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Author Sonya Corbin Dwyer (right) with her husband, Paul, and daughters. Photo by Candace Cunning

A family like any other

Author Sonya Corbin Dwyer is as much a mother to her daughters as any biological parent. So why do people keep asking, ‘Where are they from?’

By Sonya Corbin Dwyer

My husband and I adopted our two daughters. They are Chinese, and we are white. We are not unique. Nearly 21,000 children were adopted internationally between 2000 and 2010, according to the Adoption Council of Canada. Not all were transracial adoptions, but most were. Being of a different race than our children means the process of how we became a family is always on display.

After we adopted our first daughter, we quickly learned to deal with questions and comments that demonstrated people’s curiosity about our differences from other parents (something, I confess, I’m still working on). “Is she adopted?” “How old was she when you adopted her?” “How much did she cost?” “Do you know anything about her real mother?” “Do you have children of your own?” These questions reflect the belief that adoptive parenting is less normal than biological parenting. If I am seen as abnormal, so are my children — a burden I pray they never feel. They are my own just as surely as if I had given birth to them.

I also pray that my children always feel they belong to their new country. Even when my daughters were very small, adults have asked them, “Where are you from?” Most people are not content to hear “Corner Brook” or “Newfoundland and Labrador” — they expect to hear the country in which my daughters were born. We do not deny our daughters’ racial and cultural heritage. We learn about it together and celebrate it. I pray that my daughters will always be proud of their unique heritage — one by birth, one by adoption — and that they are able to integrate these heritages into their identities. But these questions convey messages and express assumptions.

When my first daughter was only an infant, I was usually content to answer some of these questions, as she could not comprehend what was being said. Now, when I notice someone looking intently at our family, I brace myself. I want to handle the situation in a manner that demonstrates I am proud of how our family was created but also shows my daughters, now ages nine and 11, that they are entitled to privacy about their family history. I pray for the ability to shelter them from comments and questions that may negatively affect their self-identity. I pray I am able to teach them how to handle such comments and questions when they encounter them on their own. I don’t want to minimize their past, but this is their personal story; they needn’t share it with everyone who asks.

The comment “It’s too bad you had to go all the way to China to adopt when there are so many children in Canada who need good homes” makes me want to ask, “Don’t all children deserve good homes?” On the other hand, the comment “Your children are so lucky” suggests that their father and I are saints for having adopted them. We are not. We took our daughters away from their birth country without their consent. Whatever else we can give them, we can’t undo that. We are the lucky ones. We wanted to become parents, and another couple allowed us to do that. We are blessed in ways we could have never dreamed.

I did a lot of reading prior to adopting to prepare for how I would explain adoption to my children, how I would raise them to have healthy racial identities, and how I would answer their questions about their birth parents and the circumstances surrounding their adoption. The books and pamphlets did not prepare me for the frequency of intrusive questions or how they would make me feel as a mother. Families are created in many different ways. But most other non-traditional parents get to choose when and with whom they share information about their family’s circumstances. My biological nieces and nephew frequently accompany us on outings, but I have never been asked, “Are they yours?” as I have been many times when out with my daughters.

Adoption’s portrayal in the media is also problematic. Describing someone as “an adopted child” when it has no relevance to the story only stresses the lack of a biological relationship, positing adoption as second best and reinforcing the saying that “blood is thicker than water.” It isn’t. I pray my children never believe these myths.

No one has ever adopted by accident. It is a deliberate act and an arduous process. Prospective parents must be persistent and willing to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability. Timelines are indeterminate. Every aspect of our lives was examined by social workers. We had to have medical exams, provide letters from our employers, our banks, our family and our friends. Our house was inspected, and we were interviewed about our marriage, why we wanted to adopt, why we wanted to adopt from China and how we would raise our children. Then, after the adoption was completed, a social worker visited our home at the six-month and one-year marks to interview us for post-adoption reports. So, whenever someone questions the “realness” of our relationships — mother-child or sister-sister — it hurts. If anything, I love my daughters “with the force that perhaps only a non-biological mother can, a force that is less like the strength of blood and more like the strength of a Mack truck,” as Emma Tattenbaum-Fine described the love of her non-traditional mom in a Huffington Post article. I pray my daughters always feel that love.

For the past five years, I have been a volunteer at the United Church’s West Haven Camp in Pasadena, N.L., during the week that my two daughters attend. Last summer, I received a present in a secret friends gift exchange that moved me to tears. It was a sign that Wilfred, a 16-year-old camp counsellor, had painted on paper, glued to cardboard and framed with twigs. He got my daughters to put their handprints on the paper before he printed over them, “For this child I prayed . . . 1 Samuel 1:27.”

I cried because like most mothers, I do pray for them. Like most mothers, I go through life caught up in the daily activity of a busy family. I often forget my girls are adopted. I’m their mom — rather than their “adoptive mother” — first and foremost.

“For this child I prayed.” What these five short words on a painted sign from a teenage camp counsellor expressed to me was that, unlike many adults, he got it. I am much more similar to other mothers than I am different. And that was truly a gift.

Sonya Corbin Dwyer is a professor of psychology at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. She attends Humber United in Corner Brook, N.L.

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