The Thousand Mile Journey

The Thousand Mile Journey

While riding on a bus in Korea my friend Mark bent his face close to mine and said, Adopting children transracially is a journey of a thousand miles.

Mark is 45, and an adult adoptee from Korea. He is a father, and he is one of the most endearing and wisest people I know. It took me about ten minutes to realize that he wasn't referring to his own journey, but to mine as an adoptive parent.

Just being a parent is enough to send anyone on a thousand mile journey searching for answers. Add the dynamic of a transracial family, braided in with adoption, and it all becomes even more challenging. But those are things I have plentiful hands-on experience and much book-read knowledge of. Except these things came to me packaged with an emphasis on how I can produce a well-balanced child, not on how my identity as an adoptive parent might grow and change over the years.

The more I learn about being an adoptive parent the more I discover the need to let myself feel vulnerable, ambivalent, and admit that sometimes my behaviors in the area of adoptive motherhood are of thwarted self-interest. Sometimes I just plain don't know how to move in those areas where the line between being mom to a daughter who is adopted, and being mom to a daughter who is not adopted, becomes blurry.

I thought I'd learned all of this when my daughters reached adulthood, and I was willing to listen, and really hear what the peer group of adopted adults had to say about the throng of us who are known as adoptive parents.

Lately it's occurred to me to renew my vows to pay attention, for the times they are a changingas the song goes. After pulling wool out of my ears, what I'm hearing from my adult friends who are adopted is that our children must own the rights to their adoption information and story. This is not a new concept. It's a line of thinking that has held fast for years. I'm just slow at catching on, delayed in understanding the harm we bragging adoptive parents sometimes unintentionally cause.

I know plenty of parents who claim their young children have given them permission to tell or write their story. I made this mistake when my kids were young. And when they reached adulthood, when the time came to publish my memoir, we sat nose-to-nose agreeing on which version of the book manuscript to place in the public domain. Some of the things they had given me permission to publish when they were nine, ten and eleven were no longer up for grabs.

We need to remember that children are still children, and they do not yet have the maturity to give up custody of their history and grant us permission to become their voice. Therefore as responsible parents we hold our children's adoption story in trust. That's when the real work began, when I had to stop hiding behind my kids and find my own voice, and meet the side of myself that is separate from my children. 

Since my daughters live on their own now, and my son joined his ancestors in Heaven eight years ago, I'm alone more often, and I continue to meet myself each day in surprising situations that force me to do more growing up and confront my changing adoptive parent identity.

Something else I stumbled across on the bus ride through Korea is that some of us, myself included, spend a great deal of time thinking adoptive parent thoughts. Those wordsadoptive parent. It has a joyous ring to us some of us, though not to everyone. Last year at the KAAN conference in Seoul , I met an American man who is a Korean adoptee, and he appeared to me as highly confident. He held a high status position within an adoption agency, and he admitted to me that he often found it difficult to believe he was viewed as an adult, and seen as a contemporary by some adoptive parents. He said that he feels he has to prove himself as an adult when at adoption conferences or in adoption-related business situations, and that much of the time he feels he is treated like a boy, as an adopted child, instead of a man.

Maybe its something about the term adoptive parent that keeps some of us stuck. After all, we worked hard to become parents and we want it to sick. Still the word parent is an identifier best describing those who are still parenting children under the age of 18 or 19. Or 20 and 21, for those of us who are late bloomers and slow at letting go. Who ARE we when we aren't busy being an adoptive parent?

Parental, fatherly, fatherlike; maternal, motherly, motherlike. Thankfully we will always be a father or a mother. But if we will always be viewed within the adoption triad only as adoptive parents, even when our sons and daughters reach adulthood and are living independent lives, will it allow us to stretch, to climb beyond the boundary and further grow as people? Is there a point where I can perhaps graduate to alumni adoptive parent, and move eventually to retired adoptive parent status?

If we parents took a step back would it be easier for our sons and daughters to feel the clout to move into adulthood without feeling a need to fight for the right to grow up? Or maybe growing up is hard to do no matter what. I'm plenty old and it doesn't seem to be getting any easier.

Meanwhile, while I'm falling back into an active adoptive parent thinking mode, and momentarily voicing the opinion of otherssomething else I became aware of in Korea after walking a mile in someone else's shoes is that all of the adopted adults I know find it difficult to be seen as a charity case. It wore on their spirit while growing up. Perhaps it's time we adoptive parents tossed the rescue model.

Parenting is a selfish act. Most of us didn't become parents because we wanted to save an orphan. We become parents because we desperately wanted a child. It's unhealthy to allow any kid to live with the pressure of believing their parents saved them. Much the same as it's not necessary or helpful to promote the fact that a child with a brain tumor is lucky to be alive.

My mind raced as the bus rolled along in Korea, across the motherland of my son and oldest daughter. And it continued to race when I got home to California. By the time I reached Denver, the land of my ancestors, and the city where my grandfather's 94-year-old twin sister still lives, I could feel something settling inside me. Truth to tell, early in our friendship I made the comment to my friend Mark that I was old enough to be his mother. I'm not of course, and he nailed me on it. Few eight year olds give birth and eight year olds don't adopt children. Yet being a parent is how I've learned recognize myself. My parenthood status stands sacred and cherished above all else. When a needy child who is not my own cries, I want to help and I've caught myself saying, "once a parent always a parent."

Now I realize there is another way I can enrich my life as a mother, and that is to step out of my parenting mode whenever I'm in the presence of anyone over the age of 18 and meet them women to women, friend to friend, colleague to colleague. Mother to daughter instead of parent to child. I can even offer to help; yet I'll have to ditch the parental thing of seeming befuddled without my all-wise child to guide me. Or be all knowing with a take-charge attitude. Because it was the thing that drove me batty on our 12-day trip throughout Korea; all those parents, parenting day after day. They even parented each other, and they parented me, when their kid, teen, adult sons and daughters were off doing kid, teen, adult things.

And I'm not sure how, but I figured out the best way to become a better parent is to give myself the gift of sometimes not looking at the world through my parenting lenses. I'm sometimes slower to learn, but I usually get there in the end.

This article was first published in the April/May 2007 issue of Adoption Today magazine. Copyright 2007, Terra Trevor. All Rights Reserved.

Terra Trevor is the mother of a daughter of Cherokee ancestry, born in 1981, a son adopted from Korea, in 1984, who died in 1999 at age fifteen, and a daughter adopted from Korea at age ten, in 1987. She is an active participant of the Adoption Community, Voices of Adoption

Terra is the author of the wonderful book: Pushing up the Sky.