When the Vancouver Sun published Minister Hagen’s column for Adoption Awareness Month in 2005, Vivian Krause responded with an encouraging letter that was also published in that newspaper.
It’s not often that we hear the views of an adoptee, so we caught up with Vivian to get more of her thoughts. We’ve asked her questions about her personal experience and also about her views on international adoption. Vivian worked with UNICEF for ten years, mostly in Guatemala and Indonesia. Her professional background is in nutrition. She is also Mom to her 13-year-old daughter, Zoé.
SR: What do you know about your own adoption?
VK: Well, I was born in Vancouver General Hospital and became a ward of the BC government. I was adopted as an infant. I don’t know much about my birth parents, other than the information that was provided by the Ministry at the time.
SR: How has adoption affected your family?
VK: Well, we don’t come from the same genetic stock, so we’re not close like peas in a pod. We’re more like mixed vegetables. But yes, we’re very close. If there is such a thing as genetic glue, we don’t have it; but, I don’t think we’d be any closer if we did.
SR: When did you become aware that you were adopted?
VK: My parents say that they began to tell us when we were infants. "We were practicing," they say. Neither my brother nor I recall being "told." I vaguely remember a trip to church when Sunday School was about Moses. On the way, Mom said that Moses was adopted "just like us." That’s my first recollection of an awareness of being adopted. I remember a feeling of "Wow, we’re special," and apparently we reacted with something along the lines of, "Good for Moses. Can we go to McDonald’s after church?"
SR: How has adoption impacted your life?
VK: Being adopted has never held me back. I actually think I’m stronger and freer for it. I have no sense of a genetic family pedigree that I have to live up to, and no sense of genetic inheritance that shapes or restricts my sense of who I am; I know that I don’t have the genes for my father’s great singing voice or my mother’s heart of gold. I have "mystery genes," and I have to make my own path in life. Everyone has to. Being adopted gives me an even stronger sense of that.
SR: How do people react to discovering your adoption connection?
VK: They initially seem to react with a knee-jerk type of pity. Once they see that I’m okay with being adopted, it becomes a non-issue, a novelty if anything.
SR: What about your birth family?
VK: I am registered with the Adoption Reunion Registry, so they can find me if they decide to. It’s very moving for me to think about [my birth mother]. I feel very grateful towards her. She made what must have been one of the toughest and most selfless decisions that a person could make. According to the records, she wanted me to have both a father and a mother. My biological father was not about to play a father’s role in my life. My Dad, who might be referred to by others as my "adoptive father," is a huge positive influence in my life. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without him. If I hadn’t been adopted, I would probably not have a relationship with a father. By placing me for adoption, my birthmom gave me that. I couldn’t thank her enough.
SR: What do you think is the key to successful adoption transitions?
VK: I’ll be the first to acknowledge that adoption can be quite a hairball. Some people never recover. The fact is, however, that those situations are a very small minority that is disproportionately talked about—especially in the media. More than 40,000 British Columbians have been placed in adoption in the past 80 years. That’s a lot of people, and most of them are just fine. What counts is how adoption is handled. And that’s precisely why the support work of the AFABC is so important. With adequate support, I’m convinced that virtually anybody can not only survive, but thrive, and not in spite of adoption, but because of adoption.
SR: What about when it doesn't go so well?
VK: Maybe I can best answer that with a snapshot from my own life. When I was around 13, I went through a period of wondering whether I actually belonged in my own family. "If my own birthmom gave me up when I was a cute little baby, who’s ever going to want me?" I remember asking myself that question and quickly decided that it was a stupid question. But a bit of a drama queen I was, long before the term, and one day, I told my parents that I wanted to be put in a foster home. No sooner had I said those words, than I would have done anything to take them back. My timing couldn’t have been worse; we were decorating the Christmas tree. My Dad excused himself and went downstairs to his workbench in the basement. He sobbed. Through the heat registers in the floor, I could hear him. His work bench was one floor down, smack under the Christmas tree. It was one of the worst moments of my life. It seemed like hours, but it was probably only a few minutes before Dad came upstairs. Tears all over his face and his glasses, he somehow managed to give me a huge hug that I can still feel. "Viv, we love you, Viv." He couldn’t have handled it any better. It may sound corny or made up, but it is the truth that I never again doubted my parents love. Test them I did - over and over—but doubt their love, I didn’t. Was it because I was adopted that I went through all that and put my family through it too? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It probably had more to do with me being me, and with being 13 at the time. What I’m trying to say is that when adoption is a factor in a family’s life, there can be a tendency to blame or relate all kinds of things to adoption and even to see things that are not there. The fact is, many families have a drama queen and other challenges as well, not only adoptive families.
SR: You've worked with UNICEF, and in several international environments. How is adoption handled in those countries?
VK: Well, one of my observations is that there are a lot of differences between countries. I’m going to say something here that may make me sound like a UN bureaucrat, but I’ll say it anyway because I really believe it: the guiding light for governments, adoption agencies and families alike, really should be the Convention of the Rights of the Child. That’s the international agreement that was signed in 1989 by 187 countries, including Canada. Article 21 speaks about adoption. It states that the best interests of the child must be paramount, that adoption should be conducted by competent authorities, should not result in "improper financial gain," and that the child’s relatives and/or legal guardians should give "informed consent on the basis of such counseling as may be necessary."
Especially where there’s poverty and corruption and the justice system is weak, "informed consent" and avoiding "improper financial gain" are not straightforward. In many countries—including Canada—adoption policies and practices need to be substantially improved. What’s crucial is to find ways of improving the system without penalizing the children who are born into it—and that includes the many birthmoms who are children themselves.
SR: There is a sterotype of international adoption as families from wealthy nations adopting children from much poorer countries...
VK: To frame the issue as you just did, as one of "families from wealthy nations adopting children from much poorer countries," is incomplete and over-simplified; there’s much more to it than the economic disparity between countries. In my experience, poverty is rarely the main reason that a birthmom or relative places a child for adoption. Poverty might be the stated reason but not the only factor.
There are lots of cultural reasons why, in many countries, there are more children to be adopted than there are families who are able and willing to adopt them. In many cases, if the child is not adopted internationally, he or she would not be adopted at all.
In nearly 20 years of flying in and out of Guatemala, I’ve often been on an airplane with an excited, nervous family with their newly adopted child. My heart goes out to them every time. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also seen young girls who’ve been caught up in the international adoption cycle. There are "homes" where pregnant girls and women are given a place to live, food, and medical care. Some of the girls are very young, 12 or 13. There may also be women in their 20s or 30s. There may be anywhere from three to 20 birth mothers. After the birth, the mother gets a sum of money, leaves, and usually goes back to her original community which is probably a poor one. She may be viewed quite differently by her own people - she has a wad of cash. One of the risks is that having babies becomes a way to earn a living. If she ends up pregnant again, she may find herself back at the same "home." She may have been coerced, or threatened and living in fear. She may have been raped. She may have become pregnant deliberately, because that’s the best way she knows to get shelter and food, temporary as it is. The cycle repeats and some of these "homes" end up operating not unlike a baby mill. I hasten to add here that there are many agencies operated by caring, competent people who make a positive difference in the lives of both the children and their birthmoms. However, that isn’t always the case.
SR: How can you ensure that you are adopting ethically?
VK: It should go without saying that it’s really important to work with a credible agency. It’s not where you adopt that matters most, it’s how. And once you’re on the adoption path, never look back. Take that child into your arms, your heart, your home, and be the very best family that you can possibly be. You can’t change the whole world, but you can change the course of a child’s life. Wow! If you can contribute something as well for some of the world’s girls and women who are unprivileged, all the better! Don’t beat yourself up for what you can’t fix. Differentiate between your sphere of concern, and your sphere of influence, and focus on the latter. As a very wise Kitasoo Chief once told me, "If you can flirt with excellence, that should be good enough."