The news that Rosie O’Donnell’s adopted daughter Chelsea O’Donnell has chosen to move back with her birth mother on the morning that she turned 18 must be gut wrenching for Rosie O’Donnell. It opens the little discussed and taboo topic of adoption issues or adoption gone wrong. It’s been the aim in America to conduct adoptions where it considers the feelings all the parties involved, birth mother, adoptive parents and most importantly the child itself, therefore there are all sorts of adoption types: closed adoption, open adoption, semi-open adoption, an ad hoc arrangement where the adoptive parents release photos and details of the children when they see fit. However, often with the best of the intentions, it all goes horribly wrong.
Adoption at a large scale has been going on in America for almost 3 generations now, most prominently starting with mass adoptions of Korean war orphans. Then followed by adoption of children from Guatemala, Somalia, Ethiopia, countries in which were torn apart by civil war, poverty, political instability and general internal conflict, which caused a lot of displaced people and orphaned children in need of loving homes. China, since it’s one-child rule came into effect, baby girls (and disabled baby boys) were dumped in orphanages in alarming numbers as most families preferred to have a healthy boy to carry on their family name. Most of these foreign non-white children were adopted by white American families or White Western European families, whom may be well meaning but have no clue how to parent a child who isn’t white. They do not know how to address the ‘race’ issue with their non-white children. And just by saying ‘I don’t see color, you are the same as me’ doesn’t cut it as we know it doesn’t work that way in society. Society sees color. A non-white person is not treated the ‘same’ as a white person.
The intention of the large scale exodus of children from foreign countries to the West was from a good place, to give displaced and orphaned children a second chance at life and a proper childhood only the affluent West can provide. Family, after all, is not always dictated by blood relations. Love can transcend genetics, biology, culture, ethnicity and country of origin and all children deserve a loving home with doting parent(s). While all true, this is a very pollyanna-ish view of international adoptions, which do not take into account the all too human need and longing for familial and biological connections. This urge will be even stronger if the adoption was not ultimately ‘not successful’ in which the adopted child’s emotional needs were not fully met.
A valid and legitimate argument could be made that some biological families treat each other so horribly that the word ‘family’ needs to be redefined. I have a close friend whose biological family was so horrendous that she honestly and truly hand on heart believes that she would have been better off a) an orphan or b) been adopted by someone else. She did not say this as an over reactive or over emotional teenager, she says this as an mature and fully lucid adult woman, who is happily married and has been in therapy for many years to work on her childhood trauma issues. And she is also fully aware of the plight of abandoned children even in the affluent west and even in an adoption situation, there are no guarantees that her life would have turned out for the better, still, she feels adoption or complete physical and emotional abandonment by her birth mother would have been better than the years of untold trauma and abuse suffered at the hands of her biological family.
I have another close friend who grew up in an upper middle class family, her parents divorced acrimoniously, they both displayed narcissistic tendencies and did not offer her the love, stability and emotional support every child needs. The neglect that resulted from that, she says, now as an adult, she felt like an orphan growing up, except worse, because her parents were actually alive but not present. Things became so unbearable that she is unable to maintain regular contact with her parents as their behavior towards her as a child and through her adulthood and resulted her being diagnosed complex PTSD. In order to focus on her mental and emotional well being and recovery, she has made the difficult decision to cease regular contact with her parents and her only sibling. She feels very much alone in this world but it’s the only way forward.
Many years ago, I worked with a woman who was a Korean adoptee, adopted by a white couple from Oregon. She had two older brothers who were the biological child of her adoptive father but her adoptive mother (second wife of her father) could not bear children so they adopted her from a Korean orphanage. She suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother and her adoptive father though didn’t participate in the abuse, was too timid to stop his evil wife. She was taunted by her mother of being sent back to Korea if she didn’t behave. When she acted out, her mother said she could of died as an orphan in Korea, all of which she preferred over this abuse. She moved out at 18 and has been self sufficient since. She suffered many bouts of depression and was suicidal at one point but her beloved cat stopped her. Her story broke my heart, she was literally alone in the world, no family, biological or otherwise to care for her. I was happy to learn that she has two or three really good girlfriends who are like sisters to her. When she moved out, she still maintained cordial phone contact with her parents, but one time, her parents wanted to attend a Christian revival event in Southern California and they asked to stay with her during the event, she told me at that point she snapped. She screamed at them on the phone and told them what horrible parents they were for abusing her and the gall they have to think they can just come ‘stay with her’ and pretend that they were a normal family to attend a Christian revival event, talk about hypocrisy at its highest form. Her mother, her main tormentor and abuser said that God forgave her so what’s her problem. She slammed down the phone and never spoke to them again. She had fond memories of her father as he was a sweet man and when her mother wasn’t around, he spent quality time with her, but the fact that he didn’t stop the abuse or didn’t even raise an objection once, it was not something she could get over.
China notwithstanding (due to their one child policy), many wonder at the abundance of adoptive children in countries like Korea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Guatemala but the lack of foster or adoptive parents; internal problems such as war, disease and famine aside, it is simply not the custom in many cultures around the world to ‘adopt’ a child in which the family is not somewhat biologically related to. Specifically with Chinese culture, it’s customary to perhaps adopt an orphaned nephew or niece or even a cousin if the family is financially capable, but it’s not so much the norm to adopt a child that isn’t biologically related to the adoptive family.
In countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Guatemala where it is plagued by many years of civil war, disease and famine, the only option for many orphaned children are temporary foster homes or orphanages. Hence, many kind hearted Western families chose to adopt these children and seek to give them a better life. Forming families with adopted children in a large scale, is a new phenomenon, mostly occurring in the affluent West. The belief that whatever circumstances the children came from, it can all be healed with enough medical attention (if necessary) and tender loving care, after all, children thrive on love and security, it doesn’t matter who provides it.
Parenting (biological or adoptive) is a risky proposition, more so than marriage. We already know there’s a 50% divorce rate so half the people who get married can count on getting divorced. There is no way to know how children will turn out or how they will feel about you as a parent. You can do everything ‘right’ by them, be the best parent you know how to be and they could still grow up to resent you, blame you for their failures in life and decide that you were the ‘wrong’ parent for them. Especially in the liberalized West where the feelings and perceptions of children are more important than their parents. Children always get the last say on how they choose to feel about their childhood and upbringing and usually their version is accepted as fact because they are in a more vulnerable position. Conversely, you also see children who come from abusive or addicted parents, yet they are still loyal to their parents and see their parents in a sympathetic light and are willing to make excuses for their poor parenting.
There is a legitimate question to be asked if white parents are best suited to raise non-white children in a predominately white society. Most white people don’t ‘see’ race, because they’ve never experienced racism. Racism is foreign to a white person, so they cannot be expected to prepare their non-white adoptive children to combat racism or even have a constructive conversation about it. This was the main charge against adoptive white parents in a piece done by the New York Times Magazine about Korean adoptees: Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to South Korea. Many of the subjects interviewed felt this hole in the depth of their soul because there were taken from their homeland to be raised in an unfamiliar place, smells and sounds. Laura Klunder, a Korean adoptee says,
“I don’t think it’s normal adopting a child from another country, of another race and paying a lot of money. I don’t think it’s normal to put a child on a plane away from all its kin and different smells. It’s a very modern phenomenon.”
Klunder was adopted at 9 months old and was brought to live in Wisconsin with her adoptive parents, she has cut off contact with her parents for the past 9 years, she concedes that they were loving and kind and provided well for her but she grew up in a white suburb in Wisconsin and her parents couldn’t engage with her on the racism she experienced, giving her the oft repeated phrase of not seeing ‘color’. It caused a lot of frustration between her and her parents but he parents chalked it up to she was ‘angry’ at being adopted, it wasn’t really about the racial slurs and micro-aggressions she was experiencing.
When Klunder’s mother was contacted for this story, she said the following:
I could see how upsetting certain things were to Laura. But I said, ‘You can’t let these things bother you so much; there will also be people like that in the world.’ ” When the issue of adoption came up, Klunder’s mother told her that her birth mother loved her very much but that God had a different plan for her. As a teenager, furious that her parents didn’t understand her feelings and experiences, Klunder repeatedly lashed out at them. They were angry, too. When she was in high school, Klunder told me, her father would say: “I didn’t sign up for this. Send her back.” (He says he remembers saying something like that only once.)
It’s very easy to tell an adopted child to be grateful, especially if that child was adopted into an affluent and loving home but the truth is unless one has been abandoned by one’s mother, regardless of the reason or circumstance that led her to abandon her baby, one cannot tell how an adoptee should ‘feel’. It’s very insulting and it diminishes their experience. Especially if a child is adopted by parents of a different race and you don’t see any part of yourself, even something so basic as skin complexion reflected in the faces of your parents, siblings or extended family and combined with experiences of racism and micro-aggressions inflicted on non-whites, it can create an identity crisis in which the parents do not know how to address. They are not prepared for the racism they face and the parents aren’t sensitive and articulate enough on the issue of race and cultural difference and raise their children as though they are ‘white’ when society do not see them as such. This is a perfect storm for identity crisis. It is unfair to raise and socialize a child to be ‘white’ when she isn’t and that is the point Laura Klunder couldn’t get through to her parents, but to her parents dismay, how else were they supposed to raise her? They are a white couple from middle America, Wisconsin to be exact, they don’t know how to not be white.
Lastly, there is still a stigma attached to being adopted. I distinctly recall in the second grade, where one of my classmates wanted to taunt me said to me ‘you are adopted‘ in a very nasty tone, which was confusing to me, because I am not. I never told anyone I was adopted why would anyone think that? I realized then that it was an insult, to be adopted means to be unwanted by your mother and whoever said that to me didn’t like me so he tried to make me feel bad. However, the whole thing went over my head at that time. To be adopted means for one reason or another, your mother couldn’t keep and raise you. You were abandoned and not enough effort was made to keep you. The reasons can be vast and varied: death, drug or alcohol addiction, abandonment, forced separation, social stigma from single motherhood as was the case with many Korean adoptees (though if the child born out of wedlock is a healthy baby boy, the family will find some way to incorporate him into the family), poverty, physically incapable of caring for a child and lack of family support. The reasons are many but the result is the same, a hole is left in the child that was given up and it’s a hole that cannot be easily repaired.
Especially in the West, and I’d say America is its worst offender and I am guilty of it as well, is the rise of the ‘Cult of Children’. Children are treated as precious jewels in this country, to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, anything they do or say is fascinating. Their feelings must be considered above everyone else’s at all times. Women today treat motherhood in the same way they approach their careers, with dedication, precision and no room for failure. Prior to delivery, millions of words are devoured about what’s best for baby, breast feeding or not, which kind of organic food is best, should I make my own organic food, what is the safest travel gear, and the clothes, organic cotton or not, making sure to buy only the purest of ingredients for our little darlings, whereas in most parts of the world, mother and baby are lucky to survive the ordeal that is labor. Then comes toddlerhood, which games are most stimulating, to teach them their ABCs before they can even walk, teaching them to read before pre-school so they can get a leg up on the educational ladder, and the list is endless.
This type of shrine-like parenting of children can make adopted children feel even worse about their plight. Children are so coddled that if I were an adopted child, I’d wonder what was wrong with me that my mother couldn’t keep me.
It’s not known what issues Rosie O’Donnell had with her eldest daughter Chelsea, she rarely speaks about them but when she does has nothing but glowing things to say about her children. Whatever one thinks about her comedic skills or acting skills, one can’t deny that she’s been a devoted mother and made all her children a priority in her life. ‘Reports‘ suggested that Chelsea O’Donnell didn’t like that everyone knew she was adopted because her mother is famous, it made her uncomfortable. Whatever the case may be, the result is tragic and Rosie O’Donnell’s private life is now public fodder, since the birth mother of Chelsea has come forward to say that she was ‘stolen’ from her because when she signed away her parental rights while she was high on drugs and not in a place to consent.
Whatever the ‘truth’ is, Rosie O’Donnell is Chelsea’s mother, whether her birth mother agrees with it or not. Chelsea is 18, a very difficult age and still finding her way in life, it would be completely understandable for her to have conflict with her mother Rosie. For her birth mother to swan in at this moment to save the day is intruding upon another family. She didn’t raise Chelsea, she gave birth to Chelsea, she didn’t experience the up and downs of raising that particular child (the birth mother has 4 other children), if fact, she doesn’t even know the daughter she gave up. If she thinks she can come in now, when her daughter is fully grown and be a mother to her again, she’s mistaken. And on the part of Chelsea O’Donnell, I don’t know what her life’s struggles are, and she’s too young to know this, but running away is never the answer to your problems. She’s running from one problem to another. If she thinks the biological or genetic connection to her birth mother and her 4 half siblings will cure whatever emptiness or connection she is seeking, she may be in for further disappointment.
There are no easy answers for adoptions, there are no ‘rules’ that apply as we are dealing with very fragile people with very fragile emotions. People like Laura Klunder advocate a total ban on international adoptions, through the group she works with, Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) believing that it’s a bad idea to take a child out of its country of birth, its culture, put it on a plane to America or Europe to start a life with a family that do not resemble them or share in their culture. They advocate providing support networks within Korea to help unwed mothers cope with caring for a baby and to reform society where having a child out of wedlock is no longer such a big taboo. They do not discuss the possibility of Korean-American parents adopting Korean children as possible solution but they are resolute in a ban against international adoptions.
Since there are more white adoptive parents but most of the children available for adoption are not white (internationally), it wouldn’t make sense to institute a ban on international adoption, it would potentially deny many children of loving parents and homes. But the mass exodus of children from one country to another without much vetting of birth families for their desire to give up their child for adoption and the vetting of adoptive parents is a concern. There are many more people leaning towards the idea that it’s best to keep displaced and orphaned children in their country of birth but build safe orphanages with proper adult care and supervision and adequate education to live in until they reach adulthood, rather than to take them out of their countries to live in a foreign land with foreign people whom they call ‘mom and dad’.