Adoptive families are unique. They may look different or come from different origins, but there is just as much love within a family of ado...

What Makes Adoptive Families Different?

What Makes Adoptive Families Different?

When I was maybe 12, my sister, mom, and I went to get breakfast at Coco’s. We were sitting at the booth having a conversation and the waitress came to take our order. She robotically asked, “Hi, welcome to Coco’s, what can I get you today?” She then looked up at us and I watched her eyes scan the booth. She started at the left and looked at my mom: a pale woman in her early 50s with her brown hair and piercing blue eyes. Slowly, her eyes moved to the right gazing at my sister: a tiny Asian girl with straight jet black hair and tan skin. Finally, her glance rested on me, an average-sized Asian girl with wavy black hair and freckles. (Even though my sister and I are both from China, we do not look similar at all.) The waitress took in the view and then proceeded to ask my mom: “What a motley crew! Are you their mother?” My mom, who had received this question many times before, calmly responded, “Yes, I am.” The waitress started asking question after question: “What age did you get them at?” “Was the process to get them hard?” “Were you not able to have any children of your own?” etc. These conversations can be incredibly frustrating as many people do not know the politically correct verbiage. So, their questions can come across as prying, insensitive, and abrasive. But, most of the time, people are genuinely just curious and interested in hearing about adoption

What makes adoptive families different? In the full list of questions I have received about my family, I have gotten this question a lot. After answering it dozens of times, one thing I have noticed is that many people who are not personally affected by adoption think that nontraditional families are not normal. Obviously, I cannot speak for all adoptive families in general, but many of us do not see our families as different from biological families. However, there are a few small differences between traditional and nontraditional families that are worth noting. 

“Adoption is when a baby grows inside its mother’s heart instead of her tummy” – Anonymous

Appearance

My dad always worked the night shift. For this reason, he would often be asleep when I had functions at school or AYSO soccer games. Because he was sleeping, my mom would often be the only parent at any of my extracurricular events. Thus, whenever I made a new friend and introduced him or her to my mom, they would exchange niceties and my friend would say, “So, your dad must be super Asian.” I would laugh as I wondered if that was how genetics actually worked. Ultimately, I would say, “No, both my parents are white, I’m actually adopted.” This was always followed by an awkward chuckle or a flood of questions. 

When I was maybe eleven, I tried to alter my appearance. Not only did I go to a small Catholic school where about 98 percent of the students were white, but both my parents were white, too. So, I struggled to feel like I fit in. I would use Sun-In in my hair to lighten it and then stay out of the sun in order to lighten my complexion. I also wore only dark clothes to give me the illusion of being lighter than I actually was. I did struggle for a long time with the fact that I looked vastly different than my parents and peers. But, after a year of basically ruining my hair and turning down beach days with my friends, I quickly got over it. I was in good company—I think everyone in my class at that age was trying to experiment with a look that fit them.  

Perhaps the most glaring difference between traditional families and nontraditional families, especially in cases where parents chose transracial adoption, is that the appearance of the family members may be diverse. This makes sense as many adults who adopt are not genetically connected to the child. While it seems like a big deal, this difference is actually so minuscule and purely superficial. 

We are easily identifiable. Of course, our blended family has received a lot of comments that I doubt most of my other friends have received. “You’re so lucky to have such great parents.” This one does not phase me because you are right, I am lucky, and this comment is also applicable to biological children. “Well, I guess your parents are going straight to heaven.” This one rubs me the wrong way because it makes my sister and me out to be some sort of charity case (this is often referred to as the Savior Complex in the adoption community). Like, yes, they probably are but not solely because they adopted children from a scary country. “What is it like not knowing your real family?” This one always makes me cringe. I know it is usually asked with good intentions, but this is my real family. We do stand out but speaking on behalf of my sister and m;, we do not see ourselves as different. This goes to show that yes, there are curious and sometimes ignorant people out there, but you do not have to all look the same in order to have a tight-knit relationship with your family.   

Cultures

For a large portion of my childhood, November through March was hectic. Not only were the majority of our birthdays within these months, but we also celebrated a plethora of holidays within this timespan. When the end of November rolled around, we would start fasting in order to build up a huge appetite for Thanksgiving. We watched movies while my dad worked diligently in the kitchen, making everything traditional from turkey to pies. In December, we celebrated Christmas as a mostly-Catholic family and because even many non-religious Americans celebrate it. We would put up a tree, exchange presents, and have a big dinner. Then, we would celebrate the Chinese holiday, Lunar New Year, at the end of January and beginning of February. My parents would dress my sister and me up in traditional Chinese dresses (every year, we would get a new dress made of the itchiest fabric in some random color) and we would exchange red envelopes. They would even put chopsticks in our hair, which, I know is not part of the traditional look, but my parents were basing our looks off of Asian television characters. A lot of Chinese people may have found our sad attempt at celebrating a culture we obviously were unfamiliar with as offensive, but my parents were really trying to preserve our culture, not disrespect it. Finally, in March, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. We would bake soda bread and watch the St. Patrick’s Day parades that would air on our cable channels. Then, my mom would call her family in Ireland and talk to them for hours. These traditions started dying out as my sister and I started participating in more extracurriculars, but we still celebrate these holidays in small ways.

Of course, cultural celebrations are dependent on many factors such as the age and ethnicity of the child. If my parents decided to have biological children or even adopted a Caucasian girl from Chicago, I am sure they would not have celebrated Chinese New Year with their children or bought them those traditional dresses they bought us. Even though I do not understand or relate to Chinese culture, it was fun to have these traditions that we would not have otherwise celebrated. Looking back, I appreciate the effort they put in to make us feel more connected to Asian culture.  

Milestones

Have you ever seen a baby book either in person or on television? Imagine frilly blue or pink books with pages filled with memorabilia from the baby’s first few months: their birth announcement, their hospital bracelets, pictures of them at one, two, and three months. There have been times where seeing my friends’ baby books have made me a little envious. The only thing I have from my first year of life is a little picture of me at around six months old sitting in a bouncy chair in the orphanage: a “referral” photograph the adoption agency sent to my parents once they found out they were adopting me. 

I was adopted when I was ten months old. My parents videotaped my first steps, threw numerous birthday parties for me as I aged, walked me into kindergarten, attended graduations from middle school through university, and helped me find my first apartment: a majority of the big milestones. While it is sad that they were not present at my birth and did not get to be with me while I got my first round of vaccinations, they were there for most of my childhood. Without my sister and me, my parents would not have gotten to celebrate any of these events (and, arguably, some is better than none). At this point in my life, I am not sad or resentful but more grateful that I had so many supporters at all my big events. 

Unanswered Questions

One time, when I was in high school, I was kicking around a soccer ball out in the front yard of my house whenI fell and twisted my ankle. My dad drove me to the Urgent Care nearby. I was filling out the paperwork and there was a full page-long section about “Family History” and basically just asked what illnesses I was predisposed to genetically. I just left it blank. 

A year or two later, I went back to the same Urgent Care with a sore stomach and flu-like symptoms. I filled out the same paperwork. But, when I got to the “Family History” section, it looked different. The page was re-formatted and, somehow, it looked even longer than before. However, at the bottom of the page was a little box that read: “Family history unknown.” I proudly checked that box and delighted in the fact that nontraditional families must have been getting more and more normalized here in the United States. 

This is not true for all adoptions. Many parents who choose to adopt domestically know the names, ages, and circumstances of their birth parents. However, I do not have this information and I am not sure I even want it. My parents really could not answer a lot of my questions growing up because they did not have the information either. And, even if I did have the information, it would not change who I am as a person or my relationship with my family.  

It is unfortunate that I will never know why I look the way I do, why I have wavy hair, why I have freckles, or why I have such a wide face. I will never know the names or traits of my birth parents and possible siblings. However, I know all of these things about my family: my parents and my sister. And, honestly, I would rather have them and not know the identities of my biological family than the other way around. It is a small sacrifice to pay for a family that can take care of me.   

What Makes Adoptive Families Different?

Ultimately, it would be naive to say that adoptive families are exactly the same as biological ones, but the differences are not life-altering and are actually pretty minor. Yes, I do not really see my family as different or abnormal, but that is also because I have grown up with them and I do not know any different. I grew up celebrating all these random holidays and my parents celebrated all my major milestones with me to date. When I was younger, I was more insecure, but these days, the only time I ever feel different is when I receive strange glances, odd comments, or prying questions. Even then, most of the time, it was just people being curious. Adoption is a gift and I am lucky to be part of what others might refer to as my adoptive family. But to me, they are just my family. 

Avatar

Katie Kaessinger

Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).