A Smaller World: Birth Parent Relationships in International Adoption.

This is going to be a picture-less blog post. We apologize in advance for that. It deals with some rather sensitive subject matter that we thought long and hard about even discussing. We think it could benefit adoptive parents who are currently walking their own journey with birth parent relationships.

Becky’s Story

It wasn’t that long ago that even within the United States all adoptions were closed, meaning that no information about biological parents was shared with adoptive parents or vice versa. Records weren’t well kept, parents thought they knew best, and no one wanted the child to be hurt. That part hasn’t changed. No one wants their child to be hurt.

How we approach openness in adoption within the United States has changed completely though. It is now the norm to have some level of openness between biological and adoptive parents within the U.S. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the internet in general, has made it so that people are easy to simply Google and find. For my four children born inside the United States, we know who their birth parents are, and for the ones that are interested in having a healthy relationship with us, it is very easy to keep in touch. The world feels very small.

Occasionally people will ask me about my relationship with the birth parents of my children born inside the United States. They’re surprised that the most open relationship I have with my children’s first families is with the mother of my children from Ghana. Their first family is the one I happen to speak with the most, to share the most with. This is by their choice. They want this level of openness. If we’re being totally honest, I wasn’t sure I did.

It happened somewhat by accident. My children from Ghana were 9 and 6-years-old when we adopted them. I never thought in any kind of intentional way about my relationship to their first mother. As it turns out, she was alive, and waiting to meet me when I got to Ghana. While the circumstances surrounding her reasons for making an adoption plan are hers alone to share should she ever choose, it was quite obvious to me that her bond with her children was very strong. Yes, they were her children. For 9 years and 6 years, they were hers.

The thought of that is somewhat threatening. Here I had put my heart on the line, traveled the world, put my every hope for the future into the idea of parenting these children, and suddenly, it was plainly obvious how important this first mother relationship was. Would I ever be that important? Would they love me as much as they love her? Or, would they only love me for a little while and then go right back to loving her.

I worried about all of that. I worried about it for me though. What my children needed was plainly obvious. They needed us both. Five years later, they still do. It hasn’t been an easy road. We struggle sometimes. Our kids grieved the loss of everything they knew terribly. My daughter’s reaction was to get angry with absolutely every single thing that had to do with her homeland, including her first family. My son’s reaction was more typical grief, a lot of crying, and then some very stereotypical boyish stoicism.

I worried that we would never come through the other side of that. They had years with their first family though, then some time in uncertainty in an orphanage, and then they had us. How long would it take all of us to feel secure in our relationships? There is no easy answer. We’re all still working on it. Through the advent of the internet, and Facebook specifically, we have seen the birth of an amazing relationship between our kids and their first family. They get to share every milestone, every amazing moment, and every hardship. There is a connection there that is precious.

For now, I build the bridge for my kids. All contact with their first family happens through my Facebook account. I private message with their birth mother. I tag photos for her to see. My kids send a message every now and again, but mostly, we just all follow their lead on how much personal contact they want and need. They have not asked to go back to visit Ghana yet, but when they do, I will be the one to book the plane tickets, to stand at their side as that reunion happens. I will always be important. Their relationship with her is different, beautiful, and has no effect on my relationship. Love doesn’t divide. It multiplies.

For my children from China, where secrecy, and a little bit of shame, still surrounds the adoption process, there seems to be very little hope of finding any of my children’s first families. When people ask about this, my answer is always the same. If I had one wish granted to me on this planet, it would be to find those four Chinese first families and simply have a moment to tell them “Your children are so loved.” and “Thank you.”

When my friend, Salimeh, told me she was attempting to find her daughter’s first family in China, I was so surprised. How? Why? It is rare to find someone who embraces openness in adoption quite the way I do, and it’s even more rare to do it in international adoption. It is nearly unheard of to seek it out. I’ve heard many adoptive families say they are actually choosing China for adoption because they want no contact with their child’s first family. This hurts my heart, every time, because I know what my children have gained from their relationships with their first family.

Salimeh’s Story

As I began the search for my daughter’s first family I reflected on the inevitability of her questions about this missing piece of her life. It is almost inevitable that my child will have questions or desires for knowledge about her past. I did some self-reflection, and I wondered if other adoptive parents have thought about that?

Do you know your resources if your child decides they want to search for their first family? Have you thought out how you will approach the subject? Have you thought about it from their perspective and how you would feel? Have you thought about what you will say/handle it when they ask?

My two favorite documentaries on both subjects are ‘Somewhere Between’ and ‘Ricki’s Promise.’ Really, they should be mandatory viewing for adoptive parents with kids from China or internationally. It is human nature to want to know where you came from and I sincerely believe we should honor our child’s feelings if they want to know. It is more than likely they will at one point or another.

As I delved into research on searching for birth parents in China, I realized there could be a chance that my daughter’s first family is searching for her. For a child adopted from China, it may have been her parents who relinquished them, or it may have been a family member deciding to abandon the child without parental consent, or it may have been a kidnapping. At any given moment, there are hundreds of birth parents searching for their children.

To view some of these searches, you can navigate to a Chinese website called ‘Baby Come Home.’ There you will see hundreds of entries from parents searching (see below for instructions on how to navigate Chinese internet).

For a first hand account of what these families go through, you can watch this heart wrenching documentary about parents who are searching for their children.

Researching all this, watching this documentary, delving into all of this was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Ultimately, I had to ask myself, if I had been put in a position where I had to relinquish my child, or had a family member take my child and abandon them, or I was living my absolutely worst nightmare and my child had been kidnapped, wouldn’t I like to know what happened?

It is a hard subject. There is fear. I completely understand. I have lived it.

My daughter and I ultimately traveled to China to search for her first family. We found what we believed to be our daughter’s birthmother. This woman knew details that only her family would know. The first night I was in contact with her was complete anguish. It was a strange way to feel, because I had been actively seeking this relationship. I was scared, and so cautious, but I felt strongly this relationship was something my daughter really needed. I had thought long and hard about this. It turned out, she is not my daughter’s birth mom, but she was a part of her story. All of this will be my daughter’s story to share someday, should she choose to.

Today I read the story of an adoptive mother in the U.S., who has discovered that her daughter’s birth mother did not place her Chinese born daughter for adoption with consent, but that her in laws and birth father did so without her permission. The birth mother managed to get in contact with a famous searcher in China, who in turn has reached out to many American adoptive moms. Through social media, the birth mother located the adoptive family. This could happen to any adoptive parent. The internet and social media are creating a smaller world for our children. My best advice is to not be caught off guard. Be proactive by discussing this with your children. Don’t brush this subject matter under the rug. If by chance, that adoptive mother, whose life has been altered in minutes by learning of the true circumstances of her daughter’s adoption, is reading this, please, don’t be frightened. You are still her mom. She is just lucky that she has two moms who love her so deeply.

Search Tips for Families:

How to navigate Chinese Social Media:

  • Use Google Chrome, right click and click on translate to English.
  • Baidu.com is the ‘Google’ of China.
  • You can use Google Translate to get the Chinese characters of what you want search.
  • Check out Baby Come Home http://www.baobeihuijia.com/

Making Chinese contacts/contacts in China–

  • Host Chinese exchange students.
  • Get on WeChat and QQ (WeChat is easier to navigate). These are both social media tools for Chinese.
  • Get your QR code for WeChat imprinted on business cards and hand them out in China. I did this for the nannies at the SWI and I have gotten the most awesome pictures of my daughter. There is a feature on WeChat that allows you to tag notes for your contacts so you know who they are. For example, “travel guide from Guangzhou” or “Sweet older nanny.”
  • Join expat pages for your child’s city on Facebook. For example, if your child was adopted from Nanjing look up ‘Nanjing expat’ pages on Facebook.

Hiring a Researcher–

There are many researchers, but it is best to do your own initial research first. This way you have a clear idea of what you want them to look for. There are Facebook groups dedicated to searching for Chinese birth parents. From theses groups, you can get contacts and information on birth parent researchers. This is best done when you are very serious about searching.

About the authors:

Becky Ketarkus is mom of 11, with her first four children coming from domestic adoption as infants. She and her husband then traveled the road of international adoption to bring home three children from Ghana. Following these adoptions, they brought home four children from China. She is a Waiting Child Advocate. As a part of this role, she embraces the idea that her experiences might help other adoptive parents.

 Salimeh Evjen is mom to three. In her spare time she flips homes, buying them at auction and selling them. Salimeh grew up overseas as an expat and remembers feeling neither here nor there. She wants to give her daughter the key to her culture and background. For this reason, Salimeh enjoys researching and sleuthing to find her daughter’s birth parents. In this quest, they have gone back to China twice and have made strong connections with key people in her daughter’s past, along with discovering China and Chinese culture.