Why do we expect adoptees to be grateful?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Margie Perscheid, originally published at Third Mom

The concept that my children should be grateful to my husband and me for having adopted them has always been offensive to me. And if it’s offensive to me, how much more so must it be to my kids and to other adoptees! The first problem is that I just don’t get it. The closest parallel I can draw is something my mother used to tell me really infuriated her – the fact that her father always wanted her to thank him for bringing her from Slovenia to the U.S. Mom is 83 and she still talks about how much it aggravated her. “After all,” she says every time the subject comes up, “I was only three when he brought us over and I had no say in it. Why did he expect me to thank him all the time for it?”

As I said, that’s as close as I can get – and the comparison is pretty weak. After all, Mom knows her family, she knows her name, her heritage, her history. To be expected to show gratitude for an event that is tied to enormous losses – especially losses that the rest of humankind considers fundamental – is exponentially more difficult.

When I was a newer a-mom, I didn’t understand this. I viewed the intertwining of gratitude and adoption in terms of who should be grateful: “Oh, no, I’M the one who’s grateful! I’m the one who’s blessed!” Or sometimes I viewed in terms of the what: “No, I’m no saint for adopting, and my children shouldn’t be grateful for it.” I was responding with focus on me, not on my kids, when I should have been focusing on my kids, and on the why.

Focusing on the why brings the dialog to the losses: “Actually, my children shouldn’t be expected to be grateful for having lost their families, heritage, and homeland – especially since that could have been prevented in the first place. And I am as guilty as the next person for having done nothing.” It’s not a perfect response, but it opens up the door to deeper conversation, and may get someone thinking outside of the mainstream box. At a minimum, it sends the message that the concept of gratitude for adoption is plain wrong. And because I’m sure that someone is thinking it – heck, I’m thinking it – there is hypocrisy in this approach. To that, I can only say, yes, but it shouldn’t stop me and other a-parents from speaking out.

The real challenge, though, is finding ways to talk about this with my kids. We haven’t yet had a discussion specifically focused on this topic. Instead, as occasions have arisen, we’ve talked about it in other contexts. The kids haven’t shared their thoughts many thoughts on this, and it worries me that they may already be burdened with their feelings, but are saying nothing. Hopefully if I keep grabbing opportunities to talk, they’ll be able to open up a bit more.

As to why society places the burden of gratitude on adoptees – my theory is pretty simple, albeit cynical. I believe the mainstream views adoption through a lens of charity. People who have plenty are encouraged to give – and the poor are conditioned to be grateful. If adopting is viewed as a charitable act by adoptive parents, it follows that its recipients – adoptees – must be grateful, too. It is a deeply entrenched attitude. You can find it in the media, in our laws, in adoption policy, in a conversation with a neighbor over your back fence. And of course, our children will find it, too.

All the more reason to counter with reality, whenever we can.

Margie Perscheid is the adoptive mother of two Korean teens. She is a co-founder of Korean Focus, an organization for families with children from Korea with chapters across the country. Margie is on the Board of Directors of the Korean American Coalition DC Chapter, a former board member of KAAN, the Korean YMCA of Greater Washington (now KAYA), and ASIA (Adoption Service Information Agency). Margie writes about her intercountry adoption experiences at Third Mom. She, her husband Ralf, and their two children live in Alexandria, Virginia.

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