Sunday, June 12, 2011

Adopting the "Perfect" Child

This article popped up on my newsfeed this morning.

Adopting the perfect child | & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper

Our daughter, Melanie, was adopted from Kazakhstan in 2004. She was born with a unilateral cleft lip & palate. We didn't set out to adopt another child, much less one with a "special need" (as they are called in adoption lingo). We had adopted her older sister, Lisa, from Kazakhstan in 2001. We had no philanthropic motives about "saving" a child from a loveless life in an orphanage; we just wanted a little girl. We had briefly considered a "special needs" child (is any child free of "special needs"?) but thought at the time it would be too disruptive to the family. (Shoot, any adoption or new baby is a disruption, no matter what!) However, when our adoption agency posted a picture Melanie on their website three years later, I was sunk. Even though she had a gaping hole in her face, I could see fire and personality in her eyes. I thought about how a little girl should have a sister. I sent the picture to my husband and instead of a "what, are you NUTS? FIVE CHILDREN?" I got a "Let's think about it." I had read about cleft lip & palate, and it seemed to be a reasonably "easy" thing to fix, a no-brainer, no big deal.

Before I knew it, we were on our way. The early posts of this blog recount our trip to Kazakhstan in October of 2004. Melanie's lip had already been repaired in Kazakhstan, but her palate remained wide open. Four months after we got home to North Carolina, she went into surgery. She has had two more surgeries since then, (one involving a piece of her skull grafted onto her upper jaw) and has had braces since she was four. When she first came home, she couldn't talk, obviously, and we taught her sign language with the help of her speech therapist. (I can handily sign the word "bullshit" -- NOT one we taught Melanie!) Before long, she was chattering and talking like a normal kid. In fact, sometimes, I wish she would just STOP talking for five minutes. Just five minutes! I'd pay her for some quiet time. It's almost as if she's making up for the lost years when she couldn't talk. By now we've borrowed talking time from the next decade. Special need, my eye.

Is there such a thing as a perfect child? Our oldest son was diagnosed with Aspergers' Syndrome when he was 10. It has affected him socially and academically, but he is a generous, big hearted boy (man, now) who wouldn't hurt a fly. He has come to terms with his "differences" and has held a great job for almost a year now. When we first thought about adopting Melanie (Colin was 14 at the time) he said, "I say go for it, Mom. It will teach us kids responsibility." But in a way he is less of a special need than his so-called "normal" siblings.

Is being a Third Culture Kid a recipe for acceptance? Do we have an inherent capability to understand those with "special needs"? Are we more sympathetic to those who are labelled by society as "needy"? Maybe it was living in Manila, where the dividing line between poverty and opulence was striking. Outside our compound, surrounded by stone walls topped with broken glass, was a world of abject "neediness". Children were taught to approach cars at traffic lights to beg for money. Shanty towns existed not far from our luxurious homes, built in the mud, of scrap corrugated metal and cardboard. When a monsoon blew through the city, these shanty towns would be inundated by feet of water. Our maid, Pacita, would tell us about the waist-deep water in her home. I couldn't get my mind around her living that way, yet coming to work for these wealthy foreigners in their ridiculously over-the-top houses, with their fountains and their courtyards, being paid the equivalent of $40.oo a month, plus a bag of rice. The absurdity was not lost on me, even as a narcissistic teenager. It used to get under my skin when Imelda Marcos would order a sweep of these towns, knocking them down or building walls around them when a foreign statesman or celebrity would visit. No wonder the Filipino people finally said "enough!" to her shoes and her conspicuous consumption and ran her and old Ferdinand out of town.

Did all this make me more of a compassionate person? Probably. Did this have an impact on my desire to adopt? Perhaps. But all kids have "special needs". I don't claim to be any kind of hero because I adopted these girls. It was a selfish, basic desire to have a little girl (or two!) I'm embarrassed when people tell me how "admirable" it is that we adopted. It's hard to know what to say. I don't feel any more special than any other parent, trying to do the best for their children, but always feeling like I fall a little short on a daily basis. The fact that my girls came to our family through adoption is something that I sometimes forget, even though they are both Asian. They are just my girls. They fight with each other, and with their brothers, just like any other siblings. We are on the cusp of the teenage years, with all the ups and downs that entails. (Oh joy!)

I didn't set out to write a public service announcement on special needs adoption, but that seems to be how it has turned out. I hope anyone who has ever thought of adopting will see that a "special need" is not a big deal. I think one of the great things about being a Third Culture Kid is that having seen and felt and tasted so many different cultures we know that people are the same, no matter their ethnicity or nationality. Adoption may be a natural turn of events for many TCKs, as it was for me. The bottom line is, every child is perfect in their most imperfect way. I would like to think that all of us have a capacity to see beyond any "imperfection", and see them as what they are: they are us.

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