by Michael Bowen

"Do you know who your real parents are?" Nearly every adopted person has been asked this question, and when we hear it, all of us wince.

"Yeah, you know Bob and Mary here, the people who raised me, who I lived with for 20 years? They're actually holograms that I created with my Flash Gordon Photon Transmitter. Now, as for my real parents, as you say -- well, actually, I'm the love child of Eleanor Roosevelt and Liberace."

I was adopted during the Eisenhower Administration, back when birth certificates were "amended" and the records sealed, long before open adoptions and the term "birthmother" came into widespread use. But that's the term I prefer now. There are my parents, and then there are my birthparents. I tried searching for one of them long ago, but ran into rejection, and only she, my birthmother, knows the basic facts about my origins.

It's a gap in my life, a fistful of unanswered questions, but I'm getting along all right, thanks.

But the assumption that only our progenitors are real, that adoptive parents are somehow unreal, is more troubling than merely irksome. It belies some of our negative assumptions about adoption. Birthmothers "gave up" their babies. Adoptees must miss their "natural" parents. How sad that you couldn't have children "of your own."

This kind of prejudice is damaging, not just because it hurts somebody's feelings, but because of how it affects foster care, the legal system, the self-image of adoptive parents and the attitudes they pass on to their children. The tendency of some judges to preserve the birthfamily unit, for example, springs from the presumption that adoptive families are somehow "second-best." My parents had to settle for me?

Yet people transcend such negative thinking about adoption every day, and they do it by embracing and committing themselves permanently to kids who, as an adoptive father once remarked to me, "are essentially total strangers." They meet some kids, they make a family.

Motivations for building a family by adoption vary. Some think highly of someone they know who has adopted or been adopted; others have struggled for years with infertility; some feel called to help waiting children who are harder to place (older kids, sibling groups and those with disabilities or other special needs); others, having raised birthchildren already, now want to experience a different kind of parenting. Few come to adoption without preconceptions; most fantasize an idealized image of the chosen child.

For me, it started with an outstretched hand. I was having a recurrent dream in which a small child -- faceless, genderless -- was reaching out to me from a short distance away. We couldn't get close -- there was some kind of gap, sort of a little depression in the earth, between us -- but far from being distressing, it was a comfort. I felt confident, even after my wife and I struggled for years with infertility and then with the complexities of the adoption industry, that someday we would finally locate that child. Still, we grew tired of waiting.

One psychologist suggested that the child was me, that I was reaching out toward my infant self, grieving for the lost little boy who'd been relinquished for adoption.

Maybe in part. Could I sail into an adventure of self-discovery by making the commitment to adoptive parenting? Nah. Mostly, I just wanted to be some kid's parent. I'd learn soon enough about all the mistakes I would make. No, the child in the dream was the child I wanted to adopt. We just couldn't seem to cross that divide.

Bridging the gap between childlessness and adoptive parenting can be accomplished, though the decisions seem endless. Open or closed adoption? Domestic or international? Private (through an agency) or independent (through an attorney)? Infants or older children? Sibling groups or individuals? Children whose special needs are apparent now, or those whose particular demands will emerge only later?

The adoption-is-second-best way of thinking leads some pre-adoptive parents to believe, mistakenly, that if they must go this route, there have to be some guarantees about the child's health and appearance. But of course there are no guarantees with adoption, any more than there are with the children who pass through a foster home, any more than there are with one's birthchildren.

One adoption resource, as part of its self-assessment exam for prospective parents, asks these probing questions: Is your goal to have a child (of a particular type) or to parent a child (of whatever type)?

But it's not only the prospective parents -- all three members of the adoption triad have their own misconceptions about adoption, according to Lisa Herrmann, an adoption specialist with the Children's Home Society of Washington. "Birthmothers express fears of abuse, or that the adoptive parents will treat their child badly," explains Herrmann. Usually, once birthmothers see how committed the hopeful parents are, their worries diminish -- especially with the prevalence of more open adoptions, in which birthmothers retain some level of contact with the baby and the adoptive parents after placement.

"Adoptees' issues include [the fear] that the birthparents rejected them," Herrmann continues, "or else they fantasize about the return of the biological parent. Sometimes they think the birthmother will become their friend," though that's unusual (see "Meeting Mom," p.16). People hoping to adopt often mistakenly assume that the process will take years and years, when often the wait between initiation and referral "is more like six months to a year," according to Herrmann. Pre-adoptive parents, she reports, often express the fear that an open adoption "will amount to shared parenting, or that the Termination of Parental Rights won't be absolutely final."

But it is final, and adoption requires absolute commitment. So, if you're willing to play games with the adoption industry -- and it is an industry, a widespread business activity with products to sell, advertising and the means of distribution -- then there are some things you should know. What follows are some adoption success stories, mixed in with a few pointers.

Even among people in the adoption community -- some of whom have pretty amazing stories to tell -- Michelle and Steve Gardner stand out. As missionaries in Taiwan in the mid-1990s, already with three birth children of their own, they were disturbed by the one-child policy in mainland China and its effect on girls. Both Steve and Michelle had had positive experiences with adoption -- and indeed, with disabilities -- in their families of origin, and so, after a lot of finagling with red tape, they decided to adopt Rebekah, then 5 years old and now 12. (Among other things -- and as an example of how international adoptions can get delayed irrationally -- the Taiwanese officials expressed some concern that the little girl might be a Communist.)

Steve and Michelle assumed that they were done adopting. But one day, a few years later, the Gardners' eldest son, while looking through a registry of international special-needs kids, was struck by the picture of a four-and-a-half-year-old Russian girl. She had been born without arms. Steve was hesitant, prayed about it, wanted assurances that the little girl would somehow be able to live an almost completely independent life. She could.

Deborah is nine now and perpetually smiling. They've made accommodations for her at Evergreen Elementary, and the Gardners have nothing but praise for organizations like District 81, the Shriners' Hospital, and their home church. There is even evidence of a strange sort that Deborah's classmates accept her completely. On a gift-exchange day, some of them brought Deborah bracelets. She'll never be able to wear them, but "the fact that they made such a mistake," says Steve, "shows that they don't really even see or perceive that she has a disability."

The third of the Gardners' children with special needs -- both Michelle and Steve talk about adopting more some day -- is John, a boy from India who has only 20/700 vision in the single eye remaining to him. His case illustrates valuable lessons about cultural and financial differences in the world of international adoption. At John's adoption hearing, some Indian officials expressed skepticism about the Gardners' motives. They feared exploitation: wouldn't he simply be used as a slave? The adoptive parents might murder him, then harvest his organs for profit. Why do they need six children? How can they possibly afford to have six children? The Indian judge listened to such paranoia, then calmly asked if any Indian families had been located to adopt a boy who would require extra care? "No, your honor," was the reply. "Then let him go to this American family," said the judge.

Deborah and John seem to be forever laughing and playing closely. "They've grown quite close," Michelle says proudly, and she relates a story to illustrate just how close. The Gardners have a family tradition of picking up all the landfall apples in their backyard every autumn. At first, Deborah and John giggled together, nervously. And then the Gardners observed in their two children, adopted from such far-flung lands, a wonderful synergy. Deborah, who has eyes but no hands, pointed out the fallen apples with her toes; John, who has hands but can scarcely see, followed Deborah's lead and picked up the fruit.

Adoption Advocacy, a nonprofit working for industry reform, makes the case for a national registry of adoptive homes open to the harder-to-place kids, asserting that the states have unnecessarily limited placements within their own boundaries, and that "parents willing to take in special needs children are a national treasure." From our perspective -- certainly from that of their children -- Steve and Michelle Gardner are treasures of international stature.

While Diana and Todd Anderson traveled a different route than the Gardners, going with a domestic agency after initially planning an international adoption, their experience seems fairly typical. After three exacting visits from a social worker in the homestudy, they confronted one of the most intrusive aspects of preparing to adopt: the lengthy questionnaire about the prospective parents' attitudes toward their own parents, child discipline, religion and a host of other concerns. Diana laughs when recalling the very first essay topic: "Describe your life from birth to the present." Family members, friends and employers were questioned about Todd and Diana's ability to parent. Financial records had to be reviewed; there were the criminal and physical and psychological exams and check-ups. Anticipating all the adoption expenses, they took out a second mortgage. "We had spent several thousand dollars two years before for a private adoption which failed when the birthmother changed her mind," reports Diana, recounting a not-uncommon story.

When a social worker mentioned a Washington, D.C., agency that placed African-American children, however, the Andersons were enticed away from going the international route: the D.C. program cost less and offered a short placement time. After more paperwork (naturally), they went through weeks of jumping every time the phone rang. Eventually, though, they got the call: a boy had been born just a few days before. Three weeks later, the Andersons rented a limo and rode in style to their big day at the Spokane Airport, where an escort delivered an infant into their arms. Alex, now eight, turned out to be a bubbly kid with a beaming smile.

Diana has a response -- common among adoptive mothers -- for those who think that the Andersons did it the easy way: "I just have to bite my tongue or laugh at them. The entire process of having a child took years of infertility treatments, a failed adoption, financial strain and patience. Our friends did not need the approval of psychiatrists, social workers, adoption agencies, bank loan officers, lawyers and judges to have a baby. No, I don't have a horrific labor story to tell, but my 'pregnancy' spanned the time of several years." If the nine-month human gestation period is designed to allow mothers to prepare for their children and bond with them, then the adoption wait provides even more of the same.

As White parents of a Black child, the Andersons have also had to deal with the issues raised by transracial adoption: "We sometimes get stares." Teenage moms, says Diana, "would comment that my baby was 'dark for a mixed race baby.' Then they were all surprised when I said he wasn't. It was like adoption never crossed their mind. One woman in Montana asked, 'What country was he born in?'" "Predictably, they've been criticized by members of the African-American community, but, Diana relates, "I have also been told by Black friends that we have exposed our son to more 'Black culture' than they ever had growing up."

Cher and Gary Belcher, who have now adopted two girls (Raia, 5, and Ana, 2) from Russia, also feel the need to be culturally sensitive -- in their case, to a culture far removed from their own. Gary, who has twice made the roundtrip to Russia from the Belchers' home near Colville, bluntly states that "international adoption is not for the faint-hearted." He strongly recommends using an agency, even though, in addition to the kinds of hoops the Andersons jumped through, international adoptions set out such requirements as more letters of reference from friends, a separate letter of application to the foreign government, extensive immunizations, visas and passports, and the gathering-up of essential documents such as birth certificates. In the end, says Gary, "you have to have been approved by the agency initially, then the social worker, a doctor, your references, by DSHS and various law enforcement agencies, and by the INS, as well as the foreign government itself. Finally, the foreign government selects a child for you."

During all the hassle, it's essential to keep your eye on the prize: the opportunity to be a parent. Having returned to Russia to get a second daughter, clearly the Belchers are appreciative. But they also have suggestions to make: "one wonders why INS fees are so high and even assessed again if the process takes more than 18 months. Also, agencies could do more to ensure that the family stays healthy, rested and regularly fed when in hard-to-live countries like Russia."

And in a classic example of how bureaucracy can be obstructionist, "families adopting a second time go through the whole process again, whereas you'd think you'd get a few breaks." There are too many waiting children, in Russia and elsewhere, to tolerate needless procedural delays.

Chris Hamlin and Lynaia Liptak, who traveled to Guatemala in order to adopt their daughter, Gabriela, who's now seven, also have international tales of delay -- and even danger -- to tell. Both Hamlin and Liptak had traveled in Central America and were experienced in the area, but that didn't prevent a minor bureaucratic slip-up -- a misspelling, by just one letter, of the birthfather's name on the birth certificate as it was translated from Spanish into English -- from causing a month's delay in the entire process. Chris was literally told "manana, manana" as it "took one month to change one letter."

Even more than that, as an American woman had been beaten to death by an angry mob in Guatemala just four months before, "there was a lot of anti-gringo sentiment floating about," says Hamlin. "I had to wrap Gabri in a blanket and walk past a whole gauntlet of Guatemalans lined up at the embassy. There was no actual animosity, but I didn't feel relieved until we were at the airport." While Hamlin and Liptak had done their homestudy with CHS and then initially went through an agency called Americans for International Aid and Adoption, "it eventually turned out to be semi-independent. We went through a Guatemalan attorney."

Hamlin regrets the corruption -- "they shake hands with a wad of bills down there" -- and believes that graft, more than anything, is what drives the costs of adoption so high. He estimates that, "with travel and phone calls and everything, it was about $15,000. Now I gather it's $20K or more." He can be fatalistic: "It's just supply and demand. As long as the gringos are paying, they'll go on. It's not as if they're suddenly going to cut their prices in half." But he also turns a less jaundiced eye on the process: "You're kind of vulnerable in that situation." Then he laughs: "Sort of like with undertakers, I guess. But here you're dealing with life."

And that, after all, is the goal that pre-adoptive parents, amid all the confusion and worry, must keep focused on. Hamlin has a valuable response to the frustration caused by the intrusiveness of all those home visits and inspections, all those long questionnaires. Why do we have to go through all this, we complain, when other couples simply conceive, just like that? Hamlin responds, "The home study -- I found it a good process to go through, because I had to really think about how and why I want children. It would be great for all parents to do. You really have to want to be a parent after all that." So all the inquiries might be regarded as a bureaucratic means of falling in love? Hamlin had his doubts: "What has amazed me is the bonding that goes on. You know, blood goes pretty deep. I had some doubts about whether I could be as close" to an adopted child. As to a birthchild? "Yeah. But no more. No doubts anymore."

Leslie and Matt Thistle present a final example of the adoption game, one that contrasts with the international option. After struggling with a foster care situation, the Thistles eventually did an independent (non-agency) domestic adoption -- which brought challenges of its own. In the spring of 1997, the Thistles acted as foster parents to two girls, aged 10 and 13. "But we found out after the fact," says Leslie, "that they had no intention of being with us on weekends," which the girls spent with their birthfather. Leslie complains, understandably, that "we were doing all of work and getting none of the quality time. We were just babysitters." Struggling with infertility problems and dealing with the two girls off and on, the Thistles "were so used to things falling through" that Leslie was initially hesitant when some friends connected them with a girl who was having a baby.

Indeed, even after the Thistles contracted with a lawyer for purposes of adopting independently, the birthmother almost backed out -- "she thought we weren't interested enough." Fearing a sudden change of mind, the Thistles made sure they were in the waiting room when the infant was born, three weeks premature. Leslie recalls, "And the nurse announced, 'It's a girl. But there are some problems.' And then my heart fell."

The baby's esophagus hadn't formed fully, and she had so much trouble that eventually she would have to be taught how to swallow. The Thistles hadn't bargained for a child with special needs; nevertheless, they had one now. And the family had to deal with tubes in the girl's nose, tubes into her stomach, the need for all-night nursing care and multiple surgeries. Thankfully, Hayley is now four-and-a-half and doing just fine. Her family is even navigating the tricky currents of open adoption. Fortunately, Leslie remarks, "The birthfather is interested without being intrusive. He talked to Hayley on the phone for 45 minutes on Christmas, and he said it made his day."

Like many others, the Thistles traveled an uncertain road in their quest to adopt a child. Yet despite the intrusiveness of the homestudy, the constant bills, the paperwork mountain, the endless waiting, the game in which prospective adoptive parents contend still reserves supreme rewards for diligent players. Like Chris Hamlin, I'm amazed at the bonding that goes on.

When I first met my own little girl, she was covered with several kinds of skin disorders from too many nights spent swaddled and unattended in a sweltering Russian baby home. With the instant baby came instant worry. Flash forward, though, to a scene when she'd become a "big girl" nearly five years old, parading into her first day at her new school. She'd cast me in the role of the Inconvenient Parental Escort and had trotted on ahead. Then we noticed a berm, with a little gulley to traverse, at the edge of the school's parking lot. It looked a bit soggy. We might slip. My daughter hesitated, looked at me with questions in her eyes, stretched out her hand. And put it in mine.

We eyed that ravine, that little depression in the earth, and we walked across it together.

My dream of the little child doesn't recur anymore. I have another, different dream now, and she's with me every day.

Never underestimate the power of adoptive parents to love kids who are perfect strangers. They take one look at a child, reach for her outstretched hands and hold on tight forever.

People say, "Oh, she's so lucky to have people like you as her parents."

And we think, yeah, well, you've got it exactly backwards. We win back much more than we've given.

Like the Gardners and the Andersons and the Thistles, like thousands of couples who have played the adoption game and won, we've earned a new title. Call us real parents.

Do you have comments on this story or a different perspective you'd like to share? Let us know by sending your thoughts to

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.