Published on July 31st, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein0
Love and Paperwork Make a Family: Adoption Books for Parents and Kids
When I was twenty-two, I worked weekends at an independent bookstore on the Sunset Strip. My shifts were usually quiet, punctuated by conversations with drunk people, occasional celebrities, and a guy who was always looking for books on animal hypnosis.
I had a lot of time to read, and to shelve the parenting section, which was how I came across The Kid. With candor and wit, sex columnist Dan Savage wrote about wondering who would possibly choose him and his partner, Terry, as parents, and the woman who did.
Meanwhile, in another part of Southern California, my future partner was reading the same book, and when we met in 2006, we had a common foundation for what parenthood might look like for us.
We didn’t sign on with our open adoption agency until after trying hard to get pregnant, getting pregnant, and miscarrying. The Sunday after our agency’s orientation, we stood in line at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to have Savage autograph It Gets Better.
I gave a nervous, ten-second summary of our story.
“Stick with it,” he said. “We got lucky, but I know a lot of folks who’ve had a hard road with situations that didn’t work out. But if you hang in there, you’ll get your kid.”
In other words, it gets better. And it did.
The corollary is “It doesn’t get better, you get stronger.” That happened too. For our lives to bloom through adoption, someone else’s heart and body had to break. I had to lose and find hope a dozen times. That’s part of why I kept reading about adoption, and why I want our son, Dash, who is four and a half now, to have guidebooks of his own. Here are a few of each.
For parents (in more or less the order I’d recommend reading them):*
Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by Jana Wolff: When our agency assigned this book, I was a knot of grief and anger—that bio parenting came with celebration and legal protection, while we had to open every corner of our lives to scrutiny. I was intrigued by the suggestion that not every adoptive parent was a paragon of humility and self-actualization.
Although I didn’t relate to Wolff’s premise that adoption was a second choice for any parent (even as a kid, I wanted to adopt a kid), I related to her envy and resentment of her baby’s birth mom; her feelings of isolation from “real” moms; and her grappling with racial issues she thought she’d already put to bed. The miracle of love, of course, is that it doesn’t demand perfection, just effort.
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin: When this MUTHA contributor didn’t see her experience as a single Black adoptive mother reflected in the parenting or adoption canons, she did what writers and women of color have done for ages: She wrote it herself. She traces the havoc that slavery unleashed on Black families through a long history of open kinship adoptions within her community. She herself was adopted by her loving grandparents, while maintaining a complicated relationship with her parents. None of that entirely prepares her extended family for her adoption, through foster care, of two “strangers’ babies.”
Meanwhile, adoption narratives and even agency trainings almost universally feature white parents adopting children of color, when in reality, it’s hardly uncommon for POC to adopt (some even adopt white babies! Imagine!). I am married to an adoptive Brown mom, and she doesn’t relish feeling invisible, so Austin’s book is a welcome addition. A blend of cultural criticism and memoir, Motherhood So White is stronger as the latter, but a must-read as both.
Digging to America by Ann Tyler: This is the only novel on my list, but reading Ann Tyler always feels like encountering an old friend. Following two American families—one white, one Iranian—who adopt daughters from Korea, the story is a quiet, intimate meditation about human vs. national identities, and choosing a messy life over an orderly one (perhaps the only real option in a globalized world).
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler: When C.C. and I went through our adoption training, I sometimes wondered why our education focused so excruciatingly on birthparents’ grief (focused, as I was, on my own). Covering a period in which premarital sex was common, but birth control was rare and single motherhood taboo, Fessler’s oral history helped fill in major gaps in my understanding.
Just when you think you’ve learned all the horrors of twentieth century mechanization, another pops up, such as the way that maternity homes and adoption agencies corralled scared young women into virtual baby factories. It’s a genocide of sorts: an entire generation of babies torn from mothers who, given a few more choices and resources, would have generally preferred to raise their children. Most damaging of all, they were told to remain silent about their pregnancies and forget their children. Adoptive parents were usually told that the children had been abandoned. As with any mass tragedy, the challenge is to make thousands of similar stories feel unique. But Fessler makes up for occasional narrative repetitiveness with fascinating demographic context and her own story as an adoptee.
Palimpsest by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom: It’s tempting to read every memoir by an adoptee who longs for their birth family as a cautionary tale for adoptive parents: If only Sjöblom had been raised in LA’s Koreatown rather than über-blond Sweden. If only she’d been adopted at birth rather than living at an orphanage until she was a toddler. Then she wouldn’t have wrestled with a “sense of not fully existing” that pushes her to the brink of suicide.
But these are my defenses. Every adoptee processes loss, and no adoptive parent can predict what path it will take. Sjöblom’s graphic memoir takes readers across continents, into the dark truths of foreign adoption (in which market forces create dubious “orphans”), and through mountains of red tape and paperwork. And while I related to her hapless, loving Swedish parents, I also related to the ways in which Lisa’s pregnancy opened the floodgates of grief for her birthmom. I was only pregnant for a minute, but when I miscarried, I lost my mom—who died eight years earlier—all over again. Palimpsest paints an intergenerational umbilical cord whose cutting we mourn throughout our lives.
For young kids:
Babies Come from Airports by Erin Dealey, illustrated by Luciana Navarro Powell: Narrated by an adopted kid named Adar, whose family is about to welcome a baby sister from China, Airports covers a lot of territory with impressive literary efficiency: the assumptions strangers make about interracial families (“Where’s your mom?” “She’s right there”), the challenges of international adoption, and the excitement of a new sibling. The rhymes are clever, the illustrations are lovely, the adoptive mom is Brown, and my son loves the airplanes.
A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza: Interspecies adoption allegories are a pet peeve of mine. Adoption is not like a bear raising a bird. It’s like a bear raising a bear it didn’t birth. But #OurFavesAreProblematic, literature is as imperfect as life itself, and this is an incredibly sweet story about chosen family—specifically, a bird who finds a bear to be his mother, despite the fact that she doesn’t look like him.
Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Jamel Akib: Rich pastels depict a family’s long process of adopting their second child, a baby girl they from India. As big brother Arun waits for Asha through Rakhi Day (an Indian holiday that celebrates siblings), Halloween, and his birthday, he realizes that there are things that are out of his parents’ control, but love trumps red tape. Asha is another welcome addition to the tiny not-all-adoptive-parents-are-white canon.
A Family for Baby Bear by Kevin Fletcher-Velasco: This is the only book we’ve found from a birthmom’s point of view—in this case, a polar bear who wants her unborn cub to have the “green trees, streams full of fish, and cozy caves” she can’t provide. She interviews various bear families until she finds Daddy and Papa Panda Bear, who have all of the above, plus lots of love. With clever casting (polar bears are arguably the most under-resourced species, and pandas are known to struggle with fertility) and a nod to the painful material realities of adoption, Fletcher-Velasco’s story is unique enough to overlook his unfortunate font choices.
I haven’t yet found a book that reflects Dash’s exact experience: domestic open adoption by one white mom and one mom of color, birth parents known but not present. It seems almost comical to demand such a thing, except that there are thousands of books about white kids with a white biological mom and dad.
I suppose I need to write and draw that story, so that he’ll eventually be able to tell it himself, in his own words and pictures. It’s that simple. It’s that immense.
In the library we visit most weeks, the wooden blocks Dash likes to play with reside next to a section that could be called Books For Kids Going Through Drama. These stories try to explain the things that break adults via simple words and soft, dull illustrations: divorce, cancer, prison. Many feel as squirmy and cheesy as an after school special, and I know kids can smell the stigma a mile away. Not to mention the literal segregation from fun books.
I’m hardly the first to say this, but kids with two moms, kids with a parent in prison—they should get to raise pet dinosaurs and chat with talking dogs too. Their realities should be integral and integrated into the plot, but not always the whole plot. Otherwise, the message is: White kids in stable two-parent homes get to have adventures. Your story is over here, the one that tastes like salad with no dressing.
YA fantasy author Daniel José Older recently said: “There’s a moment for every nerd of color, when you get tired of not seeing yourself on the page. It’s a long night of erasure. You wonder: How do I love a genre that doesn’t love me back?”
When it comes to adoption, one of my favorite examples comes from TV. Buddy, the young orange T. Rex in PBS Kids’ Dinosaur Train, hatches into a nest of Pteranodons, but his adoptive mom takes it in stride. “This is your family, and I’m your mom,” she says in the earworm theme song.
Buddy’s curiosity about his differences forms a loose framework for the show, in which the Pteranodon family travels through space and time to learn about various ancient creatures. His adoption is inextricable from who he is, but it isn’t his entire personality. He and his siblings sing, dance, and fly in zeppelins.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Pteranodon doesn’t presume to know everything about T. Rexes, so she takes all her children to Dinosaur Big City to immerse themselves in theropod culture. She also goes on a girls’ trip with her friends and shoos her kids out of the nest when they annoy her. Mr. Pteranodon has an ongoing feud with their obnoxious neighbor, Larry Lambeosaurus.
Which is to say: I need this too, a reminder that to be a family formed by adoption is both exceptional and unexceptional, rich and mundane.
*The ways to adopt are as wide-ranging as the types of adoptive families. This short list is shaped by my own experience and would be different if I had adopted an older child, or adopted through foster care, or were straight or a person of color. Books that speak to those experiences are out there, though probably not enough of them. If you have recommendations, please share them in the comments!