THE BLOG
12/04/2013 03:10 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

Real Parents in Adoption: A Paradigm Shift

Of course that scary remark will come sooner or later: "You are not even my real dad." A child that is denied something 'utterly' important, or is 'unfairly' disciplined tries to find hurting words and comes up with the ones she or he thinks are the worst. In our adoptive family it started early. Our son was five. The first you-are-not-my-real-dad hit us with some sort of surprise: How does a kid this age know that these words are meant to hurt?

My partner and I were prepared. We had discussed the realness of our children's first parents and had concluded that they were indeed very real. They lived real lives in P. and L., and then: We knew them. They came to visit and stayed with their other kids over for the weekend.

Biology is real and powerful. Our daughter's mom has the same wall-scattering laugh as Rosa. Her older sister is a twin-like carbon copy. Our son's mother exudes the same poetic melancholy that floats around Joshua's eyes. And he moves exactly like his dad: flexible and tight at the same time. Our own realness, seen from the outside, looks in these extended family settings debatable. We are white and our kids and their first families are black.

In a period when we didn't have contact with the parents of one of our kids, we reasoned that these parents were still real; they were out of sight, but they existed and we hoped that one day they would materialize again. Which they did.

The idea of the first parents as real parents is new and not yet generally acknowledged in the world of adoption. But it gets more traction. A famous and acclaimed book from 1999 still defined adoptable kids languishing in foster care as Nobody's Children in its title. A book critical of that 'parentless-ness' attitude from 13 years later on transracial and transnational adoption was somewhat mischievously titled: Somebody's Children. It expressed that the first parents of adoptees from the U.S., Ethiopia, China or Guatemala, and of children adopted from foster care, who seemed to have disappeared for the adoptive parents in space, class, race and over time, are actual people as well: The adoptive parent might not like that, but their children are very much aware of them, even when those parents are dead, missing or otherwise unavailable. Nobody is nobody's child.

In the adoption lingo the first parents are called birth parents and the adoptive parents forever parents, as if one could isolate birth from the rest of a child's life and if one could guarantee that divorce and death are not around the corner. Most of the current terminology is still euphemistic. Or soothing. Or at least expressing the values of the adoptive parents.

The increasingly louder voices of adult adoptees play a critical role in this fundamental change in the perception of adoption. The Black, Korean and Chinese children adopted in the second half of last century grew up, were well-educated, often searched for their first parents and began to speak out and to write. The results are visible. Adoptee-run mentor programs for adopted kids, instead of playgroups organized by parents, started to flourish in urban areas in the U.S. in this century. Adoptee-led advocacy organizations -- like the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative -- sprung up and are bound to replace the organizations their adoptive parents founded, like PEAR (Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform). A crowded Facebook page for parents, who adopted transracially, is curated by two passionate adoptees, who invited other adult adoptees to comment as well: The parents are often asked to listen, not to opine. A new web magazine containing almost exclusively pieces written by adoptees, Gazillion Voices, stands in stark contrast to the by now old-fashioned magazine Adoptive Families, which focuses on the interests of adoptive parents and adoption agencies.

Adult adoptees made clear, generally without doubting the love and good intentions of the adoptive parents, that the first parents are quintessential in the narratives of their lives. The realness of us, adoptive parents, is thus in a certain way questioned.

Some time ago I went for the first time with seven-year-old Rosa and nine-year-old Joshua to a fancy black hair salon on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Joshua, always asking for a Mohawk, agreed, thank, God, to a less fashionable style. A very tall, male hairdresser with a dark, mellifluous voice worked on him and instructed him how to care for his hair from now on. And he religiously does so every morning. I was never able to make him to brush his hair daily and use a pomade to keep it healthy and shiny. The hairdresser took the place of the real dad, who would have given the same authentic instruction, which I, with my type of hair, could never have done convincingly.

Rosa chose -- together with her soft-spoken and festively dressed hairstylist -- a style, pretty common for black girls, with cornrows and hair extensions in a bun. The whole conversation was strictly between them, and I was informed about the outcome. The hairstylist took, obviously, the place of the real mom: Intimate conversations between mother and daughter about hair and the actual act of doing the hair are an almost sacred ritual in the black community. Rosa and the hairstylist were together for four and a half hours before the hair was completed; I never spent that much time with my daughter in such a close, physical setting.

A more urgent example than hair in the context of transracial adoption -- and many adoptions are transracial -- is racism. Are we white parents able to raise our kids to deal with racism? We, if we are not Jewish, never experienced personal or institutional racism. The real parents of our children, who lived through it from the day they were born, would do a much better job educating our children about racism and modeling responses to it. Since they are -- for that role not available, we have to rely on black friends.

Parenting adopted children means dealing not only with the first or the real parents (and with the images and dreams of your kids of their real parents) but also, and not in the last place, it means making use of replacements and stand-ins, like the hairdressers or black friends, for those real parents. We are just not equipped to fulfill the role of the first parents fully. In terms of parental authority: The adoptive parent is losing ground, and gets less real. The others in the so-called adoption triad, first parents and adoptees, are getting stronger and more real. And rightly so.

For some parents it might be hard to loosen the personal reins in raising their kids or even hand over those reins so every now and then to others. The adoption triad used to be hierarchical with the adoptive parents at the top. Adoption agencies, supported by the law and administrative bodies, are holding on to that structure, because the parents are their clients, also financially. The emergence of the adoptee movement however brought not only the perspective of the adoptee to the fore, but also the perspective of the first parents. This is not less than a paradigm change in adoption.

What does that change mean for the adoptive parents. The French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) uses in his works -- which are all more or less about human relations -- the term 'responsibility'. He means that in a literal sense: in a conversation one carries the responsibility for the response of the other. That implies that one has to take care that the other is given the full opportunity to express her or himself. Adoptive parents have, if we follow Levinas, the responsibility to give word not only to the adopted child (who can find his representation in the voices of adult adoptees), but even more so to the first parents: what would have been the role, function and culture of those parents if they would have been able to raise our -- and their -- children. In an open adoption adoptive parents can know, but in a closed or international adoption it asks from the parents a deep understanding of the world in which their children were born and a type of self-effacing generosity: the adoptive parent has sometimes to give preference to the 'other' as Levinas would call that, preference over her or himself. This doesn't mean that the first parent, or the adoptee, should have the last word: an ethical conversation á la Levinas involves three equal voices. But therefore is at least needed that all partners in the conversation are acknowledged as real.

This new 'democratic' triad constellation gives the adoptee the opportunity to reflect and eventually connect without shame or secrecy about her or his first parents. The first parents can be or feel part of the lives of their children, virtually or in real life. And this new 'adoption paradigm' obliges the adoptive parents to create an emotional space in their lives for the first parents in which real or imagined discussions about race, ethnicity and class can take place in the context of parenting their children.

No worries about new adoptive families in this new constellation: they are real families, with real kids and real parents, who will cherish the riches and mourn the sorrows of the 'others' in their lives. When those real 'others', the first parents are present is that a wonderful life changing experience; when families have to imagine and truthfully create the not-present others -- as is often the case in international adoptions -- even more so.

"You are not even my real dad," is not a scary remark after all, but leads in the end to a deeper human understanding of adoption.