'A child is not a sack of potatoes' – Adult adoptee asks parents to reconsider parenting best practice in relation to adoption

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"Two decades after her biological parents’ passing, Maleteka found her family in Maseru. In June 2021, she journeyed with her mom, Sue, to meet them." Photo: Maleteka Haakonsen
"Two decades after her biological parents’ passing, Maleteka found her family in Maseru. In June 2021, she journeyed with her mom, Sue, to meet them." Photo: Maleteka Haakonsen

Adoption is not the best-case scenario for children needing alternative care, but it is a necessary beast that requires consistency, persistent hard work and perseverance, especially from adoptive or foster parents. 

There is also no fool-proof formula to navigating adoption without trauma or hardship. While there are countless resources available, there's no one book or guideline comprehensive enough to tackle each individual adoption perfectly (nor can that be expected).

But a good starting point is listening to – and learning from – the lived experiences of adult adoptees to help us reconsider parenting best practice in relation to adoption.

News24 asked young adult adoptee Maleteka (Teka) Haakonsen about her life story ), and what she thinks parents could be doing differently as they grow their family through adoption or foster care.

Read: Thinking of adopting? Local adoptive mom shares words of advice

Maleteka

Up until last year, adult adoptee Maleteka Haakonsen knew

very little about her start to life. 

These are five of the guidelines she shared:

Stop telling adoptees to be grateful

Like many adoptees, Maleteka struggled with her identity as a child and was considered "problematic".

Not knowing what to do with her at times, her mother Sue would turn to the community for help, which included Teka's teachers.

On one occasion, Teka was told by a primary school educator to be grateful that she was adopted. The teacher also advised her to behave, which came with a warning that her parents could always choose to "send her back".

Being threatened in this way did more damage than that teacher could have imagined. Teka says it created a rift between her and her parents and other caregivers. Moreover, it elicited a lack of trust.

"Those types of phrases are not okay to say to a child who did not ask to be adopted, orphaned, or left behind. In adoption, both parties are lucky to have each other, and the child chooses the parent as much as the parent chooses the child," she says, adding that adoption should be considered a two-way street. "You wouldn't say these things to a biological child so why say it to an adopted child, who didn't have a say in their situation?"


Make sure that the people in your child's life are a safe space

Unfortunately, that was not the first or the last time that Maleteka received this kind of admonishment as a child and teen.

Whenever she'd act out or there was a family confrontation, certain close friends and family members would carelessly ask why her parents "don't just send the child back".

"Of course, my parents were outspoken and protected us in those scenarios," she says.

But while the issue was tackled swiftly, it still caused a lot of damage.

"A child is not a sack of potatoes that you bought at the grocery store and can send back. Children are living, breathing humans and a lot of children do get sent back or their parents, like mine, get told that they should be sent back. This mindset is so damaging and, honestly, disgusting," she says.

Unfortunately, having loving parents who were doing their best was not enough to protect Maleteka from the inevitable hurt and trauma that comes with adoption.

The young adult cautions adoptive parents to mitigate unnecessary additional hurt by making sure that all the people in your child's life are a safe space for them to be around.

Maleteka

Born premature at just 1.2kg, Teka was so ill that she’d been given little chance of survival.

But she fought back and, after seven months, she was discharged and taken in by Beautiful Gate Lesotho.

Embrace your child's language and culture

In the same way that your child's adoption story should be part of the family narrative, their race, language and culture should be something that you openly explore together.

Maleteka, who was trans-racially (or cross-culturally) adopted, says that being a black child who was brought up in a white household came with its own challenges.

"I struggled with being racially profiled. Black people and people of colour automatically assumed that, because I had white parents, I thought I was better than them, or that I didn't struggle with money, or class distinctions.

People automatically saw me as white, and I didn't know where I fit in. I was too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends."

Being rejected by her black peers prompted Maleteka to rebel against her blackness.

"I didn't want anything to do with my African culture. That doesn't mean that I was acting white or talking white, but it did mean that I didn't want anything to do with my race at the time. To them, cross-cultural adoption was not a thing and they didn't understand it."

Teka says she found white people more accepting and understanding of cross-cultural adoption. "I gravitated more towards white spaces, which meant people considered me racist towards my own race. But I didn't feel safe, comfortable, heard or understand," she recalls.

So what could cross-cultural adoptive parents do to mitigate these types of situations? Teka believes learning your child's language and culture, as well as talking openly about race, would make all the difference for adoptees.

"Teach them their home language as well as yours. Cook traditional foods from their culture. Embrace music from their home country or culture, and make it a part of your family dynamic. You cannot expect your child to leave behind their culture and where they're from and just adopt yours."

Teka also believes that your child should have the option of going back to their home country, assuming the possibility exists. "They need to know more about their culture and who they are. And, if they're not ready, give them space to come to you when they are ready, but let them know it's an option."

Must read: Adoption as a solution to infertility is 'viewed with suspicion' in some families 

Come to terms with your own racism and learn about allyship

A black child will encounter racism at some point in their lives and it's important for parents to prepare for this inevitability, especially if they haven't experienced the racism first hand.

"I know people who have gone through situations like that. Their parents didn't know what to do so, they had to learn how to protect themselves when anything racial or racist was thrown against them," says Teka.

She adds that awareness campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter changed her own parents' perspective on race and racism, which helped them support her in the ways she needed.

"Parents can help protect their children if they know how to. They can teach them how to deal with those situations when they crop up. #BlackLivesMatter changed my parents' lives," she says.

With awareness about allyship and antiracism work coming to the fore in recent years, Teka says she has become more comfortable in her blackness, and that she's learnt to love herself in a way she never did before.

Seek professional help

While it's not unusual for young adoptees to act out or struggle with behavioural issues, Teka stresses that your child should not feel like a burden, or that their feelings are "wrong" or unwarranted.

"Don't make your child feel like they're being problematic. You need to know that they are not giving you a hard time, they are going through a hard time," she says, adding that your child's feelings of anger, sadness or negativity should be validated and supported.

Maleteka

Maleteka lived at Beautiful Gate for three years before her parents

formally adopted her. This was her first Christmas as a Haakonsen.

Growing up, Teka was often labelled as problematic and ungrateful. In reality, she was trying to come to terms with her identity.

"I wasn't trying to be nasty or difficult. I just didn't understand what I was feeling, why I was feeling it or how to deal with it. Making a child feel like they're a problem doesn't help them figure those things out. It's not a solution and it doesn't make them feel safe," she says.

As a young adult, Maleteka found healing in adoptee spaces and adoption support services, particularly those offered by family-focused non-profit Arise.

She and her family were guided by their social worker in navigating tough discussions, which is why she strongly recommends that adoptive parents find a social worker well educated in forward-thinking adoption support that centres the adoptee.

"I'm so grateful to have met our social worker. She has taught my family and my parents a lot of things that they didn't know or weren't aware of. They know they can't change what happened in the past, but they can take what they are learning now and apply it moving forward. Obviously, I'm not a little child anymore, but I am still a part of the family."

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