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A New Wave of Support

The face of adoption is changing rapidly, and the pace of daily life continues to escalate. Are adoption support groups keeping up? Yes, say parents from around the globe. By Lee Tobin McClain, Ph.D.

The face of adoption is changing rapidly, and the pace of daily life continues to escalate. Are adoption support groups keeping up? Yes, say parents from around the globe.

Adoption is a broader term than ever before, reflecting any combination of open, transracial, cross-cultural, special needs, or Fost/Adopt. And new breeds of adoptive parent support groups reflect this fusion. While they're different from support groups of an earlier era, they're still lifelines for problem-solving and rich resources for you and your children.

"There is a definite sense of understanding and compassion because everyone has been in your shoes," says Shelli Craig of her online support group.

But what makes an adoption support group remain viable in this era of working parents, multitasking kids and teens, and overcommitted families? And what keeps support group members coming back for more, even after their children have turned eight, eleven, or sixteen?

Large and flexible
One type of group that's thriving is the large, multi-purpose organization that welcomes all types of adoptive families and is continually open to change. The transformation of the membership demographic of Transcultural Adoptive Families (TAF) in Pittsburgh is a good example. TAF began as a group composed mostly of families who'd adopted from Korea. Over the years, it has evolved to include families adopting from all over the world or transracially within the U.S. "We work hard to adapt the group to what our new members need so we can stay strong and successful," says TAF steering committee member Megan Neary.

Southern Piedmont Adoptive Families of America (SPAFA) in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the largest and most diverse organizations in the country. And it continues to be one of the most active by adapting to members' changing needs. For years, SPAFA focused on prospective and waiting parents. But as members stayed on after their adoptions, it has worked at updating its services.

"Members wanted more post-placement programs," says Michael Soos, SPAFA's vice president. "They asked for educational events and resources, as well as social activities." SPAFA's board responded with new programming, and former members are coming back.

Northwest Adoptive Families Association, or NAFA, with about 250 member families, has been around since the late 1970s. "Children benefit from having friends who joined their families in the same way, and parents benefit from the shared experiences," says Debbie Dunham, a board member.

NAFA has altered its schedule to accommodate increasingly busy families, adding and removing events based on previous attendance patterns. They've also added more teen programs as member families' children have grown up.

Parenting After Adoption began under the auspices of the local Children's Aid Society, but later separated from the parent organization. "We wanted to be able to have more frank discussions about our families and the challenges we face without fear of agency over-involvement," says Jan Rodman, an active member of the Toronto-area group. The group then began to reach out to all kinds of adoptive families in the community, and the result was a more diverse membership.

Branching out
One way larger organizations support parents is by providing a center from which smaller, more intimate groups can spring. SPAFA's Soos, for example, meets monthly with a group of seven families who adopted children from the same orphanage in Azerbaijan. All are members of SPAFA, but there's a special bond among the "Baku Babies." "They're going to grow up together," says Soos.

Brenda Mellon is a member of Three Rivers Families with Children from China, a large regional organization. She wanted to develop closer relationships with adoptive families in her own part of town, so she combed the group's directory for families that shared her zip code and formed the North Hills Play Group. "Our area's schools are still very white, so this monthly meeting gives our kids the chance to see others like them," says Mellon. "My girl refers to the others as ‘our Chinese friends.' It gives her a more positive sense of who she is."

For the kids
These smaller offshoots point to a desire to focus on children, not just parents. When families are busy and life is hectic, time together becomes precious. Adoption groups that meet this need do well.

Transcultural Adoptive Families holds at least one social or cultural event each month: pool parties, holiday celebrations, and family picnics. Each year, one of the monthly events is primarily for parents, but the other 11 are family-centered.

"The reason TAF is so successful is that it's for children as much as for parents," says longtime member Suzanne Gourley, parent of two biological and six adopted children. "Not only have my husband and I made great friends and found much-needed support, our children always look forward to seeing longtime friends at TAF events."

"Friendships with other children from adoptive families can be very positive," says Sarah Springer, M.D., an adoptive mother and pediatrician specializing in international adoption medicine. "Especially in communities where there is very little diversity."

Online lifelines
Not everyone has an adoption support group nearby, nor the time available to attend one. "I have four kids, ages 5 to 18. Attending meetings in the evening is very difficult unless they're held during baseball games at the ballpark," jokes Bonnie Shute, an active member of Yahoo's Waiting Children from China e-group. "Being able to access the discussion when it's convenient for me is a godsend."

What's in It for Me?
Because of my support group, I have a readymade circle to turn to when I want to...
  • Organize a pot-luck supper for others who are waiting to adopt.
  • Bring in a speaker to talk about attachment (or Latin American culture or lifebooks or.…).
  • Plan age-appropriate cultural activities for my child.
  • Make online connections with parents in exactly the same stage in the paperchase—and celebrate with them when I get my referral.
  • Attend a baby care class that understands what I need to know as an adoptive parent.
  • Begin a book group to read and discuss books about adoption.
  • Celebrate the holidays and culture of my child's country of origin.
  • Form a monthly playgroup for families who've recently adopted.
  • Raise funds for charities supporting children in other countries.
  • Discuss the nuts and bolts of the adoption process with families who are just starting out.
  • Start a letter-writing drive to support pro-adoption legislation.
  • Find a support group near you in our online database.

    But can online groups provide that warm, fuzzy feeling that characterizes a good in-person support group? Shelli Craig feels online groups provide better support than in-person groups. "Someone's always available with advice, whether it's 3 p.m. or 2 a.m.," she says. "However helpful in-person support groups can be, they aren't ever-present, like online support."

    Helen Rigelsford, writing from Amsterdam, points out other advantages to online groups: Membership can be much larger and more diverse than in those groups limited by geography. "There are such wide-ranging experiences represented that there is always a relevant answer to my questions. And you can choose whether or not to follow advice without giving offense."

    Online groups can also be specialized. For example, Shute belongs to a group with others who adopted from a particular Social Welfare Institute in China. Among other shared health data, they've kept a running tally of their kids' lead levels over the years.

    As adoption changes and Internet awareness grows, online groups evolve even more rapidly than in-person groups. "I think we have become much more savvy, aware of the need to share both good and bad experiences, so that those who follow us will benefit," says Cathy Dornon of the Waiting Children from China Yahoo group.

    Embracing differences
    Of course, adoption support groups aren't always as wonderful as the ones discussed here. Flame wars and negativity can undermine online groups, just as power struggles and shortages of volunteers can weaken in-person groups.

    But when they work, support groups can be a vital part of the adoptive family's life, helping both parents and children, embracing the differences from and the similarities to other families.

    "My support group has filled my family's photo album with pictures taken at year after year of parades, parties, picnics, and heritage days," says Megan Neary. "My children look forward to seeing old friends, making new friends, and just being around a group of other families that look like ours."

    Lee Tobin McClain, Ph.D., is an adoptive mom who writes frequently about adoption topics. She lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Support by the Book
    by Barbara T. Dreyfuss

    Eight of us sat around a table at a Thai restaurant, enjoying delicious curries, as Bob Bergin regaled us with thrilling stories about antique hunting all across Asia. But this wasn't just a social event—it was the monthly gathering of our Asian book club, and we were meeting with the author of our latest book, Stone Gods, Wooden Elephants. It was a particularly memorable meeting of a group that has come to have a multi-faceted impact on all of our lives.

    Our Club's Favorites

    > Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
    > A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee
    > The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    > The Lucky Gourd Shop, by Joanna Catherine Scott
    > When the Elephants Dance, by Tess Uriza Holthe

    > Beyond the Sky and the Earth, by Jamie Zeppa
    > Leaving Mother Lake, by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu
    > Lost Japan, by Alex Kerr
    > The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman
    > Still Life with Rice, by Helie Lee
    > Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, by Frank Wu

    See the club's complete book list online.

    Originally formed to bring together a group of people interested in reading about culture, history, and daily life in Asian countries, as friend invited friend, the membership began to skew toward moms who had adopted children from Asian countries.

    We all have a better understanding of our children's heritages and homelands after making our way through a variety of books about India, Thailand, Japan, China, Bhutan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, and the Philippines. And the book club has also become a valuable source of information and friendship. It has, in fact, become a support group.

    Week after week, discussions about the featured book have led to talk about the concerns that we face raising our Asian-American children. It's been wonderful to get feedback from other parents, in addition to the insights we gain from the authors. We've veered off into how we handled the family tree assignment or how we replied to a racist remark. And we often end meetings by passing along information about Asian films or cultural events in the area.

    After a few attempts at cooking potluck Asian dinners amidst our busy work and family schedules, we now happily meet at a restaurant featuring the cuisine of the country we just finished reading about. Our book club meetings are truly mothers' nights out, evenings of good food and intellectual stimulation.

    This past year, our entire families have begun to socialize with each other. Many of our children are close in age and have discovered that they enjoy playing together. And we like giving them the chance to be with families that look like their own.

    Although we choose the books we read a bit haphazardly, we have enjoyed them all in different ways. And we like to think that we convey to our children some of what we learn. One member noted recently that her children take pride in the fact alone that she belongs to a club devoted to reading about their homelands.

    Barbara T. Dreyfuss is a freelance writer who lives with her family near Washington, D.C.



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