Adoption brings families together through a number of different methods in order to enrich lives and foster loving relationships. November is Adoption Awareness Month and there is no shortage of stories filled to the brim with the admirable qualities of adoptive parents, and the wonderful lives lived by adoptees. Those stories are great, but there is another side to the adoption story, a side that leaves the realm of sunshine and rainbows and lives in the shadows.
“We just didn’t know,” shared Jill Beithon of Fergus Falls, adoptive parent of two Korean adoptees who are now adults with families of their own.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Jesse Ugstad said reflecting on the experiences he has had as a Black adoptee in the rural Midwest.
So what is it that was missing? Realization … knowledge … understanding.
The Beithon family began their adoption process in 1984, bringing their children home from Korea in 1986 and 1988. “What I wish we would have understood is (how to parent) children of color from another culture, (it) should have been explained to us. We should have been better equipped to meet their identity needs. We just didn’t know,” Beithon said. “Somehow, with no help from us, they both worked through identity and cultural issues.”
Beithon’s daughter, Katie So (Beithon) Dachtler, grew up in Fergus Falls and now resides in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Dachtler is an advocate for awareness, calling attention to politically and emotionally charged misconceptions surrounding adoption, like the misconceptions that adoption is the “answer” to abortion, that the adoption industry is a billion-dollar moneymaker, or that family preservation should be adoption advocates’ main focus prior to adoption itself. “Adoption is as much about pain and loss as about joy and love. Adoption has been and is forever rooted in deep, cutting loss for many experiencing life through that lens. In the best of circumstances, this razing of a life once known can transform from the ashes into something beautiful, but the beauty will never erase the ash that came before it. There’s a Korean word, ‘han,’ that is used to describe sorrow or deep grief — a dull lingering ache of the soul. It’s a word uniquely specific in Korean life and yet understood by all adoptees, regardless of their origin as it is a state of being, of pain, loss, joy and love, rolled together and bound with hope. I think it best describes the space adoptees hold — willingly and unwillingly — for a life they may have never even known while at the same time being loved by their families. To minimize this is hurtful and detrimental to an Adoptee’s well-being and the ability for them to embrace all aspects of their identity,” Dachtler said. “The separation of parents and children, even at birth, is traumatic. To understand that, acknowledge it, and then move to educate yourself as an adoptive parent to best support your child is imperative for their emotional health and ability to fully realize themselves into adulthood. We (parents, adult adoptees and society) can work on countering that trauma by believing adoptees and centering their voices in conversations about adoption. Resist the urge to silence adoptees and first parents that don’t fit the ‘well-adjusted’ adoptee narrative by minimizing their stories and experiences to an abnormal ‘bad experience’ or them ‘just being negative’ or ‘ungrateful.’ Sit in the pain and allow them to grieve, hold onto their hope for later when they are ready to build so they may do so as the fully dimensional persons they are. Have the hard conversations because there is much room for complexity, nuance, and growth around adoptee awareness.”
A more personal view of adoption from the perspective of the adoptee was provided by Jesse Ugstad of Fergus Falls. “Your color matters,” Ugstad said. “I just realized that I am a Black man this last summer at the age of 22.”
Ugstad explained that throughout his life, he suppressed feelings and experiences regarding race for a number of reasons, but largely because he was told, “we don’t see color” while he was growing up. While the statement was meant to foster inclusion and belonging, it resulted in feelings of invalidation.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, so it wasn’t intentional ignorance, but as an 8-year-old understanding that your color doesn’t matter at home, then going out and having your color be the only thing people talk to you about … you start thinking that you are on your own to deal with those issues. That isn’t something a child should have to think about,” Ugstad shared. “My sister, Marija, she tried really hard to help my brother and I realize our ‘Blackness.’ She would encourage us to wear our hair in an afro or in cornrows and to wear clothing that was in Black fashion, but I didn’t want to hear it at the time. It was easier to live like a white person in a white neighborhood within a white community in a predominantly white state. It’s easy for someone to say that (color) doesn’t matter, and I believe that not all ignorance is intentional, but just because you, personally, aren’t going to treat me differently because of my ‘Blackness’ doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t going to. Color matters,” Ugstad emphasized, sharing that his childhood was full of his peers using racial slurs to reference him, something that affected him deeply.
“Everyone loved to touch my hair. They would tell me, ‘I love your hair,’ and I would finally feel some validation; but every time, someone would say something like, ‘it feels just like a sheep,’ or some other animal, and then I felt like a petting zoo attraction. That just isn’t fun.I am really excited that racism, systemic racism, mental health, and other issues that adoptees face are becoming more prevalent. It is validating to see that I am not alone and that we are working toward addressing the trauma adoptees face in a real and meaningful way,” Ugsted said, adding he has traumatic memories dating back to when he was 4-years-old.
“Now, as an adult, when I’m faced with ignorance, I can educate and move on my way and not let it affect me like it used to, that’s just not something you can do as a child, you carry it with you,” he said.
A common theme amongst adoptees and their adoptive parents is that every adoption story is different, but there are some common actions that can be taken in order to ensure that the adoptee and the adoptive family have the best experience possible. This was articulated by Carrie Brimhall, adoptive mother of 11-year-old, Maddie.
“If you are planning to adopt a child with a different race or ethnic identity than your own, you must commit to learning, your own development, and unapologetic advocacy for your child. We believe adoptive parents need to be committed to understanding the culture and race identity of their child and to finding every way possible for them to do that as well. We do as much as we can to help Maddie talk openly about race, connect with black people, culture, and issues, and openly express feelings related to living in a predominantly white community,” Carrie said.
Her family approached adoption with open minds and hearts, realizing that the process isn’t about being a savior-type figure.
“Children don't need to be saved, they need to be chosen because of all of the incredible gifts and identities they bring to the world. We believe they will teach us, more than we will ever teach them,” Carrie said.
Beithon agreed, saying that if she were to do it all over again, she absolutely would, but that she would approach it differently.
“I would probably raise children of color in a more diverse community. They have needs that we cannot understand or help them with. I would seek out specific counseling for our family in order to support our children with every one of their needs to best equip them with tools for their life, which is different than ours. Whatever the outcome, you will never love anyone more than your children,” Beithon said.
“I adore and love (my family)! They’re the biggest blessing God has given me,” Ugstad shared, emphasizing that he in no way is against adoption, but wants to share the hard truths associated with the process so they no longer remain overlooked.
"Even though I am Black and my entire family is white, I am 100% happy I am me and I am Black. I would never give up my family for anything," shared Maddie Brimhall on her adoptive family.
“Since becoming a mother, I have spent many hours thinking on the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens.’ It isn't because I am not grateful, fortunate, or happy with the life that I have — that couldn't be further from the truth — it's because there's a part of my life that remains unknown to me. It’s overwhelming in the most bittersweet way to acknowledge and understand that it is only through the loss that I was given an opportunity to gain what I have and perspective to do the work I do,” shared Dachtler, owner of Intersectional Resources LLC, a business focused on providing diversity, equality, and inclusion.
Upon completion of her social work licensure, she will add counseling services specific to adoptees, adoptive families, and waiting/potential adoptive families to her repertoire.
“The resources available, especially in the Upper Midwest, for adoptees and their families, are rare if nonexistent and our community deserves more than that,” Dachtler said.