For the third year in a row, I’m participating in the Adoption Blogger Interview Project and this year I got paired up with someone who basically needs no introduction in the adoption blogging world, Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan.
Kristen and her husband Mark are both therapists and she brings wisdom, experience, and an active Christian worldview to her writing. Kristen and Mark became the parents of four children within four years, starting as foster parents for their son Jafta (almost 8) before his adoption, and continuing by giving birth to their daughter India (6). The long process to adopt their son Kembe (6, born on the same day as India) from Haiti ended after Kristen and their youngest child, biological daughter Karis (3), were able to bring him home with them after all three of them survived the devastating 2010 earthquake. Her compelling story and adorable children have made her something of an ambassador for conversations about transracial adoptive parenting to the general population that doesn’t think about those questions much, and it’s interesting to read adoption blogging that’s at least as focused toward people who don’t know much about the reality of adoption as toward those who are in the trenches.
Kristen posted her questions and my answers on her blog this morning and now I’m posting my questions with her answers in italics.
Getting the big one out of the way first, when there are so often admonitions against “artificial twinning” and adopting out of birth order, can you explain why and how you and Mark chose to do both in adopting Kembe and how reality has or hasn’t met your expectations?
Good question! In terms of adopting out of birth order . . . I naively assumed that Kembe would come home before his 2nd birthday, and the other kids would have been 2 and 3 at that time. I thought that they would be so young that the birth order thing wouldn’t be an issue. Obviously, it took much longer to get Kembe home and he joined our family at 3 1/2, after I had added another baby to the family. I can honestly say that the birth order thing still hasn’t been a huge issue for us. My oldest was still the oldest, and the baby was still the baby. Kembe sort of slipped into the middle and it has worked out well.
In regards to artificial twinning, I think it might have been different if we adopted a “twin” of the same gender, but Kembe and India (our “twins” who even share a birthday) have very different interests and personalities. There is no competition between them. India is bookish, artsy, and introverted. Kembe is outgoing, athletic, and active. They have a very easy relationship.
I respect that you don’t talk in detail about your sons’ struggles that stem from their early lives, but your talk about “orphanage culture” has made me curious about your thoughts on the general differences in outcomes between problems within a family and/or prenatal situation that lead to foster care adoption and the group care experience in an orphanage (with or without significant time with family beforehand) that lead to what we talk about in our family as “coping strategies” that may have worked in the past but aren’t ideal for healthy family life.
I think this will vary based on individual circumstances, but to generalize I would say that the average foster home in the US provides more attachment opportunities for a child than an orphanage in a 3rd world setting. The foster care system has rules in place to make sure that ratios are reasonable. You would never see 1 caretaker for 10 or 20 kids like you might see in Haiti. In the US, social workers are visiting the home, making sure there isn’t neglect. I would venture to say most orphanages in 3rd world setting would be in grave violation of US foster care standards. That being said, I still think kids in the foster care system may experience neglect, and may exhibit attachment disorders based on neglect in their family of origins as well.
I loved the way Kembe was recognized as Haitian on your recent trip to Haiti though Jafta was not. How do you deal with having a black American son and a black Haitian-American son when nurturing their connections to their birth cultures and self-identities?
I don’t know that we are winning on the Haitian side of things. For one, Kembe has had no interest, and has even been rejecting of all things Haitian. I’ve tried to honor that – it has been clear that he doesn’t like talking about his past, and even the language is something he wanted to quickly shed. In addition, we live in a place where there aren’t many Haitian immigrants. But the few times we have tried to make connections, he has really balked at our efforts. I feel like we’ve put it on the back burner a bit, and we will keep revisiting it until he’s ready. It’s much easier to assimilate him into an “African American” cultural identity along with his brother, and I suspect that he will choose to self-identify that way. Still, our family has a deep connection to Haiti and we will continue to visit and try to nurture a connection for Kembe.
I’m one of the people who tends to have a kneejerk negative response to the Christian Orphan Ministry concept, and I think part of that is because my children are not orphans by any standard definition but they still have parents who can’t/won’t/don’t care for them, and my instincts would lean more toward a Global Ministry for Kids Who Should Be in Foster Care or something like that, Orphans+. One of my biggest pushes at the local level is to have better support for kinship caregivers. Every child who’s ever been in our home has at some point prior been in a kinship placement that didn’t work out and I suspect that if the kinship caregivers had been given the kind of institutional and financial support (really not a ton!) that we get as foster parents all but one would still be there. So with my biases out there, what role do you see for Christians who feel called to minister to orphans in encouraging kinship care and family preservation? Why do you find the “orphan” language compelling?
I completely agree with you in regards to kinship care. I think that the term “orphan” is compelling because it’s sad and dramatic, and evokes an emotional response in people, but there are a lot of us working really hard to change the way people respond to the “orphan crisis”. For me, any child living in an orphanage should have someone working on a permanency plan for them. If they were abandoned for financial reasons, then the people funding them to stay in an orphanage ought to funnel that money towards them being care for by family. Unfortunately, this just isn’t as compelling to people as “building an orphanage”. But there are a growing number of us talking loudly to try to advocate for this kind of orphan care, and of course for adoption when that absolutely isn’t an option. My opinion is that an orphanage should only be a triage center. I don’t think children should grow up in an orphanage. They should be reunited with family, and if that cannot work a non-relative family should be found.
You’ve managed to find a niche for yourself as a serious blogger with a wide readership. Has writing about parenting for such a broad audience changed your parenting or how you present it online? How do you manage balancing the trips for you or you and Mark or you and a child or two with the day-to-day concerns of raising four children? (This is a totally selfish question because Lee and I have our first weekend trip scheduled for next month and I just agreed to be on a committee that will take two days of the week prior to that, so the reality of all of this is sinking in now.)
I’ve always been pretty open about my parenting online. I’ve never been the type to pretend to have it all together, and I think I’m asking as many questions as I’m answering when it comes to parenting. I like sharing what works for me but I also LOVE getting feedback, and I do think the feedback makes me a better mom. As the blog has grown, I have dealt with the same problems that any mom with a growing business has dealt with. It’s a constant juggling act over here. And yeah. . . the travel thing. Usually I limit business travel to 3-4 nights, and typically leave at least 2 months between each trip. Even that gets hard. I’m trying to incorporate the kids with my travel more and more, and I’ve been saying no to more things. At the same time, I think every parent should get away with their partner from time-to-time, so I encourage you to go for it! They will survive. :)
And we are indeed going for it! I think our next-door neighbors have passed their background check to be able to keep Nia overnight, so the girls will get to spend three nights next door and Lee and I will get to have some romantic meals in airport restaurants and a really fun time in a fun big city before zipping back to our normal lives. I’m grateful for the encouragement from Kristen and for her gracious and thoughtful participation in the interview project.