Adoption Month – Listening to South African Adoptee, Jackie Barker

Today’s interview is the third and final post in our series of interviews with adult adoptees this November. Jackie Barker shares her views about Adoption Awareness Month from her perspective as an adoptee and adoptive mom.

Thank you Jackie!

What do you think about Adoption Awareness Month?

I believe that it is very important. I think people should consider adoption as a means to grow their family as there is a huge need for it. If done well it also provides a space for people to ask hard questions and to read thoughts and opinions of adoption that they might not have considered.

Adoption is seen as a wonderful, beautiful, thing – and rightly so. But the conversation can’t stop there. Hospitals are wonderful things, they heal people and save people’s lives. But no one wants to be admitted. Adoption is a gift to those who need it, but no one wants to be in a place where they need to be adopted. I think when this is acknowledged – then we have the ability to live in the tension that exists with anything to do with moving a child from one family to another.

Yes, adoption is a beautiful thing, but it comes from pain and trauma – I think Adoption Awareness Month allows people to see the need for adoption but also gives a space to really think through what adoption means.

Do you choose to honour Adoption Awareness Month?

Yes and no. I’m not very prolific on social media platforms, and that is where the majority of awareness happens. By virtue of others honouring it I certainly get to read more, think more and pray more into this space. I think when I’m asked to participate I’m happy to honour it. We did one year participate in a series of photos that got shared to raise awareness- that was fun!

What does it look like for an adoptive parent to indicate that they are listening to adoptees?

I think the level of defensiveness needs to drop. It is hard to hear from ‘angry adult adoptees’ – but if we’re serious about caring for our children from first families, then we need hear their stories and work hard to understand why they are so angry. When pain is buried for a long time, it often comes out as anger. Listening to adoptees means listening to their pain without fear and judgement. We don’t have to agree with everything they say – every adoption story is different – but we need to be careful not to dismiss their trauma. The truth is that every child who has been adopted has been through trauma. There is no such thing as a perfect adoption narrative. In the “perfect” situation where a child goes straight from being born to the adoptive parents arms, there is still loss. And babies have no language or capacity to process that loss, so it gets buried.

Sadly the reality, especially in South Africa, is that by the time we receive children through adoption, they have experienced several losses. They lose their first family, they bond with the place of safety care givers, they then lose them as they are given to a set of strangers to form a new family. Can we admit that that is hard? I think we assume because there is no language or because the child won’t remember it, that its fine. It’s not fine – the pain of abandonment is real… sadly in some ways it’s worse the younger you are as you don’t have the language or emotional tools to deal with it.

So when adoptees talk about grief and loss, when they talk about struggles with abandonment and trust, when they talk about battling to know their identity – adoptive parents need to listen. And then they need to be the safe space for their own children to explore those emotions without feeling guilty for having them.

The conversation on family preservation is often neglected in adoption conversations. What would you like to see included in this and for adoptive parents to be aware of?

No one dreams of having children they cannot care for. The story of the birth moms, and first families is tragic. I believe that we need to be working to uplift families and empower them to be able to raise their children in a stable, safe and supported way. Our demonising of pregnant women needs to stop.

In a perfect world adoption wouldn’t exist except in the cases of parental death – and even there extended family would normally be able to step in. The reality for most of our adopted children is that their background is poverty. In some cases there is violence, in some abuse, in some neglect – all of which are tragic and horrific. I don’t have statistics but my suspicion would be that poverty and a lack of support is the primary factor in most children being surrendered into the system.

If you stop and think through that for a second, that’s devastating. And its not okay. I believe that there needs to be a concerted effort to work on helping prevent pregnancies in the first place (maybe focusing on educating the men for change?) But then once a lady is pregnant there should be organisations that can come alongside her and her family – not to take the child for adoption – but rather to empower and support her to raise the child.

Children belong with their first parents, I really believe that. But I find that that is sometimes misunderstood – I do not believe a child should be somewhere where they are neglected or abused or unwanted. But I do believe that there needs to be more work on discovering the reasons for surrendering children and where possible provide support instead.

One of the hardest things I heard my biological mom say was “I could have kept you but I chose not to.” I understand her reasoning, but wonder if maybe today, some thirty years later, things would have been different.

So back to what I was saying up front – demonising the first family is never helpful. No matter how broken the situation, for your child – they will always be the first family and that can create difficult complex feelings.  Respecting and acknowledging that we cannot understand their situation or their pain is always the better road to take.

What are your views on adoption in general, do you advocate for adoption?

I think adoption is wonderful.  As an adult adoptee I have experienced first-hand the gift it was to me. As an adoptive mom, I have experienced the gift it has been to our family… and we intend to do it again. I advocate for children to be in families that are functioning and wholesome and healthy. I believe that wherever possible that should be the first families. But where that fails – we desperately need people to step up and take in children who otherwise will be in institutions. Families win over institutions every time – and adoption is a beautiful way that that can happen.

I definitely advocate for adoption. But adoptive parents need to understand their child’s history is a part of who they are, and to respect that. To respect that their story is theirs and not the parents to share and tell. To respect that they need to know their story as fully as possible as early as possible. To respect that there is pain and complexity in adoption, along with beauty and healing.