November is National Adoption Month: Here’s what it means

November is frequently associated with Thanksgiving dinners and Black Friday deals, but the month holds another significance: bringing awareness toward adoption.

For the last 28 years, National Adoption Month has been celebrated during November as a way to recognise families who’ve come together through adoption. As someone who was adopted at eight months old, I’ve viewed National Adoption Month as an opportunity to bring attention to children and teens in the US foster care system. In addition, I believe the month emphasises the importance of engaging with programs and campaigns that support these young people.

According to the Children's Bureau - a federal agency of the United States government that helps ensure the safety of children - former president Ronald Regan first introduced National Adoption Week in 1984, before President Bill Clinton proclaimed the first National Adoption Month in 1995.

In October, President Joe Biden issued a statement on National Adoption Month 2023, describing the work that his team has done to financially help children and adolescents in the foster care system. He acknowledged that this month especially, he’s encouraging “anyone who is considering adoption to take that brave and loving step forward, growing their families and adding profound meaning to their lives”.

Over the years, I’ve seen many organisations bring awareness to National Adoption Month during the month of November. For example, the Children’s Bureau comes up with an annual theme, with this year’s being: “Empowering Youth: Finding Points of Connection.” The goal of the campaign is to support professionals who are making “space for youth to take the lead in making decisions that affect their lives”. Not only does the theme help children and adolescents develop their own identities, but it also helps them “recognise the talents and strengths that they have”.

“When you’re a teen in the child welfare system and away from your birth family, developing your identity can feel like you’re on the journey alone,” the organisation states. “As adoption professionals, it is our job to be a partner on this journey and help youth remain connected to their roots while also finding new connections and opportunities.”

The Children’s Bureau also offers various resources for adoption professionals, such as tips for achieving Permanency Planning - the process of preparing a child for long-term care, whether through adoption or not, as they move between different home placements.

In addition to highlighting resources for children and adoption professionals, I recognise that November is a time to bring awareness to the jarring number of children and adolescents in the foster care system. In 2021, the US Department of Health and Human Services found that there were more than 391,000 children and adolescents in the foster care system. Multiple studies have suggested that up to 80 per cent of children in foster care had significant mental health issues when compared with 18 to 22 per cent of the general population.

It’s heartbreaking for me to think about the children who could ultimately age out of the foster care system when they turn 18, unless they’re given written consent to remain in the system, or their caseworker links them to another supportive housing program. Given the fact that I was a baby when I was adopted, I’ll never understand the pain of not knowing if a family will or won’t take you in, and I’ve become more aware of how privileged I am to say that.

National Adoption Month provides an opportunity for me to discuss the many out-of-touch misconceptions about adoptive families. Whether it was through my own experiences or those of my peers, I’ve seen firsthand how adoptive children are subjected to a range of stereotypes about their background. For me, it was teenagers asking me why my mother and father were white.

Since the second grade, my classmates had known I was adopted. My father worked in my small private school as an English teacher, and it wasn’t a secret that we were related. But once I made my way to high school, the responses I received about my race started to change. In the tenth grade, my English teacher gave us an assignment to write about our identities. I decided to write a poem, titled “I am,” which featured tidbits about being proud to be an Asian-American, and which my teacher hung on a bulletin board in the hall.

I didn’t think much about the poem, but on my 30-minute subway ride home that day, one classmate - who I’d shared the occasional “hey” and “see you” with - asked me a series of chronically uncomfortable questions, starting with: “So, you don’t know your real parents?”

Without knowing it, my classmate professed one of the biggest misconceptions about adoption - that adoptive parents aren’t your “real” parents. I know next to nothing about my biological mother and father, so they’re not the ones I view as my real parents. This month, and every month, I recommend avoiding the question with adoptees.

When I told my classmate that I didn’t know my biological parents, she was quick to respond with another misconception: “Does that mean your biological mother didn’t want you?”

There are so many reasons for adoption that go far deeper than being “wanted” or not. From financial issues to mental health challenges, there’s an array of assumptions I could make about why my biological mother put me up for adoption, but I’ll never know the truth. It didn’t stop my classmate from mentioning a third misconception about adoption. “Do you struggle to connect with your parents because you’re adopted?” they’d asked.

This one stung. Everyone’s relationship with their family is different, and no one fully understands the ways that a child can connect with their parents, adoptive or otherwise. I grew up with so much appreciation for my mother and father, which ultimately went completely ignored by that stereotypical question.

At first, I’d wanted my teacher to remove the poem I’d written after the train encounter. But before I had the chance to ask, my best friend shot the idea down and reminded me that misconceptions about adoption will continue to exist. My classmate was heavily uneducated about adoption, to no fault of her own. She never grew up with friends or family who were adopted, which influenced her lack of understanding about the topic.

National Adoption Month is an opportunity for me to discuss the heavy yet effortless feelings of love that come from forming an adoptive family. Just a few weeks ago, I celebrated the anniversary of the day I was adopted by my parents – referred to as “Adoption Day” or “Gotcha Day”.

What did I do to commemorate the occasion? Nothing, and that’s exactly what I wanted. The day was simply dedicated towards remembering how much my family has grown through adoption, both emotionally and physically, and letting that be my celebration. The day was nothing like a birthday celebration, as it wasn’t for anyone other than myself, my parents, and my adopted older sister.

As I’ve grown older, people have made fewer assumptions about my family and I take less offense to unprompted commentary. I’ve also come to embrace my upbringing and the significant holidays tied to my adoption, although even my dearest friends will never understand what these moments mean to me. I think about 16-year-old me, who would be shocked to hear that I’m no longer affected by my friends’ conversations about inheriting blue eyes from their father or brown hair from their grandmother.

My identity doesn’t have to be so nuanced, and I can talk about my adoption on my own terms. However, my past experiences and pride in my family history don’t change the fact that certain misconceptions can hurt young children who are not only adopted, but who have foster parents or been in different home placements. I believe that this year’s National Adoption Month is an opportunity to hit back at those misconceptions, while empowering children who are adopted and in the foster care system to discover their identities on their own terms.