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The bitch of biology

July 22, 2011
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I have four adopted children, all of whom are high-intensity children, but aside from the first year when the youngest was in diapers and very physically clingy, I’ve been able to split childrearing with my husband fairly evenly. Much of this is because we both work flexible jobs and often from home, and he is one of three boys which meant he had more household knowledge than I did, as the youngest daughter in a family with maids.

But now, we are expecting our fifth child (warding fingers at Doris Lessing!) in January next year, and the biological impact of pregnancy has been brutal for me.

I’m high-risk, after eight miscarriages, which meant fourteen injections a week, lots of medication and frequent bedrest in panic. Now it looks like this baby will survive to term, and we’re starting to discuss what will happen when we suddenly have a newborn in the house.

Will I work from home? How long can I take in maternity leave? If I can breastfeed, then I’ll default to the primary carer for at least the first year. How much physically can my husband – and to some extent, the older children, although we’ve made it clear that they have no obligation beyond regular sibling “don’t drop the baby on its head” duties – take over?

But even now, the pregnancy is exhausting. I haven’t gained any weight yet because everything tastes dreadful, and eating is a chore. It took me two hours this morning to finish three pieces of toast and a cup of milo. I’m not hungry at all, and the only sign I have that I’m not getting enough calories is that I have no energy at all. My husband will make me eat a bowl of mashed potatoes, and suddenly I can get up and walk around.

Then there’s days of work lost to medical appointments and bedrest. Bedrest seems wonderful in theory, except in practice I end up lying on the bed staring blankly at the wall, either in pain or panic. A day arrives when I’m alright, and I have three days of work backed up.

I know one of our clients in Cambodia, a young woman with a difficult life, is around the same pregnancy stage as me. There’s fifteen years and so so much difference between us – I can go to an excellent doctor whenever I need to, I can afford different foods, I don’t have the immense financial and living difficulties she has. But what fascinates me is that she can’t work because of her morning sickness, and that this is not minor.

I will somehow muddle through the next six months of miserable pregnancy, and then hopefully the first year of intensive baby parenting.

She has to do that with a tiny fraction of what I have.

I’m finding this so difficult, even with so many resources. To expect a pregnant woman to act like a non-pregnant woman, to expect a parent of an infant to act like a non-parent – is so patently absurd now to me. These are wonderful things to do – someone has to have and raise the next generation, and the state or society needs to make up for what’s lost. Because there is so much lost to the sheer physical and time demands of biology, whether it’s pregnancy or a young infant.

We’ve pushed through a direct cash aid pilot we’ve been discussing so that she, along with four other families, can be the first trial recipients. It won’t be much, I think $24-$30 a month, but that together with free medical care and sponsored prenatal visits and medication, will mean the difference between her baby being born into destitution or working class. And for her – yes, she was daft to get pregnant that young, but I’m fifteen years older and this baby, very much wanted when we realised, was not at all planned or expected. And I’d rather live in a world that recognizes and supports pregnancy, because it is bloody hard, than one that punishes people for being less than perfect.

I have met quite a few women who had easy pregnancies, and don’t see why any special allowances need to be made. To which I say: bell curve, because they shouldn’t be special, they should be the default, and talk to me when your baby has screaming colic for three months straight.

On a related tangent: A friend wrote about Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, a beautiful story but one that to meis obliquely about reproductive rights, especially abortion. I started thinking of great sci-fi/fantasy works that tackled pregnancies and young infant childrearing as part of their worldbuilding. Bujold is the most obvious one, as is Brave New World, and I think Delaney has at times. But for something so critical to shaping society, the vast underpinning of silent sacrifice, usually by women, of productive economic/mental/physical years, it is a ghetto. A pregnancy blackhole.

Why don’t we talk about this more? Because we’re exhausted and vulnerable? Because it’s only a few years total of your life (hah, says the past decade of mine)? Because it can be ignored, I think. It’s a nice feel-good to give up your seat on the train or donate to a maternity clinic in a third world country, but the real fundamental shift in industrial work practices, in shared gender parenting, in tax-subsidies for children that are needed, well screw them over and the people hit hardest are too exhausted and marginalized to do anything about it.

And now I am going to drink some ginger beer and try to work.

A Comprehensive Guide to Preventing Assault!

May 31, 2011

From SlutWalk Stockholm, and with so much angry affection from me for the truth of this:

A Comprehensive Guide to Preventing Assault!

1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

6. Remember, people go to laundry to do their laundry, do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.

7. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.

8. Always be honest with people! Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.

9. Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake!

10. Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone “on accident” you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do.

And, ALWAYS REMEMBER: if you didn’t ask permission and then respect the answer the first time, you are committing a crime- no matter how “into it” others appear to be.

Time Tested Beauty Tips

May 28, 2011

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; Never throw out anybody.
Remember, If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.
The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole, but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!

Sam Levenson, but often attributed to Audrey Hepburn

I know very little about Audrey Hepburn as an actress, but years ago I was researching the effects of sudden malnutrition and came across a reference to Hepburn. It was wonderful to be able to tell my daughter that she would grow up as beautiful as Hepburn. She had several miscarriages and two sons that she loved fiercely. This was one of her favourite poems that she would recite to them. I plan on framing it for my daughters’ bedroom.

The slushfund at Riverkids

January 19, 2011

So every now and then we get an emergency that requires cash. As we have more families, this is more frequent. A sudden death, a house collapsing, and this week, two teenage sex workers who were in a minor road accident and are being held by the clinic until their families cough up $700. It’s complicated because we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on with the doctor’s threats, the families, etc. So far, we’ve gotten the price knocked down a couple of hundred, so hopefully they’ll be home soon.

Something bad happens. We have lots of great donors and social media access.

We can – and have at times – go online and post an appeal.

But – that means either delaying help for the client in danger until the funds arrive (let alone factoring in time to transfer the funds over to Cambodia) or being honest and saying “We’d really appreciate the donation, even though it won’t directly go to this person in time, but sort of replace the money we’ve already spent on them.”

Not so sexy.

We want to imagine that the money, our money, is getting handed over like some shiny baton of charity from our hands to the charity to the grateful recipient – and it’s our special money, not anyone else’s grubby cash.

Because putting money into a charity’s general unrestricted funds – the slushfund! – is decidedly dull. Your donation is far more likely to be spent on a bit of the utilities’ bill, or staff payroll or other mundane everyday expenses, than the $100 of life-saving medicine or school uniforms or baby milk or whatever else the charity hopes you’ve visualised on donating.

Reading the discussions on Kiva on this blog, I can see why people are pissed at Kiva fine printing that the loans are all predisbursed.

I have very mixed feelings about Kiva and other donor-pooling websites like them. But this bit is I think as much a donor problem as a fundraiser’s.

People give more and faster when it’s urgent. When they think they alone make a difference. I found it easier to give to the Pakistan floods than the Haiti earthquakes personally because I knew the floods were getting less coverage, and I felt ‘virtuous’ about the 10 minutes it took me to research and choose a Pakistan charity to support.

(Another post there – I donated a couple of months ago, and no contact since – I would have happily given them more at Christmas or this new year if they’d sent me an update. I have another charity I gave to for two years, lost when I switched cards, and they’ve not followed up to get me to resubscribe. And they’re not little ops like Riverkids, but big places that should know and do better.)

So slushfunds are vital. With the slushfund, we can respond immediately. And I remain deeply, deeply sceptical of any charity that truly commits to honest P2P funding for critical situations. From a client point of view, Kiva’s fund-first approach is better than waiting around hoping that you’ll get chosen, not just by your local MFI, but also by a bunch of people in what amounts to a dating site.

The fine print still sucks.

Statistics

January 14, 2011

We had two volunteer groups do a massive survey of slum households for us in Nov-Dec 2010. The data has been collated and is now being analysed, and I just had a 90-minute phone conference with another volunteer who is doing statistical analysis, looking for correlations and comparisons.

First off – I <3 these volunteers. Increasingly, we’re getting better at finding and working well with long-term volunteers. They take more work up front, but they become hugely helpful long-term. The funny part is that it’s next to impossible at the beginning to tell who’s going to turn out to be a great volunteer, and who will just fade away. I need to figure out how to hold on to great volunteers better.

The preliminary numbers are fascinating – way higher unemployment, far lower internal migration, big gender gaps at different ages. But figuring out what questions to ask is almost half the work.

Probably the most critical question in our survey (and right near the end, when the household was relaxed) was “Have you considered selling your child?” I expected no-one to say so, but 15 households did, and 3 refused to answer, with 232 families saying no. Over a third of the households, probably more (there’s some math stuff to do to get a reliable estimate) knew a family that had.

There are also families with kids working, violence, alcoholism, drugs and so on. We’re basically trying to figure out what factors are associated with that. Figuring it out in a way that’s accurate means figuring out very very carefully what you’re asking. A single adult household with X number of children and Y income/adult as a double-adult household with X children and Y income/adult, what distinguishes them? And flip that around, all my X-children households with single adults vs double-adults, what’s the difference in income then? It looks like the same question, but the second one is I think better because it’s more specific. And it’s still not an answer. Is the income lower because the children aren’t working outside because there’s no-one else to watch the younger kids but another kid? Is it lower because when the adult falls sick, they have to go for a loan more often, than a two-adult household where they are less likely to both be sick at the same time?

Our very very preliminary analysis was looking for regression correlation blah-blah-stats stuff on child trafficking and the number of children, the education levels of adults and income. And the link is weak, which puzzled the stats volunteer. Income was more important than the parent’s education – but so far all we’ve discovered is that there isn’t a smoking gun.

And that, I think is closer to the truth.

Getting from a giant spreadsheet of data to cute stats like “Living on less than $2 a day makes a child 40% more likely to be sold” isn’t just difficult. It’s pointless. You could maaaaybe get that answer, but it would ignore any other factor. We’re taking very messy human lives and trying to work out links between them, and how we frame the question shapes what we see in the numbers. Ask a vague question, get a useless answer.

It is really, really hard to get numbers on child sex workers, or even sex workers, in Cambodia. Child laborers as a whole, I’ve seen numbers from 350,000 to 1 million in Cambodia. Usually, when I’m pulling together a grant, I’ll just rely on the UN or IOM or another well-regarded acronym. When it’s something puzzling, I’ll dig through to the back and try and follow how they got there. A couple of times, especially with stats relating to sex work, the numbers make no sense because the questions or the analysis is bizarre. But you wouldn’t know that without looking under the covers.

For our survey, I wrote up a list of questions, and most of them are variations on: “This is a rule of thumb we use based on our experiences. Is it real or a bad guess?”

I’m so curious to find out – are single-adult households more vulnerable? Does a trauma make a family more likely to splinter? Are the families new to the slums better off than the long-term residents? Do the uneducated parents have a harder time with their kids and finding work?

And from that, we can hopefully figure out who and what we should be spending our time and money on.

But first, we have to ask the right questions.

Emerging to go humph

December 14, 2010

I should not have to go to Guidestar to find financial records for an organisation. This is a pretty great program being run, and I like them but –

First to the website, nothing financial. Click around, decide the annual report should have it. Download a giant PDF, discover there is nothing – some vague allusions to how much things cost in their suggested donations page. There’s no calendar of activities either, or any specific evaluations in this report.

So I wind up googling them, thinking I must’ve missed a link. I went over to Guidestar and there are no financial statements, just their Form 990s.

And in those, I find that they’ve spent 20% on fundraising alone, and have a huge chunk of cash in reserves, and that the amount being spent on what I thought was a key part of their program is tiny.

So my respect for them has fallen several notches. They could’ve impressed me with easy to find and read financial reports. Instead, I end up feeling frustrated and suspicious, and a lot less likely to ever donate to them.

This is partly because I spend a good chunk of time worrying about financial documents at work. But looking at google analytics for our website, about 0.3% of site visits are to our financial reports page, and the number of people who download or request financial statements is far, far smaller.

Why privacy matters for charity clients

December 7, 2010

This is written in my private capacity, not as a Riverkids representative!

Okay, so up-front I come at this as the mother of four children who would have been charity cases. When we went public years ago about the abuse and trafficking in their adoptions, one of my biggest concerns was protecting their privacy. It was their story far more than ours as parents. We’d come into the game as the final links in the chain of trafficking.

Plus, it wasn’t just them. While I don’t give a toss about naming the traffickers involved (Hello Harriet Brener-Sam, Mrs Kan and the horrific Nheang foster family), my kids’ family had been involved and things were and are complicated.

So we worked out with the kids what could be said and what we would leave out. We made sure the story we told was truthful, but refused to answer certain questions. We practiced with the kids on how to answer their friends’ questions and – mostly, it’s been okay. They have days where they don’t want to talk about Cambodia, and days when they do. They know that before a media story that might mention them goes up, we’ll ask them for permission each time.

One of my kids has moved to ‘own’ her story in a way that amazes me, thanks to good therapy. I was abused a lot as a kid, and it’s really hard for me to articulate it, let alone to the extent that she can clearly say ‘this happened to me, and it was not my fault. I have bad nightmares and I feel bad sometimes because of it, but I will get better with time.’ I adore her bravery. I hope someday I’ll get there too.

So this December, we’re doing a Twelve Days, Twelve Stories email campaign. We’re sending out twelve stories of children and families we’ve worked with to show the range of issues we work with.

Stories are awesome for fundraising. People love them. I love them. Because of my work with Riverkids, I’ve come to love numbers even more – I am pretty cautious about who I donate to, especially if they don’t have financials or impacts or some kind of monitoring reports.

But people help people, not projects, so you need individuals if you want to get your donors to help. And if I don’t use stories, I can’t raise funds well which means I can’t help more kids.

However, we work with children defined as at-risk, who are particularly in danger of abuse and trafficking. So putting up names and details means we could be doing the legwork for a pedophile. And then there’s the concept of dignity.

Years ago when we were just starting out, I went to another NGO to walk around their project with a guide. She was one of their clients, who had been sent to school and was now at university, sponsored by the NGO. During the short walk, she shared some of her personal history, including some pretty traumatic stuff. At the end, most of the visitors were browsing the shop, so I got coffee for the two of us and chatted with her. I told her about my children, and asked if it wasn’t perhaps a bit hard for her to talk about herself with strangers?

I’ll never forget the look of pain on her face. She said yes, but it was her duty to repay the NGO for what they had done for her.

It’s a great NGO – we still partner with them, and they cancelled those tours shortly after. I don’t for a second think they meant to cause her pain, but it happens.

We’re still struggling with our advocacy walks in the slums, balancing exposure and understanding with privacy. Banning photographs, guiding appropriate questions and insisting on conversation, not interviewing helps, but it’s definitely still a work in progress. We’ve had families take part once, then refuse, and others willingly sign up again and again.

Currently, we remove names of clients in our public documentation. For a story, we’ll use a non-identifiable photograph (quarter-face or digitized out, though we’re moving away from those because they look like crime photos) or we’ll use a replacement photograph, of a child of similar age and gender. A story without photographs has a much weaker impact.

I’m also removing unique details, e.g. her mother came from Bantay Province three years ago and was arrested for stealing a bicycle would become her mother came from the countryside and was arrested for theft.

But yesterday, writing Heng’s story, the full impact came home for me. I’ve written about Heng several times before, under different names. Those stories have been routine updates, nothing particularly exciting. But if I had written them under his real name, it would be so easy to put the dots together and figure out who Heng is.

It’s not just the difficult stories that need privacy. It’s all of them – because we don’t know when something terrible will happen to one of our kids. The girl I write about who’s just come in top of her class, might get sold a year later and that’s when privacy will matter for her.

Because privacy does matter. A lot of the time, if you’re poor, people think privacy is a luxury. But it’s a basic right. Just because you’re poor, I should not be able to use your name and your face and your life story as I please. I should have to ask you for permission, and listen when you want to reframe your story.

The only exception I can think of is if there’s a genuinely newsworthy event – but even then, with children, the media still has a pretty standard set of ethics. And they should be the same for a child in the slums of Phnom Penh as a child in New York or Singapore.

I look at my kids, and I imagine if they were in Riverkids, what would I want written about them? And the answer is nothing. I don’t want my kids’ pain exposed, I don’t want the awful things that have happened to them written about for other people to read out of curiosity or pity.

But recently, we had to include a bit on them for a media article. I asked if I should remove it, but one of them said no, if you don’t write about it, then people won’t know and they won’t help. It’s true after all. And that’s just as true as the sad stuff. Not talking about poverty and trafficking and child abuse doesn’t help either.

It boils down, for me, to agency and truth.

Are the people being photographed and written about represented truthfully? In the whole truth, not what’s convenient or hits the right marketing points.I struggle with this, because our kids have complicated families and fitting it all into a short piece can be hard.

It also matters to me about tone. Almost all our kids have sad lives on paper. But there’s also a lot of joy and love – they play games, they do their homework, they celebrate festivals – there are good things in the slums too.

Are they given privacy through pseudonyms and careful photographs, or given an informed choice over their story? We had a documentary filmed recently, and some families were willing to appear on camera, others weren’t. We had a media release form translated into Khmer, explaining who would watch and that they could choose what to answer, etc. The families were given time ahead of the filming to decide on participating. I remember one mum saying yes, she’d be filmed but only if she could change shirts to her prettier top, thanks!

And this rambling post is brought to you by my sleep deprivation and sudden awareness that our privacy policy isn’t just lip service. It matters.

Here are some good thoughtful posts on ‘poverty porn’ to read.

Starting adoptions from the other side of the table

November 30, 2010

So, Riverkids – the NGO I work for – is in the middle of arranging two adoptions. Technically, they’re long-term fostering agreements expected to be finalized as permanent placements, but they are adoptions. The paperwork and finding and educating the adoptive families has been done by another NGO, who so far I’ve been very pleased with for their child-centered approach.

I am both surprised we’re finally doing adoptions and surprised it’s taken this long.

Riverkids started to a large degree when my husband and I adopted four children from Cambodia, an international trans-racial adoption. Two of our kids had been trafficked specifically for adoption, and in the decade since, I’ve become incredibly cynical about the adoption industry, and to a lesser degree about adoptive parents. It’s not a triangle – it’s a black hole of money and desire coming from wealthier and socially more powerful adoptive parents distorting what adoption could be, a blessing in tragedy.

Caveat up front: I believe ethical adoption is a good alternative for some children in crisis, and I believe that most adoptions now are unethical. Ours certainly were. This is not an official Riverkids post, although we’re putting up our foster care policy once these adoptions are done, with detailed notes on the process as part of them. This is me reflecting on our work.

It is odd to be on the other side now, to be making the decision on placing a child and figuring out how to do it. I thought it might be helpful to write up what my experience so far has been.

1. Yes, we have no babies.

There’s a widespread perception that there are lots of abandoned babies in third-world countries. We’ve worked with over 500 kids directly now, if we include those transferred out to other NGOs. We have two abandoned babies now. Both were picked up by concerned neighbours when their parents left them. We have a bunch more babies not being taken care of by their parents but by relatives or neighbours that had informally adopted them.

Everybody loves babies. And babies are fairly cheap to take care of. Even in a third-world country, getting a family to take on another baby is pretty easy.

But abandoned older children? Who have distinct personalities, often damaged by abuse or neglect, who come in pairs or larger groups of siblings, not so easy. We have a group of five children with one on the way, that I’d dearly love to place together. We’ve been back-and-forth discussing this family because it’s clear that there is no long term future with their parents. Half of the kids are in foster care already. But no-one is willing to take on all of them. It’s likely that we will eventually place the youngest three with one family, and keep the older two in foster care with on-going family contact. It’s a painful compromise.

2. Abandoned is forever

We’ve had I think eight children now abandoned with us, the parents declaring that they are not coming back. Six of them are back with their parents again. Part of it is clearly being overwhelmed by pregnancy, possible post-natal depression, and poverty. What we do is take the child into fostering or weekly boarding, then tell the parent that we’ll help them recover and in a few months, discuss a permanent placement.

You have to follow through – just taking a child into an orphanage is helpful, but not following up by helping the mother find a job, getting the father into hospital or whatever the crisis is, well what’s the point? From a practical point of view, weekly boarding and foster care is expensive for us. A baby in fostercare typically costs us about $90 a month at least, what with nutrition, foster care salaries, social worker time and more. An older child in weekly boarding is going to cost at least $30 extra a month on top of whatever services they’re getting from us. So if we spend $300 in services to get the family back on their feet so they can take the child back, that’s the same as just over three months of fostercare.

And it’s just monumentally dumb not to help a family that wants and could take care of a child but can’t. Unless of course you’re depending on the $2-5,000 adoption fees you could get from that child. Or the donations you might get for running an orphanage full of sad babies.

The two babies we’re placing are because of attempted violence on the child, abandonment for over six months, mental illness and more. These are serious issues that can’t be fixed in the short-term, or even medium term.

3. Finding family

I mentioned above finding relatives to take on a child. This is not automatic – if the child needs to be removed from their parents for abuse or neglect, their relatives may have the same problems. I’m working separately now on another family situation where there is no way we could place the child with a family member because of the history of trafficking and neglect.

There’s also being second-best. You’ll be the cousin, not the child. I know kinship adoptions in Cambodia and outside that have been great and awful. It comes down to how the relatives view the child – as an embarrassment or burden, or as another child in their family.

For the two babies we’re placing, we’ve been unable to trace any relatives. This isn’t that unusual in the slums. People move to Phnom Penh from the provinces to escape family problems, and it’s common to have very isolated nuclear families. Plus, few have legal ID or addresses, so if someone packs and goes, tracing them is next to impossible.

4. Musical chairs with children

Babies are dumb – they cannot speak, so people often assume that means that there’s nothing going on inside, or what is is so minimal that it can be safely ignored.

But they are extremely aware. With my youngest, we would amuse ourselves by estimating when he was cleverer than our cats (he can now crawl faster! He opens drawers!) and I can tell you that even cats freak out about moving house, or worse, missing people. I have one truly daft animal that literally will not come in from the rain – he has to be carried in because he is too stupid to understand that the reason he is suddenly wet and miserable is because he is sitting outside – and he has a terribly complicated social life with different cats and people. His brain is perhaps the size of a walnut.

Compare that to a big-brained human baby, born to someone they’ve heard and felt for months, then that changes, and then those new voices change, and then suddenly the food changes again, everything smells different, crying doesn’t work so the baby has to try another way – there is a huge jump each time, and we expect babies to just adapt?

They will. But at a cost. Time adapting to a new foster family is time that could’ve been used on learning to crawl or talk, time where trust has to be built up again and again.

So we’re working to minimize transitions. With both these babies, their foster families are unsuitable long-term placements. They were accidental placements – neighbours who took in the abandoned babies. It would be sensible on paper to transfer them to trained stable foster families. But for the babies, that would be yet another shock, and given that they were likely to be placed for local adoption, not a permanent solution either.

So we spent time with the families to figure out if they were likely to harm the babies. We support them financially, and our social worker and nurse visit them often to give parenting advice and check up on the babies. It’s a compromise, but it’s clear so far that the babies are thriving emotionally with strong attachment to their foster families.

5. They’ll have a better life overseas…

This led to quite a discussion at the Riverkids office in Cambodia. For me, it’s a toss-up. I’ve seen how much my kids grieve for what they’ve lost. I grew up an expat kid in Singapore, a minority race, and my discomfort and dislocation is minor league compared to theirs. I can remember seeing one child just shaking with grief, waves and waves of grief for what was lost.

We kept languages – the older ones speak Khmer and Vietnamese – and we eat a mishmash of Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese food. That’s where our latest pet, Slimey the catfish came from, his two siblings cooked up for a Vietnamese dish one of the girls was craving. Going back to Cambodia, my kids are clearly taller and healthier than their friends. They’ve got access to school, medical, work and cultural opportunities they couldn’t get in Cambodia. We’re not rich, but compared to most in Cambodia, we’re amazingly well-off.

But my kids are mostly Vietnamese, and finding a local adoptive family in Cambodia that would have been willing to take four older siblings together would have been very hard. Older kids are harder to place because they are harder to parent, initially. Also, less cute. Between a baby and a teenager, both furious and screaming at you, the new parent, which one is easier to comfort?

So consider an infant then. A healthy baby who could be placed equally with a Cambodian or international family. You’re trading the racial and cultural dislocation for material benefits.

And side note – an Asian family adopting a Cambodian baby does not cancel out race. Asia is pretty pragmatic about race, and a Thai baby adopted by a Chinese family for example, does not magically become Chinese. My kids in Singapore are legally identified as their adoptive father’s race, Chinese, but they are very clearly functionally, racially and culturally not Chinese.

I would definitely consider an overseas Cambodian family, or a family with other adopted Cambodian children if they had shown strong ties and commitment to their child’s history. I know several such awesome families – at one point, when we weren’t sure if Baby B was healthy, we discussed internally asking a family I know who were thinking of another adoption if they would be interested.

But to place material benefits first is simply revolting. It’s turning children into commodities, and it overrides everything else. It is also a huge issue with colonialism. This is something that gets a visceral reaction from people who are generally on the winning-side of history, that it’s rubbish and outdated and so unfair etc. etc.

To which I say: grow up an ethnic minority somewhere, then come complain to me. I was a white kid in an Asian country, and privileged as hell. But I was still freakish and stuck out and often racially harassed. So the idea of taking my asian boys to live as an ethnic minority in a western country is – I like ’em, why would I do something that mean to them if I didn’t have to?

And colonialism is – it’s both systematic and individual, it’s a sense of entitlement based on nationality and color, and it lingers. So anytime you have a country exporting babies in international adoption industries – a large-scale movement of children that is significant against domestic adoptions – something is wrong.

Also warzone and disaster adoptions – just about every public agency now says no to them. During and just after a disaster, the biggest need is not whisking children away to new families, but bringing them aid and reuniting them with their families. It takes time to figure out who’s an orphan and who has an auntie who will take them in with some help. Haiti was a mess that could’ve been a much nastier mess thankfully. Most of the adoptions were to children who were already in the process, and essentially family reunifications.

So international adoptions exceptions:

a) Serious health issues. Cambodia’s health system is better, but not great. For a child who would need heart surgery or other long-term medical care, an international placement would be a better choice.

b) Older children or sibling groups that can’t find a Cambodian family. It’s a matter of numbers again. If we went international, we’re more likely to find a family with the training and desire to parent an older child or a sibling group. Sibling groups are actually easier in Cambodia, if there’s material support to help, but older kids, especially with difficult backgrounds, are tough. Still, you also have to weigh up the cultural shock of moving overseas and for some older kids, a group home in Cambodia might be a better fit.

c) Reunification of siblings. Which is how I got involved in the first place! Sometimes you have to separate siblings because of inter-family abuse like an older sibling beating up or harassing a younger sibling, but short of that, I can’t see a reason to. My kids were divvied up to make a bigger profit. They frequently wish that certain siblings be left on a desert island, but they are extremely close.

I have a good friend who is not a supporter of Cambodian local adoptions because she believes mostly families treat their adopted children as second-rate. One of my kids was adopted briefly then given up as not cute/obedient enough by a local family, and I have seen other friends deal with abuse from lousy kinship placements.

I think this is a case of theory and practice. We can say in theory kinship, then local, then international adoptions are best. But if we don’t give enough support at each stage, we’re going to default to international where the adoptive families in general have way more resources. Kinship and local adopters need adoption training, they need respite and counselling care, they might need material support – they certainly need social support.

6. Process

So now we’re at the process stage. I’m behind on just about everything at work, although I did hear yesterday that baby A’s foster father is now coming round to wanting to adopt baby A permanently when he realised that there was a placement offered.

This is what from our side we’re preparing for the babies’ permanent files:

  • Photographs of the child
  • Photograph of their foster family with them
  • Photograph of their relatives, if known
  • List of names, dates and places related to them
  • All their medical paperwork
  • The internal documentation we have (child registration, medical care, foster agreement etc)
  • Photograph of the place where we think they were born (with a note to explain why we think it is that area)
  • A short letter recounting what details we have been able to gather on their birthfamily from neighbors or relative

We’ll keep a copy in Singapore, a copy at our Cambodia office, and a copy each for the new adoptive family and for the other NGO arranging that side. We’ve asked for an open adoption, but if that doesn’t happen, at least someday, baby A and baby B will have the chance to see where they came from and why they were adopted.

And hopefully, know that it was with the best of intentions for them – not for profit, or convenience or ego. But for them.

The Baby Hero

This is the last bit of this very long and rambly essay! There was a point where I was carrying one of the babies on the way to the doctor – her foster mum was managing some bags, so I took her for a bit. She was very small and delicate, and there we were, going to Save Her Life at the doctor’s. I was the one who pushed for the doctor’s and paid, so the doctor tried to speak to me first but – what I have learnt, painfully and with difficulty – I shut up. I said, this is the foster mum, and this is her social worker, and talk to them please. I got some bits translated for me, but mostly – not my job.

But it would have been so so easy to do that. To walk into a slum and rescue this tiny baby. She had a rash where she wasn’t being bathed enough – but her foster mother had a tiny hat for her that she put on carefully and the baby giggled when her foster mother blew kisses at her, and out of this really poor family struggling as best they could, the baby was loved, so loved.

Still, I have some empathy for people who charge in to rescue children. It’s seductively easy. Children cling to you and you can get such an emotional fix off rescuing them. They are far easier to help than angry independent adults. They are ‘clean slates’, and you can project your own ideas onto them. You have all this wealth and power comparatively, and everyone is so nice to you because you’re the kind lady or man who rescues children from horrible people.

While this empathy is not going to stop me from punching certain people in the face on behalf of my kids if I ever met them again, I can see how it starts. It starts when you think about how you feel, not the baby you’re supposed to be helping.

Greenstone and grief

October 9, 2010

My father had a collection of Maori hei-tikis, meres and other pieces, bought over thirty-odd years. Before he died last year, I worked with him on putting together a small book about his collection.

It was the closest I had ever been to him, and it was about the only way in a family splintered by abuse and silence that I could safely show how I felt. I made a catalogue from his notes, arranged for a local photographer, then laid out the book and arranged for it to be published and shipped over to him. While I worked on this, he talked about each piece and tried to teach me how to bid at auctions – he knew he was dying – and what he hoped we would buy, which pieces to sell, what kind of a collection we should build.

He wanted the Kalimantan Collection to be something passed down to our grandchildren, shared with other collectors, possibly with museums (he had great stories about wrangles with museums) and it was – possibly next to golf, his other passion.

My mother and one of my sisters who have taken control of his estate are now selling the collection off.

There is a whole mess behind it, basically boiling down to greed and power. It’s horrible, utterly horrible.

But today I got the formal letter that the collection is being sold. I suppose I had hoped when I wept last month in front of my mother and begged her not to sell it, that they would change their minds.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to buy any of the pieces for myself. Most of them require a Y-certificate and can’t be brought out of New Zealand, where I don’t live. The rest of the pieces are probably way too expensive for me.

The funny part of it is that if I’d had my share of the inheritance like my dad intended, I could afford them. Or if they had been willing to buy me out of my share with the Collection like I asked –

We gave away most of the money my dad left to me in advance. It’s all complicated but there’s either half a million or a million left in my share, or maybe a hundred thousand given how spectacularly bad things are going. I don’t regret what we did with the money. But now I wish I’d saved some of it so I could buy the piece #2, the first greenstone he ever bought. I can’t remember what it’s valued at, but I’m pretty sure I can’t.

It’s just breaking my heart. It’s hearing that he died all over again.

The Kalimantan Collection – a 12MB PDF of the book. It’s a pretty good read about Maori artefacts if um. Well, I’m biased. And crying.

Adoptive parents, self-selecting for and against

October 1, 2010

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and this recent post on Yoon’s Blur dovetails into it.

Sidenote: Yoon’s Blur is one of a bunch of adoptee blogs I read. I have a mix of adopted parents and adoptee blogs. A few birthparent ones, but I haven’t found any as notable to me, I think in part because I’m more interested in non-American domestic adoption, and most birthparents there will blog in non-English and have less access. I would love links and recommendations though.

Adoptee blogs mean a lot to me. We have an old book, How It Feels To Be Adopted, that I loved, and now my kids sometimes pick up to read, plus a bunch of adoptee memoirs. Almost nothing by adopted parents because they were either the “I just got home with my kid and everything is so happy and meant to be!” or “my adopted kid is a nightmare and I am a saint” last time I went looking. I think I have a collection of triad essays somewhere. My kids could at least relate to some of the stories in How It Feels, and most importantly – it’s in the kids’ own voices, rather than filtered into a new story. Mommy Near, Mommy Far got some reading too in our house.

Blogs let you see day to day life. It helps me to see how adoption can be a part of a big busy life, and that writing and talking about it can help, and to have – hmm. To have my emotional vocabulary extended. What my kids are going through is someplace I can’t go. But these blogs are sort of guidebooks, so I can recognise some of the landmarks. And then when my kids struggle, I can say “Maybe it is like this or like that, and this is how this other person thought/felt about it.” They sometimes feel so unique – international open adoptions with an older sibling group and trafficking ain’t that common – and ordinary at the same time.

So this is where I’m coming from in saying I think there is a major blindspot in most of the adoption-related blogs I read and love .

“Rather, you get pregnant realizing the depth of responsibility. I’m not going into parenthood expecting my child to give back to me tenfold and thank me every day for bringing him out of the womb. In other words, giving birth ultimately isn’t about me. It’s not about what my child is going to give or do for me. I’m not giving birth because I wanted a number one fan who’s going to thank me for the rest of my life. I’m not giving birth because I want to “grow” my family. It’s something much more profound, much deeper, much more intangible than any of that. It’s something I want to do, but not because I’m expecting endless gratitude in return. I know it’s going to be challenging and hard and there are times I’m going to want to rip out my hair. And yet, somehow, still, my husband and I wanted to do this. We made the decision, even knowing all that it would demand of our lives and our very selves.”

But I know plenty of people who do just that. They see their kids as extensions of themselves, who believe their children owe them for being born, for being given a decent material life. People who choose their own needs over their children’s, who have kids to please a partner or to show social status. Sometimes, those people turned into pretty great parents once their kids came into their lives.

Often they don’t. I’m estranged from my mom as of this year, and a big part of that has been realising that she doesn’t love me very much. When I please her socially or give her a reason to feel good about herself, then fine. But if I needed her and it was inconvenient, I got nothing at best. Usually I was punished. And I know lots of people like me.

I was determined, like a lot of abused kids, to be a great parent to my kids and give them a better childhood. And then when I finally met my kids, it all got mixed up in the enormous love I feel for them, and so it’s mostly good. I feel guilty for stuff I should do better, but we do okay.

So anyway. People seem to adopt for three reasons: they can’t/won’t have kids biologically, they have an ethical tie to adoption or they met this one kid and it happened after they realised oh hey, that’s my kid too. The third reason is kinda my favourite, because I know two families that happened to, and they are so lovely. But anyway.

Most adoptive parents are a mix. I had a bunch of early miscarriages and we had no strong push for a genetic link so we decided to go straight to adoption. Bear in mind I was a clueless 22 year old, just married and – oh man, there are so many reasons we should not have been able to adopt, and certainly not matched with my kids. But that is for another post.

You self-select in that you have to want to parent. It is pretty damn hard to accidentally adopt. You make conscious choices over and over, and people ask you repeatedly about your parenting plans.

And adoptive parents have to have some money. You can’t be broke. You have to have some kind of stability, a safe place to live. You need to have either a partner or a family network you can show to help you parent.

So you self-select a bunch of people already with advantages. Against that, you balance the difficulty of transracial and transcultural parenting, of the rescue mentality, unresolved grief over infertility, etc.

But the system is generally designed to weed out crazies who can’t hide their craziness or aren’t rich enough to cover it up. People slip through or develop later craziness, and often triggered by race/culture/grief – but those people would’ve been crap parents to any kid. Being adopted means you have both a lower chance of getting unstable accidental parents and a higher chance of getting people with lousy hang-ups – and the same chance of getting a crappy parent anyway.

So I think adoptive parents and adoptees often skip over just how lousy people can be at parenting period. Adoption issues intensify it, but there’s also plain crazy bad parenting. And there’s a lot of it.