Gladney reFRAMED Podcast talks about multiple kinds of experiences in adoption. What additional emotions does adoption create, for the adoptee and the adoptive parents? What questions are asked that may seem like an evasion on your family or experience? What adoption stereotypes have you experienced? And lastly, have you been treated differently because you were adopted? These are just a few questions that adoptees encounter and that adoptive parents experience. In this podcast, Elena Hall shares and answers many personal questions as a Russian adoptee and author of Through Adopted Eyes: A Collection of Memoirs from Adoptees.

This article discusses Elena’s podcast conversations concerning her personal adoption story, how her Russian culture impacted her childhood, and how culture factors into international adoption. She also speaks about how feelings can vary drastically among adoptees. Elena also addresses many personal adoption topics; how she chose to view her adoption growing up, visiting Russia as a student, her thoughts on reunification for adoptees, her personal thoughts on reunification with birth families, and how friends and families of adoptees can ask adoption-related questions in a positive light.

Elena’s personal adoption story is very powerful. She was born in Russia and was adopted when she was 18 months old. Her adoptive parents started the adoption process in 1994 and brought Elena home in 1995. Elena states that the process takes longer now than it did several years ago and that it would be very rare to see that timeline for adoption today. Elena knows very little about her birth family, and her adoption is also closed.

All adoptions either are open, closed, or semi-open. Open adoption refers to adoption that offers a relationship and communication within the adoption triad, which includes the adoptee, birth parents, and adoptive parents. In a semi-open adoption, there is a lesser and more indirect form of dialogue, such as letters and pictures delivered through the adoption agency or another third party. Closed adoption is when there is no communication and very little or no information provided by the adoption agency.

While Elena’s adoption is considered closed, she does have a piece of information that she treasures. Her adoptive parents received a VHS tape of Elena when her adoptive mother and father first received Elena’s referral; the tape revealed Elena’s birth name. Elena’s original birth name became her middle name. Elena adds that she and her adoptive parents still watch this VHS from time to time, and that knowing her birth name is very valuable to her and her identity.

Elena’s Russian culture has also been very important to her, now and in her childhood. Elena acknowledged that her parents were always very open and very positive about her adoption and the importance of her Russian culture. She describes her early childhood as a “naive positivity.” Her parents exposed her to Russian culture through Russian dance videos, music, and food. She said it was the “stereotypical” cultural awareness, but her parents did the best an adoptive parent could. In the early 1990s, there were not as many resources and opportunities as there are today.

Early elementary school was emotionally hard for Elena. She remembers that when Russia was discussed in history class or on other occasions at school, it would be a “tug at her heartstrings.” She shared a personal story about a day when picking a line leader for recess. She recalls that when she was young, it was a big deal to be a line leader (as it still is for a child that age) as it is the first one to get to recess. In her school, the line leader would be determined by different questions. On this one particular day, the question was, “who was born in a different country?” Elena and her sister (her parents had previously returned to Russia to adopt her as well) got up and were the eager line leaders for the day. She was proud of that occasion because it showed her pride in her Russian culture and her confidence with her adoptive family.  Elena said this recess experience could have been viewed or felt like she was “called out” by some adoptee children, but she felt it as one of pride because she was positively acknowledged by her peers.

Around the age of 12, Elena struggled with her feelings concerning her adoptive family and her birth family. She was wanting questions answered about her birth family; why was she placed for adoption, but there was no contact with her birth family, so she had no answers. Elena said, fortunately, it didn’t take her very long for her to “snap out” of this phase, as she puts it.

Elena’s feelings are so naturally expected; adoptions contain this sense of loss. Elena states it perfectly: “My parents were very excited and positive about adoption, but it’s really hard to be excited and positive about things knowing that you lost something really great, even when you have something great.”

Elena’s parents later adopted her sister, Laura, as mentioned earlier, and she reiterates many times how valuable the sister relationship is to both girls. Elena and Laura can work together to process experiences and address issues. Elena shared that it is also important to remember for everyone, but especially parents, that adoptees will often internalize personal feelings. Her parents also acknowledged that they didn’t realize the questions, the anxiety she was experiencing during this time.

While adopted siblings may share DNA, Elena expressed that both are still individuals and may show different emotions for life experiences. For example, Elena wants to learn everything she can about Russia. She took a Russian language class, traveled to Russia while in school, and loves learning about Russian culture. Her sister Laura, however, doesn’t share in that desire of gaining that cultural exposure.

A major question in the adoption triad is that of reunification; do all parties involved want it?  Elena has a closed adoption. She knows that she was in the orphan wing of the hospital for 18 months until she was adopted. She knows that, in Russia, before adoption, it is required to reach out to family kin, but she stated none were interested or able to care for her. Elena says, “I don’t know if reunification is always the best option, but I’m happy to know they always try to reunify before adoption.”

The other very popular question asked of adoptees is if adoptees have an interest in finding birth families. This is a very vulnerable and personal question to ask adoptees and should be asked cautiously if asked at all. Remember, this area may be extremely sensitive for some people. Elena says that, personally, she is not sure she wants to search for her birth family, at least not at this time. It also requires a lot of time and resources. She also can’t fast forward time and doesn’t know if it would be a positive or negative experience for her and her birth family. It is valuable that Elena is thinking about the impact it would have on her birth family and not only herself.

In another recent adoption article, asking ignorant questions is addressed. Most of the time, people don’t realize he or she is asking a hurtful question; people are just uninformed and unaware. One ignorant question often addressed to one adopted is, “why did your real mom give you up?” I hope most people realize what a rude question this is for any adoptee. I feel the strongest and most powerful response would be with a brief education about adoption and possibly some common reasons why children are placed for adoption. Another ignorant question addressed is, “do you know your real mom?” Again, I hope people realize what a degrading question this is for the entire adoption triad. Perhaps, the response is “I live with my real Mom,” and then share the definitions of “real” vs “biological or birth.”

How is it possible to ask these popular related questions to adoptees in a way that is honoring and respectful to everyone involved? One strong point, Elena mentions, is if it isn’t a close relative or friend, be very cautious asking. These are very personal questions regarding someone’s adoption story and some may or may not be comfortable wanting to share, especially if the person is just an acquaintance.

However, if it is a close friend or family member, and the adoptee is sharing the story, it is first, very important, to thank him or her for sharing. Elena reminds people that it can be very emotional to share her story, but appreciates positive support.

So, let’s say an adoptee is sharing his or her story with you, and you want to ask additional questions. Elena stresses the importance of giving the adoptee a “heads up” when asking a question about adoption. Be sincere, you are asking because you care, not because you are nosey.

These tips are intended for anyone having a relationship or positive communication with an adoptee. But how do these steps apply or relate to parents of adoptees? Obviously, the parent-child relationship is very powerful and hopefully a strong relationship. How did Elena’s parents express positive and strong traits to her as a child and teenager to help her feel secure in her identity? A primary factor was to always exalt Elena in her family story, one of love from her biological family and one of the love that her parents had for her. Her parents were always secure in those feelings, and Elena always felt and knew that adoption was never a “second option” for her mom and dad.

Parents also need to make sure that adoption does not weigh in on the way a mother or father actually parents the child. As a parent, do not assume it is an adoption issue. Some feelings or behaviors the adoptee is experiencing may be adoption-related, but it could also just be a typical age experience for the child. Elena didn’t want people to assume that any behaviors or any concerns she displayed were to be automatically related to the adoption.

Elena also enjoys when her parents “check-in” with her. Elena remembers, earlier in the process, that she went through a time when she internalized many of her feelings. Later on, she found out that her parents did not realize her emotional state. She uses that example to share that her parents now do consistent “check-ins” with her. This could be as basic as, “Hey, do you want to go grab some Russian food?” This provides an opening for Elena and her parents to open a conversation. It is easy to dance around issues, but her family found how to address issues that may otherwise go unrecognized or unresolved. Hearing the response to the culture question, the food, gave an easy gauge on a person needing to communicate.

Probably the most important thing that Elena states that her parents did to help her grow in her identity was giving her the right and self-advocacy in her adoption story. Her parents let her decide how open or closed she wanted to be in sharing her adoption story with anyone she came into contact with. Her mom and dad realize it is her story and her story alone to share.

Elena used her personal adoption experiences and her resources to write her book, Through Adopted Eyes: A Collection of Memoirs from Adoptees. It is described as, “Russian adoptee Elena S. Hall shares her own story and thoughts on the subject of adoption in addition to interviews from other adoptees of different ages, heritages, and perspectives. Whether you are an adoptive parent, curious about adoption, or an adoptee yourself, this unique collection of memoirs provides real insight into lives directly impacted by adoption.”

In this podcast, Elena uses her life experience to very eloquently share many important aspects that our society needs to learn about adoption and adoptees. She shares her many struggles and strengths shared by all adoptees. She speaks very well for her young age and the life lessons she has learned in a short period of time should be heard by as many people as possible.

Are you ready to take the next steps on your adoption journey? Visit The Gladney Center for Adoption to learn more.