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International adoptions a touchy topic

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    International adoptions a touchy topic

    At a recent dinner party here in Carbondale, two among the nine or 10 children
    looked a little different.

    "What's up with those Benge boys?" joked one mom, Joslyn, about my sons.
    "They're so pale!" The other kids were a rich array of sepia tones.

    It used to be rare to know parents who had adopted children from other
    countries. Now such families are everywhere: in the airport, at the museum, at
    school and at chess night and soccer, a natural part of the landscape. Among my
    friends alone, I list adoptions from: Cambodia (three families), the Marshall
    Islands (two), Russia, China (three), Colombia and Brazil. One friend just
    brought home twins from Guatemala, and another awaits a daughter from Nepal.

    Others make domestic adoptions of children who look unlike themselves. One day
    last summer, my brother, sister and I walked with our friend Michael along a
    Delaware boardwalk, while the two 3-year-old boys in our party forged ahead. My
    sister's son, Sam, shot off, Lucy hurrying away after him. Michael's son
    Jeffrey, African-American by birth, proceeded in orderly fashion 20 paces in
    front of us. People glanced at Jeffrey and then around in kind concern.

    "People look at him and look around, for his parents," his father, Michael,
    Caucasian and a single father, said. "I guess it's understandable."

    Later, Lucy asked, "How long have you had Jeffrey?"

    "Since the day he was born," Michael said promptly.

    "Oh, do you have some contact with the birth mother?"

    "That's Jeffrey's story," Michael said politely but firmly. "When he's older,
    he can decide if he wants to share it."

    Lucy was abashed, though she probably did not need to be. A single parent
    herself (whose son happens to be half Latino), she had simply wondered if the
    birth mother had the option of open adoption.

    The designation of the "child's story," however, is a growing way of thinking
    within the adoptive community.

    My friend Joslyn doesn't entirely agree; for the most part, she is glad to talk
    about her children's Marshallese and Cambodian origins. Another gregarious
    friend, Lisa, whose daughters are from Cambodia, has been equally happy to
    discuss their extraordinary history from halfway around the world. People are
    interested, excited to learn. Yet even to these open-hearted women, the
    accumulation of questions can wear. In some ways their reactions have changed
    over time.

    What Lisa might once have been happy to discuss with a baby in a backpack, she
    might not now wish to belabor, while paying for groceries, in front of an alert
    4-year old. Children are sensitive observers.

    What is OK to ask and what's not so good?

    The best question, Lisa says, is: "I'm interested in your family - is it OK to
    ask questions now?" Which gives her a chance, if she or her child is tired, to
    say, "It isn't a good time, thanks."

    And while country of origin is usually a welcome question to proud adoptive
    parents, "Are they sisters?," asked in innocence but rooted in biology, is
    irrelevant. The answer is, "Of course they're sisters."

    Another comment to ring hollow is: "You are so good to do this." (I've even
    heard of a tiny girl being told in a store, "You're lucky to be here.")

    "Every adoptive parent I know," Lisa says, "thinks we've received the greatest
    gift in the world."

    Many parents went through a lot to get their children, and traveled far.

    The children relish their stories, ask to hear them again and again. In another
    case, a birth mother of a newborn received so many offers that she asked all
    prospective parents to write letters about why they wanted to adopt. Bill and
    his partner wrote that they wanted to give, to love a child and share their
    lives, and were chosen. Today the tale is the boy's favorite bedtime story.
    "Tell me again," he always says, "how my mother picked you."

    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
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