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POV on PBS: “Off and Running”

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Mondays this month of September, 2010, PBS is airing adoption-themed programs on Point of View (POV). The first was named “Off and Running” and is the story of an AfricanAmerican girl adopted by a single white mother who later joined with another single white adoptive mother of a bi-racial boy; still later they brought a Korean boy into their family unit in New York City.  Avery, the protagonist / adopted person and her brothers are being raised in a Jewish home, attending Hebrew school.  In her search for identity, Avery has developed her athletic ability and wins at track meets; she is often the only African American in her social group, but begins to meet others at her track meets. 

When Avery begins to ask questions only her birth mother can answer,  Avery reaches out through the adoption agency to establish contact by letter with her birth mother; this brings more questions for Avery to ask. Alas, her birth mother slows in answering more letters.  Neither of Avery’s adoptive moms recognizes Avery’s need to question in order to understand herself. Instead, the adoptive mothers turn inward and express inadequacy, suggesting to Avery that she has been ‘too intense’ in her questions.

Through years of advocating for communication in adoption, I have heard the complaints of adoptive parents who faithfully send photos and letters to the birth mother, then express anger at the birth mother who does not respond. It has puzzled me, too, so I have asked birth mothers why they stop writing. More often than not, I get an answer that shows they too are stuck in their emotions. Seeing their child happy relieves the guilt but also triggers the recognition that they are missing out on significant moments of the child’s life. “It feels different from what I imagined it would.” Many of the birth mothers feel inadequate to explain their emotions on paper; they may not have a comparable level of education to that of the adoptive parents. Some birth mothers have not had cameras to record their other children’s early years. They measure themselves against the adoptive parents and come up short in their own minds and believe they have much less to give to their child.  The birth mother does not recognize that her gift of life is truly the beginning of what she has to offer her child.

Adoptive parents often misinterpret this as lack of contact as lack of caring. They turn in their unresolved grief and snap at the adopted person: After all I’ve done for you, you want to hear from HER? The one who didn’t want you in the first place?

Unresolved grief on the part of all sides of the adoption is, in my opinion, at the root of the misunderstandings. Seldom do two people (let alone the constellation of people involved in an adoption) reach the same level of understanding at the same time. We as adoption educators are unable to prepare adoptive parents and birth parents for this part of their future; our initial contact is focused on how to handle the information when the child is small.  We give book lists to suggest ways to educate themselves.

Thankfully, there are books to help adopted teens cope with the search for self.   EMK Press has “Pieces of Me:  Who Do I Want to Be?” edited by Robert Ballard, composed of art work and writings of teen adopted people.  “Kimchi or Calimari” is a novel by Rose Kent for teens wherein a Korean adoptee struggles to feel a part of his very Italian adoptive family.  Surely if we can expect a pre-school child to understand the metaphor of a baby bird that falls out of its nest and gets carried to another bird family on the back of the Wise Old Owl (in “The Mulberry Bird: An Adoption Story” by Anne Braff Brodzinsky and Diana L. Stanley) we can count on a teen to read a book about another teen struggling with his cultural identity issues and make the leap that these questions that Avery asks are normal. 

And isn’t ‘normalizing’ adoption one of the gifts we as adoption educators can give to our worried clients?  I look forward to the next installments of POV this month!