laughed out loud at the antics of a small hopping sparrow, and clapped their hands at the beauty of a rock formation. One possible explanation is that, in the small highland village where her relatives have lived for centuries, careful observation equals survival. Another could be that they are a family of natural-born artists. Whatever the reason, that keen ability to see is hard-wired, and Olivia possesses it.

I became more aware of this special talent last weekend, when my friend Nina invited us to Slide Ranch, a self-sustaining farm perched on the jagged cliffs of the Northern California coast. We kids and adults enjoyed running around, checking out the chickens and goats and bee hives and compost pile, and searching for hidden objects on Nina’s scavenger hunt. But as Nina observed, the wild, dramatic setting and fresh salt air opened up something new and different in Olivia. It felt as if  simply being there allowed my daughter to settle into a place of deep peace, a reverie of happiness.

As an adoptive parent, I’m reminded often that our children are who they are. They come to us that way. Part of the joy of being my children’s mother is discovering, and honoring, each new layer.


KQED Perspective, LandfillHarmonic, and annual report on adoption numbers

Friday, January 25th, 2013

It’s Friday, and I’m posting links to a radio piece about childhood mental illness, a movie trailer about a music-making community in Paraguay, and an article about the ever-falling rates of international adoption from data released this week from the State Department.  

The first is a KQED-FM Perspectives about erasing the stigma of mental illness in children, written by my friend and fellow writer, Dorothy O’Donnell. Here are the first few paragraphs, but the entire piece warrants a listen:

My daughter was six when she was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder. I was shocked, but also relieved. And so was she.

Her history of erratic, sometimes frightening behavior started in preschool. By kindergarten, she’d earned some less-than-flattering labels. The weird girl. The bad girl. The crazy girl.

The worst part was she believed them. When I tucked her in at night, she’d cry and say she didn’t belong on this planet.

Getting a diagnosis was like being handed a map after being lost in the wilderness. My daughter is 10 now. With treatment, the differences between her and her peers aren’t as obvious. She loves Taylor Swift and fashion. She has friends and slumber parties.

I try to be open about her condition and encourage her to do the same, just like I would if she had allergies or asthma. I want to empower her and help erase the stigma attached to mental illness.

The second is a link to an upcoming documentary, “Landfill Harmonic,” about a community in Paraguay whose children play instruments made from recycled trash. Seeing the joy of creativity expressed on the faces of the young musicians made me almost cry.  My father sent me this link, which makes it feel extra special. Thank you, Dad!

In the third, the New York Times confirms we already know, U.S. Adoptions from Abroad at Their Lowest Level in Years:

The number of international adoptions is expected to fall even further in the current fiscal year as a result of Russia’s decision to curtail all adoptions to the United States. The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, approved the ban on adoptions in late December as part of a broader law retaliating against the United States for its efforts to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

“I’m not sure what the future holds for intercountry adoptions from Russia to the United States,” Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the State Department’s special adviser for children’s issues, said in an interview on Thursday.

The number of international adoptions has declined every year since 2004. Homeland Security officials, who process petitions for international adoption, say that stricter standards intended to combat corruption have also played a role. Some homeland security officials have questioned the State Department’s decision to prohibit new adoptions from countries like Guatemala, Vietnam and Cambodia in recent years. They argue that the United States should continue to process adoption cases while working to reform the adoption programs in those countries, which have been dogged in the past by allegations of corruption.

But Ms. Jacobs said, “For us the right number is the number we can process ethically, safely and transparently.”


 Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the newly released adoption figures. But a senior official at the department said last year that she believed that the nation’s position had left thousands of vulnerable orphans stranded in institutions overseas.

The official, Whitney Reitz, who was then in charge of children’s affairs and parole policy at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, said at the time, in a speech at a conference on adoption, that while some might believe it is best not to allow adoptions from certain countries, “when I think personally about the individual children in these countries who need families and who are stuck in institutions, it really doesn’t look like such a great outcome to me.”

State Department officials maintain that ensuring a transparent, legal process is more important than the number of foreign orphans who are adopted. China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine remain the top feeder countries to the United States, according to the report, which is released annually.

Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the government must do more to prevent children from growing up in orphanages.

Senator Landrieu, co-chairwoman of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, described the decline in international adoptions as “tragic.” She said the State Department had “failed to put the resources or personnel in place to help countries” meet the stricter standards required by countries that have signed The Hague convention on intercountry adoption. The treaty, which took effect for the United States in 2008, establishes accreditation requirements for adoption agencies and protections against child trafficking.

Finally, the FY 2012 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption/January 2013. One statistic stood out for me: In Table 5, “Convention Country of Origin: South Africa” and in the next column “Median Fees: $160,217.” (That dollar amount can’t possibly be correct, can it?)

Have a great weekend! ~



Learning by listening

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Recently, two articles about the ways adoptees are affected by adoption made a big impression on me. The first, Adoptee View: What Can a Tiny Baby Know? by Karl Stenske, recounts the trauma experienced by babies who are separated from their birth mothers. The second, Primal Wound Author Speaks on Adoptee Challenges, an interview conducted by Nancy Axness with Nancy Verrier, discusses the phenomenon of the primal wound—that is, the deep and lasting hurt felt by people who are relinquished for adoption. Verrier is the author of The Primal Wound and has written and spoken extensively about this concept.

As an adoptive parent, I finished the articles wondering “Are my children doomed to a lifetime of pain? Can I do anything to help them heal from their primal wounds?”

Then, this week, a friend sent me a link to a post titled Adopter Savior Syndrome (A.S.S.), on the blog Coloring Out Lori Jane. The first few paragraphs left me nearly gasping for air:

What is Adopter Savior Syndrome (A.S.S.)?

A.S.S. is a highly contagious and devastating disease that is estimated to be found in millions of White adoptive parents and White adoptive prospective parents around the constructed Western world. Adopter Savior Syndrome is not yet fully understood, though it is speculated to be a White disease that is particularly pervasive among desperate wives and cisgender men with Yellow Fever… Ask your adult Adoptee about A.S.S. if you experience the urgent and persistent need to adopt in order to become a complete person.

And that’s only the first hundred words. You must read the whole post to gain the full impact. Better yet, read all of Lori Jane’s posts to understand the depth of her sorrow and rage at being a Korean baby removed from her birth country and adopted by white American parents. Through her writing, Lori Jane expresses pain related to a primal wound that feels acute and devastating.

After reading these three essays, I was tempted to take to my bed, overwhelmed by inadequacy. Then I realized: I’m my children’s mother. Even if I wanted to, I don’t have the luxury of saying “This is too hard! I give up!” So inside of hiding under the covers, I went outside for a walk, and the fresh air made me think: “What can these writers teach me? Are there lessons to be learned from each of their experiences? How can I try to do better for my children?”

One of life’s realities is that many families face challenges. Illness, a physical or mental disability, poverty, insecurity, anxiety, alcoholism, physical or mental abuse, isolation, fear. One of the realities of our home is that we—my husband Tim and I, and our children, Olivia (10) and Mateo (8)–are a transracial adoptive family. Among Tim and my duties as parents is to help our children navigate that experience. We strive to give our kids a context where they feel comfortable with their adopted-ness.

During my walk, I thought of a list of ways Tim and I—and literally hundreds of other adoptive parents we know—try to foster healthy attitudes toward adoption, Guatemala, and our family. I don’t pretend that this list, or we, are perfect, or even the best solution. Nor do I pretend our methods can heal the indelible scars of the primal wound. My list serves merely as a place to start:

We talk about adoption. A lot. From the moment we first held our babies in our arms, we’ve told them their adoption stories: “You were born in another mommy’s tummy.” Our conversations continue today: “How did you feel about meeting your birth mom? Anything you want to talk about?” We don’t wait for our children to ask questions, although we are happy when they do. We keep the channels open by bringing up the subject ourselves.

We study Spanish. Personally, I’m terrible at it, but the point is I try, and my children appreciate the effort. We honor our children’s heritage, and that includes studying the language that people in their native country speak.

We visit Guatemala. This is easy for us, because we love the country. Yes, it’s an international flight to Central America. We can’t drink the water or eat the lettuce. Sometimes we worry about our safety. But those inconveniences are insignificant when compared with our children’s joy at getting to know their birth country, and feeling at home there.

We go to Heritage Camp. In many adoption circles, heritage camp is criticized as a faux experience where families learn to make tortillas and black beans. In fact, Heritage Camp has less to do with “heritage” than with our children connecting with other kids who share a very specific experience: being adopted, being a foreign-born person in the United States, having a skin color/religion/cultural history/interest set/talents/desires/that may be very different from one’s adoptive parents and peers.

At home, we create a local network of other adoptive families, with whom we meet monthly. We view this as our own mini-heritage camp. (See above.) Given a choice, we will always choose the dentist, healthcare provider, church leader, and teacher who looks like our kids.

We searched for and found our children’s birth mothers. Finding “Ana” and “Lety” perhaps hasn’t “healed” for our children what Nancy Verrier calls the primal wound, but it has gone a long way toward filling in the blanks about who they are and where they come from. My kids feel loved by their birth mothers, and seem to understand the circumstances that compelled each of these women to do what they did, which is place their children for adoption.

We embrace the unease. We tease it apart and analyze it. One day, Olivia said to me, “Really, I should be living in a village and speaking Spanish and K’iche. I should be wearing traje (Guatemala’s native dress).” Instead of feeling rejected or threatened, I validated her feelings by suggesting she address the dichotomy she feels in a painting. (Olivia is a talented artist.) Immediately, she planned a self-portrait that showed her split down the middle: half in everyday clothes, half in traje, against a background of part suburban California and part Guatemalan countryside. We both agreed that adoption likely will inform Olivia’s art for many years to come.

Finally, we honor our children’s birth country by supporting organizations that help women, children, and families who live there—a feeding program, a convent, a home for the elderly, a high school student sponsorship, a program for teachers, and birth family support. Our actions show our children that we care about the future of Guatemala.

That’s my list. If anyone has any other suggestions or comments, please feel free to share them with me. I learn best by listening.


“The Global Adoption Threat” in TIME

Friday, January 18th, 2013

The January 21, 2013 issue of Time magazine features an in-depth article by Kayla Webley titled The Baby Deficit. I paused when I read those words, “Baby Deficit.” From my observation, people who wish to become parents will find a way—if not through the “usual channels,” then through in-vitro fertilization, embryo transfers, sperm donors, or surrogates. Some other people, like my husband and me, will choose adoption. While I’m not sure there exists a “deficit” of babies being born, there definitely is a shrinking number of babies available for adoption. From the article:

The number of international children adopted by American families has dropped some 60% from its peak in 2004. That year, Americans adopted 22,991 foreign children, according to the State Department. In 2011, despite long waiting lists at adoption agencies, the total was 9,319—the lowest since the mid-1990s.

Then I read the subhead, ”How changing attitudes about international adoption are creating heartbreak for American families,” and agree that much is true. Many American families are heartbroken, especially the families of the Guatemala 900, whose adoptions have been pending for more than five years, and families of the group known as the Kyrgyz 65, whose cases have been tied up in Kyrgyzstan for only slightly less time. I would add another group whose hearts may be broken, and that is children who will grow up in institutions, without ever being part of permanent families. In the article, nobody asked them how they feel about losing the possibility of ever being adopted.

The article focuses on one particular couple, Frank and Gabrielle Shimkus, who readers of this blog will recognize as members of the Kyrgyz 65.  The Shimkuses have been trying to adopt their son for more than four years, demonstrating a steadfast dedication that would be unbelievable except for the fact some 60 other couples adopting from Kyrgyzstan have endured the same anguishing slog. In 2011, I wrote about Frank and Gabrielle here and here.

The Time article is thorough, comprehensive, and definitely worth reading—a kind of International Adoption 101. Maybe it will educate a few readers on the insane roller coaster ridden by so many of us adoptive parents. I read the piece the old-fashioned way: bought a copy standing in line at the grocery store. I’d post a link, but that option seems available only to subscribers.

We can argue all day about whether or not international adoption should continue, and when night falls, still not agree. But one point that seems undeniable is that children should not be used as pawns in long, drawn-out processes. Sadly, this is precisely what’s happening around the world: in Guatemala, in Kyrgyzstan, and soon in Russia. What good possibly can come from institutionalizing a child for four years while bureaucrats stall to make a point?

At least for now, the world is paying attention, with coverage in The New York Times, the Russian press, and this week, Time magazine. The question is, will anything change before focus shifts to the next big story?




Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I have to tell you, at least several people known to me wish I were a little less obsessed with the subject of adoption, and one of the most vocal of these lives in my own home. I’m not naming names, but last night, again, this person said to me, “Mom, why can’t you leave the house like other mothers? Join a gym or meet someone for coffee. Go shopping. Think about any topic except adoption and Guatemala. Do something besides write. Please!”

I don’t disagree. Because, honestly, I’m not sure what drives my obsession or why I believe it possibly can do any good. But then, earlier this morning, I read an article titled “Romanian orphans face challenges decades after adoption,” which includes these sentences:

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has studied the effects of institutionalization on orphans in Romania for the past 13 years. Working from a small lab in a former Bucharest orphanage, researchers from the US and Romania have compared children growing up in institutions with those living with families.

“We found that institutions are a particularly toxic environment in which to raise young children,” says BEIP’s lead researcher Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

Institutionalized children exhibit everything from reduced IQs to reductions in brain size and activity, he says.

The researchers say that although any time spent in non-family situations is harmful, their work suggests institutionalization past the age of 2, and in some cases earlier, causes irreversible effects.

That’s grim news for the 8 million children UNICEF says are living in institutions worldwide today.

… I read those paragraphs and thought, Somebody’s got to care about this. Somebody’s got to pay attention, and think about this, and write about it, until more people pay attention and change is made.

For now at least, one of those somebody’s seems to be me.

And based on the evidence—the recent Russian protests against Putin’s adoption ban; the countless news reports and blog posts about the reformers, filmmakers, and aid workers who continue to work toward ethical and transparent adoption; my conversations with fellow adoptive parents whom I know personally and virtually, who are doing their best to raise great kids while staying connected to birth culture and birth family; my chats with friends who are not associated directly with adoption, yet still care about the plight of children without parents around the world—I realize, in a deep and very encouraging way, obsessed I may be. But I am not alone.

Today, for my family’s sake, I will get out of the house. Maybe run over to my favorite local bookstore and see if there are any new books about adoption. Or Guatemala. Or even better, both.



Russian adoption and hope

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Wonder of  wonders, for the first time in a long while around the subject of international adoption, I feel hope. I’m talking about the protests in Russia against President Putin’s banning of international adoption.

For days, my friend Sveta, who grew up in Russia and reads the daily Russian news, had been posting on Facebook that thousands of Russian citizens in fact support international adoption and disagree with Putin’s ban.  Lo and behold, Sveta was right. (As if I ever doubted her. I’ve never known Sveta to be wrong about anything!)

Sveta sent me a link to some photos in the Russian press, my favorite of which is posted above. Look at that staggering number of people! The other photos are equally powerful. Sveta translated one of the banners as reading, “Mothers have no nationality.”

The New York Times also reported on the rally, calling it a ”Revival of Anti-Kremlin Protests,” and quoted one woman: “They have decided to settle a score by using children, and it’s shameful,” Ms. Nikolayeva said as friends gathered around, nodding their encouragement. “O.K., maybe at some point it will be better not to give our children away; we should take care of them ourselves. But first you have to make life better for them here. Give them a chance to study. Give them a chance to get medical treatment.”

I like Ms. Nikolayeva’s statement because it speaks to the shame that is often the subtext of international adoption: the feelings of inadequacy that a country can’t “take care of its own.”  But, as Ms. Nikolayeva said, “First, you have to make life better for them here.” If that’s not  happening—and for myriad complicated and entrenched reasons, it sadly often doesn’t—why should a child be deprived of an opportunity to find a life with a permanent, loving family elsewhere?

May the protest by thousands of  Russian citizens be a harbinger of positive change in the larger world of international adoption: more stringent accountability, more humane practices, and better sense.

Image credit:


A gift of flowers

Monday, January 14th, 2013

This month Tim and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary. Although that number might connote “newlywed” to some, it’s a record for me, and I’m thrilled we’ve achieved such a milestone.

Saturday night we enjoyed a rare dinner out in San Francisco—thank you for babysitting, P!—and as we left the restaurant, we couldn’t help but notice a wedding party in one corner of the dining room, at the center of which stood a glamorous bride and handsome groom.

I once heard that simply to lay eyes on a bride is good luck, a belief to which I’ve always subscribed, but because the occasion was special for us, as well, I felt compelled to interact somehow with the couple.

So, me being me—that is, a person who often acts on impulse—I left Tim at the coatcheck and rushed over to the newlyweds. “Congratulations!” I said. “I wish you many years of happiness.” And because I rarely leave well enough alone, I added:  ”It’s our anniversary, too!”

The new groom, slightly taken aback, smiled and said, “Thank you!” The new bride, also a little surprised, said, ”That’s so sweet!” Then, maybe because we shared an anniversary, or maybe because she just wanted me to move along, the new bride reached for the wedding table centerpiece, thrust it into my hands, and said, ”Here! Please! Take these flowers! Happy anniversary!”

Which is why, right now, sitting in my kitchen, I gaze upon a gorgeous array of white peonies, roses, and hydrangeas.

Just looking at them makes me happy. ~



Rosca de Reyes

Friday, January 11th, 2013

This year, a friend who grew up in Mexico and lives in San Diego invited us to her family’s annual Rosca de Reyes party on January 6. The celebration always falls 12 days after Christmas, and marks the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men or Magi–los Reyes Magos–arrived bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus.

“Rosca” means ”ring” and ”reyes” means “kings.” Rosca de Reyes refers to the special sweet “Kings Bread” that is baked for the occasion. Round or oval in shape to recall a King’s crown, the bread contains a tiny figure of the baby Jesus, baked inside to commemorate the Holy Family’s furtive flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict to kill all baby boys, lest one be the prophesied Messiah.

Part of the tradition is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby Jesus baked inside must host a party on February 2, the Feast of the Candelaria, and serve tamales to the guests.  That person happened to be my eight-year-old son Mateo, who was delighted at the prospect.

I grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic family—Mass every Sunday beginning at the age of three; twelve years of Catholic school taught by nuns—yet I’d never celebrated Epiphany (as we always called it) or Three Kings Day in any way beside going to Mass. But I learned that in Spain and Latin America, for many families, Three Kings Day is the “main day,” bigger than Christmas, the day when children awake to find gifts left by the Kings inside or near their shoes.  You can learn more from this Wikipedia entry.

Interestingly, I was discussing our Rosca de Reyes party with another friend, this one from the Bay Area, who happened to be traveling in the American South during the holidays. She reported seeing Rosca de Reyes bread decorated in purple, gold, and green, the traditional Mardi Gras colors, and observed that the tradition somehow had gotten folded into Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Another friend from the Bay Area told me that every January 6, her husband, born in Mexico, dressed up as one of the Wise Men (Melchior) to participate in a pageant enacted at their church.

How have I lived so long and never before experienced this holiday in this way? One of many questions I ask myself.

The photo above shows the Rosca de Reyes we ate this year, which was delicious. As for Mateo hosting the February 2 party: The last weekend in January we’re attending the large annual gathering of our local adoptive families with children from Guatemala, and I’m telling myself that the date is close enough to February 2 to count. Just to be sure, we’ll bring tamales.

Meanwhile, I’m very grateful to my friend for including us in her family’s Rosca de Reyes celebration, and especially for introducing my children to this Latin American tradition.


Click on the link to find a recipe for Rosca de Reyes from the website Mexico in My Kitchen and another from Adoptive Families magazine.





Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

We’re home after two weeks in San Diego, struggling to get back into our routine. Yesterday, Mateo’s school was closed, and he and I spent the morning unpacking, doing laundry, paying bills, and shopping for groceries. Or at least I did, with Mateo happily bouncing beside me. I finally wised up and found a task to channel my son’s limitless energy: scouring the car, which, after the 10-hour trip up the central spine of California qualifies as its own formidable category.

The spilled juice! The smeared ketchup! The ground-in French fries! You don’t want to know. Plus, the job required the very loud Shop-Vac, much beloved by Mateo, who clamped on safety headphones to protect his little ears.

This year, for the first time, we spent New Year’s Eve in Legoland. Think Times Square in mini (photo above), and fireworks at 6 PM. Not to mention a fantastic rollercoaster, Project X, which Tim bravely endured with kids while I, the family coward, watched from the ground below. The snapshot here—of Mateo and Olivia in the front with Tim covering his eyes behind them—may be my all-time favorite.

Another first was ice-skating at the famed Hotel Del Coronado. The rink is small, and not the right venue if you’re an expert who likes to speed or do tricks. But for a leisurely spin against a gorgeous palm-tree-studded backdrop, the Del rink can’t be beat. We hope to return next season.


2013! How did that happen? ~