If your daughter — or your son — doesn't look like you, are you still their mother? This year, as we approach Mother's Day, it looks like more and more Americans are answering "yes" to that question. State Department statistics reveal that in the last decade, international adoptions have more than doubled from nearly 9,000 in 1995 to roughly 23,000 in 2005. And although we don't have any firm statistics for 2006-07, all signs point to a growing awareness of adoption.
But that doesn't mean there isn't still a great amount of misunderstanding out there.
As the mother of a toddler adopted from China, I’ve had my own experiences with the range of attitudes toward adoption.
My family has been approached many times in public places and asked whether or not my daughter was adopted and where she was born. It's a logical, albeit nosy question.
But I also had a woman approach us in a grocery store and make quite a fuss over our daughter, pointing out how cute and smart she was and then getting teary that this same little girl would “never know her mother.”
That’s when I felt compelled to respond that my little girl does know her mother and always will.
Filis Casey, executive director of the Alliance for Children adoption agency in Wellesley, Mass., has had similar experiences.
Casey has two biological children and one child whom she adopted from Bogotá, Colombia, more than 20 years ago.
When her adopted daughter first joined the family, friends would sometimes come over to visit and ask, "Which are your ‘real’ children?"
"And these were people I knew!” she recalled with laugh. “My daughter is 27 years old now and it used to be that families were really unfamiliar with adoption. But the attitudes have changed a lot. There are more children who are adopted and they all have friends who were adopted, too.”
The National Adoption Attitudes Survey conducted by Harris Interactive in 2002 provides hard evidence that our definition of family is changing.
The study found that about four in 10 Americans have considered adopting a child at one time in their lives, a number that translates to about 81.5 million adults. It also found that 65 percent of Americans have experience with adoption either through their own family or through close friends.
Adding to adoption's visibility recently has been the celebrities who have adopted children in the past few years.
When Jolie adopted her daughter from Ethiopia, “you cannot believe the effect of that,” Casey said, adding that there weren’t many Ethiopian kids being adopted before the actress made her move.
Celebrities who adopt a child aren't "just talking about it," she continued. "They're living a life where they have given a child an opportunity. It opens people's eyes to the fact that there are children in need.”
Meg Ryan's daughter Daisy was born in China, a country that is currently among the most popular for international adoption. Jolie has a daughter, Zahara, from Ethiopia, a son Maddox, from Cambodia, another son, Pax, from Vietnam and a biological daughter, Shiloh. Madonna is currently in the process of adopting a little boy, David, from Malawi.
"It's obvious that the children look different [from their parents]. And that's been such a boon to adoption," Casey said, explaining that the visibility has helped make people aware that there are other ways to become a family.
Rita Soronen, executive director of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in Columbus, Ohio, points out that thanks in part to the efforts of the 15-year-old foundation, named for the founder of the Wendy's restaurant chain who himself was adopted as a child, awareness of the need for children in foster care to be adopted is also growing.
Soronen says building awareness of adoption as an option, either international or domestic, is key to helping more kids find loving homes.
“As a nation, we’re a very caring country. The more that we are aware [that there are children in need], the more we can take an initiative. I believe we've just become much more cognizant of the need and there's also more freedom for different kinds of families to adopt.”
And while it's still controversial in some circles, these "different" kinds of families now include gay couples, single men and single women like actress Darryl Hannah, who reportedly plans to adopt a child from the U.S.
"I do know that there are over half a million kids right here in the States who need to be adopted or need homes, that are so-called 'hard to adopt' kids because they're not babies and come from troubled backgrounds. So I think that's probably the way I would go," she said recently, according to the London Sun.
The most recent statistics from the federal government show that 27 percent of children adopted out of foster care were adopted by single females, and 3 percent were single males, Soronen said.
Single-with-a-boyfriend Halle Berry has also been speaking out about adoption, especially kids in need in the United States.
"Maybe I will adopt somewhere down the road if that is the only way to bring a child into my life," the actress told the UK's Chocolate magazine. "There are lots of children that need a home in America. I feel we have forgotten about our own kids."
So whether you're adopting internationally or from the U.S., if your daughter doesn’t have your eyes or daddy's nose, is she still your daughter?
For me and our family the answer comes straight from the heart: yes.