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RPCV Susan Wade is Enriched by Adoptions
RPCV Susan Wade is Enriched by Adoptions
Beyond Differences: Island Families Are Enriched by Adoptions
By JESSIE ROYCE HILL
Sometimes they get funny looks in town when they are walking with their children. People ask insensitive questions just because their children don't resemble them. Are you their real parent? Are they really brother and sister?
On an Island predominantly white, a number of couples and singles have chosen to adopt children of color, bringing diversity into their homes and community.
"Ten years ago we started an infertility group. Then, as many of us weren't able to have biological children, it became an adoptive family support group," said Michelle Jasny, a veterinarian in West Tisbury who spearheaded the adoptive family meetings as she and her husband went through the process of adopting daughters, now six and four.
Under the auspices of the Family Center, the parents gather monthly to talk about the joys and struggles that come with raising children - in their case, adopted children of racial and cultural backgrounds different than their own. Transracial families, where the parents (generally white) adopt children of color (generally black), are most common in the group.
"The Vineyard is a wonderful place for multi-ethnic families," Ms. Jasny said. "But it's still a place of intense white privilege. We try to normalize the experience of adoption and of having children who are a different race than their parents. The fact that they're brown-skinned and we're white-skinned is just a different variation on how to put a family together."
Ms. Jasny and the other 25 to 30 families in her network are not crusaders for a cause. They are parents, first and foremost. Some are upper-middle class, some working class. Some are Democrats, a few are Republicans. All have children under the age of eight who are starting to grapple with questions of racial identity and the distinct challenges that come with being a member of a minority in school.
Susan Wade and David LaRue made the decision several years ago to stop fertility treatments and begin the adoption process. Ms. Wade, a former bookkeeper who will turn 50 this year, worried about a long wait for a Caucasian child.
"I thought, we are too old, we don't own our own home, we don't fall into a high enough income bracket. I told the social worker, 'We don't have time to wait. We just want an infant who is healthy. We don't care what color.'"
Since Massachusetts requires adoptions to be arranged through an agency, the prospective parents were assigned home site visits, counseling and long forms asking them which characteristics they would and wouldn't accept in a child: A birthmark on the face? Fetal alcohol syndrome? Paralysis? Check yes or no.
The grueling process gave them time to ask themselves plenty of tough questions as well. Were they prepared not only to adopt a child, but to adopt, on behalf of their child, the complications and politics of racial identity and race relations? Were they, as one social worker warned, ill-equipped to help a black child understand his heritage? What would the birth mother make of them?
Amid the post-soccer game, pre-dinner bustle in their new house in Vineyard Haven, Ms. Wade and Mr. LaRue talked this week about navigating the adoptions of Elijah, now six, and Coralee, four.
Ms. Wade, who served a stint in Africa in the Peace Corps, said her interest in adopting an East African child predated her failure to conceive. She speaks matter-of-factly about the realities of transracial adoption, and along with many in the family group, she and her husband choose to confront them head-on.
"What do you think of your brown skin?" Ms. Wade asked Elijah, who started kindergarten this year. He grinned.
"Do you like being the only brown kid in your class?"
"I'm special," he responded, as his sister, giggling, climbed into her father's lap.
One of the ways in which Ms. Wade and Mr. LaRue bolster their children's self-esteem is by including them in conversations about their adoptions and the circumstances of them.
The adoptions themselves were open, an increasingly popular option - particularly domestically - whereby adoptive families meet the birth familes and continue some degree of communication with them. Many say this has eased the stigma about adoption.
"Our kids know the names of their birth parents," said Mr. LaRue, a landscape manager in his mid 50s who has a grown son from a previous marriage. "Coralee gets letters and pictures from hers. They include them in their prayers."
Indeed, prayer and faith guide many of the choices the couple makes. Members of the Faith Community Church in Katama, Ms. Wade and Mr. LaRue are nondenominational Christians who favor faith-based education as a way of strengthening the character of their children. Ms. Wade stays at home with Coralee and is considering homeschooling Elijah, though he currently attends the Tisbury School.
"I was grinning ear to ear when I brought Elijah home," Ms. Wade recalled. "I couldn't wait to show him to the world." But people's reactions were, she said, interesting. Stares and inquisitiveness greeted the family; Ms. Wade perceived a subtle discomfort in others, seeing a white woman snuggling a black baby.
"I forget," she said, talking about her children's color. "I'm aware of it, but I forget." Reminding her, in addition to curious members of her community, are her children.
"Coralee's going through a stage where she wants to be light-skinned like Mommy. I joke, 'You want to have spots on your skin like Mommy?' We show her a mirror and tell her how special she is just as she is."
This is a phase Marnie Toole, a pediatric nurse and the facilitator of the adoptive family group at the Family Center, part of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, says is common.
"Many children aspire to have lighter skin, mostly to fit in with peers on a very white Island." This is a reaction, she said, to children's gradual awareness that the world outside their family sees them as different.
"They don't perceive themselves as different immediately, which is why they're taken aback when others accost them about their skin color," Ms. Toole said.
As Elijah and Coralee and other children in the Family Center group move through elementary school and into the thorny patch of adolescence, Ms. Toole hopes to find new avenues for discussion and education.
"Adoption is founded on loss," she said. "Loss of fertility, loss of a birth child." Real, loving families develop, she said, but struggles around loss develop, especially as teenagers work to define themselves as individuals.
In the early stages, adoptive parents are overwhelmed with what Ms. Jasny calls "the dumb questions. People ask 'What are they?' when they mean, 'What is their racial makeup or how are they connected to you?'"
Later, the burden of discomfort shifts to the children. Though they become better equipped to field questions themselves, they face the complexities of ethnic isolation at Island schools.
Ms. Wade is already planning to find African-American mentors for both her children so that they develop positive black role models.
Ultimately, though, she and other parents of transracial children stress sameness rather than difference when it comes to raising a family.
"The wedding is the smallest part of a marriage," Ms. Jasny said. "So it is with adoption." Being close to her children, she said, far eclipses looking like them.
Transracial adoption is the subject of a discussion at the West Tisbury Public Library on Sunday at 4 p.m., part of the One Book One Island program, which this spring includes The Buffalo Soldier, the story of a transracial foster family.
Originally published in The Vineyard Gazette
edition of Friday, April 30th 2004