Today’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family™” series installment features a couple who finds joy and meaning in keeping in touch with the biological family of the son they adopted through foster care and in cherishing his cultural traditions as an important part of his upbringing.
When Maureen Bromley and Marianne Guilfoyle of Southern California opened their lives to a six-year-old child from the foster care system, they also opened their hearts and home to a new culture. Through their son’s eyes, they too delighted in attending the annual Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown (punctuated by loud and festive firecrackers), enjoying Chinese pastries called moon cakes, and giving Jeffrey the traditional gift of money in a red envelope each year -- with the color red symbolizing happiness, success and good luck.
When Jeffrey, now 21, was placed with them, he knew very little English, as he was used to speaking Mandarin at home. To help him feel more comfortable and to keep him connected to his heritage, the couple enrolled him Chinese school on Saturdays.
Marianne, now 43, and Maureen, now 48, both had looked forward to parenting from a young age and both chose careers serving children. They met in 1996 while working at private summer camp in Maine. At the time they met, Marianne was living in Chicago and working as a social worker, while Maureen was working as a junior high school teacher in California. After they dated long distance for a year, Marianne relocated to southern California, where she began working with children and families within the foster care system
Both women come from large families. Maureen grew up on a family farm with four sisters and, at one point, the siblings all shared a room. Her mother’s career as a nurse and her loving example inspired Maureen to dream of a big family and to begin a career working with children, which she started at age 17. Marianne also came from a sibling set of five, having always envisioned herself as a parent.
Maureen was the one more drawn to adopting through foster care, so when a friend who worked at Five Acres encouraged her to apply for the foster-adoption program, she did so enthusiastically. Ironically, during the application process, Marianne accepted a job offer at Five Acres. So, for professional reasons, Maureen adopted their son initially as a single parent.
The road to becoming a permanent family was not exactly smooth. After Maureen began fostering Jeffrey he reunified with his biological family. But eight months later, while the couple was on vacation in Chicago, Five Acres called Maureen to tell her that Jeffrey was reentering the foster care system and asked whether she would like him to be placed with her again, which she readily agreed to.
Through the foster-adoption process, they were able to secure an open adoption so that Jeffrey could maintain contact with his Chinese-American biological family. That was important to Maureen and Marianne, who are both Caucasian, because of their son’s cultural heritage and for his general well-being.
“We had regular contact with his biological family on holidays and now whenever he wants,” Maureen explained. “He initiates the contact and he’ll go out with his cousin and bio sister for dinner, and his maternal grandmother will often cook traditional Asian food for him to bring home. It’s been really helpful. His sister has always been a big advocate for us. She’s told Jeff that this is the right situation for him and that he’s grown up really well because of the attention that he’s received from us. So that’s given him some level of permission to not have to choose between families.”
Sometimes LGBT foster-adoptive families feel concerned that their child’s biological family won’t accept them, but Maureen and Marianne felt especially welcomed.
“His bio mother, who was born in Taiwan, sends us Mother’s Day cards and I think that’s pretty progressive,” said Maureen. “His whole birth family has been so accepting and so supportive and has always followed our lead. It’s amazing. I went into the situation thinking it would be very different because of my own biases and the assumptions I made of what it would be like as a gay couple working with a traditional Asian family. But it was the complete opposite. They have always respected our boundaries. And they are very generous toward us, acknowledging holidays and recognizing big events. At Jeff’s high school graduation party they participated in the celebration and got into the pictures with us and were very, very easy to be around. I think they appreciate the fact that we are open to having a relationship with them. And I think, in the long run, it’s helped Jeffrey.”
“I think going to Chinese school helped during his transition into our family because he came from the San Gabriel Valley, which is a very Asian community, and was placed without a biological family and in a neighborhood that does not have a high Asian population,” said Marianne. “In his second grade classroom he was one of two Asian students in the entire school, so going to attending the Chinese school once a week helped with tradition and maintaining his culture. Every Chinese family at that school was very open and welcoming to us and didn’t ask awkward questions. They asked us to be on the mothers’ sports teams and the dragon boat races. And they all spoke highly of Jeffrey. It was a wonderful and unexpected experience for our entire family. Sometimes you find support and acceptance in places you would not expect. I learned that we have to give people opportunities to know our real family.”
The family attended the Chinese New Year’s celebration each year at Jeffrey’s Chinese school, where the older kids would perform the dragon dance and the little kids entertained the attendees with an ancient form of juggling. In addition to the traditional red envelope, the most important gift awarded on that day was a small tangerine tree, because citrus with leaves attached symbolizes good fortune. And at home, where these customs were carried over, Jeffrey’s Caucasian cousins also received red envelopes from Maureen and Marianne. When Jeff was 10, the couple took him and Maureen’s mother on a 10-day tour of China and brought back some items from that trip that they still proudly display in their home.
People often assume that Jeff is internationally adopted and, because the vast majority of children adopted from China are girls, they ask his mothers, “How did you get a boy from China?” Like many foster-adoptive parents, Maureen and Marianne are protective of their son’s privacy.
“We explain politely as possible that he’s not adopted from China,” said Marianne, “and if it’s a close friend we explain that we went through foster care to build our family. But the phrase that we try to use as much as we can is, ‘It’s not a secret, but it’s private and it’s Jeffrey’s story to tell, not ours.’ And we say he’s from southern California, not China.”
Jeff’s school experiences having gay parents have varied.
“When he was six, he drew a picture on the back of a piece of cardboard and drew two lady stick figures and a heart and we were happy about it,” recalled Marianne. “It was really cute and spontaneous. It wasn’t really until he hit sixth grade that he started realizing there weren’t too many other kids with two moms.”
“In eighth grade, one student at a flag football game was saying derogatory things to Jeff about him having two moms,” said Marianne. “Jeff was trying to ignore him but the kid was relentless. So Maureen went to the school and the principal was very supportive. He wouldn’t have this type of behavior at the school and resolved the issue.”
California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage, went on the ballot when Jeff was in middle school. After several students arrived at school on Election Day wearing “Yes on Prop 8” stickers on their shirts, Jeff told a school administrator, “I don’t think those stickers have anything to do with school.” Remarkably, the administrator sided with him and required the students to remove the stickers. In high school, having two moms was never an issue again.
Jeffrey had to work harder in school than most of his peers. His parents’ background in education greatly assisted Jeffrey in getting his educational needs met.
“Jeff had several educational issues to overcome and had to put forth much effort outside of the classroom in order to be successful in school. He was an English as a second language learner, had limited school experiences, and was coping with the loss of his birth family,” said Marianne.
“Jeffrey never had to move from home to home or school to school while in foster care, so his consistent and predictable schedule and outside support made a big impact on his educational development,” she explained. “So he graduated high school with a grade point average over 3.0 and went on to college.”
“We advocated as much as we could for him in school to help bridge the gap,” said Maureen. “And the thing that’s really nice now is that he has taken on all of the responsibility of figuring out how to get assistance and can advocate for himself in many areas of his life, which is great.”
Today, Jeffrey is a sophomore at California State University Monterey Bay and loves living near the beach. His parents are proud of him and the young man he is becoming.
“It’s wonderful to see the success that Jeff is experiencing and how happy he is in life,” said Marianne. “Those are the biggest rewards.”
Corinne Lightweaver is the Communications Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,500 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US.