Tagged Adoptions

A Poster Family for Diversity

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

Clicking through the new website of the private school my three children attend, I landed on a close-up photo of my oldest child’s smiling face. I shouldn’t have felt jarred, but I did. The picture, accompanied by a short interview highlighting everything she loves about the school, had been posted on the admissions page. Born in India and adopted by my husband and me, who are white, she’s a minority student at a majority white school that’s striving to become more diverse. Her interview was one of many, but for me, her mother, it generated a spotlight’s heat.

My older daughter is 14. Our son and younger daughter, siblings born in Ethiopia, are 13 and 12. When the children were small, strangers often mistook them for adorable, boisterous triplets. The kids’ friendly smiles and our family’s multicultural makeup ensured that we attracted attention everywhere we went. More than once, professional photographers stopped us on the street to propose a photo shoot. Religious strangers felt compelled to thank my husband and me for “loving the Lord and loving orphans.” Shoppers in the grocery store flagged me down to gush, “Your family is beautiful.”

The idea of us made a lot of people feel good, hopeful even, but I quickly grasped that we could also be perceived by some as a kind of entertaining novelty. For years, another mom at our elementary school referred to me, in public and private, as “Angelina Jolie.” I did my best to shield the kids, and myself, from the attention, so that our family could be just that — a family, not a symbol of post-racial equality or evidence of a supposed Hollywood trend, a trend some critics characterized as white celebrities adopting black babies as fashion accessories.

By virtue of their white parents, transracial adoptees often move in majority white spaces, inadvertently providing diversity for others. Although I’ve always tried to place my kids in environments where they encounter peers and role models of the same race, they inevitably end up in the minority at school, at camps, in enrichment classes and on sports teams.

Early on I noticed how schools and kids’ programs love to feature children of color in their marketing materials to highlight their commitment to diversity, just as the big corporations do. As much as I wanted pictures of my three to entice more minority children to join my children in their activities, I couldn’t bring myself to sign the blanket photo releases that came with every registration packet. I didn’t want my children being used to promote an ideal of diversity that didn’t exist in reality.

But complications arose. Without my release, my son’s fourth-grade teacher couldn’t post group pictures to her classroom website, an inconvenience that didn’t seem fair to her. Then a photo of my daughter, taken without my knowledge at our town’s Christmas parade, popped up in a catalog for the recreation department. A picture of all three kids appeared in a brochure for their favorite summer camp, even though I’d specified no photos. Complaining after the fact felt petty and pointless when I couldn’t identify any tangible harm done.

And then there was the problem of my work as a writer. Frequently when I published a parenting essay, the editor would want to run a family photo. For years I resisted, putting myself at a distinct disadvantage in the world of mommy blogs and image-centric parenting websites. As the kids matured, I discussed the pros and cons of every photo request with the whole family. The kids voted to publish the photo every time, and sometimes I did. Although I’ve been careful to never include their real names in my work to guard their privacy, there’s no question that using my children’s photos on occasion has helped my professional career, a reality I’m conflicted about, even if my kids are not.

And so I gave up. These days I sign all the photo releases for schools and camps and teams because this is the way the world works. All I can do as a parent is maintain an ongoing dialogue with my children about the hidden messages in advertising, about the ways minorities are portrayed in the media, and about why I feel so protective of their likenesses.

Sometimes, when I find a picture of my daughter playing bass guitar on the girls’ rock camp Facebook page or discover a video of my son’s deft footwork being tweeted by his soccer club, I’m thrilled. To see my kids promoted for what they do, not what they look like, feels good. Finding them featured in a camp catalog or a school brochure doing nothing but looking “ethnic” alongside their white peers brings up less positive emotions.

The photo and interview on the school admissions page felt like a “do nothing” at first, even though the school does a good job representing students of all backgrounds in its marketing as a whole. The post also felt like an intrusion. I’d never signed a release for an interview, and nobody had warned me it was coming, let alone sought my permission.

“Did you know they were going to put this interview with you on the website?” I asked my daughter.

“Of course,” she said.

“And you’re O.K. with it?”

“Obviously.”

She’d made her decision. With my children approaching adulthood in the age of the selfie, they’ll be making decisions daily about how to use and distribute their own images, with their status as members of minority groups an added twist. As a mom who shies away from the camera, I hope I’ve given them the tools to figure it out.

Sharon Van Epps is a freelance writer.

Related:


Sign up for the Well Family newsletter to get the latest news on parenting, child health and relationships with advice from our experts to help every family live well.

Meeting My DNA

Photo

Marie Tae McDermott and her dog, Cody, at Bushwhick Inlet Park in Brooklyn.

Marie Tae McDermott and her dog, Cody, at Bushwhick Inlet Park in Brooklyn.Credit Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

I was adopted when I was 6 months old, so I don’t know much about my family medical history. I don’t know, for example, whether I’m at increased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, mental illness. But home DNA testing is changing all that.

The tests are sent through the mail, no lab visits required. And they’re not limited to the human genome.

I tested the DNA waters with Cody, my four-legged adoptee. After shelling out $69 for a Wisdom Panel DNA test kit, I swabbed the inside of Cody’s cheek with a cotton swab from the kit and dropped it in the mail. Six weeks later I received Cody’s genealogy chart by email. While I’d always considered him pure mutt, with his apple-shaped head and stocky middle, results showed an uninterrupted lineage of Chihuahuas going back three generations.

I could only hope for such clarity. I ordered a kit from 23andMe, one of a handful of companies that now offer home testing for humans. Unlike the other major genetic testing companies Ancestry and Family Tree DNA, 23andMe offers both health and ancestry results. The cost is $199.

As with Cody, I collected a saliva sample and dropped it in the mail. A few weeks later, I got an email saying my results were ready. I logged on to the website to see my ancestry composition distilled into a pie chart. The chart showed that my ancestors hailed from Korea, something I’d already been told. What I didn’t expect to see were the smaller slices indicating I had Japanese and Chinese ancestors scattered in. Seeing my genealogy for the first time was thrilling.

23andMe also scanned its database of others who had submitted their genetic material to the company for potential DNA matches. It identified over a hundred of my relatives, ranging from fourth to eighth cousins. 23andMe predicts that the average person has around half a million eighth cousins. The number gets exponentially larger as you go back generations. Some geneticists believe that all humans are at least 50th cousins with one another.

A messaging tool on the 23andMe website also allows you to connect with DNA relatives who’ve also taken the test. I eagerly exchanged messages with four of my distant cousins: the parent of a Chinese adoptee living in the Netherlands, the stepfather of a fifth cousin in the Philippines and a fellow Korean adoptee. Nobody could tell me more about my genealogy.

Only a fourth cousin named Henry who lives in California could shed light on a common ancestor who lived in Japan in the 1700s. He wrote in an email: “It would be an okay assumption that you may have genes to my father’s side, as his family was not in the bushi/samurai class, but comfortable merchants. Also, my patriarchal prefecture was sort of a ‘doorway’ to Japan.” Henry and I became Facebook friends, but I still have no tangible information about my ancestors.

Joy Lieberthal, a clinical social worker who specializes in issues related to adoption, said that for adoptees digging into their past, it’s important to look at the big picture. She explained that genetic testing kits really just give adoptees a history lesson in migration and land conflict over time, and that it’s important not to overstate the importance of the results. The bottom line: Just have fun with it.

In my health report, some of the inherited traits ranged from the frivolous (my sensitivity to bitter tastes) to T.M.I. (my type of earwax). It did pinpoint some of my physical attributes, like eye and hair color. It confirmed that I was lactose intolerant and predicted my athletic performance, based on my type of muscle fiber, compared to world class athletes. It suggested that, were I a runner, I would be better suited for sprinting than cross-country. It also confirmed that I lacked an enzyme to process and detoxify ethanol, making me sensitive to alcohol.

Over all, I was tested for 122 health risks and 53 inherited conditions. It showed I had a slightly higher than average risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis and no inherited conditions. I had an elevated risk for developing restless leg syndrome. Was that why I felt that strange, jumpy sensation in my legs a few months ago? I made a note to mention this to my doctor at my next physical.

Through social media, I found other adoptees who had used DNA testing. An adoptee named Bee told me that her DNA test confirmed that she suffered from a rare and incurable genetic disease that affects her kidneys; with the results from her test, she was able to go to her doctor for an official diagnosis. She later learned that she had passed on the disease to her daughter, she told me.

Another adoptee named Janine, who was born in Korea and told by her adoptive parents that she was of mixed race, ordered a DNA kit so that she could learn about her biological father’s European lineage. Her ancestry results indicated she was 99.9 percent East Asian and only 0.1 percent European – hardly mixed race.

For me, DNA confirmed what I already knew: that the past is murky. After Henry’s email, follow-up messages from the relatives I was in contact with remained unanswered. It’s fun to think that I share some of my 20,000 genes with total strangers. But I think I’ll leave it at that. Piecing together a 20,000-piece jigsaw puzzle is a task too monumental to think about.

For more fitness, food and wellness news, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter.