As he gathered his large brood for a family portrait, Paul Tonna reflected on the joys of multi-parenthood.
“We’re the most selfish people in the world,” he said of himself and his wife, Carol. “Every day is a party.”
The party consists of the couple’s seven adopted children, ages 1 to 11. Four are Latino, two are African-American and one is American Indian. “My children are all Americans. We talk to them about how America is so great because it is a melting pot,” Paul Tonna said.
Before they started their own melting pot, the Tonnas, who are white, were a consummate career couple, he a young Suffolk County legislator, she commuting to Rockefeller Center, where she was a project manager in telecommunications. Then one day Carol said to Paul, “We’ve got to do something more with our lives.”
The Tonnas became part of a growing trend toward nontraditional multiadoptions. While families of seven or more biologically related children used to be fairly common, the number of large families in which all the kids more or less resemble their parents has been shrinking in recent years as couples marry later and have dual careers.
The proportion of married-couple households with biological children dwindled dramatically, from 40 percent of all households in 1970 to 24 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. The number of households of seven or more plummeted from 2.8 million in 1960 to 1.4 million in 2005.
What’s emerging are large families of kids who don’t look like their parentsor each other.
More than 135,000 children are adopted annually, of which 13,000 to 14,000 involve babies voluntarily relinquished domestically, according to the latest survey by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Of non-stepparent adoptions, 26 percent come from abroada whopping increase from 5 percent of adoptions reported in 1992.
The boom in international adoptions is, in large part, due to a steady drop in numbers of young children available for adoption inside the United States, down from 132,000 in 2000 to 118,000 in 2004, due to lower birth rates and increased acceptance of single parenthood.
The numbers of American families saying “yes” to transracial adoptions amounts to a whole revolution in adoption, once largely considered the province of “white parents adopting white infants given up by unwed mothers,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. Besides societal changes in America, the trend in overseas adoption has been influenced by world events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which revealed large numbers of children in orphanages needing homes, and the Chinese one-child policy, which led to the abandonment of baby girls, Pertman said.
“It’s challenging our understanding of what is a family, when families don’t look the way we used to think of families,” Pertman said. “It impacts the whole community.”
An important question for international adoptive parents is: “How can I help the kids feel comfortable in their own skin?” said Pertman of the Donaldson Adoption Institute who is working on a study of identity. “From mega-issues it comes down to ‘How can I help with my daughter’s hair, which is not the same as my hair?’“
The close bond that develops among member families of the church group helps the children feel accepted, Denise Saggio said. At get-togethers with some 30 adopted children, Christopher Saggio hangs out with Russian-born Yuri. “We have a lot of fun,” he said.
Korean-born Thomas Schrage, 16, has given more thought to adoption than Christopher has. “I’ve never felt out of place at all,” said Thomas, president of the sophomore class at Center Moriches High School. “But if God hadn’t provided me with this family, I don’t know where I would be now.”
Though raising the children as Americans, the Saggios want them to know their heritage. Christopher and Emma Saggio will go to a Korean weekend school in the fall.
Like the other families, the Schrages do not let cultural or racial differences deter them when it comes to adoption. “Kids are kids,” said Cliff Schrage, who has published a novel, “A Fruitful Field,” partly based on adoption.
“We love the diversity,” said Denise Saggio, an attorney and now a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her kids. Her husband is co-owner of a Hauppauge-based computer business.
The Tonnas, too, are unconcerned with ethnicity. “Our children just see each other as brothers and sisters,” Paul Tonna said. “We just asked for a baby,” said Carol Tonna, recalling how it all began. After trying to adopt locally, they learned in 1996 that a Mexican-American infant in Texas was ready to be picked up. “It took my wife one second to quit her job,” Paul Tonna said. After Paul, now 11, came John and Grace, both 10, Mary, 8, Carolann, 7, Joseph, 3, and Lucy, 1. An older son, Peter, 25, from a previous marriage, became “a happy big brother,” his dad said.
“My wife has found her true vocation, giving of herself,” said Tonna, 48. “And we have a lot of fun,” he added as Lucy crawled from one parent to the other, rewarded by a hug from each.
The children, born in different parts of the United States, share the Tonnas’ 200-year-old Huntington home, built by poet Walt Whitman’s grandfather in 1810. As with most suburban children, their days are packed with myriad after-school and weekend activities, including horseback riding, swimming lessons, band practice, piano, Cub Scouts and Brownies. Last vacation the Tonnas packed the family into their sturdy van and drove to Florida, with stops in Washington and Disney World.