As Luck Would Have It

Steve Kalb, Holt’s director of adoptee services, discusses a common phrase international adoptees often hear, and how calling adoptees “lucky” shuts down positive discussion about identity.

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Steve Kalb holding his daugther.

I was abandoned in the latter half of 1977 in Jeonju, South Korea. No name, no parting gifts or pictures. Just a 7-month-old baby boy left at a police station.

Who knows why I was left? Maybe my first mother was a single mother who didn’t have the support to fight the stigma and hardships that accompanied the label “single mom.” Maybe I was the last of multiple children in a family that simply couldn’t afford to feed one more. Or maybe sudden illness or death struck my family and the only option was to let me go.

It’s all speculation and I’ll probably never know what actually happened, but here’s what I know for sure. The police took me to the local orphanage where I’d do what infants do — cry, eat, soil diapers, and sleep — for a few months before I was sent to live with a foster family in Seoul.

Then, in May of 1978, my number was called and I was on the next flight to the U.S. to be adopted into a small farming community in Iowa. Mom and Dad raised me with all the benefits of middle class life. I had a loving family, graduated from college, got married, had a child, bought a house, earned a graduate degree, and enjoyed steady employment.20150802_104025-1

Not too shabby.

Often times when people hear my story, their first inclination is to express how lucky I am to be adopted, because without adoption, none of this would have happened.

I have two problems with this.

First, while technically true, it’s unfair to attribute my state in life to adoption. It would be like responding to any modestly successful person’s story with “you sure were lucky to have been born.”

Second, being labeled “lucky” minimizes my unique Adoptee struggles and joys while simultaneously obscuring the equally valid bad luck in adoption that’s shaped the person I am.

To be fair, I’ve had great luck throughout most of my life and everything I am today — good and bad — is the result of my abandonment and subsequent adoption. But lurking in the statement “You’re so lucky to be adopted” is an implication that adoption is an unequivocally positive one-time event that’s brought me nothing but good fortune.

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Steve on his wedding day nearly 12 years ago.

It’s not that simple.

Sure, adoption has given me a lot, but it’s been challenging, as well. For example, let’s take a snapshot of my life from my time in Korea to when I landed in Iowa. At first glance, this image represents a joyous occasion and the chance for new life. I was lucky that my first family had the capability to leave me at a police station where they assumed I’d be cared for. I was lucky there was any sort of social services system to provide me permanency. I was lucky I ended up with a great family who supported me as best they could. But if you look closer at the snapshot, you begin to see flaws and areas that are out of focus, perhaps touched up to hide imperfections and blemishes. I was unlucky to experience the loss and trauma of abandonment that no one should have to endure, much less an infant. I was unlucky to have immigrated thousands of miles away from my homeland to a place where no one looked like me. I was unlucky that my first family tried so hard to raise me for seven months, only to realize it could never work as I was left alone outside a police station.

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Steve with his wife and daughter.

These simple examples from a small piece of my ever-evolving adoption story demonstrate the blurriness that people overlook when they call me lucky.

The reduction of the Adoptee’s life as a stroke of luck leaves little room for exploration and discovery of the complexities of our existence, both within ourselves and with the people we love.

Unfortunately, it’s this reduction that many adoption conversations start with, and as luck would have it, often shuts down potentially powerful and connecting conversations around who we are and the struggles that created us.

Was I lucky to be adopted?

I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Either way, it’s important to think critically about using “luck” to describe or respond to anyone who has an adoption story to tell

13 Replies to “As Luck Would Have It”

  1. Thank you for expressing this so well. No one is “lucky” to be abandoned, and to live with that knowledge their whole life. No one is “lucky” to have only their children as blood relatives, rather that a whole family of blood relatives. There’s an alone-ness involved in looking different than your family, and being raised differently than others from your birth country. It is your adoptive family who is truly the unabashedly lucky one – to have been able to have and raise you as their child. I thank God for my “luck”.

  2. Thank you very much for your perspective Steve. As an adoptive Mother, it’s is very important to me that you have shared your thoughts on the word “luck.” I can empathize with you and admire your candor.

    Unfortunately, I too have heard this said to my children. I occasionally respond with, “I am the one who is lucky because truly, if my children were lucky, they would be living happily in Korea.” Usually, this response elicits a very confused look, therefore, I am not generous with it, as I save it for those of whom may understand.

  3. Thank you Steve for once again educating and enlightening. The one thing I know for sure is those who know and love you are the LUCKY ones, myself included!!

  4. Thank you for sharing so honestly, Steve. As an adoptive mom, I’ve heard this comment, too – fortunately, not for a long time.

    Rarely can events in life be put purely in a “good” or “bad” category. There are just too many levels and nuances for such a simplistic labeling.

    I’ve seen the effects early abandonment has had on my daughter, along with the effects of not knowing her genetic roots and of looking different from us. Not even this is good or bad, it simply is what is.

    Thank you for helping people to see more deeply into the experience of adoption and to connect with the humanity of the individuals involved.

  5. Thank you for sharing so honestly, Steve. As an adoptive mom, I’ve heard this comment, too – fortunately, not for a long time.

    Rarely can events in life be put purely in a “good/lucky” or “bad/unlucky” category. There are just too many levels and nuances for such simplistic labeling.

    I’ve seen the effects her early experiences have had on my daughter, along with the effects of not knowing her genetic roots and of looking different from us. Not even this is good or bad, it simply is what is. Facets of my daughter, whom I love deeply just as she is.

    Thank you for helping people to see more deeply into the experience of adoption and to connect with the humanity and complexities of the individuals involved.

  6. I love how we are getting down to the “nitty gritty” of language. I was thinking about the little ditty “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This little ditty is an outright lie because our words matter, language matters, and vocabulary matters. Thanks for highlighting! I was talking with my daughter this weekend about the word adoption. We have such a vast vocabulary available to us, why can’t we find another word for adopting a highway or adopting a pet.

  7. luck is relative….everyone has good luck…and bad luck…..something we have no control over…..I agree it is a condescending comment to imply the adoptee was lucky to be adopted……foolish people say foolish things….we have to put up with it….and other foolish comments…

  8. When we were in China adopting our youngest son we encountered this mentality several times. People would stop us on the streets, and restaurants, and shops to tell us how lucky our son was. In our very limited Mandarin we tried to explain that we were the ones who were lucky and we were the ones blessed to have him in our lives. I’m not sure how successful we were in getting that message across, but we sure tried.

    I have been wrestling the last few days with the use of inconsiderate and inappropriate language which is used within the adoption community. This past Friday I attended a WinterJam concert in Long Beach, CA for which Holt International was a sponsor. I was shocked and surprised that the way in which orphan care, monthly sponsorship and adoption were introduced. I hate to even type it actually. This is how: “rescue a child” or “save a baby.” These two phrases were used at least a dozen times by the main speaker (who shockingly is an adoptive parent himself!).

    What message do we give out adopted sons when we tell them they were saved, rescued, and are lucky to have been adopted? That the adoptive parents are heroes and to be heralded? I’m not sure it’s the frame of mind I want my three sons to grow up knowing. And I was extremely saddened to see a reputable adoption agency such as Holt use this type of language to gain financial support.

  9. Libby,

    Thank you for the heads up. We agree, that is not how we want our work reflected. We apologize that you heard a message inconsistent with Holt’s mission, and thank you for recognizing that it sounded “off.” When we partner with pastors and speakers with a heart for children and Holt, there is always education on our part. We will keep working through this.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing what I have felt. Unfortunately I was adopted into a NOT so Lucky family(long story) So as an 46 year old adult now when I hear your so LUCKY its extreamly frustrating and annoying endured with a lot of patience at the same time.

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