More Than Just a Day: Holding All the Pieces of Adoption

On November 21st, our country celebrated National Adoption Day. Every year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, courts across the country finalize the adoptions of children from foster care.

Since this tradition began in 2000, 54,000 children have been adopted from foster care on National Adoption Day.

It is the anchor of a month-long campaign known as National Adoption Month. For weeks, the campaign’s messages and images wash over us. The intention, and the takeaway, is to celebrate the new placement of children into adoptive families, and the positive experiences of all families who have adopted children. By extension, the practice of adoption in general is celebrated.

Giving children the home they truly need is a good thing. These placements and experiences can be positive. In some cases, they can be life saving. We can feel glad about the successes, and then work hard to replicate them. All of this deserves our country’s attention and support.

Laura Callan, founder of the Adoption Museum Project.
Laura Callan, founder of the Adoption Museum Project.

But there’s a problem with this annual national observance: it’s not the whole story. The whole story of adoption is much more complex and challenging.

It includes many types of adoptions such as foster care, private domestic, inter-country, kinship, second parent and step-parent. It begins with relinquishment and continues throughout people’s lives. It requires us to talk about root issues such as power and privilege, racism and economic inequity.

And adoption raises a host of difficult questions, like: why are children available for adoption, why do open adoptions close, why are internationally adopted people being deported, or why can’t adoptive parents get the support they need to help their children? These questions stretch in a vast web from the U.S. individual to the global systemic. There is no campaign for these parts of the adoption story.

National Adoption Month and National Adoption Day are our country’s largest effort to engage the broad public in the idea and practice of adoption. It’s a selective and distorted observance. It does not speak to so many realities of adoption. Instead, it teaches the public to equate adoption with a celebration of only certain parts, the good parts that are easier to hold. The result is that we, as a country, think of adoption in dangerously incomplete and simplified terms.

Take the word “adoption” itself. Psychologist Paul Sunderland suggests that adoption is “the only condition that doesn’t really describe what happened.” What happens is separation from birth family. This is followed by adoption into a new family. These two events – and everything they represent – are true in every adoption.

When we imagine away entire parts of adoption, the diversity and the difficulty, we are all diminished. We don’t see some people fully, or at all. And we close the door on so much potential — for more honest relationships, more useful practices and services that support everyone involved, sharing of wisdom, and healing.

This dominant narrative of adoption, embodied in National Adoption Month, is being challenged now. More diverse stories and alternative points of view are being offered – some as a direct response to National Adoption Month. Adopted people are driving this change. Their voices and stories are not monolithic; there is great diversity within the community of adopted people. Since they have been most impacted by adoption, their stories demand particular attention.

Individuals like Laura Barcella and Katelyn Dixon have written about their experiences. The Flip the Script campaign, created by the Lost Daughters collective as a response to National Adoption Month, continues this year. An anthology by the same name was just published.

This month, Angela and Bryan Tucker launched their Kickstarter campaign for “Adopted Life: The Episodes” to create space for young transracial adoptees to speak their truth.

To have an honest and useful conversation about adoption, we must attend to all of its pieces. That includes the pieces that help and the pieces that harm.

We can hold both at the same time. There is nothing wrong with the idea of National Adoption Month per se. If we wish to run a national campaign about this social practice, how can we expand the definition of adoption to include all of its realities?

Let’s figure that out. Then we can put the full weight of our resources behind it, so that all people involved in this experience can be heard and served.

Laura Callen is the Founder/Director of the Adoption Museum Project, a social change organization that is creating the first museum to explore the topic of adoption. Laura is an adopted person. She lives in Berkeley, Calif.. You can reach her at laura@adoptionmuseumproject.org.

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