A Mixed Bag of Perspectives
In mixed heritage families, there is an often an added layer of complexity added by cross-cultural issues, unfortunately not always identified and discussed as a potential source of misunderstanding, confusion, and conflict.
What is the long-term effect when children have a chronic overriding sense that they are invisible as they grow up? What if a child’s experience is that one part of his or her developing self is somehow less important — and feelings or needs related to that part of themselves aren’t adequately reflected, acknowledged or validated? They may develop problems of self esteem, possibly develop defense mechanisms to compensate, which in turn may predispose them to depression or difficulty in relationships. This can leave some family members feeling dismissed, invalidated, or left with the odd sense that they have become invisible.
The surrounding dominant culture is also be a factor in shaping a child’s self concept: kids who sense they don’t fit in with peers, or who lack opportunities for appropriate mirroring experiences may become ashamed of their appearance or early narrative, and possibly disown parts of their identities that have been left unacknowledged, unreflected, and underdeveloped.
I work to help mixed families by supporting new parents in the early years of their child’s life to learn what they can do to deliberately nurture and encourage the development of a multi-faceted and multicultural identity, with a healthy self-esteem as the foundation for their child’s cultural legacy. This work takes great care and forethought. It sometimes means that parents find a way to listen to the voices of others, adult or older teen adoptees or people of mixed race who have spoken about their own childhood experiences when there was a lack of any attention to their unique needs.
I can offer resources for you to do some of this work, if you are wanting to conduct your own research. In the case of transcultural adoption, it may influence your decision-making about whether your child should have continued exposure to their native language. My bias is to do whatever it takes to make this opportunity available. Too often a child who has been displaced (or whose family has been displaced) is not given the option to have continued exposure to native language. The child will likely adapt and quickly learn the language of his or her new surroundings which is ironically celebrated, because after all it is required for survival, but yet another loss has occurred that often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, and an important thread connecting the child to his or her own culture of origin is broken. These days there are many different ways to safeguard the thread. Through immersion schools, internet videos, or language learning websites, or even Skype. Technology can be used to fill the gap that once was so dependent on geographical location and the availability of the right kind of ethnic communities.
Our choice of language, i.e. how we speak about our family or our child also plays a part. How do we describe the differences in our family to others, or do we acknowledge it at all? Do I introduce my daughter as my “adopted daughter” or do I even have to explain that she was adopted each time we meet new people, even if there are no raised eyebrows? My choice has been to shift the focus from the adoption to the fact that we as a family unit are a mixed heritage family. Suddenly the phrase itself enables us to celebrate our difference together, rather than continually focus on the different status she has as an adopted vs. biological child. The story of her adoption may follow, or not, depending on many things, but it also makes space for her to develop a sense that her personal history can be private, too, if she chooses, and she is not continually called out as somehow different from the children around her, though we also continue to show pride at how she came into our family.
Parents should be aware that they can be proactive and help to shape their child’s experience with some careful planning and deliberate follow through.