"I'm from Moldova," proudly proclaims six-year-old Charlie Phillips. "I came on an airplane, my sister came on an airplane. Babies come on airplanes."
In Charlie's world babies do indeed come from airplanes - because in his world most babies are adopted. As he grows, this fact will trigger many questions. But with lots of encouragement and exposure to children in similar situations, his mother Carol Blakenhorn hopes Charlie and his younger sister Syrena will never feel insecure about the fact that they were adopted.
"It's as important for me as it is for them to go to reunions," says Ms. Blakenhorn. "They don't see adoption as such an issue. They see other kids from Moldova, other kids who were adopted. It helps them feel special, but not different."
Families who have adopted children from overseas are making connections with others through play groups, potluck dinners, and reunions. While adoption agencies often have a mandate to followup with children they've placed, many parents take it upon themselves to organize regular get-togethers as the kids grow up and issues of identity
Adoptive families don't have to go it alone begin to surface.
Blakenhorn takes her children to as many events for adopted children as she can. She recently took them to a reunion of families who had adopted children from Moldova at Spence-Chapin, a private adoption agency in New York. There, in a room festooned with clusters of blue, yellow, and red balloons, young children and their parents had a chance to mingle.
Such events provide a way for the families who traveled together to stay connected and for children to know they are not alone in their experience.
This is important, says George Wu, director of the Gladney International Adoption Agency in New York, because "the return of parent and child to the United States is not the end of adoption - it is only the beginning."
After kids settle in, issues arise
As the newness of the adoption wears off and families settle into life in America, the questions begin. And without the support of either the adoption agency or outside groups, these times can be especially challenging, particularly when children begin school and again when they enter the teen years.
These are the years when questions of identity surface for any child, and the issue becomes more critical as adopted children grapple with questions of racial and cultural differences.
Anticipating these questions, Mary Spaulding says she attends picnics and other such gatherings with her two children: Victoria, 5, and Max, 3-1/2, both of whom were adopted from Moldova.
"It's important for them to have a chance to hang out with other kids like them. It will be especially important for them as they approach the teen years when it is sometimes easier to talk to a peer rather than to a parent," says Ms. Spaulding.
Many of these children will struggle with not looking like their parents on the outside, and also with the fact that they are of two lands, languages, and cultures. They also question who they are in relation to their adoptive parents, biological parents, culture, and country.
Jacey Norton and her husband, Joe, of Framingham, Mass., started the Korean Adoption Circle to help families like themselves.
The Nortons adopted two Korean children, and as they visited with other white adoptive parents, they realized that the children, who had rarely seen an Asian adult, were under the impression that they would grow up to be Caucasian.
Norton decided it was time to introduce her children to role models in their own culture. She began taking them to a Korean church in the area, and the group she founded meets there regularly.
Transcultural adoptions growing
While international adoptions in the United States represent a small percentage of all adoptions, estimated at 100,000 to 120,000 a year, the numbers are rising. There were 16,396 such adoptions in 1999 compared with 7,093 in 1990, according to the Joint Council on International Adoption Services. Russia was the leading source country, with 4,348, followed by China, with 4,101, and South Korea, with 2,008, according to the council.
Yet as more adults seek to have a family, "transracial and transcultural adoptions are becoming the more conventional, nonconventional way to have a family," says Ronnie Diamond, head of post adoption services at Spence-Chapin. Even so, many adoptive parents are not clear on how to raise their children.
To assist parents, Spence runs a support program for children aged 7 to 13. In these groups children can explore issues of teasing, isolation, and racism. The children are able to get validation from peers.
"Parents must understand that they're a multiracial or multicultural family now," says Ms. Diamond. "Some feel the need to expose only the child to its birth tongue or culture. But really they should all learn together. Make it a family thing so the child isn't set apart, isolated."
Ideally, says Diamond, adoptive families should live in diverse neighborhoods, where the children have access to mentors from their culture, and can learn their birth language.
While Spence-Chapin and the Gladney Institute offer extensive post-adoption programs, most parents tend to seek help from support groups independent of agencies.
One such group is the New England Chapter of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoptions (FRUA). There are 120 member families in New England and 2,000 in the United States. Families join seeking support, both educational and cultural. There are family events as well as adults-only conferences on such topics as dealing with the effects of institutionalization - which can affect the behavior of children who come from state-run orphanages.
Nina Sullivan, 8, has just begun to wrestle with what it means to be adopted, says her mother, Mary Sullivan, chairwoman of FRUA-New England. About a year ago, Nina began to express more curiosity about her "Life Book," a photo album that tells her story of coming to America, says Ms. Sullivan, a single mother who adopted two children from the Ukraine: Nina and Julia, 3.
"It just began to click for her that she's adopted," says Sullivan. "This is the age when kids finally get it and understand it when you say you were born in another lady's tummy. In first grade she began to show a lot of sadness, about why are people poor? Why can't people keep their kids? She just got very aware of this loss in her life, and was low-level grieving. She also felt powerless."
To help Nina, the Sullivan family began sponsoring an eight-month-old boy in a Romanian orphanage. Even so, Sullivan expects these emotions will become stronger as Nina enters her teenage years. She anticipates that her daughter will experience a double dose of separation and abandonment issues. It is during the teen years that many adopted children want to find their birth parents.
Although Sullivan is content to bring the Ukraine into her home through videos, fairy tales, and meals, other families feel the need to spend time with others in similar circumstances.
Each year, for the past five years, the Avery family of Acton, Mass., celebrates Chinese New Year with other families that traveled together to China to adopt. The Averys adopted two children, now 8 and 6.
"For the kids to be around other kids whose stories are similar to their own is a very good thing," says Susan Avery, a member of Families with Children from China, New England. "The kids came from the same orphanage and province. They learn they are not the only ones with this experience. Some of them grow [close] like sisters and brothers."
Mr. Wu of the Gladney agency says that in addition to reunions, parents must strive to teach children about their birth culture and language.
"Parents must satisfy their children's curiosity and not make them feel alienated," Wu says. "But parents can't just make it [adoption] about the child. The parents need to take part in learning the culture and language as well because they haven't just adopted a baby, they have adopted a culture."
The Nortons in Framingham, Mass., have taken that idea to heart. Both parents are learning Korean, and their answering machine's outgoing message has a greeting in that language.
Mrs. Norton remembers well the day her four-year-old son, Davis, visited the rest room in a Korean church. "Wow," he told her, "they have restroom signs in Korean." Norton says language is a powerful tool for immersing him in, and validating, his birth culture.
The bottom line: being an American
Some parents, however, say they worry about imposing a culture on their child, and prefer to let the child be the guide.
"We all want our children to feel special and know about their roots but bringing in - almost imposing - their birth culture on them can burden them with separateness," says Mary Spaulding. "My kids are American. I want them to know where they're from, but I don't want to hit them over the head with their culture either."
In the reunion hall at Spence-Chapin, two little boys, Christopher and Max, sat talking between mouthfuls of thickly frosted cake. Close by, the mother of one of the boys, Patrice Foley, looked on approvingly. She and her husband Kevin, of New Jersey, adopted Christopher, now 5, and Alexandra, now 3.
"The reunions are important for our kids as well as us," says Mrs. Foley. "We're very close to one family we traveled with [to Moldova]. Christopher and Max sat on the airplane together coming home and have been friends since."
Christopher looked up and smiled, "We will always be friends. We came home together."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society