By Tylyn K. Johnson ’22 (social work)
Google defines adoption as “the action or fact of legally taking another’s child and bringing [them] up as one’s own,” which is an accurate description. But adoption is also much, much more for the families for whom adoption is part of their story. Junior social work student Tylyn Johnson spoke with Mimi Chase, the Director of International Services at UIndy, about her perspective on her family’s story with adoption.
To start with, when and how were you introduced to the foster care system?
Well, I always knew I wanted to adopt. I looked into adopting here in the United States. I learned a lot about the rules and regulations for adopting children out of foster care, but I kept coming across children that I believed would need a two-person household, in terms of attention, time and help with challenges. As a single parent, I didn’t feel up to that challenge. For that reason, and because my field of interest is international, I speak Spanish and I lived for a while in both Peru and Guatemala, I decided to look into Latin America. I quickly realized I could adopt internationally and the thought was very exciting!
As I began months of paperwork to become licensed to adopt, I started looking at profiles and pictures of children who were up for adoption. I became sadly overwhelmed by the numbers of children who needed homes and began to wonder how I could possibly choose a child. It felt as if I were looking through a window into the lives of these children. But, in the end, it was the best thing I ever did, adopting my son.
What were those experiences like when you first adopted your son?
When I adopted my son, I became part of a group of other women who also adopted their children from Guatemala around the same time. We call ourselves “Guatemommies” and have been meeting regularly as our children grow. Unfortunately, I had experienced something that I didn’t expect: post-adoption depression. I hadn’t heard of it before and appeared to be the only Guatemommy experiencing it. I think it must be similar to postpartum depression. But since it is more unusual in adoptions, and because I am really open about my feelings, I became almost like the “spokesperson” for our group, and then for others who experienced this phenomenon. I had overcome so many obstacles to adopt my son, I was surprised when I started having feelings like
“What have I done? Am I ready to do right by this child? Am I up to the task?” Having a child is such a huge, monumental change in your life because you’re suddenly responsible for a child who is depending on you, even if you didn’t give birth to that child. And I moved heaven and earth to have my son, but there was definitely a sense of pressure that was new to me. Bringing my son home was wonderful! But dealing with the feelings of depression, and suffering some sort of bug we all caught after the trip to Guatemala, well, we laugh about it now but it was a rollercoaster ride.
When you were first adopting your son, what were some of the difficulties you faced with going through the foster care/adoption process?
I had to show I had no criminal record, no substance abuse or psychological issues, home studies, safety, my income, all that kind of stuff. Your house is never so clean as when you have to wait for a social worker to come to complete your home study! I had a wonderful social worker, of course, because she was a UIndy grad! I also had to get all of my paperwork approved by the Indiana state government and then the various Guatemalan government offices. Basically, I had to pass two stages: one where I got qualified through months and months of ongoing documentation, and a second where I actually got to do the adoption. When the adoption went through in Guatemala, I became legally responsible for my son – and this was two months before I could bring him home. In fact, I had to apply for a visa for him to come to the United States. That was especially scary because he was legally my child, but if he didn’t get a visa, did that mean I would have to move to Guatemala? There were endless questions and fears.
The other scary thing was that I had to wire a large payment advance in order to pay for the legal processes and the childcare for which I was now legally responsible. I paid to a nonprofit foundation but, still, it was risky. In 2001, an international adoption cost thousands of dollars. I was cutting costs to save money, taking out all sorts of loans, and paying for the adoption over the course of a year. I definitely took a chance and was ultimately lucky that the agency was legitimate and all went well. Plus, I had a ton of support from my family and my people at UIndy.
How much has becoming an adoptive parent been a part of your identity as a person?
It’s funny because I don’t feel like I’m an “adoptive” parent because my son is my child. I mean, I raised him. When he was a baby, we went through the process of getting used to each other, but after that I was just his mom. So it doesn’t feel like I’m an adoptive parent in that way; I don’t forget that I’m an adoptive parent—he’s just my son! And, even though he looks different from me, some people think I’m grandma and that I have mixed race children, because I was older when I adopted. So not everyone knows he is adopted. It does affect me that I have a child who has a certain reality because we do look different. His reality is different from what a biological child might be, for me, so it raised my awareness about some of the inequities and disadvantages he faces.
Being a mom changed my life. I could never have imagined what my life would be like if I hadn’t become a mom, adoptive or otherwise. It’s the biggest change you can possibly have in your life. The only difference is that I didn’t go through a physical pregnancy, but the paperwork to adopt him took about 9 months, which is about as long as a pregnancy usually takes. So yes, having a son changed my life. For one, children are expensive to have and raise! They always want new things, but, of course, that’s the same whether the child is adopted or otherwise.
Are there any kinds of questions that annoy you or that you’re tired of hearing about when it comes to adopting?
Yes. There’s one big one that really bothers me. People are well-meaning, but when they say things like “God bless you, look what you did for this poor child,” that bothers me. I don’t think of my son as a “poor child.” I recognize that his life would have been different, culturally, financially, had he grown up in Guatemala. His life would’ve been different, but I can’t say if it would have been worse or better. This feeling from some people that you “rescue” a child when you adopt them, makes me uncomfortable. When they say “God BLESS you, his whole life is going to be different because of you,” there is an undertone that it’d be “better” that I adopted him. For me, I was fortunate to be allowed to be trusted and care for a baby. A baby! And I was given this chance to be a mother, which I am so, so grateful for. And I can only hope that, being with me, his life will be the best possible. But I have the same insecurities as anyone. Fortunately, I don’t get that comment very often, especially now that my son is older.
What are some ways that you think, as individuals or as a society, that we can celebrate adoption stories without forgetting that we’re celebrating people, or falling into the “rescue” trope?
It’s hard to say how to celebrate it individually because for people who don’t know any better, my son and I look like that “rescue story.” We don’t hide that my son is adopted. We celebrate his Gotcha Day, the day I got him. And we’ve also celebrated that my son has what we like to call “ Framily” (friends and family) that supports him—Guatemommies, our family, his coaches, and all the people who’ve been there for us. He’s a lucky boy because he has a lot of framily!
But as a society, I think we could celebrate the value of adoption as a means of changing lives and bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet, while creating permanent families filled with love. It changes the life and trajectory of the children and the families. To me, that’s the celebration of adoption. If I couldn’t have adopted, I would not be the same person. I think it’s important to celebrate the concept, the ability to adopt. Family is so much more than biology or tradition. It’s like my son’s father. He never adopted my son, but he’s my son’s dad because my son says he is! Family can be so many things.
So what are some things that you think people who are considering adopting or fostering should consider or know, based on your own experiences?
Well, mine was international, so there was a cost involved. There might be with domestic adoptions, also, but I think international adoptions cost a bit more. You’ll want to go in knowing what your costs will be upfront. If you don’t have any other children, then you’ll want to know what your costs are after as well because kids are expensive, and you have to be prepared to put yourself second and your kids first, to make whatever sacrifices you have to in order to make everything work. But that’s the same for a birth child as well; that’s just the way it is.
Maybe also be prepared for the feelings you might experience when someone says insensitive things like “you bought a baby” or that you “rescued” your child. Be prepared for some difficult kinds of questions or conversations; same thing if your child is of a different race. Be able to focus on the kind of family that you’ve created and what others don’t understand is on them, not you. There’s such differing opinions about things like what makes a person a parent. To me, I’m my son’s mom because I was there for him growing up. I was the one that held him as a baby and nurtured him; it’s not because a court put a stamp on it. I needed a stamp so I could have custody, otherwise I couldn’t raise him, but that’s not what made me mom. And having a baby physically come out of you isn’t what makes you mom either. It’s raising a baby, a child.
The other thing I’d add is that some people may disagree with raising a child outside of their country of origin, or raising them outside of their racial/ethnic community. We see that with Black parents and White children or the vice versa. People can have strong feelings against it. You have to be prepared for that if you have a transracial adoption.
I’m really grateful for my son’s whole village of framily. They helped mold him into the man he’s becoming.
To learn more about the complexities and processes of fostering or adopting, check out:
- Child Welfare Information Gateway through the Children’s Bureau
- AdoptUSKids through the Adoption Exchange Association
- National Foster Parent Association
- Considering Adoption
For those seriously considering fostering and/or adoption, great places to start are:
- Resource and Adoptive Parent Training in Indiana
- Indiana Adoption Program
- Wendy’s Wonderful Kids
- Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program through Nightlight Christian Adoptions
To support foster youth without fostering/adopting, you can explore volunteering with the following organizations: