tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Another look inside 'Emerging Son'

Following is an excerpt from chapter 8 of "Emerging Son." For information about ordering your copy of this delightful memoir, see the conclusion of the December 14, 2004 post.

Back home, the details of the adoption process were weighing us down. Before a couple could adopt, they had to prepare an information packet called a “home study.” The packet required couples to describe everything in writing, from job history, to family status, to personal philosophies, to religion, to the television shows they enjoy. And a social worker conducted interviews.

“Are you angry about your fertility situation?” asked an expressionless social worker.

“No,” I said. “I was sad about it but not angry.”

“So you are in denial?” she responded, writing “denial” on a notebook she kept on her lap.

“I am not in denial!” I shouted.

The social worker underlined her original answer in the notebook.

LSS wanted to know so much about us before they would approve us for an adoption. We had to give them a picture of our extended family. A social worker came to our home. She looked in every room, humming as she checked things off her clipboard. “Will the child have her own room?” we were asked. “How old is the house? Is this lead-based paint? Are these pipes protected with asbestos? I see. How many smoke alarms do you have?”

Then they asked about our plans for discipline. “You won’t be spanking the child will you?” I had to think fast. How was I supposed to answer? Truth was, I didn’t know if I would be spanking our child or not. Of course I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to. But could I imagine a situation where a swat on the bottom was the only way to get my kid’s attention? Yes.

“No,” I told the social worker.

LSS required couples considering international adoption to participate in a cross-cultural workshop, a three-hour meeting Susan and I dutifully attended with a dozen other couples. The session offered a potpourri of information about cultures around the world but there was little on Colombia and even less on some of the really important questions we had about adoption. Susan wanted to know about adoptive nursing and I wanted to know if there were any shortcuts we could take to minimize the paperwork demanded by the Colombian court system. The workshop didn’t address those topics.

Instead, workshop leaders spent a lot of time describing the ramifications of inter-racial adoption. Our adoption would fall into this category, although I had a hard time considering Colombians as being a different race. Colombians have skin colors that vary as much as Americans – some are dark and others are light. One prospective adoptive couple shared concern that their relatives wouldn’t accept their South American-born child as readily as they accepted their relatives born in the United States. “I know they will make an issue of the brown skin,” the wife said. “I have relatives who refused to come to my baby shower.”

Although a social worker told us these kinds of reactions were common, our relatives were supportive. In fact, Susan’s parents were excited about the culture that Colombian children might bring to a clan that was otherwise dominated by Scandinavians. The social worker asked us to consider several questions: Would we celebrate Colombian holidays with our new child? Would we teach them Spanish? Would we teach the kids about Colombian history and culture? Would we make an effort to expose them to other Colombian children living in the Twin Cities? We listened to the questions and we sensed that some of the couples took the exercise quite seriously, but one couple didn’t.

“The kid is going to be raised in Minnesota,” said a woman. “We are going to raise an American. All this heritage stuff is nice but the kid won’t be living in Colombia. He’ll be living in Minnesota. He won’t need to know how to speak Spanish. He is going to need to know how to speak English.”

The social worker nodded.

We were eager to encourage our child to study his or her heritage, and to learn to speak Spanish. Francophiles since college, Susan and I were conversant in French, which did us no good at all in our current station in life. When we first began to think about international adoption, I was hoping there would be some orphanage in the south of France that would need an American couple to take a child. No such Mediterranean opportunity existed so we prepared to immerse ourselves in a culture that would be entirely new to us.

The prospective parents we talked to at the seminar seemed like well-educated people living upper-middle class lifestyles. Many were managers at Fortune 500 companies like 3M or Honeywell. As I thought about how the responsibility of parenthood would affect Susan and me, I looked around the room. Susan already had given up full-time work at NFR Communications in anticipation of spending time at home with our new baby. How many of our peers intended to stay home full-time with their new child? Would they put their baby in daycare? Would nine hours a day at a KinderCare be much of an improvement over life in an orphanage? I wish the social worker had shed some light on this for me.

At one point, we needed to be fingerprinted by an official from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which happened to have an office in the basement of a building in Bloomington. We got an appointment only after working an automated phone system for hours. One time, Susan called at 3:30 and was put on hold for 90 minutes. At 5 p.m. sharp, the line clicked to a dial tone.

The service wasn’t any better in person. Spending more than an hour in a hot, crowded waiting room, we listened to the low-level chatter of people who sat around us. Much of the banter was in languages I didn’t understand and I wondered why so many people were there. These were not prospective adoptive couples. Mostly, I guessed, they were foreigners looking for a legal way to stay in the United States. They must have been highly motivated because there was nothing welcoming about this INS office. In fact, our country seemed to be going out of its way to express indifference toward these people from a multitude of lands.

No one acknowledged us as we waited to be fingerprinted so the authorities could check us against their national database of criminals. Susan and I knew we weren’t criminals but they made us feel like we were. Eventually our number came up and we paid a fee. An aide helped us roll each finger in ink and apply it to a special fingerprint card. We were told to relax. Tight finger muscles apparently don’t provide a good print. We had to give two sets of prints so by the time we were finished, we were in desperate need of the industrial strength cleaning solution they offered us on our way out. Months later we received a computer-generated form from an office in Washington, D.C., telling us that our fingerprints had failed to turn up any matches in their criminal files. We could continue with the adoption process.

We also needed to have a psychological evaluation. We were given the name of a doctor, who interviewed us separately, asking us questions about our childhood and whether we were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Ultimately, he gave us each a certificate verifying our sanity. I joked that I was going to have it framed and hung in my office so that if anyone ever questioned my sanity, I could point to the certificate for proof. Susan reminded me that the certificate was dated and valid only for six months.

I can understand the extensive vetting but I wondered why adoptive parents were held to a higher standard than birth parents. A couple gets pregnant, has a kid, and raises it any way they want. No one checks to see if their home is good enough. No one wants to see a picture of their relatives. No one asks how they plan to discipline their child. No, those questions are reserved for adoptive couples. I complained, not so much because I wanted anything to change but because I found the venting to be somewhat therapeutic.

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