Before the arrival of my twins, I seriously considered international adoption. Several of my co-workers and friends have adopted internationally, and the idea of making a home with children from another country fit with my vision of a unique and multicultural family experience. Although my personal path veered away from adoption, as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I work with people from many nations, and take a serious interest in the process. As a parent, I also hoped to relate to the larger theme of motherhood in Cheri Register’s Beyond Good Intentions: A Mother Reflects on Raising Internationally Adopted Children. I was not disappointed.
Register, an American with two Korean-born daughters, first wrote Are Those Kids Yours?: American Families With Children Adopted From Other Countries (Free Press, 1990). Beyond Good Intentions is different from the first because the author has supplemented her reflections on parenting with what has seemingly been ignored for too long: the thoughts and feelings of adult adoptees, including confidences shared out of parental earshot. This time, instead of asking parents and adoptees a lot of questions, Register listened.
Register’s book presents ten mistakes that adoptive parents risk making in raising their internationally-born children and suggests ways they might re-examine their behaviors and actions “to do right by our kids.” The ten pitfalls are: “Wiping Away Our Children’s Past,” “Hovering over Our ‘Troubled’ Children,” “Holding the Lid on Sorrow and Anger,” “Parenting on the Defensive,” “Believing Race Doesn’t Matter,” “Keeping Our Children Exotic,” “Raising Our Children in Isolation,” “Judging Our Country Superior,” “Believing Adoption Saves Souls,” and “Appropriating Our Children’s Heritage.”
Each chapter begins with a pitfall — a set of opinions held by hypothetical adoptive parents, beliefs full of good intentions that would seem a surefire way to create the perfect family. For example, this pitfall from Chapter One: “Finally, I’m going to have the son I’ve always dreamed of, and I’ll treat him exactly as if he were born to me. The fact that he’s adopted shouldn’t make any difference.” Then Register explores the underlying assumptions, and makes suggestions for improvement. As she does so, she acknowledges her own imperfections as a parent and avoids lecturing. She cites her daughters’ experiences and feelings throughout the book, though she states that she wants to respect their privacy and is careful never to divulge too much. The book ends with questions that parents of internationally-adopted children can ask of themselves and each other, even if the answers are hard to formulate. As Register points out, “Life with children in the house proceeds moment by moment, with the focus held tight.”
Register also includes the voices of many other adoptees — their grief, anger, frustrations, and feelings of isolation — in order to illustrate the fact that adoptees often experience just the opposite of what their well-intentioned parents believe. For example, one of the parental pitfalls Register describes is the idea held by some parents that their adopted children should be thankful for their adoptee status, not critical of it. One Korean Swedish adoptee points out that adoption can be viewed as form of colonialism — that this is another way rich nations gain human resources from poorer ones to fulfill their needs. In this context, the demand of the parent that the adoptee be grateful for what amounts to his servitude takes on a very different meaning. In “Keeping Our Children Exotic,” another adoptee, this one Korean American, describes himself as a “fake Korean” with a “split-screen identity.”
Though the first few chapters of Register’s book seemed blurred and I wondered why there were separate chapters for similar points, the ten-pitfall structure of Beyond Good Intentions does give a detailed outline of a complicated situation. The repetition of certain ideas — for example, the emotional trauma of adoption for the adoptee — may annoy the impatient reader, but Register uses repetition with intention. In her words, “[i]f we listen intently to [adoptees’] testimony, we curious parents can begin to discern patterns that will answer our questions. That’s more considerate than asking adoptees to plumb their pain for foolproof advice.”
Throughout the book Register slips into cliché language, on one page even stringing several in a row: “let sleeping dogs lie,” “keep the lid on,” “leave well enough alone.” On the other hand, she also uses fresh terms, like “falling back on the museum culture of our own making,” and her familiar style and casual language makes the book accessible and non-threatening to her intended audience: the average parent ready to embark on the adoptive journey, the new parent who is in the midst of the passage, or the parent who has “been there, done that.”
Register is concerned about the growing popularity of international adoption, recently glorified by stars like Angelina Jolie, and wishes that “international adoption be governed by a concern for children that puts greater emphasis on keeping families intact and daily life sustainable in the countries where they are born.” As long as international adoption exists, however, Register’s book is a good way to prep oneself for the trials and blessings of parenting. This holds true even for those like me, an American who gave birth to her children on American soil. Throughout the book I found myself nodding as I read, underlining and starring passages as the author’s premises and examples resonated with my own experience as a parent. In fact, I was even able to relate personally to some of the adoptees’ perspectives — I was adopted by my mom’s second husband after my dad died.
This book reminded me of another: Julie Landsman’s A White Teacher Talks about Race. In both books, I sometimes found I was reading about myself, things not necessarily good, and the information — that I am not perfect, that I may be too judgmental or ignorant — is often hard to swallow. Still, I believe it is essential to read about things that make me uncomfortable, if only to open the door to communication, to be reminded: life is complex, the perfect family does not exist, and that is okay. Register writes:
Finally, we eager globalists need to remember that our multicultural dream is our children’s daily reality. They take the measure of global harmony every day in the comments they hear, the glances they catch, the questions they’re expected to answer. They may not want to be harbingers or symbols of anything, but just plain human beings. As Kari Ruth puts it, “I guess someone forgot to ask us if we wanted to be America’s diversity mascots.” Our kids didn’t volunteer for our plan to transform the world. We should be satisfied if they simply figure out how to live comfortably in it.
Recently, a friend who adopted one daughter from Korea, told me she was reading the book.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking, isn’t it,” I asked her, “to read about the things that may have gone wrong.”
“Actually,” replied my friend, whose adopted daughter just graduated from college, “it affirms the things we did right.”