No matter how it comes about, parenthood has a way of rearranging your priorities. When I adopted my first child in 2001, my career ambitions suddenly seemed less pressing. I didn’t anticipate how my family and professional lives would intersect in the coming years through Holt Adoptee Camp.
Of course, being a nurse practitioner was a great gig—my salary and benefits permitted me to travel to my child’s home country, take generous maternity leave, and return to work part-time. I was grateful for the knowledge imparted by my FNP program—I could rattle off the immunization schedule, had poison control’s number memorized, and took an expert’s delight in the way my perfect toddler hit his developmental milestones right on time. When we adopted a second son, then a daughter, my nursing skills came in handy in all the usual ways. There were plenty of chances to provide first aid!
In those naive, honeymoon days of parenting, I was quick to gloss over the difficulties. The racism that my kids experienced almost as soon as they entered the US, for example, was something I had never navigated and would have preferred to ignore. And while the details aren’t mine to share, my children—like adopted children everywhere—have had at least one adverse childhood experience simply by being separated from their birth families. Like most blissed-out new parents, I wasn’t prepared for trauma-informed parenting.
In general, the adoption community likes to focus on the positive. It wasn’t easy to find space to talk about these darker subjects. I appreciated our local group of adoptive families, although we didn’t talk much about racism or trauma. Instead, everyone was looking for a way to “keep the kids connected to their culture,” something the agencies encouraged. My fellow parents enrolled their kids in Chinese lessons, taekwondo classes, or Vietnamese “culture camp.” Our adoption agency, Holt International Children’s Services, had its own adoptee camp, so my family signed up for that one.
It was immediately clear that Holt Adoptee Camp was different from the culture camps, which are described by one scholar this way: “Birth culture pedagogy ... celebrates adoptees’ so-called missing ethnic pasts ... it also employs an orientalist version of culture that erases birth parents while reifying narrow conceptualizations of culture and kinship.” In contrast, at Holt, kids weren’t separated by their country of origin. Everyone had one thing in common: adoption. According to the camp ethos, that was enough to make it a community. While our children played, parents attended panels where adult adoptees told us about their lives, answered questions frankly, and gave advice. One parent asked the panel how many of them had experienced racism growing up in their multicultural families. Every hand went up.
That’s when I realized the real value of Holt Adoptee Camp; all these kids, wherever they were from, could relate to each other. And the young adult counselors, who had been through similar struggles, could offer understanding beyond even the most well-meaning parent. I asked (okay, begged) to volunteer as the camp nurse, and fortuitously, the job opened up a year later.
For the next seven years, until the pandemic canceled in-person camp, I spent a week every summer with my three kids at Holt Adoptee Camp in Oregon. Although they weren’t sure they liked the idea at first, the charms of camp life prevailed: long games of capture the flag, endless tater tots, and cabin shenanigans with the friends they saw once a year.
I arrived just a few hours before the campers. My first task was to review paperwork and medications, then to set up the “clinic” (really a first-aid station with a refrigerator and a couple of beds). Besides the usual first-aid items, the critical supplies were a notebook to log visits, a million or so Dixie cups, abundant ice and zip-lock bags, and a deck of cards. (A game of Crazy Eights turns out to be the gold standard intervention for homesickness.) Finally, I checked everyone in personally to make sure they knew who I was and where to find me. It was also important for the parents to meet the camp nurse, if only to see that I carried an EpiPen and a walkie-talkie and was ready for emergencies.
Luckily, true emergencies were exceedingly rare. There were nosebleeds, sprains, bug bites, headaches, cramps, upset stomachs, and the occasional anxiety attack. Kids converged on the clinic between activities and right before and after meals, needing medications, ice, menstrual supplies, tissues, or sometimes just a slightly more private bathroom. They were having too much fun to hang around!
Between the busy periods, I perused the health forms, curious about the overall well-being of this unique population. Our 100-150 campers, aged 9-17, were a tiny subgroup of a small demographic. While 4 million babies are born in the US every year, only a few thousand are adopted from other countries (and the number is declining rapidly. In 2001, when my oldest son came home, he was one of 19,000 children adopted from abroad; in 2019, that number was under 3,000.) Most adoptees were from Korea and China, but other “sending countries” included Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Russia, and Haiti.
The campers were generally healthy, but a few things stood out to me. There were lots of food and environmental allergies; every other camper seemed to have an EpiPen. A number of kids had anxiety and depression listed in their medical history. Adoptees experience a higher rate of mental health issues than other children, and that seemed to be borne out by the medications I dispensed daily. Between 10-20% of campers took a psychiatric medication, especially SSRIs and medication for ADHD, and many were enrolled in counseling. (Research suggests that adoptive parents are quick to seek help when symptoms arise.) Yet during their time at camp, their exuberance filled the air. There were days I barely caught a glimpse of my own kids, joyously streaking through the woods with their buddies on their way to the next activity.
It wasn’t all fun and games, I knew. Adoption “workshops” took place daily. For my own kids’ sake, I was grateful for these conversations around race, identity, and family, and although I was curious about what was said, I understood why the discussions were private. I knew they could stir up emotions. Sometimes, afterwards, a camper would come to the clinic, just wanting to talk. These conversations were a privilege for me. I was a parent, but I wasn’t their parent, so they told me things they wouldn’t tell their own moms: how they looked forward to camp all year, about their boyfriends or girlfriends, or about their “camp crush.” Sometimes the subjects hit close to home. I learned that parents could be unintentionally hurtful: dismissing or ignoring racist bullying, engaging in stereotypes, or oversharing with others about their child’s background. Some parents tended to shut down their child’s curiosity about their origins. One camper felt deeply compelled to visit her country of birth. Her parents said they couldn’t afford it, but she suspected they just didn’t want her to go. I suggested they might change their mind if they knew how important it was to her, but she didn’t feel able to tell them. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings, despite how wounded she felt by their dismissal of her own.
That conversation, like many others at Holt Adoptee Camp, taught me a great deal about being both a parent and a nurse. There are many reasons that children struggle, and many reasons that kids don’t tell their parents everything; but for adoptees, I realized, there are additional issues and barriers. Listening is paramount, and believing them is everything. Parenting kids of a different ethnicity means being willing to trust your child’s experience, even when you don’t like what you hear. That’s a lesson that’s worth remembering in other contexts, too.
Jennifer Hanlon Wilde, FNP, MSN, RN, is a nurse practitioner and teacher who lives and writes in Oregon. Her novel Finding the Vein, a murder mystery set at summer camp, will be available from Ooligan Press in April 2021.