Celine and Herve Bonnel maintain an open conversation with their children Teo and Lea about their adoption. Photos: Edmund So
When Mina Weight and her husband, Guy Facey, found they could not have children, they knew exactly what they wanted to do - adopt from China. It was a country they knew and loved; both had travelled extensively in the country on business and spoke fluent Putonghua. But they had to break down walls of bureaucracy and incomprehension in their native Britain before they could make that dream come true.
The mainland was not on Britain's list of accepted adoptive source countries when Weight and her husband began their adoption battle 20 years ago. Joining other would-be adoptive parents in a lobbying campaign, they eventually convinced the British government to add to the register and, in 1993, the couple became the first people in Britain to adopt legally from China. Their two mainland-born daughters, Alice and Louisa, are now in their late teens.
But as Weight discovered, being at the head of a pack was not necessarily a good place to be. "You feel so alone, you don't know what's going on ... And then once your child arrives [there's] the shock of suddenly being a parent after waiting so long," she says of those early years. Raising her daughters in Britain was difficult without a support network, especially at a time when overseas adoption was viewed with misgivings by some in the community.
Mina Weightwith her daughter, Louisa Facey.
So after she and her family relocated to Hong Kong four years ago, she soon became an active member of Adoptive Families of Hong Kong (AFHK), the only charity in Asia that connects adoptive families, adoptees and professionals. Now serving as chair of its committee, Weight, a homeopath, is eager to spread the word about the help and encouragement fellow adoptive parents can give each other.
"We're here for people to make friends, to connect with others who have been through a similar process and have had children in a similar way, and for their children to have fun with other children."
Many parenting issues for adoptive families are no different from those confronting biological parents: How do you train your child to sleep? How do you choose the right school? How can you teach your child to respect themselves and others?
Adoptive parents, however, are likely to face additional decisions. When and how do you tell your child that he or she is adopted? How can you teach your child to be proud of their birth culture? How do you and your child deal with intrusive questions about adoption? These are just some of the issues that AFHK helps adoptive parents and their children to cope with.
Perhaps AFHK's greatest strength it that is run by adoptive parents whose advice is based on their own, often hard-won, experience. Seven of the eight volunteers on its steering committee are adoptive parents (the exception is an adult adoptee).
Discussions at the group's regular support meetings range from practical matters such as getting a Hong Kong identity card for their child, or sorting out citizenship to more thorny questions of identity.
As treasurer Ember Deitz Goldstein has learned from discussing adoption with her sons, even the most progressive parents can stumble.
"We talked about our sons' adoption stories with them in different ways from the day they came home, and I really thought we were being very open and clear about it with them," she says. "But then when my older son was not yet three years old, I read Joanna Cole's children's book How I Was Adopted to him. I made a classic mistake of not reviewing the book before I read it to him, so I wasn't prepared for the page that shows a fetus inside the birth mother's uterus. My son realised when he saw that picture that it meant he had not been inside my uterus, and it made him incredibly sad."
Nevertheless, Deitz Goldstein managed to turn the situation around and use it to deepen her bond with her son. "Would I have preferred that he was a bit older before we dealt with this part of his story? Sure," she says. "But in the long run, his understanding of this fundamental part of his adoption story has helped us form a bond."
With many people adopting across cultures, additional pressures arise because the physical differences make a "conspicuous family", she says. "Because of that, you have to prepare yourself, I think, if you want your kids not to be traumatised one day by the person who comes up and ask a question that is a completely uneducated question."
French teacher Celine Bonnel finds being able to share such knowledge helpful. She joined AFHK in search of information and real-life experiences when she and her husband Herve, an environmental consultant, were about to adopt their first child in 2007. The Bonnels now have two children - Lea, 5 ½, and Teo, 3 ½ - and maintain an open, ongoing conversation with them about their adoption.
"My husband and I have told both our kids how they were adopted from the day we took them home, adding more details as time goes on and as they ask questions," says Bonnel, who teaches French part time. "We introduced the words 'adoption' and 'adopted' very early on so they could actually say the words just like any other word, it's part of their vocabulary. We read them children's books about adoption in French and English. From the time they were very young babies, we've shown them pictures of the first day we met them, and the video of when they came home after they said goodbye to their respective foster families. And they still ask regularly to watch those videos and see the pictures."
Having benefited from others' hard-earned wisdom, the only way to give back is to volunteer her time, says Bonnel, who now serves as AFHK chair for membership.
One of the toughest issues for adoptive parents is when adopted children begin to search for their birth parents - tracing their roots, and it's one many families dread.
"The fear - the almost primal fear - of an adoptive parent is that the child at some point might reject them and return to their biological parents, which is a fantasy," says Weight.
While Weight has no such anxieties, especially now that her daughters are older, she wasn't nearly so confident before meeting her elder daughter, Alice, for the first time. She had previously been cared for by a foster family and "I was really scared that at five months old, she would take a look at this strange gweilo and burst into tears", Weight recalls. Instead, Alice fell asleep in her arms during the long drive back to their hotel; the tears came when she woke up later.
"She cried for hours," Weight recalls. "She must have realised I did not have the same smell, sound, touch, and so on, of her foster mother. Eventually, after I paced up and down the hotel room for hours, trying to give her a bottle, she relaxed, took her first bottle from me, and fell asleep. I did not sleep a wink!"
The fact is adoptees almost never reject their adoptive parents, Deitz Goldstein says. "The reason why you read stories about it is because it's so rare. Just because your kid wants to explore their roots and understand more about their background doesn't mean that you're going to lose them."
But for Bonnel, rejection remains a niggling worry: her children are half-siblings and she reckons that makes it more likely they will search for their shared birth mother.
"We do think about it; we hope that we are making everything as right as possible to avoid rejection," she says. "In our case, we pretty much know that at some point they will go through the root-tracing process ... being half-siblings, they are very, very close and they will motivate each other in that search. We will, of course, respect and support whichever actions they want to pursue when it is age appropriate."
Adoptees often start to trace their roots when they're about to take a major life decision - such as marrying or having a baby - highly emotional times at which adult adoptees need extra help, says Deitz Goldstein. "Support is really valuable at this time," she says. "We want to help provide that and link people up with the sort of therapy and help that can take them on the journey with them. You don't know what you'll find if you knock on that door."
That's not to say they believe adoptees should not retrace their past. "We're just saying prepare yourself and don't go it alone in trying to connect with biological family because it can be traumatic. It can be wonderful - you don't know."
Well-meaning people sometimes attribute charitable motives to parents who adopt and regard their action as a kindness, Deitz Goldstein says, but it's the opposite.
"So we try to say that we just wanted to be parents, and we're the lucky ones because these children are in our lives."
email@example.comTo find out more about AFHK, go to afhk.org.hk