Resources and Adoption Stories
International Adoption: Parenting the First Generationby Jennifer Donohue Astion
|Korean adoption began in response to the thousands of children orphaned during the Korean War. Between 1956 and 1985, American and European families adopted approximately 141,000 Korean children.* These families raised the first generation of international adoptees.|
As the mother of a 2-year-old daughter from Korea, I want to learn from the experts, the parents who pioneered international adoption. What worked well for their families? What do they wish they had done differently?
Recently, I spoke with three mothers who adopted Korean children during the 1970s. Their children came home at different ages, grew up in communities of varying diversity, and have different levels of connection to their birth families and Korea. Despite these differences, all of the families emphasized Korean culture and good communication, and all of the children have grown into successful adults.
Three Family Stories
At age 6, Amy joined the family of Marilyn and Bob Canfield. The family also has five biological children, so Amy was welcomed into a spirited and caring home. “The whole family was delighted. She was a little princess,” Marilyn Canfield recalls. Adopted in 1973, Amy grew up in Spokane, a small, mainly white city in Eastern Washington.
In Renton, Wash., a diverse community south of Seattle, Donna and Barry Copp adopted 6-month-old Kevin in 1974 and 2-year-old Kerri in 1977. Both children were malnourished when they arrived but thrived in the Copps’ loving home.
On the other side of the country, 1-year-old Melissa joined the family of Sandy and Bob McGowan who lived in Norwell, Mass., with their two biological children. After adopting Melissa in 1976, the family adopted 6-year-old Jonathan in 1978.
Bringing Korean culture into the family was a dominant theme for these parents. “We had Korean things around the house — maps, books. We went to Korean restaurants. Starting in kindergarten, I brought in Korean food for Lunar New Year,” recalls Sandy McGowan. In fact, the attention on Korea created some resentment from the family’s biological children. “They all got along fine. There was a little jealousy about the emphasis on Korean culture but I told them it was more important for them. They need some tie to their culture.”
The Copp family offered Korean cultural opportunities but tried not to push them on their children. “I tried to encourage their culture. There came a point where they weren’t interested. You can’t force that,” says Donna Copp. “Probably about junior high we let them do their own thing.” The Copps’ hands-off approach allowed their children to go at their own speed. As adults both Kerri and Kevin have renewed their interest in Korea.
“If I had it to do all over again I wish I’d lived in a more diverse community,” says Sandy McGowan. After growing up in a white neighborhood, her daughter Melissa chose a college with a large Asian population. While the Canfields lived in a mainly white neighborhood, their daughter Amy was popular in high school. “She had a lot of opportunities to date,” says Marilyn Canfield. Amy also met Asian friends in college, and later visited one of them in Korea.
Donna Copp believes the diversity in their neighborhood helped her children make friends of different races at an early age. “We had some Asian families in our neighborhood. They have friends of all nationalities — African-American, Asian and Caucasian.” Donna Copp realized how different it would be to raise her Asian children in another part of the country when her family drove through the Midwest and received some very strange looks. “It is important to live in a multicultural community. There are areas where it would be difficult to raise a child of another race but we were very fortunate.”
Connecting to Other Adoptees
Sandy McGowan sent both her children to a Korean heritage camp. She told them, “You have no choice. You have to go. If you hate it you don’t have to go back.” Both children loved the summer camp and returned to work as counselors. “They made very good friends there. They really connected. My kids got so much out of it.”
The Copp family made lifelong friends at an annual family camp sponsored by their adoption agency. “They still go. You meet friends there. Some of their friends have kids too,” says Donna Copp. “You can’t emphasize enough how much they learn at those things.”
Donna Copp also formed a support group for families with adopted children. “When we adopted a long time ago it was not as common as it is now. We were kind of going through this alone. I thought it was important they were around people with similar backgrounds.” Those relationships continue to be strong. “They still have friends from that group. I still have friends from that group.”
Marilyn Canfield remembers how teachers in Spokane treated her daughter Amy. “Her teachers expected Amy to be a little quiet Asian thing who studied hard and got good grades. I would see what some people’s expectations were and it made me mad. I have no patience for that.” Her experience is a reminder that Asian children often face the stereotype of being a “model” minority.
Transracially adopted children face not only teachers’ expectations but also questions from other children about their families. Donna Copp feels the continuity of living in one neighborhood spared her children the awkwardness of explaining their family makeup to new groups of peers. “They were accepted so well by the community,” she explains. “They went to one elementary school, one junior high and one high school. The kids all knew them. They were just Kerri and Kevin.”
Adolescence is always challenging but adoptive parents feel especially worried for their children. Marilyn Canfield found herself looking for resources when her daughter was a teenager. “When Amy was in adolescence, I felt there wasn’t anything written that applied to her and the parents of transracial adoption. As a child grows into adolescence they are trying to find out who they are. There’s one other component if it’s a transracial adoption.”
Marilyn Canfield spent a lot of time listening to Amy’s memories of Korea. “I would recommend talking to kids about their pasts,” says Marilyn Canfield. She and her daughter spent hours in the car together visiting family members. “We’d be driving together. She would go to sleep and wake up and chatter the rest of the way. She would tell me things she remembered. It’s easy to talk to a child when you’re in the car. It’s good when they get to be adolescents.”
Donna Copp notes that her children were teased for being Asian and was available to hear their concerns. “They have been stereotyped and have experienced prejudice; however this is usually because of their race or other difference, not because they are adopted. As parents we may not know how they feel, but as a parent we can be there to support them.”
Ties to Birth Families and Korea
“I was always positive about their birthmothers,” explains Sandy McGowan. “On Mother’s Day I always thought about them. I sent pictures to the agency. When we opened the files, those pictures were there.” Both her Korean children have visited Korea, been reunited with their birth families, and maintained positive relationships with their Korean families.
Amy Canfield studied Korean in college and visited Korea. Planning the trip, she told her mother, “I just want to see someone who looks like me.” Amy met her birth family but has been frustrated by the difficulty of communication with family members.
Donna Copp has examined her children’s adoption files in Korea but has found no information on their birth families. While her daughter Kerri wants to search for her birth family, her son Kevin is open to meeting his birth parents but is less motivated to search. Kerri plans to visit Korea this year.
After growing up in a white suburb, Melissa and Jonathon McGowan have formed a diverse group of friends and both have dated Asians. Amy Canfield has a diverse group of friends but dated mainly Caucasians, including her husband with whom she has two daughters.
Kevin Copp has a stepdaughter and a biological son with his Hispanic wife. Fatherhood has been a very meaningful experience for him. As he told his mother, “It’s really nice to have someone who looks like me.” His sister Kerri married a Caucasian. Reflecting her positive adoption experience and desire to give a home to a child who has already been brought into this world, Kerri is planning to adopt from Korea.
These families raised Korean children when there were no guidebooks. I am inspired by their commitment to their children’s birth culture, their awareness of racism, and their ability to connect their children to other adoptees. I hope to follow their example by keeping an open dialogue with my own daughter about her birth family, adoption and Korean culture. Copp eloquently sums up what we, as parents, can do. “As a parent of two Korean adult adoptees, I can only recommend open communication at an early age, consistency, being involved in your child’s activities and lots of unconditional love.”
* These statistics come from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Jennifer Donohue Astion is a freelance writer in Seattle. She and her husband adopted their 2-year-old daughter Amy from Korea.
KWB Notes: Great stuff eh? Read more at Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute on Facebook also.