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Cherishing Children & the Perception of Adoption in Serbia

by Laura on November 5th, 2012

The Old World notion I like best is the strong sense of family, specifically the deep love for children.


Last week I talked about smoking and stomach colds, complaining about the general lack of awareness in Serbia when it comes to lighting up in front of non-smokers. And by non-smokers, I (shocker!) include children. I chalked the phenomena up to an old-school mentality in which long-held values trump innovative ideas, and yes, even that new fangled thing called “science.”


Terms for Family

Let’s start with the way people talk about family in the Serbian language. For Americans listening to Serbs talk about their childhood, it feels like they must have grown up in a huge family, with at least ten brothers and sisters.

That’s because in Serbian,  brat (directly translated to brother), can include a variety of male family members around the same age.

Brat in colloquial use, is not limited to the male child born to the same parents. Noooo. Brat is also first and even second male cousins, including cousins once removed. People refer to their brother when talking about a male relative of the same generation. So, even if he’s “technically” an uncle or a nephew, he’s referred to as brat, a brother. The same goes for sestra, or sister.

All of this “subtraction by one level of family-tree distance” can create confusion. … Not everyone grew up with a ton of siblings!

Then there’s rodjak, or cousin, which, as far as I can figure, is pretty much anyone who is possibly, distantly related. (Therefore, he or she is a family member, and definitely not someone who can be dated.)

Language is important. Words have meaning. The fact that people consider first and second cousins of the same age to be their brothers and sisters is relevant. It shows that familial relations are important, that people “keep it close.” If someone who’s considered a sestra or rodjak asks for a job or help or whatever, well, that’s family.

There’s a responsiblity there.


Adoption by non-family members is a strange concept

That’s why the concept of giving away a baby to a “stranger” is very confusing.

Infant adoption (to get a white baby) as it is practiced in the US through private organizations (with fees paid by adoptive parents) is not a common practice. In fact, it may be illegal in Serbia.

Of course, there are orphanages. Of course it happens that moms are unable to care for, or keep their biological children. People die, people get sick, people just can’t handle raising a baby.

But the perception is that the baby should be raised by someone “in the family.” The idea that birth parents would relinquish legal rights to their child and give the baby to strangers is absurd. There’s always someone to take care of the child.

The Balkans is an area rife with religious history, including Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Muslim traditions. However, any shame about a baby conceived outside of marriage seems to be trumped by the fact that there is a baby in the picture at all.

I’m sure there are exceptions. But generally, a baby is a blessing. That’s it. To je to.

So you may be wondering: What do people here think of the fact that I’m adopted?

The first reaction I get is confusion. Heads shaking, hands waving, furrowed brows. … Wait, wait, wait. You were given away? … Why? Why couldn’t someone keep you?

And then: You were raised by strangers? Why? Why would they want to take you in? You’re not theirs.


Debating Who’s the real mom

After a lot of questions, and explanations, my Balkan friends usually try to come up with a case in which they knew of a baby who was born out-of-wedlock … And raised by a family member.

When I tell the story to Americans, the questions center around the experience of my adoptive mom. Why did she adopt? What was it like for her? How did she react when you wanted to search for your birth mom?

Invariably, everyone wants to define: Who is the *real* mom. Perhaps it’s human nature—the need to form an opinion— independent of what I might say.

Serbs usually conclude that my birth mom is my real mom. That’s blood. She just couldn’t keep you.

Americans argue that my adoptive mom is my real mom—She’s the one who did all the hard work to raise you.

My answer? Both moms are real moms. They exist, don’t they? This isn’t Santa Claus we’re talking about. My first mother became my mom when she birthed me; she just didn’t raise me. My adoptive mother is my mom; and she did raise me.

Now, I know both of them. I have a relationship with both of them. Therefore, I have two moms.

It’s as simple as that … And at the same time … If only it were that simple. 



From → Adoption, Expat Mommy

  1. Cynthia permalink

    One of your best posts yet. Walt Whitman called all men his brothers, all women his sisters. Your 2 moms should feel a lot of pride in the way you honor them.

    • Laura permalink


      Wow, thanks for the compliment! Even with these comments sections, it still feels like sometimes I'm writing in a vacuum, you know? It's cool to hear that you thought it was good.


  2. How true that culture defines how we see things! Great post.

  3. Very nice post! I like what you said, "Invariably, everyone wants to define: Who is the *real* mom. Perhaps it’s human nature—the need to form an opinion…" And I'd echo what Mirren said… culture defines how we see things. It seems like folks want to form an opinion – and one that fits with how their culture views things, something that they're familiar with. You've done a good job of defining your status, even though it's not what they're familiar with!
    Addison Cooper recently posted..What I Learned in Intro to Psychology and How it Applies to my Real Life as an Adoption Social Worker (Considering Adoption Part 2)My Profile
    Addison Cooper recently posted..What I Learned in Intro to Psychology and How it Applies to my Real Life as an Adoption Social Worker (Considering Adoption Part 2)My Profile

    • Laura permalink

      Mirren – Yes, our culture defines how we view things! And especially in the US, media and experts. To our benefit and detriment …

      Addison – I agree, there's something about humans that makes us want clear-cut definitions, to fit any differences into what we already understand. I see that you work in adoption social work and I wonder what your thoughts are on Gotcha Day. It seems that this is terminology is still encouraged, but I've seen a lot of adult adoptees react negatively to this terminology. Do you still use this phrase?


  4. Sandra permalink

    Hi Laura,

    I just found your blog through the Write Practice and I was pleasantly surprised you're blogging about life in Serbia and about adoption as well. My parents are originally from former Yugoslavia (one is Serbian, the other Croatian) and for a couple of years we all lived in Vojvodina. Both my parents weren't raised by their birthparents – my mom was (unofficially) adopted and raised by her grandparents, while my dad bounced around from foster home to foster home. And I actually always wanted to adopt rather than have children of my own (still haven't though!) so the subjects you write about on your blog are both close to my heart, and I can't wait to read both the rest of your posts and your book! Best of luck with your writing and enjoy your time in Serbia!

    • Laura permalink

      Hi Sandra,

      It's great to "meet" you … What an intersesting background of your parents — were either able to ever know their birth parents?

      What makes you want to adopt? I think adoption can really help some families be joined, but it's best if adoptive parents go into the process with their "eyes open" as to the potential experienes of adoptees. I hope you'll continue to share your thoughts …


  5. 1. Rođak – cousin: Where I come from – the coast, the term is broader than in Serbia. I can call 'cousin' anyone having the same surname as me. So, even if there are 15 generations between 'me and her' and our common ancestor, no sex is going to happen :) That's because we all come from same ancestor (having the same surname).

    In Serbia, which has greater population, having same surname doesn't mean 2 people are cousins (like two people having Johnson or Smith surname). But even so, no sex or marriage is going to happen.

    2. Mother – In Serbian, we have 2 different words for what you refer as mother: majka – birth mother, starateljka – the one who raised you, in absence of majka (usually grandmother or aunt). I guess that caused confusion when chatting with Serbs about real mother (if you used word majka only).
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    • Laura permalink


      I totally "get" that idea about cousins, and it makes so much sense in a smaller community — thereby avoiding any improper coupling. Where from the coast are you from? Montenegro? We go there every year, and my kids love the "seaside."

      Ah ha, this is super interesting, the starateljka–the one who raised you (like, guardian?) … in the absense of majka. Yes, I'm sure I was definitely creating confusion by referring to my adoptive mother as "mom." — It's an accepted part of the "adoption narrative" in the US to consider the adoptive mother to be mom.

      I will work on my cryllic so I can read your posts :) Google translate just creates gobbly-ti-gook.


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