“Where’s my mother?” My 5-year-old asks pensively from her car seat in the back of our van.
“She’s right here, silly,” her twin sister responds.
“No, I mean my real mother, my birth mother.”
For many adoptive parents, my daughter’s statement would cut right to the heart. Some parents discourage any questions about the birth family, threatened by their child’s desire to learn more. I know of one mother who told her adoptive son that his birth mother was dead, even though that was not true.
But I welcome my daughter’s question, happy that she wants to understand her history and grateful that she is able to ask me about it. As we drive to the masjid, I use the opportunity to discuss once again how they ended up in the United States with us, half a world away from the country of their birth.
Being an orphan begins with loss and there is no escaping that fact. In a perfect world, all children would be raised by their families. But the world is far from perfect and many orphans desperately need homes and families to love them.
I have a photograph of the moment one of my daughters was handed to me. It is one of my most cherished possessions. As we and the other adoptive parents walk into the government building, we can hear babies crying. We listen carefully, wondering which of those voices will be coming home with us. My husband and I sit impatiently in the waiting room, having played this moment over and over again in our minds for years.
Suddenly someone calls out from the hall, “Twins first!”
My husband turns white and freezes. I wonder if he might faint. My heart beats quickly and I am unexpectedly nervous. Two government workers appear in the doorway, each holding an 11-month girl dressed in identical pink outfits. They look different from the “referral” photographs, which were taken when they were 4-months-old and which we had received only 6 weeks earlier. The girls are much bigger now and each has a complete head of hair.
They are crying loudly, their faces bright red and stained with tears. They have never seen a non-Chinese person before and when they see the group of unfamiliar faces staring back at them, they cry even louder. They are especially terrified of the two strangers who are moving towards them with their arms outstretched to hold them.
In the photograph, my arms are reaching for my daughter, my hands barely touching her petite, 16-pound body for the first time. Although she is tiny, her mouth is as wide open as she possibly can make it and she is howling. I, on the other hand, have a soft smile on my face and my expression shows absolute contentment. I had fallen in love 6-weeks earlier when I first saw her picture. She has yet to feel the same.
As the hours pass, our daughters become more and more comfortable with us. Within days, they cling to us, not wanting anyone else to hold them. By the time we leave China, it is as if they had been with us all along.
I remember landing in the United States. It was momentous. According to U.S. law, our girls were U.S. citizens the instant they stepped foot on U.S. soil. Our joy though was tempered with sorrow – the sorrow of knowing that our girls had left all that they had ever known and from now on would be pulled by two worlds. I also knew that on the other side of the world a mother wondered what had become of her two precious daughters.
The Adoption Process
Adoption is generally a long process and requires much sabr. At any point, it can fall through. It becomes even more complicated when dealing with a foreign country, which can change the adoption procedure and who qualifies to adopt, or even cancel the adoption with no warning or recourse.
In the United States, the easiest way to adopt for most families is to use an adoption agency and this is even more so for international adoption. The adoption agency ushers you along the process. The adoption specialists know the applicable laws, the documents that must be submitted, and where to submit them. Because so much of the responsibility is left to the adoption agency, it is essential to find a reputable agency and speak with others who have used it. A good agency will address problems as they arise – as they inevitably do – and offer the emotional and educational support that is needed. A bad agency can cost you an adoption.
The fact that the adoption agency does so much for you does not mean that you have it easy. The amount of paperwork required is daunting at first. Among other things, you need to get clearance from the police and child protective services that you do not have a criminal history or a record of child abuse or neglect. Your home is inspected by a social worker, the fire department, and the sanitation department. Prospective parents needs to submit a physician’s report, statement of net worth, verification of employment, tax return, copies of birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, and references. A social worker does an intensive interview with you, asking all sorts of personal questions. Many of the documents must be notarised, certificated and authenticated at the local, county, state and federal levels. All of this takes time and money. Yet, if you take a methodical and consistent approach to the paperwork, the process moves along steadily and, in retrospect, is not the impossible task you initially anticipated.
Then you wait – often for years – until you have been “matched” with the child (or children) you are to adopt. It is an extremely emotional time with highs and lows. You worry that the adoption will not go through. You fantasize about your child. You likely will have to update and renew some of the documents. When you are finally matched, you have more paperwork to complete and must make travel arrangements and other preparations. For international adoption, the adoption agency arranges everything for you once you are in the foreign country and provides a guide to take you through the whole process there.
In our case, the long process and the years of waiting instantly vanished the moment we held our daughters, swept away by tears of joy.
Raising orphaned children
The biggest mistake adoptive parents can make is creating an environment where the child does not feel comfortable expressing his or her feelings about being orphaned and raised in a different family. In the not-so-distant past, it was believed in the United States that the best thing to do was to ignore the adoption all together. Many children did not find out that they were adopted until they were older, sometimes with tragic consequences.
In Islam, it would be haram to hide one’s orphan status as lineage is one of the five values that the Shari’ah is intended to uphold. A child must be able to grieve her loss. If she wants to try to track down her birth family when she is older, adoptive parents should support that decision.
Parents of internationally adopted children should teach their child about their birth country, including language lessons, and encourage the child to participate in cultural events. Experts also recommend that the child visits the birth country before puberty. Our girls will never be culturally Chinese but they can be proud to be Chinese Americans.
Parents should not dwell on their child’s orphan status. A 30-year-old Korean adoptee emphasized that in a discussion with adoptive parents: adoption is only one aspect of who he is. Everybody faces challenges and no single challenge defines anybody.
Parents raising orphans must be prepared to help the child deal with stigma, prejudice, and inappropriate questioning from strangers. Muslims who want to raise an orphan and can only do so through their country’s adoption laws should speak to a trusted Islamic scholar (and not just any imam) on what should be done to avoid violating Islam’s prohibition against adoption.
Much more can be said about raising orphans and each child will cope with being an orphan differently, even children within the same family. For some children, it is barely an issue, for others it is a lifelong challenge. Parents need to educate themselves and provided the guidance and support that is needed.
The other day I came home to find my husband asleep on the couch with our two girls sleeping on either side of him. Their little arms and legs were wrapped around him, full of love for the Baba they adore so much. I watched them as they slept, grateful that Allah (SWT) has blessed us so generously. I also made du’a for their birth mother, praying that one day she will meet her beautiful daughters and know how much they are loved.